46 Understanding Literary Theory

Dr. Karen Palmer

The next step in your writing journey is to choose a literary lens, also known as a critical lens or critical theory, through which to view your story.

Literary studies have been around long enough that like-minded readers and scholars have gravitated toward basic common positions as they engage in dialogue with each other. As a result, there are a number of widely-recognized critical approaches to literature, from formalists (who focus on how an author employs strategies and devices for a particular effect) to psychoanalytical critics (who explore texts to better understand humans’ psychological structure and their typical responses to particular experiences). As you consider a poem or story, you might choose one of these approaches, called literary theories, as the general lens through which to examine that work.

Imagine putting on a pair of 3D glasses in a movie theater—suddenly things start popping out at you. Though the film hasn’t changed, the way you see it has. Think of applying a literary theory to a text as putting on a pair of 3D glasses that help certain themes to pop out at you and amplify the meaning of the story.

Though there are many different literary theories, we will look at just six: Formalist or New Criticism, Marxist Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Psychological Criticism, New Historical Criticism, and Environmental/Eco Criticism.

Formalist Criticism

Also known as New Criticism, aesthetic criticism, or textual criticism, this theory first emerged in the 1920s at Vanderbilt University as a response to the emphasis placed on using biographical and historical context when analyzing literature at that time.  It was largely influenced by TS Eliot, who emphasized the high place of art as art, the emotion expressed in art, and the form, close reading, and appreciation of order within a text.

This approach considers a literary work as an entity separate from its author and its historical context. The formalist explores a work as a mechanic would explore an engine. The mechanic would assume that the engine’s parts and function can be studied without any understanding of the maker’s life and/or the history of the period in which the engine exists. Similarly, to assess a poem’s impact and understand its meaning, a scholar might “take it apart,” considering its separate elements—the form, line length, rhythm, rhyme scheme, figurative language, and diction—and how those pieces make up the effect of and shape the meaning of the whole. The purpose of this type of criticism is to investigate every detail for connection to the whole–how do all the parts affect each other and fit together?

A formalist criticism will focus on form, diction, and unity in the work of literature.

Form grows out of the work’s recurrences, repetitions, relationships, and motifs.  According to formalism, what a work means depends on how it is said.  Look at how events of plot are recounted, the effect of the story’s point of view, foreshadowing, and progressions in nature that suggest meaning.

Diction looks closely at the word choices the author makes.  Pay attention to denotation vs connotation. Denotation is simply what a word means, while connotation conveys a certain feeling about the word. For example, thin and skinny are both words that imply a slim figure. However, skinny often has a negative connotation. Another thing to look for is the etymology or history of a word. Pay attention to allusions to other words and symbols. Sometimes, a character’s diction will tell readers something important about the person.

Unity refers to how all the aspects of a work fit together in significant ways that create a whole.  Pay attention to imagery, irony, and paradox.

The point is to look at how the various elements of the text work together to create a theme.

A sample thesis:

In “Everyday Use,” the author unveils how family dynamics can influence decisions through point of view, diction, and imagery.


Marxist Criticism

Karl Marx was a 19th century German philosopher who believed that inequitable economic relationships were the source of class conflict.  Marxism was meant to be a set of social, economic, and political ideas that would change the world.

The main principle of Marxist criticism is that, to explain any context, you have to look at both material (economic) and historical situations.  It is based on the idea that the bourgeoisie (wealthy) and the proletariat (working class) are involved in a constant class struggle. The main goal is to explain a text by looking at the ways economics influences the characters.

It is important to note that Marxist criticism is not a promotion of socialist government, but rather a close study of how invisible economic forces underpin, and often undermine, authentic human relationships.

Some things to think about:

    • Commodification–Explains how things are valued for power to impress or resale value rather than for their usefulness.
    • Materialism vs spirituality: The belief that the material world is reality and that, if you look at the relationship among socio-economic classes, you will find insight into society.
    • Class conflict:  The idea that the bourgeoisie controls the proletariat by determining what is of value in society.
    • Art, literature, and ideas point out injustice of society.

A sample thesis:

By looking at the short story, “A&P” by John Updike, through a Marxist lens, the coming-of-age story of a young man working at a supermarket north of Boston transforms into a tale about repression, class conflict, and consumerism in a capitalistic society.


Feminist Criticism

Feminism is based on the assumption that culture is fundamentally patriarchal and that there is an imbalance of power that marginalizes women and their work.  Feminist theory began to be applied to literature in the 60s.  The goal is to find misogyny (negative attitudes about women) in the text.

It’s important to note that there are many kinds of feminism, but there are similarities among them.  For example, though we often think of Christianity as one religion, there are over 30,000 different denominations. They are all different, but have the same roots. Likewise, though all feminisms are rooted in the idea that women deserve to be treated equally to men, there are many different types of feminism.

Feminists look for ways to define the female experience, expose patriarchy, and save women from being the “other.” Using this approach, one examines a literary work for insight into why and how women are subjected to oppression and, sometimes, how they subvert the forces that oppress them.

Expanding on feminist criticism, gender studies explore literature for increased understanding of socially defined gender identity and behavior and its impact on the individual and on society. It includes study of sexual orientation and how non-heterosexual identities are treated by mainstream ideology, a dynamic sometimes reflected in, sometimes critiqued by, literary works.

Things to think about:

1)  Studies of difference–assume gender determines everything.  How are men and women depicted differently?

2) Power:  views of labor and economics, ie  who holds the power in the text?

3) What roles do women play?

A Sample Thesis:

“The Day it Happened” reveals a new perspective by showing women as being powerful and men being quite pathetic in unmistakable and also subtle ways.


Psychological Criticism

Psychological criticism attempts to explain growth, development, and the structure of human personality as demonstrated in a text. Based on the theories of Freud and others, this approach examines a text for signs and symbols of the subconscious processes, both of the characters and of humans in general.


There are two basic types of psychological criticism based on the work of Freud and Jung.


The focus of this type of criticism is the idea that the unconscious plays a major role in what we do, feel, and say.  Based on Freud’s Tripartite Psyche, characters are analyzed based on their subconscious, namely the id, ego, and superego, in an attempt to discover why they make the decisions they do.

  • Id: psychic energy, hunger for pleasure.  Lawless, asocial, amoral.  No thought to consequences, morality, ethics, etc.
  • Ego: Reality–changes desires by postponing action or diverting it into a socially acceptable form.
  • Superego: Sense of guilt/conscience.

Jungian or Archetypal

This approach focuses on common figures and story-lines that reveal patterns in human behavior and psychology.  Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, key figures in the development of this approach, found that in the many stories they collected from cultures all over the world, these figures and story lines emerged over and over again. Their conclusion was that these figures and story lines are etched into the human psyche (or subconscious), and as we recreate them in our stories, our audiences recognize them as symbolic of their own experience. Jung believed that we all have a personal consciousness, a personal unconsciousness, and a collective unconsciousness , which enables us to identify with universal symbols he calls archetypes.

Common Archetypes

Well-known archetypal characters are the hero, the outcast, the scapegoat, the Earth mother, the temptress, the mother, the mentor, and the devil figure.

Some common archetypal story lines are the journey, the quest, the fall, initiation, and death and rebirth.

Common image archetypes include Colors (red= passion, green=life, blue = holiness, light vs dark); Numbers (3=religion, 4=seasons, elements, 7=whole/complete); Water (creation, birth, flowing water=passage of time); Gardens (paradise/innocence); Circles (wholeness/union); Sun (passage of time)

Sample Thesis Statement:

In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner uses archetypes, foreshadowing, timeline disruption, and unknowing to portray the danger of loneliness, and the lengths humans will go to feel a connection.

New Historical Criticism

The New Historical approach seeks to illuminate a text’s original meaning by uncovering details of the text’s historical context.

Modifying the historical approach, the new historicist assumes that material factors interact with each other. While this approach seeks to understand a text through its cultural context, it also attempts to discover through the literary work insight into intellectual history. For example, a new historicist might consider Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as a product shaped not only by Douglass’s experience as a U.S. slave, but also by Douglass’s challenge of finding a publisher (most of whom were white), and by his primarily Christian readership. These factors, according to the new historicist, would interact to shape the text and its meanings.

New Historical critics are concerned with social and cultural forces that create or threaten a community.  To them, culture  is the beliefs, institutions, arts, and behaviors of a particular people in time. They believe that history is subjectively set down–it’s colored by the cultural context of the recorder.  There is no single true history/worldview.  The main point is to look at how the text reveals and comments on the different voices of the culture it depicts.

Ideas to consider in a text:

1)  What were the formative experiences, significant people, texts, religious influences, political stance, and social class in the author’s life?

2)  What were the major events, controversies, people of the time?  Who represented the power bases?  Who opposed power and influence?

3)  What voices do you meet in the text?  Which ones are powerful?  What are the social rules observed?  Is the text critical/supportive of them?  What does the text imply about the culture it depicts?

Sample Thesis:

In the short story “Marriage is A Private Affair,” by Chinua Achebe, the author’s own experiences, historical time period, and culture illuminate the struggles of the main character.


Environmental/Eco Criticism

Ecocriticism investigates what a text says about nature or the environment. It is particularly effective for looking at texts with a man vs nature type of conflict, but, like any of the literary theories, can be applied to any text. Because ecocriticism is relatively new and still developing, it is often referred to by different names, including American Studies, regionalism, and pastoralism.

An ecocritic might look at the perception of wilderness in a text or the way nature is portrayed.  They might also look at the differences in the ways humans and/or animals are portrayed in a text. They might question anthropocentrism (the idea that humans are central and nature exists to serve us).

In this video, Patrick Howard explains Ecocriticism:

Step 4: Choose a Literary Lens

Decide which critical literary lens you’d like to use to look more deeply at the story you chose. Briefly explain which lens you’ve chosen and what you think putting on that lens reveals to the reader. It might help to fill out the Elements of Fiction worksheet through the lens you’ve chosen. Ask yourself, “What pops out about the title if I use this lens? What pops out about the characters if I use this lens?”



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