The Major Schools of Literary Theory

The analysis of a literary work, unlike that of a chemical compound or mathematical equation, often engages the subjective interpretation of the reader. For centuries, scholars, academics and critics have fought over the terms and methods of literary analysis. These divergent views have resulted in the founding of several famous schools of thought, fifteen of which are summarized here.

American Pragmatism:

Responding to the European model of Scientific Empiricism and Rationalism championed by Kant, Descartes and Locke, the Pragmatic school was the first American contribution to philosophy. Led by the philosopher / psychologist William James and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American pragmatics valued the importance of gaining knowledge through experience rather than intuition.

Russian Formalism:

One of the first schools of literary theory to attempt to systematize literary analysis, specifically by drawing a line between “art” and “not art” and coming up with a precise definition of literature, Russian formalism paved the way for the American New Criticism and Structuralist movements with its scientific, detached approach to literary analysis. Boris Eichenbaum was one of its most outspoken advocates and prominent theorists.


Besides founding a political party and societal philosophy, Marx’s groundbreaking criticism of social institutions led to the Marxist school of literary analysis, which interpreted works of literature based on class relations, social conflict, and other ideological issues.  French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser is perhaps the most well known proponent of the Marxist school. One of his most important contributions was the concept of “interpellation” as the means by which individuals are turned into capitalist subjects.


Whereas the Marxists borrowed theories and terms from political philosophy, the school of psychoanalytic literary theory turned instead to psychologist Sigmund Freud and his method of treating patients afflicted with neuroses. Taking cues from his seminal The Interpretation of Dreams, and writings on neuroses and the unconscious mind, psychoanalytic interpretations attempt to decode the psyche of the author by inferring the psychological states of the characters and symbolism in the text.

New Criticism:

Led by poet/author T.S. Eliot and critic Cleanth Brooks (whose book The Well Wrought Urn is said to have begun the movement), the New Critical school pioneered “ close reading,” or paying close attention to the formal aspects of the text rather than its emotional impact on the reader or the author’s own aims (termed the “pathetic fallacy” and “intentional fallacy,” respectively, and avoided like the plague). The focus on the objective structural relationships within the work influenced the later schools of structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction.


As the name implies, the core idea of structuralism is that that the underlying structural relationships of a text are deeply intertwined with the work’s deeper meaning. To understand a work, one must therefore take it apart piece by piece in order to see its underlying principles. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote specifically about how the signifier-signified relationship creates meaning in language. Post-structuralist and post-modernist critics however later rejected the idea that one can systematically study the structure of a literary work.


As described by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 essay “Of Grammatology,” deconstruction is the rigorous analysis of a work’s logical structures with the goal of uncovering key contradictions or oppositions which subvert the logical coherence of the entire work, therefore rendering a single interpretation of a work impossible. The complex nature of deconstruction often fails to translate well into non-academic circles; the term “deconstruction” is often used as a catch-all term basically equivalent to “analysis” despite having a much more specific meaning.


Although you’ll often hear that the only constant in post-modernist theory is that no one can agree on its definition, most agree that it came into existence mid-way through the 20th century as a reaction to the “post-modern condition.” Post-modernity is defined by the lack of a unifying “master narrative,” which leads to works with multiple disagreeing narrators, or “meta-narratives“–stories about the telling of a story.


With post-modernist works and critics questioning the assumption that structural relationships can be fruitfully studied, it was inevitable that the deathblow to structuralism was on the way. Derrida’s paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” undermined the idea of a stable signifier-signified relationship in a post-modern world, where God no longer exists as a Transcendental Signified. Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” similarly demolished the once-stable relationship between author, narrator and character.


Shortly after the upheaval caused by post-modernism to traditional methods of literary interpretation, Edward Said’s critique of Western Imperialism and its cultural ramifications in his book “Orientalism” gave birth to post-colonial criticism. The principal aim of post-colonial literary studies is to examine how the exploitation of indigenous civilizations by the Western imperial powers (mainly the US and UK) affected the literature from both the colonizing and the colonized nations.

Feminist Theory:

Taking a cue from post-colonial studies about the effects of inequality and second-citizen status on artistic output, the feminist school of literary theory examines the consequences of the social construction of gender in literary works, and the role gender plays in the writing, reading and interpreting of literature. Virginia Woolf’s ” A Room of One’s Own,” which explains the necessary prerequisites for an independent woman to produce good writing, is one of the earliest examples of feminist criticism.

Queer Theory:

One of the newest schools of literary theory, queer theory branched off of feminist theory in its examination of gender roles, replacing the masculine/feminine dichotomy with a continuum featuring 100% masculine at one extreme and 100% feminine at the other, and including every value in between. Michel Foucault was one of the first authors to explore the many faces of sexuality in his four-part work “The History of Sexuality.”

New Historicism:

Founded by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicist critics attempted to bring back historical and anthopological approaches that had been discarded by Russian Formalist and American New Critics nearly a century earlier. New Historicist critics examine primary source materials (such as political treatises and newspaper articles written at the time of the work’s publication) and prevailing social mores and political ideologies to infer the societal elements that may have influenced the author in the creation of the work.

Cultural Studies:

Like New Historicist critics, Cultural critics examine the sociocultural context in which a work was written in order to understand influences and meanings invisible from a non-contextualized reading. Cultural critics separate themselves from New Historicists by going to the opposite extreme of the New Criticists: rather than finding a middle ground, they argue that a work must be interpreted entirely as a function of the culture that produced it. This leads to critical readings of Star Trek alongside reiews of Ulysses and other interesting juxtapositions–the distinction between high art and low art no longer applies.

Reader Response:

Reader Response critics reject one of the central tenets of the New Critical school that dominated American literary theory for decades. They claim that the reader’s intellectual and emotional reaction to the work is as ripe for anaylsis as the text itself. The reader’s interpretation of the text is influenced by his or her personal background, and thus reading is not a passive experience of objective reality but an active interaction between reader and author through the medium of the written word. Reader response critics such as Louise Rosenblatt investigate the elements that are involved in this crucial interaction.

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