Before we explain any literary text, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on the act of interpretation itself. What is the best way to approach a poem, play, or novel? What should you focus on? These questions are answered by what’s called literary theory.
Literary theory is the study of how we read, where we should look for answers and explanations, and whether we can truly discover the meaning of any text.
On this page we introduce a few basic concepts from the world of literary theory.
A text is a form of communication between an author and an audience. Most authors would like their text to reach a broad audience. After all, texts are generally meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, and understood:
At the same time, any act of communication raises some fundamental questions. Who determines the meaning of the text? The audience? The author? And if the author, how is the audience supposed to know what the author meant to say?
This problem is especially pronounced if the author is dead. For example, you can’t very well write an email to Shakespeare to ask if he meant to insult his mistress in Sonnet 130. Worse, you might not even be totally sure he even wrote the sonnet.
We recognize, then, that over time interpretation becomes more difficult. History brings change, and change brings different viewpoints and values. Our worldview may be quite different from the author’s.
The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer calls this limited perspective a “horizon of understanding.” We all live with opinions and beliefs that influence how we see the world. To to be more objective, to see beyond the horizon, we have to move beyond our preconceptions, beyond our prejudice (pre-judgment).
To understand the text properly, then, we have to keep in mind that the meaning of the text is linked somehow to the passage of time. In addition, we have to decide what we want to focus on most: the author’s life and historical background, the features of the text (its content and form), or our personal responses and interests. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.
Does the author’s life matter? Literary critics often warn against the intentional fallacy, the mistake of thinking that we can reconstruct the intentions of the author. We cannot know exactly what was going through the author’s mind, and speculating can be a dangerous game.
The psychologist Sigmund Freud was particularly notorious for psycho-analyzing various authors and their works. Freud believed, for instance, that Dostoevsky’s novels should be related to his strong bisexual tendencies. Such an approach can easily lead to meaningless conjecture.
Because of this, certain postmodern critics claimed that “the author is dead,” by which they meant that we should stop pretending that our reading of the text corresponds to the author’s original intentions. Instead, texts should be read in relation to language, culture, and history. Above all, texts should be seen as polysemous, i.e., having multiple meanings, some of them even contradictory ones.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. We do interpret texts to understand what the author meant to say, but it is also good to remember that the search for truth is difficult. To quote from 1 Cor. 13: 12, “now we see in a glass, darkly” (KJV). In the same way, a text is a clouded mirror of the past, and our best interpretations are always open to revision.
A biographical reading can of course simply relate the text to significant events in the author’s life. Sometimes such an approach is inevitable. For instance, John Milton’s poem “Lycidas” (1638) is dedicated to the memory of Edward King, a friend who died by drowning in 1637. While the poem is about much more than friendship, it would be nonsensical to ignore the biographical connection.
However, we can do more than relate the text to the author’s life. We can also examine the author’s time period:
As you can see, this opens up a wealth of topics–even more than this graphic shows, and certainly more than you could cover in a single essay. The key is to figure out what subjects are most appropriate to the text. For example, if you’re trying to understand Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might start by having a look at contemporary understandings of science. If you’re reading the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, a knowledge of Catholic theology is essential.
As you explore the author’s background, there is another theoretical question to consider. Did the author present a unique perspective, or is his or her writing indicative of broader currents of thought? This is a question that particularly preoccupies Marxist critics, but it should really concern anyone interested in questions of determinism and free will.
If we take a fairly simplistic Marxist perspective, we might argue that a literary text is merely a form of propaganda for the ruling classes. The opposite viewpoint–an equally naive one–would suggest that art is always revolutionary, and that the author stands at a remove from society, providing a thorough critique of social customs and beliefs.
Many literary critics tend to one of these extremes. Either they read the text as a mirror of the larger historical period, or they see the author as some kind of genius immune to the prejudices of the age. Try to resist either urge, and let the text speak for itself.
In addition to focusing on the author, we can also do a close reading of the text. This is what high-school students spend most of their time on. The expectation is that you can identify significant themes and pick out literary devices. By itself, such an approach can be rather boring. Who cares if a poem contains a simile, or that a novel is about the theme of “man vs. nature”? The challenge is to see how the form and content of the poem adds up to something greater, something beautiful or thought provoking. Here we’ll briefly review three strategies literary critics commonly use to make us appreciate the text as a unified work of art.
Something that makes a literary critic’s heart beat just a little bit faster is when the form of a text mirrors the message. Consider how John Donne starts his Holy Sonnet 14, a sonnet in which he begs God to save him:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for youAs yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. (1-2)
Reading a text is a bit like searching for constellations in the night sky. We’re always looking for patterns and systems that provide a sense of order and meaning.
Consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, which describes the life of Mr. Stevens, an English butler who has spent his life serving others. To demonstrate Stevens’ inability to forge his own identity, Ishiguro keeps returning to metaphors of clothing and light. The fact that Stevens wears his employers’ old suits demonstrates that he is not his own man. Stevens even talks of “inhabiting” the role of the butler. Stevens also prefers to remain in the shadows, and at one point, as he is trudging through a field, he avoids shining his flashlight on his feet, for fear of seeing the muck on his trousers. Readers can find satisfaction in spotting such recurring metaphors, especially if they can spot a connection to the message of the text.
Pattern recognition can lead to a more extensive structural analysis. Instead of analyzing a single text, you can compare the structure of multiple texts. You might discuss the genre(s) the text belongs to, or you might look at shared language and plot motifs. There are a number of theoretical approaches you can use, ranging from formalism to narratology.
There are two key questions to consider with any structural analysis. The first is whether the structural pattern you’re studying is timeless or changes over time. Is the Gothic novel an unchanging paradigm or do the parameters of the form vary from one historical period to the next? Is the fairy tale a universal construct?
The second question is one you should always keep at the back of your mind when you do comparative work: do the similarities outweigh the differences? Too often literary critics look only for similarities. Yet your analysis will be much more interesting if you are willing to acknowledge some degree of difference.
Sometimes students wonder if all literary interpretation is not completely subjective. What makes one explanation better than another? Aren’t there as many meanings as there are readers?
To some extent it’s true that we will all have a unique, personal reaction to a text. However, we are all part of society, and so we share a common field of reference. We have probably had some similar educational experiences, we share the same language, and we have access to the same interpretive tools.
In other words, if you want to find consensus for your personal interpretation, you will have to make use of common concepts and theories. You might use ideas from fields like philosophy or psychology, you might reference popular culture, or you could quote popular critics.
Always remember, though, that any theory or idea you reference is itself open to criticism, and may be disputed by others.
There are many approaches we have not mentioned. These include Gender Studies, Ecocriticism, Post-colonial Studies, and so on. Our advice is to let the text speak for itself. Try to find the right theoretical approach for the text. Whatever you do, don’t adopt a single pet theory and apply it to every text you read. Be eclectic. Read widely. Be open to new ideas.