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Literary Theories


Literary Theories The Basics of Criticism Apocalyptic imagery: veggie One Tree (of Life) Fruit and leaves on a tree = bread and wine (communion) Flowers (esp. flowers ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Literary Theories

Literary Theories
  • The Basics of Criticism

The Basic Idea
  • The point of criticism is to argue your point of
    view on a work of literature.
  • You dont have to criticize a text (but you
  • You do have to analyze a text and support your
    assertions with specific evidence from experts
    and the text.

The Basic Idea
  • A critical analysis is an in-depth examination of
    some aspect of the literary work
  • you may examine any element of the text
    character development, conflicts, narrative point
    of view, etc.
  • Even though its an examination of a literary
    work, its still a persuasive essay

The Basic Idea
  • The goal is to prove something about the work
  • There must be a point to the discussion.
  • You must answer the questions Why?, or So what?
  • For example, why is a recurring symbol important?
    Or, why is the development of the female
    characters significant?

The Basic Idea
  • There are many different approaches we can take
    to critical analysis
  • Literary theories provide a framework for our
    discussion of a text
  • We dont have to identify the theory were using,
  • We use it as a starting point for our own ideas
    and opinions

Historical/Biographical Approach
  • views literature as the reflection of an author's
    life and times (or of the characters' life and
  • it is necessary to know about the author and the
    political, economical, and sociological context
    of his times in order to truly understand his

Historical/Biographical Approach
  • Advantages
  • works well for some which are obviously political
    or biographical in nature.
  • places allusions in their proper classical,
    political, or biblical background.
  • Disadvantages
  • "the intentional fallacy" 
  • tends to reduce art to the level of biography and
    make it relative (to the times) rather than

  • What are some historical or biographical elements
    we might examine in a discussion of our current

Moral / Philosophical Approach
  • asserts that the larger purpose of literature is
    to teach morality and to probe philosophical
  • authors intend to instruct the audience in some

Moral / Philosophical Approach
  • Advantages
  • useful for works which do present an
    obvious moral philosophy
  • useful when considering the themes of works
  • does not view literature merely as "art" isolated
    from all moral implications
  • recognizes that literature can affect readers and
    that the message of a work is important.

Moral / Philosophical Approach
  • Disadvantages
  • such an approach can be too "judgmental" 
  • Some believe literature should be judged
    primarily (if not solely) on its artistic merits,
    not its moral or philosophical content.

  • What are some moral or philosophical elements we
    might examine in a discussion of our current

Formalism / New Criticism
  • involves a close reading of the text
  • all information essential to the interpretation
    of a work must be found within the work itself
  • focuses on analyzing irony, paradox, imagery, and
  • also interested in the work's setting,
    characters, symbols, and point of view.

Formalism / New Criticism
  • no need to bring in outside information about the
    history, politics, or society of the time, or
    about the author's life
  • does not view works through the lens of feminism,
    psychology, mythology, or any other such
  • not interested in the work's affect on the

Formalism / New Criticism
  • Terms Used in New Criticism
  • intentional fallacy - the false belief that the
    meaning or value of a work may be determined by
    the author's intention
  • affective fallacy - the false belief that the
    meaning or value of a work may be determined by
    its affect on the reader
  • external form - rhyme scheme, meter, stanza form,

Formalism / New Criticism
  • Advantages
  • can be performed without much research
  • emphasizes the value of literature apart from its
  • virtually all critical approaches must begin here
  • Disadvantages
  • text is seen in isolation
  • ignores the context of the work
  • cannot account for allusions

  • What are some formal elements we might examine in
    a discussion of our current novel?

Psychoanalytical Approach
  • views works through the lens of psychology
  • looks either at the psychological motivations of
    the characters or of the authors themselves
  • most frequently applies Freudian psychology to
    works, but other approaches also exist.

Freudian Approach to Personality
  • Three parts to an individuals psyche
  • the id the instinctual, pleasure seeking part of
    the mind
  • the superego the part of the mind that represses
    the id's impulses
  • the ego the part of the mind that controls but
    does not repress the id's impulses, releasing
    them in a healthy way

Sex is Everything
  • Freud believed that all human behavior is
    motivated by sexuality
  • Oedipus complex a boy's unconscious rivalry with
    his father for the love of his mother
  • Electra complex a girls unconscious rivalry
    with her mother for the love of her father
    (a.k.a. daddy issues)

Freudian Imagery
  • Recognizes symbols that are linked to sexual
  • concave images, such as ponds, flowers, cups, and
    caves as female symbols
  • phallic symbols, objects that are longer than
    they are wide, are male images
  • dancing, riding, and flying are associated with
    sexual pleasure
  • water is usually associated with birth, the
    female principle, the maternal, the womb, and the
    death wish.

