APPROACHES TO MODERN LITERARY THEORIES
JIDE BALOGUN, Ph.D
The history of literature is the history of literary criticism. The latter as an ally of
the former makes creative writing more complementary and helps to conceptualize the
pedagogical import of texts of literature into ideological standpoints. Over the ages,
literary theories have been the weapons for the realization of this crucial obligation of
In the preface to A History of Literary Criticism (1991) A. N. Jeffares gives no room for
any doubt about the kinship of literature, literary criticism and literary theories. He says:
The study of literature requires knowledge of contexts as well as
of texts. What kind of person wrote the poem, the play, the novel,
the essay? What forces acted upon them as they wrote. What was
the historical, the political, the philosophical, the economic, the
cultural background etc?
All of these are antecedents to the birth of a particular literary production.
The argument of Jeffares is that for literature to be on course, it becomes
expedient that a structure is put in place to reveal its meaning beyond the literal level.
Broadly, texts of literature would possess two levels of meaning - the literal and the
super-literal. The super-literal meaning of texts of literature is the ideological implication
of the same; which criticism attempts to resolve. The task of resolving the crisis
engendered in literary texts is possible through the formulation of some principles,
parameters and paradigms which are technically termed theories. Theories are meant to
interpret and evaluate works of literature with the mind of revealing the in-depth
implications of such works.
This chapter identifies and discusses some of these theories that have formed
the canons for the proper understanding of literature in the modern times. Modernity in
this context is with reference to those theories of criticism that have flourished from the
twentieth century up to date.
Two periods (the early and modern theories) could be delineated in the
development of theories of literature. However, the modernist approach appears to be
preferred to the former because it provides us with an art that discusses current and
concrete issues that are germane to the sustainability or otherwise of the humanity. The
profundity of the modernist perspective is expressed by David Ker (2001) as
“modernism’s consciousness of disorder, despair and anarchy is the perfect medium for
the African novelist for conveying on the one hand his nostalgia for the past, with all its
imperfections and on the other hand his bitterly ironic indictments of the present”.
2. Categorizing literary theories
I want to accept the two divisions of theories by Graham Hough as a frame. In his
book, An Essay on Criticism (1966) he distinguishes two categories of literary theories.
The first category which he calls the intrinsic theories is concerned with the moral nature
of literature. Theories in this category primarily emphasise the total essence of literature.
The second is what he describes as the extrinsic theories, which talk about the formal
nature of literature and more specifically what it is.
The intrinsically inclined criticism is also a heterodiegetic judgment of literature.
This kind of literary theory isolates a work of literature from its external reality. The
adherents of this classification see a text of literature as having no relationship intended
or implied with its external world. That such a work is in its own ‘world’. The critical
theorists in this category are the Formalists, Structuralists and Post-structuralists or the
Deconstructionists. In the modern times, William Golding, Sophocles and Ayi Kwei
Armah are among the ardent disciples of this category of literary theories.
On the other hand, the extrinsically inspired literary theories tend to associate a
literary piece with its external world. Here, there is a departure from the isolationist
philosophy propounded by the ideologues of the intrinsically inclined criticism. Rather
extrinsic criticism is homodiegetic; meaning that a work of literature is essentially (i) a
representation of the spirit of the age and (ii) a reflection of the ‘world’ in which it
operates. It goes further to see a text of literature as a product of the producer’s (poet,
novelist, playwright, essayist) imagination, vision and sensibility in his external world.
Also, in this kind of criticism, the artist does not only focus on his external reality but he
is inside the literary production and creates a principal character and other characters to
carry out his mission. This final aspect of the extrinsic criticism is what I call autodiegetic
index of literary criticism.
The focus in this respect is for criticism to holistically investigate a piece of
literature with the mind of having a more practical judgment of the same. Modern literary
theories in this category are Psychological or Psychoanalytical, Marxist, Feminist and
Post-colonialist criticism. Today, the works of the German Bertolt Brecht, the American
Langston Hough, the South African Alex La Guma, the Nigerian Olu Obafemi etc are
among those that subscribe to this critical category.
