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Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

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.


Please note that the schools of literary criticism and their explanations included here are by no means the only ways of distinguishing these separate areas of theory. Indeed, many critics use tools from two or more schools in their work. Some would define differently or greatly expand the (very) general statements given here. Our explanations are meant only as starting places for your own investigation into literary theory. We encourage you to use the list of scholars and works provided for each school to further your understanding of these theories.

We also recommend the following secondary sources for study of literary theory:

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)

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

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


In Book X of his Republic, Plato may have given us the first volley of detailed and lengthy literary criticism. The dialog between Socrates and two of his associates shows the participants of this discussion concluding that art must play a limited and very strict role in the perfect Greek Republic. Richter provides a nice summary of this point: "...poets may stay as servants of the state if they teach piety and virtue, but the pleasures of art are condemned as inherently corrupting to citizens..." (19).

One reason Plato included these ideas in his Socratic dialog because he believed that art was a mediocre reproduction of nature: "...what artists do...is hold the mirror up to nature: They copy the appearances of men, animals, and objects in the physical world...and the intelligence that went into its creation need involve nothing more than conjecture" (Richter 19). So in short, if art does not teach morality and ethics, then it is damaging to its audience, and for Plato this damaged his Republic.

Given this controversial approach to art, it's easy to see why Plato's position has an impact on literature and literary criticism even today (though scholars who critique work based on whether or not the story teaches a moral are few - virtue may have an impact on children's literature, however).


In Poetics, Aristotle breaks with his teacher (Plato) in the consideration of art. Aristotle considers poetry (and rhetoric), a productive science, whereas he thought logic and physics to be theoretical sciences, and ethics and politics practical sciences (Richter 38). Because Aristotle saw poetry and drama as means to an end (for example, an audience's enjoyment) he established some basic guidelines for authors to follow to achieve certain objectives.

To help authors achieve their objectives, Aristotle developed elements of organization and methods for writing effective poetry and drama known as the principles of dramatic construction (Richter 39). Aristotle believed that elements like "...language, rhythm, and harmony..." as well as "...plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle..." influence the audience's katharsis (pity and fear) or satisfaction with the work (Richter 39). And so here we see one of the earliest attempts to explain what makes an effective or ineffective work of literature.

Like Plato, Aristotle's views on art heavily influence Western thought. The debate between Platonists and Aristotelians continued "...in the Neoplatonists of the second century AD, the Cambridge Platonists of the latter seventeenth century, and the idealists of the romantic movement" (Richter 17). Even today, the debate continues, and this debate is no more evident than in some of the discussions between adherents to the schools of criticism contained in this resource.

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Formalism (1930s-present)

Form Follows Function: Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelianism

Formalists disagreed about what specific elements make a literary work "good" or "bad"; but generally, Formalism maintains that a literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory "...defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in the text" (Richter 699). Therefore, it's easy to see Formalism's relation to Aristotle's theories of dramatic construction.

Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself," (..."the battle cry of the New Critical effort..." and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).

For the most part, Formalism is no longer used in the academy. However, New Critical theories are still used in secondary and college level instruction in literature and even writing (Tyson 115).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Russian Formalism

New Criticism

Neo-Aristotelianism (Chicago School of Criticism)

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present)

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalytic criticism builds on Freudian theories of psychology. While we don't have the room here to discuss all of Freud's work, a general overview is necessary to explain psychoanalytic literary criticism.

The Unconscious, the Desires, and the Defenses

Freud began his psychoanalytic work in the 1880s while attempting to treat behavioral disorders in his Viennese patients. He dubbed the disorders 'hysteria' and began treating them by listening to his patients talk through their problems. Based on this work, Freud asserted that people's behavior is affected by their unconscious: "...the notion that human beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware..." (Tyson 14-15).

Freud believed that our unconscious was influenced by childhood events. Freud organized these events into developmental stages involving relationships with parents and drives of desire and pleasure where children focus "...on different parts of the body...starting with the mouth...shifting to the oral, anal, and phallic phases..." (Richter 1015). These stages reflect base levels of desire, but they also involve fear of loss (loss of genitals, loss of affection from parents, loss of life) and repression: "...the expunging from consciousness of these unhappy psychological events" (Tyson 15).

