1. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England

    An introduction to Literary Theory

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by Lemex, Nov 13, 2014.

    I'll explain the main Literary Theories here, so they don't seem to people quite so strange or esoteric.


    Can you ever prove authorial intention for meaning? Does a text have meaning that can be extracted objectively, regardless of taste or aesthetic quality? If not, what is the point of literature that says nothing? These are rhetorical questions here, but they are questions that are raised in Literary Theory.

    Believe it or not, there is a Literary Theory that rejects theory. It is called Neopragmatism. But we will return to this shortly. Also, the first thing that must be pointed out is that Literary Theory does not exist in a vacuum, most of the theories can either be applied to other academic approaches, such as New Historicism and Deconstructionist, or are political ideologies such as Marxist and Feminist theory.

    Imagine a party scene - yes, you, now. Just do it. Everyone is swinging around bottles of beer in tune to the music, having a very good time. The music is loud, it doesn't matter what is playing just make sure it is a song people can dance to. David Guetta should give you enough songs to pick from. Imagine during all the fun an argument breaks out, which as the music dies develops into a physical fight. The fight is broken up, and each person is quickly taken away, to opposite directions of the room to cool down. However when one of the combatants is being taken away a new person enters the room who does not know a fight has happened, and the new person gives the fighter a second look the fighter takes to mean something like 'What a prick', and gets angry at the person who has just entered and becomes aggressive again. Maybe he calls the new person a prick, I'm leaving it up to you, it is your imagination.

    The point is, when the new person entered the room and gave the fighter a look the fighter then interpreted as having meaning, was it actually meaning? In short: can meaning ever be unintended?

    There is no real answer to this question, however let us make it more complicated still. In the core Neopragmatism essay 'Against Theory' the example is given of a poem being made by the sea just happening to leave what appears to be words in the beach when it retreats that we can understand. Could such a poem ever really have meaning? Or is it just the meaning we impose simply because we can recognize it as language? This is a poem without an author, and yet it has meaning: does this really make any sense?

    As a matter of fact, this is not such an extreme example. We do have literary works where the author is unknown. Beowulf, The Song of Cid, even Homer's works we cannot ascribe concretely to a single person, so if we do not know the author - and thus the author's intent - how could we possibly know the meaning of a text?

    The point of Literary Theory is to answer this question. Find meaning in a text without an author, and even (yes) despite the author. Is what the author claims they intended even relevant to the meaning of a text? I would argue that it is often: no.

    I say this simply because we can find complete meaning in texts where the author is unknown, or the author's intent cannot possibly be known. Charlotte Bronte is not around anymore for us to ask her what she intended Jane Eyre to mean.

    Jane Eyre though, can be theorized along a number of different approaches that unless we think about the novel in these terms would likely not be even thought of or emphasized. Like, say, if we approach Jane Eyre from a Marxist perspective, which would emphasize what significance material wealth has in the novel. How are the rich opposed to the poor portrayed in the novel, and how is capitalism and money reflected in the novel? We can also see it from a Feminist perspective, seeing how the novel portrays and comments on the patriarchy. There is also a Colonial, or Post Colonial perspective (small but important difference between the two) which will look at Bertha, and how Rochester's connection to the slave trade is portrayed - remember that Rochester's estate is supported by the slave trade. What does this say? What about an Ecological perspective? How is nature used in the text, and to what end? Or could we use a New Historicist approach, that sees the novel of a specific place and time, and looks at what was happening at the time and how it was being applied (by market sales and so on) but a New Historicist reading would seek to make value judgement, seeing them as intrusions and reinterpretations no matter how well-meaning. To a New Historicist the continued appreciation for a text is in it's applicability. There is strong evidence to suggest that The Illiad was at the time it was originally read to be purely about the Greek concept of 'arate', but we modern people find new meaning and beauty in the text, thus it is continued to be read.

