Introduction to Literary Theory: Major Critics and Movements

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

When you hear the word 'theory,' your mind probably darts to the sciences - the theory of relativity, the theory of gravity, etc. Did you know that literature, too, is full of theory? Check out this lesson to get a basic primer on just what literary theory is, and how you might apply it.

Literary Theory

So we're going to be talking about literary criticism, which means it is time for the non-fiction glasses because things are getting serious. This is like the 'eating your vegetables' section of the English literature course. They're good for you - pay attention!

When we hear the word 'criticism,' you probably think of somebody telling you that you did a bad job at something. Like someone's giving you 'constructive criticism,' but they give you a sentence like, 'You chose a good font, but your writing is crap.' That's people's version of constructive criticism, and it's annoying. But if you're told to think of criticism in a more artistic sense, your minds might leap over to someone like Roger Ebert, famous movie critic. His job basically amounts to giving movies a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you think about it in that way, criticism starts to seem pretty secondary to art itself - it's about art. It's in response to art. And in many cases it is. In many cases the kind of criticism that we're exposed to is like that.

What we call 'critics,' in general, are probably more accurately described as 'reviewers.' Particularly in literature, this impulse to review things (because everyone has an opinion and they want to share it) actually starts to develop into a genre all its own called 'criticism,' which actually starts to have as much of an influence on art as art has on it. It kind of becomes its own monster, in a way. I think the food reviewer in the Pixar movie Ratatouille gives a surprisingly nuanced take of criticism's role in art. I'm actually going to read that to you because I love that movie and I think this is such a good speech (bear in mind, he's writing this review after being fed a meal prepared by a rat):

'We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.'

Just kind of let that marinate a bit. It's no accident that the genre of literary criticism starts to evolve alongside movements like Modernism, in the early 20th century avant garde work, which was kind of self-consciously about making things new. That's Ezra Pound's famous statement about Modernism - 'Make it new.' If criticism becomes important in the defense of the new, we can see how those would evolve alongside each other. The New Criticism (it actually is called that - New Criticism is what they call themselves at that point) isn't just about saying thumbs up or thumbs down.

More purely stated, criticism is interpretation. You look at a text and argue about what you think it means, what you think its themes are, and what you think about its philosophical arguments it puts forth. They also try to understand how a text does what it does - how it makes you feel a certain way or how it describes whatever it describes. In the 20th century, literary theory has developed into a system all its own for doing this. There's a bunch of different branches of theory that all have different ways of approaching texts and making arguments about them. Criticism has been around in one form or another since Ancient Greece because, like I said before, we love to tell people what we think of stuff.

As you might expect, literary theory covers a pretty broad spectrum of thought. You might remember the idea that in certain classic texts 'everyone can have their own interpretation' - that's sort of an old standby about that. This is true in one sense. You probably encountered this in English class and it annoyed you - this idea that this book can mean anything. How could the author possibly have meant all of these things to be in here? Literary theory is devoted to, in a way, figuring out how to do this systematically in a way that it's not just random. You can't say anything about a text, but if you can back it up in certain ways, then you can say what you want. It doesn't necessarily have to be there, but you can argue for it. That's essentially what criticism is trying to do. There are a bunch of different schools of thought to do this, but there's a few general points we can make about theory.

  1. Like we said before, let me say it again: criticism does not imply a value judgment. That's really important. It's not saying thumbs up or thumbs down. If someone tells you to read a critique of something, it might be a review - they might say it's good or it's bad or it's successful or unsuccessful - but it's probably more likely that it will be a little bit more investigative. It's going to look at the text, why it does things and how it does things. We're not just asking, 'Does it function?' We're asking, 'How does it function?' Why does it do what it does?
  2. The history of literary theory is pretty intertwined with philosophy, especially European Continental philosophy of the last couple centuries. A lot of that discipline's key thinkers - names you might recognize like Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx - have contributed to literary theory a lot. It makes sense because they're analyzing life and how we live it; books are metaphors for life, in a way, and so it makes sense that there would be overlap there.
  3. Though some people might disagree, prevailing thought about this is that literary theory isn't just confined to books. Most people tend to argue that all things in the world can be 'read' and examined as a text. So you can do novels, plays - familiar stuff like that. You can do rock & roll records, historical events, and maybe other people. In some cases, like with psychoanalytic theory, it actually goes the other way - we were analyzing people, and now we start using those techniques to analyze books. In short, the deep, thorough analysis that's so necessary for literary theory can actually be applied anywhere. (Maybe not to a subway sign... but maybe! Someone's probably done it.) That's kind of the rule of literary theory - if you can think of an idea, probably someone's done it, which is endlessly frustrating if you're trying to come up with something new.

