A Short Beginner’s Introduction to Literary Theory (It’s Not That Scary)

I believe that reading more, and reading better, more importantly, helps us live bigger. It grows our minds, challenges our perspectives and therefore enhances our lives. And one of the ways to read better is by using literary theory.

“Literary” and “theory” are two daunting words. Put them together, and the combination seems designed to scare any “casual reader” away. But honestly, it’s really not that scary. In fact, an understanding of literary theory is actually meant to enhance your reading experience. Literary theory helps you get the most out of any book.

So what is literary theory?

A theory is a suggested idea or framework with which we try to explain or approach something.

Literary theory, therefore, is the set of ideas or the framework you have with you as you approach a text. It is the lens through which you view the text.

There are several types of literary theories. I’ll just list a few here: postcolonial criticism, reader response theory, poststructuralism and deconstruction (my personal favourite), feminism and new historicism. Some of these deal with specific themes (eg. postcolonialism and feminism), while others are just a certain method with which you are going to analyse the text.

So let’s take postcolonialism, for example.

First, we need to understand what postcolonialism is all about. “Post” means “after” and “colonialism” refers to the 500 or so years in which European countries colonised several other nation states or territories. Postcolonialism is therefore the study of the impact that the colonial period had that still lasts even after the end of the colonial rule. This includes everyday issues like white supremacy and xenophobia, or the split identity of the post-colonial subject. But it also includes larger things, like state-endorsed racism or policies.

So to take this literary theory, or approach, to a text, the postcolonial critic would be looking out for postcolonial tenets in the story, such as those mentioned above. For example, he or she would notice how a person of colour in a Western country struggles with his identity and split loyalties. Or the critic could also pick up the writer’s anger at white supremacy, for example.

Other kinds of literary theories are more like methods of textual analysis.

For example, new historicism, another literary theory, is a method in which you analyse a text alongside historical texts from the same era, cross referencing the both of them, not prioritising either one. One of the purposes of this is to glean a deeper understanding of certain characters or places in the literary text that can only surface when you understand them in their historical context.

There is no fixed rule or theory for each text (unless, of course, you are an English major and the question demands a certain approach). A single text can be applied with multiple of these theories, sometimes simultaneously–deconstructing it in a postcolonial framework, for example– or one at a time.

Literary theory is admittedly, quite difficult to grasp at first. But keep at it, and watch how it opens both the text and your mind. And no matter which literary theory you choose to approach any given text with, it will help you gain more in your reading, and become a more critical, aware reader over time.

Happy reading!


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