    There is also the Bakhtin Cronotope method of approaching a test, which like New Historicism sees texts as a specific time and place, but instead looks at how time and place is used in a text to reveal character attitudes and motivations. An example would be how time and travel changes a character's personality. However, this is the most complicated and esoteric approach to understand, it would be hard to explain here with any justice.

    Now to make things even harder. In the work of Swiz linguist Ferdinand Saussure, who focused on how people interpret language, he claims a word has two parts: the Signifier and the Signified. The Signifier is the sound of the word, the Signified is the meaning of the word. So if someone where to see the word 'Hweat', many people might know the sound of the letters combined, but the meaning would allude anyone unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon. We still do not fully understand what the word 'Hweat' means. At first it was taken to mean something like 'Hark', but now we think it means 'What'. The Signifier is well known, and it has obvious intention because it is used in plenty of Anglo-Saxon poems (Beowulf among them) but the Signified is still unknown. The Signified meaning comes with common agreement. So if a person who has never seen the word 'Hweat' before, they will not see the difference between it and 'Gozrbed' which I googled and is not a word. How would they know what is the difference between an unknown word and gobbledygook?

    Short answer is they can't.

    Thus without a solid Signified the Signifier would allow us to impose any number of meanings on a text as we please, so long as it can be supported by things in the text itself. This is Deconstructionism. This is opposed to the theory of Constructionism, which seeks to understand how stories and meaning can be constructed in rigid, scientific methods.

    The more methods we use to approach a text the more meanings and different aspects of the novel we find. We cannot help but find something for each above method if we look for it in most texts. If you are determined to find a condemnation in Jane Eyre of the capitalist system then chances are you are going to find it.

    However this is the joy of Literary Theory. The more approaches we take to a text, the more appreciation we often find for it, because we see how clever the text can be supposed as a work of art. We not just find new reasons to enjoy a text, we also find new ways to inform the message of a text which can inform our own creative process; it certainly affects what we can take away from a text both as readers and as people. That is, of course, if you think if literature is to attempt to be a comment on the human condition at all.

    Hopefully now Literary Theory will not seem so strange and esoteric.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2014
  2. Swiveltaffy
    Offline

    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 4, 2014
    Messages:
    557
    Likes Received:
    201
    Location:
    Roanoke, TX
    As someone who will need/does want to start learning formal literary theory, I will read this. Hopefully, I'll have something to say.
     
  3. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    You are currently doing a BA degree, right? You will very likely read Literary Theory before the end of your degree. In fact, I'd be amazed if you didn't.
     
    Swiveltaffy likes this.
  4. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,349
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    Good stuff, Lemex. It was a very informative read.
     
  5. Link the Writer
    Offline

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 24, 2009
    Messages:
    11,199
    Likes Received:
    4,209
    Location:
    Alabama, USA
    Interesting theory, though I am here to disagree about one thing...

    My thought is: if the author says it's this or that meaning, then shouldn't we take his/her word for it or at least put it to consideration? For instance, Hemmingway said his book, The Old Man and the Sea was basically just about an old dude's adventure out in sea. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was simply just a romance story between two adulterers yet for both stories, people have dissected it left and right, extrapolating thoughts that the author hadn't intended, or hadn't even thought of.

    Now, I'm not saying it's not right to make up your own mind, Lord no. I'm just saying that if, for instance, Hawthorne were to come up from the grave and said, "Yo, it's just a romance novel, and if you want to take any lesson from it: don't commit adultery!" then shouldn't we take his statement into consideration? Freud even once said, "A cigar is just a cigar." Sometimes a story is exactly how the author wrote it. It's a book about an old man's determined efforts to claim that elusive fish; it's a book about two adulterers in Puritan New England. I had to read the latter for American Lit. back in college and the message I got from it was don't commit adultery and then lie about it to the rest of your community. That may very well have been what Hawthorne was trying to put forth in his work.

    Those were my thoughts. :D Love this thread already.
     
