Literary Theory

Don't Rely on Search Alone

Several of the terms used to describe literary theory---"criticism," "theory," "literature"---are used in many other contexts as well, clogging up your search results. Plus, the kinds of abstract concepts discussed in literary theory can be hard to pin down with a search term. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and critical companions help you jumpstart your research by giving you an overview of the critical discussion around various points of theory and guiding you to the most relevant scholarship.

Start with Online Reference Sources

  • LION: use the general search box and refine your results by content type "Reference" to explore material from several important literary encyclopedias as well as student guides and Penguin Classics introductions. Once you've identified an encyclopedia that's particularly helpful, click on its title in the list of specific reference works to browse the table of contents for more entries.
  • The Johns Hopkins Guide to Theory and Criticism: the online edition of a key reference source for literary theory. Pro tip: don't rely on search alone! Browse the contents and topic list to get a better sense of which articles will be most helpful.
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: a free online encyclopedia whose content is produced by scholars in the field and rigorously peer-reviewed. A great resource for gaining a broader perspective, as there is often significant overlap between literary theory and various topics in philosophy.

Supplement with Print Reference Sources

Some of the best guides aren't available online.

Loker Reading Room

On the 2nd floor of Widener Library, you'll find shelves full of indispensable encyclopedias, handbooks and guides. Most of what you'll need is along the long wall opposite the main entrance: start at RR 3100. Here are some titles to keep an eye out for: 

Elsewhere in the libraries: 

Find literary theory in HOLLIS: search terms and strategies

  • Criticism: an official term for literary theory. But a simple search for "criticism" will also pick up material with subheadings such as "criticism and interpretation" or "history and criticism." The best way to access material that has the main subject heading "Criticism" is via a HOLLIS browse. After executing the browse you can click on "criticism" to turn it into a search, and then use filters to drill down into your results.
  • "Theory, etc." a common subheading: try adding this phrase to your other search terms in an Advanced Search. Other theory-related subheadings include rhetoric and criticism. If you've found a search formula for your topic that works well in HOLLIS and you want to narrow your results down to theoretical treatments, try adding AND ("theory, etc." OR rhetoric OR criticism).
  • Name as subject: Another good strategy is to search for a theorist's name in the subject field: this will turn up subsequent discussions of his or her theory. (If you get too many results, try adding AND "criticism and interpretation".)