the literary theories

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Literary theory.

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.

Table of Contents

1. What Is Literary Theory?

“Literary theory,” sometimes designated “critical theory,” or “theory,” and now undergoing a transformation into “cultural theory” within the discipline of literary studies, can be understood as the set of concepts and intellectual assumptions on which rests the work of explaining or interpreting literary texts. Literary theory refers to any principles derived from internal analysis of literary texts or from knowledge external to the text that can be applied in multiple interpretive situations. All critical practice regarding literature depends on an underlying structure of ideas in at least two ways: theory provides a rationale for what constitutes the subject matter of criticism—”the literary”—and the specific aims of critical practice—the act of interpretation itself. For example, to speak of the “unity” of Oedipus the King explicitly invokes Aristotle’s theoretical statements on poetics. To argue, as does Chinua Achebe, that Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness fails to grant full humanity to the Africans it depicts is a perspective informed by a postcolonial literary theory that presupposes a history of exploitation and racism. Critics that explain the climactic drowning of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening as a suicide generally call upon a supporting architecture of feminist and gender theory. The structure of ideas that enables criticism of a literary work may or may not be acknowledged by the critic, and the status of literary theory within the academic discipline of literary studies continues to evolve.

Literary theory and the formal practice of literary interpretation runs a parallel but less well known course with the history of philosophy and is evident in the historical record at least as far back as Plato. The Cratylus contains a Plato’s meditation on the relationship of words and the things to which they refer. Plato’s skepticism about signification, i.e., that words bear no etymological relationship to their meanings but are arbitrarily “imposed,” becomes a central concern in the twentieth century to both “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” However, a persistent belief in “reference,” the notion that words and images refer to an objective reality, has provided epistemological (that is, having to do with theories of knowledge) support for theories of literary representation throughout most of Western history. Until the nineteenth century, Art, in Shakespeare’s phrase, held “a mirror up to nature” and faithfully recorded an objectively real world independent of the observer.

Modern literary theory gradually emerges in Europe during the nineteenth century. In one of the earliest developments of literary theory, German “higher criticism” subjected biblical texts to a radical historicizing that broke with traditional scriptural interpretation. “Higher,” or “source criticism,” analyzed biblical tales in light of comparable narratives from other cultures, an approach that anticipated some of the method and spirit of twentieth century theory, particularly “Structuralism” and “New Historicism.” In France, the eminent literary critic Charles Augustin Saint Beuve maintained that a work of literature could be explained entirely in terms of biography, while novelist Marcel Proust devoted his life to refuting Saint Beuve in a massive narrative in which he contended that the details of the life of the artist are utterly transformed in the work of art. (This dispute was taken up anew by the French theorist Roland Barthes in his famous declaration of the “Death of the Author.” See “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.”) Perhaps the greatest nineteenth century influence on literary theory came from the deep epistemological suspicion of Friedrich Nietzsche: that facts are not facts until they have been interpreted. Nietzsche’s critique of knowledge has had a profound impact on literary studies and helped usher in an era of intense literary theorizing that has yet to pass.

Attention to the etymology of the term “theory,” from the Greek “theoria,” alerts us to the partial nature of theoretical approaches to literature. “Theoria” indicates a view or perspective of the Greek stage. This is precisely what literary theory offers, though specific theories often claim to present a complete system for understanding literature. The current state of theory is such that there are many overlapping areas of influence, and older schools of theory, though no longer enjoying their previous eminence, continue to exert an influence on the whole. The once widely-held conviction (an implicit theory) that literature is a repository of all that is meaningful and ennobling in the human experience, a view championed by the Leavis School in Britain, may no longer be acknowledged by name but remains an essential justification for the current structure of American universities and liberal arts curricula. The moment of “Deconstruction” may have passed, but its emphasis on the indeterminacy of signs (that we are unable to establish exclusively what a word means when used in a given situation) and thus of texts, remains significant. Many critics may not embrace the label “feminist,” but the premise that gender is a social construct, one of theoretical feminisms distinguishing insights, is now axiomatic in a number of theoretical perspectives.

While literary theory has always implied or directly expressed a conception of the world outside the text, in the twentieth century three movements—”Marxist theory” of the Frankfurt School, “Feminism,” and “Postmodernism”—have opened the field of literary studies into a broader area of inquiry. Marxist approaches to literature require an understanding of the primary economic and social bases of culture since Marxist aesthetic theory sees the work of art as a product, directly or indirectly, of the base structure of society. Feminist thought and practice analyzes the production of literature and literary representation within the framework that includes all social and cultural formations as they pertain to the role of women in history. Postmodern thought consists of both aesthetic and epistemological strands. Postmodernism in art has included a move toward non-referential, non-linear, abstract forms; a heightened degree of self-referentiality; and the collapse of categories and conventions that had traditionally governed art. Postmodern thought has led to the serious questioning of the so-called metanarratives of history, science, philosophy, and economic and sexual reproduction. Under postmodernity, all knowledge comes to be seen as “constructed” within historical self-contained systems of understanding. Marxist, feminist, and postmodern thought have brought about the incorporation of all human discourses (that is, interlocking fields of language and knowledge) as a subject matter for analysis by the literary theorist. Using the various poststructuralist and postmodern theories that often draw on disciplines other than the literary—linguistic, anthropological, psychoanalytic, and philosophical—for their primary insights, literary theory has become an interdisciplinary body of cultural theory. Taking as its premise that human societies and knowledge consist of texts in one form or another, cultural theory (for better or worse) is now applied to the varieties of texts, ambitiously undertaking to become the preeminent model of inquiry into the human condition.

Literary theory is a site of theories: some theories, like “Queer Theory,” are “in;” other literary theories, like “Deconstruction,” are “out” but continue to exert an influence on the field. “Traditional literary criticism,” “New Criticism,” and “Structuralism” are alike in that they held to the view that the study of literature has an objective body of knowledge under its scrutiny. The other schools of literary theory, to varying degrees, embrace a postmodern view of language and reality that calls into serious question the objective referent of literary studies. The following categories are certainly not exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive, but they represent the major trends in literary theory of this century.

2. Traditional Literary Criticism

Academic literary criticism prior to the rise of “New Criticism” in the United States tended to practice traditional literary history: tracking influence, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions within the text. Literary biography was and still is an important interpretive method in and out of the academy; versions of moral criticism, not unlike the Leavis School in Britain, and aesthetic (e.g. genre studies) criticism were also generally influential literary practices. Perhaps the key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both the literary canon (that is, the books all educated persons should read) and the aims and purposes of literature. What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise.

3. Formalism and New Criticism

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works. Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well known.

The Formalist adage that the purpose of literature was “to make the stones stonier” nicely expresses their notion of literariness. “Formalism” is perhaps best known is Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization.” The routine of ordinary experience, Shklovsky contended, rendered invisible the uniqueness and particularity of the objects of existence. Literary language, partly by calling attention to itself as language, estranged the reader from the familiar and made fresh the experience of daily life.

The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.” As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice. “New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand , contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

4. Marxism and Critical Theory

Marxist literary theories tend to focus on the representation of class conflict as well as the reinforcement of class distinctions through the medium of literature. Marxist theorists use traditional techniques of literary analysis but subordinate aesthetic concerns to the final social and political meanings of literature. Marxist theorist often champion authors sympathetic to the working classes and authors whose work challenges economic equalities found in capitalist societies. In keeping with the totalizing spirit of Marxism, literary theories arising from the Marxist paradigm have not only sought new ways of understanding the relationship between economic production and literature, but all cultural production as well. Marxist analyses of society and history have had a profound effect on literary theory and practical criticism, most notably in the development of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism.”

The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel. Walter Benjamin broke new ground in his work in his study of aesthetics and the reproduction of the work of art. The Frankfurt School of philosophers, including most notably Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—after their emigration to the United States—played a key role in introducing Marxist assessments of culture into the mainstream of American academic life. These thinkers became associated with what is known as “Critical theory,” one of the constituent components of which was a critique of the instrumental use of reason in advanced capitalist culture. “Critical theory” held to a distinction between the high cultural heritage of Europe and the mass culture produced by capitalist societies as an instrument of domination. “Critical theory” sees in the structure of mass cultural forms—jazz, Hollywood film, advertising—a replication of the structure of the factory and the workplace. Creativity and cultural production in advanced capitalist societies were always already co-opted by the entertainment needs of an economic system that requires sensory stimulation and recognizable cliché and suppressed the tendency for sustained deliberation.

The major Marxist influences on literary theory since the Frankfurt School have been Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton in Great Britain and Frank Lentricchia and Fredric Jameson in the United States. Williams is associated with the New Left political movement in Great Britain and the development of “Cultural Materialism” and the Cultural Studies Movement, originating in the 1960s at Birmingham University’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Eagleton is known both as a Marxist theorist and as a popularizer of theory by means of his widely read overview, Literary Theory . Lentricchia likewise became influential through his account of trends in theory, After the New Criticism . Jameson is a more diverse theorist, known both for his impact on Marxist theories of culture and for his position as one of the leading figures in theoretical postmodernism. Jameson’s work on consumer culture, architecture, film, literature and other areas, typifies the collapse of disciplinary boundaries taking place in the realm of Marxist and postmodern cultural theory. Jameson’s work investigates the way the structural features of late capitalism—particularly the transformation of all culture into commodity form—are now deeply embedded in all of our ways of communicating.

5. Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Like the “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” sought to bring to literary studies a set of objective criteria for analysis and a new intellectual rigor. “Structuralism” can be viewed as an extension of “Formalism” in that that both “Structuralism” and “Formalism” devoted their attention to matters of literary form (i.e. structure) rather than social or historical content; and that both bodies of thought were intended to put the study of literature on a scientific, objective basis. “Structuralism” relied initially on the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Like Plato, Saussure regarded the signifier (words, marks, symbols) as arbitrary and unrelated to the concept, the signified, to which it referred. Within the way a particular society uses language and signs, meaning was constituted by a system of “differences” between units of the language. Particular meanings were of less interest than the underlying structures of signification that made meaning itself possible, often expressed as an emphasis on “langue” rather than “parole.” “Structuralism” was to be a metalanguage, a language about languages, used to decode actual languages, or systems of signification. The work of the “Formalist” Roman Jakobson contributed to “Structuralist” thought, and the more prominent Structuralists included Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gerard Genette, and Barthes.

The philosopher Roland Barthes proved to be a key figure on the divide between “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” “Poststructuralism” is less unified as a theoretical movement than its precursor; indeed, the work of its advocates known by the term “Deconstruction” calls into question the possibility of the coherence of discourse, or the capacity for language to communicate. “Deconstruction,” Semiotic theory (a study of signs with close connections to “Structuralism,” “Reader response theory” in America (“Reception theory” in Europe), and “Gender theory” informed by the psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva are areas of inquiry that can be located under the banner of “Poststructuralism.” If signifier and signified are both cultural concepts, as they are in “Poststructuralism,” reference to an empirically certifiable reality is no longer guaranteed by language. “Deconstruction” argues that this loss of reference causes an endless deferral of meaning, a system of differences between units of language that has no resting place or final signifier that would enable the other signifiers to hold their meaning. The most important theorist of “Deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida, has asserted, “There is no getting outside text,” indicating a kind of free play of signification in which no fixed, stable meaning is possible. “Poststructuralism” in America was originally identified with a group of Yale academics, the Yale School of “Deconstruction:” J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Paul de Man. Other tendencies in the moment after “Deconstruction” that share some of the intellectual tendencies of “Poststructuralism” would included the “Reader response” theories of Stanley Fish, Jane Tompkins, and Wolfgang Iser.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, an updating of the work of Sigmund Freud, extends “Postructuralism” to the human subject with further consequences for literary theory. According to Lacan, the fixed, stable self is a Romantic fiction; like the text in “Deconstruction,” the self is a decentered mass of traces left by our encounter with signs, visual symbols, language, etc. For Lacan, the self is constituted by language, a language that is never one’s own, always another’s, always already in use. Barthes applies these currents of thought in his famous declaration of the “death” of the Author: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” while also applying a similar “Poststructuralist” view to the Reader: “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”

Michel Foucault is another philosopher, like Barthes, whose ideas inform much of poststructuralist literary theory. Foucault played a critical role in the development of the postmodern perspective that knowledge is constructed in concrete historical situations in the form of discourse; knowledge is not communicated by discourse but is discourse itself, can only be encountered textually. Following Nietzsche, Foucault performs what he calls “genealogies,” attempts at deconstructing the unacknowledged operation of power and knowledge to reveal the ideologies that make domination of one group by another seem “natural.” Foucaldian investigations of discourse and power were to provide much of the intellectual impetus for a new way of looking at history and doing textual studies that came to be known as the “New Historicism.”

6. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

“New Historicism,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, designates a body of theoretical and interpretive practices that began largely with the study of early modern literature in the United States. “New Historicism” in America had been somewhat anticipated by the theorists of “Cultural Materialism” in Britain, which, in the words of their leading advocate, Raymond Williams describes “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.” Both “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” seek to understand literary texts historically and reject the formalizing influence of previous literary studies, including “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” and “Deconstruction,” all of which in varying ways privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context. According to “New Historicism,” the circulation of literary and non-literary texts produces relations of social power within a culture. New Historicist thought differs from traditional historicism in literary studies in several crucial ways. Rejecting traditional historicism’s premise of neutral inquiry, “New Historicism” accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments. According to “New Historicism,” we can only know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded,” a key term, in the textuality of the present and its concerns. Text and context are less clearly distinct in New Historicist practice. Traditional separations of literary and non-literary texts, “great” literature and popular literature, are also fundamentally challenged. For the “New Historicist,” all acts of expression are embedded in the material conditions of a culture. Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion. Like much of the emergent European social history of the 1980s, “New Historicism” takes particular interest in representations of marginal/marginalized groups and non-normative behaviors—witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts, and exorcisms—as exemplary of the need for power to represent subversive alternatives, the Other, to legitimize itself.

Louis Montrose, another major innovator and exponent of “New Historicism,” describes a fundamental axiom of the movement as an intellectual belief in “the textuality of history and the historicity of texts.” “New Historicism” draws on the work of Levi-Strauss, in particular his notion of culture as a “self-regulating system.” The Foucaldian premise that power is ubiquitous and cannot be equated with state or economic power and Gramsci’s conception of “hegemony,” i.e., that domination is often achieved through culturally-orchestrated consent rather than force, are critical underpinnings to the “New Historicist” perspective. The translation of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin on carnival coincided with the rise of the “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” and left a legacy in work of other theorists of influence like Peter Stallybrass and Jonathan Dollimore. In its period of ascendancy during the 1980s, “New Historicism” drew criticism from the political left for its depiction of counter-cultural expression as always co-opted by the dominant discourses. Equally, “New Historicism’s” lack of emphasis on “literariness” and formal literary concerns brought disdain from traditional literary scholars. However, “New Historicism” continues to exercise a major influence in the humanities and in the extended conception of literary studies.

7. Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Criticism

“Ethnic Studies,” sometimes referred to as “Minority Studies,” has an obvious historical relationship with “Postcolonial Criticism” in that Euro-American imperialism and colonization in the last four centuries, whether external (empire) or internal (slavery) has been directed at recognizable ethnic groups: African and African-American, Chinese, the subaltern peoples of India, Irish, Latino, Native American, and Philipino, among others. “Ethnic Studies” concerns itself generally with art and literature produced by identifiable ethnic groups either marginalized or in a subordinate position to a dominant culture. “Postcolonial Criticism” investigates the relationships between colonizers and colonized in the period post-colonization. Though the two fields are increasingly finding points of intersection—the work of bell hooks, for example—and are both activist intellectual enterprises, “Ethnic Studies and “Postcolonial Criticism” have significant differences in their history and ideas.

“Ethnic Studies” has had a considerable impact on literary studies in the United States and Britain. In W.E.B. Dubois, we find an early attempt to theorize the position of African-Americans within dominant white culture through his concept of “double consciousness,” a dual identity including both “American” and “Negro.” Dubois and theorists after him seek an understanding of how that double experience both creates identity and reveals itself in culture. Afro-Caribbean and African writers—Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe—have made significant early contributions to the theory and practice of ethnic criticism that explores the traditions, sometimes suppressed or underground, of ethnic literary activity while providing a critique of representations of ethnic identity as found within the majority culture. Ethnic and minority literary theory emphasizes the relationship of cultural identity to individual identity in historical circumstances of overt racial oppression. More recently, scholars and writers such as Henry Louis Gates, Toni Morrison, and Kwame Anthony Appiah have brought attention to the problems inherent in applying theoretical models derived from Euro-centric paradigms (that is, structures of thought) to minority works of literature while at the same time exploring new interpretive strategies for understanding the vernacular (common speech) traditions of racial groups that have been historically marginalized by dominant cultures.

Though not the first writer to explore the historical condition of postcolonialism, the Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism is generally regarded as having inaugurated the field of explicitly “Postcolonial Criticism” in the West. Said argues that the concept of “the Orient” was produced by the “imaginative geography” of Western scholarship and has been instrumental in the colonization and domination of non-Western societies. “Postcolonial” theory reverses the historical center/margin direction of cultural inquiry: critiques of the metropolis and capital now emanate from the former colonies. Moreover, theorists like Homi K. Bhabha have questioned the binary thought that produces the dichotomies—center/margin, white/black, and colonizer/colonized—by which colonial practices are justified. The work of Gayatri C. Spivak has focused attention on the question of who speaks for the colonial “Other” and the relation of the ownership of discourse and representation to the development of the postcolonial subjectivity. Like feminist and ethnic theory, “Postcolonial Criticism” pursues not merely the inclusion of the marginalized literature of colonial peoples into the dominant canon and discourse. “Postcolonial Criticism” offers a fundamental critique of the ideology of colonial domination and at the same time seeks to undo the “imaginative geography” of Orientalist thought that produced conceptual as well as economic divides between West and East, civilized and uncivilized, First and Third Worlds. In this respect, “Postcolonial Criticism” is activist and adversarial in its basic aims. Postcolonial theory has brought fresh perspectives to the role of colonial peoples—their wealth, labor, and culture—in the development of modern European nation states. While “Postcolonial Criticism” emerged in the historical moment following the collapse of the modern colonial empires, the increasing globalization of culture, including the neo-colonialism of multinational capitalism, suggests a continued relevance for this field of inquiry.

8. Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Gender theory came to the forefront of the theoretical scene first as feminist theory but has subsequently come to include the investigation of all gender and sexual categories and identities. Feminist gender theory followed slightly behind the reemergence of political feminism in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s. Political feminism of the so-called “second wave” had as its emphasis practical concerns with the rights of women in contemporary societies, women’s identity, and the representation of women in media and culture. These causes converged with early literary feminist practice, characterized by Elaine Showalter as “gynocriticism,” which emphasized the study and canonical inclusion of works by female authors as well as the depiction of women in male-authored canonical texts.

Feminist gender theory is postmodern in that it challenges the paradigms and intellectual premises of western thought, but also takes an activist stance by proposing frequent interventions and alternative epistemological positions meant to change the social order. In the context of postmodernism, gender theorists, led by the work of Judith Butler, initially viewed the category of “gender” as a human construct enacted by a vast repetition of social performance. The biological distinction between man and woman eventually came under the same scrutiny by theorists who reached a similar conclusion: the sexual categories are products of culture and as such help create social reality rather than simply reflect it. Gender theory achieved a wide readership and acquired much its initial theoretical rigor through the work of a group of French feminist theorists that included Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, who while Bulgarian rather than French, made her mark writing in French. French feminist thought is based on the assumption that the Western philosophical tradition represses the experience of women in the structure of its ideas. As an important consequence of this systematic intellectual repression and exclusion, women’s lives and bodies in historical societies are subject to repression as well. In the creative/critical work of Cixous, we find the history of Western thought depicted as binary oppositions: “speech/writing; Nature/Art, Nature/History, Nature/Mind, Passion/Action.” For Cixous, and for Irigaray as well, these binaries are less a function of any objective reality they describe than the male-dominated discourse of the Western tradition that produced them. Their work beyond the descriptive stage becomes an intervention in the history of theoretical discourse, an attempt to alter the existing categories and systems of thought that found Western rationality. French feminism, and perhaps all feminism after Beauvoir, has been in conversation with the psychoanalytic revision of Freud in the work of Jacques Lacan. Kristeva’s work draws heavily on Lacan. Two concepts from Kristeva—the “semiotic” and “abjection”—have had a significant influence on literary theory. Kristeva’s “semiotic” refers to the gaps, silences, spaces, and bodily presence within the language/symbol system of a culture in which there might be a space for a women’s language, different in kind as it would be from male-dominated discourse.

Masculine gender theory as a separate enterprise has focused largely on social, literary, and historical accounts of the construction of male gender identities. Such work generally lacks feminisms’ activist stance and tends to serve primarily as an indictment rather than a validation of male gender practices and masculinity. The so-called “Men’s Movement,” inspired by the work of Robert Bly among others, was more practical than theoretical and has had only limited impact on gender discourse. The impetus for the “Men’s Movement” came largely as a response to the critique of masculinity and male domination that runs throughout feminism and the upheaval of the 1960s, a period of crisis in American social ideology that has required a reconsideration of gender roles. Having long served as the de facto “subject” of Western thought, male identity and masculine gender theory awaits serious investigation as a particular, and no longer universally representative, field of inquiry.

Much of what theoretical energy of masculine gender theory currently possesses comes from its ambiguous relationship with the field of “Queer theory.” “Queer theory” is not synonymous with gender theory, nor even with the overlapping fields of gay and lesbian studies, but does share many of their concerns with normative definitions of man, woman, and sexuality. “Queer theory” questions the fixed categories of sexual identity and the cognitive paradigms generated by normative (that is, what is considered “normal”) sexual ideology. To “queer” becomes an act by which stable boundaries of sexual identity are transgressed, reversed, mimicked, or otherwise critiqued. “Queering” can be enacted on behalf of all non-normative sexualities and identities as well, all that is considered by the dominant paradigms of culture to be alien, strange, unfamiliar, transgressive, odd—in short, queer. Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality anticipates and informs the Queer theoretical movement in a role similar to the way his writing on power and discourse prepared the ground for “New Historicism.” Judith Butler contends that heterosexual identity long held to be a normative ground of sexuality is actually produced by the suppression of homoerotic possibility. Eve Sedgwick is another pioneering theorist of “Queer theory,” and like Butler, Sedgwick maintains that the dominance of heterosexual culture conceals the extensive presence of homosocial relations. For Sedgwick, the standard histories of western societies are presented in exclusively in terms of heterosexual identity: “Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Family, Domesticity, Population,” and thus conceiving of homosexual identity within this framework is already problematic.

