Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

Literary Critical Theory

What are my first questions for this course?

Critical theory articulates what we bring to literature, which presumably determines what we get out of it. This is not a chaos of subjectivity. Instead, critical theory tries to examine what types of questions we should pose about literary works.

What does "common sense" say about this? That literature is about life, or is a reflection of life written from personal experience? That we study literature in order to "appreciate" something:

These indeed were the standard and unarticulated assumptions about literature traditionally.


Until well into the 20th century, much of literary study was based on the assumption that to understand a work you need to understand the author's social background, the author's life, ideas circulating during the time the author was writing, what other works influenced the creation of the one under examination, and so on. Most book introductions still offer this kind of material. Valuable literature, therefore, is that which tells us truths about the period which produced them. We are getting, according to this approach, a vision of human nature or the world in general as filtered through an author's individual insight and perceptions.

One problem with this assumption is that it requires a crash course in matters falling outside the work itself. The reader presumably must rely on an expert's special knowledge before being able to "appreciate" the work, and this makes the study of literature rather elitist. Literature seen this way seems dismissed almost, or at least presented as simply a way of arriving at something anterior to itself: the convictions of the author or that author's experience as part of a specific society. And so why not just study history?


When the Aristotelian concept that art is an imitation of reality fused with the Romantic conviction that poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, the "expressive realist" notion took hold, insisting that truly authentic and valuable works are those expressing the perceptions and emotions of a person of sensibility. Thus we gush about how well an author captured the whale-killing experience or conveyed his or her vision of love during the Civil War. But critic Northrup Frye objects to this attitude:

The absurd quantum formula of criticism, the assertion that the critic should confine himself to 'getting out' of a poem exactly what the poet may vaguely be assumed to have been aware of 'putting in', is one of the many slovenly illiteracies that the absence of systematic criticism has allowed to grow up. This quantum theory is the literary form of what may be called the fallacy of premature teleology. It corresponds, in the natural sciences, to the assertion that a phenomenon is as it is because Providence in its inscrutable wisdom made it so. That is, the critic is assumed to have no conceptual framework: it is simply his job to take a poem into which a poet has diligently stuffed a specific number of beauties or effects, and complacently extract them one by one, like his prototype Little Jack Horner. (qtd. in Belsey 27)

Both of the above approaches have fallen under attack in recent decades by scholars objecting to the inherent elitism of the approaches, or the notion of the reader being in the position of passive consumer of literature, or in some cases how these approaches make literary criticism parasitic on literature.

Before we involve ourselves with their approaches, here are some terms designed to codify the most general tendencies in literary criticism.


proposes a theory of literature and general principles as to how to approach it; criteria for evaluation emerge.


discusses particular works and authors; the theoretical principles are implicit within the analysis or interpretation.


"appreciates" the responses evoked by works of literaturewith oohs and ahhs regarding "the soul" and declarations of "masterpieces."


attempts to analyze and explain those effects through the basic forms of "dissection": subject, style, organization, techniques.


seeks to evaluate literature as an imitation or representation of life.


decides how well a work achieves its aims due to the author's strategies.


gushes about how well an author expressed or conveyed him or herself, his or her visions and feelings.


aims to establish an accurate uncorrupted original text identical with what the author intended. This may involve collating manuscripts and printed versions, deciding on the validity of rediscovered versions or chapters, deciphering damaged manuscripts and illegible handwriting, etc. One medieval problem, for example, is that of minims: ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ ƒ = minimum.

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Methuen, 1980.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman, 1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature