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English: Critical Theory

Critical Theory Online

Starting Points


 Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: "Perhaps the most chilling found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).

Key Players: Camille Paglia, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler


Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself," (..."the battle cry of the New Critical effort..." and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).

Key Players: Victor Shklovsky, John Crowe Ransom, R.S. Crane, Wayne C. Booth

New Historicism


This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault's concept of épistème). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Criticism is "...a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality" (Richter 1205).

Key Players: Stephen Greenblatt, Pierre Bourdieu

Marxist Critique

Based on the theories of Karl Marx, this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system: "Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience" (Tyson 277).

Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? And Marxists critics are also interested in how the lower or working classes are oppressed - in everyday life and in literature.

Key Players: Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized).

Key Players: Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Chinua Achebe, Bill Ashcroft

Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Poststructuralism

Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered. Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy. Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.

Key Players: Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant

Psychoanalytic Theory

So what does all of this psychological business have to do with literature and the study of literature? Put simply, some critics believe that we can " see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation" (Tyson 29).

Key Players: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan

Queer Theory

Queer theory is a term that emerged in the late 1980s for a body of criticism on issues of gender, sexuality, and subjectivity that came out of gay and lesbian scholarship in such fields as literary criticism, politics, sociology, and history. Queer theory rejects essentialism in favor of social construction; it breaks down binary oppositions such as “gay” or “straight”; while it follows those postmodernists who declared the death of the self, it simultaneously attempts to rehabilitate a subjectivity that allows for sexual and political agency. Some of the most significant authors associated with queer theory include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michael Warner, and Wayne Koestenbaum

Key Players: Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Kenneth Dover

Structuralism and Linguistics

Structuralists assert that, since language exists in patterns, certain underlying elements are common to all human experiences. Structuralists believe we can observe these experiences through patterns: "...if you examine the physical structures of all buildings built in urban America in 1850 to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition, for example, principles of mechanical construction or of artistic form..." you are using a structuralist lens (Tyson 197).

Key Players: Claude Levi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Noam Chomsky


These links represent the extensive work of John Henry (Wabash Class of 2010).

Reference Works

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