What is Critical Theory?


What is it?

Critical Theory essentially involves finding new and interesting ways of looking at texts and criticizing them. In this case criticism does not involve pointing out faults but instead discussing the different ways that we can interpret a story.


Although this is called Critical Theory there is not one single consistent unified theory that tells us how to criticize a text. Instead, as you will see from the Critical Theory page, there are lots of different theories which each focus on different aspects of a text and result in different interpretations of that text. Generally speaking, you donít have to choose one theory and stick to it, you can use any number of theories on a text and come up with lots of different interpretations, each of which is valid.



When did it start?

At the end of the 19th Century people tended to believe that you could study texts just be reading the words on the page and it wasnít necessary to know anything about the author or the society in which the text was written. In this case you could tell if a text was Ďgreatí because it told you something true and enduring about human nature or revealed some aspect of the world to you in a deeply profound way.


The problem was that all the texts which were defined as Ďgreatí in this way tended to have at least one thing in common: they were all written by men, by men who were white and, more often than not, by men who white and were also dead. Surely some people reasoned, it is not only dead white men who are capable of creating great literature!



What happened then?

Over the last hundred years there has been a huge change in the way that we study texts and two key ideas seem to have emerged:


The first key idea is part of Structuralist, Post-Structuralist and Post Modern movement which points out that the words which we rely on to communicate are vague and filled with ambiguity and as such any text that attempts to communicate with us is subject to uncertainty and perhaps even impossibility. Post-Modernists tend to be very depressed about the nature of humanity and the fact that we are all essentially isolated and alone and canít communicate reliably with anyone.


The second key idea is that a text is inseparable from the culture in which it was written. The culture will influence the text and, in turn, a text that is successful and well liked will tend to support the assumptions and biases that people in that culture have. As such, when we read a text we can become something like mini sociologists and, by spotting the biases and prejudices in a text, learn something about the biases, prejudices and other values of the culture where it was produced. In this sense the study of literature is no longer just about texts but also about the societies in which those texts were produced.



This is a very brief summary of one hundred years of revolutionary thinking. Most of these ideas are discussed in more detail on this page. Rather than slog through the whole thing I suggest you pick out bits that sound interesting or relevant to the texts that you are studying.