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Criticism: Literature, Film & Drama: Literature Criticism

Literature criticism.


This guide will help you locate criticism for Literature, Film, and Drama.

See the English Libguide for more assistance with Literary Criticism.

See the English Databases List for more resources.

Literary criticism is the comparison, analysis, interpretation, and/or evaluation of works of literature. Literary criticism is essentially an opinion, supported by evidence, relating to theme, style, setting or historical or political context. It usually includes discussion of the work’s content and integrates your ideas with other insights gained from research. Literary criticism may have a positive or a negative bias and may be a study of an individual piece of literature or an author’s body of work.

Although criticism may include some of the following elements in order to support an idea, literary criticism is NOT a plot summary, a biography of the author, or simply finding fault with the literature.

Researching, reading, and writing works of literary criticism will help you to make better sense of the work, form judgments about literature, study ideas from different points of view, and determine on an individual level whether a literary work is worth reading.

Examples of some types of literary criticism are:

Literary Criticism Databases

Literary criticism in essays shortened from their original published versions can be found in the first two databases. Full text databases follow.

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Encyclopedia Britannica

literary criticism

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Read a brief summary of this topic

literary criticism , the reasoned consideration of literary works and issues. It applies, as a term, to any argumentation about literature , whether or not specific works are analyzed. Plato ’s cautions against the risky consequences of poetic inspiration in general in his Republic are thus often taken as the earliest important example of literary criticism .

More strictly construed, the term covers only what has been called “practical criticism,” the interpretation of meaning and the judgment of quality. Criticism in this narrow sense can be distinguished not only from aesthetics (the philosophy of artistic value) but also from other matters that may concern the student of literature: biographical questions, bibliography , historical knowledge, sources and influences, and problems of method. Thus, especially in academic studies, “criticism” is often considered to be separate from “scholarship.” In practice, however, this distinction often proves artificial, and even the most single-minded concentration on a text may be informed by outside knowledge, while many notable works of criticism combine discussion of texts with broad arguments about the nature of literature and the principles of assessing it.

Criticism will here be taken to cover all phases of literary understanding, though the emphasis will be on the evaluation of literary works and of their authors’ places in literary history. For another particular aspect of literary criticism, see textual criticism .

The functions of literary criticism vary widely, ranging from the reviewing of books as they are published to systematic theoretical discussion. Though reviews may sometimes determine whether a given book will be widely sold, many works succeed commercially despite negative reviews, and many classic works, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), have acquired appreciative publics long after being unfavourably reviewed and at first neglected. One of criticism’s principal functions is to express the shifts in sensibility that make such revaluations possible. The minimal condition for such a new appraisal is, of course, that the original text survive. The literary critic is sometimes cast in the role of scholarly detective, unearthing, authenticating, and editing unknown manuscripts. Thus, even rarefied scholarly skills may be put to criticism’s most elementary use, the bringing of literary works to a public’s attention.

Row of colorful books on a bookshelf. Stack of books, pile of books, literature, reading. Homepage 2010, arts and entertainment, history and society

The variety of criticism’s functions is reflected in the range of publications in which it appears. Criticism in the daily press rarely displays sustained acts of analysis and may sometimes do little more than summarize a publisher’s claims for a book’s interest. Weekly and biweekly magazines serve to introduce new books but are often more discriminating in their judgments, and some of these magazines, such as The (London) Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books , are far from indulgent toward popular works. Sustained criticism can also be found in monthlies and quarterlies with a broad circulation, in “little magazines” for specialized audiences, and in scholarly journals and books.

Because critics often try to be lawgivers, declaring which works deserve respect and presuming to say what they are “really” about, criticism is a perennial target of resentment. Misguided or malicious critics can discourage an author who has been feeling his way toward a new mode that offends received taste. Pedantic critics can obstruct a serious engagement with literature by deflecting attention toward inessential matters. As the French philosopher-critic Jean-Paul Sartre observed, the critic may announce that French thought is a perpetual colloquy between Pascal and Montaigne not in order to make those thinkers more alive but to make thinkers of his own time more dead. Criticism can antagonize authors even when it performs its function well. Authors who regard literature as needing no advocates or investigators are less than grateful when told that their works possess unintended meaning or are imitative or incomplete.

