Book Review: Literary Theory: Textual Application


ISBN-13 9788126926107
Author Sk. Sagir Ali
Original Price INR 595
Publication Year 2018
Pages 212
Publisher Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd
Binding Hardbound

Reviewed by

T. Marx

Professor of English, Pondicherry University, Puducherry. Email:

Volume 10, Number 3, 2018 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/rupkatha.v10n3.r1

Literary criticism is the branch of study concerned with defining literature. This could be done by classifying and evaluating works of literature. G.B. Shaw’s view that civilisation cannot progress without criticism underlines the value of literary criticism. Any literary criticism begins with the question, “what is literature?” Literature, in the widest sense of the term, is simply anything that is written. This should be distinguished from what is called “imaginative literature” with which a thoughtful student of literature is primarily concerned. However, a satisfactory definition of literature is difficult to arrive at. Literary theory is the study of the principles of literature, its categories, criteria and the like. Studies of concrete works of art can be called either ‘literary criticism’ or ‘literary history’. However, literary theory or criticism cannot exist in isolation. All the three are interrelated.

Literature associates, by words, the non-human world of physical nature with the human world, and the units of association are analogy and identity, which appear in the form of simile and metaphor. Literature as a whole appears as the direct descendant of mythology and its panoramic view of human situation, a perspective to which the greatest works of literature invariably return. Many critics, including Northrop Frye, think of the conventional structures mentioned above as myths because all of them derive from myths. The conventional images that recur throughout literature may also be called archetypes. Eventually, the historical perspective expands into the sense of tradition, where the writer’s own age is seen as a part of continuum, handing on what has reached it from earlier ages and reaching down to the present time. The form of literature as a whole becomes the content of criticism as a whole. Criticism and literature – that is, theory and practice of literature itself-will be two sides of the same coin. To do the job of an academic critic judiciously, the literary critic needs a fine sensibility. Criticism, in fact, is rather a matter of asking the right questions than of being able to give the right answers.

One of the functions of literary criticism is to provide a link between the work of art and the reader. The critic attempts to explicate a work of art, though the fact remains that great literature can never be completely explained. But the critic always makes an attempt. In the process he has evolved a few theories, “Approaches”. Using the terms and insights of Psychology, as a means of interpreting literature is one such approach. This is what is called Psychological Approach. Considering a work of art as a consequence of the social milieu, or as affecting it, is yet another approach called Sociological Approach. Another group of critics has eschewed the relationship between art and aspects of society, history or biography. They concentrate on the structure, the form of literary works, scientifically analysing them. This is what is called Formalistic Approach. A still more recent critical approach might be called Archetypal. “It’s concern is with some human or social pattern unrelated to particular time, yet to be found in particular works of literature, as if the unconscious mind of the human race were partially the author.” To consider literature for its moral applications to humanity is what is called Moralistic Approach.

These five approaches identified by Wilbur Scott are, however, not absolutely comprehensive. No single approach can exhaustively bring out all the possibilities of a great work of art. All the same, broadly speaking, most of the critical works may fall into these five categories and they help interpretation or explication of art in a better way. The book under review titled Literary Theory: Textual Application has constructive critical essays on specific literary texts through the lens of Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, new historicism, deconstruction, ecocriticism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. All these critical tools are relatively contemporary and products of non-conventional critical thinking.  The book succeeds in accomplishing what it claims in the Preface as helping the students/scholars gain access to the mechanics of reading literary/cultural texts using (contemporary) critical tools.

Sagir Ali’s “Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Marxist Perspective” helps the readers to understand the total social process at the time of the production of the text. Similarly, Saikat Guha’s Marxist reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis also proves the dictum of Karl Marx that art is a form of social consciousness and the reason for its changes should be sought in their social existence. Marxist Literary Criticism scrutinizes literature as the product of the prevailing economic condition of the society and the class struggle associated with it. Marxist literary critics feel that highlighting the prevailing class struggle is to highlight exploitation. They believe that from the ‘economic base’ emerges the ‘superstructure’ that is, law, politics etc. which legitimize the power of the social class that owns the means of production. And therefore, writers have to create awareness among people about the role of superstructure that serves the privileged class. In the opinion of Marxists, the essence, origin, development and social role of art could be understood only through analysis of the social system as a whole.

Pritha Kundu deconstructive reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is yet another significant article in this book. Deconstruction is a post-modern tendency. The text is treated as a construct and hence available for deconstruction. Deconstructing a text means examining the process of its production. It is not interested in the private experience of the author, but in the mode of production-the materials and their arrangement in a particular work. The deconstructionist examines the textual strata at two levels. At one level he tries to find out how it coheres to tradition. At another, he examines the text to find out how it escapes tradition.

Partha Sarathi Nandi’s article “Exploring Post-Colonialism: Roots, Contexts and Texts” and Ritushree Sengupta’s reading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Debaditya Mukhopadhyay’s article, ‘‘Waking up from History: A Study of the Play, Dream on Monkey Mountain’’ help students understand how postcolonialism’s agenda is more specifically political to dismantle the hegemonic boundaries and the determinants that create the binary oppositions such “us” and “them”, “first world” and “third world”, “white” and “black”, “colonizer” and “colonized”. In a colonialized space, the indigenous culture has been damaged, reshaping physical territories, social terrains as well as human identities. Colonialism has affected the colonized because their history, culture and the politico socio- economic matrix have been ransacked making the colonized rootless in their own lands. The colonizer has always been inescapably the “self” making the colonized the marginalized “other.”

