Literary Theory

An area of literary studies, which students are often afraid of, is literary theory. Theories in general can be defined as sets of elaborate, ordered and consistent categories which facilitate the systematic exploration and explanation of phenomena in a given study area.

Literary theory is infamous for being complicated, boring or simply self-satisfying. However, people who argue along those lines seem to forget that essentially, there is no reading of and no thinking about texts without theory. When we read a poem, for example, we approach the text in a certain way and, whether we are aware of this or not, we make assumptions about the text which, in a broad sense, already constitute a framework for decoding what the text is, what it tries to express, etc. Since our reading practice and our world view in general is inevitably steeped in some ‘theory’ or another, we may just as well make an effort to become more familiar with this underlying theory. After a while, we may find that our vision has become clearer and that we can discern things in texts which we would not have noticed without a theoretical background.

In this sense, theory is a bit like wearing glasses. Glasses can help you sharpen your view, and aspects one did not notice before are suddenly thrown into greater relief. At the same time, however, glasses can be tinted in different colours and thus you may perceive an object one way while someone else sees it differently. The same applies to literary theory. Theory can help us identify small and often minute facets of a text. However, if one always wears the same theoretical lens, one risks missing out on a lot of other features which may be equally fascinating but which simply do not match the categories or concepts of one’s theory. In order to avoid that, students should learn early on in their studies what types of theory are currently available and how to engage with them critically.

Literary theories can generally be located at the interface of components of the communication model. Thus, one can find theoretical approaches which look primarily at the relationship between text and author, while others focus on the relationship between text and reader, text and historical reality or text and other texts. Theories are useful because they explain systematically premises, terms and research questions and because they develop clear hypotheses about the effects and functions of texts. Thus, theories also help us analyse texts and communicate our findings to others.

It is important to bear in mind that theory and methodology are closely related. On the one hand, theory informs methodology. Thus, the questions we ask about a text will determine which tools we are going to use to analyse it. On the other hand, methodology can yield results which may ultimately change an already existing theory. It is also important to note here that theories depend on the socio-cultural context in which they emerge and therefore undergo changes. Theoretical considerations go as far back as the classical poetics, i.e., works about the art of writing literary texts, for example by Aristotle or Horace. Early examples of theoretical writings about English literature are: Philip Sidney (The Defence of Poesy, 1595), Alexander Pope (An Essay on Criticism, 1711) and William Wordsworth (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800).

Today, one can distinguish among a whole range of different theoretical approaches, of which the following summaries can merely provide a first overview. The list is by no means complete, and interested students should consult the bibliography for further references. Generally speaking, one can identify the following ‘groups’ of theoretical approaches (Korte, Müller, Schmied, 1997: 95-105):