Psychoanalytical Approach
  • Advantages
  • can be a useful tool for understanding character
    development and conflict
  • Disadvantages
  • can turn a work into a psychological case study
  • tends to see sex in everything, exaggerating this
    aspect of literature
  • some works do not lend themselves readily to this

  • What are some psychological or psychoanalytical
    elements we might examine in a discussion of our
    current novel?

Archetypal Approach
  • assumes that there is a collection of symbols,
    images, characters, and motifs (i.e. archetypes)
    that evokes basically the same response in all
  • identifies these patterns and discusses how they
    function in the works
  • asserts that these archetypes are the source of
    much of literature's power.

Archetypal Approach
  • based on the theories of psychologist Carl Jung
  • he states that mankind possesses a "collective
    unconscious" that contains these archetypes and
    that is common to all of humanity

Some Archetypes
  • archetypal women - the Good Wife/Mother, the
    Terrible Mother, the Virgin (often a Damsel in
    Distress), and the Fallen Woman.
  • water - creation, birth-death-resurrection,
    purification, redemption, fertility, growth
  • garden - paradise (Eden), innocence, fertility
  • desert - spiritual emptiness, death, hopelessness
  • red - blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder
  • green - growth, fertility
  • black - chaos, death, evil
  • serpent - evil, sensuality, mystery, wisdom,
  • seven - perfection
  • hero archetype -  The hero is involved in a
    quest (in which he overcomes obstacles). He
    experiences initiation (involving a separation,
    transformation, and return), and finally he
    serves as a scapegoat, that is, he dies to atone.

Archetypal Approach
  • Advantages
  • provides a universalistic approach to literature
    and identifies a reason why certain literature
    may survive the test of time
  • it works well with works that are highly symbolic
  • Disadvantages
  • literature may become a vehicle for archetypes
  • can easily become a list of symbols without much

  • What are some archetypal elements we might
    examine in a discussion of our current novel?

Feminist Approach
  • concerned with the roles of female characters
    within works
  • may argue that gender determines everything, or
    just the opposite that all gender differences
    are imposed by society, and gender determines

Stages of Female Identity
  • Feminine the female accepts the definitions and
    roles male authorities have created for her
  • Feminist rebels against male authority and
    intentionally challenges all male definitions and
  • Female no longer concerned with male definitions
    or restrictions defines her own voice and values

The Mad-Woman in the Attic
  • Critics Gilbert and Gubar identify a pattern in
    the treatment of female characters in literature,
    even when written by women.
  • based on the plot of Jane Eyre
  • the practice of removing a female character who
    is no longer useful to the male characters

  • What are some gender-based elements we might
    examine in a discussion of our current novel?

Marxist Approach
  • Karl Marx perceived human history to have
    consisted of a series of struggles between
    classes--between the oppressed and the oppressing
    (the haves and the have-nots).
  • Marx thought that materialism was the ultimate
    driving force in history

Marxist Approach
  • Feudalism exploits workers to the point of revolt
  • This leads to bourgeois capitalism
  • In bourgeois capitalism, the privileged
    bourgeoisie rely on the working proletariat
  • Workers are exploited to the point of revolt

Marxist Approach
  • The successful working class will then establish
    a communist society
  • In this ideal the labor, the means of production,
    and the profits are shared by all
  • This system is an attempt at complete social and
    economic equality
  • Its a great theory but doesnt work in reality

Marxist Approach
  • Marxist criticism examines the nature of power
    structures within a novel.
  • It asks questions like Who has power? Who lacks
    power? Who is exploited by whom and why? How does
    power remain constant or shift throughout a work
    of literature? What makes certain characters
    powerful or powerless?

Marxist Approach
  • It also examines commodities, possessions that
    give power
  • Typical commodities are things like land and
    money but can also be things like social
    position, knowledge, or even a person
  • Marxist criticism can also examine what
    commodities bring power and why within a work of

  • Who is in power within the novel?
  • What commodities does that character possess that
    allows him/her to have power?
  • How does power shift or remain static throughout
    the novel?

