Literary Theory: Major Approaches

Positivist biographical approach

  • Which aspects of the author’s life are important to understand the text?
  • Does the text simply mirror experience or does he transform it?
  • What is this image of the world meant for? What is its function for the writer / reader?
  • Is the difference between reality and fiction due to aesthetic reasons or psychological reasons?

Psychoanalytical approach

  • What do the images and conflicts in the text tell you about conflicts in the author’s psyche?
  • What made the author write fiction? What were his / her motives?
  • What do we learn about ourselves reading the text?

New Criticism

  • What is the major topic in the text?
  • Do all elements of the text contribute to the topic or is there something that doesn’t seem to fit at all?
  • How do content and form work together to create unity?


  • What basic oppositions do you find in the text (e. g. male – female, light – darkness)? How are they related to each other?
  • What are the most important elements in the story? What is their function?
  • How to they fit into the context of the genre?
  • How does the world created by the text fit together with how we see the world?


  • Where do basic oppositions in the text (e. g. black – white, old – young) become shaky?
  • Where do you find contradictions?
  • Where do you find shifts in perspective that disrupt the main point of the story?
  • Where do you find gaps in the story? What do they mean?
  • Where do you find references to other parts of the text or to other texts? Do they change the meaning of the text?


  • What is society in this period of history like?
  • What is the author’s position towards society?
  • What position towards society is presented by the text?
  • Does the text present economic or social conflicts?
  • What seem to be the most important issues? Are the characters aware of them?

New Historicism

  • At the time of writing, what seems to be important in art and everyday culture? Who defines what is important? How did they do that?
  • How does the text reflect these things, how and by whom they are made important?
  • How do other texts reflect the relationship between art and culture?

Feminism, Gender Theory, Queer Theory

  • At the time writing, what does it mean to be male / female / lesbian / gay?
  • What does it mean for writing and reading?
  • How are males and females, gays or lesbians presented in the text?
  • Does the text address males / females / gays / lesbians in a specific way?
  • How do female / male / gay / lesbian readers react to this text and to gender-specific literature in general?


  • At the time of writing, how did people react to different cultures, races, genders, and classes?
  • How are people from different cultures portrayed in the text?
  • Does the author follow the rules of the dominant culture? Does he make his own way of writing?

Reader-response criticism

  • What do you expect from this text?
  • What is left unsaid? How does it relate to what is told?
  • How do you respond to the information in the text and how do you react to the gaps?
  • How do your ideas about the text change while you are reading?
  • Why do you respond in a certain way?

Reception theory

  • At the time of writing, what do people expect when they get themselves a book?
  • How does this text fit into this framework of expectations?
  • What is taken for granted in the text and what has to be explained?
  • How did readers and writers actually respond to the text? Why?
  • How do the interpretations of the text change over time? Why?