Unit 1 introduction to Literary Theory & Criticism
1. Int. to Literary Theory &
By Belachew W/Gebriel
Department of English language and Literature
2. The Term ‘Criticism’
• The term ‘criticism’ is often understood to be:
• The act of finding fault; censure; disapproval
• The act of criticizing, especially adversely
• But the term ‘criticism’ as it is used in this course
• The act of interpreting, analyzing and making
judgments of individual and comparative worth of
works of art such as literature
• A critical comment, review, article, essay, etc
expressing such analysis and judgment
• The art, principles, or methods of a critic or critics
3. What is literary criticism?
• Literary criticism is the interpretation, analysis,
classification and ultimately the judgment of
• It is usually in the form of a critical essay, but in-
depth book reviews can sometimes be
considered as literary criticism.
• Criticism may examine a particular literary
work, or may look at an author's writings as a
4. A Critic
• 1580s: Critic is "one who passes judgment," from
M.Fr. critique (14c.), from L. criticus "a judge,
literary critic," from Gk. kritikos "able to make
judgments," from krinein "to separate, decide."
Meaning "one who judges merits of books, plays,
• 17th and 18th centuries: the critic was considered
a judge who finds the faults and merits of a
5. A Literary Critic
• A literary critic is not someone who merely
evaluates the worth or quality of a piece of
literature but, rather, is someone who argues on
behalf of an interpretation or understanding of the
particular meaning(s) of literary texts.
• The task of a literary critic is to explain and
attempt to reach a critical understanding of what
literary texts mean in terms of their aesthetic, as
well as social, political, and cultural statements and
6. A Literary Critic
• A literary critic does more than simply discuss or
evaluate the importance of a literary text; rather,
• a literary critic seeks to reach a logical and
reasonable understanding of not only what a text’s
author intends for it to mean but, also, what
different cultures and ideologies render it capable
7. Literary Theory
• A very basic way of thinking about literary
theory is that these ideas act as different
lenses critics use to view and talk about
art, literature, and even culture.
• These different lenses allow critics to consider
works of art based on certain assumptions
within that school of theory.
• The different lenses also allow critics to focus on
particular aspects of a work they consider
8. Literary Theory
• Modern literary criticism is often
informed by literary theory, which is the
philosophical discussion of its methods
• E.g. if a critic is working with certain Marxist
theories, s/he might focus on how the characters
in a story interact based on their economic
• If a critic is working with post-colonial theories,
s/he might consider the same story but look at
how characters from colonial powers (Britain,
France, and even America) treat characters
from, say, Africa or the Caribbean.
9. Literary Theory. . .
• Literary theory proposes particular, systematic
approaches to literary texts that impose a particular
line of intellectual reasoning to it.
• For example, a psychoanalytic literary theorist
might take the psychological theories of Sigmund
Freud or Carl Jung and seek to reach a critical
understanding of a novel such as Ernest
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
10. Literary Criticism vs. Lit Theory
• Literary criticism is the practice of interpreting
and writing about literature as the latter, in turn,
strives to make sense of the world.
• Literary theory is the study of the principles
which inform how critics make sense of literary
11. • There are many different approaches we can
take to critical analysis
• Literary theories provide a framework for our
discussion of a text
12. Related terms
• A critical analysis is an in-depth examination of
some aspect of the literary work
• you may examine any element of the text:
character development, conflicts, narrative point
of view, etc.
• Book review/Literary review
14. Types of Literary Criticism
A broad division can be made between the types of
1. Practical criticism
2. Theoretical criticism
3. Descriptive criticism
4. Prescriptive criticism
These Four types can be grouped in to two
1. Practical and Theoretical criticism
2. Descriptive and Prescriptive criticism
15. Practical and Theoretical Criticism:
• Practical criticism focuses on the examination
of individual text, while theoretical criticism
discusses the nature of literature, and the relation
between literature, critics and society.
16. Descriptive and Prescriptive Criticism:
• Descriptive criticism tends to explain the piece of
literature as it is, in its original form, while
prescriptive criticism argues on how it ought
17. The various theories of lit criticism are
categorized into four major classes.
