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This handout provides examples and description about writing papers in literature. It discusses research topics, how to begin to research, how to use information, and formatting.
What kinds of topics are good ones?
The best topics are ones that originate out of your own reading of a work of literature, but here are some common approaches to consider:
- A discussion of a work's characters: are they realistic, symbolic, historically-based?
- A comparison/contrast of the choices different authors or characters make in a work
- A reading of a work based on an outside philosophical perspective (Ex. how would a Freudian read Hamlet ?)
- A study of the sources or historical events that occasioned a particular work (Ex. comparing G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion with the original Greek myth of Pygmalion)
- An analysis of a specific image occurring in several works (Ex. the use of moon imagery in certain plays, poems, novels)
- A "deconstruction" of a particular work (Ex. unfolding an underlying racist worldview in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness )
- A reading from a political perspective (Ex. how would a Marxist read William Blake's "London"?)
- A study of the social, political, or economic context in which a work was written — how does the context influence the work?
How do I start research?
Once you have decided on an interesting topic and work (or works), the best place to start is probably the Internet. Here you can usually find basic biographical data on authors, brief summaries of works, possibly some rudimentary analyses, and even bibliographies of sources related to your topic.
The Internet, however, rarely offers serious direct scholarship; you will have to use sources found in the library, sources like journal articles and scholarly books, to get information that you can use to build your own scholarship-your literary paper. Consult the library's on-line catalog and the MLA Periodical Index. Avoid citing dictionary or encyclopedic sources in your final paper.
How do I use the information I find?
The secondary sources you find are only to be used as an aid. Your thoughts should make up most of the essay. As you develop your thesis, you will bring in the ideas of the scholars to back up what you have already said.
For example, say you are arguing that Huck Finn is a Christ figure ; that's your basic thesis. You give evidence from the novel that allows this reading, and then, at the right place, you might say the following, a paraphrase:
According to Susan Thomas, Huck sacrifices himself because he wants to set Jim free (129).
If the scholar states an important idea in a memorable way, use a direct quote.
"Huck's altruism and feelings of compassion for Jim force him to surrender to the danger" (Thomas 129).
Either way, you will then link that idea to your thesis.
ENGL 49500: Capstone Seminar
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Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism
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Looking through different lenses
Many times literary critics analyze works of literature from a particular philosophical or literary perspective. This perspective often evolves as a reaction to the political, economic, cultural, educational and artistic climate of a historical period
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Note :This is not necessarily an exhaustive list. There is ongoing debate as to naming conventions and overlap between the literary schools
“Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.” Purdue Owl, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/index.html 4/17/17
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- Library of Congress List of Websites for Literary Criticism Provides a list of links to brief biographical information, bibliographies, chronologies, and some essays or articles of literary criticism.
- Luminarium Medieval, Renaissance, 17th Century and Restoration and 18th Century literary texts. Entries for each author include: works, biography, criticism, quotations and links.
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English: critical theory.
- Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
- Critical Theory
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Critical Theory Online
Starting points, eco-criticism.
- Feminist Critique
Marxist critique, postcolonialism, postmodernism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, psychoanalytic theory, queer theory, structuralism and linguistics.
- Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism This website hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) has a succinct definition of several schools of critical theory. On the left hand bar is a list of links to these differing theories, all of which include selected bibliographies.
- Introduction to Modern Literary Theory This website provide a definition of each of the different schools of literary critique, key terms, suggested readings, and additional web links.
- Contemporary Literary Theory Essays on General theory, Structuralism, Reader-response, Post-structuralism, Critical Theory, and Psychoanalytic Theory. Links to other theory pages as well. Developed by John Lye, Brock University.
- Voice of the Shuttle This website is dedicated to research in the humanities and provides an exhaustive list of links for the different schools of criticism and other important issues in the study of humanities.
- Definition of Ecocriticism From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "The first person to use the term appears to have been William Rueckert in 1978, whose purpose in doing so was to suggest that ecological terms and concepts can usefully be applied to the study of literature. This, however, is not the dominant meaning of the term. It tends to be interpreted more loosely as a general term for the study of the relationship between literature and the natural environment."