3. The Concept of Modern Literary Theories
The notion of modern literary theories transcends the motif of age-oriented and
movement-motivated principles of the early theories like Classicism, Romanticism,
Realism and the others. Rather, modernity distinguishes those new doctrinal methods
adopted to study literature. Such literary theories like Psychoanalysis, Formalism,
Structuralism/Semiotics, Post-structuralism or Deconstruction, Marxism, Feminism and
Post-colonialism are predominant in this designation.
The modernist tradition, concerns itself with an assessment of the material reality
of a literary text rather than focusing on the celebration of nature and culture noticeable
in some literary circles. This new development in the language of Terry Eagleton (1996)
is “theoretical revolution”, meant to address “the meaning of literature and the
implications of criticism for it”. Summed up as ‘New Criticism’, modern literary theories
are required to cope with the challenges of a world oriented towards modern science,
industrialization and technology. The concept of modern literary theories could be further
understood through the submission of the Canadian scholar- Northrop Frye (1957) who
rightly observes that early criticism was in a pathetic unscientific apathy requiring an
The quality of articulating the different aspects of a text of literature into a more
digestible entity translates modern literary theories into a cynosure of critics and
intellectuals. Crucial elements of literature like theme, characterization, setting etc and
fundamental devices such as symbolism expressed in metaphor, simile, allegory and the
rest are instrumental to the conceptualization of literature texts.
A topical and literal reading of Edward Albee’s play – Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf (1962), Niyi Osundare’s anthology of poems – The Word is an Egg (1999), Wole
Soyinka’s comedy – The Lion and the Jewel (1964), Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful
Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) would elicit a superficial meaning without subjecting them
to modern literary criticism. To remove this obstacle, there is the need for a concise
explication as provided in modern literary theories. Validating this position Jerome Beaty
et al (2002) argue that the business of modern theories is to analyse and to analyse
means to break some thing. What criticism does through these theories is to break texts
of literature into meaningful entities.
4. Codifying Modern Literary Theories
This section identifies and discusses specific modern literary theories and their
peculiarities. This is done with the consciousness of the two broad categorization of
literary theories earlier discussed in this chapter.
Formalism is ‘New Criticism’ developed and flourished in Russia in the middle of
the twentieth century. To the Formalists, a work of literature is perceived as being
autotelic in the sense that such is “self-complete, written for its own sake, and unified by
its form”. Jerome Beaty et al (2002: A18). The interpretation of this is that form
(methods, devices etc) used to present ideas in a work of literature is exalted more than
content (theme). From the Formalist’s standpoint, a work of literature is evaluated on the
basis of its literary devices and the susceptibility of the same to scientific investigation.
The critic’s concern therefore is to identify and discuss those devices in order to
determine the ‘literariness’ of such a text.
The critical practice of the Formalists needs a further appraisal because of its loss
of the organic essence of literature. A work of literature is a representation of a central
idea or theme whose interpretation is dependent on the different elements that
contribute to its fulfillment and meaning. It wouldn’t be possible for Wole Soyinka’s The
Trials of Brother Jero (1964) to accomplish the enormous task of satirizing the
bastardization and the commercialization of the Christian faith if only the image of the
bar beach has been emphasized in the text without exposing the gullibility of prophet
Jero and the idiotic character of Amope. Certainly, a focus only on this aspect of a text is
a mere pursuance of shadow at the expense of substance.
In literature, Structuralism is concerned with an analysis of texts based on some
linguistic principles. Founded on modern linguistic theory of the French Ferdinard de
Saussure, literary Structuralism attempts to define, explain and analyse literature by
concentrating on signs in a given text. On this note, there is only a thin line of
demarcation between Structuralism and Semiotics – the science of signs.
According to Saussure quoted from Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (1996),
A system of signs, which was to be studied ‘synchronically’ –
that is to say as a complete system at a given point of time –
rather than ‘diachronically’ in its historical development. Each
sign was to be seen as being made up of a ‘signifier’ (second
image, or its graphic equivalent) and a ‘signified’ (the concept
Literary Structuralism is an attempt to apply the above linguistic paradigm to study
literature. The term connotes structures and is more concerned with the way elements
relate with one another in a literary production. The focus of this approach is to analyse
deep structures in a given literary text. It sees issues in such a text in relation to the
signs employed by a writer. Thus, “Structuralism focuses on the text as an independent
aesthetic object and also tends to detach literature from history and social and political
implications”. Jerome Beaty (2002: A18)
As laudable and science – based as Structuralism seems to be, literature
transcends an analysis of signs. Literature would not achieve its purpose of expressing
those fundamental and socio-cultural human desires that have passed through history, if
all it preoccupies itself with is an analysis of signs.
