What is literary theory? An Introduction

Posted in category: Theory
Literary theory and criticism Series Alok Mishra Literature English

What is literary theory? Let’s Understand! 

This question pops up to me every time I meet youngsters who have just begun studying English literature. Moreover, also when I get together with research scholars and professors. And therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to say that literary theory is in fashion and it has been the case for a long time. Today, in this article, I would do my best to make sure that anyone who reads this article to the last line goes home with a complete understanding of the concept that we call literary theory. It should be interesting to note while many of us, students and beginners, know this or that thing about deconstruction, ecocriticism, structuralism and other theories, we seldom bother defining literary theory! Amusing, isn’t it? I have also made a video, short and comprehensive, on this topic and I will add that video here as well as on YouTube so that the readers who rather like to have a visual presentation can enjoy that as well. Without getting into the infinite of arguments and caveats, let’s get into the subject now.

Literary Theory: The idea before we get a suitable definition

The purpose of this section is to introduce the readers to the basics of literary theory before we get into defining that idea. The term theory generally hints at how & why of any execution, action or plan. Here also, even if we have added ‘literary’, the meaning of the term theory does not change. However, when we add literary before theory, we are certainly impacting the connotations. We are limiting the scopes of the term theory. So, the questions or notions relating to how and why of anything relating to literature will be dealt with by the concept called literary theory. Do you get this thing? In simple terms, the very idea of it concerns with literary interpretations, studies, assumptions and conclusions. It impacts the mindset of a reader during the reading of any literary work as well as during critically approaching any literary work. I hope the basic idea should have been easily understood by the readers by now. I will get to the best possible definition of our subject in the next section.

Definition of Literary Theory:

Though it would certainly be naive to put it forth, however, it is surprising that none of the authors with very wonderful titles in the field of literary theory have ventured to define this very thing called literary theory. It would certainly have been encouraging reading the definitions of this broadly-connoting idea by the scholars who have made name for themselves. However, since we don’t have that luxury, it is our job to make our efforts and try to construct a suitable definition. While there are many definitions already available on the internet, I think an easier, comprehensive and a little more than short definition would make the whole concept simple for beginners and comprehensive for advanced level students. Here is an attempt:

“A Literary Theory is a body of logically derived and not easily refutable ideas in a systematic order that we can use while we critically interpret a literary text.”

This definition leads us to understand the act called literary criticism and the person called a literary critic. The act of critically interpreting any literary text with a certain literary theory in mind is called literary criticism and the person involved in this intellectual (rarely emotional) exercise is called a literary critic. The act of literary criticism, in the modern context, has become synonymous (almost) with the idea tossed by I. A. Richards – practical criticism.

Relationship between Literary Theory & Literary Criticism: 

To be frank, it is too naive a question to ask if someone really falls for it. What is the relationship between literary theory and literary criticism? Look at the names themselves. Both theory and criticism have literary as the prefix. Therefore, it is natural that there must be something common between them in the context of their concern with literature. A work of literature or a literary text becomes the playground where a literary critic comes up with a literary theory after an extensive analysis of the given text. Once the theory is established and becomes popular, other concerned people with literature learn about that particular literary theory and subsequently use that theory when they study any literary text in the direction specified in that particular theory. So, in short, the literary text is the basis of this relationship at the outset. This may have become an elaborated background but it was necessary for the beginners to understand the connection in the context of origins of literary theory and literary criticism.

Now, to cut things short and to establish the relationship at a logical level, between literary theory and literary criticism, a very simple idea can drive the cause to its conclusion. Any particular literary theory is the foundation for an act of literary criticism in a particular direction or context or purview. For example, Ecocriticism theory will be the foundation of any study undertaken by a scholar to trace the environmental references in the work of T. S. Eliot.

Though this was the shortcut to establish this relationship which was necessary because many students have asked me about it, I will be writing an entirely different article on this subject. That will be advanced in connotations and meanings and will be useful for those who want to dive to the depths of this wonderful relationship.

