Literary Theory

Key Terms

Structuralism- a method of interpretation and analysis of aspects of human cognition, behavior, culture, and experience that focuses on relationships of contrast between elements in a conceptual system that reflect patterns underlying a superficial diversity.

Poststructuralism a term for philosophical, theoretical and literary forms of theory that both build upon and reject ideas established by structuralism, the intellectual project that preceded it.

Key People

Walter Benn Michaels

Pierre Bourdieu

Jacques Derrida

Michel Foucault

Clifford Geertz

Stephen Greenblatt

Hayden White

Key Works

New Historicist



New Historicism, emerging from structuralist and poststructuralist theory, privileges the importance of history in understanding a text. New Historicism seeks to examine texts with an emphasis on the social-cultural, political, or cultural context within which they have been constructed, with an underlying assumption that a text is the product of its time. Moreover, it may include an analysis of how a text has been interpreted through history, again recognising that historical context is an important element to consider in understanding how and why these interpretations have been developed. Furthermore, New Historicism seeks to relate the text to its past but resists the notion that the past can be seen as a series of causes and effects. Rather, New Historicism recognises the past as something that must be interpreted, and these interpretations are again a product of context. Finally, New Historicism may take an interest in representations of marginal/marginalised groups and non-normative behaviours, such as witchcraft or peasant revolts.

What New Historicist Critiques do

Cultural Studies explores the process by which power relations organise cultural artefacts and how these artifacts reinforce these power relations.

Cultural critics critique the traditional canon.

Cultural critics avoid privileging one cultural product over another and often examine texts that are largely seen as marginal and unimportant in traditional criticism, such as those connected to various forms of pop culture.

Cultural Studies’ approaches:

1) transcend the confines of a particular discipline such as literary criticism or history

2) are politically engaged

3) reject the distinction between “high” and “low” art or “elite” and “popular” culture

4) analyse not only the cultural works but also the means of production.

What Questions to New Historicist Critiques ask

What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the current events of the author’s day?

Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing?

How are events interpreted and presented?

How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author?

Does the work's presentation support or condemn certain event?

How does this portrayal criticise the leading political figures or movements of the day?

What kinds of behaviour, what models of practice, does this work seem to reinforce?

How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period?

Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?

How does the work consider traditionally marginalised populations?

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