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Literary Theory: An Introduction

Literary Theory: An Introduction

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Literary Theory: An Introduction

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  1. Journeying Through Textual Possibilities in ENG 4U1 Literary Theory: An Introduction

  2. Overview • What is Literary Theory? • Marxist Literary Theory • Feminist/Gender Criticism • Psychoanalytic Criticism • Historical Criticism • Modernism/Postmodernism

  3. What is Literary Theory and Criticism • We must rethink the relationship between the author, the text, and the reader. • The reader plays an essential role in interpreting a text. • As English students you primarily draw on two modes of interpretation: (1) Your personal and historical situation and experience; (2) New Criticism- which you have been taught in school.

  4. Literary Theory and Criticism • Literary Theory provides additional “lenses” or conceptual frameworks for you to decode and interpret a text differently. • Much of literary theory draws on different philosophical, political, psychological and social ways to interpret the world and our thoughts.

  5. Marxist Literary Criticism-Origins • Karl Marx (1818-1883) & Friederich Engels (1820-1895) • Both were German political philosophers, culture critics and socio-economic theorists. • They co-authored the monumental work The Communist Manifesto (1848). • Marx’s work Das Kapital (1867) revolutionized political theory and politics itself by critically rethinking the effects of the capitalist economic structure on individuals and communities. • Their work became the foundation of Marxist-Communist doctrine that was heavily drawn upon for Communist revolutions of Russia (1917), China (1946-1952), and Cuba (1962).

  6. Marxism as A Literary Theory • It is important to note, that Marx did not intend his political theory as simply a literary theory. His goal was to use theory to change the social, political and economic relations that we inhabit to make them more just. • This being noted, if our artistic works, such as fiction or even movies, are products of our culture, reflect our culture, and reinforce practices, values and beliefs of our capitalist culture, it follows that Marxist theory can provide interpretative insight into said literature.

  7. Marxism: The Fundamentals • Humans and societies are fundamentally defined by the socio-economic structure they inhabit. • Marx introduced the concept of dialectical materialism; the idea that human communities are fundamentally defined by material economic forces of their society which progresses through efficiency. • Here is the catch: Each economic system grows more efficient but has internal contradictions and problems the lead to its downfall. • Eventually each society inevitably collapses because of these contradictions, and is replaced with a more productive and efficient system. • This process comes to an end with the emergence of Communism. • MercantalismFeudalismCapatilismCommunism

  8. Marx and Capitalism: Troubling our Blissful Materialistic Waters • Capitalism inevitably rests on the unmanageable foundation of vast economic disparities between classes being both necessary and sustainable. • Marx argues that this inevitably leads to class conflict between the bourgeoisie (the owner’s of businesses and factories) and the proletariat (workers). • This class structure and conflict has inevitably influenced our ideology (ideas, values, and beliefs).

  9. Some Problems • Problem One: Class Conflict • The bourgeoisie‘s goal is to always maximize profit. As a consequence, they fundamentally exploit the proletariat. • Without resistance, the bourgeoisie will always try to pay the proletariat the minimum salary. • The bourgeoisie will also begin to view the workers as another object of production. The workers begin to be thought of as another “appendage of a machine.” • A person becomes the nothing more than the value of his or her labour.

  10. More Problems • Problem Two: Commodification • Everything in the capitalist system becomes a commodity-something that can be bought and sold for the benefit of the bourgeois. • People=$ • Love=$ • Sex=$ • Relationships=$ • Education=$

  11. More Problems: Ugh. • Problem Three: Alienation • Marx argues that people are necessarily drawn to work as a fundamental part of their being human. • Example- Building a table • In the capitalist system, workers become alienated to their work, the products and the means of production. • This problem is compounded insofar as workers are often treated poorly by the bourgoisie

  12. More Problems: Double Ugh • Problem Four: False consciousness • According to Marx, because we are born, live, and breath the capitalist system we fail to see these negative effects. Simply put, economic and political system constructs our reality. • As a result, we fail to see the fact that they are not “natural.” Specifically, that humans can create and recreate their social, economic and political system • Ideally this recreation would take the form of Communism for Marx.

  13. Key Questions for a Marxist Interpretation (1) Does the text rest on the ideology (beliefs, values and practices) of the capitalist system? (2) Are there conflicts between classes within the text? What unequal power structures exist between people in the text? (3) Are the poor and working class alienated and harmed in the text? Do the poor try to resist or overcome this oppression? (4) Does the text support or challenge the status quo? (Characters, narration etc.) (5) Is there a sense of false consciousness in characters in the text? By the author himself or herself?

  14. Next Step • As you ask these fundamental questions, you use your previous knowledge of literary interpretation to flush out the key elements of the text. • Protagonist/Antagonist- Bourgeois? Proletariat? • Conflicts- Person vs Society (Class?), Person vs Self(Alienation? Guilt?) • Symbolism- How do they relate to class conflict, alienation, false consciousness etc.? • Setting-the socio-political structure the characters are situated in?