Arnab Chatterjee’s study of the Anglo-Saxon elegies in terms of the symbolic-real-imaginary forms and Subham Chowdhury’s analysis of Jimmy in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in terms of structures, desire, fantasy, betrayal and perversion have based their analysis on the very pedestal of Psychoanalysis. These articles are humble attempts to unravel the mysteries of some of the enigmas of literature through the application of modern analytical techniques provided by the psychoanalytical literary theories. The insights sought through these analyses are very significant in the light of the fact that it is very difficult to separate the psychological complexities of a writer/playwright’s mind from the intricacies of his texts. Therefore while analysing Osbornes’ Look back in Anger and Anglo-Saxon elegies, the psychoanalytical insights have been very instrumental. These articles successfully prove that psychoanalysis is an enriching source that surely provides innumerable analytical modes and techniques to take up new aspects of studies in both the classical/modern texts thereby creating fresh outlook in literature. If Freud tried to construct a coherent and unified structure of the mind that would cater to the maintenance of a social order that suppresses the random and unruly forces inherent in the psyche, Lacan’s concept of the mind involves a structure that is characterized by inner fracture and internal conflict.

Laki Molla’s interpretation of Dwijendralal Roy’s Nurjahan and Joydip Ghosh’s appraisal of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land are excellent readings from a New Historicist point of view. During the 1980s, New Historicism developed in America, as a significant method of interpreting literary texts. Stephen Greenblatt, the chief proponent of the method, insists on historicizing a literary text. He recommends the reading of literary and non-literary texts as of equal merit and considers all texts – literary or otherwise as constructs built out of many other text materials like, letters, diary entries, biographies, medical, legal, social and other documents. According to him, social energy circulates among all these and mutually interacts. More insights are likely to flow in by concentrating on the marginalized voices in the text. He followed an eclectic approach excluding none of the methods of analysis followed by his predecessors. The materials that were considered as contexts became co-texts in a new historicist situation. For a new historicist, there is no official authentic history as such but only histories.

Santanu Ganguly’s analysis of “Indian Weavers” by Sarojini Naidu, Keka Das’ reading of  Dattani’s Bravely Fought the Queen, Samrat Laskar’s evaluation of Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra and Sudipta Gupta’s understanding of Namita Gokhale’s Shakuntala: The Play of Memory are notable examples of reading literary texts from a feminist and eco-feminist perspective. The Feminist writers initially were aware of the position of women in society as one of the disadvantages or inequality compared with that of men. There was a desire to remove these disadvantages. Women’s Studies groups presented two approaches linked to two concepts of equality namely “plain equal” or “equal but different.”  One group firmly believed that women were equal to men in every respect. The Second approach believed that certain biological differences like maternity made her “different but equal.” Ecological feminism or ecofeminism has come in to existence and started receiving significant importance due to its relevance as a substitute for feminism and ecological issues. Françoise d’Eaubonne gave the term ‘eco-feminisme’ in 1974. Ecofeminism affirms that all forms of exploitation are linked and constituents of this oppression must be dealt within their collectivism. Exploitation of the natural world and of women by male dominating society must be looked at jointly or neither can be tackled fully. Ecofeminism challenges patriarchal systems and enlarges the extent of the cultural analysis and integrates apparently dissimilar but inherently related elements. Ecofeminism asserts that patriarchal elements validate their supremacy through categorical or binary echelons: heaven/earth, mind/body, male/female, human/animal, spirit/matter, culture/nature, white/ non-white. Therefore, ecofeminism persuades to dismantle all these twofold oppositional divisions to prevent humanity from being “divided against” itself, an idiom that Griffin employs to explain the philosophical impact of dualism.

 “It is not simply a tree but something humanoid”: A Reading of Ratan Lal Basu’s The Oraon and the Divine Tree by Sk. Tarik Ali and Resisting Disnification: Nature, Culture and Religion in Life of Pi by T.K. Rajendran and Kalyani Vallath are readings from an ecocritical perspective. Ecocriticism expands the notion of the world to include the entire ecosphere. It takes an earth-centric approach to literary criticism. In contrast to the conventional literary characters that have power and exploit nature, there is a circle of people who idealize and worship nature in certain works. Through the fictionalized characters of the works, the authors present myriads of deep ecological, social ecological and ethic illumination and thoughts in pursuit of the ecological balance between nature and human beings.

‘Othering’ the Writer: Pavan K. Varma’s Translation of Neglected Poems and Translation Theory by Shilpa Daithota Bhat is an isolated piece of article which deals with the translation theory. It is interesting that this discussion points to a concept that has only recently emerged in the field of Translation Studies, which says that translation means not merely transfer of meaning from one language to the other but also a transfer from one culture to another. The analysis of Varma’s translation of poems evolves into an open-ended, multi-track process, in which translator, author, poem and reader move back and forth between two different sets of languages, cultures, historical situations and traditions’. Translation then becomes a process of cultural transmission that energises everybody concerned.

Literary Theory in the modern literary scenario is an all pervasive influence. The happenings in this field of study have been versatile enough to keep the spirit going on with continued miscellaneous contributions. Literary Theory has provided chances to engage ourselves with texts through new ways of seeing literature. The trends in the Literary Theory are not just vague movements but are methodological studies. Theory like every other literary genre has seen its developments in the wake of the illustrative experiments and explications. With ideas based on explication and interpretations, the canvas of Literary Theory has been enhanced. Since Literary Theory helps us to evaluate further we can explore new dimensions in the older texts nor the texts-products of contemporary era, are likely to get away from the influence of the theory. A student of literature must be equipped with not only an ability to criticize literature but with the knowledge of history of criticism, its various trends and schools.  This is what Dr.Sagir Ali’s concise but comprehensive edited book Literary Theory: Textual Application provides most effectively. This wonderful book-collection of articles by eminent scholars in the field-will be a very valuable torch to literary criticism which is itself a torch bearer.