What such authors may tend to forget is that their works, once published, belong to them only in a legal sense. The true owner of their works is the public, which will appropriate them for its own concerns regardless of the critic. The critic’s responsibility is not to the author’s self-esteem but to the public and to his own standards of judgment, which are usually more exacting than the public’s. Justification for his role rests on the premise that literary works are not in fact self-explanatory. A critic is socially useful to the extent that society wants, and receives, a fuller understanding of literature than it could have achieved without him. In filling this appetite, the critic whets it further, helping to create a public that cares about artistic quality. Without sensing the presence of such a public, an author may either prostitute his talent or squander it in sterile acts of defiance. In this sense, the critic is not a parasite but, potentially, someone who is responsible in part for the existence of good writing in his own time and afterward.

Although some critics believe that literature should be discussed in isolation from other matters, criticism usually seems to be openly or covertly involved with social and political debate. Since literature itself is often partisan, is always rooted to some degree in local circumstances, and has a way of calling forth affirmations of ultimate values, it is not surprising that the finest critics have never paid much attention to the alleged boundaries between criticism and other types of discourse. Especially in modern Europe, literary criticism has occupied a central place in debate about cultural and political issues. Sartre’s own What Is Literature? (1947) is typical in its wide-ranging attempt to prescribe the literary intellectual’s ideal relation to the development of his society and to literature as a manifestation of human freedom. Similarly, some prominent American critics, including Alfred Kazin , Lionel Trilling , Kenneth Burke , Philip Rahv , and Irving Howe , began as political radicals in the 1930s and sharpened their concern for literature on the dilemmas and disillusionments of that era. Trilling’s influential The Liberal Imagination (1950) is simultaneously a collection of literary essays and an attempt to reconcile the claims of politics and art.

Such a reconciliation is bound to be tentative and problematic if the critic believes, as Trilling does, that literature possesses an independent value and a deeper faithfulness to reality than is contained in any political formula. In Marxist states, however, literature has usually been considered a means to social ends and, therefore, criticism has been cast in forthrightly partisan terms. Dialectical materialism does not necessarily turn the critic into a mere guardian of party doctrine, but it does forbid him to treat literature as a cause in itself, apart from the working class’s needs as interpreted by the party. Where this utilitarian view prevails, the function of criticism is taken to be continuous with that of the state itself, namely, furtherance of the social revolution. The critic’s main obligation is not to his texts but rather to the masses of people whose consciousness must be advanced in the designated direction. In periods of severe orthodoxy, the practice of literary criticism has not always been distinguishable from that of censorship.

what are the types of literary criticism elaborate further

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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Literary Criticism

Schools of literary criticism, general strategies for engaging in literary criticism, engage in rhetorical analysis, development, cite other critics’ interpretations of the work, organization, cite from the work, suggest an edit to this page.

Learning to Write Literary Analysis

Literary criticism.

By reading and discussing literature, we expand our imagination, our sense of what is possible, and our ability to empathize with others. Improve your ability to read critically and interpret texts while gaining appreciation for different literary genres and theories of interpretation. Read samples of literary interpretation. Write a critique of a literary work.

Texts that interpret literary works are usually persuasive texts. Literary critics may conduct a close reading of a literary work, critique a literary work from the stance of a particular literary theory, or debate the soundness of other critics’ interpretations. The work of literary critics is similar to the work of authors writing evaluative texts. For example, the skills required to critique films, interpret laws, or evaluate artistic trends are similar to those skills required by literary critics.

Why Write Literary Criticism?

“Literary texts” include works of fiction and poetry. In school, English instructors ask students to critique literary texts, or works. Literary criticism refers to a genre of writing whereby an author critiques a literary text, either a work of fiction, a play, or poetry. Alternatively, some works of literary criticism address how a particular theory of interpretation informs a reading of a work or refutes some other critics’ reading of a work.

Diverse Rhetorical Situations

The genre of literary interpretation is more specialized than most of the other genres addressed in this section, as suggested by the table below. People may discuss their reactions to literary works informally (at coffee houses, book clubs, or the gym) but the lion’s share of literary criticism takes place more formally: in college classrooms, professional journals, academic magazines, and Web sites.

Students interpret literary works for English instructors or for students enrolled in English classes. In their interpretations, students may argue for a particular interpretation or they may dispute other critics’ interpretations. Alternatively, students may read a text with a particular literary theory in mind, using the theory to explicate a particular point of view. For example, writers could critique The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin from a feminist theoretical perspective. Thanks to the Internet, some English classes are now publishing students’ interpretations on Web sites. In turn, some students and English faculty publish their work in academic literary criticism journals.

Over the years, literary critics have argued about the best ways to interpret literature. Accordingly, many “schools” or “theories of criticism” have emerged. As you can imagine–given that they were developed by sophisticated specialists–some of these theoretical approaches are quite sophisticated and abstract.

