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Contents

Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 2

Formalism ....................................................................................................................................... 2

Russian Formalism vs. New Criticism............................................................................................ 3

Russian Formalism: Historical Background ................................................................................... 5

Viktor Shklovsky ............................................................................................................................ 6

Boris Eichenbaum ........................................................................................................................... 7

Mikhail M. Bakhtin ....................................................................................................................... 10

Dialogism .................................................................................................................................. 10

Heteroglossia............................................................................................................................. 11

Polyphony ................................................................................................................................. 13

Carnival ..................................................................................................................................... 14

Roman Jakobson ........................................................................................................................... 15

Conclusion .................................................................................................................................... 17

Works Cited .................................................................................................................................. 18


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RUSSIAN FORMALISM
Introduction

Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory defines Russian Formalism as ‘a critical movement that

was interested in identifying the specific quality of language use that separated the literary text

from the non-literary text’. It says that ‘their approach was scientific inasmuch as they thought it

was possible to establish what it is precisely that distinguishes ordinary usages of language from

the poetic. Unlike the later post-structuralists, the Russian Formalists treated poetry as an

autonomous form of discourse that was distinct from all other forms of discourse.’

Russian Formalism flourished along with movements in futurism and symbolism during the

period of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The works of two major groups of researchers based

in Russia is covered under the generic term ‘Russian Formalism’. It is also referred to as ‘East

European Formalism’, to distinguish it from Anglo-American Formalism which is also known as

New Criticism. According to M.A.R. Habib, ‘though Russian Formalism as a school was

eclipsed with the rise of the Stalin and the official Soviet aesthetic of socialist realism, its

influence was transmitted through figures such as Jakobson and Tzvetan Todorov to their own

structuralist analyses and those of writers such as Roland Barthes and Gerard Genette.’

Formalism

Formalist was a pejorative term used to imply restrictions. According to Ann B. Dobie,

Formalism has the distinction of having more names than any other recently developed school of

criticism. The model defined by American and English critics has been called New Criticism

(long after it was no longer new), as well as aesthetic or textual (because of its primary concersn)
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or ontological (because of its philosophical grounding). Russian Formalism, according to Dobie,

shares some fundamental characteristics with its western cousin, but it was the idea of the writers

known as New Critics that in 1930s revolutionized the work of scholars, critics, and teachers in

the United States. For decades people learned to read, analyse, and appreciate literature using

this approach, making it one of the most influential methods of literary analysis that twentieth-

century readers encountered.

According to Dobie, Formalism’s sustained popularity among readers comes primarily from the

fact that it provides them with a way to understand and enjoy a work for its own inherent value

as a piece of literary art. Formalism puts the focus on the text as literature by emphasizing close

reading of the work itself. It does not treat the text as an expression of social, religious, or

political ideas; neither does it reduce the text to being a promotional effort for some cause or

belief. Dobie is of the opinion that Formalism makes those who apply its principles and follow

its processes better, more discerning readers.

Russian Formalism vs. New Criticism

According to Ann B. Dobie, critics involved with the formalist movement that took place in the

United States and the Russian formalists are sometimes thought to be members of the same

group, or at least closely related, because of the movements’ similar names however they are

only distantly connected.

The New Criticism was more directly born as a reaction against the attention that scholars and

teachers in the early part of the twentieth century paid to the biographical and historical contexts

of a work, thereby diminishing the attention given to literature itself. John Crowe Ransom, who

was a Professor of Poetry at Kenyon College, Ohio, published a book called The New Criticism.
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In it he criticized the critics I.A. Richards, William Empson, T.S. Eliot and Yvor Winters, and

made a plea for what he called the ‘ontological critic’. According to Blamires, Ransom’s case is

that Universities of English ought to concentrate precisely and systematically on their proper

business, which is ‘criticism’. And ‘criticism’ is ‘the attempt to define and enjoy the aesthetic or

characteristic values of literature’. Professors of English should not be diverted into humanistic

or leftist advocacy of a moral system, for their proper concern is with literature as an art with its

own constitution and structure.

The principles on which Russian Formalism is based has some similarity to those of New Critics,

they are two separate schools. The works of Russian Formalists are based on theories of the

French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and according to Ann Dobie, they are probably more

closely related to the structuralists, who were to garner attention in the 1950s and 1960s.

Saussure’s influence is seen in the Russian Formalists’ argument that literature is a systematic set

of linguistic and structural elements that can be analysed. They saw literature as a self-enclosed

system that can be studied not for its content but for its form.

Russian Formalists rejected the nineteenth-century view that literature expresses an author’s

world view, making biographical criticism the key to understanding a text. They also agreed that

literature could (and should) be studied in a scientific manner, with the purpose of understanding

it for its own sake, not as a medium for discussing other subjects. Form was more important to

them than content. Their focus was on poetics- the strategies a writer used- rather than on

history, biography, or subject matter.

To sum up, Russian formalist emphasis on form and technique was different in nature from that

of later New Critics. Formalists analyses were far more theoretical, seeking to understand the
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general nature of literature and literary devices as well as the historical evolution of literary

techniques; the New Critics were more concerned with the practice (rather than the theory) of

closing reading of individual text.

Russian Formalism: Historical Background

There were two schools of Russian Formalism. Moscow Linguistic Circle, led by Roman

Jakobson, was formed in 1915; this group also included Osip Brik and Boris Tomashevsky. The

second group, the ‘Society for the study of Poetic Language’ (OPOJAZ), was founded in 1916,

and its leading figures included Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Yuri Tynyanov. Other

important critics associated with these movements included Leo Jakubinsky and the folklorist

Vladimir Propp.