Certainly, other crucial elements demystifying the political leaders in Antigua as
exemplified in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988) would have been lost, if the
author’s emphases were only on the glamour of the V.C. Bird International Airport.
However, it is paradoxical to assert that literary Structuralism is an evidence of the
demystification of the monopoly of early literary theories. In other words, it provides
alternative principles for studying literature as against the monolithic posture portrayed
in the sociology of literature.
III. Post-structuralism or Deconstruction
While Structuralism believes in the explanation of all phenomena through the
science of signs, Post-structuralism objects to this position. The Deconstructionist view
is hung on what Harry Blamires (1991) refers to as the “instability of signification”.
Because a signifier, is not confined to a single but many signifieds, it is not safe to
depend only on signs as a means of eliciting the meaning of a concept. This is
compounded as an attempt to decode the meaning of such a concept leads to the
emergence of another meaning. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida
acknowledges this as he subscribes to “a fusion between the signifier and the signified”
– Harry Blamires (1991:363). Derrida further posits that, it is illusive to think of a
structure devoid of its centre.
The argument of the Post-structuralists is that a meaning is not entirely contained in a
sign but rather in a chain of related issues within which signs function. Thus,
Deconstruction in literature gives primacy to the ‘when’ and ‘where’ there is a textual
deflection from the original pattern.
The Deconstructive criticism favours the employment of metaphysics as an
important instrument for studying a work of literature. This metaphysical view sees
literature functioning beyond the periphery but rather associates every human
phenomenon with supernaturalism. Hence, the human quest for the utopia that is always
the preoccupation of literature is the prerogative of such variables as drawing:
Rigid boundaries between what is acceptable and what is
not, between self and non-self, truth and falsity, sense and
nonsense, reason and madness, central and marginal,
surface and depth. Terry Eagleton (1996:114)
Jerome Beaty et al (2002) codify Formalism, Structuralism, and Post-structuralism as
the objectivist criticism, within which they define literature “as a fixed and freestanding
object made up of words on a page”.
IV. Psychological or Psychoanalytical Criticism
This could be considered from the perspectives of Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939),
Jacques Lacan and Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961). The centrality of psychological
criticism is to define literature as an expression of the author’s psyche pivoted on his or
her unconscious being which requires an interpretation like a dream.
A leading tradition in psychological criticism is the Freudian’s. According to its
followers, the meaning of a work of literature depends on the psyche and even on the
neuroses of the author. Thus, a literary work is valued based on the author’s
unconscious. A Freudian reading of A Walk in the Night (1974) for example reveals that
Michael Adonis is violent because of his frustrated desire to live in South Africa that is
devoid of racial bigotry. Some Freudian adherents emphasise the author’s psyche and
see A Walk in the Night as an expression of his disgust with the apartheid regime in
South Africa. Other Freudian critics see the effect of the novel on the reader as an
expression of the rebirth of South Africa.
While Lacanian psychology (and the critical theory produced by it) acknowledges
“the unconscious as the realm of repressed desire”, (Beaty, 2002:A21), it romances with
the Deconstructionist’s view of using language to express the abstract (metaphysical).
The abstract expressed in the word (language) belongs to the unconscious desire
whose attainment is illusive or unattainable.
A more concrete and popular dimension of Psychological criticism is that which
was founded on Carl Gustav Jung’s Psychoanalysis commonly referred to as Jungian
symbolism or Jungian criticism.
The principle of Jungian criticism hinges on the assumption that all mortal beings have a
common universal or what is technically termed collective unconscious; within which
individual and racial unconscious functions. Carl Gustav Jung and his followers posit
that within the collective unconscious, individual and racial unconsciouses are found as
archetypes (universal symbols, forms of human experiences and pattern).
