The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007


Circumference thou Bride of Awe

Possessing thou shalt be Possessed by every hallowed Knight That dares to covet thee.

Emily Dickinson (#1620)

More than eighty years ago, the English literary critic, I. A. Richards, spoke of a “chaos of critical theories,” an assessment that would not be wide of the mark in the early years of the twenty-first century. The student of literature today is confronted with an array of theories concentrating on the literary text, TEXTUALITY, language, genre, the reading process, social, historical, and cultural context, sexuality and gender, the psychology of character, and the intentions of the author. In some cases, the specific nature of a given course in literature will make selecting from among these various theoretical approaches easier; in many cases, however, students must choose for themselves which direction their analyses should take. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory is designed to facilitate this process by offering students and instructors basic information on the major theories, practitioners, and their texts. It also includes a history of literary theory from the late nineteenth century to the dawning of the twenty-first and a series of sample theoretical readings of a variety of literary texts.

The Nature of Literary Theory

Before moving on to describe some of the strategies for using this book, I would like to discuss the nature of theory in general and the problems associated with literary theory in particular. First, I want to make clear that literary theory is distinct from literary criticism, the latter being the practical application of the former. This book is concerned primarily with the theoretical principles and concepts that form the foundation for practical methods and strategies used in literary criticism. Since the 1970s, when literary theory entered a new phase dominated by philosophy, history, politics, and psychoanalysis, a number of introductory texts have emerged that seek to explain the tenets of the main theoretical trends - Marxism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Feminism, Cultural Studies, New Historicism, and so on. These many and varied trends have complicated greatly the task of understanding both the nature of theory and of the literary text. Literary theory can be understood, as I have suggested, in terms of principles and concepts, strategies and tactics needed to guide critical practice. But at the same time, many literary theories have as an expressed goal the desire to inspire and guide social and political action. Moreover, students of theory might see a rift in the historical development of the late twentieth century between textbased theories like the New Criticism, Structuralism, and Poststructuralism and historicist theories like Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, and Postcolonialism. In both of these very broad contexts, theory is understood as fundamentally different: in one, it is restricted to the analysis of language, rhetoric, signs or other systems of signification; in the other, it is directed towards a critique of social, cultural, and historical conditions and the way these conditions are reflected in and altered by cultural forms like literary texts. The differences in method and object of study are often complicated by ideological differences. For example, a New Critical or Deconstructionist approach to literature might strike some readers as conservative or apolitical, while a Marxist or feminist approach might appear radically progressive or even insurrectionary. The methodological and ideological differences multiply once individual theories are examined closely, for each theory has its own complex history of relations with more general theories of society, politics, language, knowledge, history, psychology, and gender.

There is one common element, however; practitioners of all the various theories tend to think in a certain way. Broadly speaking, thinking theoretically might be considered a paradigm for thought itself, at least that form of thought used to understand complexities in the physical and metaphysical worlds. A working definition might run as follows: theory is the capacity to generalize about phenomena and to develop concepts that form the basis for interpretation and analysis. The mode of thought suggested by this working definition involves the ability first to think generally about a given set of phenomena (language, social relations, women's experience, the novel as a form); second to develop theoretical concepts (or models) based on assumptions and principles governing the inclusion of elements within the set and the relations between those elements; and, finally, to use these concepts as the starting point from which to interpret and analyze specific instances within a set (the function of metaphor, capitalism, female gender roles, the Bildungsroman). A natural scientist will use theory in ways that will yield precise, verifiable, repeatable results; a literary scholar will use it in order to make informed and plausible interpretations that may not be precise, verifiable, or repeatable. To speak of “using” literary theory is to speak of how to recognize and effectively address theoretical problems when they arise in the process of reading. In fact, knowing that one is reading a “literary” text is the first step in this process. The other steps vary, of course, according to which theory is being employed and, indeed, according to how the same theory is applied by different critics.

It would be difficult, in contemporary literary theory, to achieve the kind of stability, uniformity, consistency, and universality that science achieves across social and cultural contexts. Theory inevitably reflects the social world in which theorists operate; but whereas scientists act on the assumption that scientific theory is unaffected by ideology, literary theorists make the point that theory is a product of ideology, that all theorists operate from specific ideological positions. The same can be said for the literary text, which is the product of a particular person or persons in a particular society and culture at a particular time. Literary theory can help us understand both the particular contexts and the ideological points of view that help shape literary texts. We can discern, within practical limits, a good deal about the social and political attitudes of the producers of such texts and the kinds of experiences they make available to the reader. For example, if one is interested in the

social or cultural context of a Dickens novel, a Marxist theory would be useful in explaining the author's ideological position and his attitude towards class formations and social problems like poverty; it would also help determine whether the novel in question was read as social criticism or whether it was received primarily as harmless comic realism meant to shore up the social status quo. However, it is important to stress that within a given theory there may be several divergent points of view and methodologies. Thus, one reader of Dickens's Hard Times might apply Leninist assumptions and principles and speak mainly of economic disparities and class conflict, while another might draw on Louis Althusser’s poststructuralist “post”-Marxism in order to discuss the formation of the social SUBJECT under ideological pressures.

