kind of literary reading

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Literary theory.

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.

Table of Contents

1. What Is Literary Theory?

“Literary theory,” sometimes designated “critical theory,” or “theory,” and now undergoing a transformation into “cultural theory” within the discipline of literary studies, can be understood as the set of concepts and intellectual assumptions on which rests the work of explaining or interpreting literary texts. Literary theory refers to any principles derived from internal analysis of literary texts or from knowledge external to the text that can be applied in multiple interpretive situations. All critical practice regarding literature depends on an underlying structure of ideas in at least two ways: theory provides a rationale for what constitutes the subject matter of criticism—”the literary”—and the specific aims of critical practice—the act of interpretation itself. For example, to speak of the “unity” of Oedipus the King explicitly invokes Aristotle’s theoretical statements on poetics. To argue, as does Chinua Achebe, that Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness fails to grant full humanity to the Africans it depicts is a perspective informed by a postcolonial literary theory that presupposes a history of exploitation and racism. Critics that explain the climactic drowning of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening as a suicide generally call upon a supporting architecture of feminist and gender theory. The structure of ideas that enables criticism of a literary work may or may not be acknowledged by the critic, and the status of literary theory within the academic discipline of literary studies continues to evolve.

Literary theory and the formal practice of literary interpretation runs a parallel but less well known course with the history of philosophy and is evident in the historical record at least as far back as Plato. The Cratylus contains a Plato’s meditation on the relationship of words and the things to which they refer. Plato’s skepticism about signification, i.e., that words bear no etymological relationship to their meanings but are arbitrarily “imposed,” becomes a central concern in the twentieth century to both “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” However, a persistent belief in “reference,” the notion that words and images refer to an objective reality, has provided epistemological (that is, having to do with theories of knowledge) support for theories of literary representation throughout most of Western history. Until the nineteenth century, Art, in Shakespeare’s phrase, held “a mirror up to nature” and faithfully recorded an objectively real world independent of the observer.

Modern literary theory gradually emerges in Europe during the nineteenth century. In one of the earliest developments of literary theory, German “higher criticism” subjected biblical texts to a radical historicizing that broke with traditional scriptural interpretation. “Higher,” or “source criticism,” analyzed biblical tales in light of comparable narratives from other cultures, an approach that anticipated some of the method and spirit of twentieth century theory, particularly “Structuralism” and “New Historicism.” In France, the eminent literary critic Charles Augustin Saint Beuve maintained that a work of literature could be explained entirely in terms of biography, while novelist Marcel Proust devoted his life to refuting Saint Beuve in a massive narrative in which he contended that the details of the life of the artist are utterly transformed in the work of art. (This dispute was taken up anew by the French theorist Roland Barthes in his famous declaration of the “Death of the Author.” See “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.”) Perhaps the greatest nineteenth century influence on literary theory came from the deep epistemological suspicion of Friedrich Nietzsche: that facts are not facts until they have been interpreted. Nietzsche’s critique of knowledge has had a profound impact on literary studies and helped usher in an era of intense literary theorizing that has yet to pass.

Attention to the etymology of the term “theory,” from the Greek “theoria,” alerts us to the partial nature of theoretical approaches to literature. “Theoria” indicates a view or perspective of the Greek stage. This is precisely what literary theory offers, though specific theories often claim to present a complete system for understanding literature. The current state of theory is such that there are many overlapping areas of influence, and older schools of theory, though no longer enjoying their previous eminence, continue to exert an influence on the whole. The once widely-held conviction (an implicit theory) that literature is a repository of all that is meaningful and ennobling in the human experience, a view championed by the Leavis School in Britain, may no longer be acknowledged by name but remains an essential justification for the current structure of American universities and liberal arts curricula. The moment of “Deconstruction” may have passed, but its emphasis on the indeterminacy of signs (that we are unable to establish exclusively what a word means when used in a given situation) and thus of texts, remains significant. Many critics may not embrace the label “feminist,” but the premise that gender is a social construct, one of theoretical feminisms distinguishing insights, is now axiomatic in a number of theoretical perspectives.

While literary theory has always implied or directly expressed a conception of the world outside the text, in the twentieth century three movements—”Marxist theory” of the Frankfurt School, “Feminism,” and “Postmodernism”—have opened the field of literary studies into a broader area of inquiry. Marxist approaches to literature require an understanding of the primary economic and social bases of culture since Marxist aesthetic theory sees the work of art as a product, directly or indirectly, of the base structure of society. Feminist thought and practice analyzes the production of literature and literary representation within the framework that includes all social and cultural formations as they pertain to the role of women in history. Postmodern thought consists of both aesthetic and epistemological strands. Postmodernism in art has included a move toward non-referential, non-linear, abstract forms; a heightened degree of self-referentiality; and the collapse of categories and conventions that had traditionally governed art. Postmodern thought has led to the serious questioning of the so-called metanarratives of history, science, philosophy, and economic and sexual reproduction. Under postmodernity, all knowledge comes to be seen as “constructed” within historical self-contained systems of understanding. Marxist, feminist, and postmodern thought have brought about the incorporation of all human discourses (that is, interlocking fields of language and knowledge) as a subject matter for analysis by the literary theorist. Using the various poststructuralist and postmodern theories that often draw on disciplines other than the literary—linguistic, anthropological, psychoanalytic, and philosophical—for their primary insights, literary theory has become an interdisciplinary body of cultural theory. Taking as its premise that human societies and knowledge consist of texts in one form or another, cultural theory (for better or worse) is now applied to the varieties of texts, ambitiously undertaking to become the preeminent model of inquiry into the human condition.

Literary theory is a site of theories: some theories, like “Queer Theory,” are “in;” other literary theories, like “Deconstruction,” are “out” but continue to exert an influence on the field. “Traditional literary criticism,” “New Criticism,” and “Structuralism” are alike in that they held to the view that the study of literature has an objective body of knowledge under its scrutiny. The other schools of literary theory, to varying degrees, embrace a postmodern view of language and reality that calls into serious question the objective referent of literary studies. The following categories are certainly not exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive, but they represent the major trends in literary theory of this century.

2. Traditional Literary Criticism

Academic literary criticism prior to the rise of “New Criticism” in the United States tended to practice traditional literary history: tracking influence, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions within the text. Literary biography was and still is an important interpretive method in and out of the academy; versions of moral criticism, not unlike the Leavis School in Britain, and aesthetic (e.g. genre studies) criticism were also generally influential literary practices. Perhaps the key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both the literary canon (that is, the books all educated persons should read) and the aims and purposes of literature. What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise.

3. Formalism and New Criticism

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works. Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well known.

The Formalist adage that the purpose of literature was “to make the stones stonier” nicely expresses their notion of literariness. “Formalism” is perhaps best known is Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization.” The routine of ordinary experience, Shklovsky contended, rendered invisible the uniqueness and particularity of the objects of existence. Literary language, partly by calling attention to itself as language, estranged the reader from the familiar and made fresh the experience of daily life.