Below is a summary of some of the more popular literary theories. Because it is a summary, the following tends to oversimplify the theories. In any case, unless you are enrolled in a literary criticism course, you won’t need to learn the particulars of all of these approaches. Instead, your teacher may ask you to take an eclectic approach, pulling interpretative questions from multiple literary theories.

Note : If you are interested in learning more about these theories, review either Skylar Hamilton Burris’ Literary Criticism: An Overview of Approaches or Dino F. Felluga’s Undergraduate Guide to Critical Theory

Powerful works of literature invoke multiple readings. In other words, we can all read the same story or poem (or watch the same movie or listen to the same song) and come up with different, even conflicting, interpretations about what the work means. Who we are reflects how we read texts. Our experiences inspire us to relate to and sympathize with characters and difficult situations. Have we read similar stories? Have we actually faced some of the same challenges the characters in the story face?

In addition, literary theories have unique ways to develop and substantiate arguments. Some theories draw extensively on the work of other critics, while others concentrate on the reader’s thoughts and feelings. Some theories analyze a work from an historical perspective, while others focus solely on a close reading of a text.

Accordingly, as with other genres, the following key features need to be read as points of departure as opposed to a comprehensive blueprint:

Examine a subject from a rhetorical perspective. Identify the intended audience, purpose, context, media, voice, tone, and persona.Distinguish between summarizing the literary work and presenting your argument. Many students fall into the trap of spending too much time summarizing the literature being analyzed as opposed to critiquing it. As a result, it would be wise to check with your teacher regarding how much plot summary is expected. As you approach this project, remember to keep your eye on the ball: What, exactly (in one sentence) is the gist of your interpretation?


You can develop your ideas by researching the work of other literary critics. How do other critics evaluate an author’s work? What literary theories do literary critics use to interpret texts or particular moments in history? Reading sample proposals can help you find and adopt an appropriate voice and persona. By reading samples, you can learn how others have prioritized particular criteria.

Below are some of the questions invoked by popular literary theories. Consider these questions as you read a work, perhaps taking notes on your thoughts as you reread. You may focus on using one theory to “read and interpret” text or, more commonly, you may compare the critical concerns of different theories.

New Criticism/Formalism

Reader-Response Criticism

How does the text make you feel? What memories or experiences come to mind when you read? If you were the central protagonist, would you have behaved differently? Why? What values or ethics do you believe are suggested by the story? As your reading of a text progresses, what surprises you, inspires you?

Feminist Criticism

How does the story re-inscribe or contradict traditional gender roles? For example, are the male characters in “power positions” while the women are “dominated”? Are the men prone to action, decisiveness, and leadership while the female characters are passive, subordinate? Do gender roles create tension within the story? Do characters’ gender roles evolve over the course of the narrative?

New Historicism Cristicism

How does the story reflect the aspirations and conditions of the lower classes or upper classes? Is tension created by juxtaposing privileged, powerful positions to subordinated, dominated positions? What information about the historical context of the story helps explain the character’s motivations? Who benefits from the outcome of the story or from a given character’s motivation?

Media Criticism

How does the medium alter readers’ interactions with the text? Has the reader employed multimedia or hypertext? What traditions from print and page design have shaped the structure of the text? In what ways has the author deviated from traditional, deductively organized linear texts?

Cite from the Work

Literary criticism involves close reading of a literary work, regardless of whether you are arguing about a particular interpretation, comparing stories or poems, or using a theory to interpret literature.Do not summarize the story. The purpose of the document is not to inform the readers, but to argue a particular interpretation. You only need to cite parts of the work that support or relate to your argument and follow the citation format required by your instructor (see Using and Citing Sources).

Below is an example from Sample Essays for English 103: Introduction to Fiction, Professor Matthew Hurt. Note how the writer uses block quotes to highlight key elements and paraphrase and summarizes the original works, using quotation marks where necessary.

…Twain offers a long descriptive passage of Huck and Jim’s life on the raft that seems, at first glance, to celebrate the idyllic freedom symbolized by the river and nature. . . A close reading of this passage, however, shows that the river is not a privileged natural space outside of and uncontaminated by society, but is inextricably linked to the social world on the shore, which itself has positive value for Huck. Instead of seeking to escape society, Huck wants to escape the dull routines of life.