    Andrae Smith likes this.
  6. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,349
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    We should consider it for sure, but we don't necessarily have to believe what the author says. After all, once the book/story/whatever is out there, readers are free to interpret it however they wish. However, I do believe there should be certain restrictions when interpreting texts. One shouldn't, for example, argue that Harry Potter is actually a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Literature is about interpretations, but that doesn't give people (especially students!) the excuse to make up crap.
     
  7. Okon
    Offline

    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2013
    Messages:
    694
    Likes Received:
    389
    I always love a discussion that involves the interpretation of literature, because it tells you more about the person rather than what they're interpreting.

    Also, I think a lot of novels are written because the author hasn't made up her mind on a topic, or doesn't know how to explain it other than in story. It's just her way of sharing an experience or concept which the reader will try to understand in their own way, possibly better than the author ever could have.
     
    Link the Writer likes this.
  8. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,834
    Likes Received:
    10,013
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    It is a bit disquieting as a writer to think that after all the effort one puts into the writing of a story, once it's written it's as if the world of literary theory looks at you over its frumpy reading glasses and says, "Oh, the author. Are you still here? How tedious."
     
  9. Swiveltaffy
    Offline

    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 4, 2014
    Messages:
    557
    Likes Received:
    201
    Location:
    Roanoke, TX
    Regarding author intention, I'd say any information related to an author would be useful. When reading Todesfuge by Paul Celan, it helps to know his life, as this can add to the affect. However, I don't think that an author is the final sayer-person. I don't really think anyone is. If an author meant to say "x," that's cool, but that doesn't mean that "x" can't mean "y" in a different light. I would stress reasonable interpretation, though. I don't agree with this ego of the author being prime. A work must reflect in its audience. The author cannot have the only say. Likely, the author's is often not the most comprehensive, either.
     
  10. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,504
    Likes Received:
    1,337
    A few years ago, I attended a series of concerts by the BCMG, performing largely music by living composers. A number of the composers were actually in attendance, and usually gave an interview where they explained what the piece meant. I came away with a strong feeling that composers were just like footballers - they should stick to doing what they do well (kicking a ball, putting dots on paper) and leave talking to people better qualified. I suppose that authors, however, would probably argue that "words" is what they do well, so what they say has every bit as much relevance as what they write.

    Ah, but, if Hemingway says it's just a simple tale, perhaps there is some hidden meaning...perhaps we need to deconstruct and analyse his interview...
     
  11. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    It is weird to think about at first. That is just how I use theory, you can use theory specifically to try and find authorial intention, but to me it'll be just guess work unless the author is alive. And then there is no need for theory.
     
  12. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,834
    Likes Received:
    10,013
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Aye, but I think it also depends on how mathematically one looks at it. We've had plenty of members here with "post-grad fervor" over literary theory who treat the idea that some works cannot be contextualized as to author intent because the author is absent or unattributable as a kind of mathematical formula. If the formula fails for even one input, the formula is false. If the author is sometimes missing or was never interviewed or whatever, then all literature must be treated as if the author is always missing even if you're in the room with her. This camp exists. I'm sure you've run into them.
     
  13. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    Yeah, I don't see it that way. To me theory is a tool but you don't need to use it all the time. It's more guidelines than actual rules.
     
  14. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,834
    Likes Received:
    10,013
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Well, like when you and I were speaking about New Historicism. It seems to me to be the most valid way to view a work, but at the same time, the most impossible. I am a 21st century man, how do I view an 18th century work as an 18th century reader? How do I slip into that person's skin to digest the work as it would have been digested at that time? This is why I feel it's next to impossible to write historical lit devoid of anachronism in some form, even if it be just the take and sensitivity leant to the matter.
     
  15. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    In a way that uncertainty, actually the understanding of just that impossibility, is what New Historicism is about. As far as I understand it. It is a lot like how authors when they research a historical novel, a New Historicist like professor Greenblatt would look at contemporary non-fictional records primarily, not to see how the author might have thought, but how well the work was received.

