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The Future of Literary Theory. Challenges and Possibilities. Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but …. Now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism.

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The Future of Literary Theory

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The Future of Literary Theory

Challenges and Possibilities

Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but …. Now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism.

Jonathan Culler - Framing the Sign: Criticisms and Its Institutions

Literary Criticism & Theory: An Introduction

  • There is a huge debate among academicians and literary critics as to what separates Theory from Literary Criticism.

  • Some critics are of the view that theory is merely a continuation of literary criticism with some differences towards the approach of literary texts.

  • Thus, Criticism and Theory owe their origin to the fundamental and core principles of interpretations and receptions of any literary creation.

difference between Criticism & Theory

  • Literary Criticism is more a fundamental, formal and authentic activity; Theory is just a casual way one talks about, organize one’s ideas and speculate over what one has been doing as a critic.

  • Literary Criticism believes in close reading, evaluation and explication of individual works while theory resists this very practice and insists that assumptions underlying reading practices must be made explicit.

  • Unlike Criticism, literary theory asserts that no reading is ever innocent or objective or purely descriptive.

The History of Literary Criticism: An Overview

  • Classical Literary Criticism

  • Neoplatonic Literary Criticism

  • Medieval Criticism

  • Renaissance Criticism

  • Neo-Classical Criticism

  • Romantic Criticism

  • Early Modern Criticism (Realism, Naturalism etc.)

Classical Literary Criticism

Plato:- He banned poetry from his ideal Republic on the grounds that Poetry was three times removed from the reality and it appealed to our lower nature , exciting our passions to revolt against reason.

Aristotle:- Unlike Plato, Aristotle considered poetry as a productive art and associated it with a moral purpose. He declared tragedy as an action which was complete, linear and serious with an elevated language producing emotions of pity and fear in an audience.

Horace:- He urged that Poetry must be both pleasing (morally and Intellectually) and useful. It was applied to Literature in general also which dominated much literary Criticism until eighteenth century.

Neoplatonic Criticism


He saw literature as a direct expression of eternal essences. He connected it with higher spiritual realms and to the divine.


He attempted to trace the appropriate connections between literal and figurative language in the reading of scripture.

Neoplatonists in general elaborated notions of allegory which enabled a harmony between the old and new testaments.

Medieval Criticism

Aquinas & Dante :-

They refined the neo-platonic notions of allegory. The meanings of language went beyond the literal level and entered the domain of allegorical, moral and mystical level.

Medieval aesthetics focused on the beauty, order and harmony of God’s creation. It perceived literature as one part of an ordered hierarchy of knowledge leading to the divine.

Renaissance Criticism

  • More humanistic and secular (Sidney)

  • Reassessment of Classical heritage (Giraldi and Castlevetro)

  • Defense of vernacular as a medium of poetic expression (Du Bellay and Ronsard)

    Renaissance critics re-examined the notions of imitation, the didactic role of literature and classification of genres.

Neo-Classical Criticism

  • Strict adherence of reason, moderation, balance and decorum (of both style and content) and three dramatic unities also.

  • Advocated ‘wit’ to a great extent in the writings of neo-classicists.

  • Emphasized a lot on the role of diction and classical mode of writing.

Romantic Criticism

  • Preferred imagination to reason

  • Simplicity of style and content against the ‘gaudy and inane phraseology of Neoclassicists.

  • Kant articulated a systematic formulation of the autonomy of art and literature as a domain free of the constraints of morality or utility.

Early Modern Criticism

  • Realism:- it felt the necessity of probability and life like details

  • Naturalism:- It attempted to model itself on scientific observation of both the internal and external worlds.

  • Marxism:- It placed literature in an economic and broad cultural setting.

Liberal Humanism

  • Good Literature is of timeless significance.

  • The literary text contains its own meaning within itself.

  • Human nature is essentially unchanging.

  • Individuality is sustained and can not be transformed.

  • The purpose of literature is the enhancement of life and the propagation of human values

  • Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way

  • The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and reader.

Rise of Theory: Historical Factors

  • Bolshevik Revolution (1917)

  • I & II World War

  • The great economic depression

  • The cold war and the arms race

  • Predominance of America as a world power

  • The emergence of third world

  • Empowerment of right wing politics

  • The fall of communist bloc (1989) & Soviet Union (1991)

  • Aids epidemic and environment destruction

Modern Literary Theory & Criticism: Key Movements

  • The New/Practical Criticism

  • Psychoanalytic Criticism

  • Marxism

  • Russian Formalism

  • Feminism

  • Structuralism

  • Post-Structuralism

  • New Historicism

  • Cultural Materialism

  • Post-colonialism

  • Reader Response Theory

  • Postmodernism

  • Eco-Criticism

  • Queer Theory

  • Cultural Theory

The Principles of Literary Theory

  • Politics is pervasive

  • Language is constitutive

  • Truth is provisional

  • Meaning is contingent

  • Human nature is a myth

    Peter Barry

Criticism of Literary Theory

  • Too much political in its orientation

  • Lack of trust in truth, moral and human values

  • Highly complex and difficult to understand for a lay person

  • For theory, literature is a tool to propagate social, political and cultural ideologies

Theory has been accused of destroying values with the introduction of a bewildering cultural relativism; but equally, one might argue that in a multicultural society where the variety of values inevitably produces self reflection and awareness of situated perspective, theory was bound to happen.

Patricia Waugh

Theory encourages ‘academic cults’ that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a defense against dealing with the world as it actually is.

Noam Chomsky

Theory as a resistance to theory: The return of public Intellectual

The new liberalism

  • It articulates the ideals of universal peace, tolerance and justice.

  • It proposes joining of literary and ethical theory, one which would benefit both disciplines.

  • It sees the literary imagination as the ‘public’ imagination which should be operative not only in our understanding of personal life but also In the public sphere.Martha Nussbaum

  • Literature is superior to the other arts on two accounts: It is uniquely critical, and self critical and it can moralize, often in diverse and contradictory ways. John Carey

The new aestheticism

  • It gets back to the era when literature was viewed simply as literature.

  • It attempts to foreground the neglected aesthetic dimension of literature as well as its neglected ethical implications.

  • It promotes aesthetic fundamentalism repressing the entire history of critical interpretation

Parting quote

We can never be ‘after theory’, in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking , as our situation changes…It was, after all, the theory which assured us that grand narratives were a thing of the past. Perhaps we will be able to see it, in retrospect, as one of the little narratives of which it has been so fond.

Terry Eagleton- After Theory


  • The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. 2nd edition.2010.

  • Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary & Cultural Theory, 2nd edition, Viva books, 2008.

  • Terry Eagleton, After Theory, Penguin books,2004.

  • Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory and Criticism, Oxford University Press,2006.

  • M.A.R. Habib, Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: A History, Blackwell Publishing,2008.

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