Differences between Literary Theory and Literary Criticism:

Once again, this question is too naive if someone asks what are the differences between literary theory and literary criticism. Why do I say so? This is too easy to comprehend. One is a set of ideas or rules that become guiding principles for an act that is called literary criticism. So, the basic and the fundamental difference between literary theory and criticism is that one is theoretical and another is practical. Literary theory is the theoretical part and literary criticism is the practical part of the same larger idea that concerns with the analysis of a literary text.

Like I shared above, I will also be writing an entirely different piece on this subject. I will write it very soon and I will share the link here so that the curious readers who want to go into further details of differences between literary theory and literary criticism can enjoy that article. Right now, we will get into other interesting details related to our major topic. Read the detailed article here: Difference between literary criticism and literary theory

Going into the depths of literary theory and literary criticism:

While this is not very wise to get into the depths of the idea called literary theory and criticism for the beginners and ‘early days’ students of English literature, I will give all of you a 360° view of some of the important, also absurd, contributions, interesting facts and complicated ideas related to literary theory. Let’s begin this happening journey:

  1. The Ambiguity: Applications of literary theories are possible before and after the production of a literary work. Does this idea sound weird? Well, if you consider Aristotle as a literary critic or a literary theorist, you will have to accept that the theories created by him about an ideal tragedy helped many dramatists in Elizabethan age in writing the best-known tragedies. If you consider Longinus and Horace as literary theorists, you will have to admit that their theories in terms of poetry helped many poets in various ages of English literature in producing the poetry of the best possible degree. So, it’s about when any particular theory was propagated and when a literary critic or a writer accesses it and brings into the application. Today, we use theories established the structuralist school, Deconstructionists, Eco-Critical theorists and many others mainly to analyse the text. However, just suppose someone studying any of these theories and modelling a literary work on any of these theories, isn’t that artist using literary theory? He is!
  2. Literary theory is not only about literature: Yes, get it right now! The domain of literary theory is broad and it does not concern only with literature and literary works. It concerns with human evolution, psychology, philosophy, sociology and language and many other elements (with wide ramifications of this term – elements). The obvious reason is that literature itself is not limited to written works by authors. Literature is an ever-expanding idea and if not ever-expanding, literary theory is also an occasionally expanding idea. Therefore, when you begin studying literary theories, you should be open to facing many ideas that will take you in various directions in terms of academic subjects.
  3. Science vs Arts or Intellect vs Emotions: Once you begin digging deeper, you will realise that many literary theories have their foundations in the hardcore scientific notions. However, the problem does not lie there. The problem starts when a literary critic implies that all the aesthetic beauty in a poem by John Keats MUST be subdued because he isn’t saying anything new as he is using the same words which have already been repeated more than billion times… won’t you find yourself in a bemused situation? Well, then you realise that anything other than practical criticism method – reading the text closely and not going beyond the paper – is the only best method applicable when analysing literary texts.

As we have had our time with some of the weird ventures into the world of literary theory and criticism, let’s get to the next stage and we will learn the basics of the popular literary theories.

Literary Theories of different types: 

Dear readers, now, it’s time to read about types of literary theories. To know more about popular literary theories and their basic introduction, you should read the next article in this series. Click the link below to read it now:

Next article in the series: Types of Literary Theories


This article was written by Alok Mishra for English Literature Education.
Alok Mishra is a well-known literary opinion maker, book critic, literary critic and a dedicated literary philanthropist. If you want to join him on his mission to make English Literature easy and freely accessible without the necessary burden of forced interpretations and complicated notions, you can write get in touch with him by visiting his official website: Alok Mishra

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24 Comments. Leave new

  • Chandramani Srivasatav
    February 4, 2024 10:33 am

    Thanks for this amazing article… enjoyed reading it. Helpful and handy for beginners in literary theory studies.

  • Very helpful article… genuinely impressed. I was confused about literary theory. You have helped me with your easy to understand analysis of this difficult topic for many students. Many thanks.

  • Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing it! I was totally confused about the concept. I am just a beginner.