- The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE, pronounced "AZ-lee") is a dynamic community of teachers, writers, students, artists and environmentalists interested in the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture.
Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: "Perhaps the most chilling example...is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).
Key Players: Camille Paglia, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler
- Definition of Feminism From Oxford Companion to Philosophy: "This is a term with many nuances of meaning. In a narrow sense it refers to attempts to attain equal legal and political rights for women, while in its broadest sense it refers to any theory which sees the relationship between the sexes as one of inequality, subordination, or oppression, and which aims to identify and remedy the sources of that oppression."
- Feminist Breakdown This page is hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a brief definition of feminist critique as applicable to literature, key concepts, and a short list of influencial authors or theorists.
- Feminist Literary Criticism The page includes information on different literary genres, specific historical periods, pedagogical issues, politics and literature, and literary theory. The section on literary theory contains a bibliography on feminist literary theory. The page also contains information on selective individual feminists and highlights biographical information, major themes, their specific contribution to feminist theory, and a bibliography of books, articles secondary sources and internet sites.
- Introduction to Theories of Gender and Sex This website is hosted by Purdue University College of Liberal Arts and gives an overview of feminist and gender theory, a list of key terms and concepts, and sample applications of theory to literary texts. The links from the website can be somewhat hit or miss.
Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself," (..."the battle cry of the New Critical effort..." and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).
Key Players: Victor Shklovsky, John Crowe Ransom, R.S. Crane, Wayne C. Booth
- Definition of Formalism From Oxford Companion to English Literature: "A term applied, usually pejoratively, to any creative performance in which technique or manner seems to have been cultivated at the expense of substance; or to critical approaches that disregard the subject matter of a work in favour of discussing its formal or stylistic features. More positively, formalism as a critical principle may be defended as a way of understanding art or literature primarily through its techniques rather than as a mere vehicle for personal expression or for moral and political doctrines."
- Formalism Breakdown This website hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a succinct definition of the Formalism, key concepts, and a short list of influential authors or theorists.
This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault's concept of épistème). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Criticism is "...a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality" (Richter 1205).
Key Players: Stephen Greenblatt, Pierre Bourdieu
Based on the theories of Karl Marx, this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system: "Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience" (Tyson 277). Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? And Marxists critics are also interested in how the lower or working classes are oppressed - in everyday life and in literature.
Key Players: Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- Defintion of Marxist Criticism From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "A form of cultural criticism that applies Marxist theory to the interpretation of cultural texts. Since neither Karl Marx nor his collaborator Friedrich Engels ever developed a specific form of cultural criticism themselves, Marxist Criticism has been extrapolated from their writings. As there is no one form of Marxism, so there is no one form of Marxist Criticism."
- Marxist Criticism This page is hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a brief definition of Marxist theory as applicable to literature, key concepts, and a short list of influential authors or theorists.
Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized).
Key Players: Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Chinua Achebe, Bill Ashcroft
- Definition of Postcolonial Studies From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "A loosely-applied rubric for a large variety of work (creative and critical) across a range of disciplines—particularly anthropology, history, and literary studies—with a shared interest in the effects of colonization on the cultures of both the colonizers and the colonized. The leading theorists in the field are Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said."
- Post-Colonial Criticism This website hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a succinct definition of the Postcolonialism, key concepts, and a short list of influencial authors or theorists.
Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered. Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy. Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.
Key Players: Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant
- Definition of Deconstruction From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "A reading strategy developed by French philosopher Jacques Derrida whose essential gesture is to demonstrate that every philosophical position, irrespective of how coherent it seems on the surface, contains within it the means of its own self-undermining. Adapting the word from Martin Heidegger's terms ‘Destruktion’ (destruction) and ‘Abbau’ (unbuilding), Derrida himself describes it as a double gesture—the first move consists in reversing the hierarchy of a particular philosophical opposition, while the second move amounts to a displacement of the very system in which the hierarchy operates."
