You are on page 1of 7

12 THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE

S.Schaffer

What follows are some theoretical approaches to literature; students should examine each of these theoretical models closely in relation to the text(s) studied to investigate the different perspectives afforded by each of these literary theories. FORMALISM / RUSSIAN FORMALISM Formalism was the dominant mode of academic literary study in the US from the end of the Second World War through the !"#s. Formalism refers to critical approaches that analy$e% interpret% or evaluate the inherent features of a text% such as grammar% syntax% as well as various literary devices Formalism focuses on and classifies aspects of genre% examining how different formal characteristics act in the text to create meaning. &he formalist approach reduces the importance of a text's historical% biographical% and cultural context. Formalism rose to prominence in the early twentieth century as a reaction against (omanticist theories of literature% which centered on the artist and individual's )natural* creative genius% rather concentrating on how the text was indebted to forms and other wor+s that preceded it. , prominent school of formalist literary criticism which developed was (ussian Formalism; this was an influential school of literary criticism in (ussia from the ! #s to the !-#s. .t includes the wor+ of a number of highly influential (ussian and Soviet scholars% such as /i+tor Sh+lovs+y. (ussian Formalism emphasi$es 0defamiliari$ation%0 a concept which underlines the ways in which literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary% communicative language% and is also a feature of how art in general wor+s1 by presenting familiar images and ideas in a strange% new way that allows us to see things differently. For (ussian Formalists% form is what ma+es something art to begin with% so in order to understand a wor+ of art as a wor+ of art% one must necessarily focus on its form; it is a more 0scientific0 method for studying literary and poetic language% to the exclusion of psychological and cultural2 historical approaches. 3uestions that (ussian Formalists as+1 .n what ways does literature have its own history% a history of innovation in formal structures% one not determined by external history4 Since what a wor+ of literature says cannot be separated from how the literary wor+ says it% how are the form and structure of a text an integral part of its content4 5ow is literature autonomous from external conditions in the sense that literary language is distinct from other ordinary uses of language% since it is entirely communicative4 FEMINIST CRITICISM Feminist &heory argues that society and its institutions are patriarchal6that is% ruled by men6and that because women have traditionally been marginali$ed (disregarded or cast

aside) by men% they have been denied a voice in history. Sometimes the ways in which women have been marginali$ed in Western culture are rather obvious; for instance% we +now that only relatively recently have women begun to en7oy the same privileges as men with respect to such things as the right to vote% the right to her own property% the right to formal education% and the right to earn e8ual pay for e8ual wor+. Sometimes% however% women have been% and are% discriminated against in far more subtle ways; for instance% in hiring policies and practices of various businesses% in men's9society's assumptions about a woman's place being in the home% and in how the female image has been depicted9ob7ectified in everything from (enaissance art to contemporary advertising. Feminist critics loo+ closely% then% at how patriarchal institutions operate in order to understand their mechanisms and how these can be challenged and undermined. 3uestions that feminist literary critics as+1 5ow are female characters portrayed in a particular wor+ of literature4 What assumptions does the author ma+e about his or her female characters4 :oes the author accept or challenge stereotypes that are traditionally associated with women4 :oes the narrator accept or challenge stereotypes that are traditionally associated with women4 5ow is the wor+ in 8uestion a product of the time and culture in which it was written% and how is it either radical or subversive4

POSTCOLONIAL CRITICISM ;ostcolonial theory loo+s at the effects of coloni$ation on a country's people% social and political institutions% and literature. ;ostcolonial literary criticism explores attitudes towards coloni$ation that are expressed both in the literature of the coloni$ing country and in the literature of the coloni$ed. .t also loo+s closely at what happens when countries are no longer coloni$ed6when they are )postcolonial*6in an effort to explore the lingering effects of exploitation% racism% and the confused identity of a previously coloni$ed and marginali$ed people in a postcolonial context. <ust as feminist theory loo+s at the attitudes and assumptions that men and women have of one another% postcolonial theory loo+s at attitudes and assumptions that coloni$ers and those coloni$ed have of one another. 3uestions that postcolonial literary critics as+1 5ow are coloni$ers and )the coloni$ed* portrayed in a particular wor+ of literature4 What assumptions does the author ma+e about these two groups4 What associations does the author ma+e with the coloni$ers4 ,re they seen as )wise%* )beneficent%* and )civili$ed%* or as )deceitful%* )heartless* and )exploitive4*

What associations does the author ma+e with those coloni$ed4 ,re they seen as )ignorant%* )malevolent%* and )savage%* or as )victimi$ed* and )exploited4* .s the text expressing a colonial or anti2colonial perspective4

