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Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. A discussion of theory, why we use it, and how it helps us understand what we read. What is modern theory?. Theory is a way to approach a text to gain a better understanding of its meaning

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introduction to modern literary theory

Introduction to Modern Literary Theory

A discussion of theory, why we use it, and how it helps us understand what we read.

what is modern theory
What is modern theory?
  • Theory is a way to approach a text to gain a better understanding of its meaning
  • Theory changes with time and new theories are always being added to the traditional
  • Theory tries to explain why authors and texts exist and what messages they are sending to readers
new criticism
Takes a text as an autonomous object, non-related to the author, the culture, or the event it stems from

Explores the “world” within the text

Started in 1920’s and 1930’s

Suggested Websites:

"New Criticism Explained" by Dr. Warren Hedges (Southern Oregon University)

"Definition of the New Criticism" - virtuaLit (Beford-St. Martin's Resource)

New Criticism
key terms
Intentional Fallacy - equating the meaning of a poem with the author's intentions.

Affective Fallacy - confusing the meaning of a text with how it makes the reader feel. A reader's emotional response to a text generally does not produce a reliable interpretation.

Heresy of Paraphrase - assuming that an interpretation of a literary work could consist of a detailed summary or paraphrase.

Close reading "a close and detailed analysis of the text itself to arrive at an interpretation without referring to historical, authorial, or cultural concerns" (Bressler)

advantages and disadvantages

- Do not have to know the author’s background

-Do not have to be familiar with historical context

-Can analyze language and imagery…


-Text seen in isolation

-Cannot account for allusions

-Ignores context of work

-Reduces literature to a series of rhetorical devices

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Using Poisonwood Bible, what would this critical approach (new criticism) focus on and what would it leave out?
Sees art and literature as forced by the conditions that existed in history

Deals with clash between classes

Articulation of dominant class

Art reflects age in which it was created

Suggested Websites:

"Definition of Marxist Criticism" - virtuaLit (Bedford-St. Martin's resource)

Marxist Theory and Criticism - from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism

"Marxism and Ideology" by Dr. Mary Klages - University of Colorado at Boulder

key terms1
Commodification – Wanting thing not for their use but their ability to impress others or to sell

Conspicuous consumption – Getting things merely for selling or trading

Dialectical materialism – the eternal struggle to find a solution among conflicting ideologies to bring about change

Material circumstances - the economic conditions underlying a society

Reflectionism - the superstructure of a society mirrors its economic base and, by extension, that a text reflects the society that produced it

Superstructure - The social, political, and ideological systems and institutions that are generated by the people

Key Terms:
advantages and disadvantages1

Look at the work in the context it was written

Allows you to research and understand the culture more

Can see multiple perspectives from dominant and dependent classes


Have to be aware of the culture and economic system in place when written

Have to assume “the man” was out to get the people

Has to be a class conflict, not race or gender (class matters most)

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • What is a major class conflict that you have seen in a movie or read in literature recently? What was the dominant class’ point of view? What was the inferior class’ point of view? Briefly analyze how this conflict was resolved or how it should have been resolved using Marxist theory.
reader response theory
Analyzes reader’s role in production of meaning

Text itself means nothing until someone reads it

Reading is a function of personal identity

Authors use strategies to elicit responses from readers

Suggested Websites:

"Reader Response: Various Positions" - Dr. John Lye - Brock University

Reader Response Theory and Criticism - Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism

"The Author, the Text, and the Reader" - Clarissa Lee Ai Ling, The London School of Journalism

Reader-Response Theory
key terms2
Horizons of expectations - a reader's "expectations" or frame of reference is based on the reader's past experience of literature and what preconceived notions about literature the reader possesses

Implied reader - the implied reader is "a hypothetical reader of a text”, a construct that is unrelated to the “real” reader

-Developed by Wolfgang Iser

Interpretive communities - a concept, articulated by Stanley Fish, that readers within an "interpretive community" share reading strategies, values and interpretive assumptions

Transactional analysis - a concept developed by Louise Rosenblatt asserting that meaning is produced in a transaction of a reader with a text. As an approach, then, the critic would consider "how the reader interprets the text as well as how the text produces a response in her"

