Understanding Literary Theory: An Overview and Key Concepts
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 11 min read


  1. What is literary theory?
  2. Structuralism theory
  3. Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory
  4. Psychoanalytical theory
  5. Feminist theory
  6. Queer theory
  7. Marxist theory
  8. Postcolonial theory
  9. New Criticism theory
  10. Reader-Response theory

When you're diving into the thrilling world of literature, you might come across a term that sounds a bit scholarly—literary theory. It's a term that may seem daunting at first, but don't worry, it's not as scary as it sounds. In fact, it's a pretty cool concept that helps us dig deeper into our favorite books, poems, and plays. So, what exactly is it, you ask? Well, let's pull back the curtain and explore the definition of literary theory, shall we?

What is literary theory?

At its most basic, the definition of literary theory is a set of ideas and methods that scholars use to understand and analyze literature. It's like a toolbox full of different tools—each one helps you look at a text in a unique way. It might sound a bit complicated, but think of it this way: You know when you're reading a book and something just doesn't make sense, or you feel like there's more to the story than what's on the page? That's where literary theory comes in—it helps us dig deeper and uncover hidden meanings.

Now, there are quite a few different types of literary theories. Here are a few of the big ones:

  • Structuralism theory: This theory looks at literature as a structure—kind of like a building. It's all about how the different parts of a text work together to make a whole.
  • Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory: These theories challenge the idea that a text has one fixed meaning. Instead, they suggest that a text can have many different meanings, depending on who's reading it.
  • Psychoanalytical theory: This one's all about digging into a character's subconscious. It's like being a detective, but instead of solving a crime, you're trying to figure out what makes a character tick.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg—there are many more theories out there. But don't worry, we'll get to those in a bit. For now, just remember: literary theory is all about giving you the tools to explore and understand literature on a deeper level. So next time you pick up a book, why not give it a try? You might be surprised at what you discover.

Structuralism theory

It's time to dive into the world of Structuralism theory. This theory is pretty much the Sherlock Holmes of literary theories. It sees each piece of literature as a kind of puzzle, with every word, sentence, and paragraph being a clue that ties the whole story together. Exciting, right? Let's break it down a bit more.

The definition of Structuralism theory is all about understanding the deeper structure or framework that exists within a text. It's like looking at a building and noticing how all the parts — the foundation, the walls, the roof — all work together to create the whole structure. In the same way, Structuralism theory sees a text as a structure where every element is interconnected.

So, how does it work in practice? Well, when you're reading a book or a poem through the lens of Structuralism, you begin to see patterns. You might notice how certain themes, symbols, or character traits keep popping up. These patterns aren't just coincidences — they're clues that lead you to a deeper understanding of the text. For instance, if a color like red keeps appearing in a story, it might symbolize danger or passion.

But here's the interesting part: Structuralism theory doesn't just apply to individual texts. It also looks at how different works of literature relate to each other. That's right — it's not just about understanding one book; it's about understanding the bigger picture of literature itself.

So next time you're reading a novel or a poem, why not put on your detective hat and give Structuralism theory a go? You might find that it brings a whole new depth to your reading. Happy sleuthing!

Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory

Brace yourself, because now we're going to explore a theory that's like the rebel of the literary theory world. Say hello to Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory. This theory takes everything we thought we knew about texts and flips it on its head. Sounds intriguing? Let's unpack this.

First off, let's get to the definition of Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory. Where Structuralism sees a text as a well-defined, orderly structure, Post-Structuralism says, "Not so fast!" This theory suggests that a text isn't a fixed, stable entity — instead, it's something that can be deconstructed and interpreted in endless ways.

Remember how Structuralism looks for patterns and structures in a text? Well, Post-Structuralism does the opposite. It focuses on the gaps, the inconsistencies, the parts that don't fit. It's like taking a puzzle and scattering the pieces, then looking at each piece in isolation. You might ask yourself: What does this word really mean? Why is this character behaving this way? The answers aren't always clear, and that's the point. Post-Structuralism embraces the ambiguity and uncertainty that often exists in literature.

So, what's the takeaway here? Well, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction theory encourages us to question everything. It reminds us that every text is open to interpretation, and that's what makes reading so exciting and rewarding. So next time you pick up a book, don't be afraid to challenge the text and come up with your own unique interpretation. After all, isn't that what reading is all about?