The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.” As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice. “New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand , contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

4. Marxism and Critical Theory

Marxist literary theories tend to focus on the representation of class conflict as well as the reinforcement of class distinctions through the medium of literature. Marxist theorists use traditional techniques of literary analysis but subordinate aesthetic concerns to the final social and political meanings of literature. Marxist theorist often champion authors sympathetic to the working classes and authors whose work challenges economic equalities found in capitalist societies. In keeping with the totalizing spirit of Marxism, literary theories arising from the Marxist paradigm have not only sought new ways of understanding the relationship between economic production and literature, but all cultural production as well. Marxist analyses of society and history have had a profound effect on literary theory and practical criticism, most notably in the development of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism.”

The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel. Walter Benjamin broke new ground in his work in his study of aesthetics and the reproduction of the work of art. The Frankfurt School of philosophers, including most notably Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—after their emigration to the United States—played a key role in introducing Marxist assessments of culture into the mainstream of American academic life. These thinkers became associated with what is known as “Critical theory,” one of the constituent components of which was a critique of the instrumental use of reason in advanced capitalist culture. “Critical theory” held to a distinction between the high cultural heritage of Europe and the mass culture produced by capitalist societies as an instrument of domination. “Critical theory” sees in the structure of mass cultural forms—jazz, Hollywood film, advertising—a replication of the structure of the factory and the workplace. Creativity and cultural production in advanced capitalist societies were always already co-opted by the entertainment needs of an economic system that requires sensory stimulation and recognizable cliché and suppressed the tendency for sustained deliberation.

The major Marxist influences on literary theory since the Frankfurt School have been Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton in Great Britain and Frank Lentricchia and Fredric Jameson in the United States. Williams is associated with the New Left political movement in Great Britain and the development of “Cultural Materialism” and the Cultural Studies Movement, originating in the 1960s at Birmingham University’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Eagleton is known both as a Marxist theorist and as a popularizer of theory by means of his widely read overview, Literary Theory . Lentricchia likewise became influential through his account of trends in theory, After the New Criticism . Jameson is a more diverse theorist, known both for his impact on Marxist theories of culture and for his position as one of the leading figures in theoretical postmodernism. Jameson’s work on consumer culture, architecture, film, literature and other areas, typifies the collapse of disciplinary boundaries taking place in the realm of Marxist and postmodern cultural theory. Jameson’s work investigates the way the structural features of late capitalism—particularly the transformation of all culture into commodity form—are now deeply embedded in all of our ways of communicating.

5. Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Like the “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” sought to bring to literary studies a set of objective criteria for analysis and a new intellectual rigor. “Structuralism” can be viewed as an extension of “Formalism” in that that both “Structuralism” and “Formalism” devoted their attention to matters of literary form (i.e. structure) rather than social or historical content; and that both bodies of thought were intended to put the study of literature on a scientific, objective basis. “Structuralism” relied initially on the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Like Plato, Saussure regarded the signifier (words, marks, symbols) as arbitrary and unrelated to the concept, the signified, to which it referred. Within the way a particular society uses language and signs, meaning was constituted by a system of “differences” between units of the language. Particular meanings were of less interest than the underlying structures of signification that made meaning itself possible, often expressed as an emphasis on “langue” rather than “parole.” “Structuralism” was to be a metalanguage, a language about languages, used to decode actual languages, or systems of signification. The work of the “Formalist” Roman Jakobson contributed to “Structuralist” thought, and the more prominent Structuralists included Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gerard Genette, and Barthes.

The philosopher Roland Barthes proved to be a key figure on the divide between “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” “Poststructuralism” is less unified as a theoretical movement than its precursor; indeed, the work of its advocates known by the term “Deconstruction” calls into question the possibility of the coherence of discourse, or the capacity for language to communicate. “Deconstruction,” Semiotic theory (a study of signs with close connections to “Structuralism,” “Reader response theory” in America (“Reception theory” in Europe), and “Gender theory” informed by the psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva are areas of inquiry that can be located under the banner of “Poststructuralism.” If signifier and signified are both cultural concepts, as they are in “Poststructuralism,” reference to an empirically certifiable reality is no longer guaranteed by language. “Deconstruction” argues that this loss of reference causes an endless deferral of meaning, a system of differences between units of language that has no resting place or final signifier that would enable the other signifiers to hold their meaning. The most important theorist of “Deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida, has asserted, “There is no getting outside text,” indicating a kind of free play of signification in which no fixed, stable meaning is possible. “Poststructuralism” in America was originally identified with a group of Yale academics, the Yale School of “Deconstruction:” J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Paul de Man. Other tendencies in the moment after “Deconstruction” that share some of the intellectual tendencies of “Poststructuralism” would included the “Reader response” theories of Stanley Fish, Jane Tompkins, and Wolfgang Iser.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, an updating of the work of Sigmund Freud, extends “Postructuralism” to the human subject with further consequences for literary theory. According to Lacan, the fixed, stable self is a Romantic fiction; like the text in “Deconstruction,” the self is a decentered mass of traces left by our encounter with signs, visual symbols, language, etc. For Lacan, the self is constituted by language, a language that is never one’s own, always another’s, always already in use. Barthes applies these currents of thought in his famous declaration of the “death” of the Author: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” while also applying a similar “Poststructuralist” view to the Reader: “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”

Michel Foucault is another philosopher, like Barthes, whose ideas inform much of poststructuralist literary theory. Foucault played a critical role in the development of the postmodern perspective that knowledge is constructed in concrete historical situations in the form of discourse; knowledge is not communicated by discourse but is discourse itself, can only be encountered textually. Following Nietzsche, Foucault performs what he calls “genealogies,” attempts at deconstructing the unacknowledged operation of power and knowledge to reveal the ideologies that make domination of one group by another seem “natural.” Foucaldian investigations of discourse and power were to provide much of the intellectual impetus for a new way of looking at history and doing textual studies that came to be known as the “New Historicism.”

6. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

“New Historicism,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, designates a body of theoretical and interpretive practices that began largely with the study of early modern literature in the United States. “New Historicism” in America had been somewhat anticipated by the theorists of “Cultural Materialism” in Britain, which, in the words of their leading advocate, Raymond Williams describes “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.” Both “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” seek to understand literary texts historically and reject the formalizing influence of previous literary studies, including “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” and “Deconstruction,” all of which in varying ways privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context. According to “New Historicism,” the circulation of literary and non-literary texts produces relations of social power within a culture. New Historicist thought differs from traditional historicism in literary studies in several crucial ways. Rejecting traditional historicism’s premise of neutral inquiry, “New Historicism” accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments. According to “New Historicism,” we can only know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded,” a key term, in the textuality of the present and its concerns. Text and context are less clearly distinct in New Historicist practice. Traditional separations of literary and non-literary texts, “great” literature and popular literature, are also fundamentally challenged. For the “New Historicist,” all acts of expression are embedded in the material conditions of a culture. Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion. Like much of the emergent European social history of the 1980s, “New Historicism” takes particular interest in representations of marginal/marginalized groups and non-normative behaviors—witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts, and exorcisms—as exemplary of the need for power to represent subversive alternatives, the Other, to legitimize itself.

