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Literary Theory

Short Story UnitLiterary Theories

Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways
people read texts. The proponents of each theory believe their theory is the
theory, but most of us interpret texts according to the rules of
several different theories at a time. All literary theories are lenses
through which we can see texts. There is nothing to say that one is better
than another or that you should read according to any of them, but it is
sometimes intriguing to read a text with one in mind because you often end
up with a whole new perspective on your reading.
This packet lists some of the most common schools of literary theory. These
descriptions are quite simplistic and none of them fully explains what the
theory is all about. However, it is enough to give you a general idea.

Formalist Criticism:

This approach regards literature as a unique form of human

knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms. All the elements necessary for
understanding the work are contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to
the formalist critic are the elements of formstyle, structure, tone, imagerythat are found
within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics is to determine how such elements work
together with the texts content to shape its effects upon readers.

Biographical Criticism:

This approach begins with the simple but central

insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an authors life can
help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work. Hence, it often affords a practical
method by which readers can better understand a text. However, a biographical critic must
be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writers life too far in criticizing the works of
that writer; the biographical critic focuses on explicating the literary work by using the
insight provided by knowledge of the authors life. Biographical data should amplify the
meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.

Historical Criticism:

This approach seeks to understand a literary work by

investigating the social, cultural and intellectual context that produced a context that
necessarily includes the artists biography and milieu. A key goal for historical critics is
to understand the effect of a literary work upon its original readers.

Feminist Criticism:

A feminist critic sees cultural and economic disabilities in a

patriarchal society that have hindered or prevented women from realizing their creative
possibilities and womens cultural identification as a merely negative object, or Other, to
man as the defining and dominating Subject. There are several assumptions and concepts
held in common by most feminist critics:
1. Our civilization is pervasively patriarchal.
2. The concepts of gender are largely, if not entirely, cultural constructs, effected by
the omnipresent patriarchal biases of our civilization.

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3. This patriarchal ideology also pervades those writings that have been considered
great literature. Such works lack autonomous female role models, are implicitly
addressed to male readers, and leave the woman reader an alien outsider or else
solicit her to identify against herself by assuming male values and ways of
perceiving, feeling and acting.
This is somewhat like Marxist criticism (more on that in a minute), but instead of focusing on
the relationships between the classes it focuses on the relationships between the genders.
Under this theory you would examine the patters of thoughts, behavior, values,
enfranchisement, and power in relations between the sexes.

Marxist Criticism:

A Marxist critic grounds theory and practice on the economic

and cultural theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, especially on the following claims:
1. The evolving history of humanity, its institutions and its ways of thinking are
determined by the changing mode of its material productionthat is, of its
basic economic organization.
2. Historical changes in the fundamental mode of production effect essential
changes both in the constitution and power relations of social classes, which carry
on a conflict for economics, political and social advantage.
3. Human consciousness in any era is constituted by an ideologythat is, a set of
concepts, beliefs, values and ways of thinking and feeling through which human
beings perceive, and by which they explain, what they take to be reality. A
Marxist critic typically undertakes to explain the literature in any era by
revealing the economic, class and ideological determinants of the way an author
writes, and to examine the relation of the text to the social reality of that time
and place.
This school of critical theory focuses on power and money in works of literature; Marxist
criticism often argues that all art is political, either challenging or endorsing (by
silence) the status quo. It is frequently evaluative and judgmental. Who has the
power/money? Who does not? What happens as a result?

Psychological/Psychoanalytic Criticism:

Psychological criticism
deals with a work of literature primarily as an expression, in fictional form, of the personality,
state of mind, feelings and desires of its author. The assumption of psychoanalytic critics
is that a work of literature is correlated with its authors mental traits.
1. Reference to the authors personality is used to explain and interpret a literary
2. Reference to literary works is made in order to establish, biographically, the
personality of the author.
3. The mode of reading a literary work itself is a way of experiencing the distinctive
subjectivity or consciousness of its author.
This theory requires that we investigate the psychology of a character or an author to figure
out the meaning of a text (although to apply an authors psychology to a text can also be
considered biographical criticism, depending on your point of view).
Fundamental figures in this type of criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic
theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like

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wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression as well as expanding our
understanding of how language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to
reflect unconscious fears or desires.
Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually employs one
(or more) of the following approaches:
1. An investigation of the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary
genius and how does it relate to normal mental functions?
2. The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an authors
biographical circumstances affect or influence their motivations and/or behavior.
3. The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of

Sociological Criticism:

This approach examines literature in the cultural,

economic and political context in which it is written or received, exploring the
relationships between the artist and society. Sometimes it examines the artists society to
better understand the authors works; other times, it may examine the representation of
such societal elements within the literature itself. (Marxist criticism fits under the umbrella
of sociological criticism.)

Reader-Response Criticism:

This approach takes as a fundamental tenant

that literature exists not as an artifact upon a printed page but as a transaction between the
physical text and the mind of a reader. It attempts to describe what happens in the readers
mind while interpreting a text and reflects that reading, like writing, is a creative process.
According to reader-response critics, literary texts do not contain a meaning; meanings
derive only from the act of individual readings. Hence, two different readers may derive
completely different interpretations of the same literary text; likewise, a reader who re-reads
a work years later may find the work shockingly different.
Reader-response criticism, then, emphasizes how religious, cultural and social values affect
readings; it also overlaps with gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the
same text with different assumptions.
This is the school of thought to which most students seem to adhere. Proponents
believe that literature has no objective meaning or existence. People bring their own
thoughts, moods and experiences to whatever text they are reading and get out of it
whatever they happen to, based on their own expectations and ideas.


Deconstruction is, by far, the most difficult critical theory for

people to understand. It was developed by some very smart (or very unstable) people who
declare that literature means nothing because language means nothing. In other words, we
cannot say that we know what the meaning of a story is because there is no way of

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Information contained in this packet is adapted from English 205: Masterworks of

English Literature and Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses

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Your Job:

Apply TWO of the lenses to each of the short stories that we will be reading.
I will choose one lens for each story. You will choose the second. Your highlighting and
annotating should reflect your thinking THRU BOTH LENSES. You may need to read each
story twiceonce for the lens I have chosen and once through the lens you have chosen.

Yellow Wallpaper


A Rose for Emily

The Lottery

Where Are You Going?

The Lone Ranger







Hills Like White

Story of an Hour




Use the chart below to keep track of the lenses used for each text. I have placed in X in the
column of the lens I have chosen. I have highlighted the boxes of some of the lenses that I
think are appropriate, although you ARE NOT constrained by my suggestions. Try to use
each lens at least once; you should not choose only one lens to use throughout
the entire unit!