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An Overview of Literary Theory and Criticism. ENG 4U1. WHAT is Literary THEORY?. Literary theory is the ideas and methods we use to interpret and analyze literature from a variety of perspectives It opens up the possibilities of what literature can MEAN to the reader

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what is literary theory
WHAT is Literary THEORY?
  • Literary theory is the ideas and methods we use to interpret and analyze literature from a variety of perspectives
  • It opens up the possibilities of what literature can MEAN to the reader
  • It is a toolbox for explaining and interpreting literary texts
what is literary criticism
What is Literary CRITICISM?
  • Literary Criticism is the practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works.
  • During the process of criticism, a person may use literary theory to support the judging and commenting of the literary works

De Villiers 1830 – Caricature of literary critics removing passages from literature that displease them

  • Understanding and applying these theories opens up new angles and perspectives from which we can study literature and formulate OUR criticism of these texts
  • You will see the “big picture” of literature – how it impacts our society and world, both past, present and future
  • YOU will get to be the critic!
for example
For example...
  • If a critic is working with certain Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post-colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean.
why now
Why now?
  • You will probably find many familiar elements of the theories we will be learning more about
  • In other words, you have already been examining texts from these viewpoints – you just may not have been explicitly taught about them
    • “The Danger of the Single Story” ENG 3U1 (Cultural)
    • Making connections/responding to what you read (Reader Response)
    • Analyzing the elements of the story – plot, theme, character, setting, etc. (Formalism)
how many theories are out there
How many theories are out there?
  • Moral and Dramatic Construction (Traditional)
    • Plato
    • Aristotle
  • Formalism/New Criticism
  • Psychoanalytical
    • Sigmund Freud
    • Carl Jung/Archetypal
  • Marxism
  • Reader Response
  • New Historicism/Cultural Studies
  • Post Colonial
  • Feminist
  • Gender Studies and Queer Theory
moral and dramatic construction traditional
Moral and Dramatic Construction (Traditional)
  • Plato and the moral view
    • Art must teach morality and ethics to be important to society
  • Aristotle and the elements of literature
    • A good story must have effective components:
      • Plot
      • Character and Catharsis (emotion/pity)
      • Diction
      • Thought
      • Rhythm
  • Builds on Aristotle’s ideas about an effective text
  • Studies elements such as language, imagery, point of view, plot structure, and/or character development and motivation
  • Pays no attention to either the authors or readers of texts
  • Directs readers to be neutral or unemotional
  • Gives no consideration to social and historical context
  • New Criticism (a type of formalism) focuses on the

elements of fiction and emphasizes how they work

together to create, in a work of quality, a coherent whole:

a unity of plot, theme and character, through use of tone,

point of view, imagery, purposeful action, dialogue, and


  • Is often analyzed and written as a “close reading”
formalism it s all about form
Formalism: It’s all about Form!



  • The reader does not need additional knowledge, other than what’s in the text, for interpreting the literary work
  • It ignores the author’s intentions
  • It assumes that “good” literature is “coherent” and that a text that is not coherent by its standards is not “good” literature. This means many works don’t get read or considered to be of value
  • It divorces literature from its larger cultural context
  • It assumes that readers can refrain from investing emotionally in their reading and can / should respond objectively to texts
applying formalism
Applying Formalism
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What conflicts does the protagonist experience?
  • What is the climax of the story?
  • What is the protagonist’s role in the climax?
  • How is the setting relevant for this particular story?
  • What is the theme of the story?
  • How do character, plot and setting develop the story?
  • How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols?
  • How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
psychoanalytical archetypal
  • Using the theories developed by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung can provide useful clues to the sometime baffling symbols, actions, and settings in a literary work
  • Applying only these theories can be dangerous as it can provide a very narrow view of the text
  • We will explore Freud’s Oedipus Complex and Jung’s Individuated Person ideas when we study Hamlet
  • Examines how texts rely on archaic patterns for their meaning. The word archetype derives from Greek, with arche meaning “first” and typos meaning “form” or “type”. According to the Gage dictionary, archetype means “an original model or pattern from which copies are made.”
  • Depends on the original narrative models and patterns on which western literary textual conventions come from (Judeo-Christian scripture and Greco-Roman mythology). Archetypal literary critics identify how and to what effect patterns from these ancient sources are used in folk tales, epics, media texts, comics, and other texts.  
          • Maternal Figure
          • Wise old man
          • Hero
          • Trickster
          • Evil Figure
  • Focus is on inter-textual connections, unlike formalists who view a text as an isolated unit
archetypal patterns over time
Archetypal – Patterns over time