Louis Montrose, another major innovator and exponent of “New Historicism,” describes a fundamental axiom of the movement as an intellectual belief in “the textuality of history and the historicity of texts.” “New Historicism” draws on the work of Levi-Strauss, in particular his notion of culture as a “self-regulating system.” The Foucaldian premise that power is ubiquitous and cannot be equated with state or economic power and Gramsci’s conception of “hegemony,” i.e., that domination is often achieved through culturally-orchestrated consent rather than force, are critical underpinnings to the “New Historicist” perspective. The translation of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin on carnival coincided with the rise of the “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” and left a legacy in work of other theorists of influence like Peter Stallybrass and Jonathan Dollimore. In its period of ascendancy during the 1980s, “New Historicism” drew criticism from the political left for its depiction of counter-cultural expression as always co-opted by the dominant discourses. Equally, “New Historicism’s” lack of emphasis on “literariness” and formal literary concerns brought disdain from traditional literary scholars. However, “New Historicism” continues to exercise a major influence in the humanities and in the extended conception of literary studies.

7. Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Criticism

“Ethnic Studies,” sometimes referred to as “Minority Studies,” has an obvious historical relationship with “Postcolonial Criticism” in that Euro-American imperialism and colonization in the last four centuries, whether external (empire) or internal (slavery) has been directed at recognizable ethnic groups: African and African-American, Chinese, the subaltern peoples of India, Irish, Latino, Native American, and Philipino, among others. “Ethnic Studies” concerns itself generally with art and literature produced by identifiable ethnic groups either marginalized or in a subordinate position to a dominant culture. “Postcolonial Criticism” investigates the relationships between colonizers and colonized in the period post-colonization. Though the two fields are increasingly finding points of intersection—the work of bell hooks, for example—and are both activist intellectual enterprises, “Ethnic Studies and “Postcolonial Criticism” have significant differences in their history and ideas.

“Ethnic Studies” has had a considerable impact on literary studies in the United States and Britain. In W.E.B. Dubois, we find an early attempt to theorize the position of African-Americans within dominant white culture through his concept of “double consciousness,” a dual identity including both “American” and “Negro.” Dubois and theorists after him seek an understanding of how that double experience both creates identity and reveals itself in culture. Afro-Caribbean and African writers—Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe—have made significant early contributions to the theory and practice of ethnic criticism that explores the traditions, sometimes suppressed or underground, of ethnic literary activity while providing a critique of representations of ethnic identity as found within the majority culture. Ethnic and minority literary theory emphasizes the relationship of cultural identity to individual identity in historical circumstances of overt racial oppression. More recently, scholars and writers such as Henry Louis Gates, Toni Morrison, and Kwame Anthony Appiah have brought attention to the problems inherent in applying theoretical models derived from Euro-centric paradigms (that is, structures of thought) to minority works of literature while at the same time exploring new interpretive strategies for understanding the vernacular (common speech) traditions of racial groups that have been historically marginalized by dominant cultures.

Though not the first writer to explore the historical condition of postcolonialism, the Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism is generally regarded as having inaugurated the field of explicitly “Postcolonial Criticism” in the West. Said argues that the concept of “the Orient” was produced by the “imaginative geography” of Western scholarship and has been instrumental in the colonization and domination of non-Western societies. “Postcolonial” theory reverses the historical center/margin direction of cultural inquiry: critiques of the metropolis and capital now emanate from the former colonies. Moreover, theorists like Homi K. Bhabha have questioned the binary thought that produces the dichotomies—center/margin, white/black, and colonizer/colonized—by which colonial practices are justified. The work of Gayatri C. Spivak has focused attention on the question of who speaks for the colonial “Other” and the relation of the ownership of discourse and representation to the development of the postcolonial subjectivity. Like feminist and ethnic theory, “Postcolonial Criticism” pursues not merely the inclusion of the marginalized literature of colonial peoples into the dominant canon and discourse. “Postcolonial Criticism” offers a fundamental critique of the ideology of colonial domination and at the same time seeks to undo the “imaginative geography” of Orientalist thought that produced conceptual as well as economic divides between West and East, civilized and uncivilized, First and Third Worlds. In this respect, “Postcolonial Criticism” is activist and adversarial in its basic aims. Postcolonial theory has brought fresh perspectives to the role of colonial peoples—their wealth, labor, and culture—in the development of modern European nation states. While “Postcolonial Criticism” emerged in the historical moment following the collapse of the modern colonial empires, the increasing globalization of culture, including the neo-colonialism of multinational capitalism, suggests a continued relevance for this field of inquiry.

8. Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Gender theory came to the forefront of the theoretical scene first as feminist theory but has subsequently come to include the investigation of all gender and sexual categories and identities. Feminist gender theory followed slightly behind the reemergence of political feminism in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s. Political feminism of the so-called “second wave” had as its emphasis practical concerns with the rights of women in contemporary societies, women’s identity, and the representation of women in media and culture. These causes converged with early literary feminist practice, characterized by Elaine Showalter as “gynocriticism,” which emphasized the study and canonical inclusion of works by female authors as well as the depiction of women in male-authored canonical texts.

Feminist gender theory is postmodern in that it challenges the paradigms and intellectual premises of western thought, but also takes an activist stance by proposing frequent interventions and alternative epistemological positions meant to change the social order. In the context of postmodernism, gender theorists, led by the work of Judith Butler, initially viewed the category of “gender” as a human construct enacted by a vast repetition of social performance. The biological distinction between man and woman eventually came under the same scrutiny by theorists who reached a similar conclusion: the sexual categories are products of culture and as such help create social reality rather than simply reflect it. Gender theory achieved a wide readership and acquired much its initial theoretical rigor through the work of a group of French feminist theorists that included Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, who while Bulgarian rather than French, made her mark writing in French. French feminist thought is based on the assumption that the Western philosophical tradition represses the experience of women in the structure of its ideas. As an important consequence of this systematic intellectual repression and exclusion, women’s lives and bodies in historical societies are subject to repression as well. In the creative/critical work of Cixous, we find the history of Western thought depicted as binary oppositions: “speech/writing; Nature/Art, Nature/History, Nature/Mind, Passion/Action.” For Cixous, and for Irigaray as well, these binaries are less a function of any objective reality they describe than the male-dominated discourse of the Western tradition that produced them. Their work beyond the descriptive stage becomes an intervention in the history of theoretical discourse, an attempt to alter the existing categories and systems of thought that found Western rationality. French feminism, and perhaps all feminism after Beauvoir, has been in conversation with the psychoanalytic revision of Freud in the work of Jacques Lacan. Kristeva’s work draws heavily on Lacan. Two concepts from Kristeva—the “semiotic” and “abjection”—have had a significant influence on literary theory. Kristeva’s “semiotic” refers to the gaps, silences, spaces, and bodily presence within the language/symbol system of a culture in which there might be a space for a women’s language, different in kind as it would be from male-dominated discourse.

