Through the Literary Looking Glass
Critical Theory in Practice
Sian Evans (Knox Grammar School)
Why literary theory?
 Social purpose: to make literature more
applicable to a varied modern audience
 Academic purpose: to justify the academic
value of studying literature by qualifying the
theoretical process in a scientific manner
What theory means for teachers:
An answer to the tough questions!
 “Why do we have to do this?”
 “What is the point of studying literature?”
 “Aren’t you making up stuff the author never
What theory means for students:
 They choose their own ways into texts
 They can offer a fresh and original view of a
classic text
 Deeper literary analysis
 Broader connections across texts
 Meaningful application to their own lives
Approaching literature
 What is my own natural
reading practice?
 What first made you decide to
study literature?
 What did you hope to gain from
 Was that hope realised?
 What have your studies in
literature taught you about life,
human nature, or literature itself?
Traditional literary criticism
Close Reading
 Reading the text largely in
isolation  it contains
everything we need
 Touches on plot, character,
setting, style
 Focus on theme: author’s
exploration of human nature,
and a moral or didactic
message on how we should
“Liberal Humanism”
 Liberal = not politically
radical, non-committal on
political issues
 Humanism = non-Marxist,
non-feminist, non-theoretical
 Belief in “human nature” as a
constant, which great
literature expresses
Looking at literature in new ways
‘Our job is not to produce “readings” for our
students but to give them the tools for producing
their own. Our job is not to intimidate students
with our own superior textual production; it is to
show them the codes upon which all textual
production depends, and to encourage their own
textual practice.’
– Robert Scholes (Textual Power, 1986)
Applying Liberal Humanism: “Miss Brill”
How would a traditional close reading
approach to the story present itself?
 A comment on human nature
 A criticism of society
 A warning to the individual
 Focus on author’s didactic purpose
Freudian Psychoanalytic Criticism
 Psychoanalyses characters within a text (or an author by
studying a range of their work), OR:
 Attempts to discover unconscious motivations and feelings of a
character/author, OR:
 Demonstrates classic Freudian stages, conditions or processes
within a text, OR:
 Analyses how great works of literature gain popularity through
a psychological hold on society.
Freudian Criticism: Key Terms
Developmental stages:
 Oedipal complex
 Id, ego, superego
Dream works:
 Displacement
(= metonymy)
 Condensation
(= metaphor)
Unconscious Processes:
 Repression
 Transference
 Projection
 Sublimation
 Parapraxis
Applying Freudian Criticism:
“Miss Brill”
 The story is viewed as a case study in processes of
unconscious repression
 Miss Brill represses both her desire for companionship and
her knowledge of the sadness of her own life
 Sublimation: “not sad exactly – something gentle”
 Projection: “something funny about them”
 Transference of emotions to fox fur
 Dream work: deals with her desires through fantasy
Applying Freudian Criticism:
“Miss Brill”
 Conclusion: Miss Brill has not successfully negotiated
the Oedipus complex, and as a result has an
unhealthy id/superego balance
 Story works as “good literature” because it resonates
with readers: the process we see in Miss Brill is one
we have all negotiated (with varying degrees of
Applying Freudian Criticism
 “Lord of the Flies”
 “Hamlet”
 “Great Expectations”
 Works of the Brontë
Select a text that you
teach or know well and
brainstorm a rough draft
of a Freudian
psychoanalytic reading.
Psychoanalytic Criticism
Freudian Psychoanalysis
• Unconscious processes
• Resolution of the
Oedipal complex: id 
• Dream analysis
Lacanian Psychoanalysis
• Development occurs in
terms of relationship
with language
• Resolution of the
Oedipal complex =
transition from the
imaginary  symbolic
The mirror stage
Recognition of law
Discovery of language
Lacanian Psychoanalytic Criticism
 More likely to focus on psychoanalysing the
text as a whole, rather than looking at
individual themes or characters
 Sees the text as an enactment of Lacanian
views on language and the unconscious
 Demonstrates broader Lacanian processes
or ideas within the text
Lacanian Criticism: Key Concepts
 Infant
 Adult
 Undefined sense of self
 Separation of own
 Undefined relationship
internal identity and
perceived external
 Fits into pre-existing
structures (language,
social conventions)
 Big ‘A’ (Other)
to exterior world (eg.