Another way in which literary theory differs from theoretical practices in scientific domains is that it is more likely to be bound up in myriad ways with more general (i.e., non-literary) theories (of knowledge, of the mind, of interpretation, of desire, of power, and so on). Any attempt to define literary theory that does not explore and describe the relations between general theories and particular (i.e., literary) theories - or between and among particular theories - is bound to be incomplete; the outcome of such an attempt will be a theory cut off from the general PROBLEMATIC in which it has a context and a history. Unlike scientific theories, in which new discoveries tend to displace old ones, literary theories proliferate, with multiple and contesting versions of a given general theory (for example, Marxism or Psychoanalysis) existing simultaneously and with equal claims to validity. This exercise could be repeated with other general theories as well as with the more specialized theories that evolve from them. But, as with the differences between theories, the differences that arise within the conceptual or historical development of a single theory have to do with the construction of new or the modification of existing assumptions and principles. The activities of thinking and working theoretically remain fairly constant. Even theories that attack the very possibility of generalization are grounded on the general principle that generalities are useless.

This leads me to address the problem of style in theory. Many readers are put off by the obscure terms, difficult locutions, allusiveness, self- reflexiveness, and linguistic play that they find in so much theoretical discourse. Deconstruction, Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, Postcolonial theory - all are targets of criticism for stylistic extrava

gance, logical incoherence, or doctrinal rigidity. To some extent, a specialized vocabulary or a special mode of argumentation or even phrasing is vitally important for theorists addressing new problems which cannot be adequately treated within a discursive framework that is itself, in many cases, the target of critical analysis. I refer here to a framework of Enlightenment thinking, characterized by a universalized subject of knowledge, an empirical orientation to phenomena, and a belief in the universality and instrumentality of reason. In such a critical project, a clear and forthright style could be said to reflect an epistemological selfassurance with respect to the material world that Enlightenment thinkers desired so strongly to master. Contemporary literary theorists for the most part refuse to allow their arguments to fall into this comfortable framework. To be sure, some theorists use obscure terminology or affect a difficult style in order to follow a fashionable trend or mask a trivial or incoherent argument; in such cases, readers are not mistaken in referring to jargon or obscurantism.

Literary interpretation, like any other mode of intellectual inquiry, is subject to the more or less intangible influences of political outlook, gender, social class, race and ethnicity, religious belief, and a host of other social and cultural determinants. Recent developments in the history of science have revealed that even the ostensibly objective methods of science are not immune to such determinations. These developments may result, in time, in substantial modifications to how science is conducted, but for the vast majority of scientists and lay people, scientific method continues to achieve objective results. If literary theory does not seek “objective results,” what then does it seek? To answer this question, I want to consider the putative object of literary theory: literature.

What is Literature?

Even if we concede that theory, or theoretical thinking as such, operates in similar ways regardless of the specific application of that thinking, the nature of the object of theory and the methods for analyzing it remain highly problematic. What, exactly, do we mean when we use terms like “literature” and “literary” ? Few theorists agree that literary theory can

be adequately defined and even fewer among those who make the attempt can agree on how to define it, in large measure because most people founder on the idea of the “literary.” It is not possible, in the present context, to pursue this question in any detail. But it might be useful for the student who is new to literary theory to understand that there are numerous ways to describe the nature and function of literature. Though the concept of literature is contested today by many theorists, it has had a long history as a term designating an art form devoted to the written word. From Aristotle to Heidegger, philosophers have recognized the value of literary art, and literary theory up until very recently has been strongly influenced by AESTHETIC THEORY. Of special importance is the role that aesthetic theory has played in the development of the New Criticism and the more recent emergence of a Postmodern aesthetics that rejects the Kantian basis of modern aesthetic theory and, as is the case preeminently with Jean-Frangois Lyotard, emphasizes the sublime.

