Introduction to Theory


“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” ― George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Literary theory may appear to be a conception of the early 20th century, a time when, if you have read any texts from the romantic era, society appeared to spend much of their time reclined on a chaise lounge, pouring over antiquated literature and attempting to derive the real authorial intention. Theory is in fact as old as text itself and since a surge in interest from readers outside of the elitist circle in the 1970’s and 80’s has continued to gain interest from readers of all readerly persuasions. Engagement with theoretical ideas can improve reading experience by offering alternative perspectives, prompting discussions and allowing the reader to actively participate with the text rather than reading from the sidelines. Criticism not only places works of literature in context of the time it was written but also reveals the context of the time of the criticism, a poignant concept at the time that this particular project is compiled.

There are a broad range of theorists and theoretical concepts, many of which are translated from languages other than English and therefore challenging to interpret and apply which can be a discouraging prospect to anyone wishing to explore literary theory. However, by establishing a close engagement with one idea rather than attempting to navigate through a multitude of concepts and applying those ideas to a text that is comfortable, the basis for close reading and analytical thought can be founded and later further developed at the readers own pace.

Although critical theory is an extensive and complex discipline, there are recurring themes that reduce theory down to 5 main ideas. Author Peter Barry summarises these points in his book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory[1] as:

  • Politics is pervasive
  • Language is constitutive
  • Truth is provisional
  • Meaning is contingent
  • Human nature is a myth

In this guide we will concentrate on the concept that meaning is contingent and therefore subject to change and have alternative meanings dependant on the reader. American literary theorist Stanley Fish proposes the idea that text is discovered through the experience of the reader rather than determined solely through the interpretation of the text[2]. Fish rejects the idea of solving the ‘code’ embedded within texts, rather he suggests that the reader is guided by the interpretations they already embody through past experiences of interpretation gained through collaborative practices and discourses within their own communities. This theory promotes the assumption that there is no ‘right’ way of reading a text and the meaning within the text is therefore contingent and subjective.

Drink: Beaujolais. Light, smooth and fruity and yet with a hint of depth and complexity, its an ideal accompaniment to this section.

Song: Karma Police, Radiohead

[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Fourth Edition), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019)

[2] Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents, ed. Dennis Walder, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)