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Reading Theories on Literary Work

According to Abrams, historically, there are four orientations dealing with the reading on literary work. The four orientations of reading are mimetic, pragmatic, expressive, and objective. He explains that this progression starts from mimetic theory of Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics modification concerning plausibility within plot that generates pragmatic theory, the expressive theory that comes from German and English romantic criticism, and then the last progression is the objective theory that puts the work as itself (Abrams, 1979: 28).

Mimetic theories tries to explain literary work as “essentially an imitation of aspects of the universe”. Imitation refers to relational term and the significance between two things in comparison. This kind of orientation involves three categories. The first is the mortal Ideas, the second is the world of sense (natural or artificial), and the third category is the reflection. These three categories become the basic point of mimetic analysis (Abrams, 1979: 8). Thus, mimetic analysis lays a literary work as a mortal Ideas. Nothing is new because the idea is already in the world so the judgement over a work lies upon the quality of imitation towards the world.

Pragmatic theories puts the judgment of a literary work on its effect in an audience. Literary work is regarded as a rethorical product. It focuses in the way a literary work creating a beauty on the reader’s mind. Therefore, the principle to judge is the success of a literary work in delivering its aim.

For convenience we may name criticism like that, like Sidney’s, is ordered toward the audience, a ‘pragmatic theory,’ since it looks at the work of art chiefly as a means to an end, an instrument for getting something done, and tends to judge its value according to its success in achieving that aim (Abrams, 1979: 15). Briefly, pragmatic theories has an orientation to see the work as how far the author succeeds to serve the public pleasure.

Expressive theories defines a literary work as the overflow, utterance, or projection of the thought and feelings of the author or in other words, the work itself modifies and synthesizes the images, thoughts, and feelings of the author (Abrams, 1979: 21-22). Later on the next passage, Abrams summarizes this expressive theories.

In general terms, the central tendency of the expressive theory may be summarized in this way: A work of art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of feeling, and embodying the combined product or the poet’s  perceptions, thought, and feelings. The primary source and subject matter of a poem [work], therefore, are the attributes and actions of the poet’s own mind; or if aspects of the external world, then these only as they are converted from fact to poetry by the feelings and operations of the poet’s mind (Abrams, 1979: 22).

Objective study of literature appreciates “the work of art in isolation from all external points of reference, analyzes it as a self-sufficient entity constituted by its parts in their internal relations, and sets out to judge it solely by criteria intrinsic to its own mode of being” (Abrams, 1979: 26). This theories assay to hinder from ‘the personal heresy’, ‘the intentional fallacy’, and ‘the affective fallacy’. Its doctrine in critisizing is ‘art for art’s sake’ (Abrams, 1979: 27-28).

Differs from Abrams, Teeuw argues that reading on literary work has the tendency over three aspects. Teeuw adopts his view from Plett. The three aspects are externe strukturrelation (Heinrich F. Plett in Teeuw, 1983: 2), interne stukturrelation (Heinrich F. Plett in Teeuw, 1983: 2), and the secondary world model. Externe strukturrelation sees a work of literature is not absolutely autonomous. It is because a work of literature is connected to the system of language. Its form and meaning are based on the system of language. Interne strukturrelation puts a work of literature as a system in which the internal structures within a work of literature are attached each other. Every component has its own role in a wholeness. This wholeness creates new “significance”. The third aspect is to put a work of literature as the secondary world model. The idea of this approach is to study literary work by understanding it as a complex fictive world. This means that every work of literature deals with the context. A literary work from one’s culture is different from others.

Reading as an activity of giving meaning, or in Hirsch’s term significance (in Teeuw, 1984: 175-176), needs a total involvement within the text. To judge the quality of literary work means to say its quality of beauty by reading it first. However the term of beauty within literary study is a problematic matter, while the word beauty itself refers to personal acceptance or relates to significance.

Teeuw and Culler use term close reading as Guerin et al uses intensive reading (Guerin et al, 1979: 76) because the word reading perhaps refer to a common reading (?). Even though one should realize that whatsoever reading activity always generates meaning. But the emphasis of this kind of reading is on the word close or in other word intensive because this activity claimed by Teeuw, Culler, and Guerin et al is not just reading of giving any meaning.

Culler says that a literary work plays in different modes and has different content than its literal. A literary work is the creation and organization of signs which produces a human world charged with meaning (Culler, 1975: 189). This also signifies that readers always find the meaning of a literary work by comparing it to the real world in order to get the meaning. This perhaps sounds confusing, but it is the truth. A literary work, or in a broad sense a text, cannot be separated totally from ‘the property of our conceptual system’ about the reality. Interpreting therefore tends to be subjective. Thus, this is the importance of literature theory. Its aim is to make a convention of procedures for every reading so the result of it, the interpretation, becomes as objective as possible (Teeuw, 1983: 3).


Abrams, M.H. 1979. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London: Oxford University Press.

Culler, Jonathan. 1975. Structuralist Poetics, Stucturalism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Guerin et al. 1979. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature [second edition]. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Teeuw, A. 1983. Membaca dan Menilai Sastra; Kumpulan Karangan. Jakarta: PT Gramedia.

_________. 1984. Sastra dan Ilmu Sastra. Jakarta: PT Dunia Pustaka Jaya.

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Reading Theories on Literary Work by Dipa Nugraha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at dipanugraha.blog.com.

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