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Literary Criticism vs. Literary Theory: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 17, 2023
Literary criticism analyzes and interprets individual works of literature, while literary theory offers frameworks for understanding literature as a whole.

Key Differences

Literary criticism is the practice of examining, analyzing, and interpreting individual works of literature. It often involves close reading and contextual analysis of texts, focusing on aspects like theme, style, structure, and character development. Literary theory, in contrast, provides broad frameworks and methodologies for understanding literature. It delves into the philosophical, social, and cultural underpinnings that influence how literature is produced and interpreted.
In literary criticism, critics apply various methods to critique a specific literary work, seeking to unearth its meanings, significance, and impact. This practice can involve historical, biographical, or formalist approaches. Literary theory, however, operates at a more abstract level. It encompasses a range of ideas and schools of thought - from Marxism, feminism, and postcolonialism to structuralism and postmodernism - that shape how literature is viewed and studied.
Literary criticism is often more practical and concrete, focusing on the specific content and form of literary works. Critics might explore how a novel reflects its historical context or how a poem uses language to evoke emotions. On the other hand, literary theory is more theoretical and general. It seeks to understand the underlying principles governing literature, asking questions about authorship, reader response, and the nature of narrative.
The relationship between literary criticism and literary theory is interdependent. While criticism applies theories to analyze specific texts, theory itself is often refined and revised based on insights gained from criticism. For instance, feminist literary criticism, informed by feminist theory, has led to new understandings and interpretations of literature.
Literary criticism is the hands-on examination and interpretation of individual literary works, often using various theoretical lenses. Literary theory, conversely, provides those lenses, offering a broader, more conceptual understanding of what literature is and how it functions within society.

Comparison Chart


Individual works of literature.
Overall frameworks for understanding literature.


Practical, interpretive analysis.
Theoretical, conceptual frameworks.


To analyze and interpret specific texts.
To establish principles and methodologies for studying literature.


Close reading, historical/contextual analysis.
Philosophical, cultural, and social theories.


Insights into particular literary works.
General principles governing literature and its study.

Literary Criticism and Literary Theory Definitions

Literary Criticism

Criticism analyzes how literature reflects societal and cultural contexts.
His literary criticism connected the play's themes to historical events.

Literary Theory

It's a lens for critical analysis and interpretation of literary texts.
Psychoanalytic literary theory interprets texts through the lens of Freudian psychology.

Literary Criticism

It includes various approaches like formalist, Marxist, or feminist critiques.
Her feminist literary criticism unveiled gender dynamics in the novel.

Literary Theory

Literary theory provides frameworks for understanding literature.
Postcolonial literary theory reexamines literature from colonized regions.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism can offer new interpretations of classic texts.
Modern literary criticism has reshaped our understanding of Shakespeare's plays.

Literary Theory

It encompasses various schools of thought like structuralism or deconstruction.
Structuralist literary theory focuses on underlying structures in texts.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism involves evaluating and interpreting literature.
His literary criticism highlighted the novel's intricate symbolism.

Literary Theory

Theory explores the relationship between literature and broader cultural issues.
Feminist literary theory critiques the representation of women in literature.

Literary Criticism

It examines a work's theme, style, and structure.
Through literary criticism, she explored the poem's complex imagery.

Literary Theory

Literary theory questions concepts like authorship and reader response.
Postmodern literary theory challenges traditional narratives and authorial intent.


How does literary criticism impact readers' understanding?

It deepens readers' appreciation and comprehension of literary works.

What is the primary aim of literary theory?

It aims to provide frameworks and principles for understanding literature.

What is the main focus of literary criticism?

It focuses on evaluating and interpreting individual literary works.

Can literary criticism apply to all genres?

Yes, it can be applied to any literary genre, from poetry to novels.

Can literary criticism change over time?

Yes, as cultural and societal contexts evolve, so do interpretations in criticism.

Can literary theory be applied to specific texts?

Yes, though it's more about general principles, it can inform analysis of specific texts.

Can one combine different literary theories?

Yes, critics often integrate multiple theories in their analysis.

How do literary theories influence criticism?

They provide the critical lenses through which literature is analyzed.

Is literary criticism subjective?

To some extent, yes, as it often involves personal interpretation.

Does literary theory dictate how to interpret texts?

Not dictate, but it provides guidelines and perspectives for interpretation.

What tools does literary criticism use?

It uses tools like close reading, contextual analysis, and thematic exploration.

Why is literary theory important in academia?

It forms the foundational basis for scholarly research and discussion in literature.

Can anyone engage in literary criticism?

Yes, anyone who reads and thinks critically about a text can engage in criticism.

Can literary criticism be objective?

While it includes subjective elements, it also relies on evidence and analysis.

How does literary criticism benefit students?

It enhances critical thinking and analytical skills.

Can literary theory be controversial?

Yes, as it often challenges traditional views and norms in literature.

Do literary theories remain constant?

No, theories evolve and change with new cultural and intellectual developments.

How does cultural context influence literary criticism?

It shapes how texts are interpreted and understood, reflecting changing societal values.

Are there different schools of literary theory?

Yes, including structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, Marxism, and more.

Is literary theory only for scholars?

While often academic, theory can enrich any reader's understanding of literature.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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