Major Types of Literary Theory

So now we're going to go through major types of literary theory. You can shorthand call them 'the -isms' because they're all -isms, I think, most of them. If you study literary theory in an academic setting, you'll likely run into some of these or all of them that we're going to cover. So you're going to want a basic knowledge at least - what they are and who the dudes associated with them are. We're just going to run right through them.


We've got formalism, which is kind of the big daddy of modern criticism. Formalism develops in Russia in the early 20th century. A huge name associated with this is Mikhail Bakhtin - that's kind of the guy. It comes in direct opposition to the Romantic idea and Romantic schools of thought, which places value on the genius of the artist and the creator. Formalists basically seek to totally deny this value. They don't care about the creator. They want to throw all of their attention on to the text itself. This interpretive shift, new in the history of literary criticism - that we just want to say, 'Eh, I don't care about the author' - basically paves the way for the development of modern theory in general. Not everyone still agrees with this, but it kinds of allows the development of theory as it goes.

That's also true of New Criticism, which is happening in England and America a bit later, but it shares a lot of the basic ideas. New Criticism - a big buzzword associated with that is 'close reading,' which is essentially looking at a book - not reading it really close to your face - but looking at a book and picking out details and examining these things in isolation in the text and, again, ignoring the author. These two dudes William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are important guys for that. They write this famous article called 'The Intentional Fallacy' - the 'intentional' refers to the author's intention. What they're basically saying is that whatever the author meant to do does not matter. You can say whatever you want as long as it's in the text and you can back it up.

If you've ever been sitting in English class and thinking, 'Oh my god, he can't possibly have meant yellow or trees or canker sores or squirrels to symbolize whatever my teacher is saying it symbolizes' - no, the author might not have meant it to do that (although some were pretty good about being specific about what things meant. Like if you ever read anything by Vladimir Nabokov, who's the Lolita guy, he is amazing in terms of what he has planned out), but, yeah, your teacher might be talking about something that the author didn't intend. The author might not have meant squirrels to symbolize death, but if you can make an argument for a pattern being there, you can say it! You can say that it means that. It doesn't matter what the author meant. Like I said before with formalism, it sort of gives the critics free reign to talk about anything they want because the author is taken out of it. The importance of the author is now questioned, and it lets you say whatever you want.


Now we get to deconstructionism, which is associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He created this term 'deconstruction' to describe what he thought should be the primary endeavor of literary theorists. If the word sounds confusing, do not worry because Derrida himself admits that deconstruction is difficult to explain, and all of his essays were trying to explain it. We read him in translation because he wrote in French, so all of his weird, vague, French stuff becomes almost incomprehensible in English (in my personal opinion). But we'll give it a go in a paragraph or so.

Deconstruction is the idea that all texts contain inherent contradictions. What does this mean? It basically means that to Derrida, and to other people who thought like him, all things - including words - only have meaning in relation, or opposition, to other things. So concepts are defined by their opposites. 'Truth' doesn't inherently mean anything - the word 'truth,' the sounds that are coming out of my mouth. But it enters a language system in which it refers to other things and distances or aligns itself with other things. So 'truth' becomes 'not false' or 'not trivial,' but then of course, what do 'false' and 'trivial' mean? So it goes on, and you're never really able to get to something that has meaning on its own.

Deconstruction aims to examine these key points in a text where we can see these oppositions really tugging at each other. We can see the system breaking down or acting particularly strongly. The system of building meaning off of oppositions is basically what we're getting at. Some followers of Derrida go on to explain this idea in a bit more friendly terms; one of the things his disciples would say is deconstruction looks at the accidental elements of a text, the things that disturb the tranquility of a text, or attempt to uncover the questions behind a text.

Deconstructionism is associated with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

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