a resource for studying literary theory

A Brief Introduction to Literary Theory

‘Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense.
Alexander Pope, from ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1711)

The ‘meaning’ of a work of literature, prose or poetry, can be the subject of a great deal of academic debate. A novel or poem can seem to have quite different meanings to different readers. This is often due to the cultural mind-set which the reader brings to the text. Inevitably, this leads to a great proliferation of ‘meanings’, many of which may seem to conflict with each other. Literary theory, which has its roots in classical philosophy but blossomed in the mid-twentieth century, offers us a way to understand and formalize these different ways of generating ‘meaning’ in our reading of texts. Earlier critics and scholars, particularly in the nineteenth century, often took a biographical approach, attempting to determine what the author ‘meant’ to say, and thus aiming to pin down a final, concrete meaning on which everyone could agree. This was often accompanied by a range of ‘literary biographies’ which used elements of the authors’ lives to interpret their writing. This method offers many problems, however, not least of these being the impossibility of determining what the writer did ‘mean’, and whether the writer even knew what was meant. In the twentieth century, critics began to ‘theorize’, though most of them would not have thought of it in that way, but new methods of reading literature abounded. Critics such as William Empson, F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot began looking at literature in a different way from their Victorian predecessors, and each new suggestion prompted further ideas.

In 1967, Roland Barthes proposed ‘The Death of the Author’, in which he suggested that ‘the removal of the Author … transforms the modern text’ (Barthes, p. 148). Once the idea of the author as ultimate creator of a text has been dismissed, the text is no longer closed to interpretation, but becomes open to creative re-readings, so that readers can themselves ‘write’ into the texts their own ideas and meanings. He sums up his arguments by stating that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’. Barthes’ essay causes readers to pause and rethink: after all, how do we know what an author meant? Does it even matter? Is our own response to a work of literature not more significant? In many ways, the modern approach to literary studies is predicated on this idea, that meaning can be generated from a number of sources, from writer to reader, context to form, political concepts to theoretical structures. The ‘death of the author’ approach does not mean we have to ignore context, but it does prioritize a reading which enables us to react personally, through our own cultural prisms, rather than simply accepting at face value what the writer might have meant.

‘Meaning’, then, can come from the reader at least as much as from the writer. Literary theory empowers us to read texts in a particular way, in order to explore different perspectives, and open up a text to new interpretations. The earliest literary criticism comes from ancient Greek writers such as Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes. Their writings tend to focus on social, political and moral aspects of writing, and many of the terms and concepts they write of are still in use today (for further discussion of this see Preminger et al). Certainly these approaches remained current throughout the Renaissance, and by the early nineteenth century the approach was that of ‘liberal humanism’ (see Barry, 11-38). The history of how literary theory developed since then is complicated, often international, and provides a fascinating reflection of cultural changes in society. From the early twentieth-century Cambridge School of Empson and I.A. Richards, with their emphasis on close reading divorced from context (though in a very different way from Barthes’ later argument), and F.R. Leavis’s focus on morality and literary tradition, to later Continental influences of cultural theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, which often derived from a combination of philosophy and wider cultural notions such as feminism and Marxism, ways of reading a text have changed over time, and provided readers with new ways to view literature and, consequently, the world. As you will see as you read this website, many of these ideas are also pertinent to thinking about values, about popular culture such as television and music, about art, and about how society works.

This website aims to help readers to understand a range of literary theories, and to see how they work ‘in action’. Theory is not something to be ‘applied’ to a text: it must be an integral part of how one reads the text, so before you begin an analysis, you need to thoroughly understand the different aspects of a theoretical approach. Read the theory page on this site; look at the sample analysis offered, and then read some of the recommended books before reading and carefully re-reading the text you intend to discuss. By this stage, and incorporating other research you might need to do, such as historical context, you should be able to synthesize the theoretical approach with the text in a creative way, and perhaps offer a whole new perspective of your own.

Different theories often invite you to interpret texts of a particular kind. While any kind of text can be examined using the methodologies discussed on The Virtual Theorist, you will see as you become more familiar with the ideas that there are some texts more appealing to, say, feminist or Marxist critics; poetry is an obvious candidate for most prosodic readings; Leavisite approaches tend to examine the ‘great’ works of the literary canon, and so on. We hope, however, that you will experiment with the theories discussed here: be flexible, be open, and see where literary theory can take you.

Bibliography