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Literary Criticism and Theory

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English Literature

Have you ever suspected that Iago had a thing for Othello? Have you ever wondered whether Hamlet’s issues with his uncle are related to his attachment to his mother? Congratulations! Whilst you may not have been aware of doing so, you’ve been doing what literary critics have been doing for years: you have thought about theory.

In this article, we're going to take a closer look at the definitions of literary criticism and theory and four of the key lenses through which literature can be discussed and analysed.

Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory

You may have heard the popular phrase ‘art imitates life’, a shorter version of the idea featured in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle argued that the purpose of poetry, as an art form, is to imitate the world around us through language. This is an early example of a literary theory and has been used as a way to interpret works of literature.

So, literary criticism can be defined as the practice of analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature, and literary theory consists of the many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics use to study literature.

Literary Criticism and Theory, Aristotle Statue, StudySmarterA statue of Aristotle at the University of Freiburg, pixabay.

Literary Criticism: Approaches

As you may have gathered by now, there are quite a few schools of literary theory! Even better, new theories and new branches of existing theories are being developed all the time. However, as an introduction to literary theory, let's start with the following four approaches: feminism, marxism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonialism.

Feminism

Feminist literary readings involve interpreting literature and literary texts through the lens of feminist ideology. Feminist ideology seeks to explore patriarchy and female oppression throughout history and has a long legacy of political controversy. There are (arguably) four waves of feminism, which we will briefly summarise here:

First wave

Whilst this is not the first instance of feminist thought or ideas, the first politically impactful wave of feminism arose around the mid 19th century. Its birth is credited to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which was published in 1792. This wave of feminism focused on attaining legal rights, most notably the right for women to vote. In the UK, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 which allowed property-owning women over the age of 30 to vote, and the USA followed suit in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. However, it was mostly middle-class white women who benefitted from these new pieces of legislation, and the movement was heavily criticised for its lack of focus on the rights of women who faced additional oppression across the lines of class, race, sexuality, and disability.

Did you know: Mary Wollstonecraft was also the mother of Mary Shelley, the famous author of Frankenstein (1818).

Second wave

The second wave of feminism developed around the 1960s and 1970s and focused more on patriarchal institutions that enabled female oppression. Emphasis was placed on how women were treated in the home and the workplace, which also meant questioning traditional family and gender roles along with the institution of marriage. Queer theory, which is also a form of literary criticism, also developed around this time and overlaps in ways with second-wave feminism.

Third Wave

The third wave of feminism started in the 1990s. As pointed out by Elizabeth Evans, third-wave feminism is ironically characterised by a lack of a ‘defining feature’ in comparison to the previous two waves.1 This movement popularised the emphasis on choice, individuality, and diversity in feminism, allowing activists to redefine and expand what it meant to be a woman and a feminist. This wave also popularised intersectional feminism, with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coining the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989.

Intersectionality examines the ways in which people can experience oppression in multiple ways; for example, discrimination on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, and disability can 'intersect' with and add to the experience of gender-based oppression.

Fourth Wave

The fourth wave is seen as an ‘offshoot’ or, to some, a development of the third wave (some critics argue that the third wave never stopped). Starting in the early 2010s, this wave places an emphasis on intersectionality and dismantling the first and second wave’s brand of 'white feminism' (a key criticism of feminist theory).

'White feminism' is a term used to describe feminist theory that centres on the experiences of white women while neglecting the experiences of those who experience oppression on multiple levels.

There is also a fresh focus on modern 21st-century phenomenons such as social media, which led to the success of the #MeToo movement which raised awareness of the sexual violence and harassment that women experience. Furthermore, discussions surrounding women in the workplace, equality for marginalised groups of women (such as trans women and women of colour), and sex positivity, have received increased attention. This has also led to another branch of fourth-wave feminism, otherwise known as radical feminism, that argues that sex positivity has gone too far and campaigns for the banning of pornography and sex work.

Whilst feminist theory is popularly explored in contemporary literature, for example in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), many critics have also used it to critique far older works of literature, such as biblical stories and Greek myths.

A popular example of feminist interpretations of older works that you may encounter is a discussion of Virgil’s Dido from The Aneid.

Dido was the widowed ruler of Carthage and is portrayed by Virgil as a competent ruler and politician before meeting Aeneas. Her love for Aeneas eventually drives her to suicide. Therefore, many feminist critics see her as an example of a woman who exemplifies positive male Roman qualities: loyalty (to her dead husband), political dedication, a strong sense of duty. And yet, because she is a woman, she is doomed to fail within the patriarchal framework of The Aneid.

