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Literary Theory

Literary Theory

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Published by Samuel Chell

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Published by: Samuel Chell on May 18, 2010
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Page 1 of 7Literary TheorySunday/May16/002010 7:24 PM
Dec. 7, 2006S. ChellLiterary Theory: A Short TakeLiterary theory is nothing more than the attempt to formalize, or put into words, theprocess by which readers make sense out of a text. We all make judgments andinterpretations about texts or text-like situations each day of our lives, and thinkingabout the way we arrive at meanings can only help us come closer to getting ourmeanings "right."Rather than "
is the meaning?" literary theory is actually more concerned with thequestion, "
is meaning?" Where can the reader turn to find the most"authoritative" source of meaning? Imagine the most likely places according to thefollowing diagram, which we'll use to illustrate the main lines of literary theory:I. The World of NatureII. The AuthorIV. The ReaderII. The TextI. Classical-Christian Theory (500 B. C. to close to the end of the 18th century).A.
Where is meaning?
In the World of "Nature," viewed as an orderlycosmos or divinely created plan, an abstract idea rather than a concretematerial world.B.
What is the role of a literary text?
To imitate, or reflect (the mirrormetaphor), this World of Nature in a way that delights while itteaches readers their place in the scheme of things (thus a view ofliterature that is mimetic and didactic).C.
The highest faculty for a writer like Plato, Milton, or Danteis "Reason," a Divine gift which distinguishes humans from animals. Thecritic who uses reason will, in turn, be able to separate illusion fromreality in the text, in turn seeing how the text reveals a Creationcharacterized by order, balance, and moderation.II. Romantic Theory: (Beginning at the end of the 19th century, with Blake's poetry orWordsworth-Coleridge's
Lyrical Ballads 
of 1798, and extending to theWorld War I in the second decade of the 20th Century.)
Page 2 of 7Literary TheorySunday/May16/002010 7:24 PM
Where is the meaning?
In the author, who expresses his or herpersonal experiences in nature and society. "Nature" is no longer anabstract idea but a concrete, sensuous, even personally felt experience.B.
The role of the text
is to record the experiences, confessions,remembrances, personal insights, and autobiographical materials of theauthor. Sometimes called "expressive theory"; hence, the "lamp"metaphor.C.
The highest faculty for Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley isthe "Imagination," whereas the Reason valued by the classicists isviewed as the source of evil and most social woes. The imagination seesbeyond the physical surfaces of reality to the spiritual basis of all livingthings. The critic, in turn, attempts to understand the "character," howevercomplex, of the author or his persona, always being aware of the creativegift he or she shares with the Supreme Creator as well as the heroicsacrifices demanded of the artist.III. New Critical (Formalist) Theory: (1920-1970):A.
Where is meaning?
In the text itself, which is viewed as self-standing(autonomous), complete and self-sufficient (hermetically sealed), a livingorganism, a microcosm of life, with all of life's contradictions andambiguities yet whole and unified.B.
The role of the text
isn't imitative or didactic (classical theory) orexpressive (romantic). It's an object of aesthetic beauty, capable ofexciting the imagination and giving deep pleasure. The critic who callsall art "perfectly useless" is not necessarily speaking negatively about artif she's a "new critic." Aesthetic beauty has its own rewards.C.
First, look for signs of "life" in the text, which for the newcritic is found, above all, in the "tensions" (oppositions, ironies,ambiguities) of the text. The next step is to see the text as characterizedby a unity of all its parts, above all a fusion of "content" and "form" ("newcritics" are fond of saying "meaning is a function (product) of form asmuch as of content"). Finally, the new critic will focus almost exclusivelyon the "primary source" of the literary text itself, being very suspicious ofthe value of any information that comes from outside the text.IV. Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Theory (1970 to present):A.
Where is meaning?
In language, or in the literary text as representativeof the way language actually works. Literary texts, like all texts, maketheir meanings through a system of "signifiers" (word=symbol, or sign;sign=signifier + signified). Meaning, or the words assigned to things, isunderstood as purely "arbitrary" and not as inherent in the thing itself. (Acat is not a cat because of some natural essence or inherited quality ofcatness. It's a cat because it's
a "hat" or a "dog"--in other words, only
Page 3 of 7Literary TheorySunday/May16/002010 7:24 PM
because somewhat has arbitrarily decided to apply that wordand sound to the animal referred to by that name. Thus, meaning is notin the thing itself but in the word, or sign, that the thing has beenassigned by humans. Moreover, the role of humans in naming "reality"leads to
two important conclusions:
Reality is largely a constructionof language;
Language is systematic. It's
simply a question of howmany different animals are in Noah's ark but of the way
hasdistinguished them from one another.B.
The role of the text
is to demonstrate how authors produce meaningsthrough a language system that adheres to modern discoveries about thenature of grammar, syntax, and semantics and how it is influenced bychanges in the world we live in. The text tells us how humans are usinglanguage to make meanings.
Useful definitions:
is a "system ofsigns"; a
is a "signifier + signified."C.
Notice the prominent signifiers as well as their collective,accumulative effect on meaning. Structuralists, also called "semiologists"or "semioticians," see reading a text as "decoding" a text's meanings byexamining its signifiers and their relationships. It works not just forliterary texts but for all systems (eg. rock concerts, shopping malls)created for human use. The French semiotician Roland Barthes is aslikely to read, or decode, a boxing match or strip tease as a literary text.The most famous novel by a semiotician is Italian novelist-theoristUmberto Eco's,
The Name of the Rose 
(made into a movie with SeanConnery and Christian Slater).Barthes, in a famous short essay, writes "The death of the author is thebirth of the reader." Structuralism makes language and its meanings theentire focus. The "author" is no longer viewed as "authority" of "his" text;even the text is no longer authoritative or "sacred." Language is simplyeverybody's business. Compared to the "self-contained aesthetic object"that the New Critics insist upon, we now have a literary text wherethere are no longer any boundaries between the text and its reader. Outof this new view of the text, or of language and meaning, comes the"reader response" theorists, chief among them the American critic,Stanley Fish, along with the "implied reader" (you). It's no longeraccurate to say the reader
the text: you are the reader
the text.
Principle #1 of current literary theory:
You cannot escape the text.
Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism: Do not confuse structuralism as the "structure"frequently discussed by the new critic (structure=form); instead, the meaning is closerto "system," or "construction." This is important because some people new to literarytheory assume that post-structuralism is the opposite of structuralism. Actually, post-structuralism is simply a later development of structuralism, one that is currently moreinfluential. What's the difference?

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