  • This theory encourages a close and careful reading and subsequent analysis of the text. It is also an exciting and interesting theory because it can link a text or idea from 500 years ago with a text written today
  • One concern some people have with this theory is that it limits personal interpretation. However, some personal interpretation is needed in determining which archetypal patterns the literature reflects. This theory can also be limiting because it only analyzes one aspect (archetypes) of literature.
applying archetypal theory
Applying Archetypal Theory
  • What is the protagonist’s starting point and end point for the journey that he/she takes?
  • What greater significance do the settings or situations convey? (e.g., spring = rebirth)‏
  • How does the protagonist link to other protagonists from other texts or real life people?
  • What symbols or archetypes remind you of other texts you have read or other experiences you have had? (e.g., does a man with a black hat in a mystery novel make you think about how the “bad guys” in Westerns always wear black?)‏
  • How does the protagonist reflect the hero of myth?
  • Does the “hero” embark on a journey in either a physical or spiritual sense?
  • Is there a journey to an underworld or land of the dead?
  • What trials or ordeals does the protagonist face? What is the reward for overcoming them?
  • Emerged in the nineteenth century as a result of the theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, concerns itself with the economic struggles for power between the working class and the ruling class
  • Believed in an eventual classless society with communal ownership of all natural and industrial resources
  • Applied to literature, they provide a means for assessing the social significance of a text. Marxist criticism believes that literature is one form of cultural production of a complex society and, as such, reflects the forces shaping the society’s culture. This is to say that literature is not only a mirror which reflects society, but also a dynamic participant in the shaping of a culture
  • Focused on the idea that the lower/working class is always oppressed in a society
a pplying marxism to literature
Applying Marxism to Literature...
  • Literature expresses the ideas, beliefs, and values of a culture
  • Literature of any significance actively engages in controversy or argument
  • Literature reveals power struggles (sexual power, economic power, social power, and so on) and how this operates and with what consequences
  • Literature reveals how the author, reader, and characters demonstrate an awareness or lack or awareness of their economic and social situations and what oppresses them
  • Literature and authors can manipulate readers into sympathizing with rather than critiquing the dominant (and oppressive) social order
marxism clashing of the social classes
Marxism: Clashing of the Social Classes



  • Like Archetypal criticism, this theory encourages a careful reading of a text. It also does not limit a reader to view the text in isolation, but allows the reader to think about the text in its social, historical, and current contexts.
  • The main concern some readers may have about this theory is that it only examines a limited aspect of the text. Some people feel threatened by the focus on “ideology.” It dismisses the beauty of writing and does not allow the reader to simply enjoy the text.
applying marxism
Applying Marxism:
  • What or whose ideological values structure the text? How are these evident?
  • Who has power (and of what sorts) in the texts? How does this power operate and change as the text progresses?
  • What “master” or dominant social narratives are perpetuated or critiqued and disrupted in the text? (e.g., the American Dream, whereby, with hard work and individual effort, a poor person can achieve success)‏
  • To what degree does the protagonist or other characters believe in and live by the prevailing social order?
  • At what point do characters recognize the oppressiveness of the prevailing social order?
  • How do they respond? What affects their options for changing things?
  • How is social objectification evident and how does it operate in the text?
  • What are the social forces that affect the author’s writing or the text’s marketing and reception?
reader response
Reader Response
  • The role of the reader is pivotal in the understanding of literature – they can use a psychoanalytical, structural, feminist, etc. approach to formulate their criticism – in other words, anything goes!
  • Readers are active in the reading process – they cannot read literature passively – they must react and therefore bring meaning to the text
some positions of reader response theory
Some Positions of Reader Response Theory
  • Meaning is in act of reading not text itself
  • You can read in a literary manner or aesthetically. “In aesthetic reading, the reader’s attention is centred directly on what he is living through during his relation with that particular text”
  • Your interpretation changes each time your read the same text because your experiences have changed
  • A community of readers (those with similar experiences and backgrounds) are likely to read and interpret a text similarly, even if they are not in complete agreement
  • The intended reader of a text is the general audience the author is trying to reach—those who have the ability and perspective to appreciate the author’s intentions
  • The resisting reader reads from a perspective that is directly opposed to the author’s. He/She might read from the position of the antagonist or marginal character
reader response what do you think
Reader Response – What do you think?



