Literary Theory David Carter - English Literature & Literary Studies

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Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 2Other Pocket Essentials by this author:Georges Simenon

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 3Literary TheoryDavid

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 4This edition published in 2006 by Pocket EssentialsP.O.Box 394, Harpenden, Herts, AL5 David Carter 2006The right of David Carter to be identified as author of this work has been assertedin accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, storedin or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any formor by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording orotherwise) without the written permission of the publishers.Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publicationmay be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.ISBN 1 904048 66 8EAN 978 1 904048 66 42 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1Typeset by Avocet Typeset, Chilton, Aylesbury, BucksPrinted and bound in Great Britain by Cox & Wyman, Reading

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 5For Kim Chan Young and his family

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Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 7AcknowledgementsThe debt to other scholars is enormous, but there issimply no scope within the confines of this modestvolume to acknowledge them all. The authors of theworks included in the section of Reference Material areowed the greatest debt: I frequently compared my opinions with theirs and checked for general agreement onfactual details. On the personal level I have greatly appreciated discussions with Kim Chan Young, well read in thefield, and Kim Duk Yung, a sociologist. I have alsoconsulted students for their opinions on the usefulnessand accessibility of available books on literary theory.Finally I would like to record here the seminal influenceon my own thinking about literature of my ‘Doktorvater’,Dr. Hans Popper, one of that rare breed, which I allude toin my introduction, who made me think seriously aboutthe nature of literature long before it became fashionableto speak of ‘literary theory.’

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Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 9Contents1. Introduction112. The Literary Canon and New Criticism213. Russian Formalism314. Structuralism415. Marxist Theory556. Psychoanalysis707. Hermeneutics and Reception Theory818. Feminist Theory919. Poststructuralism9910. Deconstruction10911. Postcolonial Theory11512. Postmodernism11913. Sexual Orientation Theories12414. Ethnic Theory13015. Recent Trends13316. Theory and After14117. Reference Materials153Index155

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Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 11IntroductionAttitudes to the study of literature have undergonenothing short of a revolution in the last half-century or so.Changes were afoot in the previous half-century but theymoved at nothing like the pace and in nothing like thevariety of ways that have been evident since the SecondWorld War. It is true that writers and critics had beenreflecting on the nature of literature at least since Aristotlebut, in the course of the twentieth century, the wholeconcept of a ‘literary text’ became questionable.As a student of European literature in the 1960s I heardlittle mention by my professors of ‘literary theory.’ Genre(tragedy, the novel, the sonnet etc) was certainlymentioned and so were the writer and the critic, but anyallusion to the reader was rare indeed. Everyone talkedfreely of the writer’s ‘intention’ and the ‘meaning’ of thetext. When it was deemed necessary, one brought inconsideration of the writer’s ‘background’, the ‘historicalcontext’, and the ‘philosophical climate’. There was alsosuch a thing as ‘practical criticism’, which literaturedepartments made their students do, although no-oneexplained to us why we had to do it, or how it would beuseful to us in our studies. It was assumed that its usefulness was obvious.You took a sample of an unfamiliar text,11

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 12DAV I D CA RT E Rtranslated it, if necessary, pointed out a few significantfigures of speech that you recognised, such as a metaphoror a simile, discussed its meanings and implications,brought in a bit of background knowledge, if you had any,and that was about it. If you did this well under examconditions, you passed the exam, proving to all who caredto know that you could analyse literature.There were thegreat writers and the not so great writers and, by heedingone’s professors, one gradually learned to distinguishthem. Occasionally, one heard of a ‘psychoanalytic interpretation’ or a ‘Marxist approach’, but, more often thannot, they were mentioned in a tone that suggested thatthese were slightly disreputable activities. If you werelucky, you might be blessed with one lecturer who wasopen to new ideas and challenges.Then, suddenly, when Iwas a postgraduate in the late 1960s, all these keen younglecturers appeared telling us that our very notion of a‘literary text’ was questionable.Whole edifices of carefullyconstructed bodies of knowledge started to shake at thefoundations. Nothing was sure or sacred anymore. It wasbecoming difficult to utter a word of comment onanything, especially literary works, without justifyingyourself theoretically. Naturally the question arose, ‘Whydo we need theory?’ Hadn’t we been managing quite wellwithout it, thank you very much, for some considerabletime?Why Theory?What professors, teachers and lesser mortals did notrealise, or were reluctant to admit, was that, in fact, they12

