What is literature 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


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“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

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. Hopefully, after reading through and working with the resources in this area of the OWL, literary theory will become a little easier to understand and use.

Although philosophers, critics, educators and authors have been writing about writing since ancient times, contemporary schools of literary theory have cohered from these discussions and now influence how scholars look at and write about literature. The following sections overview these movements in critical theory. Though the timeline below roughly follows a chronological order, we have placed some schools closer together because they are so closely aligned.

Timeline (most of these overlap)

Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)

Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930s-present)

Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)

Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)

Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)

Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present)

Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present)

New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)

Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)

Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)

Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)

Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)

Critical Disability Studies (1990s-present)

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