Masculine gender theory as a separate enterprise has focused largely on social, literary, and historical accounts of the construction of male gender identities. Such work generally lacks feminisms’ activist stance and tends to serve primarily as an indictment rather than a validation of male gender practices and masculinity. The so-called “Men’s Movement,” inspired by the work of Robert Bly among others, was more practical than theoretical and has had only limited impact on gender discourse. The impetus for the “Men’s Movement” came largely as a response to the critique of masculinity and male domination that runs throughout feminism and the upheaval of the 1960s, a period of crisis in American social ideology that has required a reconsideration of gender roles. Having long served as the de facto “subject” of Western thought, male identity and masculine gender theory awaits serious investigation as a particular, and no longer universally representative, field of inquiry.

Much of what theoretical energy of masculine gender theory currently possesses comes from its ambiguous relationship with the field of “Queer theory.” “Queer theory” is not synonymous with gender theory, nor even with the overlapping fields of gay and lesbian studies, but does share many of their concerns with normative definitions of man, woman, and sexuality. “Queer theory” questions the fixed categories of sexual identity and the cognitive paradigms generated by normative (that is, what is considered “normal”) sexual ideology. To “queer” becomes an act by which stable boundaries of sexual identity are transgressed, reversed, mimicked, or otherwise critiqued. “Queering” can be enacted on behalf of all non-normative sexualities and identities as well, all that is considered by the dominant paradigms of culture to be alien, strange, unfamiliar, transgressive, odd—in short, queer. Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality anticipates and informs the Queer theoretical movement in a role similar to the way his writing on power and discourse prepared the ground for “New Historicism.” Judith Butler contends that heterosexual identity long held to be a normative ground of sexuality is actually produced by the suppression of homoerotic possibility. Eve Sedgwick is another pioneering theorist of “Queer theory,” and like Butler, Sedgwick maintains that the dominance of heterosexual culture conceals the extensive presence of homosocial relations. For Sedgwick, the standard histories of western societies are presented in exclusively in terms of heterosexual identity: “Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Family, Domesticity, Population,” and thus conceiving of homosexual identity within this framework is already problematic.

9. Cultural Studies

Much of the intellectual legacy of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” can now be felt in the “Cultural Studies” movement in departments of literature, a movement not identifiable in terms of a single theoretical school, but one that embraces a wide array of perspectives—media studies, social criticism, anthropology, and literary theory—as they apply to the general study of culture. “Cultural Studies” arose quite self-consciously in the 80s to provide a means of analysis of the rapidly expanding global culture industry that includes entertainment, advertising, publishing, television, film, computers and the Internet. “Cultural Studies” brings scrutiny not only to these varied categories of culture, and not only to the decreasing margins of difference between these realms of expression, but just as importantly to the politics and ideology that make contemporary culture possible. “Cultural Studies” became notorious in the 90s for its emphasis on pop music icons and music video in place of canonical literature, and extends the ideas of the Frankfurt School on the transition from a truly popular culture to mass culture in late capitalist societies, emphasizing the significance of the patterns of consumption of cultural artifacts. “Cultural Studies” has been interdisciplinary, even antidisciplinary, from its inception; indeed, “Cultural Studies” can be understood as a set of sometimes conflicting methods and approaches applied to a questioning of current cultural categories. Stuart Hall, Meaghan Morris, Tony Bennett and Simon During are some of the important advocates of a “Cultural Studies” that seeks to displace the traditional model of literary studies.

10. References and Further Reading

A. general works on theory.

b. Literary and Cultural Theory

Author Information

Vince Brewton Email: [email protected] University of North Alabama U. S. A.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

Literary Genres

All fiction.

Stories composed in verse or prose, usually for theatrical performance, where conflicts and emotion are expressed through dialogue and action.

Narration demonstrating a useful truth, especially in which animals speak as humans; legendary, supernatural tale.

Story about fairies or other magical creatures, usually for children.

Fiction with strange or other worldly settings or characters; fiction which invites suspension of reality.

Narrative literary works whose content is produced by the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact.

Fiction in Verse

Full-length novels with plot, subplot(s), theme(s), major and minor characters, in which the narrative is presented in (usually blank) verse form.

The songs, stories, myths, and proverbs of a people or "folk" as handed down by word of mouth.

Historical Fiction

Story with fictional characters and events in a historical setting.

Fiction in which events evoke a feeling of dread in both the characters and the reader.

Fiction full of fun, fancy, and excitement, meant to entertain; but can be contained in all genres

Story, sometimes of a national or folk hero, which has a basis in fact but also includes imaginative material.

Fiction dealing with the solution of a crime or the unraveling of secrets.

Legend or traditional narrative, often based in part on historical events, that reveals human behavior and natural phenomena by its symbolism; often pertaining to the actions of the gods.

Verse and rhythmic writing with imagery that creates emotional responses.

Realistic Fiction

Story that can actually happen and is true to life.

Science Fiction

Story based on impact of actual, imagined, or potential science, usually set in the future or on other planets.

Short Story

Fiction of such brevity that it supports no subplots.

Humorous story with blatant exaggerations, swaggering heroes who do the impossible with nonchalance.

All Nonfiction


Narrative of a person's life, a true story about a real person.

A short literary composition that reflects the author's outlook or point.

Narrative Nonfiction

Factual information presented in a format which tells a story.

Informational text dealing with an actual, real-life subject.

Public address or discourse.

Share via Email icon

Literary analysis is a critical response to a literary text in the form of a critical essay or an oral commentary. It includes a thorough interpretation of the work.

Such analysis may be based on a variety of critical approaches or movements, e.g. archetypal criticism, cultural criticism, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist Criticism, New Criticism (formalism/structuralism), New Historicism, post-structuralism, and reader-response criticism. Students in this course will write a critical essay based upon four literary texts for their ISU.

Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism is a critical approach to literature that seeks to find and understand the purpose of archetypes within the literature. These archetypes may be themes, such as love, characterizations, such as the hero; or patterns, such as death and rebirth.

Archetypal criticism draws on the works of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, literary critic Northrop Frye, and others. Unlike psychoanalytic critics, archetypal critics such as Frye do not attempt to explain why the archetypes exist.

Archetype: something that represents the essential elements of its category or class of things; the word is Greek for “original pattern” from which all copies are made, a prototype.

Certain themes of human life (e.g. love, loss) character types (e.g. the rebel, the wise elder), animals (e.g. snake), and patterns (e.g. the quest, the descent into the underworld) are considered to be archetypal, forming a part of the collective unconscious (the sum of society’s inherited mental images). For example, a character in a TV series who continuously changes careers might be said to be the archetypal “seeker”.

