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Western Literary Theory in 500 Words

Don’t let your eyes glaze over! These bullets distill the complex types of literary criticism. Not only have you likely already heard of some, you’ll probably even see yourself in one or more theories!

A pair of glasses show star text in a book where it is blurry outside the lenses.

~360 B.C.: Plato said poetry, aka fiction/drama, is not worth studying since it doesn’t provide moral teachings. Aristotle’s rebuttal was that the ugly emotions of fiction/drama were cathartic for viewers, making it valuable to citizens.

1910s: Freud, inventor of the talking cure, placed emphasis on all the unconscious meanings behind words. What might an author have felt/experienced to write such a piece? He believed these hidden meanings stem for repressed childhood experiences. See also: Carl Jung. 1920s: Structuralism—so complicated—is what people often think of when they think of literary theory. It is the infamous sign (of something) = signifier (ex: a word, a gesture, a red traffic light) + signified (what it means). See: Ferdinand de Saussure. 1920s: Marxism, based on Karl Marx’s nineteenth-century works, examines social and economic class divides, specifically how lower classes are suppressed in literature and how that reinforces the class divide. Revolution by the lower classes to establish an egalitarian society is always on the horizon, but this inevitably begins the cycle again. See also: Friedrich Engels. 1930s: Next up is formalism which, surprise, examines solely the form of a text, no outside historical, biographical, etc. context. 1950s: Feminist critics look at how patriarchal writings supressed women and reinforce gender expectations. Considered as having three waves: think Mary Wollstonecraft (late 1700s), then Simone de Beauvoir (1950-1970), followed by Naomi Wolf (1990s). 1960s: Reader-response finally brings in the reader into the process as conducting the analysis and having a conversation with the work. Readers must defend their personal reading of a text. Does a text exist if it isn’t being read? 1960s: Eco-criticism looks at the natural and manmade world and how, in literature, we depict interacting with it. Dealing in particular with environmental/natural crises. 1966: Post-structuralism doesn’t trust language (the text) to convey truth, we can’t trust what the sign signifies, so we’re thrust into an unstable experience. Roland Barthes declared the Author dead so the reader must step in and attempt to interpret. See also: Jacques Derrida. 1970s: Gender studies and queer theory stems from feminist theory. How are gender and sexuality represented in literature and how might they be challenged? These critics are looking at the “in-between” of male/female binaries. See: Judith Butler. 1970s: Critical race theory examines the history and impact of legal and social systems that are inherently racist. Stemming from legal theory, literary texts often comment on racial injustice. See: Derrick Bell. 1980s: New historicism is all about the flashback. Works are produced in a historical moment about that moment. As readers of our own time we can only interpret what a work represents historically. See: Michel Foucault. 1990s: Post-colonial theory examines the impact of European colonialization, juxtaposing literature by imperial powers and those who were colonized. See: Edward Said. 1990s: Disability studies examine how people with disabilities are represented in literature and how that has changed over time. Often has ties to feminist, Marxist, queer, and race criticism, disability studies aim to challenge the term “disability.”

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