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The Return of Thematic Criticism

The Return of Thematic Criticism

Edited by Werner Sollors

ISBN 9780674766877

Publication date: 01/01/1993

In the glory days of high modernist formalism it was anathema to speak about the content of a work of art. Those days are gone, and critical practice now is largely thematic practice. A focus on the themes of literature informs feminist, new historicist, ethnic, and even second-generation deconstructionist approaches. However, such practice is not always recognized. The specter of theoretically impoverished positivism still haunts thematic analysis, making it the approach to literature that dare not speak its name. This volume brings together for the first time an international group of writers, critics, and theoreticians who have thought deeply about this issue.

How can we determine the theme of a given text? May the focus on form be the theme of a certain moment? Can the motif be understood as a formal category? What operations permit us to say that three or four texts constitute variants of the same theme? The contributors challenge the conventional dismissal of “merely” thematic approaches and offer the reader different ways of tackling the issue of what a piece of writing is “about.”

The work here comes out of such diverse intellectual traditions as Russian film theory, French phenomenology, Foucault, narratology, the Frankfurt School, intellectual history (Geistesgeschichte), psychoanalytic criticism, linguistics, ideological criticism, Proppian folklore studies, and computerized plot summary models. In addition to a collection of aphorisms from Plato to Robert Coover and a group of general and theoretical essays, this volume contains examples of practical engagement with such topics as literary history, Shakespeare, autumn poetry, anti-Semitism, fading colors, bachelors, Richard Wagner, and the Mexican Revolution. No comparable volume exists.


  • This interdisciplinary collection sets the most advanced poetic and ideological approaches side-by-side to resolve the ancient conflict between formalism and the study of content. As a corollary, Sollors’ anthology seeks to sweep away or at least rehabilitate the theoretically impoverished notion-hunting of certain feminists, many new historicists, and race/class/gender critics, to say nothing of second-generation Derrideans… The distinguished contributors…definitely place thematic criticism back on the agenda, and, at the same time, call for a higher level of humanistic discourse.

    —Virginia Quarterly Review


  • Werner Sollors is Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press