Cultural Criticism

Cultural criticism is a recent movement in criticism that is interdisciplinary by extending the range of examined texts beyond just the literary works themselves to objects or practices that can be interpreted as representative of a culture’s beliefs, values, laws, for example. Practitioners of cultural criticism view a text in relation to the dominant or competing ideologies (belief systems) of the time and place in which the text was written.

Works are therefore considered in light of their historical and cultural contexts. For example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be read in terms of practices of European imperialists, race relations in Africa, or the economic history of ivory and other raw products in the continent.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism is literary criticism based on feminist theories. It considers texts with the knowledge that societies treat men and women inequitably. Feminist criticism will analyze texts in light of patriarchal (male-dominated) cultural institutions, phallocentric (male-centered) language, masculine and feminine stereotypes, and the unequal treatment of male and female writers.

Feminist criticism developed primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, although it is evident in earlier works as well, for example in the works of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft. More recent feminist and gender studies investigate social constructions related to gender as they appear in the literature.

Marxist Criticism

Based on the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) this school of thought contends that history and culture is largely a struggle between economic classes, and literature is often a reflection of the attitudes and interests of the dominant class.

An often-repeated statement from Marx expresses a basic idea specific to this form of criticism. “It’s not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”.

New Criticism

New Criticism is a movement in literary criticism that proposes close reading and textual analysis of the text itself. It is referred to as “New” because it operates contrary to the previously favored focus on the author’s biography, the historical context, and the perceived parallels between these and the text.

Practitioners focus on both the “external form” (e.g. ballad, ode) and the “internal forms” (e.g. structure, repetition, patterns of figurative language, plot/content, syntax/diction, tone, mood, context/setting, style, literary devices, theme). These practitioners reject consideration of the author’s intention and the effect on the reader as illegitimate. The movement is also referred to as formalism or structuralism .

New Historicism

New Historicism is a range of critical practices that examine works in their cultural and historical contexts. Practitioners of the critical movement developed it by examining a wide range of texts such as newspapers, advertisements, popular music, historical accounts, poetry, novels, and diaries.

Practitioners believe that works cannot be viewed in isolation from history and culture. A reading of a work must take into account its intention, genre, and historical situation.


Post-structuralism refers to a critical approach to language, literature, and culture that questions or criticizes structuralism. Like structuralists, post-structuralists rely on close readings of texts; however, post-structuralists believe that language is inherently unstable in meaning and the meaning of the texts is ultimately indecipherable.

The best known post-structuralist approach is deconstructionism.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is literary criticism grounded in the psychoanalytic theory of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Practitioners attempt to psychoanalyze the author’s unconscious desires, the reader’s responses, and the characters in the work. The last approach involves examining the text for symbols and psychological complexes.

In addition to Freud, key figures are psychiatrist Carl Jung and, most recently, Jacques Lacan.

Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-response criticism is a critical approach that shifts the emphasis to the reader from the text or the work’s author and context. This approach focuses on the individual reader’s evolving response to the text. The readers, through their own values and experiences, “create” the meaning of the text and therefore there is no one correct meaning.

When analyzing a text, from which a student will write a major paper, it is advised that the student should first focus on the elements of a story: plot, setting, atmosphere, mood, character, theme and title. 

The next logical approach is to look at the language (devices and patterns) and form of the text (structure). Then the student might consider any of the following approaches such as New Historicism, New Criticism, Archetypal Criticism, or Cultural Criticism.

Author:  William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)

Tutor and Freelance Writer. Science Teacher and Lover of Essays. Article last reviewed: 2020 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2022 | Creative Commons 4.0

thank you, schoolworkhelper! Very cool!

is archetypal criticism part of formalism ?

Hi i have to do literary criticism on various cultural text. I think i understand the theories but i don’t know how to construct essays could you send sample essays? I would really appreciate your help. M.H

Language Flag

Find Study Materials for

Create Study Materials

Select your language

kind of literary reading

Literary Context

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

What is literary context? This article is about literary context, why it is used, and its importance when analysing literature. We will look at the types of literary context, taking into account how each type differs and what they can tell the reader about the literature. Context may be something that you overlook or take for granted, but it is important to be aware of how crucial it is to the understanding of any literary work!

What is context in English literature?

The definition of context in English Literature refers to the descriptions of events, people and background information that offers the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening in the narrative.

Literary context - how does it work?

Literary context works to provide the reader with information about certain events and experiences in a piece of literature that would otherwise not be obvious. It helps to develop a deeper connection between the literary text and the reader, as they are more aware of the intentions of the author and/or the characters.

Without an understanding of the context, the meaning of the piece would be unclear and the reader may not be certain of its overall message.

Examples of literary context

There are lots of different examples of context in English literature, some of which include: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and biographical .

It is important to note that different contexts can overlap; the world is complex and not everything fits into neat categories! For example, historical context often overlaps with social context, as the attitudes and norms in society can change depending on events that occur at a specific time in history.

Let’s break down the types of literary context in more detail!

What is Literary context vs. historical context?

Is there such a difference between literary context vs historical context? Historical context refers to a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time. This can relate to the social, political, religious and economic situation. Historical context is relevant in literary context as it provides historical settings or knowledge for the literary work.

Historical context in English literature is important as it lets the reader know what it is/was like to live in a different time period - allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of why certain events occurred in the narrative. It also gives the reader the opportunity to compare the experiences in different historical periods to current events and personal experiences, which shows how things have changed over time.

Example of historical context in literature:

The following example comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925).

The novel is set in the 1920s (the Roaring Twenties). Fitzgerald refers to this as the Jazz Age - a period in the US between the 1920s and 1930s in which Jazz music gained popularity. Fitzgerald uses historical context to describe the experiences of the people in 1920s US society, during which time there was a great economic boom. This led to the following:

The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925

Literary Context, flapper girl, StudySmarter

Cultural context

Cultural context in English literature refers to the traditions, beliefs and values of people belonging to a certain country or culture. Being aware of cultural context is key to the reader's understanding of what is considered normal by different cultures and why they practice certain things. It is also a good way to expand their horizons, as they can appreciate the diversity of different cultures!

Example of cultural context in literature:

The following examples are from Min Jin Lee's novel Pachinko (2017).

The novel explores the life of a Korean family that immigrates to Japan during the Japanese colonisation of Korea between 1910-1945. As with many literary works, the cultural context overlaps with historical and political context, as all of these aspects exist alongside one another within their lives. Pachinko explores many cultural aspects of daily Korean life, which lets the reader understand some of the traditions and customs specific to Koreans. An example is seen in the quote:

After each birth, Hoonie went to the market to buy his wife choice seaweed for soup to heal her womb." - Pachinko, 2017

This cultural context lets the reader know different foods eaten in Korean culture and their uses. In this case, we learn that seaweed soup is given to Korean women after they give birth to help them heal.

Also included in the cultural context throughout the book is the use of different names and terms specific to Korean language. These are romanised in the book for those who do not read Korean.

Some examples include:

'Baek-il' - refers to a celebration held on a baby's one-hundredth day.

'Hanbok' - refers to traditional Korean clothing.