Key Terms:
advantages and disadvantages2

No one interpretation

Interpretations change over time


Can be too subjective

No clear criteria to account for differences from one reader to the next

Highly personal at times

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • For Jean Baudrillard, postmodernism marks a culture composed "of disparate fragmentary experiences and images that constantly bombard the individual in music, video, television, advertising and other forms of electronic media. The speed and ease of reproduction of these images mean that they exist only as image, devoid of depth, coherence, or originality"
postmodernist theories
Postmodernist Theories:
  • Deconstruction
  • Hermeneutics
  • Semiotics
  • Sees literature as fluid parts and not one whole, with multiple meanings and ways to look at and not one large meaning.
  • Infinite number of signifiers
  • Deconstruction - Stanford University
  • Deconstruction - Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism
  • Sees interpretation as a circular process whereby valid interpretation can occur by seeing the literary work as a whole and as a combination of its parts
  • Can analyze the historical authorial intent and at the same time the language within the text to gain understanding
  • Phenomenology Online - page developed by Max van Manen
  • The science of signs
  • Proposes that human actions and productions have shared meaning to a group of people
  • Linguistics is a branch of semiotics
  • "Semiotics for Beginners" - Dr. David Chandler (University of Wales)
  • Semiotics - Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism
signified and signifier
Signified and Signifier
  • Sign vs. Symbol - According to Saussure, "words are not symbols which correspond to referents, but rather are 'signs' which are made up of two parts: a mark,either written or spoken, called a 'signifier,' and a concept (what is 'thought' when the mark is made), called a 'signified‘”.
  • Meaning--the interpretation of a sign--can exist only in relationship with other signs. (I.e. The stoplight color red signifies "stop," even though "there is no natural bond between red and stop“) (105).
  • Meaning is derived entirely through difference, e.g., referring back to the traffic lights' example, red's meaning depends on the fact that it is not green and not amber
psychoanalytic criticism
Applying the principles of psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Jung to a literary work

Analyzing characters within the work

Analyze writer’s psyche, writing process, or the influence of the writer’s thoughts on the novel

Effects of literature on readers

Suggested Websites:

"Definition of Psychoanalytic Criticism" from virtuaLit (Bedford-St.Martin's resource)

"Introduction to Psychoanalysis" by Dr. Dino Felluga

"The Mind and the Book: A Long Look at Psychoanalytic Criticism" by Norman N. Holland

Psychoanalytic Criticism
key terms3
Freud's model of the psyche:

·Id - completely unconscious part of the psyche that serves as a storehouse of our desires, wishes, and fears. The id houses the libido, the source of psychosexual energy.

Ego - mostly to partially conscious part of the psyche that processes experiences and operates as a mediator between the id and superego.

Superego - often thought of as one's "conscience"; the superego operates "like an internal censor [encouraging] moral judgments in light of social pressures" (Bressler)

Key Terms:
  • Jungian Approach:
  • Three parts of self
  • -Shadow (dark part of self)
  • -Persona (social part of personality)
  • -Anima (man’s “soul image”)
  • Neurosis occurs when someone fails to assimilate one of these levels of unconsciousness into his or her conscious and projects it onto someone else.
key terms cont
Key Terms: (cont…)
  • Unconscious - the irrational part of the psyche unavailable to a person's consciousness except through dissociated acts or dreams.
advantages and disadvantages3

Can help understand works with characters who have obvious psychological issues

Helps us understand the writer’s mind and therefore his work


Makes literature a scientific case study

Can we psychologically analyze dead writers?

Not all works allow for this approach

Sex is overdone

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Choose a text that you have read, other than Poisonwood Bible, where you could do a psychological analysis on a character. Who is that character and what are his or her issues? Use the information from Freud or Jung.
Concerned with impact of gender on writing and reading

Desire for a new literary canon (not men)

Deals with conflicts between often dominate male and inferior female in traditional literature

Deals with female issues

Suggested Websites:

Approaches to Feminism - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"What is Feminism and Why Do We Have to Talk About It So Much?" by Dr. Mary Klages - University of Colorado at Boulder

Feminist Theory: An Overview - Elixabeth Lee - The Victorian Web

key terms4
Androgeny- world without genders

Écriture féminine- style, women must write about their experiences to strengthen the work

Essentialism- a female image above and beyond social constructs

Phallologocentrism - language ordered around an absolute Word (logos) which is “masculine” [phallic], systematically excludes, disqualifies, denigrates, diminishes, silences the “feminine”

