Biographical Approach

As early as the nineteenth century, scholars considered literary texts against the background of the author’s biography. The aim was to find references to the author’s life, education and socio-cultural environment in a literary work. Ever since the French critic Roland Barthes announced the “death of the author” in 1968, the biographical approach has lost its appeal for many scholars. Barthes and critics following him have argued that an author’s biography is irrelevant since the meaning of a text only emerges in the reading process and the reader thus becomes the real ‘author’ of the text. One could argue against this radical viewpoint that there are texts where knowledge of an author’s biography can sometimes help us understand the text better because otherwise we would not be able to decipher certain allusions or references. D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1913), for example, draws heavily on Lawrence’s own family background. Bearing this knowledge in mind, it is then interesting to see where the literary text deviates from references to the author’s real life.

Psychological and Psychoanalytical Approaches

Following Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams, critics in the 1930s attempted to interpret literary texts with regard to the author’s psychological state or the psychology of the text itself. Thus, one question raised for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, was whether Hamlet suffered from the Oedipus complex. The reading process has also been considered from a psychological point of view. Furthermore, psychoanalytical approaches have made an inroad into poststructuralist (Jacques Lacan) and feminist approaches (Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous).

Contextual Approaches

Contextual approaches go back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where scholars asked to what extent literary texts were rooted in the historical, political, economical, philosophical, religious, etc. contexts of their production. E.M.W. Tillyard’s (1943) study, for example, investigates instantiations of the Elizabethan world picture in Shakespeare’s works, and Ian Watt (1957) asks to what extent Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is related to Puritanism and the rise of the middle class in the eighteenth century. Another example is Marxist criticism which regards the production of literary texts at the interface of material and socio-economic circumstances (Eagleton and Milne 1996). While after the Second World War contextual approaches, especially the Marxist tradition, were initially regarded as outdated, they have had a major comeback over the last two decades in approaches like new historicism, cultural materialism and cultural studies.

Reader-orientated Approaches

The most well-known reader-orientated approaches to literary texts are reader response theory for Anglo-American criticism (e.g., Stanley Fish) and reception theory or reception aesthetics, which mainly originated in Germany (Wolfgang Iser, Hans Robert Jauß). The questions reception theorists ask focus mainly on the relationship between text and reader. Thus, one can investigate what exactly happens during the reading process in the reader’s mind, how readers react emotionally to texts and in what ways the reception of literary texts is influenced by socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, social class, education, etc. An important concept in reception theory is that of textual gaps or blanks which readers have to fill while reading a text. In filling the gaps, readers also contribute to the construction of a text’s meaning. Other reader-orientated approaches take into account the historical dimensions of text reception and investigate how readings and interpretations of texts change over time. Thus, one can ask, for example, how Shakespeare’s contemporaries are likely to have perceived his plays in comparison with modern theatre goers.

Text-immanent Approach and New Criticism

In the first half of the twentieth century, a critical approach emerged which opposed prevailing practices of considering the biographies of authors, social contexts and literary history. This new approach, which came to be known under the name of New Criticism, focused on the literary work itself as an independent entity. Studies by authors such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren postulated the method of close reading, i.e., a detailed investigation of the overall composition of texts with regard to their unifying principles. At the centre of this approach was the idea that all the elements of a text ideally formed a coherent whole both on the formal and the content level. Further questions addressed the principles whereby literary texts create rich and varied meanings, which can ultimately lead to ambiguities.

Structuralist and Semiotic Approaches

Other approaches which deal primarily with the code in the literary communication model are the so-called structuralist and semiotic approaches. Structuralism and semiotics were greatly influenced by structuralist linguistics, most notably by Ferdinand de Saussure’s work on linguistic signs and later by Noam Chomsky’s seminal work on transformational grammar. A first group of theorists under the title of Russian Formalism considered literary language as deviant from everyday language and postulated the concept of the poetic function of literary texts, i.e., the fact that literary texts always draw attention to their literariness by using language in unusual or ‘unfamiliar’ ways. This process is called defamiliarisation. Authors to be mentioned in this context are Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovsky. The structuralist approach also had a great impact on narratology, i.e., a research area which focuses on narrative structures, in France (Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gérard Genette) as well as in Great Britain and the USA (Robert Scholes, Jonathan Culler, Seymour Chatman). Generally speaking, structuralists assume that literary texts function on the basis of an underlying ‘grammar’ according to which individual parts of a text are structured. Thus, it is possible to sift out universal patterns, e.g., with regard to plot structures or functional roles of characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.).

