Critical Approaches
Formalism, Reader-Response Theory and Aesthetics

'Reality ... must be dissolved by insight and style'

Heller, Erich. 'The Realistic Fallacy'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 597.

Formalism is an approach to literature which prioritises the study of form, i.e. the conventions and language patterns in a text or genre, rather than thematic content or meaning.

In a more theoretical sense, formalism asserts that literature constitutes a communication form distinct from everyday, practical communication. Literature is self-contained and does not refer to anything outside of itself. This becomes particularly interesting when one is treating a literary realist text which makes use of conventions that simulate everyday, practical communications and which ostensibly refers to a reality outside of fiction.

The stress on form is ultimately to determine the "literariness" of a text, i.e. what makes it literature as opposed to a simple statement. The study of the evolution of conventions, their deformation and renewal, and the de-familiarisation of the familiar, i.e. the rendering of the known into new forms, are of particular interest.

practical application
A formalist approach is particularly valuable when engaging new areas of study or when trying to define what makes a specific genre distinct from other genres. This has obvious value in the case of literary realism which is characterized by stylistic renewal. It combines well with reader-response theory and/or an aesthetic approach.

formalist texts
Genres or texts may also be characterised as formalist, e.g. manifestations of naturalism can be construed as formalist, due to the predominant stress on style and technique in naturalist works.

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Reader-Response Theory

Reader-response theory is a field of study which focuses on the reception of a text, i.e. the reader's experience of a text. Ultimately, meaning "happens" when the reader interacts with the text. The focus on the reception of the text does not represent a negation of the author's intention, but rather expresses the awareness that an author cannot dictate the meaning of his or her work nor control entirely how the reader interacts with the text. The author may indicate to the reader through conventions and allusions what is intended and what can be expected. The efficiency of this is dependent on the reader's experience with interacting with literary texts and conventions and, of course, his or her willingness to play along.

practical application
Reader-response theory applies to literary realism in regards to the implied referent of the genre and the experience and appearance of the real. Reader-response theory combines well with a formalist and/or aesthetic approach in a combined examination of the aesthetics and reception of a text.

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Aesthetics is the study of the appreciation of Beauty and how it affects us. Beauty may be construed in many ways. It may cover the experience of the pleasant as well as the sublime, but also indicate that which inspires us or makes us think of something from a different perspective or in a new way.

In a more philosophical sense, aesthetics is the study of how we develop taste and judgement in regards to art, our understanding of what is art, and how we respond to stimuli, particularly artistic, and the potential that artistic stimuli has to alter or expand our perceptions and grow as human beings.

aesthetic effects and value
The aesthetics of a text are its effects upon its reader. The aesthetic value of a text is determined by one or more of the following: how it conforms, or does not conform, with our taste or understanding of what is art; the text's potential for expanding the scope of our experience or perception of what is beautiful or art; the range and nature of its effects; and its Beauty.

practical application
An aesthetic approach applies to many aspects of literary realism, from the study of how it generates the appearance of the real to its expansion or confirmation of our understanding of what is art, truth and beauty. An aesthetic approach combines well with reader-response theory and/or a formalist approach.

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Suggested Further Reading

  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory : An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The John Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Morris, Pam. Realism. Routledge, 2003.
  • Wilde, Oscar. 'The Critic as Artist'. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, pp. 963-1016.
  • Wilde, Oscar. 'The Decay of Lying'. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, pp. 919-943.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'The Art of Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 51-55.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown'. Collected Essays, vol. 1, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 319-337.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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