Tyson reminds us, however, that "...repression doesn't eliminate our painful experiences and emotions...we unconsciously behave in ways that will allow us to 'play out'...our conflicted feelings about the painful experiences and emotions we repress" (15). To keep all of this conflict buried in our unconscious, Freud argued that we develop defenses: selective perception, selective memory, denial, displacement, projection, regression, fear of intimacy, and fear of death, among others.

Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood:

Oedipus Complex

Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was "...one of the most powerfully determinative elements in the growth of the child" (Richter 1016). Essentially, the Oedipus complex involves children's need for their parents and the conflict that arises as children mature and realize they are not the absolute focus of their mother's attention: "the Oedipus complex begins in a late phase of infantile sexuality, between the child's third and sixth year, and it takes a different form in males than it does in females" (Richter 1016).

Freud argued that both boys and girls wish to possess their mothers, but as they grow older "...they begin to sense that their claim to exclusive attention is thwarted by the mother's attention to the father..." (1016). Children, Freud maintained, connect this conflict of attention to the intimate relations between mother and father, relations from which the children are excluded. Freud believed that "the result is a murderous rage against the father...and a desire to possess the mother" (1016).

Freud pointed out, however, that "...the Oedipus complex differs in boys and girls...the functioning of the related castration complex" (1016). In short, Freud thought that "...during the Oedipal rivalry [between boys and their fathers], boys fantasized that punishment for their rage will take the form of..." castration (1016). When boys effectively work through this anxiety, Freud argued, "...the boy learns to identify with the father in the hope of someday possessing a woman like his mother. In girls, the castration complex does not take the form of anxiety...the result is a frustrated rage in which the girl shifts her sexual desire from the mother to the father" (1016).

Freud believed that eventually, the girl's spurned advanced toward the father give way to a desire to possess a man like her father later in life. Freud believed that the impact of the unconscious, id, ego, superego, the defenses, and the Oedipus complexes was inescapable and that these elements of the mind influence all our behavior (and even our dreams) as adults - of course this behavior involves what we write.

Freud and Literature

So what does all of this psychological business have to do with literature and the study of literature? Put simply, some critics believe that we can "...read psychoanalytically...to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation" (Tyson 29). Tyson provides some insightful and applicable questions to help guide our understanding of psychoanalytic criticism.

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Carl Jung

Jungian criticism attempts to explore the connection between literature and what Carl Jung (a student of Freud) called the “collective unconscious” of the human race: "...racial memory, through which the spirit of the whole human species manifests itself" (Richter 504). Jungian criticism, closely related to Freudian theory because of its connection to psychoanalysis, assumes that all stories and symbols are based on mythic models from mankind’s past.

Based on these commonalities, Jung developed archetypal myths, the Syzygy: "...a quaternion composing a whole, the unified self of which people are in search" (Richter 505). These archetypes are the Shadow, the Anima, the Animus, and the Spirit: "...beneath...[the Shadow] is the Anima, the feminine side of the male Self, and the Animus, the corresponding masculine side of the female Self" (Richter 505).

In literary analysis, a Jungian critic would look for archetypes (also see the discussion of Northrop Frye in the Structuralism section) in creative works: "Jungian criticism is generally involved with a search for the embodiment of these symbols within particular works of art." (Richter 505). When dealing with this sort of criticism, it is often useful to keep a handbook of mythology and a dictionary of symbols on hand.

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)

Whom Does it Benefit?

Based on the theories of Karl Marx (and so influenced by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system: "Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience" (Tyson 277).

Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? And Marxists critics are also interested in how the lower or working classes are oppressed - in everyday life and in literature.

The Material Dialectic

The Marxist school follows a process of thinking called the material dialectic. This belief system maintains that "...what drives historical change are the material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art that is built upon that economic base" (Richter 1088).