Despite the tradition of regarding literature as a fine art and despite the consensus in previous historical eras that literature is imaginative writing (a consensus that developed in large measure on the basis of Aristotle's distinction between poetry and history), literary theory has, throughout the twentieth century, called into question the special status of both aesthetics and literature. Anyone who has read a major anthology of literature will discover that a substantial amount of the material in it is not imaginative. One is as likely to find political, historical, or scientific writings as poetry, fiction, and drama. If literature is not simply imaginative, fictional, or poetic discourse, what, then, makes a given written work literary? A common, and commonsensical, response is that literature employs a special form of language, more evocative and “connotative” than that used in other forms of writing; in this sense, literature is “fine” or creative writing, no matter what the content. Thus, we find excerpts from John Stuart Mill, Cotton Mather, Margaret Fuller, and Charles Darwin in literature anthologies. However, one might argue that some of these figures do not produce “fine” writing, and that the criterion itself is hopelessly ambiguous and subjective. The commonsensical response is therefore not sufficient. Nor is it sufficient to appeal to authorial intention - the writer meant to write literature - since it suggests the existence of multiple conceptions of literature.

But what definition could ever be sufficient? A brief glance at other possibilities suggests that sufficiency will always elude us. For many readers, literature is that which has stood the test of time. But this criterion is mystifying, for while it suggests an objective temporal process, the “test of time” really amounts to a long historical process of selection and exclusion by cultural elites (publishers, professors, editors, agents) who create CANONS of literature according to criteria that may shift and change rapidly and for no clear or defensible reason. Is literature only that which is readily available to advanced students or is it accessible to general readers as well? Is a forgotten, badly written novel languishing in a library's special collections (or in a secondhand book shop) more or less literary than James Joyce's Ulysses or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, both of which are regularly written about and assigned in literature courses? Is a forgotten bad novel as literary as a forgotten good one? Who decides whether one is good or bad? And by what criteria: those that existed at the time of publication or those in place at the time of discovery? This raises a question at the heart of Reader-Response theory: Is literariness a quality of the text or of the reading process? Does it have to do with socio-historical context? What about works that were not first read (or written) as literary? One response comes from the tireless and persistent scholar in the special collections archive who has discovered a forgotten text, edits and publishes it, writes about and teaches it: it is literature now, despite any doubts in the past.

Inevitably, criteria having to do with a given text being a “classic” or a masterpiece are met with the same objection that arose with “the test of time.” Such criteria, the argument goes, have more to do with publishing and marketing, critical opinion, and the vagaries of scholarship and teaching. Few readers, though, will be happy with a definition of literature that is grounded in the marketplace or on the subjective opinions of critics, scholars, and teachers. Therefore, we might consider a definition of literature that emphasizes perennial themes and subject matter. But who is to decide what the important ideas and themes are? This option too appears to be arbitrary and subjective. Would John Milton's Paradise Lost be more “literary” than a lyric poem by John Ashbery? Would a Samuel Beckett play about “nothingness” be less “literary” than Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which focuses on AIDS and the nature of gay experience in late-twentieth-century US? Indeed, some might regard the latter as indicative of a trend in literature that focuses on

social issues to the exclusion of truly literary themes. The question is clear: What is a truly literary theme? For many readers, the “truly literary” is that which transcends the social and political spheres. This leads us to still another possible definition: literature is that which is AUTONOMOUS from these spheres. But how can autonomy be realized or, for that matter, recognized? Books and other works of writing are printed and sold, they are advertised and reviewed, they have demonstrable effects on readers and other writers. Even if we argue that literature is autonomous in the sense that it works according to its own inner laws and principles, we must contend with the objection that authors and readers are inextricably caught up in complex ideological and cultural matrices which, in their turn, have powerful effects on literature's “inner laws.” At best, we can speak of what some theorists call AUTONOMIZATION, the attempt to place literature (aesthetic production in general) in a separate sphere or, more accurately, the attempt to create the illusion of such a separation. Even if we were to grant that literature is “relatively” autonomous, what would be the limits of such an autonomy? One logical conclusion is that realistic writing would not qualify, for it relies on a MIMETIC or reflective relation to the social world. Another conclusion would be that writing of a political nature would have to be excluded for the obvious reason that it engages with issues and themes that are clearly part of the social sphere. In the end, the argument that literature is somehow separate from other spheres of society violates good sense as well as logic.