GAME THEORY =ame theory is a branch of contemporary criticism that explores how games pervade various social and cultural institutions% including literary texts and their production. , game2theoretical approach to literature explores the complex roles games play in wor+s of fiction% and loo+s at either actual games which ta+e place in a particular text% the various psychological )games* that are played between two or more characters% or the textual games that are played between the author and the reader. 3uestions that game2theoretical literary critics as+1 Who controls the game in a wor+ of literature4 Who are the players and who is being )played4* :oes comparing things in a wor+ of literature to games help us to understand these things better4 5ow do women% minorities% and other marginali$ed groups fair as players in wor+s of literature4 5ow do writers understand the distinctions among the concepts of )play%* )game%* and )sport4*

READER RESPONSE CRITICISM .n (eader2(esponse >riticism% a wor+ of literature is not considered to have an inherent meaning in itself. .nstead% the meaning is seen as a product of each individual's reading and interpretation of the wor+% so that no one reading negates or invalidates another. (eader (esponse critics argue that the wor+ is not fully created until the reader enters into a dynamic transaction with the text% processes what he or she reads% and comes to understand it in light of his or her own experiences. ?ecause this +ind of criticism is more open and sub7ective% it allows readers to respond very personally to wor+s of literature% but also to change and modify their responses as they develop their s+ills as readers. 3uestions that reader2response literary critics as+1 What does a particular wor+ of literature mean to the reader% in his or her present condition4 What aspects of the reader's life help him or her to understand the wor+ of literature in 8uestion4 5ow can the wor+ of literature widen the reader's understanding and insights4 What are the various possible meanings and interpretations of a text% considering what a reader brings to its reading4

DECONSTRUCTION :econstruction was developed by French critic <ac8ues :errida (b. !-#22) in the !@#s. When it is used to interpret a text% it produces readings that emphasi$e the ambiguities and contradictions found in the wor+. :errida argues that the history of Western thought is based on the idea that there are central truths which are +nowable and complete% and this% he says% is incorrect. ?ecause words mean different things in different contexts% they do not remain constant and produce a definite or absolute meaning. &hus% literary texts are )always already* ambiguous because their meaning% which derives from language% is constantly deferred. &hus% a deconstructionist attac+s or )deconstructs* either the assumptions of a wor+ of literature or what another critic has claimed is the )correct* reading of that wor+. (&his theory often focuses on binary oppositions as part of the method of deconstruction.) 3uestions that deconstructionist literary critics as+1 What assumptions does a wor+ of literature and9or its author ma+e4 ,re these assumptions based on the fact that the text and9or the author has made a clear distinction between two things (i.e. men and women% good and evil% blac+ and white% etc)4 >an it be shown that to ma+e such a distinction is inherently unstable because the two things necessarily depend on one another for their meaning4 >an it be shown that some part of a wor+ of literature can be interpreted in so many contradictory ways that the whole idea of saying it means something becomes problematic4

MARXIST/ECONOMIC DETERMINIST CRITICISM Founded by Aarl Barx ( C C2 CC-) in the nineteenth century% Barxism argues that the primary influence on our lives is money% and that society is essentially a struggle between those who have 8uite a bit of money (the bourgeoisie or middle class) and those who have very little (the proletariat or wor+ing class). Barxist literature% then% emphasi$es the plight of the wor+ing classes and their struggle to overcome the capitalist forces that are wor+ing to control and sub7ugate them. :espite the fact that Barxism has been wea+ened by the collapse of the Soviet Union% economic determinism is still an important idea% and so the Barxist 9 economic determinist critic see+s to examine how wor+s of literature can be 7udged both from an economic perspective and from the perspective of class struggle. 3uestions that Barxist 9 economic determinist literary critics as+1 What is the economic status of a particular literary character and what is his or her social class4

5ow does the character's economic status and 9 or social class affect what happens to him or her4 What sorts of obstacles do characters face as a result of their position and how are they defeated by% or manage to overcome% these obstacles4 :oes the wor+ of literature in 8uestion ignore the social class or economic position of its characters% and what effect does this have on how the text is presented4

ARCHETYPAL CRITICISM ,rchetypal criticism derives from the wor+ of psychoanalyst >arl <ung ( C"D2 !@ )% and argues that our existence (our psychic existence% including thought patterns% dreams and the arts) is built out of patterns or archetypes. &hese recurring patterns6such as the fall of the hero% the search for 7ustice% or the lover who goes mad when he is re7ected6can be found in many wor+s of literature across different time periods and cultures. &hus% the archetypal critic loo+s at wor+s of literature that are variations on the same theme6that have the same patterns6in an effort to see both what similarities and differences can be found and what constitutes their various significances. 3uestions that archetypal literary critics as+1 What archetypal patterns can be found in a particular wor+ of literature4 What truths can be found by comparing a pattern in a text with other wor+s sharing this pattern4 What variations on a common archetype are found in a text4 .s there an inversion of the pattern4 :o similar patterns appear in multiple wor+s by the same author4

