Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

13.5: Literary Theories

  • Page ID

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)


    Literary theories are different perspectives, or angles, that we use to approach interpreting the literature we read. We can think of literary theories as “lenses” that allow us to “zoom in” on specific ideas, concerns, and issues, rather than on literary forms, conventions, and structures.

    In short, literary theories are tools that help us make meaning of the literature we read. Understanding what these theories are and how they work provides us with tools that help us find meaning in what we have read.


    Becoming familiar with literary theories allows us to formulate more focused, meaningful interpretations and ideas. Applying the basic, guiding principles of these theories helps us think critically about the literature and allows us to ask ourselves relevant, meaningful, and focused questions. Once we’ve asked these questions, we can then move on to answering them in a manner that allows us to “zoom in” on key issues and ideas.

    Therefore, rather than looking at literature in a very general way, and rather than merely focusing on the technical aspects of a work, literary theories allow us to approach literature in a way that makes it easier for us to interpret and discover meaning than it would be without the guidance of the theories.

    Although multiple literary theories exist, it is important for us to remember that interpretations of literature are the result of applying a combination of these theories.


    Familiarize yourself with basic principles associated with the literary theories and how readers might apply them to the literature they read. Once you have carefully read the assigned poem, play, story, or novel, look over your notes and the annotations you have made in response to the work, and highlight the comments and ideas that stand out for you.

    Once you’ve reviewed the ideas in your notes and annotations, go on to ask yourself the following questions:

    • Which literary theories can I connect to the ideas and issues I’ve identified?
    • How are my ideas reflected in the literary theories?
    • Which of my ideas do I want to explore further in relation to those theories?
    • How can I further apply the principles of the literary theory or theories to get more meaning from the text and delve deeper into the meaning/ideas I already have?

    For more specific questions that might be useful in helping you apply literary theories, take a look at the “Questions to Consider” at the end of each literary theory description below.


    Historical/Biographical Criticism is a literary lens that allows readers to examine the realities of the historical period reflected in the work and/or the realities of the life and times of the author. To study a work using the historical/biographical literary lens, the reader’s assumption is that the literary work is a reflection of the period in which it was written, and/or that the work is a reflection of the author’s life and times. In other words, the reader assumes that the work has been shaped by historical events of the time (historical) and/or by events in the author’s life (biographical). Approaching a literary work using the historical/biographical perspective requires the reader to engage in supplemental research related to the relevant historical period and the author of the work.

    Questions to Consider:

    • In what ways do the events and/or characters in the work parallel significant events and/or people represented during the time period or in the author’s life?
    • How might the work and its meaning have been shaped by events of the time period in which it was set or written?
    • How might the work and its meaning have been shaped by events and/or people in the author’s life?

    New Criticism (also known as Formalist Criticism) examines the relationships between the ideas and themes in a literary work and its form. When applying this theory, the reader focuses on exploring the meaning of the literature and the way in which the meaning is conveyed in the text. In other words, the work’s theme/meaning is reinforced and unified in the text’s form (imagery, narrative structure, point of view, and other literary elements). In applying the New Criticism as an approach for understanding literature, very close analysis of and focus on the literary text is essential.

    Questions to Consider:

    • How do imagery and narrative point of view reinforce a theme or idea you’ve identified in the work?
    • How does the plot contribute to supporting the meaning of a story you’ve read?

    Archetypal Criticism is a literary lens requiring the reader to examine cultural and psychological myths that contribute to the meaning of the texts. As readers apply this theory, they assume that the literature imitates universal dreams of humanity and that recurring images, patterns, symbols, and human experiences, also known as archetypes, contribute to the form and meaning of the work. These archetypes may include what are known as motifs (recurring themes, subjects, ideas).

    Questions to Consider:

    • What symbols help to illustrate a common, universal struggle experienced by the protagonist of the story?
    • How do the actions of the characters and/or the setting of the story reflect events/ideas that we find in other cultural stories and myths?

    Gender Criticism (also known as Feminist Criticism) is a literary lens that allows the reader to critique dominant patriarchal and heterosexual language and ideas by exposing how a work reflects masculine, patriarchal, heterosexual ideology. Additionally, the reader may focus on examining how literary works are shaped by and/or convey messages about gender-related issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation, gender roles and expectations, gender dynamics, and gender-related power structures.