    To Greenblatt the author's intent for the work is irreverent if it isn't painfully obvious (like a Donne poem) but what is important is what people at the time thought of the work. A lot of the time it is purely guess work and/or inference. 'King Lear' was very popular as it was staged a lot, brought in a lot of capital, and was condemned by certain people for it's portrayal of ritual that had gone wrong. But that for Greenblatt is also why that play so appealed.

    In a way, Theory has set itself an impossible task, but it is one that seems to never go away. As does all things really, it's imposing order where no order could maybe possibly exist.
     
  16. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    Even Nabokov said, in reference to Lolita (and I'm paraphrasing here), that he only wanted to tell the story. If anyone wanted to project social or political meaning into their reading of it, it had nothing to do with is intent. Coincidently, the interviewer in that discussion then said you can never trust a writer to be honest about his intent, kind of as @thirdwind pointed out.


    You are absolutely right, bringing me to point out something from the OP:
    I think a good question to ask is: Must the meaning of a text always be intended by the author. Sure "intended" does mean planned or meant, but my reading of it also (very) loosely means to create, at least in this context. As all reading is subjective (as is most of reality), I think it's a fair assessment that we as readers project a lot of meaning into texts, primarily based on out backgrounds.

    That's not to say certain meanings aren't there. But perhaps where one see's a timeless romance in Romeo and Juliet, another sees a precursor to young adult fiction. So, another question is: Is meaning really being mined from a story in literary analysis, or is it really--at least in part--injected be each reader's subjective experience?

    That, of course, is outside of the fact that a lot of literary theory and analysis is to discern the original intent of a text. If one really wanted to get some experience with this he or she should study religious texts. There are so many ways to interpret the Bible, alone, but if you can piece together the historical context in which certain passages are set, messages seems to change in potentially enlightening ways--not in the sense that one would become religious, but that a new breath seems to come o the old text.

    Now I'm rambling though.
     
    Lemex likes this.
  17. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,349
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    For me, the artist is dead the second the work of art is shared with others. The artist may share his thoughts/interpretation with us, but we don't have to believe him.
     
    Lemex likes this.
  18. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,834
    Likes Received:
    10,013
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Why would the author lie?
     
  19. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    There is an Oscar Wilde witticism to the effect of 'An artist's greatest fear is being understood'.
     
    Okon and Andrae Smith like this.
  20. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,349
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I didn't mean that the artist would lie. I meant that we don't have to agree with his interpretation of his own work.
     
  21. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    I feel like original intent shouldn't be ignored, but that it is not the only meaning or purpose that can be intended for a piece of art. Art in itself is an experience of cocreation between the artist and the audience (each member). We each are creating what we see or experience with a piece, making art itself a collective activity.

    Well, possibly to protect his or her reputation. For example, take Emile Zola's preface to the second edition of Therese Raquin (sans accents). In it he reacts to the negative backlash he was getting for his book and implores that the story was really just a scientific experiment about mixtures of personalities. I may want to believe him, but given the situation, that may be an attempt at salvaging some credibility. Doesn't mean the latter is true, but it is a possibility.
     
  22. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    Ha! I like that.
     
  23. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    It depends on what the author says of his own work. If Stephen King were to say Carrie was all about the German Reformation, I don't see how such a statement could really be supported by the facts. If Stephen King were to say that Carrie is a metaphor for alcoholism I would likely take it a bit more seriously. Especially considering that is clearly the subtext of The Shining.
     
    Andrae Smith likes this.
  24. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,349
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I think pretty much anything written by King is a metaphor for alcoholism.
     
    Okon likes this.
  25. Lemex
    Offline

    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 2, 2007
    Messages:
    10,507
    Likes Received:
    3,151
    Location:
    Northeast England
    Haha, The Tommyknockers sure was. That and nuclear radiation, but I don't think King knew what he was going for with that subtext!
     

Share This Page