Symbiotic & confused
relationship with
 Little ‘a’ (other)
Lacanian Criticism: Key Concepts
Progression from Imaginary to Symbolic stages occurs
 Mirror stage
The understanding that there is an external concept of
“me”, seen by others, which doesn’t correspond exactly
to my own view of myself
 Recognition of law
External rules, networks and conventions pre-exist me,
and I will have to conform to them rather than vice versa
 Discovery of language
Similarly, my thoughts and communication must conform
to a pre-existing system
Applying Lacanian Criticism:
“Miss Brill”
 The story sets up an immediate other/Other
tension: we are seeing the world through Miss
Brill’s eyes, but also seeing Miss Brill through the
eyes of a third-person narrator
 Miss Brill is trapped in the Imaginary stage
Displays interest in surroundings without
considering her own place in this world
Seems to think it exists only for her enjoyment
(music changes to reflect her moods)
Applying Lacanian Criticism:
“Miss Brill”
 She begins to recognise that she cannot control the
world when a “little dog trot[s] on solemnly”
 Develops the fantasy of the play in an attempt to place
herself (Other) in this pre-existing world
 Lacan’s mirror stage forced upon her through the
notice of the young girl, and realises that her external
Other is very different from her internal other
 Transfers comments to her fox fur, making this her
Other  fails to come to terms with the Symbolic
Applying Lacanian Criticism
 Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
 Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett)
 Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
 Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk)
 The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)
 Linguistics vs literary theory
 Super-close analysis of technical aspects of text
Lexical choice
Grammatical forms
Literary devices
 Move from ‘sentence grammar’ to ‘text grammar’:
how text works as a whole to achieve its overall
 Existing readings vs new readings
 Applied to any text (literature, advertisements,
Stylistics vs close reading
 Relationship between literary & everyday language
 Analysable components vs ‘impenetrable essence’
 Uses hard data to back up claims
 Scientific objectivity
 Specialised technical vocabulary
 Compare:
“Hemingway has a plain style which is very
“73% of the verbs Hemingway uses in…are
without adjectival or adverbial qualification”
Stylistic analysis:
some common terminology
Different sentence patterns in
which verbs can occur
Lack of adequate words to
express a concept
Expected co-occurrence of
Lexical items used to bind
grammatically separate
sentences into a single utterance
Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill”
“ Although it was so brilliantly fine – the blue sky
powdered with gold and great spots of light like white
wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques – Miss Brill
was glad that she had decided on her fur.”
Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill”
 Language shifts from the (narrator’s) boldly creative to
(Miss Brill’s) insipid and often negative
 Consider these connotations in the first paragraph:
moth powder
Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill”
Ambiguity and ‘woolliness’ about lexical choice which
reflect Miss Brill’s lack of clear insight
“a faint chill”
“some black composition”
“not at all firm”
Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill”
• Under-lexicalisation, hedging, lack of cohesion
 “Now there came a little ‘flutey’ bit – very pretty! – a little
chain of bright drops”
• Conditionals
 “if he’d been dead she mightn’t have noticed for weeks”
• Questioning
 “Was the conductor wearing a new coat?”
• Hedging conjunctions
 but (x13)
 though (x5)
 if (x5)
 yet (x3)
Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill”
Compare the language of the young girl:
• “No, not now.”
• “That stupid old thing”
• “at the end there.”
• “It’s exactly like fried whiting.”
Followed by Miss Brill’s first use of precision and
• “like a cupboard.”
Applying Stylistics
 Short texts cf.
 Poetry, speeches,
short stories
 Close reading of
studied or
unfamiliar texts
Start with a word cloud
Start with tone
Start with connotation
Move to syntactical and
grammatical choices 
do they back up your
existing ‘liberal
humanist’ reading?
Structuralism: background concepts
 Nothing can be understood in isolation; texts must
always be viewed in terms of larger structures of
which they form a part
 A concept, word or text can only be understood in
how it relates to others of its kind
 There is no meaning contained inside a text (or
word, or concept); meaning must attributed from
 No differentiation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art
 Ignores moral or didactic implications of literature,
and focuses solely on how it is constructed
 Relates texts to a larger containing structure
(conventions, genre, universal narrative, complex
pattern of motifs)
 Interprets literature in terms of underlying parallels
in the structure of language
 Treats language and literature as a ‘system of signs’ to
be decoded by the reader
Structuralism: Key Processes
Literary Codes
 Proairetic: provides indications
of action (story)
Hermeneutic: poses questions
to provide narrative suspense
Cultural: contains references to
‘common knowledge’ beyond
the text
Semic: connotations inherent in
word choices (style)
Symbolic: basic binary
polarities in the text (theme)
Structuralists look for:
 Parallels in plot
 Echoes in structure
 Reflections/repetitions in
character and motive
 Contrasts in situation or
 Patterns in language and
Applying Structuralism: “Miss Brill”
 Consider “Miss Brill” as a
single utterance within
the ‘language’ of
Katherine Mansfield’s
stories. Does it form part
of any wider cycle? Is it
similar to others in its
structure and content?
 Do you note any binary
polarities in terms of
characters, setting or
theme in the story?
 Stories concerned with
Burnell and Sheridan
families – reader gains
understanding of each of
these in terms of the others
 Similar to “Bliss” in that it
conveys a huge shift of
feeling in main character,
during a single scene
 Male/female, youth/age,
talking/silence, light/dark,
Applying Structuralism
“Romeo and Juliet”:
• Structured around a series of binary oppositions –
Montagues/Capulets, parents/children, love/hate,
light/dark, Verona/Mantua, etc.
• Part of the wider structure of myth, love story,
Shakespeare’s tragedies, etc.
• Can easily be analysed using Vladimir Propp’s seven
spheres of actions (character types) and thirty-one
functions (plot events)
Further Literary Theories:
“Social” Theory
“Technical” Theory
 New Historicist criticism
 Post-structuralism
 Feminist criticism
 Deconstruction
 Lesbian/gay criticism
 Postmodernism
 Marxist criticism
 Narratology
 Postcolonial criticism
 Ecocriticism
 Cultural materialism
Want to explore further?
 Your local university library or bookshop
 Terry Eagleton, Peter Barry, Green & LeBihan
 “Through the Literary Looking Glass” published
 Email me for geeky discussion:
[email protected]

Why literary theory? - English Teachers Association of NSW