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 13L I T E R A RY T H E O RYhad been using theory all their adult life, withoutknowing it (rather as Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s playLe Bourgeois Gentilhomme does not realise, until it ispointed out to him, that he has been speaking prose all hislife). How could this be? Quite simply because there is‘live theory’ (theory we consciously consider whenmaking judgements) and ‘dead theory’ (the theory whichlies behind the assumptions we hold when making judgements but which has become so integrated into ourcommon practice that we are no longer aware of it). Manyhad been discussing literature using ‘dead theory’, withouthaving bothered to analyse their own presuppositions. Sothe answer to the question ‘Why theory?’ is quite simple:because it is better and more honest to be aware of thereasons why you do something than to be ignorant ofthem. If this maxim holds good for all human endeavours,then there is no reason why the study of literature shouldbe exempt from it.The problem is that defining what counts as ‘theory’and what one means by ‘literary’ is no easy task. Mostcritics and theorists have grappled bravely with theproblem but have finally given up, declaring that it doesnot matter anyway. Some theorists lead one to the conclusion that literary theory does not really exist as an independent discipline. There is, many claim, just ‘Theory’,theory about everything from literature to lesbianism,from hooliganism to horror films. Since many books areto be found with the phrases ‘Literary Theory’ or ‘Theoryof Literature’ in their titles, however, it is clear that thereis a body of thought to which the terms can be applied.There is a kind of theory with literature as its focus.This13

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 14DAV I D CA RT E Ris an important fact to establish, because there are otherkinds of theory, such as ‘Critical Theory’ and ‘CulturalTheory’, which rely on the same theorists and schools ofthought as ‘Literary Theory’. The difference betweenthem all is clearly one of focus and attention. The theorists and schools of thought considered in this book havein common the fact that they challenge ‘common sense’notions of what literature is. They often question ourassumptions about ‘great literature’ and propose differentways to analyse and evaluate it. However, any vague statement about literature (such as ‘All literature is escapist’)does not constitute a theory. It must meet more stringentrequirements to be considered both valuable and valid.What Counts as Theory?Clearly, in the first instance, a theory must attempt toexplain something. Its proponents may believe that it doesthis successfully but others may not. Jonathan Culler, aneminent populariser of literary theory, has made a usefuldistinction: ‘ to count as a theory, not only must anexplanation not be obvious; it should involve a certaincomplexity’ (Culler, 1997). Unfortunately, many theoristshave not only recognised this basic truth but have taken ittoo passionately to heart, cloaking their insights inobscure language. Yet it is clearly true that new understanding often comes only after developing a model ofsome complexity in the mind. Literature, in all its forms,treats of human life, its nature and problems, its mode ofexistence, its ways of coexistence and thought, and itsbelief systems. Any theory about these phenomena can,14

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 15L I T E R A RY T H E O RYtherefore, be considered relevant to the study of literature.However, the actual application of such theories is acomplex procedure, fraught with pitfalls, to which therevered academic, as much as the novice scholar, isdisturbingly liable to succumb. Misinterpretation, falseanalogy, unfounded generalisation, reductive argument –all these hazards lie in wait for the unsuspecting critic. Itis also, therefore, in the nature of theory that not only doesit have some complexity but that it is also often difficultto prove or disprove.A theory may sound very convincingbut can it be proved to have validity? If it cannot beproved, does it thereby lose its usefulness? And whatwould constitute proof, or disproof, of any given theory?Does it finally matter whether it can be proved or not?These are questions which it is difficult enough to answerin the fields of the so-called natural sciences and in sociology, psychology and other disciplines. What of literarytheory? It would seem wise to consider first exactly whatthe object of study is.What is Literature?Because many theorists have been primarily concernedwith phenomena other than literature (psychoanalystswith the human mind, Marxists with human existence ina capitalist society etc), it has often been of only secondaryimportance to them whether a text they are consideringcan be deemed to be literary or not. Often the samemethodology is applied in analysing texts, which mayresemble each other in many ways, but which must beidentified differently. One can imagine, for example, one15