Marx asserts that "...stable societies develop sites of resistance: contradictions build into the social system that ultimately lead to social revolution and the development of a new society upon the old" (1088). This cycle of contradiction, tension, and revolution must continue: there will always be conflict between the upper, middle, and lower (working) classes and this conflict will be reflected in literature and other forms of expression - art, music, movies, etc.

The Revolution

The continuing conflict between the classes will lead to upheaval and revolution by oppressed peoples and form the groundwork for a new order of society and economics where capitalism is abolished. According to Marx, the revolution will be led by the working class (others think peasants will lead the uprising) under the guidance of intellectuals. Once the elite and middle class are overthrown, the intellectuals will compose an equal society where everyone owns everything (socialism - not to be confused with Soviet or Maoist Communism).

Though a staggering number of different nuances exist within this school of literary theory, Marxist critics generally work in areas covered by the following questions.

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)

What Do You Think?

At its most basic level, reader response criticism considers readers' reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text. However, reader-response criticism can take a number of different approaches. A critic deploying reader-response theory can use a psychoanalytic lens, a feminists lens, or even a structuralist lens. What these different lenses have in common when using a reader response approach is they maintain "...that what a text is cannot be separated from what it does" (Tyson 154).

Tyson explains that "...reader-response theorists share two beliefs: 1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and 2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature" (154). In this way, reader-response theory shares common ground with some of the deconstructionists discussed in the Post-structural area when they talk about "the death of the author," or her displacement as the (author)itarian figure in the text.

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s-present)

Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.

Linguistic Roots

The structuralist school emerges from theories of language and linguistics, and it looks for underlying elements in culture and literature that can be connected so that critics can develop general conclusions about the individual works and the systems from which they emerge. In fact, structuralism maintains that "...practically everything we do that is specifically human is expressed in language" (Richter 809). Structuralists believe that these language symbols extend far beyond written or oral communication.

For example, codes that represent all sorts of things permeate everything we do: "the performance of music requires complex notation...our economic life rests upon the exchange of labor and goods for symbols, such as cash, checks, stock, and certificates...social life depends on the meaningful gestures and signals of 'body language' and revolves around the exchange of small, symbolic favors: drinks, parties, dinners" (Richter 809).

Patterns and Experience

Structuralists assert that, since language exists in patterns, certain underlying elements are common to all human experiences. Structuralists believe we can observe these experiences through patterns: "...if you examine the physical structures of all buildings built in urban America in 1850 to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition, for example, principles of mechanical construction or of artistic form..." you are using a structuralist lens (Tyson 197).

Moreover, "you are also engaged in structuralist activity if you examine the structure of a single building to discover how its composition demonstrates underlying principles of a structural system. In the first example...you're generating a structural system of classification; in the second, you're demonstrating that an individual item belongs to a particular structural class" (Tyson 197).

Structuralism in Literary Theory

Structuralism is used in literary theory, for example, "...if you examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition...principles of narrative progression...or of characterization...you are also engaged in structuralist activity if you describe the structure of a single literary work to discover how its composition demonstrates the underlying principles of a given structural system" (Tyson 197-198).

Northrop Frye, however, takes a different approach to structuralism by exploring ways in which genres of Western literature fall into his four mythoi (also see Jungian criticism in the Freudian Literary Criticism resource):

  1. theory of modes, or historical criticism (tragic, comic, and thematic);
  2. theory of symbols, or ethical criticism (literal/descriptive, formal, mythical, and anagogic);
  3. theory of myths, or archetypal criticism (comedy, romance, tragedy, irony/satire);
  4. theory of genres, or rhetorical criticism (epos, prose, drama, lyric) (Tyson 240).

Peirce and Saussure

Two important theorists form the framework (hah) of structuralism: Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Peirce gave structuralism three important ideas for analyzing the sign systems that permeate and define our experiences:

  1. "iconic signs, in which the signifier resembles the thing signified (such as the stick figures on washroom doors that signify 'Men' or 'Women';
  2. indexes, in which the signifier is a reliable indicator of the presence of the signified (like fire and smoke);
  3. true symbols, in which the signifier's relation to the thing signified is completely arbitrary and conventional [just as the sound /kat/ or the written word cat are conventional signs for the familiar feline]" (Richter 810).