9. Cultural Studies

Much of the intellectual legacy of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” can now be felt in the “Cultural Studies” movement in departments of literature, a movement not identifiable in terms of a single theoretical school, but one that embraces a wide array of perspectives—media studies, social criticism, anthropology, and literary theory—as they apply to the general study of culture. “Cultural Studies” arose quite self-consciously in the 80s to provide a means of analysis of the rapidly expanding global culture industry that includes entertainment, advertising, publishing, television, film, computers and the Internet. “Cultural Studies” brings scrutiny not only to these varied categories of culture, and not only to the decreasing margins of difference between these realms of expression, but just as importantly to the politics and ideology that make contemporary culture possible. “Cultural Studies” became notorious in the 90s for its emphasis on pop music icons and music video in place of canonical literature, and extends the ideas of the Frankfurt School on the transition from a truly popular culture to mass culture in late capitalist societies, emphasizing the significance of the patterns of consumption of cultural artifacts. “Cultural Studies” has been interdisciplinary, even antidisciplinary, from its inception; indeed, “Cultural Studies” can be understood as a set of sometimes conflicting methods and approaches applied to a questioning of current cultural categories. Stuart Hall, Meaghan Morris, Tony Bennett and Simon During are some of the important advocates of a “Cultural Studies” that seeks to displace the traditional model of literary studies.

10. References and Further Reading

A. general works on theory.

b. Literary and Cultural Theory

Author Information

Vince Brewton Email: [email protected] University of North Alabama U. S. A.

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Every piece of literature conveys meaning, but understanding its message can be a complicated process. In many cases, unless stated otherwise by the author, the message can be subjective. This means each of us might interpret the same text in a slightly different way.

This is why scholars have devised ways to understand how people interpret a text. These ways have since become known as literary theories.

What Is Literary Theory?

Literary theory is a school of thought that provides readers with the logical means to critique the concepts, ideas, and principles of a certain piece of literature. Essentially, the question that it seeks to answers is: What is literature?

A basic way of looking at literary theories is that each of them is a specific lens through which you can view a piece of literature. This allows you to focus on particular aspects of a work that the literary theory thinks is important.

Let’s say you’re reading a novel set during World War II. If you chose a Marxist approach, you’ll probably look at how the characters interact based on their economic and social standing. But if you view it through a feminist lens, the experience of being female during the war becomes your focus.

Literary Theory vs. Literary Criticism

Literary theory and literary criticism are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but while they have a close relationship, they are not the same.

Literary theory is a framework of ideas that guide you in understanding a particular work of literature. On the other hand, literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. The former is theoretical, the latter practical.

Thus, literary theory provides the methods for how you look at the meaning of literature, while literary criticism is how you use those methods to understand the work’s meaning.

Schools of Literary Theory

There are many schools of literary theory, each designed to view literature from a different angle. This can range from the time period, to the writer’s background, geographic location, and more. As perspectives change, new schools are established while existing ones are reinforced.

Below are some of the most common theories being used for literary criticism. Do note that the explanations below are only meant as an overview. They are by no means the only way of distinguishing each separate school of literary theory.

1. Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism is the interpretation of a text based on the archetypes that appear time and time again in a wide variety of literature. Psychologist Carl Jung postulated that these elements come from humanity’s “collective unconscious,” a kind of universal psyche.

By tracing these elements from classic works to modern texts, we can gain an understanding of humanity’s universal conflicts and desires. Literature is then what links all human experience regardless of time and space. An archetype will elicit the same response from someone in Asia 500 years ago and someone in Europe today.

In his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces , Joseph Campbell lays out his theories about the narrative archetype called the hero’s journey or the monomyth. While cultures may be separated by time and space, their mythologies all seem to follow the same basic structure.

In many myths, religious and spiritual texts, and literary classics, the hero sets out on a quest, surpasses many obstacles, and finally reaches their goal.

Some examples are Odysseus, Huang Ti, King Arthur, Neo, Frodo, and Harry Potter. Even religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the Buddha, Anansi, and Osiris exhibit traits of the monomyth.

2. Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism uses the principles and ideals of feminism to critique literature. It suggests that civilization is largely patriarchal and that history and literature are largely written and studied through the male point of view.

In doing so, it aims to uncover the implicit and explicit misogyny that may be contained in writing about women, the exclusion of women in the literary canon, and other types of marginalization.

Common feminist criticisms in literature are weak female characters, idealized female representations written by male writers, and female characters in positions that are always beneath males. In resorting to these stereotypes, writers fail to present the true complexity of the female gender.

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has been a subject of fierce debate. The arguments vary, but the most common issues being discussed are sexism, the subjugation and objectification of women, and cruelty.

A specific scene that’s often quoted is Petruchio’s soliloquy in Act 4 Scene 1. In it, he likens himself to a falconer that must teach Katherina, a wild hawk, to obey and “come to know the keeper’s call.”

3. Marxist Criticism

Based on Karl Marx’s doctrines, this theory emphasizes class, socioeconomic situations, the power relations among different segments of society, and how these segments are represented.

Marxist criticism supposes that literature can be analyzed through the social and material conditions that it was created. So a writer’s social situation determines what characters, political ideas, and economic declarations will develop in their text.

The Hunger Games has strong Marxian undertones. Most of the population is beset with poverty and scarcity. And while the districts (the proletariat) have varying levels of wealth, they are ultimately at the mercy of the Capitol (the bourgeoisie). The plot centers on the struggles between these two sides and the social transformation it will bring.

4. Reader-Response Criticism

In reader-response criticism, to understand a text, the processes that the readers use to create meaning and experience must be considered. This is in contrast to most other schools that focus more on the author or content of the work.

It believes that literature has no objective meaning. Readers bring their own thoughts, emotions, and experiences into a work that they’re reading. Thus, whatever they take from it is based on their own expectations and ideas at the time of reading.

Reader-response criticisms are of a personal nature. For example, reading The Parable of the Prodigal Son can have different responses from people with different backgrounds. A parent with a rebellious child might focus on the father and the significance of his forgiveness. Someone with a checkered past might sympathize more with the son.

5. Deconstruction

Deconstruction recognizes that literature has no fixed meaning (and thus can mean anything) because meaning itself is unstable. Language is ever-changing so attaching static meanings and ideals to a text is impossible.

Instead, it tries to demonstrate that any text is not a unified and logical whole, but has a variety of irreconcilably contradictory meanings. Put simply, language in a text cannot describe any truth and any criticism of language will not get to the truth because language is flawed to begin with.

For example, take a look at the sentence, “This is light.” Judging on the context given, there’s no way to know whether “light” is being used as an adjective or a noun. Therefore, the sentence is unstable and can mean either.

6. Formalism

Formalism treats a work of literature as its own distinct piece, separate from its cultural, social, historical, and even authorial context. As such, its focus is purely on its form, including grammar, syntax, meter, and rhythm.

The true meaning of a text can only be determined by analyzing the formal elements of a text and seeing how they work to create a cohesive whole. Non-formal elements only create false impressions that jeopardize a reader’s interpretation.

A formalist would then analyze Kafka’s The Metamorphosis purely on the text, through the parts told in a limited third-person POV and only Gregor’s thoughts and emotions are revealed unless the other characters show theirs through action or dialogue.

7. Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is based on Sigmund Freud’s theories in psychology, including those of the consciousnesses and the unconscious. It argues that much like dreams, literary texts are a manifestation of the author’s neuroses, revealing their unconscious desires and anxieties.

A character from a text may be psychoanalyzed, but the usual assumption is that all characters are a projection of the author’s psyche. The author’s traumas, fixations, guilts, and conflicts many be traced through how these characters behave.

The story of Oedipus Rex is perhaps the most commonly psychoanalyzed piece of literature, started by Freud himself. He introduced the concept of the Oedipus complex, a purported universal phase of boys where they hate their fathers and want to have sex with their mothers.

8. Postcolonial criticism

Postcolonial criticism concerns itself with literature written by colonizers and those who were/are colonized. In particular, it looks at issues of culture, religion, politics, and economics within the text and how these relate to colonial hegemony (the colonizer’s act of controlling the colonized).

Put simply, it addresses the problems, consequences, and challenges that a decolonized country goes through. Specifically, it looks at these countries’ struggles with political and cultural independence, racism, and colonial mentality.

The destructiveness of British colonization is a central theme in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart . Thus, he points out the negative effects of the imposition of Western culture, beliefs, and economics on Nigerians during colonial rule.

Conversely, a critic from the West might focus more on glorifying the exploratory feats of European powers during that time.

9. Queer Theory

Queer theory explores the representation of gender and sexuality in literature. It challenges the assumption that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation—a notion that is reinforced by certain social institutions such as marriage, employment, and adoption rights.

It argues that sexuality is fluid and plural, not a fixed identity. Thus, queer theory is interested in the breakdown of binaries such as gay/straight, masculine/feminine, and mother/father. Queer theorists are then primarily concerned about those who don’t fit in conventional categories such as intersex, bisexuals, and trans people.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a favorite of queer theory critics, with some calling it early evidence of the emerging homosexual identity in Victorian London. Much of its text may contain innuendos that indicate something other than heterosexuality.

For example, Basil’s attraction to the titular character is evident in how he describes Dorian as having a strong influence on his art. This is followed by him professing to Lord Henry that “As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.”

10. New Historicism

New Historicism acknowledges that literature isn’t only influenced by the history of the author, but also that of the critic. Put simply, the writer’s circumstances shape their writing, their work reflects their time, and the critic’s circumstances and environment affect their criticism.

This theory then reveals that literary criticism is impermanent. Current criticisms are colored by current prejudices, social environments, and beliefs much like literature affects and is affected by its historical context. As times change, so will the understanding of a particular work.

Many argue that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. New Historicists understand that this can’t be resolved with a simple yes or no answer. The work must be studied along with its context. New Historicists will also admit that the resulting criticism is “tainted” by their own culture and environment.

The Importance of Literary Theories

All literary theories are starting points from which we can better understand a piece of literature, learn more about the author’s intentions, and improve the quality of said literature for both the author and the critic. One theory is not better than the others, each is just a different way of seeking an answer to a question.

You’re not required to follow one particular theory in your criticism. Many people often use multiple theories to gain a broader appreciation of the literature they’re studying. Plus, it’s sometimes fun to delve into a text with different theories as you often end up with a whole new perspective.

Many of these theories are not only applied in literature, but also in other facets of humanity, including other types of art, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and language. In studying these theories and applying them to your criticisms, you’ll often encounter ideas that take you in different directions.

There are definitely more literary theories than the ones listed above. Some are old and out of use, others are updated to keep up with today’s literature, and still others are being created based on social and cultural movements.

Did you find this post helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:

Cole Salao

Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!


John Odoyo

This is an eye opener to upcoming scholars.

cynthia claire a pat

This article is more helpful to me either, thus as today’s scholars have an obligation to prove their spirit in writing their thoughts about the nature. Thanks a lot Mr. Cole

Khadija Ashfaq

Very helpful and informative article. Thanks for this effort.

Tahir Abbas Seoul

It’s writing r very much helpful to the reader’s nd it’s a excellent benifitional, conceptual framework!


Loved this article. It cleared my mind as well, same as the other commenter. I would like to get to know other literary theories as I’m studying the subject of death on some female writer’s works and I think it need to be backed up with a theory. What would you recommend?

Mutie grace

The article was very helpful thank you

Dr. Mehar Fatima

Thank you for this post. It is simplified and therefore encourages scholars to explore ahead.

Stivosty Mpole

Very helpful indeed, I appreciate the author

Mohammad Imran

It’s really helpful


A very helpful article. Many thanks writer.

Kaelyn Barron

We’re so glad you found cole’s post on literary theories helpful! :)

Hi, how are you


This post is really helpful and it cleared my mind.

We’re so glad you found the post helpful, Kone!

Sunayana Bajaj

It is simple and helpful too

We’re glad you found Cole’s post helpful! :)


Very timely since I’m taking up my Masters degree and it’s one of our subject Theories of Language and Literature. Thanks so much for this relevant piece that I could use as my guide and reference. Can I have a soft copy for this piece. Thanks


The article was very helpful. I was to take exams on this topic and you made my work easier.Thankyou!

We’re so glad it helped you prepare for your exams! :)

Hi Rommel, we’re so glad you found Cole’s post helpful for your studies!


Quite succinct and clear. Helpful. Thank you.

Thanks Ben, we’re glad you enjoyed Cole’s post! :)


Literary theory presented in a simple and unambiguous manner. Thank you, this is useful.

We’re so glad you found Cole’s post on literary theories helpful! :)

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The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books

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Literary theory and criticism are steadily evolving disciplines devoted to the interpretation of literary works. They offer unique ways to analyze texts through specific perspectives or sets of principles. There are many literary theories, or frameworks, available to address and analyze a given text. These approaches range from Marxist to psychoanalytic to feminist and beyond. Queer theory, a recent addition to the field, looks at literature through the prism of sex, gender, and identity.

The books listed below are some of the leading overviews of this fascinating branch of critical theory.

Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

the literary theories

This hefty tome is a comprehensive anthology of literary theory and criticism, representing the various schools and movements from antiquity to the present. The 30-page introduction offers a concise overview for newcomers and experts alike.

Literary Theory: An Anthology

Editors Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan have divided this collection into 12 sections, each of which covers an important school of literary criticism, from Russian formalism to critical race theory.

A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature

This book, aimed at students, offers a simple overview of more traditional approaches to literary criticism, beginning with definitions of common literary elements like setting, plot, and character. The rest of the book is devoted to the most influential schools of literary criticism, including psychological and feminist approaches.

Beginning Theory by Peter Barry

Peter Barry's introduction to literary and cultural theory is a concise overview of analytical approaches, including relatively newer ones such as ecocriticism and cognitive poetics. The book also includes a reading list for further study.

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

This overview of the major movements in literary criticism comes from Terry Eagleton, a well-known Marxist critic who has also written books about religion, ethics, and Shakespeare.

Critical Theory Today by Lois Tyson

Lois Tyson's book is an introduction to feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, reader-response theory, and much more. It includes analyses of The Great Gatsby from historical, feminist, and many other perspectives.

Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction by Michael Ryan

This short book is designed for students who are just beginning to learn about literary theory and criticism. Using a range of critical approaches, Michael Ryan provides readings of famous texts such as Shakespeare's King Lear and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye . The book shows how the same texts can be studied using different approaches.

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

Busy students will appreciate this book from Jonathan Culler, which covers the history of literary theory in fewer than 150 pages. Literary critic Frank Kermode says that "it is impossible to imagine a clearer treatment of the subject or one that is, within the given limits of length, more comprehensive."

Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory by Deborah Appleman

Deborah Appleman's book is a guide to teaching literary theory in the high school classroom. It includes essays on various approaches, including reader-response and postmodern theory, along with an appendix of classroom activities for teachers.

Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism

This volume, edited by Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, is a comprehensive collection of feminist literary criticism . Included are 58 essays on topics such as lesbian fiction, women and madness, the politics of domesticity, and much more.

the literary theories

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Article contents

Narrative theory.

The narrative mode of world-representation and world-building is omnipresent and far exceeds the domain of literature. Since literature is not necessarily narrative and narrative not necessarily literary, the study of narrative in a literary context must confront narrative and literature in a dual way: How does the presence of narrative affect literature? And how does literariness affect narrative? The basic terminology needs to be clarified by comparing English with the vocabulary of other natural languages. No consensus has been reached, even in the West, on the nature of narrative discourse.

The entire history of poetics shows that, before the middle of the 20th century, little attention was paid to the narrative components of literary texts qua narrative—that is, insofar as the same narrative elements could equally be found in non-aestheticized uses of verbal and non-verbal languages. Aristotelian poetics, based on the mimesis of human action, keeps its grip on narrative theory. The post-Aristotelian triad separated more sharply the lyric from the epic and dramatic genres, but modern narrative theories, mostly based on the study of folk tales and the novel, have still failed to unify the field of literary narrative, or have done it artificially, dissolving narrative discourse into the undifferentiated experience of human life in linear time.

The Western “rise of the novel,” in Ian Watt’s sense, and its worldwide expansion, turned the question of fiction, not that of narrativity, into the main focus of narrative studies. Later, the emergence of formalism and semiotics and the “linguistic turn” of the social sciences pushed the narrative analysis of literary texts in the opposite direction, with all of its efforts bearing on minimal, supposedly deeper units and simple concatenations. The permanent, unresolved conflict between an analytical and constructivist view grounded in individual events and a holistic view concerned with story-worlds and storytelling leaves mostly unattended such fundamental questions as how narrative is used by literature and literature by narrative for their own ends.

Literary narrativity must be thoroughly reconsidered. A critical, transdisciplinary theory should submit to both logical and empirical trial—on a large number of varied samples—and narrative analyses that would take into account the following concepts used to forge methodological tools: discrimination (between the functions of discourse genres and between pragmatic roles in literary communication); combination rules (whether linear or not); levels (as spatial placing, as interdependence and hierarchical authority); scale and spatiotemporal framing and backgrounding , especially the (dominant) time concepts in a particular cultural context. The preconditions for analysis begin by investigating the relation between aesthetic emotions and narrative in other cultural domains than the West and the English-speaking world.

Literary narrativity and social values concur to link the rhetorical manipulation of narrative with its aestheticization. The pleasure and fear of cognition combine with strategies of delusion to either acquiesce to the effects of time and violence or resist them; routine and rupture are alternatively foregrounded, according to needs.

If we can agree on the common transcultural intuition that literature is another name for verbal art, we will also readily accept that many and indeed most other channels of communication, expression, and information can and do “tell stories,” or at least contain fragments of narrative discourse. The visual arts and instrumental music also often use their non-verbal means to convey narrative meaning beside the symbolic value or emotional significance brought about by formal features. There is no need for a title to perceive that a pietà , a crucifixion, or a Rape of the Sabine Women iconically refer to a particular event, real or imaginary, just like bullet marks on a wall refer to a shooting indexically, in Charles Sanders Peirce’s terms. Some instrumental music (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica , a military march) and elaborate Maori war cries refer emotionally and or symbolically to the narratable event or collection of events of war. Should we examine verbal communication, oral or written, with no detectable intended aesthetic manipulation and little or no aesthetic added value (when a policeman reports on his night patrols in the morning, when a technician tells you how your computer system crashed), we will equally find that they more often than not tell complete or fragmented stories, or at least propose elements to put to work some kind of narrative program, a more or less open coded pattern that can be played with interactively; such everyday acts of verbal communication are frequently motivated by the narrative drive of the sender or its presupposition in the receiver and simultaneously point to it.

Verbal art may be considered as another anthropological universal. We can easily speculate that it began with the first rhyme, the first pun, the first chanting modulation—in other words, that it was nearly coetaneous with the appearance of articulate speech in homo sapiens sapiens . But rhymes, puns, chanting rhythms are not narrative acts: they can indirectly, through symbolism and sensorial association, evoke, announce, or recall a narrative without formulating one any more than the hand imprints of the prehistoric Cueva de las Manos . We could even say that they may run counter to the narrative potential of the text, like the recurring couplets of a ballad or an insistent leitmotiv in narrative (“program”) music. Repetition establishes constants; it can smother events. Lyric, argumentative discourse, critical commentaries, the questioning, speculative discourse of the essay can be implicitly or explicitly motivated by a subjacent or projected narrative; they can be interspersed with narrative utterances and even sequences without conveying any properly narrative meaning by themselves. The same applies to descriptions that, taken together, can combine and contrast to stimulate or generate the production of narrative but, taken separately, present by definition a static, tabular vision of the world of reference, not a dynamic one.

The logical asymmetry of narrative and verbal art must not be offset by the quantitative prevalence of the former in the latter, from comedy and tragedy to modern drama and film scripts, from myth and epic to the novel and artful historical narratives, from hagiography to autobiography, from fairy tales to fantasy, from anecdote and fable to concise hyperrealist fiction. Even if the use of narrative discourse is the most ordinary and widespread expression of human awareness of life and its transience, of the will to be part of its dynamics, verbal art develops other means to the same effect and also in order to resist transience and refuse to participate in dynamics it cannot control. Synchronic history would be one example of this resistance. Mysticism is not only a quest; it is fascinated by the absent presence of God or the beloved; it does not always lead to silence; it can manifest itself in repetition, verbosity, and verbiage that blur or even destroy any possible kind of narrativity. Incantation and enchantment are part of an arsenal to fight the corrosive action of perceived linear time. Verbal art is sometimes bent on deflecting or turning its back on the sense of mortality involved in narrative just as it can celebrate and enhance the eventfulness of life; it can use devices such as the regular return of certain signifiers and structures in order to conjure up a cyclic notion of time (eternal return), as well as disruptive devices in order to highlight the wonder of birth, innovation, and metamorphosis.

The fundamental disconnection of narrative and literature is often not recognized by Western theorists, mainly because the novel became the dominant genre there between the 17th and 19th centuries and has conquered the rest of the world in the last one hundred and fifty years. This disconnection makes it an obligation to denaturalize, investigate, describe, and sometimes question the workings of narrative in literature and the role of aestheticization in narratives (like those of historiography, cosmology, or biology) that do not a priori require an aesthetic supplement to fulfill their cognitive, social, political, and ethical purposes.

