Literary Theory: 1 Way To Deepen Understanding And Gain Insight

Sarah Rexford
April 21, 2023 | 6 mins

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While literary theory may seem like an academic term and unfamiliar, you’ve likely employed its use without knowing it. If you’ve ever read a poem and sought out the context of the time period or author, you used literary theory to deepen your understanding of the text. 

The angle in which you view a piece of literature drastically influences how you interpret the writing itself. 

From a writer’s perspective, literary theory also influences how a writer portrays the story. For instance, in marketing, knowing your target audience is often stressed. Why is it so vital to understand who you write to? 

Knowing your target audience is a small way of using literary theory to influence the angle in which you write. For instance, if you write a young adult, coming-of-age novel, knowing who you are writing to will influence the plot points and characters you include. 

To aid you in understanding how literary theory impacts your readers, it’s crucial to start with a definition of the term.  

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What Is Is?

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Literary theory is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean.”

To dive deeper, it’s important to understand the difference between literary theory and literary criticism. Literary theory acts as a type of guide, based on ideas, and employed with the purpose of deepening understanding.

On the other hand, literary criticism focuses on studying. This type of criticism takes a look at literature through a theoretical lens, with a focus on interpretation. 

A simple way to distinguish the two is that while literary criticism is practical, literary theory is, surprise, theoretical. So why use this type of theory when writing your next manuscript or reading your current-reads list?  

Why Use Is?

Using literary theory adds a new facet to the understanding of literature. While reading Moby Dick or To Kill A Mockingbird can be entertaining, taking a deeper look at the ideas of the time period in which each book was written helps provide more context, and therefore, deeper understanding. 

To use an example to briefly demonstrate, literary theory is a diamond and the different schools of thought within the diamond each represent one facet of the diamond. Literary theory is the rock on which various thoughts lay. 

There are many ways to interpret literature, and the school of thought, or specific literary theory you use, impacts how you view the text. 

Every reader views stories through their own lens. This is part of the magic of writing. When an author writes a novel, they tie in how they see the world into every page. While sometimes this is done consciously, often this is unconscious as well.

Literary theory is a way to choose which lens to look through when viewing a piece of literature. While there are many forms of literary theory, I briefly discuss two below. 

#1 – Archetypal Criticism

What story structure do you see repeat time and again? Heroes, villains, antiheroes, flat characters, mentors, etc., all repeat in appearance through the centuries of story telling. This type of criticism takes a look at what seems to play in the minds of humanity around the globe.

Whether we interacted with a bully (villain) in elementary school or found ourselves thankful that a parent provided a helping hand when we most needed it (hero), we all have some form of knowledge about heroes and villains. 

Stories have been told for centuries, whether handed down orally from generation to generation, etched into cave walls, or in more modern times, written or printed. What types of characters dominate these age-old stories? 

It doesn’t take long to discover that characters embodying good and evil, strong and weak, rich and poor, have created stories around the world since the beginning. 

#2 – Reader-Response Criticism

This type of theory focuses on the reader rather than the author or the text itself. Some questions to ask when using this facet of literary theory could be:

  • What character does the reader relate to?
  • Why does the reader relate to a specific character? 
  • How does the reader view the story?

For example, in the classic fairy tale, Cinderella, there are several characters readers could relate to:

  • The hero, Cinderella 
  • The prince
  • The evil stepmother
  • The evil stepsisters 

Many readers may relate to Cinderella. They might feel burdened by those around them, taken advantage of, or even abused. Other readers may relate more to the prince. They know what it feels like to help someone in distress and they automatically resonate with this supporting character. 

Some insightful readers may even relate to the evil stepmother or stepsisters. They recognize their ability to treat those below them with disrespect. 

They may even recall stiffing a waiter at a restaurant or cutting an elderly man in line. While these examples do not exactly align with the characters in the story, readers may put themselves into the villains’ shoes. 

Use Literary Theory As A Reader

So what does literary theory have to do with us today? Understanding the literature we read from various viewpoints not only provides a greater depth of understanding of the story itself but can also:

  • Grow our use of empathy 
  • Broaden our view of the world 
  • Deepen our understanding of culture 

Familiarizing ourselves with various literary theories can add an entirely new dimension to our most-loved stories.

Use Literary Theory As A Writer 

This type of theory is not just for readers but something writers can use to better their characters, plots, and stories overall. When writing a character, consider the viewpoint in which they see the world. 

To take it a step further, employ literary theory as a means to write from a deep point-of-view. Additionally, depending on the setting, era, and country where your story takes place, you may want to study a specific facet of literary theory prior to writing. 

The deeper your understanding of your characters, readership, and their mindset, the better your writing will be.

Meet Your Readers Where They Are

While it may feel desirable to show off your new understanding of literature, the different literary theories and writing rules are used to help our readers. 

When we learn a big new word or first immerse ourselves in literary theory, it’s important to keep in mind that we do so for our readers and not for our egos. 

The more we learn about writing and the various ways to write well, the easier it can be to want to implement everything into our manuscripts. While this may seem like the best idea, it’s crucial to always think reader first

Learning to look through different lenses at writing, both as a reader and a writer, will help you accept criticism of your own work

The best writers are always learning. Whether you take a few weeks to study literary theory, write an entire protagonist with archetypal criticism in mind, or collect reader-response criticism for future books, never give up the power of growth. It will take you places you never dreamed of! 

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