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 16DAV I D CA RT E Rtext which is a short story told in the first person, takingthe form of a confession to a murder, and another textwhich is an actual signed confession by a real murderer.They might be almost identical in language, structure andcontent. The important difference is, of course, that thereader knows that one is a story and the other a realconfession, and judges them accordingly. In the case of thestory, the reader might consider whether or not it was realistic or whether or not the character was telling the truth,but would not need to question whether or not it was anauthentic document, written by the person named. In thecase of the real confession, it would be possible, in principle, to check its truth content against known facts. Thiswould not be possible, nor would it be relevant in the caseof the story.The reader thinks this way because he or sheknows that the story is a literary text. But how is it obviousthat the text has a quality which we call ‘literariness’?It would seem that a definition of ‘literariness’ shouldbe of urgent concern.Yet the authors of books on literarytheory provide no such adequate definition.This is likelyto be due to the nature of language as much as to theincompetence of theorists.The lack of a definition, whichcould be applied to all works regarded as literature, is notnecessarily a bad thing. Many of the most useful words, inall languages, are useful precisely because they do notdesignate something very specific, but identify a range ofmeanings and related phenomena. Where would we bewithout such words as ‘Love’, ‘Hate’, ‘Work’, ‘Business’,and, more pertinently, ‘Music’, ‘Drama’, ‘Art’, etc? All thethings which we might group together and to which wemight apply one of these words bear family resemblances16

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 17L I T E R A RY T H E O RYto each other, but they are also all highly individual. If wehad to have words for every single experience, we wouldnot be able to communicate with each other about thoseexperiences. We need words, such as ‘literature’ and‘literary’, indicating such family resemblances, to enable usto communicate information about individual differencesto each other. All attempts at defining literature thereforehave proved to be only partial and thus of little practicaluse: the best that has been thought and said; languagetaken out of context; language organised in a special waywhich distinguishes it from its other uses; language used tocreate a fictional world. None of these definitions is closeto being adequate or useful, because none of them refersexclusively to literary language (a mentally ill person, forexample, can also create a fictional world).The words ‘literature’ and ‘literary’ have also changedtheir meaning over time. Before about 1800 literaturemeant all kinds of writing, including history and philosophy, and it is possible to trace the gradual shifts in meaningall the way up to the present.This all leads to an inevitableconclusion: that literature is what a given society at a giventime considers it to be. This may not be a very usefulconclusion, but it is certainly true, and it is also true of‘Music’,‘Drama’ and ‘Art’. Once you try to apply a specificdefinition, you find that there are examples of non-literaryphenomena to which it applies and literary phenomena towhich it does not. Most literature is, of course, fiction butmost people would also agree that not all fiction (eg comicbooks, nursery rhymes, and pornography) is literary. On theother hand travel journals (presumably non-fiction) areconsidered by many to be literature.17

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 18DAV I D CA RT E RTo read literature is therefore to become involved in aconspiracy. A publisher conspires with a writer to publishsomething the latter has written.The writer swears that hehas written the book himself and not stolen the materialfrom another writer (or indeed from police records, if it isour imagined short story). The publisher publishes thework in a series of books identified in a catalogue as literature. Then a critic reads the book and joins theconspiracy by accepting that it is indeed literature. He orshe writes a review of it, identifying it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’literature, according to personal experience and values. Ifhe is a good critic, he or she considers qualities of style,structure, use of language, psychological insight, reflectionof social issues, plotting and the like. A reader of thisreview is then prompted to buy the book and finds itshelved under ‘Literature’ or ‘Fiction’ in a local bookshop.The blurb confirms the fact that it is a novel. The readerthen reads the work, bringing to bear on it ways ofthinking learned through education to be appropriate tothe reading of a novel. If the work is found to be ‘good’,it is recommended to a friend. Thus all parties haveconspired to confirm the existence of a work of literature.It was the realisation that what counted as ‘literature’and ‘good literature’ in any given society at any given timewas a matter of convention that enabled theorists toconsider further how such conventions were establishedand the possibilities of alternative conventions. It made itpossible to consider literature in close comparison withother cultural phenomena and in the light of theoriesdeveloped to explain them.18

