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[These summaries of contemporary literary and critical theory are based upon Harmon and Holman's A Handbook to Literature (see "References" below). For an example of how these various approaches illuminate a specific literary text, see the author's application of them to Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess."]


This perspective is an outgrowth of the women's movement that followed WWII to pursue a "feminist critique" of works by male authors that depict female characters and their relation to women readers, but this broad term now encompasses strict gynocriticism (focussing on the study of female-authored texts and women as writers), gender and identity construction, and a more general study of how literary texts present women and the role of women in culture and society. 13 responses in this study are based loosely on this perspective.

Psychological or Psychoanalytical (Freudian)

The emphasis of this approach is to discover symbols and language that, often unconsciously, explain meanings or unconscious intention, including the motives and actions of characters. Freudian criticism specifically employs the concepts of id (unconscious, instinctual drives), ego (consciousness which mediates between the pressures of reality and libidinal demands), and the superego (an internal censor produced by socialization). 15 responses in this study are based loosely on this perspective.

New Criticism

From the 1930s through the 1960s in American critics such as John Crowe Ransom and I. A. Richards concentrated on the verbal complexities and ambiguities of short works such as lyrics and short stories considered as self-sufficient objects without attention to their origins or effects. Related approaches include "Text-based Criticism, "Explication de text, Close Reading, and "Practical Criticism."

New Historicist

The study of literary works within their historical, political, social, and cultural contexts; developed in the 1980s in reaction to ahistorical orthodoxies.

Formalist or Structuralist

Influenced by Saussurean linguistics, Russian Formalists emphasized the study of form (including genre and its conventions) over content; a key concept here is "defamiliarization," any device that restores freshness to language. Structuralists such as Roland Barthes regard literary contentions as a system of codes that contribute to and convey meaning, especially in prose fiction.

Archetypal or Jungian

This approach originated in the early 20th c. with anthropologist J. G. Frazer and psychologist C. G. Jung as a means of interpreting literary symbols as residues of ancestral memory preserved within the collective unconscious. It is related to "Mythic Criticism."


Based on the work of Jacques Derrida (1967 on), this perspective draws attention to the instability of language; a text unravels because of the presence of one or more aporia, internal contradictions that undermine the text's claim to coherent meaning. It assaults previously unquestioned postulates of order in binary, hierarchical pairs such as nature-culture, work-play, man-woman, with the first element always being the privileged one.


This critical approach analyses the devices and elements employed in a literary work to impose on the reader the author's view of the meaning, both denotative and connotative, of the work. Those aspects of a work that persuade or otherwise guide the response of the reader are called "rhetorical."


According to theorists such as Stanley Fish, a literary text exists only to be read; therefore, certain features of the text are intended to shape and guide a reader's reading, so that the hypothetical reader is part of the fiction itself and may be said to inhere in the work. Rosenblatt distinguishes between informational ("efferent") and artistic ("aesthetic") texts and modes of reading.

Marxist or Sociological

Based on the social, political, and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this literary theory emphasizes the economic determination of all social actions and institutions and the class struggle as the basic pattern of history. Included in this perspective are kinds of audience, modes or conditions of publication and dramatic presentation (including publishers and magazines), and the class positions of authors and readers (consumers).


The original scientific and modern method of criticizing literature in late nineteenth-century America and Britain, this term is associated with Historical Criticism, which often paid attention to the life of the author as it was reflected in the text. Just one response in this study is based on this perspective.


Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th edn. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Last modified 13 July 2003