  • Recognizes the importance of the reader and reading as an intellectual and active activity
  • Gives readers the freedom to provide meaning to a text, allowing for multiple interpretations of a text
  • No one controls the meaning of a text. There is no objective party to assist readers if they don’t agree with one another. Also, there is no objective way for people, such as teachers, to evaluate responses fairly because how can one person say that another reader’s interpretation is wrong even though that reader may not really understand the text?
applying reader response
Applying Reader Response
  • How do you feel about this text? Why did you like/dislike it?
  • Explain how the text connects to an experience you have had.
  •   Why do you think the characters acted as they did?
  • In a similar situation, how would you have behaved?
  • Who do you think is the intended reader for this selection?
  • Create a poem, collage or letter to one of the characters in the text with whom you most identify. Explain in your piece why you identify with this character.
new historicism cultural studies
New Historicism/Cultural Studies
  • New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it
  • New historicists do not believe that we can look at history objectively, but rather that we interpret events as products of our time and culture
  • Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion
applying new historicism cultural studies
Applying New Historicism/Cultural Studies
  • What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the current events of the author’s day?
  • Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing?
  • How are such events interpreted and presented?
  • How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author?
  • Does the work's presentation support or condemn the event?
  • How does this portrayal criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day?
  • How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period...?
  • How can we use a literary work to "map" the interplay of both traditional and subversive discourses circulating in the culture in which that work emerged and/or the cultures in which the work has been interpreted?
  • How does the work consider traditionally marginalized populations?
post colonial criticism
Post-Colonial Criticism
  • Focus is on works created by Colonial powers and the impact on those Colonized
  • Approach is similar to New Historicism/Cultural Studies
applying post colonialism
Applying Post-Colonialism
  • How does the literary text, explicitly or allegorically, represent various aspects of colonial oppression?
  • What does the text reveal about the problematics of post-colonial identity, including the relationship between personal and cultural identity and such issues as double consciousness and hybridity?
  • What person(s) or groups does the work identify as "other" or stranger? How are such persons/groups described and treated?
  • What does the text reveal about the politics and/or psychology of anti-colonialist resistance?
  • What does the text reveal about the operations of cultural difference - the ways in which race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity - in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live?
  • Are there meaningful similarities among the literatures of different post-colonial populations?
  • Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson:
    • Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so
    • In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values
    • All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world
    • While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine)
    • All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality
    • Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not (91).
feminism an on going battle for equality
Feminism: An on-going battle for equality



  • For centuries, women in literature, the roles of both men and women and how they were represented were not a focus of literary criticism. This theory finally examines how women and men are represented and deals with the importance of women in literature
  • If this theory is the only one applied to a text, it can be rather limiting. It only examines one element of the text.
applying feminism
Applying Feminism
  • What is the protagonist’s attitude to male and female characters? How is this evident? How does this affect your response to the characters?
  • How are women represented in the text?
  • What roles do men and women play within family, work situations, etc. (hero, breadwinner, helper, cook, sex object)?
  • What were the social and historical conditions for women in this period that might help us understand their roles in the text?
  • How do women exercise their power in the text?
  • If you were to rewrite the text’s ending, what would happen to the female protagonist? The male protagonist?
  • How and to what degree are the women’s lives limited or restricted in this text?
gender studies and queer theory
Gender Studies and Queer Theory
  • Explores issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture.
  • Maintains that cultural definitions of sexuality and what it means to be male and female are in flux – an attractive woman can wear jeans and flannels and be assertive whereas previously that same woman would need to be wearing a dress and in a passive state to be viewed as attractive
applying gender studies and queer theory
Applying Gender Studies and Queer Theory
  • What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles?
  • What elements in the text exist in the middle, between the perceived masculine/feminine binary? In other words, what elements exhibit traits of both (bisexual)?
  • What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in...the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters?
  • What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?
  • How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who identify with that community?
  • How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual "identity," that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?
how will we use this information
How will we use this information?
  • We will now be able to apply these theories to the texts we study in class
  • We can use the questions posed in the application section to help guide our study of the text from the theory being applied