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 19L I T E R A RY T H E O RYHazard WarningsWith literary interpretation, if anything goes, thennothing comes of it.The more it seems like madness, themore need there is to have method in it.The philosopherKarl Popper coined the very useful concept of ‘falsifiability’ to refer to a characteristic any theory must have ifit is to be considered truly scientific.This concept enablesone to identify many fields of study, in addition to thoseof the natural sciences, as incorporating rigorous criteriafor the truth value of their findings. Basically, to be trulyscientific, a theory must be ‘falsifiable.’That is to say that itmust be so formulated that it must be possible to predictunder what circumstances it could be proven false. Ofcourse, the flip-side of this is that it must also be possibleto present evidence to demonstrate that it is true. A clearexample of a pseudo-science, in other words a pseudotheory, is astrology. It is obviously not possible to prove ordisprove the influence of heavenly bodies on the fates ofhuman beings. The fact that astrology is not falsifiable, ofcourse, only encourages many to believe in it! What manydo not realise, or will not admit, is that the concept of‘falsifiability’ can also be applied to interpretations of literature and theories about literature.Analysing a work of literature from whatever theoretical perspective also requires rigorous attention toevidence. If, leaving aside the vexed question of whetherit is literature or not, one considers possible interpretations of the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffet whomemorably sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey, andwho was promptly frightened away by a big spider, then19

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 20DAV I D CA RT E Rit is possible, in principle, to prove or disprove, by rigoroushistorical research, the theory that the rhyme reflects theeating habits of poor country people. But it would beconsiderably more difficult to prove, or disprove, thevalidity of an interpretation which suggested that thespider symbolised a fear, common among country-girls atsome time in the English Middle Ages, of being raped bydark strangers.In my accounts of each of the theories explained in thisbook, I shall endeavour to indicate any problems in theirapplication to literature. The sequence is not strictlychronological, although it is partly so.Theories dependentconceptually and logically on earlier ones do appear laterin the book (post-structuralism after structuralism, feminism after psychoanalysis etc). As a final warning I wouldlike to remind the reader that the interpretation of literature according to a specific theory can itself be reinterpreted according to another theory ad infinitum. In thewords of Professor Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s novelSmall World, which satirises literary scholars, ‘Everydecoding is another encoding.’A note on conventions in the textWhen a quotation is identified by the author’s namefollowed by a date and both are enclosed in brackets, thisrefers to the edition of the author’s work included in thebibliography. Where the names of theorists and criticshave been used as headings, their dates have been givenwhen possible. When it has not proved possible to tracedates with certainty, they have been omitted.20

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 21The Literary Canon and New CriticismMost books on the development of literary theory inEngland start with Matthew Arnold, because he usheredin an era in which literature was to be considered byinfluential critics as the central repository of Englishculture and values. These critics were to have lastingeffects on the ways in which many generations of studentsperceived the significance of literature. F R Leavis and thepoet T S Eliot, above all, established the notion of theexistence of a literary canon of undeniably great works ofliterature. I A Richards, with his focus on close textualanalysis, inspired the development of the so-called NewCriticism in America.Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)Arnold, an educator, poet and professor of poetry atOxford University, was of the opinion that literature, apartfrom its pleasing aesthetic qualities, had an educational rolein people’s lives. He believed that the persistence of Englishculture was threatened by the growth of Philistine values,which were being encouraged by the rise of a middle classobsessed with material wealth.As he believed that religionhad been undermined by Darwin’s theory of evolution, he21