NEW HISTORICISM Eew 5istoricism developed throughout the !C#s and !!#s% primarily through the wor+ of critic Stephen =reenblatt. Eew 5istoricists aim to understand texts through their historical contexts and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature. Eew 5istoricism considers how our actions are ultimately articulated in terms of power% so the Eew 5istoricist see+s to find examples of power% how they are dispersed within the text (and throughout the world)% and how power is the means by which the marginali$ed are controlled% and what the marginali$ed (or% other) see+ to gain. &his relates bac+ to the idea that because literature (historically) was written by those with the most power% Eew 5istoricists loo+ for 0sites of struggle0 to identify various groups or entities with the most power. Eew 5istoricism is claimed to be a more neutral approach to historical events% and is sensitive towards different cultures in its examination of the complex socio2political climates of the time; in this sense% then% literary texts are seen as being inseparable from the context(s) in which they are written.

3uestions that new historicist critics as+1 5ow is every expressive act (literature% language% art% etc.) embedded in a networ+ of social% political% economic% cultural and historical practices4 :oes every act of unmas+ing and criti8uing inevitably employ the very tools it condemns and therefore (in part) perpetuates the practice it exposes4 (For example% does any critical method and language ade8uate to describe culture under capitalism not inevitably participate in the economy they describe4) What is the continual% on2going exchange between literary and non2literary texts4 ,re there unchanging )truths* or inalterable aspects about human nature4 5ow is any artistic text an expression 9 product of the historical forces of its time4

STRUCTURALISM Structuralism is seen to have its start with the French linguist% Ferdinand de Saussere ( CD"2 ! -). Fi+e archetypal criticism% structuralism loo+s at common structures in literary wor+s and tries to understand the relationships between them. Bany wor+s that seem to have little or no connection to one another are often found to contain deep structural similarities. &heir protagonists may have similar approaches to the problems they face; they may be defeated by% or succeed in overcoming% similar obstacles; and ultimately% they may pass or fail the challenges that confront them in similar ways. Structuralism deals not only with narrative structures% but structures of any type% including those found in language. 3uestions that structuralist critics as+1 5ow do characters in wor+s of literature confront given situations4 ,re they active or passive4 What challenges confront these characters% how do they deal with them% and what are the conse8uences of their decisions4 What structures are formed as a result of all of this4 5ow are these structures similar to% or different than% structures found in other wor+s of literature4

PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM ;sychoanalytic literary criticism is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. ;sychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself% and has developed into a rich and varied interpretive tradition. .n this literary approach% psychoanalytic critics view texts as a sort of )dream%* meaning that the text represses its real (latent) content behind obvious (manifest) content. &he process% then% of changing from latent to manifest content is +nown as )dream wor+%* involving operations of concentration and displacement. ;sychoanalytic critics analy$e the language and symbolism of a text to reveal the process

of the dream wor+ and to arrive at the underlying latent thoughts. (&here are also other varied approaches to using psychoanalysis to analy$e texts; for example% one can psychoanaly$e a text as the wor+ of the author% with the latent content of the author's mind and biographical elements present in the text% or one can ta+e 5arold ?loom's approach of seeing the text as a product of the )anxiety of influence%* wherein influences the author wishes to emulate are li+e the mother% and influences the author wishes to re7ect and rebel against are li+e the father in the Gedipus >omplex.) 3uestions that psychoanalytic critics as+1 5ow do the symbols% actions% and settings in a literary wor+ illuminate the psyche of the characters and the author4 5ow does the analytic interpretation of the text reveal the therapeutic process of psychoanalysis itself4 .n what ways does the narrative or poetic structure of the text itself reveal how )the unconscious is structured li+e a language4*

QUEER THEORY 3ueer theory emerged in the early !!#s out of gay and lesbian studies and feminist studies. , +ind of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation% particularly in relation to human behaviour and social institutions) that is devoted to )8ueer* readings of texts% this theory is heavily influenced by the wor+ of Bichel Foucault. 3ueer theory builds upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is part of the )essential* self and upon gay9lesbian studiesH close examination of the socially2constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. Whereas gay9lesbian studies focuses on 0natural0 and 0unnatural0 behavior with respect to homosexual behavior% 8ueer theory expands its focus to encompass any +ind of sexual activity or identity that falls into the realm of the )perverted.* 3ueer theory is not merely about homosexual representations in literature; it explores the inherent complexities and ambiguities in categories of gender and sexual orientation. &he main focus of 8ueer theory is to subvert and challenge heterosexuality as inherently )natural.* 3uestions that 8ueer theorists as+1 5ow does the categori$ation of gender and sexuality limit and fix identities4 .s the basis of sexuality and gender )natural%* )essential* or socially constructed4 5ow do our identities change or resist change amid the power relations of )heteronormativity4* 5ow is our +nowledge of sexuality constructed through language and through particular social contexts throughout history4