Closely connected with structuralism is semiotics, i.e., the study of signs and sign systems and the process by which signs are assigned meaning. Semiotics goes back to Saussure’s description of the linguistic sign consisting of a signifier, the sound image (TREE or TABLE), and a signified, the concept the sound image denotes (the concept of ‘tree’ or ‘table’). Signifier and signified are inseparable like the two sides of a coin. According to Saussure, the relationship between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ is arbitrary, and a sign receives its meaning solely from the fact that it differs from other signs and not because it refers to an object in the real world, the referent. The ‘reality’ we perceive is thus only a projection of the meaning inherent in the linguistic system rather than a transcendental meaning beyond language. In a literary text, the semiotics of the story-world as ‘reality’, for example, can be achieved through a number of ‘signifiers’ such as speech, the characters’ body language, spatio-temporal frameworks, etc.

Poststructuralist Approaches

In reaction to structuralism and semiotics, poststructuralist approaches deny the existence of universal principles which create meaning and coherence. Deconstructive theory, for example, which was first propagated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, maintains that even within the linguistic system there can be no ultimate ‘meaning’ because signifiers always refer to other signifiers and never to a signified. This can be exemplified by what happens when one tries to look up a word in a dictionary. What one usually finds is a definition or explanation of the word which in turn uses words that can be looked up and so on. Signifiers become traces, and meaning is constantly deferred. Derrida introduced the term différance, a combination of the French word for ‘difference’ (différence) and the gerund of the verb denoting ‘defer/ postpone’ (différant), to capture this process. Since words in a text are always reminiscent of other signifiers, one can never establish a ‘fixed’ or ‘final’ meaning of words and thus of texts. This poses questions for literary studies concerning the validity of interpretations: If there is no finite meaning, can one speak of texts at all? And can there be ‘wrong’ interpretations at all or do we have to allow for endless possibilities of reading a text?

While deconstructive theory focuses entirely on written texts, the so-called poetics of culture regards literature as a semiotic subsystem in which culture is reflected. The common underlying assumption is that cultural systems, like signs, do no consist of fixed binary oppositions. Michel Foucault’s work, which applies historical discourse analysis, was pathbreaking in this context. In his analyses of the history of medicine and of sexuality, for example, Foucault considers the social discourses about these areas and demonstrates how these discourses have changed concepts and ideas about medicine and sexuality over time. Discourse in Foucault’s sense consists of collections of statements (both verbal and non-verbal) about a given topic that are culturally defined by institutions and through conventions. Discourse thus also becomes an area where knowledge is created and power is seized and maintained by leading social groups.

Feminist Approaches and Gender Studies

Feminist approaches emerged along with the women’s rights movement in the late 1960s and were initially a reaction against hitherto male-dominated literary studies, which neglected literature produced by women and which had perpetuated clichés and stereotypes about women. The main merit of feminist approaches was that they rediscovered a number of female authors who had been considered ‘minor’ and allocated them a more central place in literary history. At the same time, feminist approaches highlight the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ writing in terms of style, topics and structures. More recently, feminist approaches have opened up to more general gender studies where gender roles and gendered perspectives in literary texts come under closer scrutiny. So-called queer theory has started to address issues concerning literature by and about homosexuals.

Ethnicity and Postcolonialism

Through the processes of colonialism and migration, an increasing amount of literatures by ethnic minorities has emerged in English-speaking cultures all over the world and has become the focal point for postcolonial theories, which investigate, for example, aspects of national identities, hybrid cultures, the significance of indigenous cultures and problems surrounding their ‘own’ history and language (Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). Concepts of race and ethnicity and the presentation of cultural suppression are also investigated in texts by African Americans, Chicano as well as Asian and Indian minorities.

Cultural Materialism and New Historicism

The common assumption underlying both cultural materialism and new historicism is that literature does not form a realm of its own that can be viewed against the background of socio-historical developments, for example, but that it is as much part and expression of a culture as other, non-literary, texts (e.g., travelogues, religious tracts, historical documents and ‘texts’ in a much wider sense such as adverts, pop music, TV programmes, film, etc.). Both are influenced by Marxist criticism. They try to relate problems of interpretation to cultural-historical problems and are concerned with the uncovering of power structures (economic, class, culture) as they become manifest in literary texts.

Both movements are interdisciplinary in that they draw upon insights and methods from a number of disciplines, and they both question the notion of a literary canon, i.e., a set of ‘important’ or ‘major’ literary works agreed upon through convention that are considered to be of a higher quality than other texts. By incorporating non-literary expressions of a culture, cultural materialism and new historicism raise questions concerning the literariness of texts and the function of literature in general and thus, ultimately, the validity of disciplines involved in the study of literature. While some scholars nowadays wish to include literary studies in a broader discipline of cultural studies, others point towards the specifically artistic and aesthetic nature of literary texts, which requires a set of special, i.e., literary, analytical tools.

The aim of this introduction is to familiarise you with exactly those special tools and thus to enable you to engage critically with literary texts.


biographical approach
psychological / psychoanalytical approach
Elizabethan world picture
Marxist approach
reader response theory
reception theory
new criticism
close reading
Russian formalism
post-  structuralism
feminist approach
gender studies
new historicism / cultural materialism
literary canon
cultural studies