In literature, archetypes are usually represented in recurring themes, characters,
plots, events, settings and other indices of literary production. An important issue in
archetypal criticism is the universality of those images, symbols, patterns and
experiences called archetypes.
Archetypes, though associated with history and the antiquity, they have serious
implications for the contemporary society. For instance the theme of jealousy one finds
in Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great (1979) is what we find in Clark’s The Ozidi Saga
(1977). The trickster symbolism associated with the tortoise is universal. The mother-
image found in every literature featuring the mother figure is the same over the ages.
Thus, archetypes are the appearances of “the primordial image of a figure, whether a
demon, man or process that repeats itself in the course of history where creativity
From the foregoing discussions on archetypes, it would be logical to argue that it
is possible to subject all phenomena to archetypal criticism. The reason is that every
phenomenon is a prototype of another already deposited in a person’s unconscious.
What literature does is to appeal to the individual, racial or universal unconsciouses for a
particular literary production. Modern archetypal critics include Maud Bodkin, Masizi
Kunene, John Pepper Clark among others.
Fundamentally anchored on the work of Karl Marx, Marxism is a dominant critical
theory born in the middle of the 19th century and flourished tremendously throughout the
twentieth century. Concerned about historical and cultural issues, Marxism identifies
social and economic factors as crucial denominators of relationship in society. Karl Marx
saw a capitalist society as basically a class society where the oppression of a class by
another is perpetrated. He was an avowed adversary of oppression in whatever form.
Thus he joined the proletariat (working class) to advocate for the abolition of class
The philosophy of Marxism is rooted in what is known as dialectical materialism,
which stresses economic determinism (economic survival) as an index of social
struggles. The Marxist ideologues believe that all social struggles are economy-based
whose resolution stirs conflicts among the different classes inhabiting a social milieu.
Society is divided into two broad classes; the oppressor and the oppressed, who
in Marx parlance are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat respectively. Because the
former holds the means of production, it becomes dominant and hence oppresses the
Bayo Lawal (1989), summarises the focus of Marxism in the context of human
activity “based on the infrastructure which can be broadly divided into (a) forces of
production and (b) productive relations”. He goes further to see work as being crucial to
human existence and relevance, in the capitalist world; work is grossly misused and
abused by the oppressors.
He expresses this in the following words:
In the capitalist system, work or labour, is deceitful because,
in Marx’s view man likes to be proud of what he creates and
in the capitalist society, the fruits of Man’s creative ability are
for capitalists. Man therefore, becomes estranged from what
he produces. He is also alienated from the person who gets
what he creates from him to sell at a price very higher than
the cost of production ………. to strengthen and ensure the
exploitative connection. Bayo Lawal (1989:126).
What Marxist writers (poets, playwrights and novelists) do is to expose the
oppressors’ class and its mechanism of oppression. This is realized as settings, themes,
characters and events conflating are discussed thereby creating the avenue for the
Marxist critics to demonstrate their craft.
The above is the reason Marxist critics see the history of society as the history of class
struggles and also explain the class struggles and antagonism predominant in a
The interest of Marxist literature is to defend the cause of the oppressed. The
Marxist critics believe that the achievement of this goal is by evolving an egalitarian
society where the ideal is stressed. To achieve this, they explore society and situate
sources of oppression. They identify and critique elements of exploitation, alienation and
other indices of oppression. They go beyond critiquing to also proffer panacea to the
crises engendered by social parity.
For instance, a Marxist critique of Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood
(1962) sees the White colonial owners of the Railway system as the oppressors and the
Black indigenous Railway workers as the oppressed. While the members of the ruling
class (the colonial masters) employ various draconian methods to oppress the
colonized, the oppressed class in the novel employs strike and other revolutionary
approaches to assert its protest against the oppressive syndrome.
It was Dr. Betty Roynolds (2001) of the United States of America who once said
We are in the midst of sweeping shift in human potential.
The movement of women from a second-class subjugated
social status to a more equal and respected existence will
have a far-reaching impact on human society. While the
shift is by no means complete nor-ubiquitous, the progress
made in the latter half of the twentieth century is mind-
boggling compared with women’s progress up to that point.
