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Introduction to Literary Theory

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let

others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it
means learning to respect and use your own brains
and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.
Adrienne Rich

Basic Literary Theories/Approaches

New Historicist and Multicultural




New Historicist/Multicultural
According to Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds,
For the most part new historicism can be
distinguished from old historicism by its lack of
faith in objectivity and permanence and its
stress not upon the direct recreation of the past
is rather the processes by which the past is
constructed or invented. (Booker 135)
Postcolonial and minority writers are involved in
serious efforts to develop viable cultural identities
to replace those thrust on them by the culture of
their former colonial masters (Booker 150)

What does this mean?

New historicism and multicultural

theories focus on the search for the most
accurate historical interpretation of a text
absent the stereotypes forced on a native
culture. It is viewed as the insiders view
of literature from the standpoint of the
culture being represented.

New Historicism/Multicultural
Approach and Joseph Conrad
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped
and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly with a
slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She
carried her head high, her hair done in the shape of
a helmet, she had brass leggings to the knees, brass
wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her
tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads
on her neck, bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at
every step. She must have had the value of several
elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb,
wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something
ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And
in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole
sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal
body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to
look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at
the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.
(Conrad 60)

Heart of Darkness

Questions to consider:

What language/characters/events present in the work

reflect the current events of the authors day?
How can we use a literary work to map the interplay
of both traditional and subversive discourses
circulating in the culture in which that work emerged
and/or the cultures in which the work has been
How does the work consider traditionally
marginalized populations?
How does this portrayal criticize the leading political
figures or movements of the day?
How does the literary text function as a part of a
continuum with other historical/cultural texts from
the same period?

Feminist Approach

Modern feminist criticism seeks to

challenge the traditions and conventions
of a patriarchal society, or society that is
based on the premise of masculine
authority (Booker 89)

What does this mean?

Feminist literary theory seeks to give

voice to the female perspective and
emphasize the power and influence of the
female role in society.

Feminist Approach and Shakespeare

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th effect and it. Come o my womans breasts
And take thy milk for gall, you murdring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on natures mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry Hold, hold!
-Lady Macbeth (I.V.36-55)


Shakespeare was a feminist?

Lady Macbeth:
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And well not fail. When Duncan is asleep
(Whereto the rather shall his days hard journey
Soundly invite him), his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only. When in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lies as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.


You could argue that, yes.


Our Son shall win.

Hes fat and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy

The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

Good madam.


Gertrude, do not drink.


I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.

King: (aside) It is the poisond cup; it is too late.



Questions to consider:
How is the relationship between men and
women portrayed?
What constitutes masculinity and
Do characters take on traits from
opposite genders? How so?
How does this change others reactions
to them?
How are male and female roles defined?

Marxist Approach

Marx believes that in contrast to

Rene Descartess idealist dictum I think,
therefore I am that material conditions
in the world are prior to and play a
determining role in human thought about
the world. (Booker 71)

What does this mean?

Marxist theory is based in the concept of

materialism that human society is
successful as a result of the acquisition of
items that can be described as basic
physical necessities.

Marxist Approach and George

Bernard Shaw
It aint the lecturing I mind. I'll lecture them blue in the face, I will,
and not turn a hair. It's making a gentleman of me that I object to.
Who asked him to make a gentleman of me? I was happy. I was
free. I touched pretty nigh everybody for money when I wanted it,
same as I touched you, Henry Higgins. Now I am worrited; tied
neck and heels; and everybody touches me for money. It's a fine
thing for you, says my solicitor. Is it? says I.You mean it's a good
thing for you, I says. When I was a poor man and had a solicitor
once when they found a pram in the dust cart, he got me off, and
got shut of me and got me shut of him as quick as he could. Same
with the doctors: used to shove me out of the hospital before I
could hardly stand on my legs, and nothing to pay. Now they finds
out that I'm not a healthy man and cant live unless they looks after
me twice a day. In the house I'm not let do a hand's turn for myself:
somebody else must do it and touch me for it. A year ago I hadnt a
relative in the world except two or three that wouldnt speak to
me. Now Ive fifty, and not a decent week's wages among the lot of
them. I have to live for others and not for myself: thats middle class
morality.You talk of losing Eliza. Dont you be anxious: I bet shes on
my doorstep by this: she that could support herself easy by selling
flowers if I wasnt respectable. And the next one to touch me will
be you, Henry Higgins. I'll have to learn to speak middle class
language from you, instead of speaking proper English. Thats where
youll come in; and I daresay thats what you done it for.


Questions to consider:

What is the social class of the author?

Which class does the work claim to represent?
Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is
accepted/successful/believed, etc?
What values does it reinforce?
What values does it subvert?
How do characters from different classes interact
or conflict?
What conflict can be seen between the values the
work champions and those it portrays?

Psychoanalytical Approach

In a typical psychoanalytical session, the

analyst listens carefully for subtle linguistic
clues that will help her read beyond literal
meaning. In addition, an analyst often
places considerable emphasis on the
interpretation of the complex symbol
systems embodied in dreams to gain
access to the workings of the
unconscious mind. (Booker 27)

What does this mean?

Psychoanalytical approaches delve deeply

into symbolism and allegorical references
and attempt to make the connection
between themes and the human
subconscious. It subscribes to the belief
that humanity can be observed and
analyzed through the lens of the collective

Psychoanalytical Approach and

William Golding
Smoke was rising here and there among the
creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.
As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the
root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.
Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and
crawled away through the leaves and brushwood,
dividing and increasing. One patch touched a tree
trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel. The
smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards. The
squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung
to another standing tree, eating downward.
Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the
fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.
Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily
toward the sea. At the sight of the flames and the
irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into
shrill excited cheering. The flames as though they
were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps
on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings
that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.
(Golding 44)

Lord of the Flies

Questions to consider:
How do the operations of repression
structure or inform the work?
Are there any Oedipal dynamics at work
What does the work suggest about the
psychological being of its author?
What psychoanalytical concepts can be
applied to events, images, or characters?

Works Cited
Booker, Keith. A Practical Introduction to Literary
Theory and Criticism. New York. 1996.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York.
Holt McDougal. Literature: British Literature.
Orlando. 2012.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York. 1992