Straightening the Terminological Maze

Since the infancy of modern narratologies, the very notion of “narrative” has never been a consensual object of study. From their reputedly “classical” formalist and structuralist development to the huge diversification of the so-called “post-classical” phase and beyond, with the rise of cognitive theories and the impact of neuroscience, “the appropriation of narratological frameworks by non-literary disciplines often results in the dilution of the narratological basis, in a loss of precision, and the metaphoric use of narratological terminology.” 1 In fact, literary disciplines, bending toward “fiction,” are largely responsible for this tension, and the definitions of “narrative,” whether literary or not, vary enormously. They often remain contradictory in themselves and incompatible with those used in other fields of knowledge and practice: linguistic definitions are not shared by law or business. This severe lack of consensus implies that any description of literary narrative results from difficult preliminary theoretical choices heavily influenced by historical circumstances and particular philosophical and ideological positions. In the West and through the global expansion of Western rationalization, such discrepancies may find their origin partly in the persistent authority of Aristotelian poetics. According to it, the enunciative factor, the impersonation or not of the acts of speech that construct a story by the actors of the same sharply divides epic from drama (tragedy or comedy). The tragic mode of drama has curiously provided the prevalent paradigm to analyze and interpret the structures of narrative genres, such as the tale, the short story, and the novel, that use one or more external narrators and thus, if we follow Aristotle, belong to epos , not drama. Aristotle denies poetic and even narrative interest to historia , the plain factual recounting of verifiable events in the world as it is or was; therefore, fiction, in the narrow sense of the representation of possible human action, has come to stand as the most significant type of literary narrative, cut off by a more or less high partition from other narrative texts, on the one hand, and indiscriminately packed with non-narrative fiction (such as imaginary descriptions) on the other hand. The classical Indian aesthetics of rasa , although it concentrated, like Aristotelian poetics, on performed narratives, has had a unifying effect across the arts, but, since it seems to be more concerned with a hierarchic value system of human emotions and the techniques of their representation than with the nature of events and their sequence, it brings closer narrative and non-narrative texts instead of separating clearly the representation of a static world from katha , or the mimesis of an evolutive world. This does not mean that “narrative” should forever remain something completely elusive or that the immense modern investment of the human sciences (from sociology, anthropology, history, and law to the science of literature through linguistics) in its theory, analysis, and interpretation is a futile, wasted effort. It rather means that we should henceforth abstain from talking of “narrative” in any vague or all-embracing sense; instead, we should select and test the approaches that will prove most productive in the critical study and appreciation of literary phenomena. If, for instance, a certain approach helps us to make more sense of complex, borderline generic formations such as the lyrical novel, the prose poem, personal and literary diaries or notebooks, the anecdote, the Hadiths or the Upanishads, if it contributes to enhancing our enjoyment of literary and non-literary expressions alike, bringing enough genres under one roof while maintaining and justifying their functional specificities, we will deem it, for now, appropriate to literary studies and reader education.

The Word “Narrative”

The word “narrative,” in contemporary English, can be either adjective or substantive, as in the expressions “narrative poetry” or “a vivid narrative.” Without any surface determinant, the noun “narrative” further objectifies and universalizes the characteristics contained in the acceptation of the adjective when we say, for example (no matter whether it is true or false): “Narrative is present in every speech act.” “Narrative,” in this case, becomes the concept of the set or sets of features that allow us to call some texts or acts of communication “narrative,” and names the open corpus of all the extant, recorded, or possible/potential texts or acts of communication that do or would manifest “narrative features.”

The identity of signifiers between the English adjective and the two aspects (grammatically determined and not determined) of the noun entails a particular way of apprehending the narrative phenomenon. What this way might be, we can begin to infer from a comparison between the lexical uses outlined in contemporary educated English and those found in other states of the English language and in other languages. Suffice it to note the asymmetry of French and English in this respect: in French, even though the adjective “ narratif” could be nominalized like any other similar adjective, this potential nominalization has not been actualized: although the English and French adjectives “narrative” and “ narratif” are fully equivalent, we translate the English noun “narrative” as “ récit .” This substantive etymologically evokes memory, repetition, quotation, a posteriori telling; it refers more to the oral, written, or visual text of narratives through which the telling is done than to the teller of the tale, who is not necessarily a “ récitant ”—especially in modern times—and is technically tagged “ narrateur ” or would be called a “ conteur ” in an older or an oral context. This fact is all the more important in view of the impact of French or French-inspired structuralism on the worldwide development of narratology and its early insistence on dismissing the figure of the author from this field of study.

Comparison with other languages would show that the terminology in the semantic field of “narrative” is culturally and historically determined and therefore generates large numbers of “untranslatables” in Barbara Cassin’s sense. The semantic field of “narrative” is covered and divided differently in each language, which does not make it easy for us to speak of “narrative” from the standpoint of modern English while purporting to discuss it as an anthropological universal. If the Arabic word qissa covers virtually any kind of story, anecdotal stories or records of matters of the Minor Way ( xiaodao ), considered as “fiction” because they did not carry a relevant moral message, seem to be separated from other narrative genres in pre-Ming China.

The use of the same signifier, in English, for the adjective and the concrete and conceptual nouns, and the presence of the same Latin etymon in a large spectrum of the semantic field (with “narrate,” “narrator,” “narration”) involve a serious risk of considering narrative phenomena as naturally unified in space, time, and the logic at work. The Proto-Indo-European root gno , unconsciously shared with “know,” can also perpetuate a confusion of informing and knowledge acquisition in general with narration and its reception. Overlooking heterogeneity is as dangerous as denying the possibility of anthropological universals.

The Word “Literature”

Contemporary uses of the words “literature” and “literary” are fraught with difficulties at least as great as those of “narrative.” The variation of social and philosophical values in the present context of fragmented cultural globalization and acts of resistance to these variations contributes to this vagueness. Where people of widely different backgrounds and persuasion, in different languages, could readily agree that (a) “Peter and Mary got married yesterday” is a narrative utterance, even the closest friends and collaborators might well disagree on whether the above sentence, or, alternately, (b) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” can be literary at all. An affirmative answer, for the first example, would always depend on a relaxation of exogenous and/or inbuilt aesthetic criteria; with the second example, it would depend on the relaxation of the principle of non-contradiction in the name of an aesthetics of surprise or an anti-rationalist stance. One could say that literariness is subject to much wider socio-cultural and historical variations than narrativity. From the standpoint of the early 21st-century West, the criteria and inclusiveness of verbal art (as opposed to verbal non-art and non-verbal art) might perhaps be reduced to four phases for didactic purposes.

In Greek- and Latin-dominant poetics—more Aristotelian than Platonic—and their afterlife, “poetry” or “poesie” would cover the artful verbal (written and oral) imitation of human action in the two large genres (drama and epic) acknowledged by Aristotle, with the necessary addition of the lyric, not considered extensively in Aristotle’s Poetics . From the low Middle Ages onward, with the development of European vernacular languages in writing, with the first traces of secularization and individualization of art, and with the nostalgia and revival of classical know-how, the belles-lettres gradually separated from popular verbal art, tending to include rhetorical and didactic genres (sermon, discourse, eulogy, apology, essay, etc.) in the field. The novel use of the word “literature” in the 18th century did little more than legitimate a process of integration of written narrative fiction that had begun in the 13th century and had seen successively the transformation of the popular tale into the short story, the gentrification of the novel (including the “romance” as supposed sub-genre), and the defense of the epic in prose as a noble art form. “Literature” (or “poetry”), verbal art—although it had always been opposed or sometimes hated and despised since the times of Plato—had on the whole steadily accumulated a huge capital of prestige by the first half of the 19th century . “Literature,” mostly in its narrative guise, had come to embrace almost all domains of knowledge and expression, except those that made use of specific formal languages rather than natural languages. The fourth phase, of which we have generally become intensely aware only from the late 20th century , had already begun in the second half of the 19th century , under the combined pressure of scientific faith and growing distrust of “the word” associated with manipulation, propaganda, exploitation, war-mongering, and genocide.

The formation of a concept of literariness no longer tied to questions of moral and social value coincided with and probably contributed to the accelerated rise of a disinterested and above all non-mimetic vision of literature. Roman Jakobson’s “poetic function,” for example, conveniently condoned a renewed sharp separation between high and low, abstract and concrete, pure and pragmatic uses of aestheticization, favoring self-reflexive poetry or the formal structures of narrative over any “referential” semantic contents or conative intention and effect. The polysemy criterion of Mircea Marghescou anticipated a post-communist attitude at odds with the actual or imagined demands of the city; 2 Roland Barthes’s “readerly” regime, reception aesthetics, and reader-oriented criticism, as well as the demise of the author and the foregrounding of the unconscious, all tended to turn literature into a playground for language games. The denunciation of universals by many postcolonial and “decolonial” theorists, together with the postmodern deconstruction of a coherent logos and the bewildering changes in the human perception of time and practice of memory—all these factors combined to support the idea that literature, at least as we had known it in our lifetimes, was indeed coming to an end. If we are to talk of literature at all, were it to accept or rejoice that it is no more, it is nevertheless a logical necessity to either describe “what was literature” or define what it could be in a differently configured world. It would be meaningless to declare dead a concept that was always empty. Moreover, there are too many traces and records of it—whether official, secret, or unacknowledged—in ordinary language and our everyday lives not to attempt to propose some ample but not vague working definition of what is literary in literary communication. It is a basic requirement here when the current corpus of what passes for “literature” is more dominantly narrative than ever, thus tightly, if unduly, conjoining two universals.

“Literature” must not be equated with the sum of supposedly literary genres any more than “narrative” with the sum of genres conventionally labelled “narrative” in any one cultural context. The fact that, before, during and after the rise of structural narratologies, the theory of literary narrative was always rooted in the study of a limited number of emblematic genres, such as the epic and the fable in the neoclassical period, the fairy tale 3 and then the novel 4 in the long structuralist period, or historiography, comics, and digital games more recently, 5 never stopped generating as many conceptual distortions as useful insights. The diversity of historically inscribed genre-based theories should, on the contrary, motivate us to work our way toward features that have a chance to be anthropologically, transculturally, and transhistorically shared.

Here, then, an act of literary communication is any cooperative speech sequence that fulfills three minimal conditions: (a) its effectiveness depends on intertextual linkage at least as much as on its internal coherence and its reference to a non-textual world; (b) the resolution of ambiguities and the reduction of tropes and other figures leave a positive surplus to the act of communication; (c) this act of communication actually generates or has the potential to generate some kind of aesthetic satisfaction in the empirical or virtual participant subjects. Literariness, thus broadly defined, can be historically modulated; it is not a static, immutable property of some classes of “texts” that other classes would not possess, but its existence does not depend on particular historical circumstances or on a grand evolutionist narrative of progressive achievement or rise and decay.

A Brief Narrative of the Poetics of Narrative

The word “poetics” rather than “theory” is preferred: first of all, narrative meaning and resonance are held to be the result of a making, a collaborative fabrication, not a given of a “text” as it stands in its own space, as early textual structuralism saw it, or a ready-made code or pattern that would reside in the minds of both receiver and sender and could be called upon, activated at will without undergoing important modifications, as some cognitivist views, like those popularized by Jonathan Gottschall would have it. 6 Second, a poetics has a normative aspect that a theory lacks: until the second half of the 20th century , all concepts of literary narrative were largely motivated by a quest for moral and/or aesthetic added value, even when they purported to be amoral or immoral and cultivated ugliness or negligence. In fact, the demand for such values or their deliberate denial still weighs upon most contemporary theories of narrative. Even though Lubomir Doležel validly argued that a change of paradigm in Western poetics, 7 from an anatomical, taxonomic view to a morphological, organicist one, emerged in the Romantic period, it is obvious it has been and is still, two centuries later, at pains to replace the earlier one.

The Aristotelian Conundrum

Aristotle’s Poetics remains, after twenty-four centuries, by far the single most influential treatise of its type in the West and, by colonial extension, worldwide. What were the motivations of such a persistent impact in spite of the Judeo-Christian revelation and revolution, when a very different attitude to the Book was now carried by the three monotheisms, when divine authorship and its truth-value imposed a unique, linear master narrative of the history of mankind always already pre-written by God? The Enlightenment; the destabilizing, iconoclastic avant-gardes; the formalist, structuralist, pragmatist, cognitivist, and deconstructionist perturbations of the basic Aristotelian tenets have also proven unable to uproot them. Whether this inexpugnable resistance is due to an ever-renewed tragic vision of life that neither eschatological monotheism nor radical skepticism could seriously alter, or whether it was propitiated by the foundational character of the Poetics , by an incompleteness that gave rise to a number of equally plausible interpretations, or on the contrary by the often schematic pronouncements it makes, pre-figuring a culture of manifestos, its system is still at the heart of contemporary narrative theories that do not refer to it at all.

“Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.” 8 If man is a born imitator, if this is one of his key defining features, his dignity and his limit, he can imitate good or evil and his innate imitation skills must be guided: the main function of art, itself imitative qua human, will be to guide imitative behavior by the receiver. And the role of poetics will be to guide art—for which a description and an evaluation are necessary. Evaluation selects the best objects and the most adequate manner within each kind of means/vehicles. But Aristotle, in these lessons, considers only the art or set of arts that uses language as its means, independently of music or meter, prose or verse, a subset that still lacked a name. We could say that this field delimitation is the one in which the notions of “poetry” and later “literature” originate. The focus is not on the materiality of the signifier but on the process of signification and how it achieves the goals of mimesis in the minds and hearts of the receivers, influencing their view of themselves in the world and therefore their actions.

“The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad.” 9 “Action” ( praxis ) or actions, “human affairs” ( pragmata ), are at the core of Aristotelian poetics. The mimesis of human actions is for Aristotle at once the shared and the sole determinant feature and primary purpose of all the arts, considered themselves at all levels as “makings of,” practicing a technique to pursue a goal. Regarding “narrative,” this choice has wide-ranging philosophical implications and hermeneutic consequences that will always complicate and sometimes hamper the task of contemporary narrative theory. On the one hand, it potentially unifies all the arts under the common denominator of narrative, allowing and even encouraging inter-artistic and trans-medial comparison; on the other hand, it excludes from the artistic domain and aesthetic enjoyment, in an unjustifiable way according to our modern view and practice, any act of expression and/or imitation that is either conceptual or merely descriptive or yet refers to natural, non-human events. Unless the making of a house, a decorative frieze, or a symphony is taken as imitation of human action, which is certainly not the primary purpose, an architectural realization, a landscaped garden, or a piece of non-imitative music are not objects of art.

Second, but more important, if non-human events such as meteors, geological, astronomical, physical events at large, or the life events of animals and plants are not valid objects of representation by literary language (unless they serve as metaphors of human actions, as in some parallels and allegories), a radical dichotomy is maintained between human nature and culture, on one side, and nature (what there is or what might be without mankind or discounting man’s action on it) on the other; we could even wonder whether this severance of man from the rest of the universe is not constitutive of the tragic condition that motivates for Aristotle the highest form or genre of “poetry.” Catharsis would serve as the fantasized healing of the repressed but active subconscious separation.

Third, the confusion of event with (human) action limits the scope of narrative discourse to its transactive level (A acts on B, there is an agent and a patient), making strangely irrelevant to poetry/literature those events and processes that involve only one (human) entity without any necessary and knowable action on its part, such as being born, growing, falling in love, becoming sick, old or stupid, and dying. Moreover, all human events that occur without the intervention of a third human party would have to be caused by the action of one part or side of a human being on another part or side of the same: the human, causal, and transactive Aristotelian notion of event paradoxically implies the universal responsibility of a subject that is at the same time inevitably fractured. Freudian psychoanalysis could be seen in this light as an attempt not only to explain and overcome the tragic burden, but to open up the Western poetics of narrative to alternate stories in which responsibility is measurable and the purgation of guilt is not the only answer.

Fourth, if the restriction of literary (meaningful) narrative to the telling of human action implies a tight bond to ethos , to character (as a quasi-person), there can be no proper narrative without the continuity demanded and provided by individual human lives and consciousnesses and their continuous interactions: the unity of argument or story line and its successiveness, conveniently reflected by textual unity and/or unity of performance (“the work”), the careful disposition of parts, the clear framing of the whole, all point at a narrativity that depends on the role of the narrator (in epic) or the concerted conjunction of players (in drama). Fragmentation, unsolved riddles, the breaking up of a spatiotemporal continuum, precisely what an event does as such according to most narrative theories, would appear as detrimental to narrativity.

Finally, since faithfully, neutrally imitating uninterpreted past human action, as in historia , would be useless from a moral and social point of view that actively concerns itself with the present and the future, the Aristotelian literary narrative is bound to embrace at least a certain degree of fictional world-making: this narrative, whether it is based on historically recorded facts, on supposed facts, or on myths and the imagination, needs fiction as much as faction, and its storytelling implies a willing suspension of disbelief, a “let us suppose that,” virtually experiencing “what it’s like.” 10 Planning a future is always, after all, a conspiracy.

It is no great surprise then that, although Aristotle’s Poetics focused on drama, it could still easily fit the semiotics of tale and the theory of the novel, as long as they could be forcibly reduced to some form of compositional and referential unity (a storyline and a story-world), and as long as their perceived purpose could be held as at least partly social, ethical, educative, and therapeutic. But, when these two conditions appeared increasingly difficult to fulfill with the formal contortions, the self-referentiality, and the proclaimed disengagement of a not so large but widely publicized and very visible fraction of 20th-century experimental writing—narrative by default—some literary theorists with an interest in narrative were forced to discard post-modern, non-“prototypical” narratives from their investigative scope, assuming also that a lower “consciousness factor” lessened the narrative experience. 11 They are doubly wrong when they treat the French nouveau roman, American metafiction, or other unconventional 20th-century prose forms as alien to the representation of consciousness, and when they think that its conventional representation, as in the “psychological” novel, enhances narrativity. From Homer to James Joyce and beyond, the contours of literary narrative cannot be drawn by story fetishism. Literary narrative uses it and questions it at once, as it swings between defamilarization and re-familiarization. 12

Problems in Contemporary Western Narrative Theory

A comparative history of modern and contemporary narrative theory remains to be written. It could certainly not be linear and its findings would doubtless be somewhat puzzling, but many of these difficulties have to do with four persistent, rarely challenged beliefs: (a) that narrative discourse and “story” or “plot” are coextensive; (b) that narrative is a kind of “language” and it has some sort of universal “grammar” or “logic”; (c) that narratives, especially literary ones, are necessarily about humans and human kind; (d) that narrative interest is provided by anomalous, unexpected events, developments, and resolutions rather than by the repetition and confirmation of standard schemata. These beliefs impose undue limitations on the theory of literary narrative.

Event, Change, and Action

The notion of “action” is related to the philosophy of action or ethics, and it is etymologically cognate to those of “author” and “actor.” It assigns an identifiable origin to the telling of the tale and also to the events told, or at least it manifests the relevance of origin and launches a regressive quest of origins that has no reason to stop or pause unless an all-powerful, all-embracing deity makes the search redundant, since every event then belongs to a self-caused world. The only difference between author and actor being that between a gesture that will be repeated and the imitation/the serious or playful repetition of this gesture, “action” tightly binds the authorial figure with character, and those two with a reader or receiver who will identify with them and re-enact what was acted by the character in the presented world. Since, additionally, one cannot just act but has to act, retroactively or proactively, on something or someone, all the elements of plot (sequentiality; connectivity; interactivity; plurality of actants; actual or potential causality; directionality, i.e., time-oriented events with a finality) are already given by the notion of action. This troubles any narratology that wishes to distinguish deeper and more elementary levels, steps or stages of meaning formation from the articulations that operate at the levels of story ( fabula ) and textual actualization ( szuzhet ). Eliminating all stratification, as did Philip Sturgess, is conducive to erasing the very specificity of the texts we commonly perceive and classify as distinctly narrative together with the difference between action and mere event or process (the difference between “John starts watering the garden” and “it starts raining” or “Marcel becomes a novelist”). 13

J.A. García Landa rewrote “action” ( acción ) as “event” ( acontecimiento ) in his early forays into narrative theory; he also rewrote “action” as a collective, holistic noun, always already sequential. 14 In his later work, he fortunately denounces the illusion produced by “hindsight bias,” renamed by him “narrative fallacy”: “The configuration effected by narrative is imaginatively projected backwards and transformed into the reified structure of experience before it is narrated—and before it unfolds, actually.” 15 Nevertheless, when the same author, together with Sturgess and many others, insists on an “inherently retrospective logic of narrative,” he still collapses the post hoc of the narrated with the propter hoc of narration. A concept of narrative logic, unavowedly placed under the aegis of “action,” conflates prior narration and its pre-formation in the mind of the narrator/author with the narrated as it is concretized by the receiver. As a result, one could not take at face value the narrative present tense, let alone the use of the future: “And then the blade (of the guillotine) falls,” or “The just will be rewarded on the Day of Judgment” do not, we contend, use these verb tenses “to mask the inherent retrospectivity of narration.” 16 Indeed, the present and future tenses of testimonial, forecasting, and prophetic narratives are more effectively narrative because they point at an event as it is happening or in its promising or threatening imminence, while the past is past, as people say, and past, preterit events exist only in the form of inert traces, inscriptions, states, however hard we try to make them come to life. 17

Narrative discourse, in its most general sense, is the discourse of change, not action; it provides a transitive view of the world. 18 Daniel Punday is eager to add a spatial dimension, one of movement, to what he sees as limited to change in time in Didier Coste’s definition of narrative meaning. 19 But, if “ sic transit gloria mundi ” could be the blasé motto of narrative discourse, then the spatial dimension is ipso facto already present in the inevitable metaphors of “passing,” “going to,” and “going through” (the Catalan language strangely uses the auxiliary verb “va” for its narrative preterit). None of these conceptual features is a priori dependent upon the supposedly logical priority of narration over the narrated, but they are not intrinsically textual either: “Far from being dependent on universal, context-free structures and traits, narrativity is largely tied to pragmatic, functional, contextual, generic and cultural circumstances.” 20 Without effacing the ontological distinction between stasis and change, what counts as event or process, what is construed as change in the elaboration of narrative meaning, certainly depends on the play of foregrounding and backgrounding.

Narration and Narrated

In his foreword to Raphael Baroni’s La Tension narrative , Jean-Louis Schaeffer states, perhaps slightly hastily, that narrative theory, after a peak in the so-called “structuralist period,” had fallen into dire disgrace in the final two decades of the 20th century , since the findings of structural narratology were held by some as definitive and obvious, while, for others, “theory” itself had become a dirty word and the very idea of a general narratology chimerical. 21 Schaeffer’s vision is probably too influenced by his focus on the French and Francophone scene. Bibliographies of narrative theory in other languages (English, German, Spanish, Portuguese) show that there was a steady flow of important books and collections in the new discipline all along those twenty years. 22 What is true is that there happened a marked shift away from “deep structures” à la A. J. Greimas toward the modalities of narration and the question of fictionality, and away from intra-textual considerations toward intertextual hermeneutics, pragmatics, reader-oriented criticism, and cognitive or psychological approaches. Not all of this research has had the same impact on the discipline. Some of the newer “post-structural” research enriched the bases provided by formalist-structuralist theories, corrected their rigidities and blunders, brought enlightening inflections. But, curiously, the development of enunciative stylistics, the study of embedded and mosaic composition, metalepsis, overwriting, pastiche, parody, and metafiction did not significantly help to strengthen the non-porous, epistemic, and pragmatic border between narration and narrated.

