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What is Literary Theory?

A reasoned account of the nature of the literary artifact, its causes, effects, and distinguishing features. So understood, literary theory is part of the systematic study of literature covered by the term ‘criticism’, which also includes interpretation of literary works, philology, literary history, and the evaluation of particular works or bodies of work.

literary theory. (1999). In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Search Tips

Are you looking for literary criticism that uses a particular theory as its guide?

1. Include in your search, along with your topic (i.e. Hamlet) the name of the theory, or, even better, some key terms that those theorists generally use.

How do I find commonly used terms for a theory?

1. Reference books! Reference books give great overviews of topics.

2. If you have one representative article, cull terms from there

Use the works cited list from any appropriate articles you find to identify other articles. They will probably have cited other researchers that use the same critical theory.


Post-structuralism emphasises the importance of language in structuring our experience of the world - meanings are not inherent in the thing or action itself but are created by words and their relationship to other words. Meanings, it is argued, cannot be fixed or remain stable, but are endlessly remade through the process of reading/speaking and changes in social life. At the heart of the post-structuralist perspective lies the principle that language produces social reality, which varies across cultures and time.

post-structuralism. (2004). In 50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies. Retrieved from


"a complex and highly theoretical approach that, in its simplest form, emphasizes how important the effect of the struggle to control the material side of life is to the production of all art, past and present, both at the fundamental economic and social levels and at the level of influence this struggle has on ideas, beliefs, philosophies, etc, and which tends to stress this over any notion of creativity."

Marxist literary theory or Marxist literary criticism. (2001). In Chambers 21st Century Dictionary. Retrieved from


Feminist literary criticism can be defined as the study of literature by women, or the interpretation of any text written with an attention to gender dynamics or a focus on female characters.

Feminist Literary Criticism. (1998). In The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Retrieved from


"‘[B]ringing to the forefront of concern the interconnection of issues of race, nation, empire, migration and ethnicity with cultural production’ (Moore-Gilbert 1997: 6). Post-colonial criticism was able to identify the attitudes to empire and colonisation expressed in literature from numerous historical periods as well as, later, looking at travel writing and journals. With regard to works of classic Western literature this often involved a radical reinterpretation of the texts and a consideration of the links between artistic expression and colonial political endeavour.

post-colonial theory. (2004). In 50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies. Retrieved from