Feminism is an attempt by the women-folk to universally liberate itself from male
chauvinism and patriarchy. While the shift is not intended to cause gender terrorism, it
aims at making the position of women at home, at work, at school, in the street etc more
challenging to themselves and their men-folk in the social phenomenon. This
iconoclastic and radical approach pursues the ambition of making women to gain
equality with men. The radical posture of Feminist criticism is reflected in its
dissatisfaction with the place of women in global social and cultural situations. Because
of its interest in social issues, Feminism, like Marxism, is historical, political and it
proposes a dynamic ideological commitment.
The Feminist literary critic’s interest is to pursue the cause of women in literary
texts. This is accomplished as women authors write novels, plays and poems.
Furthermore, the Feminist literary writers feature and make women characters and ideas
dominant in their works. Such writers endeavour to propagate Feminist thought, female
concerns, ideas “and accomplishments and to recover the largely unrecorded and
unknown history of women in earlier times”. Jerome Beaty (2002:A25). Prominent
among Feminist critics are Virjinia Woolf and Betty Raynolds, the American authors of
Contemporary Writers (1965), and Setting the Record Straight (2001) respectively, the
Jamaican novelist and the author of A Small Place (1988), Jamaica Kincaid, the British
feminist theatre practitioner and critic and the editor of Feminist theatre and theory
(1996) - Helene Keyssar.
In the African Feminist literary scenario, we have the Ghanaian playwright and
theatre practitioner and the author of The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965) Amata Aidoo, the
Nigerian playwright, theatre practitioner and the author of Old Wives are Tasty (1991) -
Zulu Sofola, the Nigerian novelists and the authors of The Joys of Motherhood (1979)
and Condolences (2002) - Buchi Emecheta and Bina Nengi – Ilagha respectively. An
endearing and enduring peculiarity of these Feminist critics and writers is their ability to
design a concept best referred to as ‘Feminocracy’ – the art of the women, by the
women and for the women.
An interesting aspect of Feminism is the conscious or unconscious interest of
male writers to assert the position of women in the social phenomenon. For instance, a
critical reading of Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood (1962) and Wole Soyinka’s
The Lion and the Jewel (1964) would be shallow without paying attention, to the
influence of the women-folk in the strike action in the novel and the roles played by Sidi
and Sadiku in the play respectively.
Post-colonialism as a literary theory, emerged in the late 19th century and thrived
throughout the 20th century. Post-colonialism is a literary approach that gives a kind of
psychological relief to the people (the colonized) for whom it was born.
The focus of the Post-colonial critic is to expose the mechanism and the evil
effect(s) of that monster called colonialism on the colonized. Colonialism which is the
capitalistic and exploitative method by a ‘superior’ nation (colonizer) to lord itself over a
less privileged nation (colonized) leads to the impoverishment of the latter. The concept
of colonialism has political, economic and cultural implications.
Post-colonialism sees literature as an avenue to probe into the history of society
by recreating its past experience with the mind of forestalling the repetition of history.
The ultimate for the Post-colonial critic is to develop a kind of nostalgia about his
historical moment that produces a new dawn in his society.
Post-colonialism is a dominant feature in African and Caribbean literature as
writers in these settings see colonialism as an instrument of reducing them to
nonentities. An interesting feature of Post-colonial criticism is its attempt, not only to
expose the oddities of colonialism but to reveal and discuss what the independent
nations make of themselves even after the demise of colonialism. Works of the
celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe like A Man of the People (1966), the
Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah like’ the Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and
the Jamaican novelist Jamaica Kincaid like A Small Place (1988) and the Nigerian
playwright and theatre practitioner – Olu Obafemi like Suicide Syndrome (1986) are all
interesting to the Post-colonial critic.
From the foregoing discussions, it has been established that literary theories are
indispensable tools for literature to achieve, its goal of sensitizing its audience towards
conscientization. It is not superfluous to argue that the ‘naughtiness’ in form of ‘lack of
comprehension’ common in texts of literature is resolved by literary theories.
What we have done in this paper is to discuss seven prominent literary theories
that help to make literature more enjoyable and meaningful to its readers and users.
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