Other significant feminist works include The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath, Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott, The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison, and The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin.

Some influential feminist critics are Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Germaine Greer, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Marxism

Marxist literary theory aims to interpret and analyse literature through the lens of economic and social class, drawing heavily from the works of the famous philosopher and political thinker Karl Marx. A Marxist literary critic will argue that all literature and criticism is reflective of class struggle.

Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, in which he theorised that human history can be defined by a 'class struggle' that will eventually conclude in the replacement of capitalism with socialism.

Socialism is a term used to refer to a political system in which the means of production is regulated by the public, as opposed to private business.

Marx divided society into two groups:

  1. The bourgeoisie is a class of individuals who control and benefit from the means of production.

  2. The proletariat is a class of individuals who work for the bourgeoisie and do not control the means of production.

We can see a reflection, exploration, and criticism of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat throughout literary history. Famous examples of Marxist novels include 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell, Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo, and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck.

Whilst Marxist literary criticism originated in the 1800s, literary theorists have also applied these ideas to less modern literature.

There have been many Marxist readings of Chaucer’s works. There is even a case to be made for a Marxist reading of Macbeth! During the time that Macbeth was written, King James I was in power and financed much of Shakespeare's work, including Macbeth itself. The play could therefore be interpreted as a form of monarchal propaganda that warns of the dangers of disrupting the established social hierarchy.

Famous Marxist critics and writers include Terry Eagleton, Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukács, Louis Althusser, Frederic Jameson, and Jürgen Habermas.

Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytical works involve reading literature through the lens of the ideology of psychologist Sigmund Freud, particularly his ideas involving childhood development, dreams, and sexuality. The ideas of Freud in relation to literature involve viewing the text itself as a manifestation of the author’s own subconscious wants and desires, however, it is also possible to psychoanalyse individual characters within literary works.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud is most well known for developing a theory he coined the Oedipus Complex. Named after Sophocles' tragic character Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his own father and married his mother, the Oedipus Complex is a name given to a stage of childhood development that features a son (or daughter) developing a sexual attraction to their parent of the opposite sex, along with a desire to kill their parent of the same sex.

Psychoanalysis or Psychology?

Psychoanalysis has been controversial from the beginning because, unlike experimental science, it cannot be adequately tested, falsified, or objectified.2

Whilst Freud's ideas about sexuality have certainly added to a rich history of literary and artistic expression, they shouldn't be taken as scientific theory. Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex is based on an unfounded assumption that his patients were lying about being sexually abused by their parents. Around the time of his development of the Oedipus complex, Freud's father had just died, and this may have influenced his inability to believe that his patients would ever truly suffer at the hands of their parents. Therefore, whilst this theory has had an interesting impact on literature and theory, its scientific credibility is very questionable!

Famous psychoanalytical works include The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth.

Famous psychoanalytic critics and writers, aside from Sigmund Freud, include Jaques Lacan, Carl Jung, and Roland Barthes.

Postcolonialism

Postcolonial literary theory looks at the power struggle between the historically colonising powers (mostly Western, European countries) and the countries and communities that have been historically colonised. It examines issues of race, culture, and colonial power within the framework of literature. Much of postcolonial theory also involves dismantling the established Western literary canon which historically favours white voices over non-white writers and theorists.

At the height of the British Empire, there was an overriding idea that Western nations were the pinnacle of civilisation and culture. Western-European nations also used this idea, that they needed to expand in order to civilise the rest of the world, to justify the exploitation of colonies for trade and political influence.

Much of postcolonial theory is focused on exploring the ideology behind Western colonialism in famous works of literature. However, many modern postcolonial works also explore the issues surrounding the ‘postcolonial identity’ by looking at the ways in which members of historically colonised societies define themselves in relation to their colonial histories. Other issues covered by postcolonial theory are:

  • Diaspora: a term used to describe a dispersed population whose homeland is a separate country or region.
  • Oppression: specifically in relation to racial or colonialist oppression.
  • Refiguring historiography: a term that refers to the adjustment of the historical cannon in a way that accurately illuminates and highlights the realities of colonialism.
  • Semantic Reclamation: the reclamation of languages that were marginalised due to colonialism.

Famous postcolonial theorists include Chinua Achebe, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Ngugi wǎ Thiong'o.

Famous literary works that reflect topics explored by postcolonial theory include Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad), Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe, Nervous Conditions (1988) by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys.