These elements become very important when we move into deconstruction in the Postmodernism resource. Peirce also influenced the semiotic school of structuralist theory that uses sign systems.

Sign Systems

The discipline of semiotics plays an important role in structuralist literary theory and cultural studies. Semioticians "...appl[y] structuralist insights to the study of...sign systems...a non-linguistic object or behavior...that can be analyzed as if it were a language" (Tyson 205). Specifically, "...semiotics examines the ways non-linguistic objects and behaviors 'tell' us something.

For example, the picture of the reclining blond beauty in the skin-tight, black velvet dress on the billboard...'tells' us that those who drink this whiskey (presumably male) will be attractive to...beautiful women like the one displayed here" (Tyson 205). Lastly, Richter states, "semiotics takes off from Peirce - for whom language is one of numerous sign systems - and structuralism takes off from Saussure, for whom language was the sign system par excellence" (810).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1966-present)

Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.

The Center Cannot Hold

This approach concerns itself with the ways and places where systems, frameworks, definitions, and certainties break down. Post-structuralism maintains that frameworks and systems, for example the structuralist systems explained in the Structuralist area, are merely fictitious constructs and that they cannot be trusted to develop meaning or to give order. In fact, the very act of seeking order or a singular Truth (with a capital T) is absurd because there exists no unified truth.

Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered. Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy. Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.

What Does Your Meaning Mean?

By questioning the process of developing meaning, post-structural theory strikes at the very heart of philosophy and reality and throws knowledge making into what Jacques Derrida called "freeplay": "The concept of centered structure...is contradictorily coherent...the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay" (qtd. in Richter, 878-879).

Derrida first posited these ideas in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University, when he delivered “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”: "Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an 'event,' if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural-or structuralist-thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term “event” anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling” (qtd. in Richter, 878). In his presentation, Derrida challenged structuralism's most basic ideas.

Can Language Do That?

Post-structural theory can be tied to a move against Modernist/Enlightenment ideas (philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Réne Descartes, John Locke, etc.) and Western religious beliefs (neo-Platonism, Catholicism, etc.). An early pioneer of this resistance was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In his essay, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche rejects even the very basis of our knowledge making, language, as a reliable system of communication: “The various languages, juxtaposed, show that words are never concerned with truth, never with adequate expression...” (248).

Below is an example, adapted from the Tyson text, of some language freeplay and a simple form of deconstruction:

Time (noun) flies (verb) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Time passes quickly.

Time (verb) flies (object) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Get out your stopwatch and time the speed of flies as you would time an arrow's flight.

Time flies (noun) like (verb) an arrow (object) = Time flies are fond of arrows (or at least of one particular arrow).

So, post-structuralists assert that if we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth are unreliable and the universe - or at least the universe we have constructed - becomes unraveled or de-centered. Nietzsche uses language slip as a base to move into the slip and shift of truth as a whole: “What is truth? …truths are an illusion about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions...” (On Truth and Lies 250).

This returns us to the discussion in the Structuralist area regarding signs, signifiers, and signified. Essentially, post-structuralism holds that we cannot trust the sign = signifier + signified formula, that there is a breakdown of certainty between sign/signifier, which leaves language systems hopelessly inadequate for relaying meaning so that we are (returning to Derrida) in eternal freeplay or instability.

What's Left?

Important to note, however, is that deconstruction is not just about tearing down - this is a common misconception. Derrida, in "Signature Event Context," addressed this limited view of post-structural theory: "Deconstruction cannot limit or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must…practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces" (328).

Derrida reminds us that through deconstruction we can identify the in-betweens and the marginalized to begin interstitial knowledge building.

Modernism vs Postmodernism

With the resistance to traditional forms of knowledge making (science, religion, language), inquiry, communication, and building meaning take on different forms to the post-structuralist. We can look at this difference as a split between Modernism and Postmodernism. The table below, excerpted from theorist Ihab Hassan's The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1998), offers us a way to make sense of some differences between modernism, dominated by Enlightenment ideas, and postmodernism, a space of freeplay and discourse.