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 22DAV I D CA RT E Rexpressed the wish that poetry would take its place inmen’s hearts. Poetry would interpret life for us all andconsole us, as indeed it had always done, dating back toantiquity. Arnold famously defined culture as ‘the best thathas been thought and said in the world’ (Culture andAnarchy, 1869).This culture was to be a bulwark against thechaotic life of the working class and the illusions by whichmiddle-class Protestants lived. Through culture it waspossible to be free from fanaticism and move towards anexistence of sweetness and light. Culture encouraged ‘thegrowth and predominance of our humanity proper, asdistinguished from our animality’ (ibid).The problem with Arnold’s ideas for more recent theorists has been that he thought the values of the culture,which he espoused, were eternally true for every age andall conditions of human beings. All people, at all times,were capable of aspiring to the same ideals.The essence oftrue culture transcended history. Recent critics havefound it difficult to go along with his notion of poets assomehow having access to eternally valid wisdom whichthey impart to others. Basically, Arnold saw literature asthe domain of high-minded intellectuals and his definition excluded the writing of a large part of the populace.T S Eliot (1888–1965)After the First World War, the American-born poet,T S Eliot, took up Arnold’s challenge and began to reassessthe literary culture of England. In the words of the Britishtheorist Terry Eagleton, he set about conducting ‘a wholesale salvage and demolition job on its literary traditions’22

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 23L I T E R A RY T H E O RY(Eagleton, 1983). Eliot was very largely responsible forformulating what already existed as a loosely drawn uplist: the canon of English literature (the indisputably goodand great works). He made poetry central to his theoryand focused specifically on the poem as a text. For himpoetry should be impersonal. In Traditional and theIndividual Talent (1919), he asserted that a poet did nothave ‘a personality’ to express but a particular medium.Poetry was to serve as an escape from the self: ‘Poetry isnot a turning loose of emotion, but an escape fromemotion; it is not the expression of personality, but anescape from personality’ (ibid). The poet’s personal andsocial circumstances were secondary to the poetry itself,and he/she should not indulge in expressions of profoundemotion, but seek what he called, in the essay Hamlet(1919), an ‘objective correlative’: ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of thatparticular emotion.’ Emotion should be conveyed indirectly. Through the awareness of an ironic perception ofthe world and of paradoxes, the reader should be challenged and made to think. This meant of course thatEliot’s canon of good poetry was severely limited inscope: he found little use for most of the poets in theprevious two centuries!Eliot considered literature (and especially poetry) to bein direct opposition to the modern world. Poetry couldprovide the profound experience that the modern world,with its utilitarian materialism, could not offer. Poetryespecially could recapture a lost ideal of wholeness andconvey complex meanings which we would otherwisesimply not perceive. Eliot’s ideas greatly influenced a group23

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 24DAV I D CA RT E Rof academics at Cambridge University, including IARichards and F R Leavis, who, in turn, were to exert longlasting influence on critical thinking about literature.The Newbolt ReportThe importance of government education policy on thestudy of literature in schools should not be ignored. Agovernment report entitled The Teaching of English inEngland (1921), the author of which was Sir HenryNewbolt, strongly encouraged the study of English literature in educational institutions. It is full of sentimentwhich owes much to Arnold and Eliot: ‘Literature is notjust a subject for academic study, but one of the chieftemples of the Human Spirit, in which all should worship’and it is ‘an embodiment of the best thoughts of the bestminds, the most direct and lasting communication ofexperience by man to man.’ For Newbolt, literature alsohad the function of creating a sense of national identity,serving to ‘form a new element of national unity, linkingtogether the mental life of all classes’. All these ideas, ofcourse, were articulated in the aftermath of the FirstWorld War and have to be viewed in that context.I A Richards (1893–1979)Following Eliot’s emphasis on the poem as text, Richards,an academic at Cambridge, with a background inaesthetics, psychology and semantics, published a widelyinfluential book in 1924, Principles of Literary Criticism. Heargued that criticism should emulate the precision of24

