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What is literary theory?

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David Lomax

on 29 January 2018

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Transcript of What is literary theory?

What is literary theory?
ways of interpreting literature
different "lenses" to wear
different "schools"
Why does it matter?
cultural literacy
importance of understanding our own perspective
connection to other schools of thought
Where does it come from?
roots as far back as Aristotle
desire to understand
urge to justify
axe to grind
When John Gardner said "there are only two plots in literature. You go on a journey or a stranger comes to town," he was engaging in literary theory -- offering an abstract idea to guide people's reading of literature.
When Gustav Freytag made a diagram in order to explain the plots of ancient Greek tragedies, he was engaging in literary theory. (He then got widely misinterpreted: many people today try to use his ideas to "graph" all sorts of stories in the same manner.)
When Arthur T. Quiller-Couch suggested that there are only seven kinds of conflict in literature (man vs. man; man vs. himself; man vs. nature; etc.) he was engaging in literary theory.
When we look through "rose-coloured glasses" then all the world seems pink. When we sunglasses, everything is dark. Literary theories, particularly those that are political in nature, affect the way their practitioners see literature.
A feminist looks at Batman and asks why must the problem with male aggression be solved by more male aggression.
A Marxist wonders if it might be easier to solve the problem of crime by investing Bruce Wayne's billions in the infrastructure to support poor urban areas.
A Freudian looks at Bruce Wayne's childhood trauma and assumes that seeing his parents murdered is what has led him to want to put on tights and beat people up.
Different perspectives
Usually founded on the work of a few key thinkers
Often in reaction to other schools
Post Colonialism
Ancient Greek philosopher (2400 years ago)
Wrote about, among many other things, literature
Tried to create a system for understanding, for example, tragedy
Described it as composed of six elements: plot-structure, character, style, thought, spectacle, and lyric poetry
Science classifies (elements, kingdoms, particles)
History analyzes (causes, effects)
Geography surveys
What does literature do?
In the 20th century, as many disciplines were discovering more and more about the world, developing new branches, what was literature to do? Science, math and history departments at universities were constantly finding new branches of their fields of study. What could literature do? Memorize more Shakespeare? Instead of that, the professors of literature started to find new ways to interpret Shakespeare and to argue about literature.
Politically motivated
Reactions to earlier theories
Reactions of previously ignored groups
Know the correct terminology
Engage knowledgeably in debate
Recognize and name bias: "Superman vs. the Myth of Aristocracy" comes from a specific school of thought -- by the end of this unit, you will know which one
By the end of this course, you should have come to a decision as to which of these schools of thought (and it may be more than one) best represents your own beliefs and attitudes.
The terminology you will encounter here connects to similar ideas in political thought, cultural studies, psychology, history and much, much more.
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