Keep in mind that even the author, Hassan, "...is quick to point out how the dichotomies are themselves insecure, equivocal" (Harvey 42). Though post-structuralism is uncomfortable with binaries, Hassan provides us with some interesting contrasts to consider:

Modernism vs Postmodernism
Modernism Postmodernism
romanticism/symbolism paraphysics/Dadaism
form (conjunctive, closed) antiform (disjunctive, open)
purpose play
design chance
hierarchy anarchy
mastery/logos exhaustion/silence
art object/finished work/logos process/performance/antithesis
centering absence
genre/boundary text/intertext
semantics rhetoric
metaphor metonymy
root/depth rhizome/surface
signified signifier
narrative/grande histoire anti-narrative/petite histoire
genital/phallic polymorphous/androgynous
paranoia schizophrenia
origin/cause difference-difference/trace
God the Father The Holy Ghost
determinacy interdeterminacy
transcendence immanence

Post-Structuralism and Literature

If we are questioning/resisting the methods we use to build knowledge (science, religion, language), then traditional literary notions are also thrown into freeplay. These include the narrative and the author:


The narrative is a fiction that locks readers into interpreting text in a single, chronological manner that does not reflect our experiences. Postmodern texts may not adhere to traditional notions of narrative. For example, in his seminal work, Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs explodes the traditional narrative structure and critiques almost everything Modern: modern government, modern medicine, modern law-enforcement. Other examples of authors playing with narrative include John Fowles; in the final sections of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles steps outside his narrative to speak with the reader directly.

Moreover, grand narratives are resisted. For example, the belief that through science the human race will improve is questioned. In addition, metaphysics is questioned. Instead, postmodern knowledge building is local, situated, slippery, and self-critical (i.e. it questions itself and its role). Because post-structural work is self-critical, post-structural critics even look for ways texts contradict themselves (see typical questions below).


The author is displaced as absolute author(ity), and the reader plays a role in interpreting the text and developing meaning (as best as possible) from the text. In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that the idea of singular authorship is a recent phenomenon. Barthes explains that the death of the author shatters Modernist notions of authority and knowledge building (145).

Lastly, he states that once the author is dead and the Modernist idea of singular narrative (and thus authority) is overturned, texts become plural, and the interpretation of texts becomes a collaborative process between author and audience: “...a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue...but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader” (148). Barthes ends his essay by empowering the reader: “Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader...the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (148).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:


Postmodern Literature

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

New Historicism, Cultural Studies (1980s-present)

It's All Relative...

This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault's concept of épistème). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Historicism is "...a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality" (Richter 1205).

A helpful way of considering New Historical theory, Tyson explains, is to think about the retelling of history itself: "...questions asked by traditional historians and by new historicists are quite different...traditional historians ask, 'What happened?' and 'What does the event tell us about history?' In contrast, new historicists ask, 'How has the event been interpreted?' and 'What do the interpretations tell us about the interpreters?'" (278). So New Historicism resists the notion that "...history is a series of events that have a linear, causal relationship: event A caused event B; event B caused event C; and so on" (Tyson 278).

New historicists do not believe that we can look at history objectively, but rather that we interpret events as products of our time and culture and that "...we don't have clear access to any but the most basic facts of history...our understanding of what such facts mean...is...strictly a matter of interpretation, not fact" (279). Moreover, New Historicism holds that we are hopelessly subjective interpreters of what we observe.

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)

History is Written by the Victors

Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized).

Therefore, a post-colonial critic might be interested in works such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe where colonial "...ideology [is] manifest in Crusoe's colonialist attitude toward the land upon which he's shipwrecked and toward the black man he 'colonizes' and names Friday" (Tyson 377). In addition, post-colonial theory might point out that "...despite Heart of Darkness's (Joseph Conrad) obvious anti-colonist agenda, the novel points to the colonized population as the standard of savagery to which Europeans are contrasted" (Tyson 375). Post-colonial criticism also takes the form of literature composed by authors that critique Euro-centric hegemony.

