Theories of literary criticsm

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What is literature?:

What is literature? Any work with a unique aesthetic quality? Texts that have stood the test of time? Works of the imagination/creative writing? Works with a particular set of qualities—e.g., plot, character, tone, setting, etc.? Works that emphasize universal themes (i.e., transcend the merely social or political)? Works that fit the parameters of literary genres: poem, essay, short story, novel? Anything that is written?

What is literary theory?:

What is literary theory? The capacity to generalize about phenomena and to develop concepts that form the basis for interpretation and analysis—in this instance, of a “literary” text.

What is literary criticism?:

What is literary criticism? The disciplined application of theoretical principles for the purpose of analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating literary texts.

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1. The World 2. The Author 3. The Text Other Texts Real World 4. The Reader Beyond the World Text = Objective reality Formalism: the TEXT (as art) Structuralism: the TEXT (as language system) Psychoanalytic: AUTHOR / READER /text Reader Response: READER / TEXT/ community of readers w/shared values THE 4 CRITICAL VARIABLES of LITERARY THEORY & CRITICISM Text = Ideologically constructed language ITS CONTEXT Text = Symbol, Archetype Gender Studies: WORLD /author/text/reader Postcolonial: AUTHOR /world/text/reader Marxist: WORLD /text Territorial: TEXT /[  reader/ author/world])


SOME TRADITIONAL APPROACHES Historical—author’s historical moment is key to understanding a literary text Biographical—author’s personal experiences are central to understanding the text Social realism (?)—social transparency is key to understanding the text…

Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893):

Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) Applying the scientific method to art—assumes language is factual, reality is absolute, the “truth” can be verified. Taine’s three major factors for interpreting a text: Race—i.e., national characteristics of the artist’s historical place and time Milieu—i.e., sum total of artist’s experience Moment—intellectual & philosophical currents of artist’s historical place and time

Wellek and Warren Theory of Literature (1949):

Wellek and Warren Theory of Literature (1949) Key issues to understanding a text: The writer’s heredity & environment (Taine’s “milieu”) The fictional world of the text vis-à-vis the world outside the text (Taine’s “race” & “moment” The audience for which the text was intended

Irresolvable problem with traditional (pre-1970) social approaches to literary interpretation:

Irresolvable problem with traditional (pre-1970) social approaches to literary interpretation Practitioners assumed that historical, biographical, and social information could be accurately gathered and verified. They viewed language as transparent, facts as reliable, history as objective. Poststructuralist theories about the ideological appropriation of language by dominant groups & postmodernist disillusionment with objective reality both undermine old-style criticism.


NEW CRITICISM* Meaning resides in the text—not in reader, author, or world Texts may contain numerous messages, but must have a unifying central theme created by the perfect union of all artistic elements. Texts are artistic creations Close reading is the basis of new critical analysis The methodology for finding meaning is clear-cut; the tools are unique to literary analysis * one type of formalism


READER RESPONSE Text has many interpretations—text & reader interact to create meaning Meaning ultimately resides in the reader’s mind or the consensual “mind” of a community of readers (this class, for example) A text’s truth is relative Readers may reach the same conclusions about a work--but approach the task quite differently


STRUCTURALISM Meaning resides in the structure of language, not in art nor in the reader’s mind Scientific approach to literary analysis: structure of language as a logical sign system determines meaning Two levels of language: langue (“the King’s English”) & parole (everyday speech) Interpret a text or part of a text by taking its language apart (study word derivations, sentence syntax, etc.)




Texts—composed of language, an unstable sign system that always “defers” meaning. Truth is constructed, not “given,” so there’s no such thing as A correct interpretation Look for an apparent meaning of some aspect of the text ; show how the text undermines (deconstructs) it; look again & show how the text undermines the latest interpretation, etc. Look for oppositions: good vs. evil, e.g. Show how the text undermines first one, then the other so that good and evil are exposed as “empty” concepts meaning Jacques Derrida Deconstruction meaning


NEW HISTORICISM Literature is one among many socially constructed texts. If there is a difference, it’s the intentional use of the imagination to convey ideas. History is every bit as subjective as intentionally imaginative texts Purpose of analyzing literature is to locate hidden social messages, especially those that promote oppression. Texts have no final interpretation Language, though socially constructed, is stable enough to be useful. Find a small intriguing or odd piece of the text and interpret it by comparing it to contemporary sign systems—magazines, newspapers, fads, laws. Try to locate uses & abuses of power.


POSTCOLONIALISM Meaning resides in text, history, and ideology Literature is a political tool—those in power decide what is “art” Truth is relative Study the author’s (and reader’s) life & times; locate tensions between conflicting cultures; explore the “double consciousness” of colonized & postcolonized writers; observe how colonizers “refashion” the colonized;


MARXISM Meaning resides in text, history, & ideology: messages of oppression & class conflict Texts are commodities, not timeless works of art Truths are socially constructed. Look for evidence of oppressive ideologies of the dominant social group; look for uses & abuses of power What workers look like to a capitalist


FEMINIST CRITICISM Meaning is socially constructed. Texts have more than one interpretation Texts are commodities (products of society) Truth is relative, highly dependent on arbitrary categories of difference, esp. those based on “sex” and “gender” Look for systems of containment; for evidence of repression, oppression, suppression, subversion, & rebellion in texts by women; study women’s unique ways of understanding and writing about the human condition.


Territorialism Possessions (objects of desire) are metaphors for who we are or how we wish to be perceived—aspects of the “self.” Possessions may be tangible or intangible ( my car or my idea, e.g.) They occupy mental space: cognitive, affective, and conative. These spaces strongly resemble territories—with rights of ownership, markers, boundaries, rules of “in” and “out,” defensive strategies, etc. Look for territorial behaviors; determine the “object(s) of desire”; what aspect of self is in play? Who owns the object? Who wants it? Why? Identify the territorial act: acquisition, management, or defense? How does this information improve our understanding of the text?

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