The passage abounds with lyrical descriptions of the river’s natural beauty. For example, Huck’s long description of the sunrise over the river captures the peaceful stillness and the visual beauty of the scene:

The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line — that was the woods on t’other side — you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; . . . sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by-and-by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in the swift current which breaks on it and makes the streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, . . . then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers; . . . and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going at it! (129-130)

Here Huck celebrates the beauty of the natural world coming to life at the beginning of a new day. The “paleness” gradually spreading across the sky makes new objects visible which he describes in loving detail for the reader. The “nice breeze” is “cool and fresh” and “sweet to smell,” and the world seems to be “smiling in the sun” as the song-birds welcome the new day.

However, Huck includes a number of details within this passage that would seem to work against the language of natural beauty. After describing the gradually brightening sky, Huck notes that “you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away — trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks — rafts.” The sun rise reveals not only natural objects (the brightening sky, the “snag,” the “mist”), but also brings into view man-made objects (“trading scows” and “rafts”) that signify human society’s presence in this natural environment. Similarly, Huck speculates that the picturesque “log cabin” on the distant shore is a “woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres.” Here the marker of human society takes on a sinister tone of corruption as Huck describes how unscrupulous wood sellers stack wood loosely to cheat their customers. Finally, although the breeze is “sweet to smell,” Huck assures the reader that this isn’t always the case: “but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars, and such, and they do get pretty rank.”

These signs of society’s presence on the river are largely negative. The woodyard is “piled by cheats” and the stacked fish pollute the “sweet” smell of the breeze. At this point, the opposition between “good nature” and “bad society” remains intact. The signs of human presence suggest a corruption of nature’s beauty. In the paragraphs that follow, however, this opposition is subtly reversed. After Huck’s account of the sunrise over the river, he describes how he and Jim watch the steamboats “coughing along up stream.” But when there are no steamboats or rafts to watch, he describes the scene as “solid lonesomeness” (130). No songbirds, no sweet breezes. Without human activities to watch, the scene suddenly becomes empty and “lonesome,” and nothing captures Huck’s attention until more rafts and boats pass by and he can watch them chopping wood or listen to them beating pans in the fog.

Cite Other Critics’ Interpretations of the Work

Criticism written by advanced English majors, graduate students, and literary critics may be more about what other critics have said than about the actual text. Indeed, many critics spend more time reading criticism and arguing about critical approaches than actually reading original works. However, unless you are enrolled in a literary theory course, your instructor probably wants you to focus more on interpreting the work than discussing other critical interpretations. This does not mean, however, that you should write about a literary work “blindly.” Instead, you are wise to find out what other students and critics have said about the work.

Below is a sample passage that illustrates how other critics’ works can inspire an author and guide him or her in constructing a counter argument, support an author’s interpretation, and provide helpful biographical information.

In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was published in the June 28, 1948 issue of the New Yorker it received a response that “no New Yorker story had ever received”: hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by “bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse.”1 It is not hard to account for this response: Jackson’s story portrays an “average” New England village with “average” citizens engaged in a deadly rite, the annual selection of a sacrificial victim by means of a public lottery, and does so quite deviously: not until well along in the story do we suspect that the “winner” will be stoned to death by the rest of the villagers.


The format for literary critiques is fairly standard:

In English classes, you may be able to assume that your readers are familiar with the work you are critiquing. Perhaps, for example, the entire class is responding to one particular work after some class discussions about it. However, if your instructor asks you to address a broader audience, you may need to provide bibliographical information for the work. In other words, you may need to cite the title, publisher, date, and pages of the work (see Citing Sources ).

Literary critiques are arguments. As such, your instructors expect you to state a claim in your introduction and then provide quotes and paraphrased statements from the text to serve as evidence for your claim. Ideally, your critique will be insightful and interesting. You’ll want to come up with an interpretation that isn’t immediately obvious. Below are some examples of “thesis statements” or “claims” from literary critiques:

Literary criticism is a fairly specialized kind of writing. Instead of writing to a general lay audience, you are writing to members of a literary community who have read a work and who developed opinions about the work–as well as a vocabulary of interpretation.

Following are some common words used by literary critics. More specialized terms can be learned by reading criticism or by referring to a good encyclopedia for criticism or writing, including the Writer’s Encyclopedia:

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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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Literary analysis is a critical response to a literary text in the form of a critical essay or an oral commentary. It includes a thorough interpretation of the work.

Such analysis may be based on a variety of critical approaches or movements, e.g. archetypal criticism, cultural criticism, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist Criticism, New Criticism (formalism/structuralism), New Historicism, post-structuralism, and reader-response criticism. Students in this course will write a critical essay based upon four literary texts for their ISU.

Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism is a critical approach to literature that seeks to find and understand the purpose of archetypes within the literature. These archetypes may be themes, such as love, characterizations, such as the hero; or patterns, such as death and rebirth.