A Unique Perspective on Empire

Seminal post-colonial writers such as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o have written a number of stories recounting the suffering of colonized people. For example, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe details the strife and devastation that occurred when British colonists began moving inland from the Nigerian coast.

Rather than glorifying the exploratory nature of European colonists as they expanded their sphere of influence, Achebe narrates the destructive events that led to the death and enslavement of thousands of Nigerians when the British imposed their Imperial government. In turn, Achebe points out the negative effects (and shifting ideas of identity and culture) caused by the imposition of western religion and economics on Nigerians during colonial rule.

Power, Hegemony, and Literature

Post-colonial criticism also questions the role of the western literary canon and western history as dominant forms of knowledge making. The terms "first-world," "second world," "third world" and "fourth world" nations are critiqued by post-colonial critics because they reinforce the dominant positions of western cultures populating first world status. This critique includes the literary canon and histories written from the perspective of first-world cultures. So, for example, a post-colonial critic might question the works included in "the canon" because the canon does not contain works by authors outside western culture.

Moreover, the authors included in the canon often reinforce colonial hegemonic ideology, such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Western critics might consider Heart of Darkness an effective critique of colonial behavior. But post-colonial theorists and authors might disagree with this perspective: "...as Chinua Achebe observes, the novel's condemnation of European is based on a definition of Africans as savages: beneath their veneer of civilization, the Europeans are, the novel tells us, as barbaric as the Africans. And indeed, Achebe notes, the novel portrays Africans as a pre-historic mass of frenzied, howling, incomprehensible barbarians..." (Tyson 374-375).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:


Literature and non-fiction

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)


Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: "Perhaps the most chilling example...is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).

Feminist criticism is also concerned with less obvious forms of marginalization such as the exclusion of women writers from the traditional literary canon: "...unless the critical or historical point of view is feminist, there is a tendency to under-represent the contribution of women writers" (Tyson 82-83).

Common Space in Feminist Theories

Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson:

  1. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so
  2. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values
  3. All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world
  4. While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine)
  5. All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality
  6. Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not (91).

Feminist criticism has, in many ways, followed what some theorists call the three waves of feminism:

  1. First Wave Feminism - late 1700s-early 1900's: writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) highlight the inequalities between the sexes. Activists like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull contribute to the women's suffrage movement, which leads to National Universal Suffrage in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment
  2. Second Wave Feminism - early 1960s-late 1970s: building on more equal working conditions necessary in America during World War II, movements such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, cohere feminist political activism. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir (Le deuxième sexe, 1972) and Elaine Showalter established the groundwork for the dissemination of feminist theories dove-tailed with the American Civil Rights movement
  3. Third Wave Feminism - early 1990s-present: resisting the perceived essentialist (over generalized, over simplified) ideologies and a white, heterosexual, middle class focus of second wave feminism, third wave feminism borrows from post-structural and contemporary gender and race theories (see below) to expand on marginalized populations' experiences. Writers like Alice Walker work to "...reconcile it [feminism] with the concerns of the black community...[and] the survival and wholeness of her people, men and women both, and for the promotion of dialog and community as well as for the valorization of women and of all the varieties of work women perform" (Tyson 97).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970s-present)

Gender(s), Power, and Marginalization

Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture. Much of the work in gender studies and queer theory, while influenced by feminist criticism, emerges from post-structural interest in fragmented, de-centered knowledge building (Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault), language (the breakdown of sign-signifier), and psychoanalysis (Lacan).

A primary concern in gender studies and queer theory is the manner in which gender and sexuality is discussed: "Effective as this work [feminism] was in changing what teachers taught and what the students read, there was a sense on the part of some feminist critics that...it was still the old game that was being played, when what it needed was a new game entirely. The argument posed was that in order to counter patriarchy, it was necessary not merely to think about new texts, but to think about them in radically new ways" (Richter 1432).

