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Types of Literary Lenses


Literary lenses provide different methods for the analysis of literature. Also known as schools of criticism, literary lenses allow for an adaptive study of literature that reveals layered and variable meanings. As an evolving discipline, literary theory has changed to keep pace with historical and cultural shifts. The different literary lenses that remain in use fall into four general categories: socio-cultural, New Criticism, psychoanalytic and post-structuralist criticism.

Socio-Cultural Lenses

Socio-cultural lenses examine literature from historical, political or gender-based viewpoints. Historical criticism considers the time period from which literature sprang. Post-colonial theory, a type of historical criticism, examines the long-term impact of colonialism through the study of literature from former colonies. Marxist criticism applies the theories of Karl Marx and considers literature as a product of social class. A Marxist reading of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" would highlight the exploitation of laborers at the hands of agricultural capitalists. Schools of gender studies consider some literature to be the product of an entrenched patriarchy, and these schools study issues of sexuality and the marginalization of disempowered groups.

New Criticism

New Criticism holds that all works of literature, regardless of their social context, share intrinsic traits that establish unity and define quality. Rather than reference to sociological theories, New Criticism relies on close reading. T.S. Eliot provides an example of close reading in footnotes to his own poem, "The Waste Land," where he reveals many of the work's allusions. Structuralism is a type of New Criticism that identifies linguistic patterns and archetypes derived from the theories of Carl Jung. For example, a structuralist would see the Pygmalion archetype, which represents a creator's infatuation with his creation, in works such as William Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" and the 1964 film "My Fair Lady."

Psychoanalytic Lenses

A psychoanalytic lens places the author on center stage, and analyzes literature with a view to his or her personality and desires. Psychoanalytic criticism, also known as biographical criticism, may look for signs of sexual repression. A psychoanalytic interpreter of "Hamlet" would see Hamlet's fixation on his mother's sexuality as signs of Sigmund Freud's Oedipus Complex. Reader-response criticism applies this approach to the reader. Theorists such as Stanley Fish understood reading as a kind of performance art that brings a text into reality and lends it meaning. Reader-response theorists may examine a work's critical literature, or reference various socio-cultural lens to formulate a general consensus.

Post-Structuralist Lenses

Post-structuralist critical theory developed alongside literary Modernism and Post-Modernism. Modernism emerged as a rejection of traditional literary forms, while post-modernism took this further to dispense with all cultural allusions in favor of fragmented narratives. A post-structuralist lens denies the claims of New Criticism, and holds that language and literature contain no inherent structures. Post-structuralists believe that no literary work has a “true” meaning, and that theorists can only reveal the intersections of various meanings. For example, a post-structuralist theorist like Jacques Derrida would see the linguistic acrobatics in James Joyce's "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake" as indicative of the chaos inherent in spoken language.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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