other possible arguments could be put forward and they could be contested on similar grounds, for most attempts to define literature are based either on inferential reasoning, in which case the definition entails features of an already-existing canon, or on moral or ethical considerations, in which case the definition is based on extra-literary criteria (religious or political ideals are often adduced to limit what is properly literary from what is not). In both cases, new problems arise concerning selection and exclusion. There is clearly no easy way to define literature because it is subject to so many determinations, influences, and pressures, any one of which can be arbitrarily elevated to a defining trait. There is no way to determine by formula or by precedent what will become the subject of literary treatment, nor is there any way to determine whether a text written in the past will be reinterpreted as literature at some later date. Today's journalism may be tomorrow's literature, as

was the case with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's essays in the eighteenth-century journal The Spectator. Or it may remain, as most journalistic writing remains, ephemeral, useful primarily to historians and students. By the same token, what is considered the highest literary achievement today may become a classic; but it is as likely (if not more than likely) to be forgotten tomorrow. This is a problem of genre as well, for literary history reveals a complex web of influences that reveal the ascendancy now of poetry, now of the novel as the paradigmatic form for “literature” for a given age. The contemporaries of Addison and Steele did not regard their works as literature, nor were their works written in the forms great literature typically took for their age. Saying this is saying nothing about the quality of their work, its popularity, or its influence. That we do tend to value their work now as literature, however, says a great deal about twenty-first-century reading habits. For in the end, the nature of literature and the literary has to do with how we read, and how we read is fundamentally tied to the social, cultural, and political institutions of a given society at a given time. That some ways of reading have remained constant is less a function of historical continuity than of institutional memory.

The Practice of Theory

The history of literary theory is a history of changing notions of reading and interpretation and changing notions of what constitutes literature and the literary. In this book, the term literary theory is used to cover an array of principles and assumptions that govern theoretical reflection on the nature and function of literary works. One of my working assumptions, as I have already suggested, is that literary theory often develops out of the application of a more general theory (of art, culture, language and linguistics, aesthetics, politics, history, psychology, economics, gender, and so on) to literary works in the interests of a specific critical aim. Literary theory thus grows out of this experimentation with concepts, terms, and paradigms taken from other spheres of intellectual activity. This emergence and the nature of the relations that are subsequently formed contribute to the disciplined nature of most literary theories. In literary studies, this idea of discipline is concerned with (i) the criteria

and limits of critical practice, and (ii) the nature and function of the literary object within its historical and social contexts. Literary theory does not possess absolute criteria with regard to the nature, meaning, and significance of literary texts. What it does possess is a set of principles and assumptions that go into reading such texts. If there is “truth” to be had from literature, it is very much bound up with the historical experiences that produce the author and the reader. Like literature, literary theory is always the product or effect of historical conditions, even when a given theory appears “ahistorical”; chief among these conditions are a context of received ideas, intellectual traditions, academic conventions as well as the complex matrices of social and political relations and forces. The university is where these conditions are most often found together nowadays. The “special” status of the literary text, then, is attributable not to its essential qualities but rather to the reader who reads it according to (more or less) coherent theoretical principles, which are rarely acquired nowadays outside the university. When a new or neglected text comes to light, the scholar's curiosity and skill - sharpened and improved by experience and discipline, by specialized training in strategies of reading and interpretation - are brought to bear in ways unique to the academic reader. An undergraduate English major, a graduate student, a professor of literature all read in similar ways texts that have been created by the specialized reading practices they share. General readers are more or less cognizant of these special ways of reading; conversely, professional readers have become increasingly aware of and sensitive to the ways of reading (no less special, to be sure) to be found among general, non-academic readers. Some academic readers pride themselves on abolishing the distinction between the two kinds of reader; but this perhaps laudable critical gesture flies in the face of evidence everywhere around us, not least in the gulf between seminar reading lists and airport bookshops.

Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, literary theory found it necessary to develop new approaches to the analysis of traditional literary works as well as social and cultural texts that traditionally had been “claimed” by other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences but which are now being “read” by literary and cultural critics. This trend emphasizes both the profound importance of interpretation and the breakdown of barriers between discrete disciplines, a breakdown that has led to the sharing of theories and interpretive practices

and to the formation of new interdisciplinary fields of inquiry. Literary theory has long been in the avant-garde of the trend towards interdisciplinarity. Innovative thinkers like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and Pierre Bourdieu have contributed to the creation of interdisciplinary spaces for the analysis of complex cultural formations of knowledge and power that cannot be adequately described, much less analyzed, from the perspective of a single discipline. Interdisciplinarity entails relations of combination, contiguity, intersection, and imbrication between and among coherent disciplines. But there is also a self- critical element to interdisciplinary approaches, since the possibility that disciplines can be breached easily and productively calls into question the nature and necessity of the boundaries that delimit what counts as a discipline. The implications of interdisciplinary inquiry on the construction of curricula, canons, and professional review processes are at this date still far from clear. The impact on what students and instructors read is easier to discern and is the subject of a good deal of this Guide.