Psychoanalytical theory

Now, let's take a turn down a different road: the winding, mysterious path of Psychoanalytical theory. If you're thinking this has something to do with psychology, you're on the right track! But don't worry, you don't need to be a psychologist to grasp the basics of this theory. Let's break it down.

Here's the definition of Psychoanalytical theory in the simplest terms: It's all about exploring the hidden corners of a character's mind. You know how sometimes, characters in books do things that seem strange or unexpected? Well, Psychoanalytical theory comes in and says, "Let's dig deeper."

Here's how it works. Imagine you're reading a mystery novel, and the detective suddenly acts in a way that doesn't make sense. Rather than just going with it, Psychoanalytical theory prompts you to ask, "What's really going on in the detective's mind? What hidden fears or desires might be driving his actions?"

But here's the twist: Psychoanalytical theory doesn't just apply to characters — it can also apply to authors and readers. Yes, that's right, you! This theory suggests that our own hidden thoughts and feelings can influence how we interpret a text. So next time you're reading a book, remember: It's not just about understanding the characters, it's also about understanding yourself.

So, Psychoanalytical theory gives us a new lens to view literature, a lens that brings the unconscious mind into focus. It's a bit like playing detective, except the mystery is not who did it, but why. Ready to put on your detective hat and start investigating?

Feminist theory

Let's move on to another powerful player in the literary theory game: Feminist theory. If you're thinking this is about women's rights, you're absolutely right. But don't worry, it's not just for women or about women. It's for everyone who likes to explore how gender roles shape our understanding of literature.

So, what's the definition of Feminist theory? Well, in the simplest terms, it's a way of looking at literature that focuses on how women are portrayed and how gender roles are depicted. But it's not just about female characters - it also looks at how male characters are portrayed, and how they relate to female characters.

For instance, let's say you're reading a classic novel where the hero is a brave, strong man, and the heroine is a delicate, beautiful woman who needs to be rescued. Feminist theory would ask you to question these stereotypes. It would encourage you to ask, "Why do the characters fall into these traditional roles? What does this tell us about the author's views on gender? How does it shape our understanding of the story?"

But here's the cool part: Feminist theory also encourages you to turn the lens on yourself. That's right, just like Psychoanalytical theory, it asks you to reflect on your own assumptions and biases. So next time you're reading a book, don't just accept the gender roles at face value. Dig deeper. Question them. And see what you discover about the text — and about yourself.

So, ready to start exploring literature through the lens of Feminist theory? Remember, it's not just about who wears the pants. It's about questioning, challenging, and understanding the complex interplay of gender roles in literature. So grab your favorite book and get ready to see it in a whole new light!

Queer theory

Now, let's roll up our sleeves and dive into Queer theory. If you're thinking that this theory is only about LGBTQ+ literature, you're not entirely off. However, Queer theory is a lot more encompassing and versatile than that. It's a tool that lets us question the norms and challenge the boundaries of identity and sexuality in literature.

So, what's the definition of Queer theory? Well, it's a lens used to explore how literature challenges traditional notions of gender, identity, and sexuality. It's all about questioning the 'norms', whichever they may be, and delving into the diversity of human experience.

Here's an example: Say you're reading a book where the main character is a heterosexual man. Queer theory would challenge you to not just accept this at face value. It would encourage you to ask, "Why is the character's sexuality important to the story? How does it shape his interactions with other characters? What does it tell us about the author's views on sexuality?"

Moreover, Queer theory invites us to look beyond the binary of heterosexual and homosexual, man and woman. It asks us to consider a spectrum of identities and experiences. So, the next time you read a book, why not try on the Queer theory lens? You might find that it opens up a whole new world of understanding.

Remember, Queer theory isn't just about LGBTQ+ literature. It's about questioning assumptions, challenging norms, and exploring the diversity of human experience. So, whether you're reading a classic novel or a contemporary short story, Queer theory can offer a fresh, insightful perspective.

Marxist theory

Next up on our theoretical journey is Marxist theory. If you've ever studied history or politics, you might associate Marxism with economics and social class. And you'd be right. But what does it have to do with literature? Quite a bit, actually.

