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An Introduction to Literary Theory

An introduction to literary theory I use for my 11th grade classes.
by

Greg Hundermark

on 24 August 2015

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Transcript of An Introduction to Literary Theory

Literary Theory
An Introduction to
Literary theory means knowing how you read.

Looking at a story in several different ways.
New Criticism
What is Literary Theory?
Concentrates on literary features such as symbol, imagery, tone, style, and structure in order to determine how these elements function together to create the reader’s experience.

It is believed that there is a central, unifying theme in every work.
What might be a theme (overall point) of the story?
Think about: What is the major conflict of the story? How is it resolved?
Who is the speaker? What is their point-of-view?
What is their attitude/outlook on life: ironic, straightforward, ambiguous?
Were there symbols? What might they mean? How do they relate to the theme?
Does the author use metaphors or similes? When and why?
How does the author use imagery, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures?
What is the author’s style?
Are the sentences long or short? Does that make a difference?
Does the author’s choice of words effect the story? Concrete or abstract? Energetic or placid?
Feminist & Gender Criticism
Men not only dominate our culture but they also have restricted the possibilities for women.
They question the culture that surrounds a text and
are also aware of female authors whose works have been neglected because men in our society define which works are “great.”
Our patriarchal (male-dominated) society has made women “other”.
Feminist & Gender
How do men and women interact in this story?
How are women treated in this story?
Why are they treated this way?
Would the story be different if the protagonist (main character) was a woman (or a man)? How? Why?
What is the historical context of the story? How was the author affected by the relationships between men and women at the time that the story was written?
(Think about whether men and women acted differently during the time it was written or during the time in which the story was set).
Is the author a feminist? A male-chauvinist? Or somewhere in-between?
What does that mean?
The type of “lenses” you wear effects the way you see the world.

If you are wearing red sunglasses, everything that you see is slightly different from someone wearing blue sunglasses, or someone wearing no sunglasses at all.
Connection to Literature
Likewise, the way we “see” literature (read and understand it) depends largely upon what kind of “lenses” we are wearing.
“Little Miss Muffet” Exercise
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey,
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Look at Miss Muffet through different “lenses”
While everyone knows MM,
the significance of the event
had never been analyzed
until a conference of
thinkers recently
brought their special insights to bear upon it.

The following are
excerpts from the
transcript
of their
discussion.
Sociologist’s Lense
“Miss Muffet is nutritionally underprivileged, as evidenced by the subliminal diet of curds and whey upon which she is forced to subsist, while the spider’s cultural disadvantage is evidenced by such phenomena as legs exceeding standard norms, odd mating habits, and so forth.”
Militarist's Lense
“Second-strike capability, sir! That’s what was lacking. If Miss Muffet had developed a second-strike capability instead of squandering her resources on curds and whey, no spider on earth would have dared launch a first strike capable of carrying him right to the heart of her tuffet.”
Demonstrator's Lense
“Little Miss Muffet, tuffets, curds, whey,
and spiders are what’s wrong with education
today. They’re all
irrelevant. Tuffets are
irrelevant. Curds are
irrelevant. Whey is
irrelevant. Meaningful experience! How can you have relevance
without meaningful experience?”
Editorial Writer's Lense
“Why has the government not seen fit to tell the public all it knows about the so
called curds-and-whey affair? It is not enough to suggest that this was merely a random incident involving a lonely spider and a young diner.”
A Child's Lense
“This is about a
little girl who
gets scared by
a spider.”
Which pair of "lenses" do you like?
Why were their descriptions of the Little Miss Muffet story so different?
Whose understanding of the story is “right”?
Can they all be right?
Are some of them “more” right?
Why should I think
about Literary Theory?
Literary theory provides a deeper understanding of a text.
Literary theory lets you in on the “secret”. (Helps you to see the man behind the curtain.)
“Realizing there is no right answer to many texts has been a scary experience for me because I am a person who wants a correct response. But it has helped me grow as a reader, and I know I can think however I want to think without being confined.” - Student
How many sides to a story?
Most likely you have been taught New Criticism. This is just one of many ways to approach a text.

Although there are many“lenses"(differentways to approach a text), we are going to focus on
New Criticism
Reader-Response
Historical Criticism
Feminist Criticism
Marxist Criticism
There is one “right” answer
that can be
found!
theorists ask questions like...
New Criticism
Reader Response
Readers’ beliefs and understanding of the world influences how they make meaning with the text.
“A reader makes a poem as he reads. He does not seek an unalterable meaning that lies within the text. He creates meaning from the confrontation.” - Louise Rosenblatt
There is no one “right” answer.
Reader Response
theorists ask questions like...
Can you connect the story to other books, T.V. shows, or movies?
What is the connection? Does the connection enrich the story?
What questions might you ask the author if you could?
Are there any connections to your life?
Did anything in the story remind you of something else?
A person you know, a place, an experience…
What was good about the story? What was bad?
How might you change something to make it more exciting, interesting, understandable?
Is there anything in the story that was confusing?
What might it mean?
What advice might you give a character if you could talk to them?
Historical Criticism
This approach focuses on connection of work to the historical period in which it was written.
Historians attempt to connect the historical background of the work to specific aspects of the work.
Historical Criticism
theorists ask questions like...
How does it reflect the time in which it was written?
How accurately does the story depict the time in which it is set?
What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?
How does the story reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the time in which it was written or set?
(Consider beliefs and attitudes related to race, religion, politics, gender, society, philosophy, etc.)
What other literary works may have influenced the writer?
What historical events or movements might have influenced influenced this writer?
How would characters and events in this story have been viewed by the writer’s contemporaries?
Does the story reveal or contradict the prevailing values of the time in which it was written?
Does it provide an opposing view of the period’s prevailing values?
How important is the historical context (the work’s and the reader’s) to interpreting the work?
theorists ask questions like...
Marxist Criticism
Concentrates on materialism, class struggle, working class misery, and class consciousness (Appleman).

Focus on: power and the powerless, domination and oppression, wealth and exploitation.
Marxist Critics
ask questions like...
What is the tension in the work? The conflict?
What brought this conflict about?
What does this story tell us about our society?
Our world in general
How does this story function within the social, political, and economic realities of the time in which it is set (or written)?
Who in the story has the social, political, or economic power? Who does not? How does this affect the story?
What are the causes “beneath the surface”? Does economics (who has money and who
does not) play a role?
credits:
Mr. Finn & Mr. Hundermark
all images belong to their rightful owners and for educational use only
What do Marxist literary
critics do with texts?
They explore ways in which the text reveals ideological oppression of a dominant economic class over subordinate classes. In order to do this a Marxist might ask the following questions:
Does the text reflect or resist a dominant ideology? Does it do both?
Does the main character in a narrative affirm or resist bourgeosie values?
Whose story gets told in the text? Are lower economic groups ignored or devalued?
Are values that support the dominant economic group given privilege? This can happen tacitly, in the way in which values are taken to be self-evident.
Who was the audience? What does the text suggest about the values of this audience?
Full transcript