Critical Theory: Introduction

Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

Literary Critical Theory

What are my first questions for this course?

  • What is literature?
  • What are we supposed to do with it? Howdo we approach literature?

Critical theory articulates what we bring toliterature, which presumably determines what we get out of it.This is not a chaos of subjectivity. Instead, critical theorytries to examine what types of questions we should pose aboutliterary works.

What does “common sense” say aboutthis? That literature is about life, or is a reflection of lifewritten from personal experience? That we study literature inorder to “appreciate” something:

  • an historical time period and what lifewas like then?
  • or a particular author’s ideas and feelings?

These indeed were the standard and unarticulatedassumptions about literature traditionally.


Until well into the 20th century, much of literarystudy was based on the assumption that to understand a work youneed to understand the author’s social background, the author’slife, ideas circulating during the time the author was writing,what other works influenced the creation of the one under examination,and so on. Most book introductions still offer this kind of material.Valuable literature, therefore, is that which tells us truthsabout the period which produced them. We are getting, accordingto this approach, a vision of human nature or the world in generalas filtered through an author’s individual insight and perceptions.

One problem with this assumption is that itrequires a crash course in matters falling outside the work itself.The reader presumably must rely on an expert’s special knowledgebefore being able to “appreciate” the work, and thismakes the study of literature rather elitist. Literature seenthis way seems dismissed almost, or at least presented as simplya way of arriving at something anterior to itself: the convictionsof the author or that author’s experience as part of a specificsociety. And so why not just study history?


When the Aristotelian concept that art is animitation of reality fused with the Romantic conviction that poetryis a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, the “expressiverealist” notion took hold, insisting that truly authenticand valuable works are those expressing the perceptions and emotionsof a person of sensibility. Thus we gush about how well an authorcaptured the whale-killing experience or conveyed his or her visionof love during the Civil War. But critic Northrup Frye objectsto this attitude:

The absurd quantum formula of criticism, theassertion that the critic should confine himself to ‘getting out’of a poem exactly what the poet may vaguely be assumed to havebeen aware of ‘putting in’, is one of the many slovenly illiteraciesthat the absence of systematic criticism has allowed to grow up.This quantum theory is the literary form of what may be calledthe fallacy of premature teleology. It corresponds, in the naturalsciences, to the assertion that a phenomenon is as it is becauseProvidence in its inscrutable wisdom made it so. That is, thecritic is assumed to have no conceptual framework: it is simplyhis job to take a poem into which a poet has diligently stuffeda specific number of beauties or effects, and complacently extractthem one by one, like his prototype Little Jack Horner. ( Belsey 27)

Both of the above approaches have fallen underattack in recent decades by scholars objecting to the inherentelitism of the approaches, or the notion of the reader being inthe position of passive consumer of literature, or in some caseshow these approaches make literary criticism parasitic on literature.

Before we involve ourselves with their approaches,here are some terms designed to codify the most general tendenciesin literary criticism.


proposes a theory of literature and generalprinciples as to how to approach it; criteria for evaluation emerge.


discusses particular works and authors; thetheoretical principles are implicit within the analysis or interpretation.


“appreciates” the responses evokedby works of literaturewith oohs and ahhs regarding “the soul”and declarations of “masterpieces.”


attempts to analyze and explain those effectsthrough the basic forms of “dissection”: subject, style,organization, techniques.


seeks to evaluate literature as an imitationor representation of life.


decides how well a work achieves its aims dueto the author’s strategies.


gushes about how well an author expressed orconveyed him or herself, his or her visions and feelings.


aims to establish an accurate uncorrupted originaltext identical with what the author intended. This may involvecollating manuscripts and printed versions, deciding on the validityof rediscovered versions or chapters, deciphering damaged manuscriptsand illegible handwriting, etc. One medieval problem, for example,is that of minims: ƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒƒ = minimum.

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice.London: Methuen, 1980.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature