Foundations Study Guide: Literary Theory

Foundations Study Guide: Literary Theory

Stephen Cox

8 Mins
May 3, 2010

Stephen Cox is professor of literature and director of the humanities program at the University of California, San Diego

Literary theory attempts to establish principles for interpreting and evaluating literary texts. Two of the most important issues in literary theory are authorial intention and interpretive objectivity. Is the author's intention responsible for the meanings of a text? Can readers arrive at an objective understanding of those meanings? Currently fashionable theory answers no to both questions. It suggests that meanings are created and recreated by influences beyond the control of either writers or readers. This view is diametrically opposed to the classical tradition in literary theory.


Aristotle originated the kind of literary theory that emphasizes the objective features of texts and the authorial intentions that those features reveal. He sought to explain and evaluate literature as a product of human design. His Poetics analyzes the objective features of Greek epics and dramas as means that are more or less appropriate to the full realization of various literary intentions.

In Aristotelian analysis, text-making intentions are understood as distinct from social influences and psychological motives. Aristotle appreciated the fact that Greek playwrights derived their themes and stories from the commonly held attitudes and commonly recounted myths of Greek society. He also knew that playwrights might be motivated largely by the desire to win prizes and other forms of public recognition. A psychologist or sociologist might perform an interesting analysis of these background influences on a play—without even beginning to explain and access the choices that its author made to produce the specific artistic effects that he intended. That, however, is the task to which Aristotle addresses himself as a literary theorist.

A classical example of Aristotle's analytical method is his treatment of the tragic protagonist. As Aristotle suggests, an author who intends to arouse the tragic emotions of "pity and fear" must choose his means of doing so, and the available means can be rationally estimated. The author can choose a central character who is perfectly bad, perfectly good, or somewhere in the middle. The downfall of a perfectly bad character would be comic, not tragic; the downfall of a perfectly good character would be merely hateful. The choice of an "intermediate" character is therefore the appropriate means of producing the tragic effect. The downfall of such a character can arouse pity for the defeat of good qualities and fear for the results of bad ones.

Aristotle's concern with the rational adaptation of literary means to literary ends includes concern with the unity of literary works. He assumes that an author's various purposes should be consistent with one another and that every element of a work—plot, character, style, and so forth— should contribute to those purposes, not frustrate or divert attention from them.

One interesting thing about Aristotle's literary theory is that it is not culture-bound. Although the Aristotelian standard of unity (for instance) is exemplified in certan works of the Greeks, it is not applicable merely to Greek or even Western Art. The Aztec lyric is governed by different intentions from those of Greek tragedy, but it can be rationally assessed in regard to its consistency and efficiency in fulfulling those intentions.


In the hands of later practitioners, especially those of the Renaissance, "Aristotelian" theory often degenerated into a system of rules that were far from universally applicable. But essentially Aristotelian assumptions were likely to come into play whenever critics of any school made a serious effort to assess works or authors according to their ability to accomplish their literary intentions.

For example, during the Enlightenment, the first great age of English criticism, leading critics informed themselves as best they could about the distinctive intentions of the authors they studied and analyzed the degree of skill that those authors showed in choosing literary means appropriate to their ends. Two of the most impressive works of that age, Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and Samuel Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare, are attempts by cultivated readers to recover the principles by which great authors practiced their craft.

During the Romantic period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, literary theory often based itself on psychological or social speculation rather than objective analysis of artistic strategies. Nevertheless, the best of this Romantic theory is significant for its emphasis on the individual mind as creator of meaning and organic unity in literary works. Shelley's A Defence of Poetry depicts poets not simply as creatures of social circumstances but as "the unacknowledged legislators of the World." Coleridge's Biographia Literaria argues that real poetry displays a unity of "the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image," and that this unity is imposed by the individual creative imagination.

In the twentieth century, Ayn Rand produced a unique combination of Romantic and Aristotelian approaches to literary theory. The essays collected in her Romantic Manifesto advocate a literature produced by rational selection, in the Aristotelian manner, and marked by imaginative unification or "integration," in the Romanitc manner. Rand's definition of art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" is widely applicable. It identifies the process of choice by which artists convert their contexts—"reality," as they understand it—into specific literary texts.


It cannot be said that the late twentieth century is the golden age of either Romantic or Aristotelian theory. Currently fashionable theory is animated by the assumptions of Marx, Freud, and such contemporary continental thinkers as Michel Foucault. It is preoccupied with the ways in which political or psychosocial phenomena affect the processes of writing and reading. Its crucial assumption is that literature is "constructed" not by authors but by environmental influences, and that neither authors nor readers can "transcend" such influences.

One of the weaknesses of such theory is its inability to account for the ways in which very individual texts emerge from general contexts. Shakespeare's Macbeth is about (among other subjects) the political problems of a hierarchical society. The play's political context is a necessary condition for its existence—but not a sufficient condition. If context were sufficient to "construct" the salient features of the play, then the political environment of Elizabethan England would have produced thousands of Macbeths.

Readers as well as writers exist in political contexts, but if they could not transcend those contexts and arrive at a comprehension of works produced in environments very different from their own, then Macbeth would have run out of readers long ago.  The same logic applies to theories of psychosocial construction. Many people have had miserable relationships with their fathers, but there is only one Brothers Karamazov, and the novel can be read and understood even by orphans.

The effects of current theories are not all bad. They have led critics who instinctively oppose them to refine their own ideas and account for what went wrong with those of other people. Some of the most valuable critiques of current theories, especially those descended from Marx and Freud, can be found in Frederick Crew's book Skeptical Engagements. Gerald Graff, in Literature Against Itself, provides a well-argued account of the mistaken assumptions that underlie postmodern theory. (Unfortunately, little can be learned from Graff's later work, which is an abject concession to the fallacies of academic political correctness.)

