What Are the Theories of Literary Criticism?

Literary theory has ancient roots. Plato and Aristotle were both interested in the techniques for interpreting a literary text. The roots of the modern idea of literary theory date back to the late 19th century. The original motivation was to develop a method for interpreting scriptural texts that were rapidly loosing their authority in the new scientific age. This new method was labeled "hermeneutics" which literally means a theory of interpretation. The hermeneutic method was eventually applied to other texts: legal documents, historical documents and literature. Literary theory from the 20th century developed along a number of different paths.

  1. Traditional Theory and the New Criticism

    • The New Criticism emerged in American universities in the 1930s and '40s. Yale University was one of the hotbeds of the New Criticism. The point of departure of New Criticism was its rejection of traditional literary theory as well as the desire to make literary theory scientific. Traditional literary theory had been the dominate trend for several hundred years. The traditional method for textual interpretation emphasized extra-textural elements such as the author's biography and psychology, historical circumstances and so forth. New Criticism, on the other hand, treats a text as a closed object that is independent of historical context. The text is treated as a self-referential, autonomous object. A close and detailed reading of the text, and the literary devices used in the text, unfolds the meaning of the text. Some of the important New Criticism theorists include T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks.

    Marxism and Critical Theory

    • Marxist-inspired literary theory adopted a different approach than the New Criticism. The literary text is a cultural product, and as such, it is wrapped up in the relationship between economic and cultural production. The early 20th century Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukacs represented a turning point in Marxist literary criticism. His "Theory of the Novel" and "History and Class Consciousness" laid the foundation for 20th century Marxist literary criticism. He was a major influence on the critical theory of Frankfurt School theorists Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. His influence also extends to contemporary Marxists theorists such as Raymond Williams, Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagelton.There are important differences between all of these thinkers but they share the idea that the form and content of a literary text is a cultural product that mirrors the social, political and economic environment which produced it. Literary criticism is a process of decoding truths about society that are hidden in the text. A variation of Marxist literary criticism was the "Realism" approach forced upon authors in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and '30s.

    Russian Formalism and the Prague Lingustic Circle

    • Formalism was a movement in linguistics and literary theory that began in the Soviet Union in the 1920s but the movement was suppressed by the authorities. The major theorists of the movement relocated to Prague and the Prague Linguistic Circle developed the major themes and tenets of Formalism. The two major theorists were Roman Jacobson and Jan Mularovsky. Formalism distinguishes between two types of language, ordinary language and poetic language. Literature is an example of poetic language. The primary function of ordinary language is communication and information. Poetical language, on the other hand, is self-referential. The formalists were interested in the internal relationships between linguistic signs.

    Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

    • Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were two of the dominant intellectual trends of the 20th century. Their scope extended beyond literary theory to include all the social sciences as well as philosophy. The common core between literature, social science and philosophy is language. The major figures who laid the foundation for structuralism were the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Meaning, in a linguistic text or the kinship relationship of a particular culture, is constructed by the a binary structure which is linguistic in nature. Saussure's theory of signs, or semiotics, shows the linguistic structure is divided into the relationship between the signifier and the signified. Post-Structuralism, also referred to as Deconstruction, developed as reaction to Structuralism. Post-Structuralists accept many of the same tenets but the perform Marxist-like critique of the Signifier/Signified relationship. Jacques Derrida is the most well-known proponent of this tradition. Derrida's main point is that the Signifier/ Signified relationship is always one of domination and power. Literary theorists adopt this approach to analyze and expose hidden meaning and presuppositions in literature and literary texts. Deconstruction is a major influence on Feminist and Post-Colonial literary theory.

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