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Mimetic Theory of Literary Criticism


The word "mimetic" comes from the Greek word "mimesis," the act of imitation. The mimetic theory of literary criticism places primary importance on how well a literary work imitates life. In practice, mimetic critical theory often asks how well the literary work conveys universal truths and teaches the reader positive moral values and modes of personal conduct. While few would argue with positive moral values, the theory can be misused, such as justifying violence against those in disagreement.

Four Theories of Literary Criticism

In his book, "Critical Theory Since Plato," University of Washington literature professor Hazard Adams identifies four primary literary theories: expressive, pragmatic, objective and mimetic. Expressive literary theory emphasizes the ways in which the work expresses the author’s personal concerns. Pragmatic theory emphasizes the utility of art -- how reading may positively affect the reader. The objective theory of literary criticism asserts that the work’s value has no necessary dependence on any external factors, but rises from its own formal structure. In the objective literary sense, for example, a novel about the civil rights activism of the great American musician Nat King Cole is acceptable even though Cole, in reality, avoided involvement in civil rights issues.

Mimetic Theory Rejects Expressive Theory

In several ways, mimetic theory rises from its rejection of the three other theories. The writer's expression of personal concerns, although significant for expressive literary theory, does not in any way automatically qualify it as art. If the concerns are petty or even criminal, then the work fails from the mimetic viewpoint because it does not reflect the positive moral values of true art. A work such as Jean Genet's "The Maids," which describes the brutal murder of a wealthy Frenchwoman by her maids, utterly fails from the mimetic viewpoint.

Mimesis vs. Pragmaticism

Mimetic theory and pragmatic theory share the view that literature has the capacity for healing. However, mimetic theory emphasizes how this relates to the literary work’s conveyance of universal truths, while pragmatic theory puts more emphasis on the reader’s response. The most significant difference between these two theories is where each theory finds value. For the mimetic theorist the value is inherent in the work of art. For example, the value of "Shylock" lies only secondarily in the effect it has on the reader. For the pragmatic theorist, however, the way in which the work positively affects the reader is an essential aspect of its value. A close reading of “Shylock,” for example, might correct a reader’s chauvinism and make her a more tolerant human being.

Mimetic Theory Rejects Objective Literary Theory

From the mimetic viewpoint, art’s primary concern is the representation of reality, but the unanswered question is "Who decides what is reality and what is not?" In Soviet Russia, for example, not only writers but even composers were silenced and jailed because in the view of the Communist government their works failed to accurately reflect positive social values. Shostakovitch, one of Russia’s greatest 20th century composers, was denounced by Joseph Stalin for writing symphonies that expressed Shostakovitch's formal choices rather than promoting the proletarian values espoused by the regime. From the objectivist's point of view, the formal choices -- the objective reality of the completed work of art -- are essential aspects of the work's artistic value. Whether they do or do not incorporate peasant folk songs as Stalin demanded is irrelevant.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.