  15. Quick Case Study: Cinderella • Cinderella exploited by her more wealthy step-sisters. • The step sisters and Cinderella long to marry a rich prince • The prince controls the kingdom and can choose whomever he wants to marry him. • The End (Disney Version): Cinderella marries the prince and lives happily ever after.

  16. Bucket Rider: A Marxist Interpretation • Read Kafka’s short story “The Bucket Rider”. • Provide a Marxist interpretation of the text by answering the aforementioned questions. • Additionally, drawing on your previous understanding of literary and figurative devices, analyze the major literary features of this text through a Marxist lense.

  17. Feminist Literary Criticism • Emerged from the Feminist social and political movement. • In the most narrow sense, the feminist movement attempts to “attain equal legal and political rights for women” (Hendrich 1995). • In the most general sense, feminist theory attempts to understand and critique the relationship between sexes within society. • Included in this critical analysis is the interrogation of inequities, subordination and various forms of oppression that are experienced by women.

  18. Feminist Theory: A Brief History The First Wave (1750s to 1900s) • Early work highlighted the differences between sexes. • Also began to challenge the doctrine of separate spheres. • The first wave of feminist movement was marked by the suffrage movement at the turn of the century. Key early works: Mary Wollenstonecraft’s work A Vindication of Rights of Women (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869).

  19. Feminism: A Brief History Second Wave (1940s to 1980s) • Extended and deepened feminist critique with particular emphasis on the role of women in the workplace. • The emergence of feminist political activist. • Questioning of the dominant influence of the masculine perspective in culture, the economy, and politics. • Attempts to rediscover and recognize female writers. Writers: Simone De Beauvoir, Elain Showalter.

  20. Feminism: A Brief History Third Wave (1980s-?) • Fundamentally challenging and rejecting the “essentialism” (any form of over-generalization) of the masculine and feminine categories. • Critique of Western society’s “glass ceiling” for women. Particularly, the view that some equality had been achieved but not full equality. • Also a fundamental rethinking of the nuance differences in race and genders. • During this time, the is the emergence of gender criticism. The questioning of the nuance differences within the category of “gender.” Key Writers: bell hooks, Amelia Jones, Judith Butler among many others

  21. Feminism: Understanding and Challenging Social Stereotypes • Men traditionally associated with reason, the workplace, decisiveness and power. • Females traditionally associated with the emotions, the home, nurturing and submissiveness. • These traits are reinforced by the idea of biological essentialism- the view that these traits are necessarily built into each gender category.

  22. Example: Princeton Dean Larry Summers on why women are not in science and engineering programs “So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what in fact are lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” -2005 Conference of Diversifying the Science Engineering Workforce.

  23. Feminism as a Literary Theory Three very general overarching goals are at the foundation of feminist literary theory: • Rediscovering, recognizing and celebrating female writers and intellectuals. • Critically analyzing literary works and questioning how women are (mis)understood, stereotyped and often oppressed. • Challenging these stereotypes through literature and writing from a feminist perspective.

  24. Fundamental Questions • How is the relationship between men and women portrayed? Do the relationships reinforce gender inequalities and stereotypes or do they challenge them? • What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)? • How are male and female roles defined? • What constitutes masculinity and femininity? • How do characters embody these traits? • Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them? • What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy? Source:

  25. A Feminist Interpretation: “The Yellow Wallpaper” • Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). • Apply the feminist interpretative questions to your work. • Concurrently, drawing on your previous understanding of literary and figurative devices, analyze the major literary features of this text through a Feminist framework.

  26. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism • Literary theory that draws on psychoanalytic analysis popularized by Sigmund Freud starting in the 1930s. • Primary focus is on the conscious and the unconscious mind. • Particular importance is placed on interpreting the latent meaning behind and author’s writing using psychoanalytic analysis.

  27. Sigmund Freud: What’s in Your Subconcious? • Freud (1856-1939) is the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychological analysis. • Psychoanalysis primary focuses is trying to understand analyze conscious, unconscious mind as well as the relationship between the two. • Freud believes in the notion of the unconscious has a strong influence upon our actions. • Central to his analysis, is using his psychoanalytic theory to interpret dreams.

  28. A Tale of Childhood Repression • Freud believed that our unconscious was influenced by childhood events. • Freud organized these events into developmental stages involving relationships with parents and drives of desire and pleasure where children focus "...on different parts of the body...starting with the mouth...shifting to the oral, anal, and phallic phases..." (Richter 1015). • These stages reflect base levels of desire, but they also involve fear of loss (loss of genitals, loss of affection from parents, loss of life) and repression: "...the expunging from consciousness of these unhappy psychological events" (Tyson 15). • Central to Freud’s view is that we often repress these unconscious desire and/or we sublimate them (we project our insecurities, fears and desires on the external world).