In a glossary entry for “Narration, narrative act,” Monika Fludernik defines these (for her) synonymous expressions as follows: “The telling of a story by a narrator, who may address a narratee. The narrative act, which corresponds to Gérard Genette’s level of narration , forms the communicative framework of the narrative.” 23 Here, at first sight, a clear-cut distinction seems to be drawn between narration as act and narrated as object produced. But many ambiguities and potentially risky presuppositions derived from the central role given to experientiality mar the simple definition:

What is told is a “story,” something sequential, coherent, presumably with a beginning, a middle, and an ending—“first things first,” as Aristotle would say—implying once again that there is a pre-formed story to be told, that “telling” is primarily “re-counting,” a repetition with or without variations. Why not, if this is what happens when a child asks Grandma to tell him the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or when I was eyewitness to a cat and dog fight and I shaped the scene into an anecdote that I will re-cite to my neighbor—and much literature relies on these rituals? But a story can never be transmitted whole and intact by the narrative act, or the narrator would be reduced to the status of a robotic tape recorder. Even the story of Snow White owes its existence, like a Rorschach test, to its myriad collaborative reconstructions by the millions of receivers it has accumulated in the course of time. “Narration” should be understood as the enunciation of a discourse or parole from which it is inferred that a story might be constructed. The “narrated” is not a story, but a program to build one in agreement or disagreement with the intentions that are deemed to underlie the text in which narrative discourse is used. The juxtaposition, in one textual frame, of two incompatible descriptions—like the before and after pictures in weight-watching advertisements—is both a program of the sort and an incentive to activate it.

If the formula “narration is the telling of a story by a narrator” is not an empty tautology, it implies that the narrator is not just a role, function, or device but that he/she is a quasi-person who should be and is usually perceived as a character active in the narrative of narrating: “According to Ansgar Nünning ( 2001 ), this narrative act is often portrayed in such a lively manner that it constitutes a ‘secondary mimesis’ of the act of narration: the narrational process itself and the figure of the narrator seem to be part of a second fictional world, that of the narrator as s/he tells the story.” 24 Autobiography and autofiction are ready examples to support this remark. Such a superimposition of “stories,” even when it is a mere projective fantasy, can be profitable to complicate literary narratives and enrich their hermeneutic ambiguities, but it can also be circular and drastically reductive, if the story of narration is expected to explain the narrated contents and their form. The most banal readings of autobiographical narratives, those destabilized by Marcel Proust and autofiction , offer arch-examples of circular reasoning in this respect. We could call this convenient naiveté the “narrational fallacy,” one so successfully exploited by self-reflexive narratives of all times, fictional or not, from Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to critical accounts of the latest terrorist attack.

It is therefore of crucial importance to avoid using the adjective “narrative” indiscriminately for phenomena and structures that pertain to narration, focalization, presented world, and gloss. In order to describe the relations between two or several narrating instances within a narrative, the unfortunate expression “narrative levels” should be replaced by “narration levels” or “narrating levels” or, better, by “narrational levels.” 25

Narrative and Narrativization/Denarrativization

If “narrative” is so pervasive in the human world that it is finally our only way of making sense of the world and of ourselves, if we are redefined no longer as mimetic (imitative) animals but as narrating animals, if speech is narrative in essence, and if we are ipso facto more human and more alive when we are more “narrative,” “tale-men” like Ulysses, there is no point in distinguishing “narrative” acts of communication from any other act of speech. Moreover, a tall tale would be more “graphic” than a sound, precise description, and the curse on the “accursed kings” a better explanation of their evil behavior than the anarchy that marked the coexistence of late feudalism with the budding nation-states of Europe.

In other words, we would deprive ourselves of the higher understanding of social and personal phenomena accrued by the two opposite mental gestures of narrativization and denarrativization, and their various modalities, depending on the shape, nature, and dimensions of time that condition these processes. Let us consider, for instance, one of the most famous among the many still renderings of the “death of the lovers” final scene from the Greek legend of Hero and Leander, a painting by Paul Rubens, c. 1604 (figure 1 ).

the literary theories

Figure 1. Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577–1640, Hero and Leander , c. 1604.

Its general structure is characterized by a circular or rather elliptical convolution of the figures, the visible shape of a whirlwind or a maelstrom, caught at a particular moment, but not situated in linear time and endless in principle. The decorative and erotic/anatomical values, typical of baroque art, are complemented by the presence, obscure but close to the few sunrays—a source of light often encountered in Christian devotional painting—of two tiny figures that seem to be flying above the main scene but are also embedded in a secondary marine landscape, under clouds shaped like eagle wings. These figures, whatever they are supposed to represent, contribute to an allegorical interpretation of the painting. If it were only for the livid, presumably dead male body floating on the surface of the sea and surrounded by very lively, full-fleshed Nereids, we could be satisfied with reading the scene as one more representation of “death and the young man,” the fragility of human lives exemplified and exalted by the age and beauty of the young deceased adult. But one human figure, on the far right side, departs from the overall structure and conventions in two remarkable ways: it is partly clad, in a red robe, and it is upside down, falling from nowhere toward the rocks or the foamy waves underneath; we cannot tell. This figure breaks the unity and permanence of the whole. We have to question it in the specific terms of “What is happening?”—“What happened?”—“What will happen next?”—“How will it end?” This figure therefore constitutes what we could call a “narrative prompter.” It is a readerly way of seeing what Amy Golahny already noted about Rubens’s innovations: “Rubens enhanced the dramatic content of his literary and pictorial sources—achieving a marked synthesis of action and expressiveness—by juxtaposing the two deaths and by giving such prominence to the nereids.” 26

In another painting, Romantic this time, by William Etty, first exhibited in 1829 , the naked, lifeless, livid body of a young man is stretched on a rocky ledge, the abrupt shore of a stormy sea. 27 A young woman, over him, upside down, embraces his torso and presumably touches his neck with her lips. Beside its somber and hesitant eroticism, beside the absence of warm colors and the shocking encounter of dominant verticality with the narrow horizontality of the sea horizon, and other formal and symbolic features that generate a whole set of emotions—sadness, admiration, fear, and compassion—in the beholder, the situation depicted is one that cannot last forever in human time, and it cannot have frozen a long time ago. The traumatic moment needs to be motivated in order to transcend trauma and achieve catharsis or at least some sort of moral recovery, and it also wants to be prolonged and/or transformed into an actualizable not-yet. This is when we narrativize our vision of the painting, supposing prior events and events to come without which the present of the scene would not be a present, could not be embedded in our experiential lifetime. We will say that the young man has drowned in the sea a short while before the moment depicted, that the young woman who expresses extreme grief may not survive the death of the young man she loved. The long title given by William Etty to his painting, “Hero, Having Thrown herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body,” does half of the narrativizing. But it is the paradoxical stillness of the painting itself that accomplishes implicitly the eventual denarrativization without which the events would remain gratuitous in the ethical realm of legend and myth. The immobility of the bodies in their perfect pose, beyond any movement and defying any alteration, tells us silently that “the lovers are now united for ever (in death as they were in life).” The chain of events also needs to be denarrativized in order to transcend transience and abolish precedence and successiveness so that narrative meaning can eventually be transformed into moral law and injunction.

In a silent movie, the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , we can see successively a figure with similar features acting good, then bad, then good again: if we say that they are the same person, we also see this person as changing, transforming, time and again; we narrativize the filmic text. But, if we say that they cannot possibly be one and the same, that there are two different characters to carry out good deeds and crimes, we have two parallel, contrasting portraits, but no change; we de-narrativize the sequentiality of the movie. And, if we hesitate between these two interpretations, endlessly oscillating between ontological identity and non-identity of the two human figures, we relativize the notion of change itself as we are tempted to refuse to choose between the different meanings generated by a linear, a circular, or a spiral vision of time. Italo Calvino has played very cleverly with successive narrativization, de-narrativization, and re-narrativization in his moral tale The Cloven Viscount .

As Jan Alber noted very aptly, Hayden White and Monika Fludernik agree that the general purpose of narrativization (“giving narrative form to a discourse”) is to facilitate “a better understanding of the represented phenomena.” 28 For White, it is a manipulation of the reader with ulterior motives—the reader is always in need of coherence, reassured by a causal chain. Fludernik argues on the contrary that “experientiality both subsumes and marginalizes plot.” 29 Her “natural” vision of narrativization, that, out of basic necessity, “applies one specific macro-frame, namely that of narrativity , to a text,” aligns once more with Aristotelian thought, and fails to see how the denarrativization of possible plots, by synchronic historiography, lyrical poetry, or even the final stasis of happy and tragic endings, fulfills the equally basic human need of resisting the tear and wear of linear time and confronting mortality with the inscription of permanence: the image of Charles Bovary sitting dead on the bench at the far end of the garden is not there just for the sake of narrative coherence, but because his clumsy love of Emma is now liberated, as it enters the non-time of metaphor. 30

Narrative Mimesis: Fiction or Non-fiction?

In the West and elsewhere, the theory of narrative and narratology (the study of narratives) at large originates in a poetics of fiction, understood as the art of “as if” and the mimesis of possible worlds based on human experience and the supposed spiritual, psychological, and physical nature of man. David Gorman notes, sadly and quite rightly, that “throughout the history of literary study, the overwhelming majority of narratives of interest to critics have been fictional; indeed, the terms fiction and narrative seem often to be used as synonyms.” 31 In spite of this initial warning, though, this author proceeds as if there were a necessary link between “narrative,” “fiction,” and “literature.” But the consequences of the reification of “fiction” are disastrous for the understanding of the phenomenon of narrative. For sure, “possible worlds,” in the sense of Pavel, Ryan, or Doležel, are crafted by the human mind; they are no longer transcendent, metaphysical objects to be discovered as they were for Gottfried Leibniz, but it does not mean that they are representations of a human world. 32 A man-made tool, including computers, is first of all a tool before it can symbolize, let alone represent, the human mind and the human condition. An encounter with the non-human has always been what happens most strikingly to humans in realist narratives as well as in fantasy. Denying the narrativity of social realism, chronicles, or scientific cosmologies, as does Herman among others, bars us from understanding the full richness of the games literary narratives play with time and being. 33

With or without boundaries between fact and fiction, three assumptions are made by most theorists who place the question of fictionality at the center of both literary and narrative theory:

Fictionality depends on the intentionality of the human/anthropomorphic sender of the message, typically a non-deceptive intention to convey meaning through the fabrication of something inexistent as if it existed. This is in apparent contradiction with Lavocat’s contention that fictionality (or “fiction”—she uses the two words interchangeably) boosts the hermeneutic drive of the receiver by creating an obstacle to the automatic, straightforward transmission of information based on a strong belief in the referentiality of the message, thus de-automatizing literal comprehension. 34 In this case, the most efficient booster of interpretation should be our wariness about the sincerity and truthfulness of the sender. As far as narrative is concerned, though, Hayden White’s rhetorical approach is the most convincing at a basic level: the narrativization of the relation between discrete objects consists in supposing an ontological continuity of these objects through (linear) time, so that discrepancies of one or more features of these objects can be interpreted as events. Narrative as such could therefore be seen as a special metonymic operation that substitutes contiguity in time to spatial contiguity, while fictionalization, indifferent to the time factor, is more akin to metaphor.

The second assumption is that since human beings experience their lives as narratives, narrative discourse is the most natural or spontaneous tool to convey meaning. This idea is a generalization of a notion acquired through the analysis of myths and fairy tales and is generally supported by both psychoanalysis and causal history, based therefore on a deterministic rule of origin: a tribe is a community by kinship, a church is a community of worshippers of the same creator and the same prophet/founder; members of the community identify with a story of themselves that was already told/written before the event. But literary narratives, from the very beginning, are different from sacred texts; they are not only the repetition of a myriad-times-told tale; their looseness turns them into a breeding ground of emergence, of the unexpected. In each embodiment of a preformed story there must appear elements that are at variance with this original story; the tension between portrait and change, between different or even antagonistic spatiotemporal coordinates, opens the playing field of possibilities that is constitutive of literariness, even for Aristotle. Narrative, insofar as it leaves these options open, can serve literariness. If it does, it is not past-oriented: you cannot change the past. If fiction was that which “makes exist what does not exist,” or was “presenting as existent what is non-existent,” it could not be differentiated from lie or error. We must sever all a priori dependence, all supposedly “natural” or experiential links between fictionality, literariness, and narrativity in order to observe their interplay and the added value that this interplay can bring to human communication. To take one obvious example, look at what happens in a modern Western secular context to canonical literary narratives such as Hellenistic romances, Hamlet , Don Quixote , Great Expectations, Mrs Dalloway , or Waiting for Godot . Each of these narratives gives an unforeseen twist to temporality.

The third assumption equates the difference between fiction and non-fiction to the opposition between referentiality and non-referentiality, referentiality being taken here in the sense of pointing at something that “exists,” that belongs to the sphere of “the real.” In the framework of a reflection about literary narrative, we will provisionally leave aside the relevance of “fiction” in communication through media other than natural languages. The reduction of “referentiality” to an empirical or scientific notion of the real is highly detrimental to a historical apprehension of both narrativity and the fluctuating ontological status of the objects involved in events. If we understand fictionality as polyreference to two or more universes characterized by incompatible features, such as sacred and profane, real and imaginary, virtual and actual, or concrete and conceptual, etc., panfictionality theory does not run against the ethical “Auschwitz test.” 35 It is not liable to accusations of negationism, as Lavocat is prone to hint. 36 Nevertheless, we have to accept that, where narrative is concerned, the principle of panfictionality generates the risk of substituting pseudo-cognitive events to material events, the story of the discovery of a “hidden truth” to the story of what happened or probably happened. Since narrative meaning is not a natural given but cooperatively constructed, negotiated, narrative truth is not a given; it can only be established through an argumentative dialog.

The future remaining generally more hidden, less knowable than the past, grand predictive narratives (apocalyptic, millenarist, or on the contrary, eutopian, idealistic projections) are a privileged terrain for preferring the neatness of a narrative Gestalt to the incoherence produced by lawless chance.

Narrative Versus Non-narrative in Literature

When Genette affirmed that there was no difference of ontological status between narrative and description, he could be held partly responsible for later developments of narrative theory that would self-defeatingly hollow out the narrative specificity of certain texts. But literature uses narrative in order to fulfill its aesthetic, ethical, and political purposes, and narrative uses literature to fulfill its own political agenda, conservative or revolutionary, communitarian, cosmopolitan, or disruptive, in particular traditions and at specific cultural moments. Storytelling is of all times, but non-narrative discourses can counter it as much as they can support it.

Narrative As a Genre of Discourse

Narrative discourse is the whole set of what is said and thought, in a cooperative or conflictive fashion, when the world of reference is seen as actually or potentially transitive, subject to change. This set of communicational transactions is the locus of narrativity.

“The degree of narrativity of a given narrative depends partly on the extent to which that narrative fulfills a receiver’s desire by representing oriented temporal wholes …” 37 Discourses can be called narrative when they manifest their participant minds’ desire or acceptation of a world view according to which existents are subject to change at one or several points of a linear temporal continuum. Although story-logic adepts 38 minimalize their role in the construction of narrative meaning or experientiality and sometimes risk confusing narrational speech events with change in the presented world, 39 events—i.e., the manifestation and perception of change—are unanimously held to be the nucleus of narrative discourse, as maintained by Genette. 40 Reis also comes to this conclusion in his commentary of Van Dijk. 41 No narrative is ever self-contained; it neither can nor has to represent a temporal whole: a closed temporal whole would cut off the temporal continuum that is the possibility condition of events. Many narratologists, confusing narrative with plot, demand a sequence or series of correlated events to label a text “narrative,” but, if all these events were locked into a closed temporal whole, with no before or after, they would amount to a static world-description, uniformly valid for a certain duration, as in synchronic historiography. Narrative discourse, as the eventful or processual discourse of change, operates in specific contradistinction with various kinds of non-narrative discourses.

Figure 2. Coste’s ( 1989 ) transformational tree, from Narrative as Communication , University of Minnesota Press, 49.

Consider one of the narrative statements presented in figure 2 , “Peter died.” It reconciles in terms of an “event” the contradictory descriptions “Peter is alive” + “Peter is dead” by indicating that they describe the entity “Peter” at two discrete moments on a linear time axis. This kind of narrative is not or is little interested in action and causality; its point is not concerned with who or what killed Peter. Such narratives are more about time (and space) than about agents. The statement “John killed Peter” combines two non-contradictory but otherwise unlinked non-transactive narrative statements: “John became a murderer (or: turned out to be a murderer)” and “Peter died.” Obviously, one key locus of narrative interest, or narrative tension, is the grey zone between the two narrative levels of discourse whose analytical complexity already invites us to indulge in multiple, or even endless, interpretation, with its accompanying emotions (hence, very probably, the temptation to equate literature with the thrill of narrative discourse). 42 More intricate and more aesthetically and cognitively exciting yet is the game played by those literary narratives of process, of becoming—the Bildungsromanen of Henry James and Marcel Proust—or of decay and decline (Franz Kafka) that hesitate deliberately between mere sequentiality (chance) and a deterministic system of causality.

Narrative discourse, whose precondition is the relevance of linear time to its meaning and significance, should not only be analyzed in this respect but also contrasted with other genres of discourse, such as argumentation, commentary, and the lyric, that have little to do with linear time or at least try to negate it through strategies of effacement and dismantling of linearity. For instance, two aspects usually studied are the prevalent question of enunciation (who speaks?) and that of the presence or absence of narrative discourse and narrative programs among the lyric: “the more a poem foregrounds vocal effects, … the more powerful the image of voicing, oral articulation, … the less we find ourselves dealing with the voice of a person.” 43 In other words, the more lyrical a poem is, the less it relies on “character,” which is still a way of making out the lyric from narrative in Aristotelian, actional, and anthropomorphic terms. Thus, along the lines of a case grammar, narrative would rather be dominated by the nominative and the accusative, while the lyric would foreground the vocative and the dative, since it is primarily concerned with calling what it names to existence and presence and seducing whoever it addresses with free offerings that would hopefully generate counter-gifts. In the European 18th century , the critique of a futile rhetoric of ornament in the lyric was followed by the Romantic surge of the expressive function: the speaking subject, in a dramatic revolutionary context, became a kind of narrator as he told his transience in an accelerated time stream.

Units and Concatenation

The quarrel of minimal units.

When Prince defined a “narrative statement” as “an elementary constituent of discourse independent of the particular medium of narrative manifestation,” adding that “the discourse can be said to state the story through a connected set of narrative statements,” he seemed to accept a commonsense constructivist view of stories. 44 But the issue becomes immediately blurred by the subdivision of narrative statements into “process statements (in the mode of Do or Happen ) and stasis statements (in the mode of is ),” implying that stasis statements are also narrative. 45 True, a text certainly does not need to contain any explicit “process statement” for us to construe its meaningfulness qua narrative; when we are told somewhere that Julien Sorel climbs a ladder to court Mme de Rénal, and, somewhere else in the same volume, that his severed head lies in the lap of Mathilde, the principle of non-contradiction requires that we situate the two stasis statements at different points along a linear temporal axis. Even if both statements were in the present tense and the second were textually placed before the first, we would have to bind them in linear time and choose between the event of death, if we do not believe in miracles, or resurrection, if we believe in them. When contradictory “stasis statements” alternate randomly, the formation of consistent, safe narrative meaning is impeded by apparent textual incoherence and the lack of allegiance to a linear notion of time. The nouveau roman as well as fantasy, surrealist texts, and magical realism have often played with the juxtaposition of incompatible “stasis statements” in this way: an excellent example is found in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes ( The Erasers ), whose Spanish translation was published under the title La doble muerte del professor Dupont (Prof. Dupont’s Double Death). But the narrative drive, however unfulfilled, remains the motor of reading; its presupposition and its astute deception oblige the reader to pay attention to the dispositio of signifiers where another kind of aesthetic enjoyment will take root.

Unlike Revaz, we should therefore remain attentive at once to the rhetorical uses of narrativization/denarrativization and to the frame in which minimal narrative (or non-narrative) units are considered. 46 Both Barthes and Genette were intuitively right when they proposed that a (coherent) narrative of any size could be seen as an expansion of a single process statement (the famous “Ulysses returns to Ithaca” for The Odyssey , or “Marcel becomes a writer” for Remembrance of Things Past ), but they erred in two ways: such minimal narrative or “process” statements, nowhere to be found in the texts under scrutiny, should also be considered as condensations or summaries of many narrative and non-narrative statements rather than minimal units similar to “Zorro has just arrived.” 47 A minimal(ist) narrative ( “recit minimal” ) must be viewed as a self-contained or self-framing act of narrative communication, but minimal units are building blocks that may fit or not in a frame drawn to satisfy our anthropological needs for continuity and coherence. Narrative syntax, in the etymological sense of “syn-tax,” is the articulation of minimal narrative units in the textual, experiential, and diegetic spatiotemporal frames required to obtain coherence, sequentiality, and, eventually, sometimes, causality.

Kinds of Narrative Syntax

Narrative syntax is far from being uniform; it does not espouse a single model: for example, “states” and “events” can be textually juxtaposed (in close succession) without necessarily inferring a referential relationship between them in the presented world, or they can appear far apart and be construed by narrative memory as bearing a necessary causal relationship—without which their co-presence in a text (in a set of acts of communication that constitute a whole) could not be justified. When we read or hear that “a bird soared, the bathtub overflowed, a dart was shot,” asyndetic parataxis does not operate in the same way as in “John met Mary, Peter threw a tantrum.” If, to put it in Laurence Sterne’s own words, “Great wits jump,” they can do it in two very different ways, either jumping to the side, in order not to be crushed by the tragic demands of narrative determinism (this is when digressions occur and at times multiply), or jumping to conclusions: if we discover, after any number of pages, that “Peter threw a tantrum” and his anger cannot be explained by anything else, we might promptly relate it to the earlier statement that “John met Mary,” inferring for example that jealous Peter was secretly in love with his virtual friend Mary, but, contrary to John, never had a chance to meet this remote screen princess in real life … In classical detective stories, clues, true or false, emerge retrospectively, hindsight fabricates past omissions and dissimulation on the background of which otherwise far-fetched causal links, newly forged, shine all the more strikingly. To quote Sterne again: “It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment … This is of great use.”