- Definition of Poststructuralism From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "An influential movement (albeit one whose membership is ambiguous) in critical theory that came into being as the result of an internal critique of the movement that preceded it, namely structuralism, with which it shares a number of crucial characteristics, particularly the latter's anti-humanist de-privileging of the individual conscious and the subject. Its principal characteristic is skepticism (to the point of irrationality according to its critics) towards any form of completeness of either knowledge or understanding."
- Definition of Postmodernism From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "A highly contested term used to signify a critical distance from modernism. Since it first came to prominence in the mid 1970s, it has given rise to a vast body of literature in virtually every discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Broadly speaking, though, it has been used in three main ways: (i) to name the present historical period; (ii) to name a specific style in art and architecture; (iii) to name a point of rupture or disjuncture in epistemology (for this reason it is often, mistakenly, equated with poststructuralism and deconstruction)."
- Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism This website hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a succinct definition of the Postmodern school of critical theory, key concepts, and a short list of influential authors or theorists.
So what does all of this psychological business have to do with literature and the study of literature? Put simply, some critics believe that we can "...read psychoanalytically...to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation" (Tyson 29).
Key Players: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan
- Definition of Psychoanalytic Criticism From Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms: "A tradition of modern literary interpretation employing methods derived from psychoanalysis, whether in its orthodox forms based on the works of Sigmund Freud or in various heretical versions. This tradition is almost exclusively interpretative, showing little interest or competence in evaluation. It originates in the method of dream-analysis exhibited in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and in similar analyses of jokes, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms in his later writings."
- Psychoanalytic Criticism Comprises a general introduction, terms & concepts, sample applications, lesson plans for instructors, and modules about representative theorists. Unfortunately, the external links on the site are hit and miss.
Queer theory is a term that emerged in the late 1980s for a body of criticism on issues of gender, sex uality, and subjectivity that came out of gay and lesbian scholarship in such fields as literary criticism, politics, sociology, and history. Queer theory rejects essentialism in favor of social construction; it breaks down binary oppositions such as “gay” or “straight”; while it follows those postmodernists who declared the death of the self, it simultaneously attempts to rehabilitate a subjectivity that allows for sexual and political agency. Some of the most significant authors associated with queer theory include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michael Warner, and Wayne Koestenbaum
Key Players: Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Kenneth Dover
- Definition of Queer Theory From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "A post-structuralist approach to the analysis, documenting, history, and understanding of human sexuality. It is particularly (but not exclusively) interested in forms of sexuality that fall outside of (or are defined in opposition to) the so-called heterosexual norm. It grew out of and exists alongside Queer Studies, effectively functioning as the latter's forum for raising definitional and ontological questions concerning what it means to be bisexual, gay, lesbian, or straight."
- Gender Studies and Queer Theory This website is hosted by Purdue University College of Liberal Arts and gives an overview of queer and gender theory, a list of key terms and concepts, and sample applications of theory to literary texts. The links from the website can be somewhat hit or miss.
Structuralists assert that, since language exists in patterns, certain underlying elements are common to all human experiences. Structuralists believe we can observe these experiences through patterns: "...if you examine the physical structures of all buildings built in urban America in 1850 to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition, for example, principles of mechanical construction or of artistic form..." you are using a structuralist lens (Tyson 197).
Key Players: Claude Levi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Noam Chomsky
- Definition of Structuralism From A Dictionary of Film Studies: "A system of thought, allied with semiotics and informed by Russian Formalism and structural anthropology, that maps systematic interrelationships within and between cultural texts and practices, and attends to the abstract structures and systems underlying their outward forms and meanings. Structuralism treats these systems as relational, in that they function through their differences from each other, differences which may sometimes constitute binary oppositions. "
- Defintion of Semiotics From A Dictionary of Critical Theory: "The science of signs, as one of the founders of the field Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure famously put it. There are two main schools of semiotics, Saussurean and Peircean, the latter referring to the work of American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. The two semiotic models, which were constructed independently of one another, differ in one important respect: whereas Saussure's model of the sign is binary, Peirce's is triple."
- Structuralism and Semiotics This website hosted by Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL) and contains a succinct definition of Structuralism, key concepts, and a short list of influential authors or theorists.
These links represent the extensive work of John Henry (Wabash Class of 2010).
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