Reader Response Criticism
  • analyzes the reader's role in the production of
  • lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from
  • the text itself has no meaning until it is read
    by a reader
  • The reader creates the meaning.
  • can take into account the strategies employed by
    the author to elicit a certain response from
  • denies the possibility that works are universal
    (i.e. that they will always mean more or less the
    same thing to readers everywhere)
  • makes someone's reading a function of personal

Reader Response Criticism
  • Advantages
  • recognizes that different people view works
    differently and that people's interpretations
    change over time.
  • Disadvantages
  • tends to make interpretation too subjective
  • does not provide adequate criteria for evaluating
    one reading in comparison to another

  • What are your personal responses to this novel?
  • Are there certain elements you respond to
    strongly or with which you identify?

Structuralism and Semiotics
  • Deconstructionist BREAK down of language
  • Textscomposed of language, an unstable sign
    system that always defers meaning.
  • Truth is constructed, not given, so theres no
    such thing as A correct interpretation

Structuralism and Semiotics
  • Looks for an apparent meaning of some aspect of
    the text show how the text undermines
    (deconstructs) it look again show how the text
    undermines the latest interpretation, etc.
  • Looks for oppositions good vs. evil, e.g. Show
    how the text undermines first one, then the other
    so that good and evil are exposed as empty

  • What patterns exist within the text that make it
    a product of a larger culture?
  • What patterns exist within the text that connect
    it to the larger "human" experience?
  • How does language, dialogue, and discourse play a
    significant role in the work?

Dudes to know
  • Ferdinand deSaussure
  • Claude Levi-Strauss
  • Roland Barthes
  • Jacques Lacan
  • Michel Foucault
  • Northrop Frye

  • As a literary theory, developed in the 1950s and
    1960s, adopted from theories other areas such as
    sociology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, etc.
    All interrelated!
  • Reactionary criticism, attempts to place
    literature into a system and assign value
    judgments to works.

Principles of Structuralism
  • Meaning occurs through difference and SIGNS
    relationship to each other. Ex woman vs. lady
  • Much of our imaginative world is structured in
    binary sets (opposites) which assign structure
    and meaning to signs. Ex cruel vs. humane

Principles of Structuralism
  • Forms the basis of SEMIOTICS, the study of signs.
  • Sign union of SIGNIFIER and SIGNIFIED. Ex
    c-a-t, fuzzy critter that goes meow
  • CODES provide signs with context - cultural
    context, literary context, etc.

Principles of Structuralism
  • Emphasizes that humans create meaning.
    Structuralism, then, allows us to examine our
    relationships with literature, art, society, etc.
  • Our sense of self -- our consciousness -- exists
    in relation to outside collective influences. We
    are NOT self-contained!

Principles of Structuralism
  • Reality is conventional our perceptions of the
    world around us are bound up in conventions,
    codes, signs, etc. The social construction of
  • Structuralisms ultimate argument is this

  • There is a connection between our concept of
    reality, the self, society, consciousness, and
    unconsciousness. They are all connected to each
    other and are bound by the same laws, signs, and

When reading a text
  • Look for
  • Parallels in plot
  • Echoes in structure
  • Reflections/repetitions in character/motive
  • Contrasts in situation/circumstance
  • Patterns in language/imagery

Barthes five codes
  • Barthes identifies five codes which he says
    provide the underlying narrative structures for
    all literature.
  • When reading, attempt to place a work in the
    system of codes.

The codes are
  1. Proairetic - provides indications of actions
    reality. Ex The ship sailed at noon.
  2. Hermeneutic - poses questions or enigmas that
    provide narrative suspense and involve the
    reader. Ex if the narration indicates a knock
    on the door, the reader asks herself, Who is it?

Codes continued
  • 3. Cultural - contains references beyond the text
    which are considered common knowledge (allusions,
    metonymy). Ex if a character is described as
    driving a hybrid car, there are certain cultural
    assumptions attached to that character.

Codes continued
  • 4. Semic - linked to a theme on the character
    level, when a series of signs and ideas surround
    an individual.
  • 5. Symbolic - linked to theme on a larger level.
    Consists of contrasts and pairings related to the
    most basic binary polarities - man/woman,
    good/evil, lost/recovered, etc.

Fryes fictional modes
  • MYTH - the hero is superior in kind to other men
    and the environment of other men generally a
    story about a god
  • ROMANCE - the hero is superior in degree to other
    men ordinary laws of nature are suspended often
    has supernatural powers

Fictional modes continued
  • HIGH MIMETIC - superior to men, but not to the
    environment hero is a leader. (Often found in
    epic and tragedy.)
  • LOW MIMETIC - Jane Austens bread and butter.
    Everyday hero appeals to our common sense of
    humanity. Romantic comedies.

