English 1B
Gavilan College
Overview of Literary Theory

Formalist Theory (also called New Criticism)

Analysis based on the idea that the form of a piece of literature will echo or somehow illuminate its content. 
More resources on Formalism:
Formalism Overview

Biographical/Historical Theory

Analysis based on the idea that a person's life and times influence his or her work.  When considering biographical theory, look at the following aspects of an author's identity:  class, race, ethnicity, sex and/or gender, sexual orientation, family history, religious and/or political beliefs, education, nationality (this just for starters!) Historical theorists believe that w riters react to cultural, historical and intellectual trends, and work to either uphold or subvert those trends.  A historical critic will often concern himself with the way a work or writer would have affected his or her original audience. 
More resources on Biographical/Historical Theory:
Biographical Theory Overview

Psychoanalytic Theory

Analysis based on the idea that modern psychology has influenced how we interpret art and literature.  In this sense, literature becomes a kind of dream, expressive of psychological concerns or development of either the author or the intended audience.  As such, literature not only reflects the human psyche, it also provides clues for breaking the code enacted by the subconscious, thereby providing us greater insight into ourselves as humans.
More resources on Psychoanalytical Theory
Psychoanalytic Criticism

Definition of Psychoanalytic Criticism
Psychoanalytic Approaches

Major theorists: 

Please note that the summaries here are brief and superficial, and not meant to be a comprehensive introduction to the theorists and their ideas.  For more compolete analysis, it will be necessary to consult a host of soruces.  I've provided a few links here to begin inquiry.

Sigmund Freudtheorized that dreams (and literature) are ways of acting out (or coping with) repressed desires.  The subconscious creates narratives for acting out or attempting to resolve those desires which cannot be named or discussed in the waking world.  Freud generally thought those desires were sexual in nature.

     Resources for further study of Freud's ideas

Freud 101
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud - Life and Work

Carl Jung:  theorized that all humans participate in the collective unconscious, and share recognition of certain symbols, known as archtypes, in dreams, in art and literature.

     Resources for further study of Carl Jung: 
A Brief Note on Carl Jung

Personality Theories - Carl Jung
Carl Jung

      Resources for further study of archetypal theory
Understanding Literary Archetypes
Literary Archetypes
Jungian Archetypes
Archetypal Criticism

Bruno Bettelheim: theorized that children (and people in general) use literature as a means by which to order or make sense of their world.  Children look to literature as a model for navigating through life, and gain insight into the world and their place in it by reading.

      Resources for further study of Bettelheim's ideas:
Bruno Bettelheim

Jacques Lacan:  theorized that the subconscious is structured like language, and that language is a tool by which to shape reality, not reflect it.  The child goes through a series of psychological stages - the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic Order.  These phases reflect the influence of language in constructing or expressing a psychological state.  His theory on the "mirror stage" discusses the way a child recognizes himself as a Self, signified by the word "I", based on the image presented to the outside world, or to himself in a mirror.  Lacan thought this Self to be an illusion, because reflects only the surface of the child's "self" - not an integrated whole.

       Resources for further study of Lacan's ideas: 
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan
Modules on Lacan

Mythological Theory

Analysis based on the idea that art and literature evoke deep and universal responses in readers, no matter what age or culture they are from.  Human beings use mythology as a way of representing themselves and their experiences symbolically.  The mythological critic considers literature to reveal human desires, fears and expectations, and will use a text as a lens through which to interpret how particular cultures, or human beings in general, view themselves and their place in the world.
     Resources for further study of Myth Theory:
An overview of Mythological Theory
Myth Criticism - Overview

Some Major theorists:

Joseph Campbell: mapped out a series of myths from different cultures and eras and sought to demonstrate the universal elements in these myths.  He is most famous for his theory of the Hero Cycle, which identifies the essential elements of the Hero archetype.

     Resources for further study of Campbell's ideas:


Northrop Frye:  theorized that archtypes and mythology are literary creations, and that one must be familiar with these archetypes is necessary in order to be fully literate.  He identified several recurring archetypes (which he called "modes") in literature, and theorized that we respond to and recognize these modes when we participate in the literary tradition.

     Resources for further study of Frye's ideas:

Sociological or Cultural Theory

Analysis based on the idea that art is a way of making a political statement, and that examination of a text will reveal some of the social, economic and political structures of a particular culture. 
Feminist theory - concerns itself with the representation in literature of "masculine" and "feminine", and with the social and cultural implications of these representations. A feminist critic examines a text for themes about gender and sex, including gender and sex roles, ideals of masculinity and femininity,  and rebellion against or acceptance of these ideals and roles.
Marxist theory - argues that language can be a tool by which members of one class can hold power over others.  A Marxist critic e xamines texts forl themes of social justice, class structure, and the unequal distribution of resources and social status, among others.
Race Theory -
examines representations of race and/or ethnicity in a text, and with the social and cultural implications of these representations.  A race theorist will examine texts for racial stereotypes, themes of ineqalities based on race or ethnicity, and racial identity and affiliation.
Queer Theory - examines the representation of sexual orientation in a text, and with the social and cultural implications of these representations.  A queer theorist will examine a text for themes of heterosexual privelege, sexual identity and affiliation, homoerotic imagery (either latent or articulated) and power imbalances based on sexual orientation.

Colonial Theory - concerns itself with power imbalances caused by one culture subverting or dominating another.  Examines a text to reveal themes of culture clash, political power and cultural stereotypes, among others.

Reader Response Theory

Analysis based on the idea that reading is a creative act, just as much as writing is.  In this theory, a reader's response is just as important, if not more important, than the text itself.  A reader response theorist will examine not just how readers (or a particular reader, either hypothetical or actual) react to texts, but also how they intrepet or assign meaning to certain elements of a text.  The process of making meaning from a text is the central concern of this kind of theorist.


Analysis based on the idea that there is no such thing as an intrinsic meaning in a text.  Deconstruction theorists recognize the inherent instability of language, and its inablity to represent "truth" or "reality". Deconstructing a text consists of identifying the multiple and often contradictory meanings that can be extracted from a text, with the goal of demonstrating the impossibility of finding a single obejctive meaning in a text.