Therefore, a critic working in gender studies and queer theory might even be uncomfortable with the binary established by many feminist scholars between masculine and feminine: "Cixous (following Derrida in Of Grammatology) sets up a series of binary oppositions (active/passive, sun/moon...father/mother, logos/pathos). Each pair can be analyzed as a hierarchy in which the former term represents the positive and masculine and the latter the negative and feminine principle" (Richter 1433-1434).


Many critics working with gender and queer theory are interested in the breakdown of binaries such as male and female, the in-betweens (also following Derrida's interstitial knowledge building). For example, gender studies and queer theory maintains that cultural definitions of sexuality and what it means to be male and female are in flux: "...the distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" activities and behavior is constantly changing, so that women who wear baseball caps and fatigues...can be perceived as more piquantly sexy by some heterosexual men than those women who wear white frocks and gloves and look down demurely" (Richter 1437).

Moreover, Richter reminds us that as we learn more about our genetic structure, the biology of male/female becomes increasingly complex and murky: "even the physical dualism of sexual genetic structures and bodily parts breaks down when one considers those instances - XXY syndromes, natural sexual bimorphisms, as well as surgical transsexuals - that defy attempts at binary classification" (1437).

Typical questions:

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski.

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.


Ecocriticism is an umbrella term under which a variety of approaches fall; this can make it a difficult term to define. As ecocritic Lawrence Buell says, ecocriticism is an “increasingly heterogeneous movement” (1). But, “simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty xviii). Emerging in the 1980s on the shoulders of the environmental movement begun in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ecocriticism has been and continues to be an “earth-centered approach” (Glotfelty xviii) the complex intersections between environment and culture, believing that “human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it” (Glotfelty xix). Ecocriticism is interdisciplinary, calling for collaboration between natural scientists, writers, literary critics, anthropologists, historians, and more. Ecocriticism asks us to examine ourselves and the world around us, critiquing the way that we represent, interact with, and construct the environment, both “natural” and manmade. At the heart of ecocriticism, many maintain, is “a commitment to environmentality from whatever critical vantage point” (Buell 11). The “challenge” for ecocritics is “keep[ing] one eye on the ways in which ‘nature’ is always […] culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists” (Gerrard 10). Similar to critical traditions examining gender and race, ecocriticism deals not only with the socially-constructed, often dichotomous categories we create for reality, but with reality itself.  

First and Second Waves

Several scholars have divided Ecocriticism into two waves (Buell)(Glotfelty), recognizing the first as taking place throughout the eighties and nineties. The first wave is characterized by its emphasis on nature writing as an object of study and as a meaningful practice (Buell). Central to this wave and to the majority of ecocritics still today is the environmental crisis of our age, seeing it as the duty of both the humanities and the natural sciences to raise awareness and invent solutions for a problem that is both cultural and physical. As such, a primary concern in first-wave ecocriticism was to “speak for” nature (Buell 11). This is, perhaps, where ecocriticism gained its reputation as an “avowedly political mode of analysis” (Gerrard 3). This wave, unlike its successor, kept the cultural distinction between human and nature, promoting the value of nature.

The second wave is particularly modern in its breaking down of some of the long-standing distinctions between the human and the non-human, questioning these very concepts (Gerrard 5). The boundaries between the human and the non-human, nature and non-nature are discussed as constructions, and ecocritics challenge these constructions, asking (among other things) how they frame the environmental crisis and its solution. This wave brought with it a redefinition of the term “environment,” expanding its meaning to include both “nature” and the urban (Buell 11). Out of this expansion has grown the ecojustice movement, one of the more political of ecocriticism branches that is “raising an awareness of class, race, and gender through ecocritical reading of text” (Bressler 236), often examining the plight of the poorest of a population who are the victims of pollution are seen as having less access to “nature” in the traditional sense.

These waves are not exactly distinct, and there is debate over what exactly constitutes the two. For instance, some ecocritics will claim activism has been a defining feature of ecocriticism from the beginning, while others see activism as a defining feature of primarily the first wave. While the exact features attributed to each wave may be disputed, it is clear that Ecocriticism continues to evolve and has undergone several shifts in attitude and direction since its conception.