Many literary theories can, with surprisingly little modification, be applied to a wide range of cultural forms, events, structures, and spaces. For the literary text is not necessarily a work of literature (whatever it is we mean by this term); it can be any “thing” or any signifying practice capable of being subjected to interpretation. The typical student in a modern university today is well aware that films and advertisements, video games and the internet, musical compositions and fashion, historical events and soccer crowds (the possibilities are truly endless) - all can be “read” in much the same “literary” way that one might read a novel by Jane Austen or a play by William Shakespeare. The AMBIVALENCE of the literary text effectively models the critical challenge literary theory offers to disciplinary boundaries. In part, this is the result of Poststructuralism, which made the analytical tools of literary theory available to a wide variety of disciplines. When theorists outside literature departments adapt literary theories to the study of “non-literary” social and cultural texts, they typically modify the methods and strategies of interpretation to fit the signifying systems under analysis. What is uniform is a consciousness of medium (of using language or images or sounds or spaces) and general methods of interpretation and critical understanding. The discipline of Cultural Studies emerged in the 1980s (more or less) in response to this notion that culture and its products can be read and interpreted in a literary way; and many other theoretical disciplines

have been transformed by this idea of the literary. The richness and flexibility of interpretation is one of the principal reasons that literary theory has had such a profound impact on our contemporary ways of perceiving society, cultural production, and human relationships.

The Structure of The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory was designed to help students, teachers, and general readers become familiar with literary theory, its history and many manifestations, from a number of different perspectives. Each section offers the student a different kind of research tool. “The Rise of Literary Theory” focuses on the historical development of literary theories into relatively coherent critical trends or schools, each with its own methodology, terminology, and major figures. Of particular importance in this overview are the interrelationships between and among theories and the processes by which general theories (like Marxism or Critical Theory) contribute to the evolution of literary theories. I want to emphasize the diversity of theory and the complexity of theoretical fields and formations as they exist at particular historical moments. The main emphasis is on the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War, when literary theory exploded on college campuses and in scholarly journals and literary quarterlies.

“The Scope of Literary Theory” provides a starting point for those readers who wish to find out more about the main trends and concepts, strategies and practitioners, terms and texts within a given theory. The major theoretical schools and trends are described in entries, alphabetically arranged, each followed by a selected bibliography. “Key Figures in Literary Theory” provides short biographies of some of the most influential theorists of the twentieth century. These short lives are told, for the most part, through bibliography, through institutional affiliations and specific contributions to theory. “Reading with Literary Theory” offers a variety of theoretical readings of literary texts designed to demonstrate techniques of application as well as to suggest how different theories yield different results. They are also meant to show how theories may be used in conjunction with each other.

Throughout the text I have used a system of cross-referencing. SMALL CAPS are used to indicate terms that can be found listed in the Glossary. Bold face type is used to indicate that a short biography on a given theorist can be found in “Key Figures in Literary Theory.” Generally, I emphasize the first use of the name or term in any given section. Parenthetical cross-references are used to indicate that a given theorist or concept is discussed at length elsewhere in the text. Theories whose names are represented in initial caps (e.g., Postcolonial Studies) are discussed under that name in “The Scope of Literary Theory.” A similar system of marking names, theories, terms, and concepts is employed in the glossary and index.

Note on sources. Throughout this book, I have supplied the date of first publication in the original language; for texts not originally written in English, I have supplied the title used for the first English translation. For bibliographic information on theorists mentioned in “The Rise of Literary Theory” and in the biographical sections of “Key Figures in Literary Theory,” see the bibliographies in the relevant sections in “The Scope of Literary Theory.” Finally, for anthologies and general collections of literary theory, see the “General Resources for Literary Theory” below.


Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory since Plato. Rev. ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 1996.

Greenblatt, Stephen and Giles Gunn, eds. Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. New York, MLA, 1992.

Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswirth, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Leitch, Vincent et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.

Lentricchia, Frank and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Macksey, Richard and Eugenio Donato, eds. The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Murray, Chris, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism. 2 vols. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999.

Newton, K. M., ed. Theory Into Practice: A Reader in Modern Literary Criticism. Houndmills, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1992.

Richter, David H., ed. Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. 1994. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Schreibman, Susan, Raymond George Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2004.