Literary Criticism and Theory - Key takeaways

  • Literary criticism is the practice of discussing, analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature.
  • Literary theory consists of the many academic, philosophical, and political frameworks that literary critics can use to critique literature.
  • An early example of literary theory is found in Aristotle’s Poetics, which theorised that literature and poetry is an effort to imitate the world around us.
  • The four main literary criticism theories are Feminist Literary Theory, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, and Postcolonialism.

Sources:

1 Elizabeth Evans, The Politics of Third Wave Feminisms: Neoliberalism, Intersectionality, and the State in Britain and the US, 2015, p. 49.

2 Vincent B Leitch, 'Sigmund Freud.' The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p. 913.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Criticism and Theory


Literary criticism has many purposes. It allows for us to understand a text on a deeper level, taking into account the context in which it was written and allow us to relate it to the wider social, political and economic climate of its time. It also allows old texts to take on new meanings through the years as theory develops. 


There are four major critical theories in literature:


  1. Feminism, which seeks to interpret literature through the lens of feminist ideas of female oppression and patriarchal dominance. 
  2. Marxism, which interprets literature in the sociopolitical context of class struggle. 
  3. Psychoanalysis, which is concerned with ideas of the subconscious and how this relates to literature. 
  4. Postcolonial Theory, which views literature through the lens of race, nationality and culture, and explores the struggle between colonising countries and their legacy of oppressing colonised nations. 


You may have heard the popular phrase ‘art imitates life’, a shorter version of an idea featured in Aristotle’s Poetics. In Poetics, Aristotle argued that the purpose of poetry, as an art form, is to imitate the world around us through language. This is an early example of a literary theory, and has been used as a way in order to interpret works of literature. 


The main criticism of early first and second wave feminism is that it prioritises white, middle class women above other women and continues to discard women that are part of oppressed groups. 


The main criticism of third and fourth wave feminism is that it’s focus on sex-positivity may lead to harmful consequeces for women in the future with the rise of pornography and accessible sex work. 


Literary criticism is the practice of discussing, analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature. Literary theory consists of the many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics can use to critique literature. 


Final Literary Criticism and Theory Quiz

Question

What did Aristotle argue was the function of poetry and literature in Poetics?

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Answer

Poetry and literature seek to imitate life.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of literary theory?

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Answer

The many academic, philosophical and political frameworks that literary critics can use to critique literature.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of literary criticism?


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Answer

The practice of discussing, analysing, interpreting, and comparing works of literature.

Show question

Question

What are the four main types of literary theory?

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Answer

Feminism, marxism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonialism.

Show question

Question

True or false: there were no feminist thinkers before the 19th century. 

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Answer

False: there were plenty of philosophers and writers who we would think of as feminists before the 19th century. However, it is during the mid-19th century that feminist thinking started to have tangible effect, such as helping women gain the right to vote. 

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Question

Karl Marx divided society into which two classes?


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Answer

The bourgeoisie and the proletariat

Show question

Question

What do we mean by the term ‘Oedipus Complex’?


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Answer

The Oedipus Complex is a name given to a Freudian theory. This theory states that, during a stage of childhood development, a son or daughter will develop a sexual attraction to their parent of the opposite sex, along with a desire to kill their parent of the same sex. 

Show question

Question

What is the main criticism of early (first and second wave) feminism?


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Answer

First and second wave feminism prioritised white, middle class women above other women (‘white feminism’)

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Question

Why has Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis been criticised?


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Answer

It has been argued that some of Freud's theories, such as the Oedipus Complex, are based on assumptions rather than scientific evidence.

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Who first coined the term ‘intersectionality’?


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Answer

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw

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Who first developed the theory of the Oedipus Complex?

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Answer

Sigmund Freud

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Question

Who wrote the play Oedipus Rex?

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Answer

Sophocles

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Question

What areas of literature does psychoanalysis focus on?

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Answer

  1. The mind of the author
  2. The mind of the character
  3. The mind of the audience
  4. The text's language and symbolism

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Question

Who is Oedipus' female equivalent in psychoanalysis?

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Answer

Electra

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Who coined the term 'Electra Complex'?

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Carl Jung

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Question

What is the Id?

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The id contains the libido along with urges and impulses that we typically do not give into. 

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What is the Ego?

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The Ego is a part of our conscious personality and functions as the intermediary between the Id and the socially oriented external world.

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What is the Superego?

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The Superego is our conscience and also our self-critical voice. 

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Question

What is the difference between manifest and latent content?

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Manifest content is the dreamer’s memories that have materialised in their dream. 


