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Defining Literary Theory

Updated on August 28, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

To define literary theory one might think catching a greased pig is easier. It seems rather easy; but the more one gets into subject, the further the definition flees from them. Jonathan Culler narrows the definition down to the statement that theory cannot “be obvious; it should involve a certain complexity” (2). If the theory can be proved quickly and easily, then it is not much of a literary theory. It has to prompt discussions and challenge accepted principles.

In other words, literary theory is deep, involved, and sometimes way out there. At times, it makes you shake your head and question your sanity or that of the ones behind the theory.

What is Literary Theory?

So much attention has been given to literary theory that a new genre has developed called “literary theory”. These works focus on “challenging and reorienting thinking” of works that have long been accepted as literature (Culler 3). Literary theory becomes a genre of rebellion that is used against the generations that have analyzed literature over the years. It extends beyond literature in the sense of novels or poetry. It “includes works of anthropology, art history, film studies, gender studies, linguistics, philosophy, political theory, psychoanalysis, science studies, social and intellectual history, and sociology” (Culler 4). It covers all areas of academia and beyond. Literary theory pushes a reader to think beyond the obvious or what some would consider common sense. It pushes a reader into the act of “questioning … the most basic premises or assumptions of literary study” (Culler 4).

Literary theory is meant to look deeper into pieces and pull aside the layers in regard to character, plot, imagery, and ideology. It challenges the reader or the viewer to ask questions which in turn creates more questions.

Example in The Scarlet Letter

Roger Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter is the spurned husband seeking revenge. That is the common sense stance of looking at this ‘minor’ character. One reading, this becomes a fact for the reader. There is not much more, or is there?

Further analysis could challenge that viewpoint. Is he such a minor character? Could he be the largest character of all who does more to drive the story than any of the others? Is the passion in him more than fear? What if he is the devil in human form?

These questions become acts of creating literary theoretical topics that could change the view of how readers look at Chillingsworth in the future as well as how other characters are seen. There are limitless theories that can be expounded upon in literature. This is because the authors and poets wrote the pieces with a desire to communicate social concerns, fear, passion, love, sadness, or religious fervor. Guerin et al. stated, “we may be sure that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet so that scholarly critical approaches to it could be formulated” (4). The writers created a story for the readers to experience at many different levels.

Literary theory comes from the emotions of the reader. As the piece is read, emotions are stirred and drive the reader down various theoretical paths based on their own personalities, past, and experiences. Wilfred Guerin states that without this emotion the reader “might as well be merely proofreading for factual accuracy or correct mechanical form” (4). Literary theory involves the setting of the literary piece, the plot, the characters, the writing style, and the theme and atmosphere of the literature (Guerin et al. 6-13). It is 'what if' questions posed and explored.


Literary theory is boundless. As each person approaches it with their individual and unique personality and experiences, their theories add more paths any theorist may take and explore. It becomes “interdisciplinary…analytical and speculative…a critique of common sense… [and] reflexive” (Culler 14-15). Nothing can contain literary theory as it cannot be bound up in a nice little package and presented to the world. It cannot be mastered. It cannot be reined in. It is something that is a life of its own and challenges each generation which in terms keeps literature alive even thousands of years after the original work was penned.

Works Cited

Works Cited Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Short Introduction. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Guerin, Wilfred L., et. al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford, 2011. Print.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 15 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great primer for future hubs. Sharing everywhere.