An Introduction to Literary Theory

Critics use literary theory as a way to interpret and process a variety of literary works. Literary theory is not limited to literature but is applied to various cultural works, such as art, sculpture, paintings, and poetry. There are different types of literary theory, and each may be considered filters that are used in viewing cultural works. Each theory has individual criteria that not only make it unique, but also provide the lens critics use to view works. Many critics use literary theory to analyze or critique works outside of the literary field such as philosophy, psychology, history, and sociology. Literary theory has provided the basis for much of academia’s approach to studying various texts. In this regard, literary theory is referred to simply as theory.

New Criticism

New Criticism was founded between the 1920s and 1930s as a means of judging literary works solely by the content of the text. This type of literary theory was used heavily for critiquing poetry as it gave no bias to author or other written works. New Criticism proposed that every work is autonomous and should be judged on its own merits. Important ideas associated with New Criticism include intentional fallacy, affective fallacy, close reading, and heresy of paraphrase. Intentional fallacy deals with mistaking or making equal the writer’s intention and the actual meaning of the literary work. Affective fallacy deals with how readers respond to the work and is to be avoided in New Criticism. Also to be avoided is heresy of paraphrase. This involves the mistake that a literary work may be interpreted as a paraphrase. New Criticism relies on close reading or the process of analyzing the text itself in order to determine how the text is interpreted. Some of New Criticisms most prominent figures and critics include T.S. Elliot, John Crowe Ransom, and I.A. Richards.


Directly related to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic literary theory is the practice of using psychoanalysis as a way of viewing, critiquing, and judging literary works. Freud began developing his theory in the late 1800s, and by 1896, had developed the seduction theory. Freud continued developing multiple theories that would compose psychoanalysis through the early 1900s. Although Freud passed away in 1939, the principles of psychoanalysis continued to develop throughout the 1960s. Other notable figures that helped develop psychoanalysis include Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, and Alfred Adler. The work of French psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan greatly contributed to psychoanalysis and his work influences psychoanalytic literary theory.

Psychoanalysis relies heavily upon dream work and interpretation, Oedipal conflict, repression, and the theory of id, superego, and ego to define the mind. Freud believed that id was where secret desires were formed and kept, superego dealt with maintaining morality, and ego was the conscious mind that suppresses id and works with superego. Jacques Lacan developed his work on three models: imaginary, symbolic, and real. Lacan describes the imaginary stage as developing between six and 18 months of age and focuses on the development of sense of self. The symbolic stage refers to a child’s developing language skills and the child’s ability to interpret and understand symbols. The real stage represents the reality of what a child is and does not have. The imaginary stage is one viewed as complete wholeness, when a child is lacking nothing.

A psychoanalytic literary approach will look for the repressed, hidden meaning in a text. Those who use this approach will judge literary forms as if looking for a repressed facet of an individual that was being expressed. Characters in a novel are scrutinized to determine what characteristic or quality of the author was expressing. Psychoanalytic literary theory may involve more scrutiny than what the author may be repressing. Some critics that use this literary theory may apply the techniques to characters in a book or film. They may apply a psychoanalytical lens to determine the character’s personality traits or repressed issues. The approach may also be used to determine how reader’s respond to a literary work and what type of repressed issues are expressed through individual responses. Notable people who have contributed and developed psychoanalytic literary theory include Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, George Klein, Simon Lesser and Elizabeth Wright.


The Marxist literary theory is a sociological criticism approach that derives from the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which helped develop capitalism during the mid 1800s. Considered a materialistic approach, Marxism is based upon the struggle between social classes. When using the Marxist literary approach, the critic views the work of art through the materialistic lens that affected the creator of the work. Key factors include commodification or whether the art or literary work is valued, not for its intrinsic qualities, but its ability to make a profit or motivate others to buy.

Conspicuous consumption refers to literary works that were obviously created for the sole purpose of purchase or sale. Another aspect to Marxism theory is that of dialectical materialism. This refers to the constant struggle between classes that may result in a new system. Reflectionism is an approach that states every work is a reflection of the economic status that was in place at the time of creation. Material circumstances refer to understanding the financial and economic system at the time of the work's creation in order to understand the work. People who greatly influenced Marxism literary theory include Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Theodor Adorno, and Georg Lukacs.