Fictional modes continued
  • IRONIC - hero is inferior to other men or his
    environment. Ben Stillers lifeline. Includes
  • Apply these modes to tragedies and comedies.
    Thus, you can have a high mimetic tragedy
    (Macbeth) or a low mimetic comedy (Pride

  • Definition a symbol, usually an image, which
    recurs often enough in literature to be
    recognizable as an element of ones literary
    experience as a whole (individually and

Apocalyptic vs. Demonic
  • Apocalyptic archetypes that reflect ultimate
    human desire (roughly equated with our sense of
  • Demonic archetypes that reflect everything that
    society rejects a total inversion of the
    apocalyptic (roughly equated with our sense of

Archetypal forms
  • Divine world society of gods
  • Human world society of men
  • Animal world domesticated flocks
  • Vegetable world garden
  • Mineral world cities, construction

Apocalyptic imagery divine
  • One God
  • All ultimate unity
  • Idealized world
  • Magic
  • Emphasis on heavenly bodies
  • Mythical AND analogical

Apocalyptic imagery human
  • One man
  • Christ (though he operates in a divine context as
  • 3 types of fulfillment individual, social, and
  • Philosopher-kings
  • Sexual symbolism - two bodies become one
  • Chaste people, like Sir Galahad

Apocalyptic imagery animal
  • One flock
  • King as shepherd
  • Birds (esp. doves)
  • Horses and hounds (romance)
  • Unicorn (emblem of virgins)
  • Ass

Apocalyptic imagery veggie
  • One Tree (of Life)
  • Fruit and leaves on a tree bread and wine
  • Flowers (esp. flowers)
  • Enchanted forests of Shakespeares comedies,
    Robin Hood, etc.

Apocalyptic imagery mineral
  • One Building, Temple, or Stone
  • City house of many mansions
  • Geometrical and architectural images
  • Stairways, ladders, even Rapunzels hair

Demonic imagery divine
  • Perversions of apocalyptic imagery are called
  • Vast, menacing powers of nature
  • Fate
  • Sense of human remoteness and futility

Demonic imagery human
  • Ego runs rampant
  • Perversion of the 3 areas of fulfillment in
    apocalyptic imagery
  • Loyalty to a tyrant diminishes the individual
  • Sacrificial victim, scapegoat
  • Mob violence blends the first 2

Demonic imagery animal
  • Monsters, beasts of prey
  • Wolf, traditional enemy of sheep
  • Tiger
  • Vulture
  • Serpent
  • Dragon (soooo contextual)

Demonic imagery veggie
  • Sinister forest
  • Heath (recall Macbeth)
  • Waste land
  • Scaffold (as a modulation of the tree of life)

Demonic imagery mineral
  • Waste land (again)
  • Cities of sin and destruction (Babel, Reno, etc.)
  • Images of perverted work (instruments of torture
    or war)
  • Sinister spirals (maelstrom)

Archetypes and Cycles
  • Images fall into cyclical movements.
  • Divine death/rebirth
  • Fire-world heavenly bodies
  • Human dreaming/waking
  • Animal life/death
  • Veggie natural cycles (seasons)
  • Mineral golden ages, etc.
  • Water cycles

Cycles and Genres
  • 4 Mythoi generic plots
  • These 4 mythoi can be seen as aspects of a single
    unifying myth, which corresponds this way
  • Agon - conflict
  • Pathos - catastrophe
  • Sparagmos - anarchy
  • Anagnorisis - recognition/triumph

Mythos of Spring Comedy
  • Young man wants young woman.
  • Resisted by some opposition.
  • Twist enables the hero to have his will.
  • Appearance/adoption of a new society or social
  • Often paternal figures provide opposition.

Mythos of Summer Romance
  • Quest/adventure
  • Perilous journey, crucial struggle, exaltation of
    the hero. (Notice how the 3-part structure
    parallels that of comedy.)
  • Archetype dragon-killing, leviathan
  • Can be applied to Exodus
  • Connected to fertility rites

Mythos of Autumn Tragedy
  • Tragedy actually moves cyclically
  • Hero is on top of the wheel of fortune when he
    declines, his subordinates do his living for him.
    In some tragedies (Adam), the hero creates new
    life after the fall.
  • Sense of natural law and justice
  • Binary structure instead of tertiary

Mythos of Winter Irony/Satire
  • Remember that irony is realistic we are
    supposed to look down on characters and events
    from a higher position.
  • Satire is militant irony wit founded on a sense
    of the absurd, and an object of attack