1. Mimetic Theory
2. Pragmatic Theory
3. Expressive Theory
4. Objective Theory
18. 1. Mimetic Theory of Arts:
• Mimetic theory sees a work of literature as if it is
reflecting the universe like a mirror.
• It regards literature as imitating or reflecting life,
and therefore emphasizes on the truth and
accuracy of its representation.
• That is why it is said that it is realism in general
sense. (mimetic means imitation and the word is
first used by Aristotle in 4th century B.C, where
he states that tragedy is the imitation of an
19. 2. Pragmatic Theory of Arts:
• It sees literature as designed to achieve its effects on
the audience (instructions, aesthetics, joy etc), and
judge it according to the successful achievement of
this assumed aim.
• Pragmatic theories emphasize on the reader’s
relation to the work. The work is treated as
something that is constructed to achieve certain
effects on the audience.
• Effects may be for the aesthetic pleasure,
instruction or any kind of emotion.
20. 3. Expressive Theory
• Expressive theories center on the artist.
Wordsworth’s definition of the poetry as the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is typical
and nearly all Romantic and 19th Century criticism
generally regards art as primarily concerned with
expressing the poet’s feelings or psyche.
• It examines text as an expression of the writer’s
feelings, imagination and personality. It tends to
judge the work by its sincerity or the extent to which
it has successfully revealed the author’s state of
• Romantic Critics such as Coleridge and
Wordsworth were expressive critics in this sense.
21. 4. Objective Theory
• focus more on the text without the influences of
the writer or the reader.
• The text here is supreme and once this text is
produced the writers fizzles out and the only
interpretation to be gotten is what can be
inferred from the text, the direct message which
the text itself has which has to be inferred within
• to them there is no correspondence between the
universe and the work and we cannot know the
true nature of either the audience or the author.
24. Approaches to Literary Criticism
• Traditional Approaches
1. Historical/Biographical Approach
2. Moral/Philosophical Approach
• Modern approaches
25. Historical/Biographical Approach
• views literature as the reflection of an author's life
and times (or of the characters' life and times).
• it is necessary to know about the author and the
political, economical, and sociological context of
his times in order to truly understand his works.
• works well for some which are obviously political
or biographical in nature.
• places allusions in their proper classical,
political, or biblical background.
• "the intentional fallacy"
• tends to reduce art to the level of biography and
make it relative (to the times) rather than
27. A Checklist of Historical Critical Questions:
• When was the work written? When was it published? How was it
received by the critics and public and why?
• What does the work’s reception reveal about the standards of taste
and value during the time it was published and reviewed?
• What social attitudes and cultural practices related to the action of
the word were prevalent during the time the work was written and
• What kinds of power relationships does the word describe, reflect,
• How do the power relationships reflected in the literary work
manifest themselves in the cultural practices and social institutions
prevalent during the time the work was written and published?
• To what extent can we understand the past as it is reflected in the
literary work? To what extent does the work reflect differences from
the ideas and values of its time?
28. Checklist of Biographical Critical Questions:
• What influences—people, ideas, movements, events—evident in the
writer’s life does the work reflect?
• To what extent are the events described in the word a direct transfer
of what happened in the writer’s actual life?
• What modifications of the actual events has the writer made in the
literary work? For what possibly purposes?
• What are the effects of the differences between actual events and
their literary transformation in the poem, story, play, or essay?
• What has the author revealed in the work about his/her
characteristic modes of thought, perception, or emotion? What
place does this work have in the artist’s literary development and
29. Moral / Philosophical Approach:
• asserts that the larger purpose of literature is to
teach morality and to probe philosophical
• authors intend to instruct the audience in some
• useful for works which do present an
obvious moral philosophy
• useful when considering the themes of works
• does not view literature merely as "art" isolated
from all moral implications
• recognizes that literature can affect readers and
that the message of a work is important.
32. Checklist of Moral/Didactic Critical
• What enduring truth is revealed in the theme of
• How are the actions of the protagonist rewarded
and the actions of the antagonist punished?