Politics by Other Means, by David Bromwich, is a many-sided defense of individualism in literary study. Bromwich offers cogent reasons for believing that even literary tradition is not simply a "social" artifact but is actively created by the choices of writers and readers. Papers by Stephen Cox criticize current academic tendencies on the basis of classical-liberal assumptions about the agency of the individual and the importance of rational procedures in analysis and theory.


The foundations of current theories had, in fact, been undermined long before the theories themselves appeared. The so-called Chicago Critics, who flourished in the 1950s, constructed defenses of authorial intention and critical objectivity that continue to repay close study. Chief among the Chicago Critics were R.S. Crane and Elder Olson, both powerful advocates of Aristotelian theory.

To a great degree, Crane and Olso defined themselves by opposition to the "New Criticism," a tendency that once dominated academic theory and that still exerts and influence on practical criticism. The New Critics justly opposed people's perennial inclination to reduce the meaning of literature to a paraphrasable "message." What was important to the New Critics was the richness of the literary text itself, not the circumstances in which was written or the moral or political causes in which it might be enlisted. But the New Critics often proceeded as if the text could be understood apart from any consideration of authorial intentions. They neglected the author's ability to impose structure by using objectively ascertainable textual markers to include certain meanings and exclude others. As a result, they sometimes discovered as many "meanings" in a text as their own ingenuity could possibly supply. "Meanings" that flatly contradicted either one another or any conceivable authorial intention were construed as "ironies" and "tensions" that "enriched" the overinterpreted text.

This defect of the New Criticism was exposed with devastating effect by Olson and Crane, who tried to revive interest in the author's power to unify and control the text. Crane developed some of the best evidence for this power in his studies of the great unifying device of plot. Crane and Olson also demonstrated the importance of understanding ways in which authors work with specific literary forms to accomplish their intentions. Olson's The Theory of Comedy, which illuminates a form that is notoriously resistant to analysis, is particularly worthy of notice.

The Chicago Critics' investigation of major literary forms and effects was pursued by Wayne Booth in two important books: The Rhetoric of Fiction, a learned analysis of the novel form, and A Rhetoric of Irony, a provocative attempt to explain the ways in which authors communicate certain meanings by pretending to communicate others. E.D. Hirsch, Jr.,  continued and advanced the Chicago Critics' work on authorial intentions. His Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation are the most distinguished books on the subject. Hirsch attempts to vindicate a literary theory that gives full weight to authors' intended meanings. Do authors really know their own intentions? Doesn't the meaning of a text change over time? How can we be sure that the meaning we find in a text is the same one that the author intended? Hirsch's answers to these and other questions provide a persuasive defense of intentionalist theory as a basis of literary interpretation. Hirsch also provides sound arguments for regarding theory and interpretation as rational and objective processes.

Hirsch's discussion of the determinacy of authorial meanings is especially important to consider at a time when many prominent theorists assert that the meaning of a text necessarily varies with the race, class, and gender of its audience. Hirsch makes a useful distinction between meaning and significance: various readers may regard a text as significant to them in various ways, but they are responding, still, to the same text, a text with particular meanings, established by a particular author.


The fashionable claim that the meaning of a text is "constructed" by the various contexts in which it is read should remind of us what is at stake in literary theory. Debates about theory are concerned with something more important than rival approaches to obscure poems. Ultimately, literary theory is about the human mind and its processes of communication. It is about our ability to understand what people say, write, and mean. Literary theory is a ferociously contested field because it has crucial implications for every other field that is based on the interpretation of words.

What we know about the world, especially the world of the past, comes largely form written documents. Our confidence in our ability to understand the world depends on our possession of sound working theories about the way in which texts communicate ideas across formidable barriers of time and cultural difference. Those "multiculturalists" who deny the validity of general and objective statements about the human condition are frequently inspired by literary theories that induce scepticism about people's ability to communicate their meanings across cultural and temporal barriers. Influential schools of legal thought that subject Constitutional rights to endless reinterpretation "in the light of current circumstances" depend on theories that posit the unknowability or irrelevance of the Founding Fathers' literary intentions.

To these intellectual and political problems, the solution is not less concern with literary theory but a better understanding of its principles and possibilities.


This is the third in the Foundations is a series of Study Guides, which designed to help individuals and discussion groups who wish to gain an overview of a field from an Objectivist perspective. Each Study Guide is prepared by an expert who selects and comments on readings that either reflect an Objectivist viewpoint or are valuable for other reasons. Specific works mentioned in this or other Study Guides should be read critically; their inclusion does not imply any endorsement by The Atlas Society.


Aristotle. Poetics.

Wayne C. Booth. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Wayne C. Booth. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

David Bromwich. Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Biographia Literaria.

Stephen Cox. "Devices of Deconstruction." Critical Review, 3 (1989), 56-75.

Stephen Cox. "Literary Theory: Liberal and Otherwise." Humane Studies Review, 5 (Fall 1987), 1, 5-7, 12-14.

R.S. Crane. The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

R.S. Crane, ed. Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Frederick Crews. Skeptical Engagements. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Gerald Graff. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

E.D.Hirsch, Jr. The Aims of Interpretation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

E.D.Hirsch, Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Samuel Johnson. Preface to Shakespeare.

Elder Olson. On Value Judgments in the Arts and Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Elder Olson. The Theory of Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Alexander Pope. An Essay on Criticism.

Ayn Rand. The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1975.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. A Defence of Poetry.