Not only is narrative syntax diverse with regard to parataxis, hypotaxis, and their more or less strict separation and/or their more or less complex combination, but it can be put to widely different uses, employed as a decoy or turned into a tremendously powerful hermeneutic and heuristic machine. Whatever these uses, deceptive or enlightening, narrative syntax is one of the main means of production of aesthetic emotions in literary narratives. Loose syntactic links, those of simple verbal consecution, often require considerable effort on the part of the interpretative community and the individual receiver at the time of putting two and two together; their fatigue and frustration may lead to an entropic or a chaotic perception of the presented world and of language itself that is not infrequent in Samuel Beckett’s works or in American metafiction but was already found in the medieval Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes—not only because it is unfinished. The wasted effort to achieve narrative coherence must be compensated by another kind of reward, an aesthetic reward. Conversely, with conspiracy theories as well as tragedy, the prevalence of tight syntactic links, a high degree of indexicality (owing to the systematic use of appropriate shifters, for example) will easily lead to the notion that everything fits all too well, that nothing happens by chance, that the fatal issue (or the happy ending, why not?) were literally bound to happen, and modern aesthetic sensibility—touchy about subjective freedom—can be hurt by the authoritarian resonance of an apparently implacable, deterministic logic.

Roles in Literary Narrative Communication

Without extrapolating the roles of anthropomorphic entities (author, narrator, character, receiver) from narrative to all literary communication or reducing these roles in narrative communication to their common denominator with other forms of literary communication, it is desirable to examine them at least in one of two ways: as virtual positions filled, when possible, by actual agents, or as empirical behavioral sets (groups of actions) conceptually projected as quasi-subjects. Actual authors, storytellers, receivers and commentators, members of interpretative communities are not only the effective human beings who carry out certain roles without which narrative meaning or significance would not happen or would not be traded and transformed into world descriptions or supports of ethical and political values. They are also those who watch their own images in the narrative text, draw them from the manipulation it exerts upon them and forge flattering or disparaging self-portraits from its interpretation. Considering that the nucleus of “narrative” is a statement of change (in the world of reference), with the status of “event” if it fulfils some particular additional conditions—of relevance, irreversibility and (perhaps) unexpectedness 48 —narrative effect consists not only in breaking a temporal continuum but also in disrupting a principle of identity or consistency. The most characteristic and striking events that can affect an entity or a character, such as birth, metamorphosis, death, name change, kinship and relationship mutations, point at the paradox of narrative: they radically alter a subject at the most fundamental semantic levels (descriptive, definitional, or even ontological—“she/he has become unrecognizable,” “she is not the same,” “she is no more”)—while at the same time identifying the altered subject as the one to whom “it” happened to become other or another. The eventness of narrative defeats our need for coherence, persistence, and stable definitions in the first place; it makes us shout “What?” or exclaim “Wow!” orally or using digital emoticons and stickers, but, at the same time, it is our readiest recourse to restore coherence, the easiest prosthesis of identity. The difficult path from trauma to reconciliation, from time as killer to time as healer, with its many setbacks, cannot be trodden by a lone subject; it requires complex games of projection and introjection, identification and dissociation; it wants a dialogical, conversational cooperation that is at once polemical and geared toward conflict-solving through negotiation and role playing. Following the track opened by The Epic of Gilgamesh , Homer’s Odyssey , Don Quixote , and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are among the most magnificent and increasingly self-conscious illustrations of how narrative struggles with its own paradoxical assumption that the subject can only manifest itself in the alterations that make it different from itself. All the theories of narrative that assign to the teller (the enunciative instance, author, narrator, or “unmediated” performer) the entire intentional responsibility of narrativity are blind to the necessary cooperation of participants in the narrative act of communication. Their collaboration consists not only in playing their respective nominal roles (“the author writes, the reader reads”) but in trying out or impersonating all the other roles: the author reads, the teller listens, the reader writes, etc. Understanding and coming to terms have a cost. The double-edged economy of narrative communication is thus similar to the oscillation between defamiliarization and refamiliarization adumbrated by Russian formalism and Victor Shklovsky. “The better a story is, the more text-like and meme-studded, the more cognitive labour it paradoxically requires, not only from tellers , but also from the hearers who become totally engaged in the process of drawing out its multifarious implicatures. This seems … certainly true of the high literary texts of a culture, where not only individuals but institutions make it their business to obsessively interpret.” 49 The same theorist pursues: “My further … contention is that the pleasure we take in retrieving perlocutionary effects … from stories, remains observable in the most ordinary of our conversational anecdotes.” This approach comes with two very important implications. First, the visibly complex narratives of high literary culture—like Joyce’s Ulysses —can and should be distinguished from simple conversational anecdotes that they do not just amplify or load with ornament, but there is no difference of nature between supposedly natural and unnatural narratives: high narratives do not necessarily proceed from low ones, or vice versa. Instead, the production of narrative significance always engages the same cooperative processes. Aesthetic and cognitive pleasure, pathos and gnosis , are intimately linked in the training of emotional intelligence, “which is to say, our skills at interpreting, simulating, and responding to emotions.” 50 The protracted debate between a merely semantic, denotational concept of narrativity and a relative, gradational notion has to do with the separation or not of sense and intensity but also with framing, contextualization, models, intertextuality, and intermediality.

Absolute or Scalar Narrativity

“Narrative designates the quality of being narrative, the set of properties characterizing narratives and distinguishing them from non-narratives … It also designates the set of optional features that make narratives more prototypically narrative-like, more immediately identified, processed and interpreted as narratives. In the first acceptation, narrativity … is usually considered a matter of kind … In the second acceptation, narrativity is a matter of degree …” 51 According to these definitions, narrativity would depend on substantive features or properties that presumably pertain to a text in which they are somehow inscribed (or missing), features ready to be recognized by a reader before he can consider, process, and interpret the said text as (a) narrative.

At the level of elementary units (sentences or even simple clauses), the presence or absence of a predicate of change is certainly decisive. Out of context, the receiver has no choice but to perceive “John came over” as narrative and “John is a boy” as non-narrative, just like a “no smoking” or “no parking” sign posted anywhere must be understood as injunctive, if they are understood at all. When the text exceeds the single sentence or clause in extension and complexity, or when a single sentence needs context to be disambiguated, interpretation is required prior to the attribution of narrative meaning. This attribution depends on framing and selection, on the readiness, desire or fear of the individual or collective receiver: the interpretative communities to which they belong will play a key role. Narrativity, then, is no longer just a matter of verifiable presence or absence of certain features in the text but a matter of intersubjective negotiation. In this sense, there would be three rather than two modes of existence of narrativity, in literature as elsewhere: the absolute and scalar modes described by Prince, but also an optional mode that occurs when we ask: “Did something happen, or what?” or when we deny the eventness of something that did happen in the world of reference, calling it a “non-event” or commenting in a jaded tone: “nothing new under the sun.” Narratives with an open ending—those, like The Magus by John Fowles, that maintain cliffhanging suspense intact until the last word inclusively, or indefinitely, suspended searches like unresolved criminal cases or filiation quests—can by no means be deemed less narrative as a whole than a conventional love romance that in the end happily marries the suitable boy with the suitable girl. Even the disjointed structures, the elusive endings, and the probabilistic futurity of so-called post-modern literary narratives have generally not met with an appropriate revision of narrative theory.

Questioning whether we are dealing with a static world (describable once and for all for the duration of its existence), with one that is in process (becoming, growing, blossoming, or aging, shrinking, and vanishing), or open to change is an essential aspect of narrative communication. Audet, quoted by Porter Abbott, makes an important point when he proposes a notion of “eventness” (not “eventfulness”) “where the tension between a before and an after seems to generate a virtuality, that of a story to come.” 52 If narrative tenses are most commonly of the accomplished past, the orientation of narrative discourse as one genre of discourse among others, or as a mode among others, is turned toward the future , the possible but not-yet. 53 Past counterfactuals, for example, mediate analogically with possible things to come. Again for the same reason, many forms of the disnarrated (“John did not come,” “Mary would not wait for John,” “Mary did not realize that John was always late,” etc.) or juxtaposed incompatible descriptions are indeed more narrative, that is more prone to induce narrative meaning than chronological lists of events (“George W. Bush was elected president, then Barack Obama was elected president, then Obama was re-elected for a second term, etc.”). The former phenomena are pro-narrative; they imply a narrative program; they call for projective narrative thinking to make sense of them. Conversely, consistent cumulative eventfulness will automatically tend toward a static worldview: a character portrait (“as eternity changes him into himself”); descriptions; physical and moral laws (“natural disasters occur whenever man neglects his duty to the divinity”). Beyond the paradox of emplotment, but similarly to its effects, the heuristic value of narrative is equally threatened by its accumulative quest of mimetic exhaustivity: “It has often been said that narrative somehow banishes chance. Leland Monk says this in his study of chance in the British novel, that ‘chance is that which cannot be represented in narrative’ despite the manifest efforts to do so in the novel of the late Victorian and modern period.” 54 Totalization, therefore, is equally “catastrophic for the categories of choice and freedom, … even while the efforts to represent free choice have produced some of the most important developments in modern narrative technique.” 55 Narrative theory should now follow the example of such developments; it must not forfeit the unexpected to satisfy the foreseeable.

This is why a distinction between quantitative and hierarchic dominance of narrative discourse remains useful. With quantitative dominance, in narratives of adventure, travelogues, picaresque romances, surreal and fantasy narratives, biographies rich in varied experience, national histories full of Sturm und Drang , something new happens all the time (discoveries and encounters, victories and defeats, gains or losses, mysteries and explanations …). In vast architectonic epics (John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained , Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri ) or elongated Bildungsromanen ( Great Expectations , Remembrance of Things Past ), a comparatively small number of major incidents are highlighted, but all descriptions, non-events, imperceptible changes eventually converge toward the formation of a single and simple summary (“Mankind was—or will be—saved,” “Marcel becomes a writer”). Since the genre of the classical, realist short story or nouvelle (not the anecdote or the folk tale) has a vocation to concentrate on a single story line and only one or a few protagonists and must at once provide enough context to make sense of the key event or process, it will often combine the quantitative and hierarchic or qualitative dominance of narrativity, as in Stefan Zweig’s works—or Guy de Maupassant’s or Henry James’s.

But literary genres like those just evoked are not abstract, transhistorical kinds; they are deeply rooted in historically inscribed, cultural conditions of production, transmission, and reception that orient the production of aesthetic and ideological value without which narrative interest would be reduced to an empty game.

Toward an Aesthetics of Literary Narrative

When a narrative is judged to be “well formed,” its emplotment, the progression of action, the spacing and collocation of incidents (events), correspond to certain narrative patterns that recall canonical/patrimonial literary, historical, sacred, or mythical narratives stored in the collective cultural memory of a civilization and/or a natural language. This aesthetic judgment bears specifically on literary narratives as narratives. Other aesthetic aspects, such as rhetorical and stylistic ornament or the lack thereof, enunciative devices like prosopopeia, or a lyrical (vocative) mode of address, may either reinforce narrativity or run counter to it. Both ornament and the well-formedness of literary narrative have been the object of many attacks over the centuries in the West, especially in certain periods, such as the baroque, the avant-gardes, and postmodernity: we will examine these attacks and their effects under the rubric of “dissident aesthetics.” Finally, we shall confront the Western tradition of narrative aesthetics with one non-Western tradition that still keeps a hold and a creative impact on contemporary literary narrative production.

Well-formedness; or the Legacy of Beauty

Even after successive ur-narratives, foundational fictions, master-narratives, and grand historical narratives all started to crumble under the combined fire of the sciences (each with its own field restrictions and limited purpose), the defeats of utopias, the experience of disaster, and the rebellion of the masses, a global narrative vision of the world (in the sense of trying to read it as a single coherent story) keeps creeping back, recalling all the losses suffered with the death of the king, the death of God and the death of empire. Ancient mythical, religious, and genealogical narratives (or their substitutes generated by and for market economy), democracy or human self-rule, the theory of evolution, and physical cosmologies share a sense that a lost order, or one that never was, must be restored or established in the end. Once the epic and even the novel were all but stripped of their credibility and relevance, the object of nostos could no longer be a fatherland; it became the art of narrative itself, in which the deepest truth and the utmost beauty were one and the same ( anagnoresis and catharsis hand in hand). But, as the human subject, now a self-made man, no longer preexists its representation, this art in turn is also threatened to be dislocated from the mimesis of action to the mimesis of mimesis.

From the beginning of the 20th century , reactions to this state of affairs have been very diverse; they are all manifested in dominant narrative theories concurrently with the steady production of mainstream literary narrative and the prosification of the lyric. Early structural and formalist narratologies dealt preferentially with simple, popular, traditional types of narrative (Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk-Tale , 1928 ; Andreas Jolles’s Einfache Formen , 1930 ) or with the short story (Algirdas Julien Greimas’s, Maupassant: La sémiotique du texte , 1976 ). French structuralism, in its softer, more flexible version, with Genette’s Narrative Discourse ( Figures III ) ( 1972 ) after Roland Barthes’s S/Z ( 1970 ), multiplied grids and codes to deal with the underlying structures of complex and ambiguous works. It is striking that the choice by Genette of Proust’s magnum opus to nourish, develop, and test his reading grids applies to a monument with a “good shape,” beginning with the evocation of a preterit habit and ending with salvation (the promise of the recovery of a past wasted because it had not been processed and recorded). The many characters, scenes and incidents in La Recherche appear in this light as so many single-minded moments and objects of a long struggle to retrieve (the memory of) the time lost and therefore become a writer. The condensation of the narrative skeleton into a single backbone (“Marcel becomes a writer”) and the imposition of a hierarchy between the red thread of a life story and its fleshing out with details (the level of “écriture”), was attacked by some early reviewers of Genette’s work, approved by others. 56 Both blame and praise were motivated by Genette’s openly anti-aestheticist attitude at the time. His structural method of description, like other methods introduced in the 20th century (literary psychoanalysis, sociocriticism), was an easy target for the “old” critics prone to accusing the “new” ones of ignoring the differential value of high literary language, the impact of stylistic complexities and ornament. In fact, we can now realize that Genette, his supporters, and his detractors alike had it all wrong in this respect: the aesthetic criterion was left intact but it found the quality of Proust’s monument in its overall design, in its engineering rather than in the refinement of the stained glass work of the “cathedral.”

Other major and massive narrative fictions of the first half of the 20th century , such as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities , were not favored by “classical” structural narratology because they did not fulfill the conditions of a successful account imposed by its methods: the outline of Ulysses purports to reproduce that of The Odyssey , but it shockingly combines the complex narrational levels and episodic elements of the epic of nostos with the unities of time and place of classical tragedy, the end product having to be read consequently as a critical, deconstructive parody of the demands of classical narrative aesthetics; Musil’s work, as a “story of ideas” and an errant quest for sense without any likely place to look for it, departs in too many respects from the goal-oriented Aristotelian notion of mimesis of actions; it was unfinishable in its principle and remained unfinished. Theorists were bound to leave most so-called postmodern and postcolonial literary narratives out of their field of inquiry, labelling them anti-narrative, if not non-narrative, or they tried rather obscurely to design specific, dissident narrative theories in order to accommodate the new dissident narrative aesthetics and the parallel oppositional tradition (Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, not The Faery Queene or Pilgrim’s Progress or even Robinson Crusoe ) on which the “new narrative” drew heavily to try and secure a place in the canon while at the same time finding in it “room for maneuver.” 57

Dissident Aesthetics

Dissident narrative aesthetics follows many different strategies of estrangement, disturbance, and renewal: foregrounding banality or accident, blurring the ontological statutory difference between objects and events, minimalism, maximalism, self-reflexivity, abstraction, fragmentation, rejection of the principle of non-contradiction, open choice between universes of reference, straining distortion or cutting up of linear time, warped frames, relative or irreversible spaces, etc. These strategies can operate at all “levels” or at any step of narrative communication, one of them can be hegemonic, or they can subtly complement each other to alter and rethink the values borne by “well-formed,” readerly, straightforward, easily recognizable narratives. An unreliable narrator (the liar, the uncontrollable chatterbox, the amnesiac, the mentally deficient, the taciturn and secretive calculating mind) will afford a ready justification for gaps and ellipses, digression, repetition, incoherence, inconclusiveness, over-information and disinformation. Conversely, ironic uses of the disnarrated, denial, and absurd maxims can build the figure of an all-powerful, manipulative author that may draw the receiver’s attention to the unconfessed manipulation carried out by whatever apparently clean narrativization of any represented world. Here, we can only sketch out a few examples of how dissident narrative aesthetics operates and how a self-labelled “postmodern narrative theory” tries to account for the varied operations of dissident narrative aesthetics. 58 Seemingly contradictory labels for the same work alert us to the high ideological stakes of tampering with the traditional ingredients of narrative significance: When Raymond Carver’s short stories are alternately or simultaneously labelled “minimalist” or “hyperrealist,” is a stock paradox like “less, sometimes, is more” sufficient to sweep off the etymological and conceptual contradiction between these terms? In the worlds of Carver’s short stories, very little happens; what is expected to happen according to the conventions of tragedy, romance, or drama fails to happen, and what does happen is reduced to triviality since it eventually does not achieve the status of story point. If we ask “so what?” the apparently pointless narrative will only echo back: “… what? … what?” The minimalist foregrounding of the trivial and/or the hyperrealist leveling out of the trivial and the non-trivial underscore the arbitrariness of the dispositio of events and the artificiality or utter lack of a causal system, the ideologically determined manipulation of literary as well as historical narratives at large.

Another interesting case is that of the comical, nihilistic, or absurdist narratives of untellability that abound in Western literature from the 18th century onward but have proliferated after WWII, with the nouveau roman, American and non-American metafiction, and Borgesian aporetic constructs. As Mark Currie remarks, “it would be misleading to describe new directions in literary theory as the cause of fictional change. There is a chicken-and-egg problem with fictional and a more general linguistic self-consciousness.” 59 If theory is not the motor of practice, or vice versa, their changes nevertheless share the same external, socioeconomic, political, or epistemological causes. The progressive but not smooth secularization of philosophical thought was concomitant with the discovery of the autonomous, exorbitant power of language and its dysfunctionality: our stories were no longer always already written by the sure hand of God, language was no longer a precious gift, the instrument of revelation, a tool meant to inform, tell the truth, and pass fair judgments; it could no longer even name mystery; its power of seduction and delusion was now other and proportionate to its inability to truly represent, to say things as they are or even as they might be, to tell (count) events as they happen(ed) or even as they might happen. When the authorship of our life stories was finally transferred to human responsibility without the means to forge a new language, fictional (and historical) literary narratives had to face the inadequacy of language, its vagaries, its constitutive incapacity to stick to experience, its usurpation of experience itself. Hence, in Tristram Shandy , the narrator’s questioning of the irresponsible behavior of his parents when they authored him, and the resolution not to do the same as the author of the book of his life. There is always an irony: the resulting theoretical fiction ponders its possible defects so thoroughly that it has to be content with describing and exemplifying the impossibility of a proper or prototypical narrative (traditionally: a mimesis of actions). The adventure (or the misadventure) of narration, as a substitute for the narrative of adventure, to use Jean Ricardou’s 60 famous chiasm once again, manifests a deep distrust of the narrative condensation of phenomena, of its facile seduction, of the relevance and accuracy of “narrative intelligence.” Theoretical fictions and metahistories deconstruct and kill narrative seduction, which may be a good thing for the critical mind and a bad one for the senses.

Are there any alternatives to this quandary? Could we find them in post-colonial narratives, and do non-Western works have a local narrative poetics of their own to rely on?

A Different, Non-Western Aesthetics? Rasa, Katha, and Narrative Emotions

Beyond implicitly recalling the principle of anthropological unity, hardcore structural semantics has little to bring to the narrative comprehension of a world increasingly divided by its push for globalization and its resistance to it. In particular, any narratology that fails to take into account the different and often complex sets of time concepts that prevail in any one culture, or its current and historical system of universes of reference, is bound to err grossly even at the elementary level of the definition and identification of narrative discourse and what it stands for.

Because some languages may foreground aspect rather than tense in verb phrases, and some cultures prefer relative to absolute dating, because some prefer to measure distances in time of transport and others in length units, we can no longer accept the diktat that the preterit or “simple past” is, generally speaking, both the natural and dominant narrative tense. Rejecting the hegemony of any one locally anchored notion of narrative does not amount to a dangerous first step toward radical cultural relativism, but to recognizing a systemic variety of contrastive processes by which narrative communication operates as a factor of negotiation—identity and consent, differentiation and dissent. While “West” and “non-West” or “North” and “Global South” may not refer to anything more than historically restricted cartographies of power and values, the objects and methods of narratology have, by definition, an anthropological dimension that makes them responsible to both the unity and diversity of humankind.

Narrative, as we already knew before Benedict Anderson, is heavily involved in the socio-historical processes of colonization and freedom struggles, globalization and resistance. Inevitably it is also, as testimony and as interpreted retelling, at the heart of discourses produced by the social sciences and/or the humanities about these modern cultural and political phenomena. In his suggestive but cautious advocacy of a “postcolonial narratology,” Gerald Prince states that “just as it endeavors to trace explicitly the definitional boundaries of narrative … , narratology tries to account for narrative diversity (for what allows narratives to differ from one another qua narratives).” 61 He insists that categories of time, tense, space, and person should be investigated across cultures. Nevertheless, no sustained effort has yet been made to relate postcolonial or non-Western practices and poetics of literary narrative communication to their respective aesthetic traditions or linguistic conceptualizations.

Indian aesthetics and poetics can be located at a safe and measurable but obvious distance from the Western (Aristotelian) tradition, with which it shares Indo-European linguistic structures and the centrality of the dramatic and epic modes of representation but not the same hierarchy of emotions or time concepts. At first sight, the combination of rasa (flavor, emotion, mood) and dhvani (suggestion) 62 that appears to be prevailing in long eras of Indian aesthetic thought in the past (although with marked variations of status) and has made a forceful comeback since the middle of the 20th century is much more closely associated with music, dance, and the performing arts, especially stage drama, than it is with verbal narrative, or narrative qua narrative. One contemporary theorist goes as far as saying that “in Indian aesthetics, the moral function of art has never been given a primary place as in the West (e.g., Plato, Aristotle et al .). Bharata in Natya Sastra … justifies dance, which fulfills the simple function of being beautiful, for leading us to delight.” 63 And again: “Morality has never been the main issue. One might find this strange. But … the rasa experience is a kind of delight that transcends ordinary levels of reality … Nonetheless [with] santa rasa … rasa experience does serve a moral function—it helps one overcome one’s worldly desires and achieve transcendence to a higher level.” 64 There are however, even in ritual practices, forms of katha that are told with an avowed moral, didactic purpose, and there are prayers, forms of puja (worship), that require the story of the prayer to be told in order to make the devotion efficient.