'Ajumoni' - is the term used to refer to a middle-aged woman.

'Uh-muh' - means 'mum'.

Social context

Social context in English literature refers to the events happening in society at the time, and the ways in which elements of society can influence the attitudes of the characters. This often overlaps with historical context, as the attitudes and norms in society can change depending on events that occur in a specific time in history.

Example of social context in literature:

The following example comes from J.B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls (1945).

The social context highlights the inequality between social classes (upper, middle, lower) in pre-war Britain (in 1912). The norms of society at the time affect how characters are treated. During this time, there were clear distinctions between the upper and lower classes. The upper classes were wealthy and able to live comfortably, whereas the lower classes had little money and lived in poverty. In the novel, the character of Mrs Birling (an upper-class woman) looks down on the lower class. This is especially evident when she speaks of Eva, a working-class woman:

"As if a girl of that sort would ever refuse money!" - An Inspector Calls, 1945.

This lets the reader know of the social hierarchy and the attitudes of people at the time - the lower classes were not treated with the same respect or humanity as the upper classes.

Do you think the unfair treatment of the lower classes is still happening in today's society, or have things changed?

Literary Context, A man in suit looking down on another man sitting, StudySmarter

Political context

Political context in English literature concerns the political climate and political views held at a certain time, and how they influence the characters and the world around them.

Example of political context in literature:

The following examples are from Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's novel Purple Hibiscus (2003).

The novel is set in Nigeria during a time of political trouble and corruption in the late 1960s. The political climate is described throughout the novel, which gives the reader an idea of how the country is being run and the values of those in power:

...the politicians were corrupt, and the Standard had written many stories about the cabinet ministers who stashed money in foreign bank accounts, money meant for paying teachers' salaries and building roads." - Purple Hibiscus, 2003

The political context also helps the reader to understand how such political events affect the lives of the characters. For example, the effects of colonialism (from 1914 - 1960) are evident when the character of Papa stops his family from speaking their native language:

We had to sound civilised in public, he told us; we had to speak English." - Purple Hibiscus, 2003

Religious context

Religious context in English literature concerns the beliefs and customs of certain religions, and how religion affects or influences other aspects such as the characters and the plot.

Example of religious context in literature:

The following examples are from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables (1862). The religious context in this novel helps the reader to understand the actions of the characters and the influence religion has over their lives.

For example, the character of Marius is a religious person who goes to a Roman Catholic church from a young age. The hold religion continues to have over him is evident:

Marius clung to the religious habits of his childhood." - Les Misérables , 1862

This religious context allows the reader to be aware of how his adulthood has been affected by his religious upbringing and how it will affect his future actions.

There is another example in the middle of the novel, where information is revealed about nuns in a convent. Through religious context, the reader is given an insight into how dedicating one's life to religion can affect daily life and interactions. In particular, being a nun and choosing a holy life in France meant that you were not able to talk face to face with family members:

In the case of a woman permission might be granted and they might talk through the closed shutters, which were opened only for a mother or sister." - Les Misérables, 1862

Biographical context

Biographical context in English literature refers to the information given about the experiences of the author. This helps the reader to understand the intentions and opinions of the author, as they are aware of different aspects of their life. Biographical context is particularly important in biographies or memoirs, as the main focus of the work is the life of the author!

Example of biographical context in literature:

This example comes from Jeanette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011):

"I was born in Manchester in 1959. It was a good place to be born... Manchester was the world's first industrial city; its looms and mills transforming itself and the fortunes of Britain. Manchester had canals, easy access to the great port of Liverpool, and railways that carried thinkers and doers up and down to London. Its influence affected the whole world."

- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 2011

What can the biographical context tell us here?

The time period in which the author was born

Where the author was born

What the author's birthplace was like

The influence the author's birthplace had on other areas in the country and the world

Gives a positive overview of Manchester in that particular time frame

Literary Context - Key takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Context

--> what are the types of literary context.

The types of literary context include: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and biographical.

--> What is the importance of literary context?

The importance of literary contexts refers to how it helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in the narrative through the description of events, people and background information. In turn, this helps them understand the meaning of the literature and the intentions of the characters and/or author.

--> What is literary context?

Literary context refers to descriptions of events, people and background information in literary works that gives the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening.

--> What is historical and literary context?

Historical context refers to the information given about a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time. Literary context refers to the information provided to the reader so that they can understand fully the events of the narrative.

--> What is an example of context?

An example of context would be providing the reader with information about when and where a character was born. For example: "Sally was born in 1992, in the small French town of Gordes."

Final Literary Context Quiz

What is literary context?

Show answer

Literary context refers to descriptions of events, people and background information in literature (written works) that gives the reader a clearer understanding of what is happening.

Show question

Literary context gives the reader extra information about what happens.

True or false?

Without literary context, how will the reader's understanding of the literature be affected?

The meaning will be unclear and the reader may not be certain of the overall message of the literature.

Fill in the blanks:

Literary context helps to develop a _____ connection between the literature and the _______.

Which of the following is not a type of literary context?

Different contexts cannot overlap.

What does historical context refer to?

Information given about a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time. 

What does cultural context refer to?

The traditions, beliefs and values of people belonging to a certain country or culture.

What does social context refer to?

The events happening in society at the time, and the ways in which elements of society can influence the attitudes of the characters. 

What does political context refer to?

The political climate and political views held at a certain time, and how they influence the characters and the world around them. 

What does religious context refer to?

The beliefs and customs of certain religions, and how religion affects or influences other aspects such as the characters and the plot. 

What does biographical context refer to?

Information given about experiences of the author.

Fill in the blank:

The Great Gatsby  by F. Scott Fitzgerald is set in the 1920s. This time period was also referred to as the ____ Age.

Min Jin Lee introduces Korean culture to the reader in her novel Pachinko . What food is given to Korean women after they give birth?

Seaweed soup

The social context in J.B. Priestley's play An Inspector Calls highlights the __________ between social classes.

In Jeanette Winterson's novel Why Be Happy When You Could Be Norma l , the biographical context lets the reader know about Winterson's life. Where was she born?

______ context refers to the events happening in society at the time, and the ways in which elements of society can influence the attitudes of the characters. 

________ context refers to the traditions, beliefs and values of people belonging to a certain country or culture.

__________ context refers to a certain period of time, events that occurred within that period, and the attitudes of the people at that point in time.

_________ context concerns the political climate and political views held at a certain time, and how they influence the characters and the world around them. 

_________ context concerns the beliefs and customs of certain religions, and how religion affects or influences other aspects such as the characters and the plot. 

____________ context refers to the information given about the experiences of the author.


Literary context only applies to fictional literature.

of the users don't pass the Literary Context quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

More explanations about Language Analysis

Discover the right content for your subjects, business studies, combined science, english literature, environmental science, human geography, macroeconomics, microeconomics, no need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed packed into one app.

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Have all your study materials in one place.

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Join millions of people in learning anywhere, anytime - every day

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

This is still free to read, it's not a paywall.