The definition of Marxist theory in literature is the examination of how a society's economic and political systems influence its literature. It looks at how class, power, and wealth shape the characters, plot, and themes of a story. Ever read a book where the main character is a poor worker struggling against a rich and powerful boss? That's a prime candidate for a Marxist analysis.

Marxist theory allows us to see the power dynamics at play in a story. It helps us understand how characters' social and economic statuses affect their actions and attitudes. For instance, think about Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The story's focus on income inequality and the transformation of the miserly Scrooge can be examined through the lens of Marxist theory.

But Marxist theory isn't just about class struggle. It also addresses issues like consumerism, commodification, and alienation. So, next time you pick up a novel, try observing how economic and political systems are at work. You might be surprised at what you find.

So, there it is: Marxist theory, a powerful tool for understanding the intricate relationship between literature and society. It's not just about economics—it's about power, class, and the struggles that define our lives.

Postcolonial theory

Let's move on to another fascinating perspective: Postcolonial theory. Now, don't let the term scare you. It's not as complicated as it sounds. Simply put, postcolonial theory examines the impact of colonialism on literature. But what does that really mean?

Well, consider a book written by an author from a country that was once a colony. The definition of postcolonial theory in literature suggests that you can't fully understand that book without considering the effects of colonialism on that country and its people. This means looking at themes of identity, resistance, and cultural clash in the text.

For example, have you ever read "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe? This novel tells the story of an African village disrupted by the arrival of European colonizers. Using postcolonial theory, you can explore how Achebe portrays the struggle between traditional African values and the imposed European ones.

But remember, postcolonial theory isn't just about the past. It also helps us understand the ongoing impact of colonialism and the complex dynamics between cultures. So, when you're reading a book set in a postcolonial country, take a moment to think: How does the history of colonialism shape the characters, their actions, and the world they live in?

So, that's postcolonial theory for you. It's a way to delve into the power structures of the past and see how they continue to shape our present — in our books and in our world.

New Criticism theory

And now, let's shift our focus to a theory that might seem a bit more familiar to you: New Criticism. If you've ever been in a literature class where the teacher asked you to analyze a poem line by line, looking for symbols and metaphors, you've been practicing New Criticism theory without even knowing it!

What is the definition of New Criticism in literary theory, you ask? Well, it's quite straightforward. New Criticism tells us to focus on the text itself, without considering the author's intention or the reader's interpretation. The text, in essence, speaks for itself.

For instance, let's take Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken". When applying New Criticism, you're not thinking about Frost's life story or your personal feelings about choosing paths in life. Instead, you're examining the words, the images, the rhyme scheme - all the elements that make up the poem.

Sounds a bit strict, right? Perhaps. But New Criticism allows us to appreciate the artistry of the text. When you read a beautifully crafted sentence, or a line of poetry that just sounds right, that's the text doing its work. And New Criticism helps us see and appreciate that.

So next time you pick up a book or a poem, try to see it through the lens of New Criticism. You might be surprised at what you find in the text when you let it speak for itself!

Reader-Response theory

Now, let's flip the script and talk about Reader-Response theory. If New Criticism is all about the text, Reader-Response theory is all about, well, the reader's response! As you might guess, this theory is all about your interpretation as a reader.

So, what exactly is the definition of Reader-Response theory in literary study? Simply put, it suggests that the meaning of a text does not reside solely within the text itself, but is created in the interaction between the reader and the text. Fascinating, isn't it?

Let's go back to our Robert Frost example, "The Road Not Taken". In a Reader-Response approach, your personal experiences, thoughts, and emotions will guide your interpretation of the poem. Maybe you've faced a similar fork in the road in your life, and the poem resonates with you because of that. That's Reader-Response theory in action!

Now, some might argue that this theory can lead to as many interpretations as there are readers. And they're not wrong! But isn't that the beauty of literature? It touches us, moves us, and means something different to each of us. And Reader-Response theory gives us the freedom to explore that.

So, the next time you read a piece of literature, remember that your response matters. Your interpretation is just as valid and valuable as anyone else's. That's the power of Reader-Response theory.

If you enjoyed this blog post on understanding literary theory and are looking for more insights into the world of storytelling, consider checking out the workshop 'Documentary Treatment: The Last Act' by Reshelshah. While this workshop focuses on documentary storytelling, the concepts and techniques discussed can provide valuable insights and inspiration for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of how stories are crafted and told.