A Brief Survey of the History of Literary Theory and
Method (under construction!!)
For examples and exercises, follow the links beneath each type of theory. Note that some of these theories are compatible enough to be combined if you're careful, whereas others presume widely different objectives for the analyst, or completely different assumptions about the nature of the world and the text. That's where we intersect other disciplines, like political science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc. To the degree those disciplines disagree, literary critics who adapt their theories and assumptions will disagree.
Early Formalism, Prescriptive and Rhetorical Criticism---
In order to produce a competent reading of literature, students have to be familiar with terms for formally describing literature. Analysis which limits itself to such description often is called "formalist," and has ancient roots in the writings of Aristotle (Poetics) and the Greek and Latin rhetoricians. Formalism's primary goal was to describe and to classify the various genres of literature in order to account for their variety and for their relationships to one another. Some formalist criticism ventures into the realm of philosophically prescriptive criticism, arguing that certain forms are "better" than others, either for the soul or for the state. Others avoid judgment on moral grounds but appeal to hierarchies of abstract qualities like "dramatic tragedy." These are the ancestors of modern-era prescriptive critics like F.R. Leavis, and the contemporary book reviewer. They also are the source of modern rhetoric. Exemplars: Aristotle (Poetics); Plato ("Ion," "Republic"); "Longinus" (pseudonymous anon., "On the sublime"); ?Cornificus? (Rhetorica Ad Herennium, previously attrib. to Cicero); Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria).
Study of the work's meanings, overt and covert, likewise has an ancient pedigree in Biblical scholarship under the name "hermeneutics" (from the Greek for "interpreter"). Hermeneutic interpretation survived from classical times to our own on the strength of its claim to recover hidden, "deep" meaning from texts, and its insistence on the reader's intimate participation in that process in a quasi-religious pursuit of these secrets. The causes of meanings' obscurity were attributed to the texts' divine origins, the complex relationship between authors' psyches and their works, and texts' roles as a maker and mediator of cultures.
Allegory and Allegoresis--
Late classical era and medieval authors, like Dante, developed a literary strategy (allegoresis) which took advantage of the ancient art of extracting multiple meanings from texts by intentionally filling texts with two or more levels of meaning by means of allegory. Allegories can be relatively simple, like the personification of Worldly Goods and Death in the drama, Everyman, or they can be subtle and many-layered, as in Dante's "four-fold allegory" in La Divina Comedia. Fully-developed allegory fell out of fashion between the late Renaissance and the Eighteenth Century, though it reappears fleetingly in modern literature, often as an overt attempt to defamiliarize the setting by making it seem unreal. The allegorical method of interpretation explains the allegory's intentions by translating the allegory's characters, places, and actions into the ideas they were meant to represent. Proving that a non-medieval author meant something to be interpreted allegorically usually requires significant introductory effort, and even medieval authors had other artistic tools at their disposal. Student writers should take care when attempting allegorical interpretation to make sure they have demonstrated that the author intended the allegory, except in works generally accepted as allegorical by general scholarly opinion (e.g., The Divine Comedy and Everyman, though not every part of those texts is allegorical, or as Freud said of psychological symbolism, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar").
Philological and Textual Criticism--
Continental humanism contributed to how we read literature by carefully establishing the sources of texts ("provenance") and comparing their language with verifiable examples of the language used in the author's era. This helped to identify the many falsely attributed works distributed by medieval writers, and it improved the art of translation, by which classical Greek and Latin works were made available in European vernacular tongues in the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Early modern book and manuscript collectors who sought to discover and preserve authors' works, often for emergent nationalistic reasons, also compared variant versions of texts they had acquired to seek the latest "witness" to the author's final intentions. These "antiquaries" laid the groundwork for modern bibliographic description by means of paper, ink, typeface or script, pagination, comparative analysis of typesetters' or scribal errors, and other means of putting individual volumes into a system of literary production by which individual books can be assigned a place in the history of book production.
Renaissance, Jacobean and Neoclassical Theory--
Exemplars: Sidney, Defense of Poesy,; Jonson; Dryden; Pope, "Essay on Criticism"
Nineteenth-Century Philological Criticism--
Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Textual Criticism--
Modern "Centered" and Centralizing Theories of Interpretation--
Early Psychoanalytic Criticism
Exemplars: Freud, Jung
Exemplars: Nitzsche; Frazier
Early Marxist Criticism
New Criticism (c. 1910-60)
Reception / Reader-Response Theory : also called "Reception Theory," associated with the "Constance school" of theorists, and deriving from philosophical ideas introduced by Husserl and Hans Georg Gademer (especially Truth and Method, 1960). Exemplars: Ingarden, Iser, Jauss
Structuralism and Semiotics
"Decentered" and Decentralizing Theories of Interpretation--
Later Marxist Criticism
Later Psychoanalytic Criticism
Exemplars: Lacan; Kristeva