I.A. Richards and Louise Rosenblatt are two of the earliest predecessors of the reader-response literary approach. The two proposed theories between 1929 and 1939 that careful consideration should be given to the way in which a reader responds to literary works. Readers may have preconceived ideas, notions, or experiences that filter the way in which they view texts or art. Louise Rosenblatt theorized that educators should not project their own views on students, but rather allow each to interpret works through their individual lens. Between the 1960s and 1970s, modern reader-response literary theory developed through works such as Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, and Stanley Fish. C.S. Lewis was also a proponent of the theory.

Important terms involved in reader-response theory include horizons of expectations, implied reader, interpretive communities, and transactional analysis. Hans-Robert Jauss is the proponent behind the “horizons of expectations” factor. This states that what a reader has experienced throughout his or her life will shape the way in which they respond to literature. Wolfgang Iser is credited with the term "implied reader.” The implied reader is not a real person, but rather the conceptual reader that arises in correlation to a created work. Stanley Fish coined the term “interpretive communities” that focus on a group of readers that share the way they respond and interpret a work. Louise Rosenblatt developed the term “transactional analysis.” Transactional analysis is the approach that a reader interacts with a text as the text evokes a response in the reader.


Structuralism is the approach that all literary works are interrelated to a system or structure that is larger than it is. Founded in the 1900s, by Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s through the works and teachings of Claude Levi-Strauss, Noam Chomsky, Roman Jakobson, and Jacques Lacan. Important factors in structuralism include binary opposition, mythemes, and sign versus symbol.

Binary opposition refers to terms that are polar opposites and are diametrically opposed. Together, these pairs are interrelated to a structure outside of itself. Claude Levi-Strauss is credited with the term “mythemes.” Described as the smallest facet of a myth, mythemes are broken down and analyzed individually. Sign vs. Symbol refers to a theory developed by Ferdinand de Saussure that indicates a word’s true meaning is dependent upon other signs or symbols in that they are not the same. Their definitions are not independent, but interrelated to others.


Developed in the 1960s by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is a literary theory that is in contrast to structuralism. It is sometimes referred to as post-structuralism. As structuralism views literary works as related to a larger structure, deconstruction challenges that theory by stating a literary work can never be defined in a single idea. Terms associated with deconstruction include erasure, logocentrism, metaphysics of presence, supplement, trace, transcendental signifier, aporia, and difference. Other notable figures who contributed to deconstruction include Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Helene Cixous, and J. Hillis Miller.

New Historicism/Culture Studies

Founded by Stephen Greenblatt in the 1980s, New Historicism literary theory or cultural studies theory uses the context of history to understand a literary work. Additionally, the practice is used to gain knowledge and understanding of various cultures and history through the literature. Important terms used in New Historicism theory include discourse, episteme, power, self-positioning and thick description. Important figures in the development of New Historicism include Michel Foucault, Jonathan Dollimore, Catherine Gallagher, and Louis Montrose.


Post-Colonialism theory is the premise of relating a literary work to the manner in which a country or nation was colonized by Europe. Post-Colonialism works vary from one country to another as each holds its own history, but all are in regards to European colonization. Founded in the 1970s by Edward Said, the theory has several notable figures. These include Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, Salman Rushdie, and Jamaica Kincaid.


Feminist literary theory stems from the politics or cultural applications of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Works may be classified as those pertaining to the psychoanalytical approach to feminism, French feminism, liberal feminism, gynocriticism, and other forms such as radical feminism and lesbianism. Notable people associated with the feminist literary theory include Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Fuller, Lisa Tuttle, Isobel Armstrong, Anne K. Mellor and Marina Warner. Terms associated with feminist criticism and theory include androgyny, ecriture feminine, backlash, essentialism, gynocentrics, patriarchy, phallogocentrism, jouissance, semiotic, and second and third wave feminism.


Gender and queer literary theory developed in the 1990s, and arose from feminist theory. Gender and queer theory examines how the role of sex influences literary works. Queer studies focus on how gays and lesbians are presented in literature and other cultural works. Critics may view literary works in terms of how they are represented as being inherently feminine or masculine or how they incorporate gay and lesbian political themes. Notable people involved in gender and queer literary theory include Eve Kosofsky, Judith Butler, and Lauren Berlant.