When Priyadarshi Patnaik applies rasa theory to Western narrative literature, he tends to denarrativize it, or at least to substitute a mimesis of mind events for a mimesis of actions. 65 This is particularly obvious in his choice of Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus and its proposed interpretation, 66 according to which purity of mind and detachment through the experience of emotions and their universalization lead to santa , the rasa of bliss: “he is superior to his destiny and stronger than his rock,” writes Camus. The presentation of Sisyphus accepting his absurd destiny as a victory is not a narrative reading; a narrative reading would show that, by eternally repeating the same useless action, Sisyphus at best defines himself and depicts his (our) world as totally iterative, unchanging.

If we take it for granted that the essence of Indian art (verbal or of any other kind) lies in a total identification of the receiver with the work of art, be it a monument or a performance, “frozen at a moment of time for posterity [or] live for the moment in specific duration,” 67 and that it always and only moves outward in expanding circles from the still center so as to return to it, we would find it difficult to accommodate in this aesthetics any of the constitutive elements of what we have called narrative communication and narrative significance so far. Furthermore, Kapila Vatsyayan insists that “neither character nor plot is important in itself. They are interwebbed as a labyrinth and drama is always cyclic in nature.” 68

When one cares to demonstrate the autonomy of Indian narrative by listing aspects, such as interiorization, serialization, fantasization, cyclicalization, allegorization, anonymization, elasticization of time, etc. 69 —some of which are supposed to be present in all Indian narratives but all being in principle absent from Western narratives unless they were influenced by the former—there is nothing much left to compare, and the anthropological notion of narrative itself is dismembered. But, as Amya Dev observes pointedly, a closer analysis would probably show “that there is more in common between the Indian itihasa [epic] and the Homeric epic than not.” 70 He explains immediately that he cannot “fully understand the distinction … between temporal and spatial narrative. All narrative to my mind is an excursion in time.” Amya Dev had detected that the nationalist effort of dedicated Sanskritists to free the roots of Indian poetics from any proximity or affinity with the West is counterproductive insofar as it enforces a radical discontinuity between Vedic and medieval narratives, on the one hand, and modern narratives, on the other, while continuities exist and should be found, also in the permanent hybridity of all cultures, India included. Sri Aurobindo’s successful fusion of Milton, Ramayana , and modernist narrative poetry in Savitri is a striking piece of evidence to support Amya Dev’s views. Paniker, while acknowledging the deficiencies of Indian “critical discourse on fiction [that] was somewhat stillborn in the Indian tradition,” takes the notion of narrative for granted and limits himself to proposing a typology. 71 However, several of the listed features, such as serialization, provide very vivid insights into universal functions of the more participative narratives, from African griot epics to interactive digital stories. We might suggest that anthropological continuities of narrative functions across cultural spaces and historical times could be found in a non-dualistic or a minima a dialectical relationship between body and mind that are shared by Greek tragedy and the ever-revisited tragicomedy of Shakuntala , in which the key events of abandonment, encounter, loss, and recognition are all present and bodily inscribed, however differently they are ordered and with whatever different outcomes.

When Rukmini Bhaya Nair dismantles the metaphysics of the one and ineffable event presented by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster as “the ultimate experience, because it is indescribable,” she confirms the necessity of reintroducing affect and individuation in historical telling: “Numbers make history … But in order to render emotion, you need the individual mode, which can only be literary and artistic. That is the paradox.” 72 Handling this paradox is exactly what has made the modern Western novel since Cervantes possible. Rather than a free-floating postcolonial narratology, this is a good example of a hybrid, glocal narrative theory, one that reintroduces traditional Indian aesthetics along with carrying out sophisticated discourse analysis and displaying a self-reflexive awareness of the theorist’s inscription as a historical (narrated) subject in argumentative dialogue. Such a narratology, fundamentally based on conversational, other-directed oral enunciation, skillfully avoids the shortcomings of both the sublime on the horizon of European romantic thinking—or on that of the suprasensuous achievement of unity in Indian philosophy—and the postmodern sacralization of antinarrative open-endedness. Narrative can easily be another opium of the people, but, if we make out its variations from the constant pleasure generated by its experience, it is also one of the best sites to investigate the verbal ways of telling and showing how self-conscious bodies change and move in space-time—that is, how to cope with the inner and mutual otherness of humans and their worlds. In Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses , the book itself metamorphoses all the time as its characters do. Genre shifting and distortions mutually correlated with narrated contents is a shared property of all but the simplest formulaic literary narratives. “Narrative is a moderately historical concept … While narrative reflects particular historical conditions in how it became an object of study and in how it is given cultural meaning at different moments, it nonetheless describes a type of discourse that transcends a number of specific historical manifestations …” 73


Narrative discourse or communication is about the world as it changes, about things that move and people who travel and are perceived differently as they change location. It is a way of registering past and present novelty and imagining, simulating, planning, or calculating novelty to come, for the sake of decision-making, of action and reaction, and also to experience and ponder the pain and pleasure of being alive. But patterns of change and novelty repeat themselves, identities are acquired through repetition of these patterns schematized as typical origins, destinations, and itineraries, so that change can be perceived or constructed anew. For these purposes, there are recurrent modes of telling without which a compelling complicity could not develop and generate a measure of consent on what happens, on how things go, tightening the links that forge and stabilize (narrative) communities for some time. When people start telling themselves different stories, when they start telling them differently (in writing instead of orally, or vice versa, in a monological or in a dialogical mode, in a chorus or taking turns of speech, etc.), the contours of the community itself change and there may or may not be someone left to tell this story. From cosmogonic myths to the storytelling of advertising and propaganda, narratives and narrations are always in a tension between scandal and banality. The verbal arts have several functions within the social, psychological, ideological, and political inevitability of narratives: they help memorize and naturalize them, strengthening the community; they manipulate them rhetorically, turning into an event something that has always been there—we call this a discovery—or turning an emerging phenomenon into a non-event—a revolution being seen as a return to a previous state of things. Thanks to “poetic license,” grammatical loopholes and language anomalies, artful narratives devise parallel worlds, possible or impossible, against which what is held as the real takes its specific shape; and they produce the pleasure, guilty or not, of seriously playing the emotions of the other, combining empathy with distinction, projection with introjection. But all art, narrative or not, must negotiate its way with and between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Literary narratives are neither natural nor unnatural; they do not belong to the id any more than to the superego. “Identifying narrative as the fictional par excellence ” generates more problems than it can solve. 74

Even when an aesthetics of emotions aims at doing away with change and difference altogether, an affective narratology will always help understand why literary narrative is the privileged playfield of the anthropological game between desire and delusion, between estrangement and recognition. The claim that “story structures are fundamentally shaped and oriented by our emotion systems,” 75 if it was supported by strong evidence and eventually proved to be true, should nonetheless be complemented by an in-depth investigation of the moving frontiers and the grey zones of narrative communication. For example, if there is no such thing as a narrator-less story, one that “tells itself,” and if no story can ever exist in “real time,” since stories always rely, even in orature, on their own deferral, any narrative will still form an odd couple with its narration. The narrative of narration, cooperatively constructed by the receiver who needs to retrace the origin of information and track down the steps of its expression, may seem to duplicate the narrated; it may overlap with it or entertain a polemic, absurd, or aporetical relation with it, but in every case, the relative porosity of narration and narrated is put to test: What happens when a reputed liar recounts only historically recorded “facts”? How does the lyric generally shun narration? How does an extended metaphor, or an initially argumentative digression, almost always slip into a narrative?

Cognitivism—the many facets of the cognitive sciences in the last fifty years—has made much, perhaps too much, of “narrative” without taking into account these fuzzy borders and grey zones that play an even greater role in literary narratives than in “ordinary” (i.e., merely referential, informative) narrative communication. Jerome Bruner says that a story occurs “when you encounter an exception to the ordinary.” 76 The intuition may be right in standard conversational situations: I will not tell my family the details of my road trip if it went smoothly, but I will tell once and again how an accident occurred, how the clutch of the car suddenly broke or I saw an elephant at the gas station. But literary, aestheticized verbal creativity will often (in traditional societies as much as in modernity) make the exactly opposite move, called ostranenie by the Russian formalists, especially Shklovsky: when banality becomes oppressive, when you need to expose its terror, you invent a story to animate it. In fact, it is exactly what realism, from the picaresque or before down to Dickens, Balzac, Zola, or Premchand, has always done. Symmetrically, in times of great plague, millennial fears, or disruptive sociopolitical changes, narrative literature will need to develop reassuring tales of ordinariness.

When Daniel Dennett gloats over the stupidity of “someone, a benighted literary critic, perhaps, who doesn’t understand that fiction is fiction,” arguing that “with regard to any actual man, living or dead, the question of whether or not he has or had a mole on his left shoulder blade has an answer,” his brand of rationalism superbly ignores that the “actuality” of “Aristotle” (the man) is only inferable in a similar fashion to that of the original Eve, that no living person will ever be able to experience Aristotle’s bodily presence any better than that of those other paper creatures called Ophelia, Catherine Linton, Emma Bovary, or Molly Bloom. 77 Dennett’s axiom ignores that narrative is not about having or not having a property or feature, but about acquiring or losing it. Literary narrative intelligence remains the best safeguard against the so-called “narrative paradigm” that posits an all-embracing maxim where narrative is any verbal and nonverbal interpretation arranged logically to generate a meaning. 78 Literary intelligence teaches us that narrative, as it plays with what was not but now is and with what now is but may not be later, is as much a device used to dissimulate an unchanging nature of things as it helps come to terms with an ever-changing world, enjoying the benefits of emotional education in the process.

Further Reading

1. Monika Fludernik , “Histories of Narrative Theory (II): From Structuralism to the Present,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory , eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).

2. Mircea Marghescou , Le Concept de littérarité: Critique de la métalittérature (Paris: Éditions Kimé, 2009).

3. Vladimir Propp , Morphology of the Folktale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).

4. Gérard Genette , Figures III , Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), trans. Jane E. Lewin as Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980).

5. Françoise Lavocat , Fait et fiction: Pour une frontière , Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2016).

6. Jonathan Gottschall , The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Mariner, 2012).

7. Lubomír Doležel , Occidental Poetics: Tradition and Progress (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); and David Herman , “Histories of Narrative Theory (I): A Genealogy of Early Developments,” in A Companion to Narrative Theory , eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 19–35.

8. Aristotle , “Poetics,” in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation , ed. Jonathan Barnes , vol. 2 of Bollingen Series 71 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2317–2318.

9. Aristotle, Complete Works , 2317.

10. David Herman , Basic Elements of Narrative (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 137–160.

11. Herman, Basic Elements , 139.

12. Victor Shklovsky , Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar , trans. Shushan Avagyan (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011).

13. Philip J. M. Sturgess , Narrativity: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992).

14. José Ángel García Landa , Acción, relato, discurso: Estructura de la ficción narrative (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1996), 19.

15. José Ángel García Landa , “Narrating Narrating: Twisting the Twice-Told Tale,” in Theorizing Narrativity , eds. John Pier and José Ángel García Landa , Narratologia (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 419–451.

16. Suzanne Fleischman , Tense and Narrativity: From Medieval Performance to Modern Fiction (London: Routledge, 1990), 131, quoted in García Landa, “Narrating Narrating,” 431.

17. Jean-Paul Engélibert , Apocalypses sans royaume: Politique des fictions de la fin du monde, XXe–XXIe siècles (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2013), 121–134.

18. Didier Coste , “Narrative as Communication,” Theory and History of Literature , 64 (1989): 4.

19. Daniel Punday , Narrative Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Narratology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 189–190.

20. José Ángel García Landa , “Emergent Narrativity,” in Linguistic Interaction In/& Specific Discourses , eds. Marta Conejero , Micaela Muñoz , and Beatriz Penas (València: Editorial de la Universitat Politècnica de València, 2010), 109–117.

21. Raphaël Baroni , La Tension narrative: Suspense, curiosité et surprise , Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007), 11.

22. Monika Fludernik , An Introduction to Narratology (New York: Routledge, 2009), 171–182.

23. Fludernik, Introduction to Narratology , 157.

24. Ansgar Nünning , “Mimesis des Erzählens: Prolegomena zu einer Wirkungsästhetik, Typologie und Funktiongeschichre des Akts des Erzählens und der Metanarration,” in Erzählen und Erzählentheorie in 20 Jahehundert: Festschrift für Wilhelm Füger , ed. Joerg Helbig (Heidelberg: Winter, 2001), 13–47, quoted by Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology , 157.

25. Didier Coste and John Pier , “Narrative Levels,” in Handbook of Narratology , eds. Peter Hühn et al. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 294.

26. Amy Golahny , “Rubens’ ‘Hero and Leander’ and its Poetic Progeny,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1990): 21–37.

27. William Etty , Hero, Having Thrown Herself from the Tower at the Sight of Leander Drowned, Dies on his Body , 1829, oil on canvas, The Tate, London. Reference no. T12265.

28. Gerald Prince , “Narrativity,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory , eds. David Herman , Manfred Jahn , and Marie-Laure Ryan (London: Routledge, 2005), 386–387; Jan Alber, “Narrativisation,” in Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory , eds. Herman et al., 386–387.

29. Monika Fludernik , Towards a “Natural” Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996), 311.

30. Fludernik, Towards a “Natural” Narratology , 34.

31. Prince, “Narrativity,” 163.

32. Lubomír Doležel , Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 14; Marie-Laure Ryan , Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 29; and Thomas Pavel , Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 50.

33. Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative , 137–160.

34. Françoise Lavocat, “ Pour une herméneutique spécialisée de la fiction ,” in “Pourquoi l’interprétation?,” Fabula-LhT14 (2015).

35. Coste, “Narrative as Communication,” 108.

36. Lavocat, Fait et fiction .

37. Gerald Prince , Dictionary of Narratology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 64.

38. David Herman , Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 27–51.

39. Herman, Story Logic , 40–41.

40. Gérard Genette , Narrative Discourse Revisited (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 19.

41. Carlos Reis and Ana Cristina M. Lopes , Dicionário de narratologia (Coimbra: Almedina, 2002), 277, quoted in Teun A. Van Dijk and Walter Kintsch , Strategies of Discourse Comprehension (New York: Academic Press, 1983), 154.

42. Charles Grivel , Production de l’intérêt Romanesque (The Hague: Mouton, 1973); Raphaël Baroni , La Tension narrative: Suspense, curiosité et surprise , Poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007), 11.

43. Jonathan Culler , Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 176.

44. Prince, Dictionary of Narratology , 63.

45. Prince , Dictionary of Narratology , 63–64.

46. Françoise Revaz , Introduction à la narratologie: Action et Narration (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: De Boeck/Duculot, 2009).

47. Roland Barthes , “Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits,” Communications 1 (1966): 1–27, trans. Lionel Duisit as “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” in On Narrative and Narratives, New Literary History 6.2 (Winter 1975): 4, 237–272, quoted in Genette, Figures III , 75.

48. Wolf Schmid , Narratology: An Introduction , trans. Alexander Starritt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 8–21.

49. Rukmini Bhaya Nair , Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 181.

50. Patrick Colm Hogan , Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 77, 245.

51. Prince, “Narrativity,” 387.

52. René Audet , “Narrativity: Away from Story, Close to Eventness,” in Narrativity: How Visual Arts, Cinema and Literature are Telling the World Today , eds. René Audet et al. (Paris: Dis Voir, 2007), 7–35, quoted in H. Porter Abbott , “Narrativity,” in Handbook of Narratology , eds. Peter Hühn et al., Narratologia (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 309–328.

53. Porter Abbott, “Narrativity,” 323.

54. Mark Currie , The Unexpected: Narrative Temporality and the Philosophy of Surprise (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 148.

55. Currie, The Unexpected , 148.

56. Jean-Louis Bachellier , “La poétique lézardée: Figures III , de Gérard Genette,” Littérature 12.4 (1973): 107–113.

57. Ross Chambers , Room for Maneuver: Reading Oppositional Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

58. Mark Currie , Postmodern Narrative Theory , Transitions (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 54.

59. Currie, Postmodern Narrative Theory , 54.

60. Jean Ricardou , Pour une théorie du Nouveau Roman , Tel Quel (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971).

61. Prince, “Narrativity,” 374.

62. Dhanajay Singh , “ Dhvani as a Method of Interpreting Texts,” in Sabda: Text and Interpretation in Indian Thought , eds. Santosh K. Sareen and Makarand Paranjape (New Delhi: Mantra Books, 2004), 258–26; and Surendra Sheodas Barlingay , A Modern Introduction to Indian Aesthetic Theory: The Development from Bharata to Jagannatha (New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2007).

63. Priyadarshi Patnaik , Rasa in Aesthetics: An Application of Rasa Theory to Modern Western Literature (New Delhi: DK Printworld, 1997), 48–49.

64. Patnaik, Rasa in Aesthetics , 49.

65. Patnaik, Rasa in Aesthetics , 48–49.

66. Patnaik, Rasa in Aesthetics , 186–188.

67. Kapila Vatsyayan , Bharata: The Natyasastra (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), 110.

68. Vatsyayan, Bharata , 110.

69. K. Ayyappa Paniker , Indian Narratology (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in association with Sterling Publishers, 2003), 1–7.

70. Amya Dev, review of Indian Narratology , by K. Ayyappa Paniker, Indian Literature 47.6 (2003): 214–217.

71. Paniker, Indian Narratology , 1–17.

72. Bhaya Nair, Narrative Gravity , 305, 208.

73. Daniel Punday , Narrative Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Narratology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 185.

74. Fludernik, Towards a “Natural” Narratology , 36.

75. Hogan, Affective Narratology , 1.

76. Jerome Bruner , Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 46, quoted in Hogan, Affective Narratology , 77.

77. Daniel C. Dennett , “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity,” in Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives , eds. S. Kessel et al. (Hillsdale, NJ: Psychology Press, 1992), 103–114.

78. Walter R. Fisher , Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).

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Chapter 17 - The Author in Literary Theory and Theories of Literature

From part ii - systematic perspectives.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 June 2019

We have become accustomed to regarding the question of the author in literary criticism and theory in anti-authorial terms. It is a quaintness of modern literary theory that the author, whom we would, commonsensically, expect to be the central agent in the production of the literary work, has, for the most part of the past century, been considered a liminal character of minor importance to literary criticism, and, if not completely dead, then at least a ghost haunting the limits of the literary work of art.

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Literary Theory

What is literary theory, literary theory anthologies, humanities librarian.

"A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important.

For example, if a critic is working with certain Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post-colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean. " 

- Purdue Online Writing Lab, Literary Theory & Schools of Criticsm

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Open Yale Courses

You are here, introduction to theory of literature.

the literary theories

This is a survey of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. Lectures will provide background for the readings and explicate them where appropriate, while attempting to develop a coherent overall context that incorporates philosophical and social perspectives on the recurrent questions: what is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring, 2009. The Open Yale Courses Series. For more information about Professor Fry’s book Theory of Literature, .

Richter, David, ed. The Critical Tradition , 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2006.

Two short papers (5-7 pp.) will be required (each counting for 30% of the grade), and there will be a final exam (25% of the grade). Graduate students may either do these assignments or opt to write a 20-25 pp. term paper and be excused from the exam. Attendance at sections is crucial, as discussion is needed to ensure understanding of the material, and participation in this discussion will count for 15% of the final grade.

Paper 1: 30% Paper 2: 30% Final paper: 25% Discussion section attendance and participation: 15%

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This Open Yale Course is accompanied by a book published by Yale University Press.


Literary Criticism: Literary Theories

Literary Theories

Need a refresher about literary theory? The following web sites provide descriptions of literary theories, tips for applying the theory to a work, and additional resources you may wish to consult.

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Richard Wright

the literary theories

Virginia Woolf

the literary theories

Edgar Allan Poe

the literary theories

Flannery O'Connor

the literary theories

How to Find Literary Criticism That Uses a Particular Approach or Method in the MLA International Bibliography from MLA International Bibliography on Vimeo .

What is Literary Theory?

"Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts. ... All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts." Deborah Appleman

"A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important." Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism


Below or just a few of the many literary theories or lenses that you can use to view and talk about art, literature, and culture.

To help you decide on a literary theory and to begin analyzing your chosen text, consider the questions presented below:

Feminism :: Questions for Analysis

Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson).   Purdue OWL

Is the author male or female?

Is the text narrated by a male or female?

What types of roles do women have in the text?

Are the female characters the protagonists or secondary and minor characters?

Do any stereotypical characterizations of women appear?

What are the attitudes toward women held by the male characters?

What is the author's attitude toward women in society?

How does the author's culture influence her or his attitude? Is feminine imagery used? If so, what is the significance of such imagery?

Do the female characters speak differently than to the male characters? In your investigation, compare the frequency of speech for the male characters to the frequency of speech for the female characters.

Bressler, Charles.  Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Marxism :: Questions for Analysis

Based on the theories of Karl Marx (and so influenced by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system.

​ Is there an outright rejection of socialism in the work?

Does the text raise fundamental criticism about the emptiness of life in bourgeois society?

How well is the fate of the individual linked organically to the nature of societal forces? What are the work's conflicting forces?

At what points are actions or solutions to problems forced or unreal?

Are characters from all social levels equally well sketched?

What are the values of each class in the work?

What is valued most? Sacrifice? Assent? Resistance?

How clearly do narratives of disillusionment and defeat indicate that bourgeois values - competition, chauvinism - are incompatible with human happiness?

Does the protagonist defend or defect from the dominant values of society? Are those values in ascendancy or decay?

Cultural Poetics or New Historicism :: Questions for Analysis

This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time .

​ What kinds of behavior, what models of practice, does this work seem to reinforce?

Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?

Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?

Upon what social understanding does the work depend?

Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained implicitly or explicitly by this work?

What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected?

Gender Studies :: Questions for Analysis

Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture.

What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles?

What sort of support (if any) is given to elements or characters who question the masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those elements/characters?

What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in...the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters?

What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?

How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who are apparently homosexual?

How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual "identity," that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?

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Literary Theory of Differences in Kinds of Books Men and Women Choose to Read - Coursework Example

Literary Theory of Differences in Kinds of Books Men and Women Choose to Read

Extract of sample "Literary Theory of Differences in Kinds of Books Men and Women Choose to Read"

Studies have been done to determine the differences in the kinds of books that men and women choose to read. Many publications have been made in an attempt to explain the impact of gender on the reading culture between men and women (Bourdieu Pierre-1664).

Leisure pursuits have resulted in the development of several traits among men and women such as aggressiveness and the pursuit of individualistic and self-inspired behaviors. These have impacted confidence, self-esteem, goals and aspirations, and characteristics that are strongly related to the realm of work.

These studies have revealed results that have to be considered by all writers to ensure their target audiences are reached. The main authors that have conducted extensive studies on the impact of gender on literary writing are Bourdieu and Cixous. They provide a discussion of the importance of identifying women’s writings from those of men and suggest rules that can be applied in writing novels that ensure the needs of readers are accounted for in terms of gender needs. They also provide cultural theories that have been used to explain gender inclination towards certain types of books.