Archetypal criticism draws on the works of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, literary critic Northrop Frye, and others. Unlike psychoanalytic critics, archetypal critics such as Frye do not attempt to explain why the archetypes exist.

Archetype: something that represents the essential elements of its category or class of things; the word is Greek for “original pattern” from which all copies are made, a prototype.

Certain themes of human life (e.g. love, loss) character types (e.g. the rebel, the wise elder), animals (e.g. snake), and patterns (e.g. the quest, the descent into the underworld) are considered to be archetypal, forming a part of the collective unconscious (the sum of society’s inherited mental images). For example, a character in a TV series who continuously changes careers might be said to be the archetypal “seeker”.

Cultural Criticism

Cultural criticism is a recent movement in criticism that is interdisciplinary by extending the range of examined texts beyond just the literary works themselves to objects or practices that can be interpreted as representative of a culture’s beliefs, values, laws, for example. Practitioners of cultural criticism view a text in relation to the dominant or competing ideologies (belief systems) of the time and place in which the text was written.

Works are therefore considered in light of their historical and cultural contexts. For example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be read in terms of practices of European imperialists, race relations in Africa, or the economic history of ivory and other raw products in the continent.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism is literary criticism based on feminist theories. It considers texts with the knowledge that societies treat men and women inequitably. Feminist criticism will analyze texts in light of patriarchal (male-dominated) cultural institutions, phallocentric (male-centered) language, masculine and feminine stereotypes, and the unequal treatment of male and female writers.

Feminist criticism developed primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, although it is evident in earlier works as well, for example in the works of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft. More recent feminist and gender studies investigate social constructions related to gender as they appear in the literature.

Marxist Criticism

Based on the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) this school of thought contends that history and culture is largely a struggle between economic classes, and literature is often a reflection of the attitudes and interests of the dominant class.

An often-repeated statement from Marx expresses a basic idea specific to this form of criticism. “It’s not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

New Criticism

New Criticism is a movement in literary criticism that proposes close reading and textual analysis of the text itself. It is referred to as “New” because it operates contrary to the previously favored focus on the author’s biography, the historical context, and the perceived parallels between these and the text.

Practitioners focus on both the “external form” (e.g. ballad, ode) and the “internal forms” (e.g. structure, repetition, patterns of figurative language, plot/content, syntax/diction, tone, mood, context/setting, style, literary devices, theme). These practitioners reject consideration of the author’s intention and the effect on the reader as illegitimate. The movement is also referred to as formalism or structuralism .

New Historicism

New Historicism is a range of critical practices that examine works in their cultural and historical contexts. Practitioners of the critical movement developed it by examining a wide range of texts such as newspapers, advertisements, popular music, historical accounts, poetry, novels, and diaries.

Practitioners believe that works cannot be viewed in isolation from history and culture. A reading of a work must take into account its intention, genre, and historical situation.


Post-structuralism refers to a critical approach to language, literature, and culture that questions or criticizes structuralism. Like structuralists, post-structuralists rely on close readings of texts; however, post-structuralists believe that language is inherently unstable in meaning and the meaning of the texts is ultimately indecipherable.

The best known post-structuralist approach is deconstructionism.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is literary criticism grounded in the psychoanalytic theory of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Practitioners attempt to psychoanalyze the author’s unconscious desires, the reader’s responses, and the characters in the work. The last approach involves examining the text for symbols and psychological complexes.

In addition to Freud, key figures are psychiatrist Carl Jung and, most recently, Jacques Lacan.

Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-response criticism is a critical approach that shifts the emphasis to the reader from the text or the work’s author and context. This approach focuses on the individual reader’s evolving response to the text. The readers, through their own values and experiences, “create” the meaning of the text and therefore there is no one correct meaning.

When analyzing a text, from which a student will write a major paper, it is advised that the student should first focus on the elements of a story: plot, setting, atmosphere, mood, character, theme and title. 

The next logical approach is to look at the language (devices and patterns) and form of the text (structure). Then the student might consider any of the following approaches such as New Historicism, New Criticism, Archetypal Criticism, or Cultural Criticism.

Author:  William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)

Tutor and Freelance Writer. Science Teacher and Lover of Essays. Article last reviewed: 2020 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2022 | Creative Commons 4.0

thank you, schoolworkhelper! Very cool!

is archetypal criticism part of formalism ?

Hi i have to do literary criticism on various cultural text. I think i understand the theories but i don’t know how to construct essays could you send sample essays? I would really appreciate your help. M.H


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