How to use literary theory in academic writing
Incorporating a theoretical approach like new historicism, feminism, psychoanalysis, or deconstruction into a scholarly paper often provides a useful framework. It helps determine what details to focus on and what field-specific vocabulary to use.
Scholars developed myriad ways to interpret fiction, art, and history during the 20th century. To illustrate how different literary theories explain texts differently, I’ll use “The Lord of the Rings.”
Originally written during 1937-49, recently adapted into film in 2001-3, “The Lord of the Rings” takes the form of an epic quest where a band of heroes (elf, dwarf, human, wizard, hobbit) seek to destroy a ring that has a lot of power for evil. The hobbit, patently the weakest of the party, is the one with the greatest burden, the one who ultimately must destroy the ring.
The political and cultural (sociopolitical, if you will) background in which the text was made (and in which it is interpreted) always, always influences how you interpret it, say the New Historicists. They would note that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote LOTR between 1937 and 1949, as Nazism was on the rise; that he set it in a pseudo-medieval era where races (dwarfs, elves, humans, orcs, wizards) battled each other; that it was made into a film in the 21st century, when the world was preoccupied by fear of terrorism and of apocalyptic climate change. They would also acknowledge and explore how the culture and politics they grew up in influence (and even distort) their analysis.
New Historicists might start by examining what the word “power” meant in the different relevant eras:
(from the Oxford English Dictionary)
1330 Sir Degare (Auch.) 8 in W. H. French & C. B. Hale Middle Eng. Metrical Romances (1930) 288: In Litel Bretaygne was a kyng Of gret poer in alle thing, Stif in armes vnder sscheld.
1938 R. J. SONTAG Germany & Eng. I. iv. 88 This was contempt for British statesmen and the British army; but not for the potential power of the British Empire.
1992 Utne Reader Mar.-Apr. 122/3 (advt.) The Greens: What they believe, their prospects in the U.S., and what if they achieved power?
New Historicists might conclude that in 1330, power meant the rule of one, a king, over a land; that by 1937, power took on a more negative meaning, and referred more generally to imperialist power; that in 1992, power had less to do with might and more to do with political manipulation.
“The Lord of the Rings” means something quite different for someone who watches the film in post 9/11 world than someone reading it in the 1940s. In the 1940s, it might have seemed to echo of Nazism, and the dark lord Sauron a Hitler figure, wanting to create a supposedly perfect race. Someone who read it in the 1950s might have seen red—Communism, that is—and in Lord Sauron, a “big brother” Stalin type. And it might remind a 21st century audience of terrorism, Sauron as someone who wants to destroy and attack and make people fearful.
This approach explains actions and events through the human motivations and desires that cause them. For example, traditional drives that we see at work in humans is the struggle to take the place of someone in power (the father figure), and the desire to possess something valuable to that person (the mother figure), and by so doing, achieve a clear identity (the self, Oedipus).
A psychoanalytic reading might examine the phallic relationship between the ring and the finger, shown repeatedly in close-ups in the movie; the ways that characters’ relationships can be seen as similarly structured as the family (Frodo sees Gandalf as a father figure; does part of him envy and want to take the place of Gandalf)? In a way, all the characters are Oedipal, striving against Sauron, a father figure, in order to possess the ring, a mother figure. Gollum’s (and other’s) obession with the ring “my precious” emphasizes how the desire to possess the ring comes from humans’ deep seated sexual desires.
Interpretation 1: “Lord of the Rings” marginalizes the role of women in this story. It’s a man’s story. One of the few important women characters is only a sidekick, told by men where to go, loving the hero unconditionally, giving up her eternal life for him. The whole story is a male-driven concept of domination – people strive to possess the ring so they can dominate others. The dialogue often makes use of words that efface an ideology in the world of Middle Earth as rooted in values of conquering, possessing, controlling, destroying.
Interpretation 2: “Lord of the Rings” empowers the role of women. Frodo, who is at the beginning of the story the weakest, and the hobbits are, can be seen in the society of Middle Earth as gendered feminine, concerned about traditional feminine things like keeping house, cooking yummy meals, and staying safe. But it is Frodo who ultimately is the most powerful in this story, making LOTR a revisionist text whose message is that great power and evil can be defeated not through force and power, as the humans or dwarfs or orcs might try, but through an alternate approach. The hobbits, paradoxically, are the most powerful because they are able to resist the allure of masculinized power.
Poststructuralism argues that a text has no independent meaning. It depends completely on the way people read it. All meaning, poststructuralists say, is a construction of words, which have no inherent meaning, but are the result of culture and time and place. Some poststructuralist theories include postcolonialism, reader-response theory, and deconstructionism.
Deconstructionism attacked the assumption that you can ever say, definitely, that a text or event means X. It asserts that our belief that meaning can be stable, universal, or ahistorical is a construct of the human mind.
Deconstruction might examine a phrase like “The ring of power” for clues of incoherence.
For example, LOTR often mentions the power of the ring, explains it is very powerful, and that it is evil, but doesn’t exactly explain what that power allows people to do. Maybe this is because a term like “power” is very complex. The ring has power to control. But this can mean that the ring can give control to a person and that it controls the person who has it. Power, thus, has two contradictory, opposing meanings in LOTR.
“Ring” also has many meanings and connotations. Traditionally, a ring symbolizes a union between two people, marriage, but interestingly the LOTR doesn’t at all focus on traditional unions. There is a fellowship, and in some ways, the word “ring” could be used to describe them – they’re often found standing in a ring, and the term “ring” can also mean group (as in ringleader). This ring of men on a quest are united a ring of power, but their mission, their whole reason of forming a fellowship, is to destroy the ring in the fires of Mordor. To make it even more confusing, the destruction of that ring will make their fellowship, their ring, no longer of any use. So LOTR is as much about forming a union as it is about going on an epic journey to deform a union.
What we can learn from all this is that any story, any plot, any idea, is structured by what it means but does not explicitly say – that is that the ring symbolizes union, but also symbolizes disunion, that the ring symbolizes control, but also the power to be controlled. A battle where the good guys kill more people than the bad guys brings into question what good and evil mean. After all, the fellowship’s goal is to destroy a ring of power so that they, paradoxically, can gain power over orcs and a dark lord, Sauron.