Tropes and Approaches


This trope, found in much British and American literature, focuses on the dichotomy between urban and rural life, is “deeply entrenched in Western culture”(Gerrard 33). At the forefront of works which display pastoralism is a general idealization of the nature and the rural and the demonization of the urban. Often, such works show a “retreat” from city life to the country while romanticizing rural life, depicting an idealized rural existence that “obscures” the reality of the hard work living in such areas requires (Gerrard 33). Greg Gerrard identifies three branches of the pastoral: Classic Pastoral, “characterized by nostalgia” (37) and an appreciation of nature as a place for human relaxation and reflection; Romantic Pastoral, a period after the Industrial Revolution that saw “rural independence” as desirable against the expansion of the urban; and American Pastoralism, which “emphasize[d] agrarianism” (49) and represents land as a resource to be cultivated, with farmland often creating a boundary between the urban and the wilderness.


An interesting focus for many ecocritics is the way that wilderness is represented in literature and popular culture. This approach examines the ways in which wilderness is constructed, valued, and engaged. Representations of wilderness in British and American culture can be separated into a few main tropes. First, Old World wilderness displays wilderness as a place beyond the borders of civilization, wherein wilderness is treated as a “threat,” a place of “exile” (Gerrard 62). This trope can be seen in Biblical tales of creation and early British culture. Old World wilderness is often conflated with demonic practices in early American literature (Gerrard 62). New World wilderness, seen in portrayals of wilderness in later American literature, applies the pastoral trope of the “retreat” to wilderness itself, seeing wilderness not as a place to fear, but as a place to find sanctuary. The New World wilderness trope has informed much of the “American identity,” and often constructs encounters with the wilderness that lead to a more “authentic existence” (Gerrard 71).


As a branch of ecocriticism, ecofeminism primarily “analyzes the interconnection of the oppression of women and nature” (Bressler 236). Drawing parallels between domination of land and the domination of men over women, ecofeminists examine these hierarchical, gendered relationships, in which the land is often equated with the feminine, seen as a fertile resources and the property of man. The ecofeminism approach can be divided into two camps. The first, sometimes referred to as radical ecofeminism, reverses the patriarchal domination of man over woman and nature, “exalting nature,” the non-human, and the emotional” (Gerrard 24). This approach embraces the idea that women are inherently closer to nature biologically, spiritually, and emotionally. The second camp, which followed the first historically, maintains that there is no such thing as a “feminine essence” that would make women more likely to connect with nature (Gerrard 25). Of course, ecofeminism is a highly diverse and complex branch, and many writers have undertaken the job of examining the hierarchical relationships structured in our cultural representations of nature and of women and other oppressed groups. In particular, studies regarding race have followed in this trend, identifying groups that have been historically seen as somehow closer to nature. The way Native Americans, for instance, have been described as “primitive” and portrayed as “dwelling in harmony with nature,” despite facts to the contrary. Gerrard offers an examination of this trope, calling it the Ecological Indian (Gerrard 120). Similar studies regarding representations and oppression of aboriginals have surfaced, highlighting the misconceptions of these peoples as somehow “behind” Europeans, needing to progress from “a natural to a civilized state” (Gerrard 125).

Typical Questions

Taking an ecocritical approach to a topic means asking questions not only of a primary source such as literature, but asking larger questions about cultural attitudes towards and definitions of nature. Generally, ecocriticism can be applied to a primary source by either interpreting a text through an ecocritical lens, with an eye towards nature, or examining an ecocritical trope within the text. The questions below are examples of questions you might ask both when working with a primary source and when developing a research question that might have a broader perspective.

There are many more questions than these to be asked, and a large variety of approaches already exist that are asking different questions. Do some research to check on the state of ecocritical discussion in your own area of interest!

Further Resources

There are many more approaches to analyzing interactions between culture and nature, many of which are interdisciplinary. The following texts are recommended to help you start exploring other avenues of Ecocriticsm.

Theory and Criticism

Literature & Literary Figures

Edward Abbey

Mary Hunter Austin

Rachel Carson

Aldo Leopold

John Muir

Henry David Thoreau

Williams Wordsworth