Key Terms:
advantages and disadvantages4

Allows for more female authors’ works to be read

Get to see an alternative perspective in literature

Understand women more

Not all “dead white men”


Often attack works solely based on male authorship

Often too theoretical

Distinct female style often excludes elements that get novels into the canon

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Look at a novel by Barbara Kingsolver from the feminist perspective, whether it be The Bean Trees or Poisonwood Bible. What elements exist to show this political battlefield that often exists in feminist literature. List characteristics that make the novel feminist.
historical cultural criticism a k a new historicism
Takes the work and looks at it in context of the world it came out of (opposite of New Criticism)

Good to use for Shakespearean works as well as older works, to gain more understanding of authors and impact

Analyzes historically accurate influences on author and storyline.


-Any sight that deals with the history of the time period a novel, play, or poem was written in

Historical/Cultural CriticismA.K.A. New Historicism
advantages and disadvantages5

To fully understand works by some authors, one must be able to understand where they are coming from. For example, Milton was blind and one must know that to get any meaning out of his essay “On His Blindness”

Necessary to place allusions in appropriate context

Good to recognize patterns


Reduces art to level of biography

Works not necessarily seen as universal

Can date certain works (feel not as applicable to modern life.)

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Choose a text that you have recently read and are familiar with. What was your personal response to that text? Why did you react the way you did while reading it? What did you see in the text that caused you to react in one way or another?
Philosophy (Satre and Camus) that views each person as an isolated being thrust into a universe with no truths, values, or meanings

Nothing to nothing

All choices possible

Absurd and anguished

Condemned to be free

Suggested Websites:

"Existentialism" - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"The Ethics of Absolute Freedom" by Dr. David Banach

"Jean-Paul Sartre: The Humanism of Existentialism" by Dr. Bob Zunjic (University of Rhode Island)

key terms6
Absurd - a term used to describe existence--a world without inherent meaning or truth.

Authenticity - to make choices based on an individual code of ethics (commitment) rather than because of societal pressures. A choice made just because "it's what people do" would be considered inauthentic.

"Leap of faith" - although Kierkegaard acknowledged that religion was inherently unknowable and filled with risks, faith required an act of commitment (the "leap of faith"); the commitment to Christianity would also lessen the despair of an absurd world.

Key Terms:
advantages and disadvantages6

Ultimate choice is the character’s, no external pull

Potential explanation for need for religion


Confined by constructs of society

Can drive you insane

Why are we here then?

I might as well just die

Advantages and Disadvantages
post colonialism
School of thought that existed in the post-European empire period, the body of theoretical literature that existed in that time

Takes us back to time and place to examine works (resurrect culture)

Free from modern constructs of history

Suggested Websites:

"Post-Colonialism" - Wikipedia Encyclopedia

"Some Issues in Postcolonial Theory" by Dr. John Lye (Brock University)

"Introduction to Postcolonial Studies" by Dr. Deepika Bahri (Emory University)

key terms7
Alterity – Being different than one’s community

Diaspora- Being forced as an ethnic culture to leave original homeland and dispersed throughout world

Eurocentrism –an emphasis on European or Western beliefs, often at expense of other cultures. Aligned with current and past power structures in the world.

Hybridity - The assimilation and adaptation of cultural practices, the cross-fertilization of cultures; can be seen as positive, enriching, and dynamic, as well as as oppressive

Imperialism- If you don’t know it I don’t know you…

Key Terms:
advantages and disadvantages7

Forces us to look at lost cultures and the origins of alternative cultures (non-Western)

Considers literature in context and therefore makes it easier to understand at times


Hard to completely remove from modern realm

Have to assume there is an oppressed people in order to use

Cannot apply to all Western works

Advantages and Disadvantages
  • Consider some of the American Literature that you read last year. Was any of it from a perspective other than a colonist? A European? A white male? Were there any characters that stood out as not fitting into their culture or society? How or why?
  • Now you have the basics, and when I say that I mean BARE minimum you need to know to begin to understand the literary criticisms you will become familiar with this year. Keep your notes as we will refer back to them often, as we read literary criticisms of the novels we read and as we start to analyze literature ourselves.
  • YOU HAVE THE KEYS, unlock the doors

  • Dr. Kristie Siegel

  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

“Literary Resources Criticism”

  • Richter, David H. (2000). Falling Into Theory. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.