  29. Being Conscious of Consciousness and Unconsciousness • Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood: • id - "...the location of the drives" or libido. • superego - the area of the unconscious that houses judgement (of self and others). The superego is made of two parts: our conscience and our ego-ideal. • ego - the thinking part of both id and superego. Conscious awareness resides in the ego, and we use to the ego to reveal ourselves to the world.

  30. Oedipus Complex • Essentially, the Oedipus complex involves children's need for their parents and the conflict that arises as children mature and realize they are not the absolute focus of their mother's attention: "the Oedipus complex begins in a late phase of infantile sexuality, between the child's third and sixth year, and it takes a different form in males than it does in females" (Richter 1016). • Freud argued that both boys and girls wish to possess their mothers, but as they grow older "...they begin to sense that their claim to exclusive attention is thwarted by the mother's attention to the father..." (Richter 1016). • Children, Freud maintained, connect this conflict of attention to the intimate relations between mother and father, relations from which the children are excluded. Freud believed that "the result is a murderous rage against the father...and a desire to possess the mother

  31. Freudian Questions • How do the operations of repression and/or sublimation inform the work? (Example: Guilt, desire, anger etc.) • What is the relationship between the characters id, superego, and ego? • Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - are work here? • How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example...fear or fascination with death, sexuality) • What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the author or even reader? • Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?

  32. Carl Jung (1875-1961) • Jungian criticism attempts to explore the connection between literature and what Carl Jung (a student of Freud) called the “collective unconscious” of the human race. • Jung’s main criticism of Freud is that every desire and fear in our unconscious is rooted in sexuality. • The ultimate goal for Jungians is perfect unity of the conscious and unconscious through understanding the self as well as the external world. • Jungian criticism, closely related to Freudian theory because of its connection to psychoanalysis, assumes that all stories and symbols are based on mythic models from humanity’s past. • In literary analysis, a Jungian critic would look for archetypes in creative works.

  33. Common Archetypes • The self-the unification of unconsciousness and consciousness. Not just “me” but connection to what Lacan called the “real” or even God. Often represented by a circle. • The shadow- repressed ideas, desires, instincts etc. • The persona- Various literal and figurative social masks that people wear. • Anima-Feminine inner personality/Animus- masculine inner personality. • The father-authority figure and powerful • The mother-nurturing and comforting • The child-innocence • The wise old man- wisdom and guidance • The hero-champion and defender • The maiden-innocence, purity and desire • The trickster- deceiver, liar and trouble maker

  34. Jungian Questions • What connections can we make between elements of the text and the archetypes? (Mask, Shadow, Anima, Animus) • How do the characters in the text mirror the archetypal figures? (Great Mother or nurturing Mother, Wise Old Man, Shadowy figure) • How symbolic is the imagery in the work? How does each symbol interact with one another? • 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?

  35. A Return to “The Yellow Wallpaper” • Let us apply psychoanalytic analysis to Gillman’s short story. • Using the questions provided, analyze the story using the Freudian and Jungian framework.

  36. Edgar Allen Poe: “A Tell Tale Heart” • Poe (1809-1849) was a pioneer Gothic writer that opened up the genre of the modern “horror story.” • Many of his work deal with the psychological nuances of the human mind. Specifically, with people’s fears, desires and guilt. • Read “A Tell Tale Heart” and apply the psychoanalytic framework to the best of your ability. Finally, return to your literary analysis framework and begin asking interpretive questions.

  37. Historical Criticism • Quite unsurprisingly, historical criticism focuses on social, cultural and political era of the work in question. • Through understanding the historical context of the story itself as well as the author, we can, in turn, provide fresh insight into the text itself. • Historical criticism works under the assumption that a literary work is very much a reflection of the historical era in which it was created. • Important note: With historical criticism you are analyzing the work itself as a reflection of the times. You, however, are not necessarily analyzing the setting of the story. Ex. Science Fiction • Historical Criticism is eventually supplanted by New Historical Criticism (See postmodernism)

  38. Historical Criticism: Key Elements • What is the political climate and ideology of the work? • What is the particular culture that the work is a reflection of? • The historical language used in the story? How doe this language reflect the historical period it is situated in? • What is the form of the work? Is it reflective of a particular historical period? • What particular historical events, tensions, and issues that are reflective in the work. • What is the author’s background?

  39. John Updike Analysis: “A & P” • Historical Context of the short story. • The 1960s, USA. • The Cold-War. • The emergence of the baby-boom generation. • Emergence of the counterculture movement: Anti-consumerism, anti-government, anti-authority, anti-tradition. • The counter culture movement was reflected in political protests, popular culture, and the arts. • Concurrently, there was resentment among older generations at the loss of tradition.

