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Literary Theories Page


by Robert C. Evans, Auburn University Montgomery

     In the introduction to his classic study The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams argued that any literary theory that tries to be complete must account for four basic aspects of literature: the author, the text, the audience, and the universe (or "reality"). Abrams' list can be usefully supplemented by adding a fifth category: the role or function of the critic herself. Any reasonably well developed theory, in other words, will be a theory about all these factors and the relations among them. The assumptions a theorist makes about the author, for example, will inevitably affect (and be affected by) the assumptions he makes about the text, the audience, "reality" and the purposes of criticism. Indeed, Abrams argues that each theory will tend to emphasize one of these aspects as crucial or most important.

     PLATO, for instance, tends to emphasize the importance of accurately understanding reality, and his entire theory of literature seems affected by this central emphasis. He thus assumes that because neither the author nor the literary text can provide such understanding, and because most members of the audience do not seek it, literature has little value. Plato's views of the critic derive directly from this conclusion: the critic functions as a kind of philosophical traffic cop, admitting certain "useful" kinds of literature to the republic but banishing the rest. The assumptions underlying some of the most prominent theoretical approaches are summarized briefly in the following list. The key aspect of literature emphasized by each kind of criticism is underlined.

(For much fuller discussion of all these theories, sample applications [by students] of all the theories to a single literary text [Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"], and summaries of a diversity of interpretations of major short stories, see Short Fiction: A Critical Companion, ed. Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann. For further information about this book, follow this link:  All sales of this book benefit a scholarship fund at Auburn University at Montgomery.)


PLATONIC CRITICISM: Because Plato prizes an accurate, objective understanding of reality, he sees "creative" writers and "literary" texts as potential distractions since they may lead the already-emotional audience to neglect proper pursuit of philosophical truth, which the critic should seek, explain, and defend by using logic and reason.

ARISTOTELIAN CRITICISM: Because Aristotle values the text as a highly crafted complex unity, he tends to see the author as a craftsman, the audience as capable of appreciating such craftsmanship, the text as a potentially valuable means of understanding the complexity of "reality," and the critic as a specialist conversant with all aspects of the poetic craft.

HORATIAN CRITICISM: Because Horace emphasizes the need to satisfy a diverse audience, he tends to see the author as attempting to please and/or teach them, the text as embodying principles of custom and moderation (so as to please the widest possible audience), "reality" as understood in traditional or conventional terms, and the critic as a fatherly advisor who tries to prevent the author from making a fool of himself.

LONGINIAN CRITICISM: Because "Longinus" (whose real identity is unknown) stresses the ideally lofty nature of the sublime (i.e., elevated) author, he tends to view the text as an expression of the author's power, the audience as desiring the ecstasy a great author can induce, social "reality" as rooted in a basic human nature that everywhere and always has a yearning for elevation, and the critic as (among other things) a moral and spiritual advisor who encourages the highest aspirations of readers and writers alike.

TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL CRITICISM: Because traditional historical critics tend to emphasize the ways social realities influence the writer, the writer's creation of a text, and audience's reactions to it, they stress the critic's obligation to study the past as thoroughly and objectively as possible to determine how the text might have been understood by its original readers.

THEMATIC CRITICISM: Because thematic critics stress the importance of ideas in shaping social and psychological reality, they generally look for the ways those ideas are expressed by (and affect) the texts that writers create. They assume that audiences turn to texts for enlightenment as well as entertainment and that writers either express the same basic ideas repeatedly or that the evolution of their thinking can be traced in different works.

FORMALISM: Because formalists value the text as a complex unity in which all the parts contribute to a rich and resonant effect, they usually offer highly detailed ("close") readings intended to show how the work achieves a powerful, compelling artistic form. Formalist critics help audiences appreciate how a work's subtle nuances contribute to its total effect.

PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM: Freudian or psychoanalytic critics emphasize the key role o human mind in perceiving and shaping reality and believe that the minds of writers, audiences, and critics are highly complex and often highly conflicted (especially in sexual terms, and particularly in terms of the moralistic "super-ego," the rational ego, and the irrational "id"). They contend that such complexity inevitably affects the ways texts are written and read. The critic, therefore, should analyze how psychological patterns affect the ways in which texts are created and received.

