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Literary Criticism: Literary Theories

Literary Theories

Need a refresher about literary theory? The following web sites provide descriptions of literary theories, tips for applying the theory to a work, and additional resourses you may wish to consult.

Richard Wright

Virginia Woolf

Edgar Allan Poe

Flannery O'Connor

What is Literary Theory?

"Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts. ... All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts." Deborah Appleman

"A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important."
Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism

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Below or just a few of the many literary theories or lenses that you can use to view and talk about art, literature, and culture.

To help you decide on a literary theory and to begin analyzing your chosen text, consider the questions presented below:

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Feminism :: Questions for Analysis

Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson).  Purdue OWL

  • Is the author male or female?

  • Is the text narrated by a male or female?

  • What types of roles do women have in the text?

  • Are the female characters the protagonists or secondary and minor characters?

  • Do any stereotypical characterizations of women appear?

  • What are the attitudes toward women held by the male characters?

  • What is the author's attitude toward women in society?

  • How does the author's culture influence her or his attitude? Is feminine imagery used? If so, what is the significance of such imagery?

  • Do the female characters speak differently than to the male characters? In your investigation, compare the frequency of speech for the male characters to the frequency of speech for the female characters.

Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Marxism :: Questions for Analysis

Based on the theories of Karl Marx (and so influenced by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system.

  • Is there an outright rejection of socialism in the work?

  • Does the text raise fundamental criticism about the emptiness of life in bourgeois society?

  • How well is the fate of the individual linked organically to the nature of societal forces? What are the work's conflicting forces?

  • At what points are actions or solutions to problems forced or unreal?

  • Are characters from all social levels equally well sketched?

  • What are the values of each class in the work?

  • What is valued most? Sacrifice? Assent? Resistance?

  • How clearly do narratives of disillusionment and defeat indicate that bourgeois values - competition, chauvinism - are incompatible with human happiness?

  • Does the protagonist defend or defect from the dominant values of society? Are those values in ascendancy or decay?

Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Cultural Poetics or New Historicism :: Questions for Analysis

This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time.

  • What kinds of behavior, what models of practice, does this work seem to reinforce?

  • Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?

  • Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?

  • Upon what social understanding does the work depend?

  • Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained implicitly or explicitly by this work?

  • What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected?

Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Gender Studies :: Questions for Analysis

Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture.

  • What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles?

  • What sort of support (if any) is given to elements or characters who question the masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those elements/characters?

  • What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in...the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters?

  • What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?

  • How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who are apparently homosexual?

  • How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual "identity," that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?

Purdue OWL