  40. Updike • Using the brief historical sketch that I provided, examine his short story as a reflection of the time. • As per usual, answer the historical based questions to get your “lens” working, and then begin analyzing the literary elements of the work.

  41. Postmodernism:____________? • Essential to understanding Post-modernism, is understanding modernism. • Modernist philosophers, intellectuals, and academics generally believe that we can come to an understand (in the strong sense) and know the world (in the strong sense). Example: Science and Math- A₂ + B₂= C₂ Example: Literature- We can come to know in through To Kill A Mockingbird that Harper Lee rejects racism, and she thinks empathy is an essential moral way of combating prejudice.

  42. Postmodernism • At its most fundamental level, postmodernist are sceptical and generally reject the idea that there is any one form of understanding, knowledge or sense of Truth. • Simply put, language cannot convey truth and robust understanding of the world to the audience. • Consequently, the Postmodern theorists ultimately show the plurality of meaning(s), understanding(s), and truth(s) inherent within our perception of the world and texts.

  43. Postmodernism-Name Dropping so we can feel Academic like. (Fictional quotes provided by your teacher) • Soren Kierkengaard (1813-1855) :”Hate to break it to you, but the world does not make any sense. We are faced with decisions, indecisions, commitments, lack of commitments, life, death and dilemmas with no answers...just embrace the absurd and the make the leap of faith to God.” • Friederich Nietzsche (1855-1900)- “Hey everyone, did you hear that god died, Christianity is a slave morality, and that special individuals should create their own value systems (Superman Rules)?” • Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980):” Ole Superman is right. There is no meaning in the world without humans. We each have to create our own meaning-we exist as free individuals who can define our own essences.” • Michel Foucault (1926-1984): “Good point Sarty...but why did you return to Marxism then? Give it up-there is no singular Truth. All we have is power and different perspectives on truth. Society constructs madness, sexuality , politics, and ‘truth’ . Let us just look at how these constructions are developed and that is an exciting Friday night, No?” • Jacques Derrida (1930-2004): “Hey Michel ! Friday is good for me. Bring over some texts and we deconstruct some of them to show a plurality of meanings as well as the bias inherent in the language we use”

  44. A Note on Postmodernist Writing • Postmodern writers are the constructive counterpart to the deconstructive theorists. • Post-Mo literature attempts to defy traditional narrative conventions. Ex. Fragmented or tangential storylines, obscure and opaque text, complex identities of the characters. • They capture the fragmentation and lack of unity of the postmodern condition.

  45. Key Element of PM Literary Theory: Hermeneutics • Embracing multiple interpretations of texts. • Hans Gadamer, a German philosopher and linguist, argued hermeneutic’s (or the interpretation of texts) goal “is not to discover the ‘one meaning’ of the text. The meaning of the text is not that strictly circumscribed: the limits of a text’s meaning are not confined to just the author’s intent or the reader’s understanding. In fact, we can never claim that any one interpretation is correct ‘in itself.’”

  46. Key Element Related to the Last Key Element: Author intent • For postmodernist literary theorist, we should move beyond trying to understand what the author intended by the text itself. • Postmodernist argue that even if the author clearly explains himself or herself, that we, as readers, can never really understand his or her intent. As such, there is an irrevocable chasm between the reader and the audience. • All we have, then, is our personal and subjective experience of the text itself.

  47. Key Element III: No mo BIG narratives • Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote that the Postmodern condition meant that as readers and interpreters of text, we can no longer believe in grand narratives to trust our interpretation of the works and the world. • Ex. Christianity • Ex. Marxism • Ex. Freudian Psychoanalysis • All we are left with is embracing mini-narratives, including our own, and deconstructing texts.

  48. Key Element IV: Deconstruction • Coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida. • A postmodern methodology that is employed to destabilize a text to unearth plurality of meanings. • Often in writing we use binary divisions to make our point: Example- Absence/Presence, Good/Evil, Normal/Abnormal. • He argues that if you begin analyzing these divisions that one is often times privileged at the expense of its binary opposite. Moreover, he argues that these divisions also leave out particular nuances of human experiences. • Derrida reveals these division and challenges their legitimacy through deconstruction. Ex. Writing vs Speaking

  49. Key PM Questions • How does the work undermine or contradict generally accepted truths? • How does the author (or a character) omit, change, or reconstruct memory and identity? • How does a work fulfill or move outside the established conventions of its genre? • How does the work deal with the separation (or lack thereof) between writer, work, and reader? • What ideology does the text seem to promote? How are their contradictions and even tensions within this narrative? • What is left out of the text that if included might undermine the goal of the work? • If we changed the point of view of the text - say from one character to another, or multiple characters - how would the story change? Whose story is not told in the text? Who is left out and why might the author have omitted this character's tale?