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Literary Critical Theories 101: Introduction to Literary Critical Theories


Literary Critical Theories 101 series intends to concentrate on how literary analysis represents itself through five different critical approaches, by portraying the basic principles of each theory with both earlier and current versions since all define themselves against their earlier versions. The approaches will be exemplified by different literary works for readers to comprehend how analysis from different lenses highlights the different aspects.

Literary Critical Theories 101 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Literary Critical Theories 101: Introduction to Literary Critical Theories

  2. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Psychoanalytic Criticism

  3. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Feminist Criticism

  4. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism

  5. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Post-Colonial Criticism

  6. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism

Literary Critical Theories 101: Introduction to Literary Critical Theories

A lithograph named "The Critic In The Modern World" by Traviès (1830).

The word criticism is rooted in the Greek verb "kritikos", meaning "to judge"; A critic expresses his judgments or opinions about the value, the meaning, the artistry, or the truth of something. However, literary criticism by large aims to explain the literary work in terms of its production, its design, and its meaning through different lenses derived from either internal analysis of the text or external interpretive analysis applied to the text. It does not aim to find faults or rate the work unlike movie critics or book reviewers. The historical record of literary theory traces back to Aristotle and Plato. For example, Plato in The Cratylus examines the relationship between words and the things to which they refer in the late fifth century BC. He concludes that words do not carry an etymological relationship to their meanings; rather, words are arbitrarily forged. This analysis has become a main concern to both Structuralism and Poststructuralism theories in the twentieth century. In brief, criticism and theory of literature are strictly connected to the history of literature.

Since different literary theories offer different interpretations of social, political, and historical grounds, critical theories compete with each other for dominance in communities. Each presents itself as the most accurate means of understanding human experience. More specifically, literary criticism is the discipline of analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting works of literature from different perspectives, highlighting certain elements while ignoring the others. Since each theory is like a new pair of eyeglasses, literary criticism is simply the application of a certain critical theory to the text. Critical theories not only demonstrate the bond between the world and humans through new and valuable lenses, but also strengthen the ability to think logically and creatively.

A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds shows Johnson concentrating intensely on the book (1756).

The term "reading against the grain" implies making inferences out of something that the author did not intend, while "reading with the grain" implies analyzing the text from the author's point of view and focusing only on what the text intends. Literary criticisms, whether it be Feminist, Deconstructive, Psychoanalytic or any other, must be applied to the text itself to avoid inaccurate conclusions. Yet, even if the critical view is sufficiently supported with evidence from the text, it still does not mean that the analysis is entirely correct.

While close-reading a literary text with one or more critical theories in mind, one should keep a notebook and write down details and important information along the way. A brief checklist must include: the title of the text (question what and in what way it relates to the story, or if it carries any symbolic meanings for events or characters); the narration (question who the narrator is and how the narrator approaches the plot or the characters); the subject (question what the core situation is and what kind of reactions it arises); the mood of the text as a whole (question the dominant mood and how it expresses itself in the subject, characters, language, and so on); the characters (question what the characters individually has gone through and analyze their failings, desires, transformations and so on); the interactions (analyze how the characters interact with each other); the plot (question how the plot interferes with the characters). Possessing a deep knowledge of literary theories, and close-reading – questioning every element of the text and making notes – is key to analyzing a literary text.

The literary critical theories below will be discussed further in the later Literary Critical Theories 101 chapters.

Psychoanalytic criticism is a method or form of reading of the text through either Lacanian or other psychoanalyst's principles or through the classic psychoanalytic principles established by Sigmund Freud, such as the conflict between the unconscious and conscious; the core issues like anxiety, trauma, and defense mechanisms; dreams and their symbolic meanings; the meaning of sexuality. This theory will be exemplified through a Lacanian analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.

Freud and Lacan (from left to right).

Feminist criticism is a method or form of reading of the text through traditional gender roles; patriarchy; different feminist approaches such as multicultural or French feminism; gender studies. It aims to explore the narrative of male domination over females. It is also closely associated with Queer studies. The theory will be exemplified in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

Deconstructive criticism, originated from Jacques Derrida, is a method or form of reading the text by deconstructing language, the world, human identity, and literature itself. It seeks to analyze the correlation between text and meaning. The theory will be exemplified in Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken.

Post-colonial criticism is a method or form of reading the text through post-colonial identity and debates. It focuses on the cultural analysis of colonialism such as colonial domination, cultural alienation, “inheritance” of a negative self-image, and the disruption of culture. The theory will be exemplified in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

New criticism is a method or form of reading the text through language and organic unity; the understanding of "the text itself." It aims to focus on the individual literary work in isolation – freeing it from other works and all other elements such as culture, history, sociology, and so on. The theory will be exemplified in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

René Magritte's surrealist painting named "The Maimed", refers to his "This is not a pipe" painting which questions the interpretations between language and reality (1948).

Instead of 'criticizing' the literary work for its errors such as reasoning, the author's objectives, or the tone of the text, literary theories focus on analyzing and questioning the text from different perspectives; Psychoanalytic criticism through psychoanalytic principles, feminist criticism through gender, deconstructive criticism by deconstructing the elements of the text, post-colonial criticism through the cultural analysis of colonialism, new criticism on the text itself. Although this 101 series only focuses on five literary theories, there are many other criticism theories out there. The evolution of literature is highly impacted by all of these approaches from the changing of historical, political, cultural, and social environments through time. Learning these literary criticisms supports readers in being able to analyze, evaluate, and interpret works of literature in new dimensions.

Bibliographical References

Jauss, H. R., & Benzinger, E. (1970). Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory. New Literary History, 2(1), 7–37.

Phillips, W., & Rahv, P. (1937). Some Aspects of Literary Criticism. Science & Society, 1(2), 212–220.

Sedley, D. N. (2003). Plato's Cratylus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. E-Book. (Original work published ca. 360 B.C.E)

Smallwood, P. (1996). The Definition of Criticism. New Literary History, 27(3), 545–554.

Visual Sources

Magritte, R. (1948). The Maimed [Painting]. Retrieved from

Unknown. Freud, Lacan and Jung [Photograph]. Medium, published May 16, 2020. Retrieved from

Reynolds, J. (1756). A portrait of Samuel Johnson [Oil paint on canvas]. Retrieved from

Traviès. (1830). The Critic In The Modern World [Lithograph]. Retrieved from


Author Photo

Melis Güven

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