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Literary Theory: Perspectives and Approaches

The study of literary texts always involves the problem of multiple meanings because of interpretations. One need only think of any of the movies, books, or even songs whose familiarity was shared with a friend. In this case, even close friends, who usually have similar worldviews and interests, will see different meanings in such texts. This is a natural process of learning through individual experience, which social philosophy highlights as an essential part of knowing the world. At the heart of the difference in perceptions of literary texts, however, is not only personal experience but also the paradigm used. This refers to a general literary theory as a set of methods and ideas used to read “texts.” To date, many such paradigms have been developed, each using specific ideas and principles to analyze readings critically. The purpose of this explanatory essay is to discuss existing critiques in detail as parts of literary theory and to compare and contrast them.

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Literary Theory: A Brief Background

Any reading of literary texts is an action that has specific, measurable effects on the reader. It is noteworthy to say that texts in this essay do not refer strictly to poems, stories, and books but to any work of fiction that has been created by an author. In particular, the statements in this essay will refer to films, serials, shows, music, and any other works of art. Creating them, the author puts his deep meanings, which are not always clear to the reader. At the same time, their “reading” is an act of interaction with art, during which the individual uniquely interprets the meanings and possibly finds semantic meanings that were not initially put into the work. Obviously, such a system of “author meanings and reader interpretations” is susceptible and opaque, and in order to systematize knowledge at least somehow on this subject, a literary theory was developed.

It is essential to say that literary theory is not about the meaning of a particular work but rather about what tools an individual can use to interpret these meanings. These tools are a whole host of objects, attitudes, ideas, and phenomena: they can be historical context, race, sexual orientation, or the experience of a particular reader (Oates). This means that literary theorists tend to use a variety of approaches and perspectives to evaluate the same work, structuring and systematizing its semantics.

For a simple understanding of how literary theory works, it is necessary to identify its prominent critics. It is worth saying that general theory has expanded dramatically in recent decades as the number of social needs in literature has increased, for instance, LGBTQ+, disability, eco-activism, but some of the most fundamental angles can be highlighted. These include new historicism, formalism, Marxism, feminism, ethnic culturalism, structuralism, and in fact, dozens more different variations. It is already clear, the approaches listed are different, and their key focuses are usually described by their names. Thus, for a superficial introduction, it is enough to know that Marxism is a critique of the literary text that follows Marx’s economic concept, that is, it examines the social equality and conflict in work (Tyson 51). For example, in James Cameron’s Titanic, the use of Marxism reveals serious social conflicts between classes of aristocrats who can afford a transatlantic voyage and the poor, who can only watch the ship from the sidelines.

The use of literary theory is not only fascinating but also extremely useful in terms of academic interest. Through different perspectives applied to a single work, it is possible to achieve a critical appraisal of it. In this example of the Titanic, for example, feminism could be used to explore the rights of Rose DeWitt Bukater in a complicated relationship with an unloved man. In addition, the use of multifaceted literary analysis helps to explore more closely the hidden meanings within the work and relate them to the author’s biography.

Discussion of Literary Theory Approaches

It has become clear that literary theory cannot exist without approaches developed as a tool for studying work in detail. It is true that each of the approaches is self-serving in its use because it allows the reader to evaluate the text from only one clear perspective: conflict, equal female rights, or, for example, historical era. Recognizing the multiple manifestations of literary theory, this section briefly discusses its various approaches.

If the biography of the writer is used as the primary filter through which a work is studied, this is traditionalism. In this perspective, any work is always evaluated through the prism of the author’s experience: this is done by studying their biography, the historical era within which they created the work, social status, and the academic goals derived from it. Meanings in traditionalism, therefore, were related strictly to the author’s studied experience, and thus the more complete their biography was, the deeper the literary analysis could be made.

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If a formal representation of a text is used as the basis for evaluating it, it is formalism. It is important to note that any techniques, methods, and rhetorical techniques that were used by the author are regarded as forms of the text. In relation to Titanic as a universal example for this essay, formalism can examine the significance of the use of the film camera and the control of lights in scenes as factors in explaining the meaning. It is essential that for formalists, details such as biography or historical era are not crucial since the text is not placed in any particular framework but instead is studied “as is.”

If social conflict is used as the basis for the study of the text, then the theorist takes a Marxist approach. Literary works, in this case, were seen as a tool to strengthen the class struggle. In addition, the ideological function of a work written and published at a particular moment for a particular audience is studied through the text. It is noticeable that in this case, a sociological and historical agenda is used, which means that Marxist literary theory is paired with traditionalism.

