Literary Theory and Criticism

Literary Theory and Criticism
By Kat Seiffert

Perspectives defined by the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory

for use in the IVANHOE GAME

Classical Marxism

Four Tenets of Classical Marxism:

  1. denial that any cultural piece (literature, art, etc.) can exist independently of ideology, class, and economics.
  2. “truth” is subjective and institutionally created.
  3. art is a branch of production and thus a commodity.
  4. focus on how class struggle is represented in or has influenced literature and history.
    • Art and literature represent what is “typical” about a class

Modernist Theory and Criticism

  • Avant-garde, experimental style of writing in the early 20 th century.
  • International movement that signaled “a revolutionary break from established orthodoxies, a celebration of the present, and an experimental investigation into the future” (512).
  • Classical style is often used: preference “for the visual and the concrete over the general and abstract, for freshness of idiom, for the vital complexities that are ‘intensive’ rather than extensive” (513). For example, a classical writer would prefer to write about the local and well-defined place or moment rather than an infinite question.
  • Two modernist camps:
    1. the individual is ultimately limited and finite
    2. the individual is limited but, through celebrating diversity, individual limitations are lifted.

New Historicism

  • Placing a text within a larger spectrum of discourses and practices during the time period the text was written while realizing that the points of views presented in period texts do not necessarily represent the mindset of the general population or even the literate population of that specified period.
  • No set of methodological procedures or coherent theoretical program surrounding New Historicism.
    • The creator of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt, never intended for it to be a literary theory but rather an “array of reading practices that investigate a series of issues that emerge when critics seek to chart the ways texts, in dialectical fashion, both represent a society’s behavior patterns and perpetuate, shape, or alter that culture’s dominant codes” (535)
  • Generally, it calls for the realization that art and society are interrelated.

New Humanism

  • A cultural movement that began in 1892 by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More while they were Harvard graduate students.
  • It affirms freedom of the will and the necessity of standards in life and art.
  • Founded on the ethical teachings of Erasmus, Jesus, Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha for the “reform of the inner life” and a call “for an ethical aristocracy to exemplify the virtues of moderation” during a time when American society was “drift[ing] into materialism, hedonism, and demagoguery” (540).
  • Plays on humanity’s dualism of desirous impulses and the will to refrain.
  • Individuals are responsible for their own happiness, illuminating the insufficiency of all deterministic theories—Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, Behaviorism.


  • Explores the social determinants of the literature/art and its impact on society. Essentially, literature/art is ideologically influenced and conversely influences popular ideology. (That is, to postmodernist critics, art and literature seem to submit to dominant culture; this sense that art always submits to the dominant ideology is sometimes called "conspiracy theory.")
  • "[H]ighlights the multiplication of voices, questions, and conflicts that has shattered what once seemed to be (although it never really was) the placid unanimity of the great tradition and of the West that gloried in it” (587).
  • The postmodern writer (the artist, not the critic) manipulates “cultural givens” through the use of parody, collage, juxtaposition, etc. for various ends (586).

Feminism -- see the separate page devoted to this topic, Feminism.

Poststructuralist Feminism

  • Promotes the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
  • A formative statement of poststructuralist feminism by Barbara Johnson: “The question of gender is a question of language” (242). Thus, poststructuralist feminists believe that “gender difference dwells in language rather than in the referent, that there is nothing ‘natural’ about gender itself” (242). Language and discourse are part of patriarchal society; if there is a way around it, it would only be through a new form of writing (écriture féminine).
  • Questioning of “what is woman?” led to the proposition that there is no such thing as “woman,” according to popular poststructuralist feminist Julia Kristeva (245): that is, the ideas of "woman" (and, for that matter, "man") are cultural constructs, definitions that change to meet changing historical needs.

Traditional Freudian Criticism

  • When reading a piece of literature psychoanalytically, the work discloses the author’s unconscious fantasies.
  • Places significance on “dreams, fetishism, repression and childhood eroticism, parapraxes, the object choice in love, the uncanny, the roles of Eros, daydreams, or almost anything else,” providing insight into the unconscious (312).
  • Symbolism is heavily relied upon in Freudian Criticism (e.g. the abundance of phallic symbols are overwhelmingly a result of Freudian psychoanalysis).

Postmodern Freudian Criticism

  • Works disclose the unconscious fantasies of a society or culture, not of an individual
  • Relies heavily on the work of Jacques Lacan and, more recently, Slavoj Zizek

For further information or alternate literary theories consult:

The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1994.

Dino Felluga, Introductory Guide to Critical Theory