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 25L I T E R A RY T H E O RYscience and differentiate the ‘emotive’ language of poetryfrom the ‘referential’ language of non-literary works. ForRichards, poets are able to articulate the chaos of theworld around them and gain control of it. They canreconcile contradictions and transcend self-centredness.Literature helps us to evaluate our personal experiences. Itconveys a certain type of knowledge which is not factualor scientific but concerned with values.In his book Practical Criticism (1929), Richards includedexamples of work by his students, in which theyattempted to analyse short unidentified poems.This exercise rapidly became the standard method of trainingstudents in critical analysis, both in Great Britain andAmerica. As it involved the ruthless exclusion of anyconsideration of context, historical or social, and of thebiography of the author, its scope was limited but it didhave one positive effect. It nurtured the close reading ofliterary texts. Many subsequent theorists have lamentedthe passing of this skill. Richards left Cambridge in 1929and settled at Harvard University. His subsequent workgreatly influenced the development of what becameknown as American New Criticism.William Empson (1906–1984)William Empson was a student of Richards and heproduced his first and most famous work, Seven Types ofAmbiguity (1930), when he was still a student. ForEmpson, ambiguity was the defining characteristic ofpoetic language. He shared Richards’ passion for closereading of texts, which has led many to ally him with the25

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 26DAV I D CA RT E RAmerican New Critics, but, in many ways, he wasopposed to their major doctrines. He preferred to treatpoetry as a type of utterance which has much continuitywith ordinary ways of speech. He also took seriously intoaccount what he conceived the author’s intentions to be.He did not examine works in isolation but was concernedto consider how the words were used in social contexts.For him, a final coherent interpretation of a poem wasimpossible. The ambiguities he discovered in poetry couldnever be given a specific final interpretation. Poeticlanguage was suggestive of inexhaustible meaning. Forthese reasons, his ideas have often found more sympathywith the common reader than with academic critics,concerned as they are, for the most part, with precise definition. Empson was a highly idiosyncratic thinker, notreally belonging to any school, and is doubtless longoverdue for reassessment.New CriticismAmerican New Criticism, which was active from the late1930s to the late 1950s, also took on most of the ideas ofEliot and Richards, as well as those of Empson. Themovement had its roots in the American South, whichhad long been backward economically, but was thenundergoing rapid modernisation. The leading critics hadmuch sympathy with similar reactions against rapidmodernisation among British critics. Prominent amongthe group were John Crowe Ransom, W K Wimsatt,Monroe C Beardsley, Cleanth Brooks and Mark Schorer.For the New Critics, poetry was also central to their26

Literary Theory23/5/068:40 amPage 27L I T E R A RY T H E O RYconcerns and seen as a quasi-religious defence againststerile scientific modes of thought. An alienated worldcould be reanimated. Poetry could remain untouched bythe prevalent materialism all around. A poem existed as aself-evident, unique entity. It could not be paraphrased,nor could it be expressed other than as it was. Everyelement in a poem was in balanced integration with everyother element, leading to a coherence of the whole. Apoem was considered as an object in itself, cut off fromboth author and the world around it. This view was, ofcourse, completely compatible with Richards’ procedureof ‘practical criticism’.Yet New Criticism did not consider the poem to be cutoff completely from reality. It was not, in other words, anentirely formalist approach, which would involve examining only the form of an isolated entity. The poem wasseen somehow to incorporate the outside world withinitself. In practice, New Criticism concentrated on paradoxes and ambivalence which could be established in thetext.For John Crowe Ransom, in an essay called Criticism.Inc (1937), a poem creates harmony and coherence fromthe chaos of experience: ‘The poet perpetuates in hispoem an order of existence which in actual life isconstantly crumbling beneath his touch.’ In The Languageof Paradox (1942), Cleanth Brooks wrote that ‘it wieldstogether the discordant and the contradictory’.W K Wimsatt and Mo

Introduction 11 2. The Literary Canon and New Criticism 21 3. Russian Formalism 31 4. Structuralism 41 5. Marxist Theory 55 6. Psychoanalysis 70 7. Hermeneutics and Reception Theory 81 . sion that literary theory does not really exist as an inde-pendent discipline. There is, many claim, just 'Theory',

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