The development of inclinations in reading culture between men and women dates back to the 20th century when men were involved in working to earn income that assisted in providing the needs of their families while women were involved in taking care of children and homes (Calhoun, Craig, et al-110). These spheres of ideology have spilled over from the 20th century and have resulted in different types of leisure between men and women. Men have usually been involved in taverns, gentlemen's clubs, and dances while women have been involved in amusements within the house such as playing the piano, reading, conversations, and crafts (Fowler, Bridget-342). Thus reading among women was mainly focused on an activity that could be performed in private places within the homes but it involved the ideology of separate spheres. Many articles, in essays, magazines, and journals put more emphasis on reading among women.

On the other hand, men tended to read articles that were mainly related to the public realm while women used their identity as mothers to read books that separated them from the public realm. This paper investigates the arguments of Bourdieu and Cixous who have done extensive studies on the differences in books read by men and women. It also provides a methodology that tries to examine whether women read more fiction than men as well as an investigation of the impacts of reading culture among women because of the existence of plenty of time for reading. 

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the literary theories

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What is literary theory? An Introduction

Literary theory and criticism Series Alok Mishra Literature English

What is literary theory? Let’s Understand! 

This question pops up to me every time I meet youngsters who have just begun studying English literature. Moreover, also when I get together with research scholars and professors. And therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to say that literary theory is in fashion and it has been the case for a long time. Today, in this article, I would do my best to make sure that anyone who reads this article to the last line goes home with a complete understanding of the concept that we call literary theory. It should be interesting to note while many of us, students and beginners, know this or that thing about deconstruction, ecocriticism, structuralism and other theories, we seldom bother defining literary theory! Amusing, isn’t it? I have also made a video, short and comprehensive, on this topic and I will add that video here as well as on YouTube so that the readers who rather like to have a visual presentation can enjoy that as well. Without getting into the infinite of arguments and caveats, let’s get into the subject now.

Literary Theory: The idea before we get a suitable definition

The purpose of this section is to introduce the readers to the basics of literary theory before we get into defining that idea. The term theory generally hints at how & why of any execution, action or plan. Here also, even if we have added ‘literary’, the meaning of the term theory does not change. However, when we add literary before theory, we are certainly impacting the connotations. We are limiting the scopes of the term theory. So, the questions or notions relating to how and why of anything relating to literature will be dealt with by the concept called literary theory. Do you get this thing? In simple terms, the very idea of it concerns with literary interpretations, studies, assumptions and conclusions. It impacts the mindset of a reader during the reading of any literary work as well as during critically approaching any literary work. I hope the basic idea should have been easily understood by the readers by now. I will get to the best possible definition of our subject in the next section.

Definition of Literary Theory:

Though it would certainly be naive to put it forth, however, it is surprising that none of the authors with very wonderful titles in the field of literary theory have ventured to define this very thing called literary theory. It would certainly have been encouraging reading the definitions of this broadly-connoting idea by the scholars who have made name for themselves. However, since we don’t have that luxury, it is our job to make our efforts and try to construct a suitable definition. While there are many definitions already available on the internet, I think an easier, comprehensive and a little more than short definition would make the whole concept simple for beginners and comprehensive for advanced level students. Here is an attempt:

“A Literary Theory is a body of logically derived and not easily refutable ideas in a systematic order that we can use while we critically interpret a literary text.”

This definition leads us to understand the act called literary criticism and the person called a literary critic. The act of critically interpreting any literary text with a certain literary theory in mind is called literary criticism and the person involved in this intellectual (rarely emotional) exercise is called a literary critic . The act of literary criticism, in the modern context, has become synonymous (almost) with the idea tossed by I. A. Richards – practical criticism.

Relationship between Literary Theory & Literary Criticism: 

To be frank, it is too naive a question to ask if someone really falls for it. What is the relationship between literary theory and literary criticism? Look at the names themselves. Both theory and criticism have literary as the prefix. Therefore, it is natural that there must be something common between them in the context of their concern with literature. A work of literature or a literary text becomes the playground where a literary critic comes up with a literary theory after an extensive analysis of the given text. Once the theory is established and becomes popular, other concerned people with literature learn about that particular literary theory and subsequently use that theory when they study any literary text in the direction specified in that particular theory. So, in short, the literary text is the basis of this relationship at the outset. This may have become an elaborated background but it was necessary for the beginners to understand the connection in the context of origins of literary theory and literary criticism.

Now, to cut things short and to establish the relationship at a logical level, between literary theory and literary criticism, a very simple idea can drive the cause to its conclusion. Any particular literary theory is the foundation for an act of literary criticism in a particular direction or context or purview. For example, Ecocriticism theory will be the foundation of any study undertaken by a scholar to trace the environmental references in the work of T. S. Eliot.

Though this was the shortcut to establish this relationship which was necessary because many students have asked me about it, I will be writing an entirely different article on this subject. That will be advanced in connotations and meanings and will be useful for those who want to dive to the depths of this wonderful relationship.

Differences between Literary Theory and Literary Criticism:

Once again, this question is too naive if someone asks what are the differences between literary theory and literary criticism. Why do I say so? This is too easy to comprehend. One is a set of ideas or rules that become guiding principles for an act that is called literary criticism. So, the basic and the fundamental difference between literary theory and criticism is that one is theoretical and another is practical. Literary theory is the theoretical part and literary criticism is the practical part of the same larger idea that concerns with the analysis of a literary text.

Like I shared above, I will also be writing an entirely different piece on this subject. I will write it very soon and I will share the link here so that the curious readers who want to go into further details of differences between literary theory and literary criticism can enjoy that article. Right now, we will get into other interesting details related to our major topic. Read the detailed article here: Difference between literary criticism and literary theory

Going into the depths of literary theory and literary criticism:

While this is not very wise to get into the depths of the idea called literary theory and criticism for the beginners and ‘early days’ students of English literature , I will give all of you a 360° view of some of the important, also absurd, contributions, interesting facts and complicated ideas related to literary theory. Let’s begin this happening journey:

As we have had our time with some of the weird ventures into the world of literary theory and criticism, let’s get to the next stage and we will learn the basics of the popular literary theories.

Literary Theories of different types: 

Dear readers, now, it’s time to read about types of literary theories. To know more about popular literary theories and their basic introduction, you should read the next article in this series. Click the link below to read it now:

Next article in the series: Types of Literary Theories

This article was written by Alok Mishra for English Literature Education. Alok Mishra is a well-known literary opinion maker, book critic, literary critic and a dedicated literary philanthropist. If you want to join him on his mission to make English Literature easy and freely accessible without the necessary burden of forced interpretations and complicated notions, you can write get in touch with him by visiting his official website: Alok Mishra

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17 Comments . Leave new

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I liked the way you have presented this article. It helped me a lot with my preparation for the exams at hand.

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That’s a wonderful article. I really appreciate the words you have put up here for many to learn and understand literary theory. Keep doing the great job!

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This is a very well-explained article! Many thanks for putting such a work online for free.

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Very well explained… I was very confused about literary theory until I read this article on this website. This explains the concept aptly and also discusses theories of various kinds in detail in the next articles. Thanks again.

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सर शायद विभिन्न स्रोतों से पढ़ने के कारण मैं कन्फ्यूज हो गई हूँ जिससे मैं अभी भी इसे समझ नहीं पा रही हूँ आशा है जल्द ही समझ जाऊँगी

आपका बहुत बहुत धन्यवाद

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एक से अधिक स्त्रोतों से अध्ययन में सहायता लेना सर्वथा ही उचित है, अनामिका! यद्यपि, यह अवश्य ध्यान रहे की आप जिन स्त्रोतों का चयन अपने अध्ययन के लिए करती हैं वो उस योग्य हों। तत्पश्चात, यह भी सुनिश्चित करें के आप सर्वप्रथम किसी सर्वमान्य स्त्रोत से इस विषय की प्रारंभिक जानकारी एकत्र करें एवं उसे सम्पूर्णता से समझ लें! आशा है उसके पश्चात आपकी समस्या नहीं रहेगी। इस आलेख को पढ़ने के लिए धन्यवाद!

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Thanks very much for your effort, I can say you are almost there. I would like you to please do a video on how to critically analyze a text using any theory ( marxist perspective, ecocriticism, feminisms, negrotudism, post coloniality etc. )

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that’s very amazing sir,but sorry!! I want to ask you important question, firstly I’m an English student/student that loves English very plenty but my major problem concerning English is literature in English/literature!! I don’t know how to read a text and find out the settings, and the rest of them,so please can you help me with an ideas of how to find out the settings, plots,and whatsoever?

' data-src=

The part talking about science VS art is hard for me to understand;help plz

honestly speaking, whenever; i need help i look durectly for indins videos and articuls. Guys you

' data-src=

Very much pleased with that explanation

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First ,I must say thank you.your View about literay text and techniques are intersting and acceptable.

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Hello Sir! I come across with your page and I love your cause of sharing great things about literature. Please allow me to work with you 🙂

Thanks for your message, Mayet! We truly appreciate your wish and you will receive a message from our side very soon. Best wishes!

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well done, thanks

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I would like to thank the author of this article. I understood what literary theory is and also its differences with literary criticism. The article is written in a simple language and it really helped me. Please write about other literary theories in detail so that I can have a complete idea of different literary theories. thanks again!

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1.2: What Is Literary Theory?

When you hear the word “theory,” you might think first of the natural sciences, rather than of literature. In the sciences, theories are systems for understanding how an aspect of the world works: they can be used to explain past phenomena and predict future behavior. Thus we hear about the theory of evolution or the search for the unified theory of the universe.

Theory doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in literature. However, literary scholars do understand their subject through literary theories , which are intellectual models that seek to answer a number of fundamental interpretive questions about literature. In How to Do Theory , literary critic Wolfgang Iser suggests that the natural sciences (and the social sciences to a large part) operate under hard-core theories, whereas the humanities use soft-core theories.Wolfgang Iser, How to Do Theory (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). Simply put, hard-core theories lead to problem solving and are governed by general laws and rules; they predict and rely on objective fact. Soft-core theories, on the other hand, do not problem solve but predict—they map ideas and are not necessarily governed by laws but by metaphors and images.

Thus literary scholars use theories that are more descriptive of ideas—which map ideas more than quantify them. Such scholars are guided by questions that may include the following:

These are very broad versions of the questions that literary scholars ask in their work, but you can probably already see that different scholars are likely to have very different answers to many of them. Thus we often talk about different “schools” of literary theory. Each school prioritizes certain concerns for talking about literature while deemphasizing others. Thus one critic might focus on the representation of women within a given story or poem (feminist theory), while another critic might concentrate on representations of unconscious desire in that same text (psychoanalytical theory). Though they’re studying the same text, these two critics may come to very different conclusions about what is most interesting in that text and why.

This book will walk you through many of the primary schools that have shaped literary theory over the past century. Each chapter aims not to simply define a given theory but to show what it looks like in practice. In order to teach you how to employ literary theories, in each chapter we walk you through a sample student paper that demonstrates how other undergraduates have used a given theory to better understand a particular story, poem, play, or other literary work.

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Literary Criticism and Theory

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Have you ever suspected that Iago had a thing for Othello? Have you ever wondered whether Hamlet’s issues with his uncle are related to his attachment to his mother? Congratulations! Whilst you may not have been aware of doing so, you’ve been doing what literary critics have been doing for years: you have thought about theory.

In this article, we're going to take a closer look at the definitions of literary criticism and theory and four of the key lenses through which literature can be discussed and analysed.

Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory

You may have heard the popular phrase ‘art imitates life’, a shorter version of the idea featured in Aristotle’s Poetics . Aristotle argued that the purpose of poetry, as an art form, is to imitate the world around us through language. This is an early example of a literary theory and has been used as a way to interpret works of literature.

So, l iterary criticism can be defined as the practice of analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature, and l iterary theory consists of the many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics use to study literature.

Literary Criticism and Theory, a statue of Aristotle, StudySmarter

Literary Criticism: Approaches

As you may have gathered by now, there are quite a few schools of literary theory! Even better, new theories and new branches of existing theories are being developed all the time. However, as an introduction to literary theory, let's start with the following four approaches: feminism , marxism , psychoanalysis , and postcolonialism .

Feminist literary readings involve interpreting literature and literary texts through the lens of feminist ideology. Feminist ideology seeks to explore patriarchy and female oppression throughout history and has a long legacy of political controversy. There are (arguably) four waves of feminism, which we will briefly summarise here:

Whilst this is not the first instance of feminist thought or ideas, the first politically impactful wave of feminism arose around the mid 19th century. Its birth is credited to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women , which was published in 1792. This wave of feminism focused on attaining legal rights, most notably the right for women to vote. In the UK, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 which allowed property-owning women over the age of 30 to vote, and the USA followed suit in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. However, it was mostly middle-class white women who benefitted from these new pieces of legislation, and the movement was heavily criticised for its lack of focus on the rights of women who faced additional oppression across the lines of class, race, sexuality, and disability.

Did you know: Mary Wollstonecraft was also the mother of Mary Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein (1818).

Second wa ve

The second wave of feminism developed around the 1960s and 1970s and focused more on patriarchal institutions that enabled female oppression. Emphasis was placed on how women were treated in the home and the workplace, which also meant questioning traditional family and gender roles along with the institution of marriage. Queer theory , which is also a form of literary criticism, also developed around this time and overlaps in ways with second-wave feminism.

The third wave of feminism started in the 1990s. As pointed out by Elizabeth Evans, third-wave feminism is ironically characterised by a lack of a ‘defining feature’ in comparison to the previous two waves. 1 This movement popularised the emphasis on choice, individuality, and diversity in feminism, allowing activists to redefine and expand what it meant to be a woman and a feminist. This wave also popularised intersectional feminism, with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coining the term ‘ intersectionality ’ in 1989.

I ntersectionality examines the ways in which people can experience oppression in multiple ways; for example, discrimination on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, and disability can 'intersect' with and add to the experience of gender-based oppression.

Fourth Wave

The fourth wave is seen as an ‘offshoot’ or, to some, a development of the third wave (some critics argue that the third wave never stopped). Starting in the early 2010s, this wave places an emphasis on intersectionality and dismantling the first and second wave’s brand of ' white feminism' (a key criticism of feminist theory).

'White feminism' is a term used to describe feminist theory that centres on the experiences of white women while neglecting the experiences of those who experience oppression on multiple levels.

There is also a fresh focus on modern 21st-century phenomenons such as social media, which led to the success of the #MeToo movement which raised awareness of the sexual violence and harassment that women experience. Furthermore, discussions surrounding women in the workplace, equality for marginalised groups of women (such as trans women and women of colour), and sex positivity, have received increased attention. This has also led to another branch of fourth-wave feminism, otherwise known as radical feminism, that argues that sex positivity has gone too far and campaigns for the banning of pornography and sex work.

Whilst feminist theory is popularly explored in contemporary literature, for example in Margaret Atwood ’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), many critics have also used it to critique far older works of literature, such as biblical stories and Greek myths.

A popular example of feminist interpretations of older works that you may encounter is a discussion of Virgil’s Dido from The Aneid .

Dido was the widowed ruler of Carthage and is portrayed by Virgil as a competent ruler and politician before meeting Aeneas. Her love for Aeneas eventually drives her to suicide. Therefore, many feminist critics see her as an example of a woman who exemplifies positive male Roman qualities: loyalty (to her dead husband), political dedication, a strong sense of duty. And yet, because she is a woman, she is doomed to fail within the patriarchal framework of The Aneid.

Other significant feminist works include The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath, Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott, The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison , and The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin .

Some influential feminist critics are Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Germaine Greer, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Marxist literary theory aims to interpret and analyse literature through the lens of economic and social class, drawing heavily from the works of the famous philosopher and political thinker Karl Marx. A Marxist literary critic will argue that all literature and criticism is reflective of class struggle.

Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, in which he theorised that human history can be defined by a 'class struggle' that will eventually conclude in the replacement of capitalism with socialism .

Socialism is a term used to refer to a political system in which the means of production is regulated by the public, as opposed to private business.

Marx divided society into two groups:

The bourgeoisie is a class of individuals who control and benefit from the means of production.

The proletariat is a class of individuals who work for the bourgeoisie and do not control the means of production.

We can see a reflection, exploration, and criticism of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat throughout literary history. Famous examples of Marxist novels include 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell , Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo, and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck .

Whilst Marxist literary criticism originated in the 1800s, literary theorists have also applied these ideas to less modern literature.

There have been many Marxist readings of Chaucer’s works. There is even a case to be made for a Marxist reading of Macbeth ! During the time that Macbeth was written, King James I was in power and financed much of Shakespeare's work, including Macbeth itself. The play could therefore be interpreted as a form of monarchal propaganda that warns of the dangers of disrupting the established social hierarchy.

Famous Marxist critics and writers include Terry Eagleton , Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukács, Louis Althusser, Frederic Jameson, and Jürgen Habermas.


Psychoanalytical works involve reading literature through the lens of the ideology of psychologist Sigmund Freud, particularly his ideas involving childhood development, dreams, and sexuality. The ideas of Freud in relation to literature involve viewing the text itself as a manifestation of the author’s own subconscious wants and desires, however, it is also possible to psychoanalyse individual characters within literary works.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud is most well known for developing a theory he coined the Oedipus Complex. Named after Sophocles' tragic character Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his own father and married his mother, the Oedipus Complex is a name given to a stage of childhood development that features a son (or daughter) developing a sexual attraction to their parent of the opposite sex, along with a desire to kill their parent of the same sex.

Psychoanalysis or Psychology?

Psychoanalysis has been controversial from the beginning because, unlike experimental science, it cannot be adequately tested, falsified, or objectified. 2

Whilst Freud's ideas about sexuality have certainly added to a rich history of literary and artistic expression, they shouldn't be taken as scientific theory. Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex is based on an unfounded assumption that his patients were lying about being sexually abused by their parents. Around the time of his development of the Oedipus complex, Freud's father had just died, and this may have influenced his inability to believe that his patients would ever truly suffer at the hands of their parents. Therefore, whilst this theory has had an interesting impact on literature and theory, its scientific credibility is very questionable!

Famous psychoanalytical works include The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth.

Famous psychoanalytic critics and writers, aside from Sigmund Freud, include Jaques Lacan, Carl Jung, and Roland Barthes .


Postcolonial literary theory looks at the power struggle between the historically colonising powers (mostly Western, European countries) and the countries and communities that have been historically colonised. It examines issues of race, culture, and colonial power within the framework of literature. Much of postcolonial theory also involves dismantling the established Western literary canon which historically favours white voices over non-white writers and theorists.

At the height of the British Empire, there was an overriding idea that Western nations were the pinnacle of civilisation and culture. Western-European nations also used this idea, that they needed to expand in order to civilise the rest of the world, to justify the exploitation of colonies for trade and political influence.

Much of postcolonial theory is focused on exploring the ideology behind Western colonialism in famous works of literature. However, many modern postcolonial works also explore the issues surrounding the ‘postcolonial identity’ by looking at the ways in which members of historically colonised societies define themselves in relation to their colonial histories. Other issues covered by postcolonial theory are:

Famous postcolonial theorists include Chinua Achebe , Edward Said , Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak , and Ngugi wǎ Thiong'o.

Famous literary works that reflect topics explored by postcolonial theory include Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad ), Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe , Nervous Conditions (1988) by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys .

Literary Criticism and Theory - Key takeaways

1 Elizabeth Evans, The Politics of Third Wave Feminisms: Neoliberalism, Intersectionality , and the State in Britain and the US , 2015, p. 49.

2 Vincent B Leitch, 'Sigmund Freud.' The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism , 2001, p. 913.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Criticism and Theory

--> what is the purpose of literary criticism.

Literary criticism has many purposes. It allows for us to understand a text on a deeper level, taking into account the context in which it was written and allow us to relate it to the wider social, political and economic climate of its time. It also allows old texts to take on new meanings through the years as theory develops. 

--> What are the four major critical theories in literature? 

There are four major critical theories in literature:

--> What is the Aristotelian theory? 

You may have heard the popular phrase ‘art imitates life’, a shorter version of an idea featured in Aristotle’s Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle argued that the purpose of poetry, as an art form, is to imitate the world around us through language. This is an early example of a literary theory, and has been used as a way in order to interpret works of literature. 

--> What are the criticisms of feminism? 

The main criticism of early first and second wave feminism is that it prioritises white, middle class women above other women and continues to discard women that are part of oppressed groups. 

The main criticism of third and fourth wave feminism is that it’s focus on sex-positivity may lead to harmful consequeces for women in the future with the rise of pornography and accessible sex work. 

--> What is literary criticism?

Literary criticism is the practice of discussing, analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature. Literary theory consists of the many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics can use to critique literature. 

Final Literary Criticism and Theory Quiz

What did Aristotle argue was the function of poetry and literature in Poetics ?

Show answer

Poetry and literature seek to imitate life.

Show question

What is the definition of literary theory?

The many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics can use to critique literature.

What is the definition of literary criticism?

The practice of discussing, analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature.

What are the four main types of literary theory?

Feminism, marxism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonialism.

True or false: there were no feminist thinkers before the 19th century. 

False: there were plenty of philosophers and writers who we would think of as feminists before the 19th century. However, it is during the mid-19th century that feminist thinking started to have tangible effect, such as helping women gain the right to vote. 

Karl Marx divided society into which two classes?

The bourgeoisie and the proletariat

What do we mean by the term ‘Oedipus Complex’?

The Oedipus Complex is a name given to a Freudian theory. This theory states that, during a stage of childhood development, a son or daughter will develop a sexual attraction to their parent of the opposite sex, along with a desire to kill their parent of the same sex. 

What is the main criticism of early (first and second wave) feminism?

First and second wave feminism prioritised white, middle class women above other women (‘white feminism’)

Why has Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis been criticised?

It has been argued that some of Freud's theories, such as the Oedipus Complex, are based on assumptions rather than scientific evidence.

Who first coined the term ‘intersectionality’?

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

Who first developed the theory of the Oedipus Complex?

Sigmund Freud

Who wrote the play Oedipus Rex?

What areas of literature does psychoanalysis focus on?

Who is Oedipus' female equivalent in psychoanalysis?

Who coined the term 'Electra Complex'?

What is the Id?

The id contains the libido along with urges and impulses that we typically do not give into. 

What is the Ego?

The Ego is a part of our conscious personality and functions as the intermediary between the Id and the socially oriented external world.