You need to register to keep reading, get free access to all of our study material, tailor-made.

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.


StudySmarter bietet alles, was du für deinen Lernerfolg brauchst - in einer App!

18 brilliant pieces of literature you can read in the time it takes to eat lunch

kind of literary reading

It's mighty easy to feel like you don't have time to read — especially quality literary pieces. Life is hectic, jobs are busy, and it's much easier to scroll through an Instagram feed or a TikTok For You Page than it is to sink your brain into some juicy reading matter. But with these incredibly short and beautiful stories, all you need is a few minutes (a lunch break , say) to read great work from the best writers around . These stories are not only perfect examples of literary pieces that don't require 300+ pages to be worthy, they're also poignant revelations about life — and at only a few pages each, they can be read in the time it takes to eat a sandwich .

Brilliant stories (and some spoilers) ahead. 

1. "Happy Endings" by Margaret Atwood

kind of literary reading

John and Mary meet. 

What happens next? 

If you want a happy ending, try A. 

So begins Atwood's sassy and inventive story that at least pretends to give the reader the choice of which ending they want for the story's two characters. Even with options for endings, which Atwood clearly labels as if part of a multiple choice test, the story makes clear that there is really only one ending to any story.

Read it for free here . 

2. "Pygmalion" by John Updike

kind of literary reading

Inspired by the story of Pygmalion from Ovid's Metamorphoses , the story follows a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he carves. Updike transforms the narrative's message to reveal the narcissism we all bring to love.

Updike makes every sentence of this brief piece count, nonchalantly surprising his readers with a new twist in every paragraph. Soon, we begin to wonder how much of a relationship is based on who the other person really is and how much is based on how we transform them.

3. "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros

kind of literary reading

Cisneros, who also wrote The House on Mango Street , time and time again captures what it means to be a kid and the overwhelming embarrassment that accompanies childhood. This story about an 11-year-old's birthday manages to perfectly encapsulate what it feels like to be that age and how that feeling never quite leaves you. As Cisneros writes, "The way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk." You may add experiences, but you still keep the child within.

4. "The Sock" by Lydia Davis

kind of literary reading

Lydia Davis is magnificent for her ability to reveal poignant truths about human existence through the lens of the mundane. "The Sock" is the perfect example of that, capturing all the tension that comes with meeting an ex's new love, all via rumination on one simple sock.

With intimate and minute details like recalling how her ex used to position his feet while reading, Davis describes a scenario nearly everyone can relate to.

Read it for free here .

And watch the master herself read three of her characteristically very short stories, all in under two minutes:

5. "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

kind of literary reading

In a few pages, Hemingway manages to load a seemingly simple conversation with intensity and desperation. The story follows a casual conversation between a couple, but reading between the lines reveals this casual conversation masks a deep pain. Set in Spain years ago, the dialogue remains highly relevant. It is the kind of trivial banter universally practiced by any couple trying to ignore the real "elephant" in the room.

Read it for free  here .

6. "Real Food" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

kind of literary reading

Adichie, author of the celebrated novel Americanah , explores her heritage and her family through her hatred of  garri , a traditional Nigerian food. She finds that not eating the food both frees her and separates her from her family, and this brief story expertly explores what it means to belong to a culture. 

7. "Reunion" by John Cheever

kind of literary reading

In this brief tale, Cheever tells the universal story of a long-awaited reunion gone awry, and he tells it in an utterly unique way. Exploring a nontraditional father-son relationship, Cheever illustrates both guilt and disillusionment without any commentary. The circular narrative structure, beginning and ending with a reference to the last time the son saw his father, highlights the futility of reconciliation.

Read it for free here and hear Richard Ford's reading of it here . 

8. "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin

kind of literary reading

This 19th-century Southern writer took on feminist themes in her novel The Awakening . In this smart, moving and much shorter piece, Chopin examines how marriage, no matter how loving, can still become a prison for women.

9. "The School" by Donald Barthelme

kind of literary reading

Told from the perspective of a schoolteacher who seems to be followed by death, this strange story escalates quickly. The deaths intensify; they move from trees, to fish, to a puppy, to human beings, all with the narrator trying to cooly pass off the idea that nothing is awry.

Barthelme, author of The King , never uses an unnecessary word. Instead, he utilizes avoidance techniques and ellipses to highlight that something is off. It's an absurd but perfectly crafted world — signature postmodern Barthelme — where nothing is as it seems.

10. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin

kind of literary reading

Le Guin maintains a dialogue with her readers in her description of the seemingly intensely happy community of Omelas. 

This witty story takes a twist when we learn of the dark secret at the root of this universal happiness. By the end of the story it is difficult not to think that perhaps there are some things more important — and more unimaginable — than being happy. 

11. "Adams" by George Saunders

kind of literary reading

Saunders, the king of writing unreliable narrators, takes less than two pages in this story to make his readers question their own sanity. Following the story of an overprotective father desperate to guard his kids from his neighbor, Saunders blurs lines so expertly that you don't know who is the greater risk — the outside threat or your own fear. The short film adaptation , starring Patton Oswald and Fred Armisen, debuted in 2019. (And if you want more Saunders stories on-screen, there’s good news: The film version of “Escape from Spiderhead” starring Chris Hemsworth, will premiere on Netflix this year.)

And watch the short film next:

12. "Boys and Girls" by Alice Munro

kind of literary reading

Nobel Prize winner Munro is an expert at the short story, and this is one of her shortest pieces. The story makes subtle commentary on gender roles by following a young girl growing up in the family's fox-pelting business.

Munro uses the story to follow the painful process of growing up while longing for freedom. As Munro writes, "A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become."

13. "The Looking Glass" by Anton Chekhov

kind of literary reading

Nellie looks into a mirror and sees her future, which involves a desperate, hopeless attempt to save her husband from typhus. The story shows the battle between a young girl who believes in the power of love even while coming up against the harsh realities of life — the surprise ending shows how quickly those realities can be forgotten. 

14. "The Last Night of the World" by Ray Bradbury

kind of literary reading

Science-fiction legend Bradbury wrote this as part of a 12-piece series for Esquire in 1951. Bradbury explores a world in which everyone has the same dream that the world would end, yet no one erupts in panic. Instead, the unstated end of the world lends a kind of calmness to society with everyone following their daily routines exactly as planned. The story leaves you wondering what exactly you would do if you knew the world was ending.

15. “The Gilded Six-Bits” by Zora Neale Hurston

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston (Photo by Carl Van Vechten Collection/Getty Images)

This story may not be as famous as Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God , but it’s just as worthy of a read. “The Gilded Six-Bits,” which was adapted into a short film in 2001, tells a story of love and betrayal through the lens of newlyweds Joe and Missie May. It will make you think deeply not only about relationships and forgiveness, but also about taking people and things at face-value — and making decisions based on those initial appearances.

