Literary Lenses

Literary Theory - Approaches to Understanding Literature


1. Reader Response Theory

The reaction of the reader helps to determine the meaning of a book.

The reader’s ideas, thoughts, background, purpose for reading and the reader’s

knowledge of the world is important in making meaning.  The reader's interaction 

with the book is significant.  The reader is an active participant in making the meaning 

of a book. 

      a) Some think the book is more central to the real meaning of a story. 

      b) Others think the reader and the book are EQUAL in creating meaning.

      c) Still others believe that the reader is more important for creating meaning.

2. Feminist Approach

Men, consciously or unconsciously, have oppressed women, allowing them little or no 

voice in the political, social, or economic issues of their society.  By not giving voice 

and value to women’s opinions, responses, and writings, men have suppressed 

women, defined what it means to be feminine, and thereby de-voiced, devalued and 

trivialized what it means to be a woman.  Men, in effect, have made women a 

non-significant other.  This theoretical approach also addresses how women are 

portrayed in literature, and explores the attention on male dominated – patriarchal 


3. Psychoanalytic Approach 

1. Psychobiography – biographies, letters, lectures, added to a writer’s works should 

          give the reader the ability to understand the author.  Some of these theorists 

          believe that everything in a book represents the hidden wishes of the author.

2. Some psychoanalytic critics attempt to uncover how a book symbolically 

          represents the real world and the imaginary world.  Once the symbols are 

          identified, these people examine them to determine the nature of human beings 

          which is always fragmented.

3. Some of these critics believe they can understand a book’s meaning 

           through a study of archetypes.

4. Marxist Approach 

Books do not exist in isolation.  An understanding of the author’s social/historical 

context is necessary to understand the meaning of a book.  These critics are not 

concerned with theme, style and characterization. Rather, by understanding the book’s 

historical context and the writer’s world view, they examine how the reader’s views of 

life interact with the those of the writer.  This political examination usually uncovers a 

clash between the rich and the poor – a class conflict.

5. “New” Historical Approach

An important connection exists between the book and the historical, social times 

in which it was written.  A book cannot be interpreted separately from its historical, 

social context.  People must know the societal concerns of the author, and the 

historical context.  Therefore, these critics find meaning through understanding the 

concerns of the writer.  The time period of the story’s setting is important, but they 

also want to know what was happening at the time the story was written to discover 

what was on the author’s mind, and possible reasons behind the writing.

6. New Criticism

This theory is NOT concerned with background information of the author 

or any details about his/her current cultural/economic situation.  These critics 

believe that a book - in and of itself - must be examined and understood.  They 

emphasize that no outside information is necessary.  Therefore, these critics are 

interested in how the structure of the book, and the language itself adds to the 

meaning.  These people are also interested in irony to a very large extent. They 

believe that a reader can comprehend the deep meaning of a book through a good 

understanding of the irony in the story.