Obviously, Marxist theories are associated with relativity and bias, both in terms of the study of the author’s biography and in the meanings evaluated. The relativity of knowledge of history — or, more precisely, the impossibility of studying it objectively — is a property of New Historicism. According to the title, theorists of New Historicism were inclined to use the historical contexts of writing rather than looking at a text in isolation. Reading literary and non-literary texts of the same time is a proper strategy of New Historicism, which allows for a more profound identification of the historical background of its creation.

With the development of world communities, there was a gradual abandonment of ideas of colonization and enslavement, but even after the removal of official pressure, the cultural life of previously subjugated regions underwent a long recovery. Thus emerged the ideas of ethnic and postcolonial critiques, the use of which helps explore the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized. In particular, the historical, philosophical, and socio-economic properties of texts are examined in order to analyze marginalization, local art, and the fates of characters subjected to enslavement.

Some of the most progressive perspectives on literary theory are the postmodern currents of gender and queer criticism. The feminist literary theory examines works to assess whether they conform or do not conform to the idea of gender equality among women and men. Basically, it tries to find problems and reasons for women’s disadvantage and suppression in historical texts. Similar views are held by queer theory, which examines the topic of sexual minorities in texts. LGBTQ+ studies of literature make it possible to identify the homophobic fears hidden in them and to assess the semantics of the text through the prism of the characters’ sexual orientations.

A Critical Comparison of Perspectives

Obviously, each of the perspectives described above uses a different filter to evaluate a literary work. A good analogy for precisely what literary theory does in this sense is to observe the same objects through different glasses. Using glasses with different sharpness and thickness of lenses, different color filters, and even different functionality allows one to look at an object from entirely different angles. In this sense, the object remains unshaken, but the picture of the meaning it has is greatly expanded. This works in literary studies as well: the more perspectives used to critique a text, the completer and comprehensive the final picture of it will look.

It is noteworthy that approaches within do not just appear but are born on the integration of others. The emergence of Marxist perspectives could not have been realized without a traditionalism that takes into account a factual historical agenda. At the same time, feminism and queer criticism are extensions of Marxism, which looks for social conflict and inequality in texts. Consequently, it is right to note that the theories turn out to be related to each other, and hence it is appropriate for them to use comparison.

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One of the most important differences, already discussed above, is the central focus, which is unique to each perspective. At the same time, each of the proposed approaches focuses specifically on the object under study, i.e., the text. The previously undiscussed reader-response-based critique stands out meaningfully against this background. In this case, the reader who studies the text tends to interpret it in a peculiar way: in other words, the completeness of the semantic interpretation depends not on the book, film or song, but on the personal reading experience. At the same time, most of the theories, for instance, new historicism, Marxism, postcolonial criticism, and traditionalism, use the historical context and thus see the text as a reflection of objective reality. This works the other way as well: by critically examining the text, researchers can learn more about the historical era in which the author lived.

For ideas of progressive literary theory, whether feminism or queer criticism, it is proper to emphasize some of the provocative nature with which theorists discuss texts. Using gender, sexuality, or even environmental principles as filters, researchers can accuse particular works of misusing progressive social ideas. This brings to mind especially the widespread public criticism of Joan Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter epic, who has been accused of transphobia (Smith). More specifically, in her tweet, Rowling ironically commented that the phrase “people who menstruate” turns out to be absurd, as there is a term for it, “woman.” Quite obviously, such thoughts proved controversial for the trans community, and as a result, harsh criticism was heaped on the creator of the much-loved magical universe. “Text,” in this case, acts as a tweet — or even as Rowling herself — and the use of queer criticism has obviously found inconsistency and infringement.

Continuing with Rowling’s example, however, it would be unfair to blame a woman if multiple theoretical perspectives are used simultaneously. Although from the perspective of queer criticism, Rowling did not satisfy the interests of LGBTQ+ minorities, from the perspective of the reader experience, the writer, by filtering the news article through herself, made her point. Freud’s psychoanalytic article is also used in this context and can be applied to assess why it was important for Rowling to write such a tweet, that is, what exactly was the author’s premise for creating her “text.” Thus, the perspectives of literary theory do not have to find agreement with each other since they represent very different perspectives. An object seen through rose-colored glasses may appear pink, while the use of a green filter in the lens will make it appear green: this does not mean, however, that the object is really pink or green. It is the same with texts, for each is full of unique meanings and ideas, and to use only one theoretical perspective is academically incorrect and one-sided. Instead, it is suggested that one uses all available tools, as this will help create a comprehensive and multifactorial portrait of a text endowed with a variety of sometimes even opposing meanings.

Works Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Literary Theory: Understanding 15 Types of Literary Criticism.” Master Class, Web.

Smith, Ramen. “J.K. Rowling’s Transphobia Is Unacceptable – But So Is Her Online Harassment.” Vogue, Web.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Routledge, 2014.

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