What is Literary Theory?
When students hear the word "theory," they might think first of the natural sciences, rather than of literature. In the sciences, theories are systems for understanding how an aspect of the world works: they can be used to explain past phenomena and predict future behavior. Some common conceptions of theory in the public consciousness might include the theory of evolution or the search for the unified theory of the universe.
This image of a magnifying glass resting on an old book is in the public domain.
The term theory does not have the exact same applications in science and literature. However, literary scholars do understand their subject through literary theories, which are intellectual models that seek to answer a number of fundamental interpretive questions about literature. In How to Do Theory, literary critic Wolfgang Iser suggests that the natural sciences (and the social sciences to a large part) operate under hard-core theories, whereas the humanities use soft-core theories. Simply put, hard-core theories lead to problem-solving and are governed by general laws and rules; they predict and rely on objective facts. Soft-core theories, on the other hand, do not problem solve but predict — they map ideas and are not necessarily governed by laws but by metaphors and images.
Thus literary scholars use theories that are more descriptive of ideas — which map ideas more than quantify them. Such scholars are guided by questions that may include the following:
- What exactly do we mean by "literature"? What counts as literature, and what does not?
- Can (and should) we determine the value or worth of literary works? If so, how should we go about this task? If not, why not?
- To what extent does a given text reflect its author and/or the historical moment of its composition?
- What are the political and social ramifications of literary texts and of the ways we study them?
These are very broad versions of the questions that literary scholars ask in their work, but you can probably already see that different scholars are likely to have very different answers to many of them. Thus we often talk about different "schools" of literary theory. Each school prioritizes certain concerns for talking about literature while de-emphasizing others. Thus one critic might focus on the representation of women within a given story or poem (feminist theory), while another critic might concentrate on representations of unconscious desire in that same text (psychoanalytical theory). Though they're studying the same text, these two critics may come to very different conclusions about what is most interesting in that text and why.
Why Study Literary Theory?
In his essay "Disliking Books at an Early Age," literary scholar Gerald Graff talks about how he struggled as a child to see the point of literature. "Literature and history," he recalls, "had no apparent application to my experience." Even in college, Graff says, he "continued to find 'serious' reading painfully difficult and alien." This all changed for Graff when he encountered critical debates over the interpretation of Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1876). He read about critics who disagreed over the book's meaning, value, and attitudes toward race. He realized that the conversations he'd been having with his classmates about the book in class discussion "were not too far from the thoughts of famous published critics," which gave Graff a feeling of power and excitement about reading he'd never felt before.
We hope you will feel that same power and excitement about reading as you learn about critical debates in literary study and begin to contribute to them in your own papers. Literature isn't made up of inscrutable texts that can be deciphered only by a chosen few who have learned to speak in a secret code. Literature is written by people — talented people perhaps, but people nonetheless. And the concerns of literary critics are concerns that many people share: What does this work say about the human condition? How does it convey its message? Does it portray its subjects fairly? What political or social ideas does it advance? Literature has many potential meanings, and literary theory gives scholars different avenues to uncover those meanings.
By asking theoretical questions of the novels, stories, poems, plays, and essays that you read in your literature class, you can begin to grasp works that may seem ineffable—impenetrable—if you try to uncover a single, "correct" interpretation for them. In short, literary theory can give you a toolbox for approaching any literary text: a set of interpretive moves that can help you figure out where to start when your instructor asks you to comment on a work in class or develop a paper topic.
Theory as Lens
One helpful way of thinking about theory is to imagine it as a kind of lens, or perspective. By viewing literature through a lens, it allows scholars to focus on a particular aspect of the text. Through this perspective, scholars can gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the text. For example, if we view Hamlet through the gender lens, we might examine the ways in which Hamlet is mocked by Claudius for his "unmanly" grief and how this reflects gender roles in Shakespeare's time. We might also examine the way Ophelia or Gertrude function in the text, or why Hamlet is so rude and sexist towards the women in his life.
By zooming in on a particular aspect of a text, students can focus on a topic that interests them. Focused essays—with clear thesis statements —are often better essays. But they are also often more enjoyable to write for students!
Think about what expertise you might have, or what issues are most important to you. Let's say you are a student who is really into sports, for example. You might examine the role of sports in Hamlet (there is fencing!). If you are passionate about nature or the environment, you might consider the botany of daffodils in Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" or the flowers Ophelia carries in Hamlet. Essentially, there is a way to apply a theoretical lens or perspective to any work of literature.
Therefore, rather than thinking of theory as restrictive, think of it as a way to explore literary texts in a way that is meaningful to you; a way that empowers you to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation not only for literature, but for your own passions, dreams, and ideas.
Gerald Graff, “Disliking Books at an Early Age,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 2, no. 6 (September–October 1992): 45–51, JSTOR.
Wolfgang Iser, How to Do Theory (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2006).