  • I must thank you for this helpful article , literary theory that was very clearly explained that because I’m very happy 😄 thanks 👍 for provide us 😊

  • Tanveer Akhtar Khan
    August 12, 2023 10:52 pm

    Very well done dear Mr. Alok Mishra… The concept ‘literary theory’ is made very clear. The easy & familiar style makes even an average student have a good idea. The other two articles on the subject are also quite enlightening & facilitating for students as well as teachers. Love you…

  • Shalini Dixit
    June 6, 2023 7:18 am

    I must thank you for this helpful article. It helped me understand the very essential meaning of literary theory with its contexts. After reading a few articles, I was confused and almost gave up hope. And then, this site was opened with less hope. Many thanks again sir! I will be a regular reader now. Your writing style is friendly for students. keep up.

  • Shatrughn Sharma
    February 27, 2023 9:35 pm

    Very helpful article! thanks for sharing this. I am an MA student and it helped me understand theory and its purpose.

  • I liked the way you have presented this article. It helped me a lot with my preparation for the exams at hand.

  • That’s a wonderful article. I really appreciate the words you have put up here for many to learn and understand literary theory. Keep doing the great job!

  • This is a very well-explained article! Many thanks for putting such a work online for free.

  • Very well explained… I was very confused about literary theory until I read this article on this website. This explains the concept aptly and also discusses theories of various kinds in detail in the next articles. Thanks again.

  • अनामिका
    June 19, 2022 1:35 pm

    सर शायद विभिन्न स्रोतों से पढ़ने के कारण मैं कन्फ्यूज हो गई हूँ जिससे मैं अभी भी इसे समझ नहीं पा रही हूँ आशा है जल्द ही समझ जाऊँगी

    आपका बहुत बहुत धन्यवाद

    • English Literature
      July 13, 2022 8:08 pm

      एक से अधिक स्त्रोतों से अध्ययन में सहायता लेना सर्वथा ही उचित है, अनामिका! यद्यपि, यह अवश्य ध्यान रहे की आप जिन स्त्रोतों का चयन अपने अध्ययन के लिए करती हैं वो उस योग्य हों। तत्पश्चात, यह भी सुनिश्चित करें के आप सर्वप्रथम किसी सर्वमान्य स्त्रोत से इस विषय की प्रारंभिक जानकारी एकत्र करें एवं उसे सम्पूर्णता से समझ लें! आशा है उसके पश्चात आपकी समस्या नहीं रहेगी। इस आलेख को पढ़ने के लिए धन्यवाद!

  • Thanks very much for your effort, I can say you are almost there.
    I would like you to please do a video on how to critically analyze a text using any theory ( marxist perspective, ecocriticism, feminisms, negrotudism, post coloniality etc. )

  • that’s very amazing sir,but sorry!! I want to ask you important question, firstly I’m an English student/student that loves English very plenty but my major problem concerning English is literature in English/literature!!
    I don’t know how to read a text and find out the settings, and the rest of them,so please can you help me with an ideas of how to find out the settings, plots,and whatsoever?

  • The part talking about science VS art is hard for me to understand;help plz

  • honestly speaking, whenever; i need help i look durectly for indins videos and articuls. Guys you

  • Very much pleased with that explanation

  • Shegaw Tarekegn
    October 11, 2021 12:02 pm

    First ,I must say thank you.your View about literay text and techniques are intersting and acceptable.

  • Hello Sir! I come across with your page and I love your cause of sharing great things about literature. Please allow me to work with you 🙂

    • English Literature
      May 11, 2021 8:35 pm

      Thanks for your message, Mayet! We truly appreciate your wish and you will receive a message from our side very soon. Best wishes!

  • Ameen A. Khalaf
    January 4, 2021 12:42 am

    well done,

  • well done

  • Pushpak Chaudhary
    May 26, 2020 12:42 pm

    I would like to thank the author of this article. I understood what literary theory is and also its differences with literary criticism. The article is written in a simple language and it really helped me. Please write about other literary theories in detail so that I can have a complete idea of different literary theories. thanks again!


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