ARCHETYPAL OR "MYTH" CRITICISM: Because archetypal critics believe that humans experience reality in terms of certain basic fears, desires, images (symbols), and stories (myths), they assume that writers will inevitably employ such patterns; that audiences will react to them forcefully and almost automatically; and that critics should therefore study the ways such patterns affect writers, texts, and readers.

MARXIST CRITICISM: Because Marxist critics assume that conflicts between economic classes inevitably shape social reality, they emphasize the ways these struggles affect writers, audiences, and texts. They assume that literature will either reflect, reinforce, or undermine (or some combination of these) the dominant ideologies (i.e., standard patterns of thought) that help structure social relations. Marxist critics study the complex relations between literature and society, ideally seeking to promote social progress.

STRUCTURALIST CRITICISM: Because structuralist critics assume that humans structure (or make sense of) reality by imposing patterns of meaning on it, and because they assume that these structures can only be interpreted in terms of the codes the structures embody, they believe that writers will inevitably rely on such codes to create meaning, that texts will inevitably embody such codes, and that audiences will inevitably use such codes to interpret texts. To understand a text, the critic must be familiar with the systematic codes that shape it; he must master the system(s) the text implies.

FEMINIST CRITICISM: Because feminist critics assume that our experience of reality is inevitably affected by categories of sex and gender (such as divisions between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, etc.), and because they assume that (heterosexual) males have long enjoyed dominant social power, they believe that writers, texts, and audience will all be affected (usually negatively) by "patriarchal" forces. The critic's job will be to study (and even attempt to counter-act) the impact of patriarchy.

DECONSTRUCTION: Because Deconstructive critics assume that "reality" cannot be experienced except through language, and because they believe that language is inevitably full of contradictions, gaps, and dead-ends, they believe that no writer, text, audience, or critic can ever escape from the unsolvable paradoxes language embodies. Deconstruction therefore undercuts the hierarchical assumptions of any other critical system (such as structuralism, formalism, Marxism, etc.) that claims to offer an "objective," "neutral," or "scientific" perspective on literature.

READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM: Because reader-response critics assume that literary texts are inevitably interpreted by individual members of the audience and that these individuals react to texts in ways that are sometimes shared, sometimes highly personal (and sometimes both at once), they believe that writers exert much less control over texts than we sometimes suppose, and that critics must never ignore the crucial role of audience response(s).

DIALOGICAL CRITICISM: Because dialogical critics assume that the (worthy) text almost inevitably embodies divergent points of view, they believe that elements within a text engage in a constant dialogue or give-and-take with other elements, both within and outside the text itself. The writer, too, is almost inevitably engaged in a complex dialogue, through the text, with his potential audience(s), and the sensitive critic must be alert to the multitude of voices a text expresses or implies.

NEW HISTORICISM: Because new historicist critics assume that our experience of  reality is inevitably social, and because they emphasize the way systems of power and domination both provoke and control social conflicts, they tend to see a culture not as a single coherent entity but as a site of struggle, negotiation, or the constant exchange of energy. New historicists contend that no text, audience, or critic can stand apart from contemporary (i.e., both past and present) dynamics of power.

MULTICULTURAL CRITICISM: Because multicultural critics emphasize the numerous differences that both shape and divide social reality, they tend to see all people (including writers, readers, and critics) as members of sometimes divergent, sometimes over-lapping groups. These groups, whether relatively fluid or relatively stable, can include such categories as races, sexes, genders, ages, and classes, and the critic should explore how such differences affect the ways in which literature is both written and read.

POSTMODERNISM: Postmodernists are highly skeptical of large-scale claims to objective "truths" and thus doubt the validity of grand explanations. They see such claims as attempts to impose order on a reality that is, almost by definition, too shifting or fluid to be pinned down. Postmodernists assume that if writers, readers, and audiences abandoned their yearning for such order, they would more easily accept and enjoy the inevitable paradoxes and contradictions of life and art. The postmodern critic will look for (and value) any indications of a text's instabilities.

PLURALISM: Pluralism  assumes that each critical approach, by asking different kinds of questions about literature, will provide different kinds of answers and that each kind of answer is at least potentially valuable in its own right. Pluralism does not attempt to harmonize competing ways of thinking, nor does it radically doubt the validity of all ways of thought. Rather, it emphasizes the potential value of a variety of approaches to literary texts.

(c) 1997 Robert C. Evans

Please feel free to duplicate for private study or classroom use.

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