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Literary Studies: Literary Theory

Literary Theory Reference Works

Throughout your studies of literature, you will encounter a wide range of literary theories and critical frameworks. These are often employed by scholars to assist with the interpretation of a text or an analysis of the text’s significance.

Some essay questions will require you to adopt a particular framework, while others will allow you to choose your own. When it comes to deciding which literary theories or critical frameworks to draw on, it is usually best to respond to what you see as the text’s key themes or most interesting  aspects. Whichever approach you choose, you should ensure that your analysis is supported by the text itself.

Below you’ll find a few of the more common critical frameworks used in literary studies today. Feel free to explore these and do further reading on those of interest.

Structuralism and semiotics

Developing out of Russian Formalism and New Criticism in the 1960s, structuralism tends to strive toward objective and scientific approaches to texts and their interpretation. It sees the meanings of texts as rooted in their form and structure, or how the different elements of the text relate to one another.

Semiotics, the study of signs and how they create meaning, often went hand-in-hand with structuralism, as it focused on the structures of language.

An example of structuralism and semiotics can be found in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, whose studies of mythical stories emphasised their common structures (key plot points, narrative developments, and so on).

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Narratology and rhetoric 

Narratology grew out of structuralism and can be seen as the application of the principles and objectivity of structuralism, to narratives.

Thus, narratological studies tend to focus on the form, structure and composition of narratives, identifying how texts deploy different narrative techniques, styles and devices. For example,

Today, narratology generally attempts to avoid structuralism’s more reductive tendencies, incorporating insights from reception theory and post-structuralist theory.

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Reception theory and reader-response criticism 

Reader-response criticism focuses on how readers experience or encounter literary texts, being much less interested in the circumstances of a text’s authorship than its impact on readers. Reception theory, similarly, focuses on the unique responses of individual readers to literary texts.

Proponents of reception theory tend to see readers, not authors, as the creators of meaning. When examining texts, they might choose to consider how readers have responded to, or interpreted, the text in the past, or study how the text itself attempts to elicit a particular response from the reader.

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In the mid-1960s, post-structuralism emerged as a critique of structuralism and semiotics. These existing frameworks were seen to be overly restrictive, while not accurately reflecting the complexity of language and meaning.

Post-structuralists tend to emphasise the instability of language and see meaning as highly subjective (in no way fixed or objective). Early post-structuralists focused on critiquing traditional notions of authorship and, in turn, looking at the many possibilities for interpretation and meaning available to readers.

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Deconstruction, a key component of the post-structuralist movement, focuses on dismantling commonly accepted social, cultural and political concepts.

A common deconstructionist approach involves critiquing accepted binary oppositions (such as male/female, black/white) and highlighting their underlying ideologies, thereby undermining them as concepts.

A deconstructionist approach to a novel, for example, might consider how the text attempts to maintain a binary opposition between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, while reflecting on how this distinction is ideologically motivated and ultimately undermined in the novel itself.

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Marxism and critical theory 

Critical theory focuses on the cultural, historical and ideological aspects of texts. It typically involves Marxist or post-Marxist critiques of social, political and economic structures. In this sense, critical theory reflects a kind of historical materialism, being fundamentally concerned with the material circumstances of individuals at different points in history.

When it comes to reading texts, a Marxist approach might analyse the representation of characters from different social classes, the power dynamics between these characters, or how characters experience economic inequality.

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Pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century, psychoanalysis focuses on uncovering and analysing people’s ‘unconscious’ thoughts. It works off the premise that it’s human nature to repress certain parts of ourselves, and thus all literary texts can be read in terms of the manifestations of these ‘unconscious’ parts.

In particular, the psychoanalysis of literature looks at either the author of work, the text’s contents and formal construction, the reader of the text, or a combination of these (ref: Eagleton).

With Freudian analysis, these meanings often relate to unconscious desire or anxiety over pleasure and gratification. Studies often explore concepts such as the Oedipus complex, and the id, ego and superego.

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Postcolonial criticism explores authors or texts representing the legacy of colonisation, which includes the exploitation and repression of colonised cultures by imperial powers.  Postcolonial literary theory focuses on exposing and critiquing existing power structures in colonised cultures, with an emphasis on cultural literatures.

Key concepts include the politics of knowledge concerning cultural and national identity, the Orient (East) and the Occident (West), and the Other, or subaltern.

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Feminist theory is primarily concerned with exposing and examining the prevailing patriarchal structures in society, and advocating political, economic and social equality for women.

There are lots of branches of feminism, and as approaches have changed over time some scholars find it helpful to separate out theories into first wave (late 1700s to early 1900s), second wave (early 1960s to late 1970s) and third wave (early 1990s to present) feminism. The feminist movement remains very diverse and encompases a wide range of perspectives on how to improve equality for women.

Feminist literary theory examines many aspects of literature, including the exclusion of women from the traditional literary canon, problems of female authorship, the performativity of gender in texts, and the female experience in and of literature.

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Gender studies and queer theory 

Growing out of post-structuralist feminist theories in the 1970s, gender studies and queer theory often reject binary classifications such as female and male, and use the language of deconstruction to explore new implications and meanings of texts.

In literary studies, this approach often includes examinations of the politics and poetics of gender and queer representations in texts, and how these reflect (or challenge) social attitudes around gender and sexuality.

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New historicism 

Developed in the 1980s, new historicism views texts as products of specific cultural and political periods. Thus, new historicism focuses on analysing texts, authors and critics in their historical contexts, which often includes examining power structures and ideologies.

New historicism is a transdisciplinary critique, combining post-structuralist concepts and the study of history. Such studies often consider the circumstances of texts’ production and subjective interpretations of history.

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Ecocriticism focusses on the role of nature in literature, often involving an interrogation of ecological values in texts. Ecocriticism is a transdisciplinary approach that is often informed by related scientific fields, such as ecology and the environmental sciences.

Ecocriticism often examines the notion of “place” in literature, while challenging ideas of anthropocentrism (human-centeredness). Ecocritical studies of literature may also focus on representations of climate change, natural disaster, and animal life.

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Broadly, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with art and the notion of the beautiful. Such studies date back to Plato and Aristotle, who reflected on the nature of art and its many forms, and were further developed by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.

Aesthetic studies of literature tend to focus on philosophical questions of the nature of literary art and the enjoyment of literature, while asking what constitutes a “good” or “beautiful” text.

Traditional aesthetics often concerns itself with the notion of “art for art’s sake”, while recent works might connect the field with broader socio-political contexts. Such studies often seek

a framework through which to make judgements concerning the value of different kinds of literature for specific social or political ends.

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