What is the Superego?

The Superego is our conscience and also our self-critical voice. 

What is the difference between manifest and latent content?

Manifest content is the dreamer’s memories that have materialised in their dream. 

Latent content is the symbolic or underlying interpretation of that dream. 

What is displacement?

Displacement involves dreaming of one thing as another thing, usually with that thing taking on a symbolic meaning.

What is condensation?

Condensation is the act of combining multiple images or symbols into one thing. This allows for symbols in dreams to take on multiple meanings.

What is dreamwork?

The process of translating an individual’s unconscious desires into the manifest content.

What is secondary elaboration?

The unconscious mind ordering a sequence of wish-fulfilment events into a believable or logical order, thus hiding the latent content of the dream. 

What is the mirror stage?

When a child develops a sense of self through noticing a distinction between the self and the other. 

What did Lacan say was the three orders of the mind?

Imaginary, Real and Symbolic

What is Reader Response Criticism?

An approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.

What is the context and history of Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key focuses of Reader Response Criticism?

The reader, the text and the creation of meaning.

How does Reader Response criticism view the role of the reader?

The reader creates a text's meaning.

What is the implied reader?

The implied reader is who the author has in mind when they are writing the text, who they expect to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.

Why might the idea of the implied reader be viewed as problematic?

What is an interpretive community?

According to Reader Response Criticism, what is a text?

Why is the reading experience important to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of Hans Robert Jauss to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of Wolfgang Iser to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of Louise Rosenblatt to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of Stanley E. Fish to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of Norman Holland to Reader Response Criticism?

What are the key contributions of David Bleich to Reader Response Criticism?

How can you apply Reader Response Criticism?

By looking at how different types of readers create meanings, and how reading experiences influence the creation of meaning, as well.

Which theory did intersectionality have its origin in?

Marxist theory 

Who coined the term intersectionality?

Kimberlé Crenshaw

In which essay did Kimberlé Crenshaw coin the term intersectionality?

'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.' (1989)

True or false: intersectionality is not a literary theory.

False! After its initial conception, intersectionality expanded across many academic fields, including literary studies.

Define intersectionality.

A theory which takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face. 

What were the three types of intersectionality set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw?

Structural, political and representational intersectionality.

Define structural intersectionality.

Structural intersectionality examines how social structures, such as legal and educational systems, work to create differences in how minority groups experience areas of their life compared to the most privileged group. 

Define political intersectionality.

Political intersectionality acknowledges how, in a political context, systems of oppression conflict and cross over depending on the factors which make up the identity of an individual.

Define representational intersectionality.

Representational intersectionality underpins the importance of representing people of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities in art, film & television, and literature, alongside in politics and in positions of power. 

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The Washington Standard

Gaslighting: “Conspiracy Theories” Already Proven True in 2023

The old saying is that the difference between conspiracy theory and an actual conspiracy is about 3-6 months.  That’s true, and sometimes it’s even faster than that, but with today’s gaslighting, some people get caught up in the next shiny thing and forget how the theory turned out to be an actual conspiracy.

Marie Hawthorne writes on a few of these that have been proven true in 2023, though I question the entire “lab leak” narrative that people are “being allowed to talk about.”  SARS-CoV-2 has never been proven to exist and big money has been put up for proof that it does exist with zero takers .

Hawthorne writes at The Organic Prepper :

Preppers get called conspiracy theorists a lot.  It’s supposed to be demeaning, but considering how many conspiracy theories have been proven correct lately, I no longer consider it an insult.  The more time goes by, the more “conspiracy theorists” just seem ahead of the game.

Quite a few “conspiracy theories” have recently come to light as actual facts in 2023 already. And it’s only the beginning of March.

Let’s look at a recent batch of “conspiracy theories” that aren’t really theories any more.  

Gas stoves in peril?

In January, the OP ran a story about  the potential ban on gas stoves .  Naturally, the mainstream media poo-poohed the idea that the government would do something like that.  The New York Times insisted that “ No, Biden is Not Trying to Ban Gas Stoves. ”   CNN  likewise claimed  Biden didn’t want to ban the stoves  NPR dismissed the thought of banning gas stoves as  a right-wing, culture war stunt .

Well, maybe they’re not going to outright ban gas stoves. . . but the Department of Energy is  proposing new efficiency standards that will make approximately half the gas stoves  on the market no longer available. So, technically this isn’t a ban, but regulating gas stoves out of existence has the exact same effect.   

This is particularly problematic for anyone with fairly new models.  Newer appliances are  made to break down  within about ten years.  Anyone who’s been a homeowner for more than a decade knows this.  If appliances are made to only last ten years or so, the government doesn’t need to conduct some dramatic midnight raid to steal your stove.  All they have to do is wait.  Within ten years, most people will have to replace their stoves anyway, and at that point, very few, if any, gas stoves will still be on the market.  

Nope, it’s not just a theory.  They really do want to get rid of gas stoves.

Covid origins?

And in other Department of Energy news, the agency recently came to the conclusion that Covid probably did come from a lab.  The findings were part of a classified report, which  the government agency shared with the  Wall Street Journal last weekend.

Back in 2021,  the FBI had been the only federal agency to state  with “moderate confidence” that Covid came from a lab.  At the time, their finding mostly went ignored.  However, with another agency admitting it, and WSJ covering the story, it becomes more difficult to brush aside.

And at least we’re allowed to openly discuss the lab leak now.  Two years ago, we weren’t.  In February 2021,  Facebook banned any discussion of the possible laboratory origins  of Covid.  The lab leak theory was just too crazy to even consider.  Zero Hedge was banished from Twitter  for daring to suggest the makeup of the virus was peculiar in 2020. The Organic Prepper was called a disinformation site and  defunded  due, in part, to our coverage of the virus.

But now,  House Republicans are launching an investigation  into the origins of Covid.   And once the Wall Street Journal publishes something, even the stodgiest Boomers can’t ignore it.  

The Covid lab leak theory is slowly but surely looking less like a theory, and more like an established fact.

The Covid vaccine?

This is hardly the only situation in which Covid dissidents have been proven correct.  There has been a small contingent of people from the beginning who were reluctant to participate in the trial of a novel medical product.  Considering  the many criminal payouts  Big Pharma has had to make over the years, wanting long-term studies before trying a novel pharmaceutical product shouldn’t be controversial.    

The cost (injecting a poorly-tested novel substance) did not match up with the benefit (avoiding a not-particularly dangerous disease that many of us had  a natural immunit y to anyway).  Plenty of well-informed people had perfectly rational reasons for vaccine hesitancy.

Were our concerns taken seriously?  No.  The Othering was vicious and relentless.  Daisy  wrote an article about it here .  Family relationships were stressed and sometimes broken. Careers were ended. Opportunities were denied. Reputations were ruined.  

And meanwhile, the “safe and effective” drumbeat resounded.  Anyone who wanted real answers about what was happening, who wanted to wait for long-term studies, was dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.

So, who was right?  Were the shots safe and effective?  Or were the conspiracy theorists the reasonable ones?

I’m not a doctor or statistician.  All I can do is point at actual numbers.  And even the most pro-vax publications cannot hide  the non-Covid excess mortality of the past two years . Young, formerly healthy people have been dying at far higher rates than they used to, and it’s not from Covid.  As of right now, no one can prove that jabs are responsible, because no one wants to look that closely.  But we can’t prove they’re not responsible, either.  Safe?  I’m not convinced, and neither are a lot of vastly more qualified people.  Just look at Ed Dowd’s meticulously researched book,  Cause Uknown.

And even Tony “The Science” Fauci  recently admitted  that the shots don’t really work at preventing transmission or infection.  So, nope, these jabs aren’t effective either.  

Meanwhile,  Congress is finally launching an investigation  into the safety of the forced vaccine.

Were the conspiracy theorists right to be cautious about the new shots?  Yeah, I think so.  

Mandatory masking?

And what about the masks?  We got mixed signals about masks from the beginning.  In March 2020, Dr. Fauci said they didn’t work, then  he later changed his tune .  Many people around the country had to deal with mask mandates for over a year.

Well, the experts at the Cochrane Library recently published a huge meta-analysis of the effectiveness of physical barriers (like masks) at preventing respiratory viruses (like Covid).  They  can’t find any strong links  between masking and disease prevention.  Cochrane studies are the gold standard.  They’re very conservative, they rarely make hard and fast statements, but once they do, people typically stop arguing.  

The mask debate is one that really smacks us at the OP because, back in 2021, NewsGuard cited our questioning of the mask narrative as a reason to downgrade us, which really hurt our income stream.   Daisy goes into the whole story here . She cited studies with a variety of outcomes regarding masks, and NewsGuard saw the variety of viewpoints as reason enough to downgrade us.

The journalism majors working at NewsGuard don’t seem to understand that letting multiple educated people argue is more true to the scientific ideal than top-down authoritarian mandates.  

I’m not the only person saying this.  Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor and MD, said as much in a  recent interview with Jordan Peterson . At 5:26, he talks about public perception during the pandemic:

There was this sort of uni-vocal conclusion that you had to do lockdowns, you had to wear masks, you had to socially distance, you had to put plastic barriers up, you had to close schools, you had to do all of these things; that the vaccines would stop transmission of the disease, that therefore it was warranted that people would lose their jobs over them.  All of these ideas were sold as if there was a scientific consensus in favor of them.   That was a lie.   There was never a scientific consensus on almost any of the topics; and as you say on masks, in fact, the preexisting narrative, the preexisting idea of most scientists before the pandemic, was in quite the opposite direction.

Dr. Bhattacharya’s not the only highly qualified doctor speaking out, either.  In fact, so many of the various Covid narratives have been proven wrong, that Dr. Marty Makary, chief of Islet Transplant Surgery at Johns Hopkins medical school, recently published an article February 27 titled “1 0 myths told by covid experts—and now debunked .”  

“Masks prevent transmission” is #2 on the list.  I guess if NewsGuard still thinks Daisy is a conspiracy theorist over this one, she’s got some pretty kick-ass company.

But in all seriousness, thank God (or whoever you pray to) for doctors like Dr. Bhattacharya and Dr. Makary for not treating the public like we’re mentally impaired rodents.  There are still a few true medical experts out there who genuinely want to educate the public, and give us real answers.  

The air and water in East Palestine?

In the meantime, I wonder if the EPA will find any real experts. That agency keeps insisting that the air and water in East Palestine are perfectly safe, despite  the derailment and subsequent disaster  going on a few weeks ago.  

The EPA says they’ve been testing for everything and that the numbers indicate everything looks good; professional chemists aren’t so sure.  “They should be testing for individual compounds, and if they are testing for total VOCs [volatile organic compounds] as a screen, they need to have very sensitive instruments because some VOCs are much more toxic than others,” says Ted Schettler, MD, and science director at the nonprofit Science and Environmental Health network.  The fact that  East Palestine residents are still smelling off odors  suggests that the EPA is not using sensitive enough equipment.

And the EPA hasn’t started testing for the myriad other substances that formed when the known chemicals in the train were burned.  When you mix chemicals together and burn them, new chemicals form, and this hasn’t even been talked about much yet.  

It’s probably going to be a long time before we have a good picture of the damage  caused by this derailment .  But, what do we know?

We know that the people of East Palestine are still suffering from bizarre symptoms.  Rashes, shortness of breath, and a burning sensation while breathing  are common .  Some  people have had  voice changes, loss of taste and smell, and random infections. Because East Palestine is such a low-income area, doctors can’t do the tests they need to, though they all agree that the citizens are in real pain.  

And yet EPA Administrator  Michael Regan states , “Nothing is coming back that shows adverse health impacts.”  

Government officials are not helping themselves by insisting there’s “nothing to see here!”  Distrusting the federal government has traditionally been in the realm of conspiracy theorists, but once again, which group of people seems more reasonable?  

The Twitter files?

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if I’m too cynical, too eager to see ill intent.

Then came the Twitter Files. 

We’ve  written about them before  on this site. When Elon Musk bought Twitter, he handed over internal documents to independent journalists Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, and Lee Feng to peruse.  

Many figures in alternative media had suspected they were being shadow-banned, or having a hard time reaching followers.  The Twitter Files confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions: the federal government does spend millions of dollars policing online content, and much of it targets law-abiding citizens with inconvenient opinions, rather than real criminals.  Many of the people that had their accounts locked or frozen weren’t even big media presences, just people with a few dozen followers with an annoying sense of humor, or who got snarky about the wrong things.   

Five years ago, anyone convinced the Feds were watching their every online move would have been labeled a crazy conspiracy theorist.  

Well, yet again, the conspiracy theorists have been proven correct.  

The gaslighting continues.

If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, you probably know what it’s like to have someone trying to convince you you’re crazy.  The only way to survive gaslighting like that is to constantly remind yourself of things you know are true.  That’s why it’s so important to keep track of whatever narratives we’re supposed to swallow and constantly check them against our preexisting knowledge base.  It’s important to hold purveyors of false narratives to account; it’s important to point to tangible facts and to be able to discuss them.

These are only the most recent examples of conspiracy theorists being proven correct.  Daisy had an article about “ 7 Things That Used to Be ‘Crazy Conspiracy Theories’ Until 2020 Happened .”  The tin foil hat wearers have been getting vindicated a lot in the past few years.  

I think we’re going to keep seeing more of this for a while.  Universal Basic Income, digital currencies, AI tech, there are so many new things happening right now. 

What about you?  How have you been proven correct?  Are there any “theories” you’re just waiting to see evidence of on the mainstream? What theories have you seen mocked, then proven true?

Article posted with permission from Sons of Liberty Media

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Now they can actually use wifi “to see people through walls”.

All Covid Origin Theories—Including Lab Leak—‘On The Table,’ WHO Director Says

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday the organization is still working to determine the origin of the Covid-19 virus and that “all hypotheses” remain on the table, following U.S. reports this week that the most likely cause of the pandemic was a lab leak.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said all Covid origin theories ... [+] remain on the table.

In a press conference on Friday, Ghebreyesus said the WHO has “not abandoned any plans to identify” the origin of the virus.

Ghebreyesus said he has spoken to Chinese officials multiple times in recent months, and that the organization is still looking for additional Covid data from China, saying it would be “impossible” to conclude where exactly the virus originated without additional information.

His comments come just days after the Department of Energy concluded the virus most likely originated from a Chinese lab—a claim that Beijing vehemently denies and scientists speculate might not be accurate—though the department admitted its conclusion with low confidence.

FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated that theory in an interview with Fox News this week, saying the virus likely came from a lab leak in Wuhan, China.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

While the Department of Energy concluded Covid likely came from a lab leak and not another source—such as a wet market or from a Chinese biological weapons program—other U.S. officials were not as confident that enough information has been collected to make a definitive determination. Speaking to CNN on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan admitted there is “not a definitive answer” from the “intelligence community” as to where the virus came from.

Key Background

Covid-19 is widely considered to have emerged from Wuhan, China, where the first outbreak of the coronavirus occurred in late 2019 and early 2020—although its specific origin within the city has been a subject of debate throughout the pandemic. One predominant theory among scientists is that the virus jumped from animals to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, where vendors sold live mammals. Two studies published in the journal Science found most of the first patients who contracted the virus lived close to the market. Some government officials, including former President Donald Trump—asserted the more likely theory is that the virus came from a leak at the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. Experts, however, remain skeptical about the theory. Researchers in a March 2020 study published in Nature Medicine said they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

Further Reading

Covid Likely Originated From Lab Leak, Energy Department Reportedly Finds—But Biden Aide Says There’s No ‘Definitive Answer’ (Forbes)

Covid Lab Leak Theory: Some Government Agencies Believe It—Here’s Why Most Scientists Don’t (Forbes)

Timeline: How The Covid Lab Leak Origin Story Went From 'Conspiracy Theory' To Government Debate (Forbes)

Brian Bushard


  1. Literary Theories Overview by AlexF

    the literary theories

  2. PPT

    the literary theories

  3. Literary theory is an attempt to understand the various ways that

    the literary theories

  4. PPT

    the literary theories

  5. Different types of literary theories: An Introduction

    the literary theories

  6. PPT

    the literary theories



  2. why literary theory?

  3. Literary Criticism Lecture 2


  5. Literary Criticism 1



  1. Literary Theory: Understanding 15 Types of Literary Criticism

    Literary theory is a school of thought or style of literary analysis that gives readers a means to critique the ideas and principles of literature. Another term for literary theory is hermeneutics, which applies to the interpretation of a piece of literature.

  2. Literary Theory

    Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity.

  3. Literary theory

    Literary theory is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for literary analysis. [1] Since the 19th century, literary scholarship includes literary theory and considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and interdisciplinary themes relevant to how people interpret meaning. [1]

  4. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory

    The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory. Literary theory is the practice of theoretical, methodological, and sociological reflection that accompanies the reading and interpretation of literary texts; it investigates the conceptual foundations of textual scholarship, the dynamics of textuality, the relations between literary and other texts, and the categories and social conditions through ...

  5. Literary Theory

    Find literary theory in HOLLIS: search terms and strategies. Criticism: an official term for literary theory. But a simple search for "criticism" will also pick up material with subheadings such as "criticism and interpretation" or "history and criticism." The best way to access material that has the main subject heading "Criticism" is via a ...

  6. 10 Literary Theories for Understanding Literature

    Literary theory is a framework of ideas that guide you in understanding a particular work of literature. On the other hand, literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. The former is theoretical, the latter practical.

  7. Literary theory and interpretation

    A theory is a structure that can be applied to a literary work. A theoretical judgement may be formal and may judge a work as part of a larger body of literature and beyond. A perspective is seeing a work though a specific set of beliefs, or point of view. Generally a perspective is a more personal and emotional response to a specific text.

  8. Different types of literary theories: An Introduction

    Here are some of the well-known literary theories and their basic idea: Structuralism: The theory of structuralism deals with the idea that any literary work follows a certain structure. To an extent, it is right but most of the time the theory has been erroneously extrapolated.

  9. PDF Literary Theory defintions

    Literary Theory* Many, many dissertations have been written about what exactly literary theory is, but to put it briefly, literary theory describes different approaches to studying literature. Essentially, literary theories are lenses that a reader can apply in order to view a text in a new light.

  10. Overview OF Literary Theories

    Literary theory and the formal practice of literary interpretation runs a parallel but less well-known course with the history of philosophy and is evident in the historical record at least as far back as Plato. The Cratylus contains a Plato's meditation on the relationship of words and the things to which they refer. Plato's skepticism ...

  11. The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books

    Literary theory and criticism are steadily evolving disciplines devoted to the interpretation of literary works. They offer unique ways to analyze texts through specific perspectives or sets of principles. There are many literary theories, or frameworks, available to address and analyze a given text.

  12. Narrative Theory

    The fact that, before, during and after the rise of structural narratologies, the theory of literary narrative was always rooted in the study of a limited number of emblematic genres, such as the epic and the fable in the neoclassical period, the fairy tale 3 and then the novel 4 in the long structuralist period, or historiography, comics, and ...

  13. The Author in Literary Theory and Theories of Literature (Chapter 17

    We have become accustomed to regarding the question of the author in literary criticism and theory in anti-authorial terms. It is a quaintness of modern literary theory that the author, whom we would, commonsensically, expect to be the central agent in the production of the literary work, has, for the most part of the past century, been considered a liminal character of minor importance to ...

  14. What is Literary Theory?

    What is Literary Theory? "A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory.

  15. Introduction to Theory of Literature

    This is a survey of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. Lectures will provide background for the readings and explicate them where appropriate, while attempting to develop a coherent overall context that incorporates philosophical and social perspectives on the recurrent questions: what is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

  16. PDF Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses

    Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts. The proponents of each theory believe their theory is the theory, but most of us interpret texts according to the "rules" of several different theories at a time. All literary theories are lenses

  17. Literary Criticism: Literary Theories

    "A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory.

  18. Introduction to Literary Theory: Major Critics and Movements

    Literary criticism is less about negative commentary and more of an art form in which one participates in an art that responds to other forms of art. Explore some of the major types of literary...

  19. Literary Theory of Differences in Kinds of Books Men and Women Choose

    The "Literary Theory of Differences in Kinds of Books Men and Women Choose to Read" paper provides an integration of the areas that affect the study of gender roles in. StudentShare. Our website is a unique platform where students can share their papers in a matter of giving an example of the work to be done. If you find papers matching your ...

  20. What is literary theory? An Introduction

    Literary Theory: The idea before we get a suitable definition The purpose of this section is to introduce the readers to the basics of literary theory before we get into defining that idea. The term theory generally hints at how & why of any execution, action or plan.

  21. The Literary Theory Toolkit: A Compendium of Concepts and Methods

    Find many great new & used options and get the best deals for The Literary Theory Toolkit: A Compendium of Concepts and Methods at the best online prices at eBay! Free shipping for many products!

  22. 6.4: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism

    A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on ...

  23. 1.2: What Is Literary Theory?

    When you hear the word "theory," you might think first of the natural sciences, rather than of literature. In the sciences, theories are systems for understanding how an aspect of the world works: they can be used to explain past phenomena and predict future behavior.

  24. PDF An Introduction to Literary Theory

    Today, literary theory is practiced by a vast majority of college literature professors, research scholars, and students throughout English, literature, and humanities departments in North America and Europe. While some literary scholars debate the ultimate value of literary theory as a method of interpretation (and some critics, in fact,

  25. Literary Criticism and Theory: Definition

    Literary Criticism and Theory Fantasy Five Flights Up Fog For Jane Meyers For That He Looked Not Upon Her For the Union Dead Frank O'Hara Garrett Hongo Gary Snyder George Gascoigne George Oppen Gerard Manley Hopkins Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) Gwendolyn Bennett Gwendolyn Brooks Hart Crane Helen Helen In Egypt Henry David Thoreau Here Philip Larkin

  26. Literary Theory Overview & Criticism

    Literary Theory Definition Literary theory is a type of literary analysis that helps readers evaluate literature. Literary criticism is the viewpoint or lens, that a literary critic,...

  27. Gaslighting: "Conspiracy Theories" Already Proven True in 2023

    The old saying is that the difference between conspiracy theory and an actual conspiracy is about 3-6 months. That's true, and sometimes it's even faster than that, but with today's gaslighting, some people get caught up in the next shiny thing and forget how the theory turned out to be an actual conspiracy.

  28. All Covid Origin Theories—Including Lab Leak—'On The Table,' WHO

    Contra. While the Department of Energy concluded Covid likely came from a lab leak and not another source—such as a wet market or from a Chinese biological weapons program—other U.S. officials ...