And watch a clip from the film adaptation when you’re done:

16. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, circa 1896. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Gilman uses diary entries to paint a picture of a woman neglected, infantilized, and deemed “hysterical” while in the throes of postpartum depression — or “nervous depression” as it was referred to in the 19th century, when this literary piece was written. The narrator has been ordered (by her husband, who is also a physician) to undergo “rest-cure” treatment; she’s confined to one room in a mansion, not allowed to write or work, with no autonomy. Her secret diary serves as a thought-provoking piece on the stigma of mental illness, female empowerment, and personal freedom.

17. “Girls, At Play” by Celeste Ng

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 5: Celeste Ng, American writer, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival ...

This is how we play the game: pink means kissing; red means tongue. Green means up your shirt; blue means down his pants. Purple means in your mouth. Black means all the way.

The first few sentences of this short story, by Little Fires Everywhere author Ng, set the stage for an honest and heartbreaking look at teen girls coming of age — particularly the push and pull they feel between staying rooted in innocence and moving into womanhood, with all its pressures and expectations.

18. “And of Clay Are We Created” by Isabel Allende

SAN RAFAEL, MARIN COUNTY, CA - FEBRUARY 12: Isabel Allende  is a Chilean-American writer.Allende, wh...

Chilean writer Allende based this piece on a true event: the 1985 eruption of a volcano in Colombia that caused massive mudslides and killed more than 23,000 people — including 13-year-old Omayra Sánchez , whose story captured global attention. “And of Clay Are We Created,” is a fictional story about Azucena, a teen girl trapped in the mud after the disaster, inspired by the real tragic event.

This article was originally published on 6.4.2014

kind of literary reading

Assessment Frameworks

Reading for Literary Experience

In literary reading, readers engage with the text to become involved in events, settings, actions, consequences, characters, atmosphere, feelings, and ideas, and to enjoy language itself. In order to understand and appreciate literature, each reader must bring to the text his or her own experiences, feelings, appreciation of language, and knowledge of literary forms. For young readers, literature can offer the opportunity to explore situations and feelings they have not yet encountered.

Events, actions, and consequences depicted in narrative fiction allow readers to experience vicariously and reflect upon situations that, although they may be imagined, illuminate those of real life. The text may present the perspective of the narrator or a principal character, and a more complex text may even have several viewpoints. Information and ideas may be described directly or through dialogue and events. Short stories or novels sometimes narrate events chronologically, or sometimes make more complex use of time with flashbacks or time shifts.

The main form of literary texts used in PIRLS is narrative fiction. Given differences in curricula and cultures across the participating countries, it is difficult for PIRLS to include some forms of literary texts. For example, poetry is difficult to translate and is therefore avoided.

John Obogne

Let study the literature of 21st Century!

Literary Reading through Linguistic Context

kind of literary reading

Here are some reasons to read literature through the linguistic context:

In analyzing a text from a linguistic context, take note of the following:

Below is a poem that Jose Rizal has written:

Josephine, Who to these shores came, Searching for a home, a nest, Like the wandering swallows, If your fate guides you To Shanghai, China, or Japan, Forget not that on these shores A heart beats for you.


Gorion, M. (2020).  Literary Reading through a Biographical and Sociocultural Context  [PowerPoint slides]. Canva. HA6xX9yk/mFkyt4yTH29tIzQsv99 4JA/view?utm_content=DAEHA6x X9yk&utm_campaign=designshare &utm_medium=link&utm_source=sharebutton

Panay News. (2019). [Photograph]. Panay News.

Share this:

Published by John Obogne

Student. View more posts

3 thoughts on “ Literary Reading through Linguistic Context ”


Like Liked by 1 person

Your blog looks very professional. The number of your pictures is just right and not too much for a visitor to your site. Good choices of images, it makes your visitors have an interest in your blog site. The posts you posted is very informative, giving enough information to your visitors/readers helps a lot. I can see that you did exert effort on this project. I’m excited to see your work for the future projects that we will encounter, and I have high expectations for you. You did a good job! Good luck with the second half of the semester!

Wow! Thank you for sharing this information on your blog. This is very informative, I find this useful for reading literary works, your blog inspires me to read more literary works. Literary Reading through a linguistic context is very important because analyzing the literary text’s grammar, syntax, or phonemic pattern may help you find the meaning of the text within its form and help you interpret it by simply analyzing the content of the literary work. I commend you for including Jose Rizal’s poem that provides more insight into the topic. I recommend you, people, to read literary works through linguistic context.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:


You are commenting using your account. (  Log Out  /  Change  )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. (  Log Out  /  Change  )


You are commenting using your Facebook account. (  Log Out  /  Change  )

Connecting to %s

Notify me of new comments via email.

Notify me of new posts via email.

' src=


  1. Reading Strategies for Comprehension (Literary Genres)

    kind of literary reading

  2. 6 Surprising Benefits of Reading Literary Fiction

    kind of literary reading

  3. Miss Hewitt's 4th Grade Blog: Reading Genres- 40 Books in One Year!

    kind of literary reading

  4. Literacy, families and learning: The benefits of repeated reading of literature

    kind of literary reading

  5. Type of reading

    kind of literary reading

  6. The Understanding of Literacy

    kind of literary reading


  1. Literary Devices 101

  2. Comprehending Literary Passages

  3. Top 3 Author of English Literature You Need To Know If You Are Literature Students

  4. literary literary literary literary literary literary literary literary literary

  5. best book for literary terms 🥰 must read.🥰🥰

  6. Traveling Mollys January 2023


  1. Literary Theory: Understanding 15 Types of Literary Criticism

    Literary theory enables a broad appreciation of global literature. Reading a text through the lens of literary theory provides a new perspective

  2. Literary Theory

    For example, to speak of the “unity” of Oedipus the King explicitly invokes ... What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read

  3. Literary Genres

    Full-length novels with plot, subplot(s), theme(s), major and minor characters, in which the narrative is presented in (usually blank) verse form. Folklore. The

  4. Various Types of Literary Analysis

    Various Types of Literary Analysis · Archetypal Criticism · Cultural Criticism · Feminist Criticism · Marxist Criticism · New Criticism · New Historicism · Post-

  5. A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis

    Fiction writers and poets build texts out of many central components, including subject, form, and specific word choices. Literary analysis involves examining

  6. Literary Context: Definition & Types

    There are lots of different examples of context in English literature, some of which include: historical, cultural, social, political, religious and

  7. 18 brilliant literary pieces you can read in the time it takes to eat lunch

    18 brilliant pieces of literature you can read in the time it takes to eat lunch · 1. "Happy Endings" by Margaret Atwood · 2. "Pygmalion" by John

  8. Five Types of Context

    By definition, anything not contained within the literary text itself is potentially context. · Another term for this is biographical context. · Literary works

  9. Reading for Literary Experience

    The main form of literary texts used in PIRLS is narrative fiction. Given differences in curricula and cultures across the participating countries

  10. Literary Reading through Linguistic Context

    Analyzing the literary text's grammar, syntax, or phonemic pattern may help you find the meaning of the text within its form and help you