    Gender criticism encourages readers to examine gender ideology and politics in literature and to critique oppressive patriarchal and masculine structures apparent in literary works.

    Questions to Consider:

    • In what ways is the work a commentary or critique of the dominant patriarchal ideologies in the society it depicts?
    • What ideas about gender are reflected in the work?

    Marxist Criticism argues that literature reflects the struggles between oppressed and oppressing classes. Readers applying Marxist criticism focus on examining the representation of socio-economic class structures, marginalization, materialism, class systems, and/or class conflict in literature. Readers also examine the way in which a literary work may espouse oppressive social and class structures.

    In applying Marxist criticism, readers tend not to focus heavily on a literary work’s aesthetic or artistic concerns, arguing that meaning is shaped by the work’s depiction of class conflict and class distinctions, as well as its social and political concerns. In reading and critiquing literature, Marxist theorists tend to find themselves sympathetic to the working classes and to authors whose works challenge economic inequalities found in capitalist societies.

    Questions to Consider:

    • In what ways does the literature depict the struggles between the rich and the poor?
    • How is the work be sympathetic to the working class?
    • How might the work be a critique or commentary about capitalism?

    Deconstruction is an approach that requires readers to challenge the assumption that a work has a single, fixed meaning and that this meaning is accessed only through a close reading of the text alone. Deconstruction involves examining contradictions that exist within a text and accepting the idea that because a text can have a variety of meanings, some meanings may actually contradict others.

    Readers employing deconstructionist criticism tend to focus not on what is being said but, rather, on how it is said in the writer’s use of language. Because of this focus on the use of language, deconstructionists rely on a close reading of the text/words in order to make meaning.

    Questions to Consider:

    • White is a color that typically represents purity and innocence in our culture. How is the color white used to represent ideas that both support and contradict this meaning in the work?
    • How might a theme in the work be negated by an opposing theme that also exists within the same work?

    New Historicism is a literary lens through which readers find meaning by considering the context of the period during which the text was written. Readers who examine literature through a New Historical lens concern themselves with the political, social cultural, economic, and/or intellectual implications of the work.

    Questions to Consider:

    • How are the politics and policies of the time in which the work was written depicted in the events and characters of the work?
    • In what ways are the social norms of the period reflected in the story, poem, play, or novel?

    Cultural Criticism allows the reader to approach literature with the assumption that the work questions traditional, cultural (typically Western-European) ideologies and values and that most literary works espouse these dominant ideas. With this in mind, those who apply cultural criticism examine how literature challenges Eurocentric-based meaning, particularly by focusing on how works, especially those written by and about traditionally oppressed and/or marginalized groups or sub-groups, expose the identities, systems, values, norms, traditions, etc. of typically under-represented groups.

    Questions to Consider:

    • How does the work reflect the oppressive environment of the time in which it takes place or in which it was written?
    • In what ways is the devaluation and/or marginalization of under-represented groups represented?

    Psychological/Psychoanalytic Criticism involves the assumption that the work is a reflection of the personality, state of mind, feelings, and desires of the author. The Psychological/Psychoanalytic lens requires readers to delve into the psychology or personality of the author and/or characters to determine the meaning of the work.

    Readers employing the psychological/psychoanalytic approach examine the role of unconscious psychological drives/impulses and repressive behaviors in shaping human behavior.

    Questions to Consider:

    • In what ways does the story reveal the protagonist’s struggle to assert his/her identity?
    • How is the work a reflection of an individual’s desire to act according to his/her impulses yet, at the same time, struggle against those impulses?

    Reader-Response Criticism suggests that the experience of reading and the experiences that the reader brings to the reading determine the meaning of the work. In other words, meaning within literature is created as the reader experiences (reads) the work. As readers bring their own ideas, thoughts, moods, knowledge, and experiences to the text, meaning is created with little emphasis placed on the structural elements of the work (plot, narrative point of view, character, symbol, etc.). The interaction between the reader and the text determines the meaning of the work.

    Questions to Consider:

    • What attitudes do you and the main character of the story have in common? Have these attitudes led you to similar/different outcomes to those of the main character? How so?
    • How would you have responded to the situations the characters find themselves in? Why would you have responded in such a manner?

    This page titled 13.5: Literary Theories is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Skyline English Department.

    • Was this article helpful?