Latent content is the symbolic or underlying interpretation of that dream. 

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What is displacement?

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Displacement involves dreaming of one thing as another thing, usually with that thing taking on a symbolic meaning.

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What is condensation?

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Condensation is the act of combining multiple images or symbols into one thing. This allows for symbols in dreams to take on multiple meanings.

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What is dreamwork?

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The process of translating an individual’s unconscious desires into the manifest content.

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What is secondary elaboration?

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The unconscious mind ordering a sequence of wish-fulfilment events into a believable or logical order, thus hiding the latent content of the dream. 


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What is the mirror stage?

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When a child develops a sense of self through noticing a distinction between the self and the other. 

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What did Lacan say was the three orders of the mind?

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Imaginary, Real and Symbolic

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What is Reader Response Criticism?

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An approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.

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What is the context and history of Reader Response Criticism?

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  • This approach to criticism emerged in Germany and the US in the late 1960s.
  • Reader Response Criticism is not a unified critical school, but the umbrella term given to literary criticism that takes a reader-based approach.
  • It emerged as a challenge to New Criticism, a movement that believed all meaning was contained within the text alone.

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What are the key focuses of Reader Response Criticism?

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The reader, the text and the creation of meaning.

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How does Reader Response criticism view the role of the reader?

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The reader creates a text's meaning.

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What is the implied reader?

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The implied reader is who the author has in mind when they are writing the text, who they expect to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.

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Why might the idea of the implied reader be viewed as problematic?

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  • Many texts written by privileged authors anticipate an educated, white, male audience.
  • The literary critic Judith Fetterley came up with the concept of the 'resisting reader' to resist limited ways of reading a text.

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What is an interpretive community?

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  • A term coined by Stanley E. Fish to group readers that share historical and cultural contexts, which shapes the way they read and interpret texts.
  • There is no objectively correct interpretation of a text because all interpretations are the product of different cultures.

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According to Reader Response Criticism, what is a text?

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  • A performing art,
  • An event,
  • An interaction, or an interactive process.

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Why is the reading experience important to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • Readers don't just passively consume texts, they experience them.
  • The reader's progressive movement through a text is an important factor in the creation of meaning because the text deliberately takes the reader on a journey, creating expectations, etc.

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Question

What are the key contributions of Hans Robert Jauss to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • Focused on the impact of social and temporal context on reader interpretation.
  • Readers have different 'horizons of expectations' based on the society and time they belong to.

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What are the key contributions of Wolfgang Iser to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • The concept of the implied reader
  • The interpretations that readers come up with at different reading stages are important. Different meanings are created on first, and second readings.

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What are the key contributions of Louise Rosenblatt to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • Rosenblatt argued that reading is a transaction between reader and text.
  • Rosenblatt thinks some interpretations are more acceptable than others.
  • Believes that the text should act as a stimulus to the readers' interpretation, and as a blueprint to guide their interpretation.

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Question

What are the key contributions of Stanley E. Fish to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • The idea of interpretive communities,
  • his focus on the reading experience as important to the creation of meaning.

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What are the key contributions of Norman Holland to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • A psychoanalytic approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea of identity themes; how readers' identities impact their readings.

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What are the key contributions of David Bleich to Reader Response Criticism?

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  • A subjective approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea that reader responses are the text.

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Question

How can you apply Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

By looking at how different types of readers create meanings, and how reading experiences influence the creation of meaning, as well.

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Question

Which theory did intersectionality have its origin in?

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Answer

Marxist theory 

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Who coined the term intersectionality?

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Kimberlé Crenshaw

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Question

In which essay did Kimberlé Crenshaw coin the term intersectionality?

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Answer

'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.' (1989)

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True or false? Intersectionality is not a literary theory.

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Answer

False! After its initial conception, intersectionality expanded across many academic fields, including literary studies.

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Question

Define intersectionality.

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A theory which takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face. 

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What were the three types of intersectionality set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw?

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Structural, political and representational intersectionality.

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Question

Define structural intersectionality.

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Structural intersectionality examines how social structures, such as legal and educational systems, work to create differences in how minority groups experience areas of their life compared to the most privileged group. 

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Define political intersectionality.

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Political intersectionality acknowledges how, in a political context, systems of oppression conflict and cross over depending on the factors which make up the identity of an individual.

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Define representational intersectionality.

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Representational intersectionality underpins the importance of representing people of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities in art, film & television, and literature, alongside in politics and in positions of power. 

Show question

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