The theory of Formalism was the result of the discussions that emerged from two groups- the

OPOJAZ group, and the Moscow Linguistic Circle. M.S. Nagarajan writes that the movement

falls into three periods: 1916-21, when the focus was on poetic language, and prose composition;

1921-28 when there was a serious attempt to re-examine many literary problems; and 1928-35,

when the movement disbanded, and disintegrated due to several political factors. Due to

suppression of this movement by the Soviet Republic, and the rise of Stalinism, its centre of

operation moved to Czechoslovakia, with the result that the pioneers of this movement Roman

Jakobson, Victor Shklovsky, and Baris Eichenbaum devoted their attention to other fields of

literary study, such as text exegesis.


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Viktor Shklovsky

Shklovsky studied at the University of St. Petersburg in Russia and became a founding member

of one of the two schools of Russian Formalism, ‘The Society for the Study of Poetic Language’

(OPOJAZ), formed in 1916.

In ‘Art as a Technique’, Shklovsky introduces one of the central concepts of Russian Formalism:

that of defamiliarization. Our normal perceptions become habitual, they become automatic and

unconscious: in everyday speech, for example, we leave phrases unfinished and half expressed.

Shklovsky sees this as symptomatic of a process of “algebraization” which infects our ordinary

perceptions: “things are replaced by symbols”; we fail to apprehend the object, which “fades and

does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was forgotten.”

Shklovsky explains his concept of defamiliarization-

‘I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether

or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not

remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that

is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had

been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on

unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives

are as if they had never been.’

Shklovsky quotes Tolstoy saying that “the whole complex of lives of many people go on

unconsciously... such lives are if they had never been.” Habituation can devour work, clothes,

furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it

exist to make one feel things, to make the stone stony....The technique of art is make object of
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‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because

the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. “Art is a way of

experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important”.

M.A.R. Habib explains the concept of defamiliarization- ‘Shklovsky claims that defamiliarization

“is found almost everywhere form is found” Art is purpose is not to make us perceive meaning

but to create a specific perception of the object: “it creates a ‘vision’ of the object instead of

serving as a means for knowing it”. Shklovsky views the language of poetry as a “roughened”

language, which impedes and slows down perception. The object is perceived not in its extension

in space but in its continuity.’

Habib is of the opinion that Shklovsky’s formalism can possibly accommodate cultural change

and the relative status of radical innovation but he doubts to what extent his view of art as

transforming the perception of an object may have epistemological implications.

Boris Eichenbaum

Eichenbaum was one of the leaders of the Russian Formalist group known as the ‘Society for the

study of poetic Language’, founded in 1916 and wrote an important Essay, ‘The Theory of the

Formal Method’ (1926,1927), expounding the evolution of the central principles of the formalist

method. Eichenbaum states that Formalism is “characterized only by the attempt to create an

independent science of literature which studies specifically literary material.” Chief

characteristics of the Formalist, says Eichenbaum, was their rejection of all “ready-made

aesthetics and general theories”.


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M.A.R. Habib sums up the theory of Eichenbaum by saying that Eichenbaum observes that,

before the appearance of formalism, literary analysis had been the province of academic

research, marked by antiquated and unscientific aesthetics and psychological attitudes .There

was almost no struggle between formalism and this theoretical heritage of conventional Russian

scholars such as Alexander Potebnya and Alexander Veselovksy (1838-1906). Instead another

group of theorist and writers, the symbolists, had appropriated literary-critical discourse,

transposing it form the academy to the journals. The Symbolists, drawing inspiration from their

French precursors, had tried to revitalize Russian literature by emphasizing aestheticism, the

value of art for its own sake, and adopted an impressionistic and highly subjective mode of

criticism. Formalists entered the debate they opposed the symbolists “in order to wrest poetics

from their hands to free it from its ties with their subjective philosophical and aesthetic theories

and to direct it toward the scientific investigation of facts”.

Eichenbaum points out that the fundamental formalist distinction between poetic and practical

language led to the formulation of a whole group of basic questions. Potebnya and others had

presupposed the conventional notion of the harmony of form and content the formalists rejected

this notion, whereby form was viewed as "envelope" or vessel into which a liquid (the content) is

poured. The new, formalist notion of from required no correlative content; instead of being an

envelope, form is viewed as "a complete thing, something concrete, dynamic, self -contained.

Next phase of formalist studies, as Eichenbaum explains, attempted to move toward a general

theory of verse and the study of narrative plot and specific techniques. He cites Shklovsky's

theory of plot and fiction and says that Shklovksy rejected the traditional notion of plot as a

combination of motifs (the smallest units of narrative; plot was no longer viewed as synonymous

with 'story' rather, it was viewed as compositional device rather than a thematic concept. The
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idea of motivation enabled Shklovksy to distinguish between "story" which was merely “a

description of events” and “plot”, which was a structure. Techniques of plot construction,

according to the Formalists included parallelism, framing, and the weaving of motifs. The story

on the other hand, was merely “material for plot formulation”, material which also included

choice of motifs character and themes.

Eichenbaum observes that the formalities insisted upon a clear demarcation between poetry and

prose, as opposed to the symbolists, who were attempting to erase this boundary. Eichenbaum

also formulated the idea of the dominant, the chief element in a hierarchy of compositional

factors. On the basis of certain dominant elements, he distinguished three styles of lyric poetry;

declamatory (oratorical), melodic, and conversational.

Eichenbaum new conception of form as dynamic, self-contained, and as not dependent upon

some external content led them to stress first the notion of technique, and then the notion of

function taking rhythm as an integral element in the construction of a poem - as an element not

extraneous to but intrinsically connected with syntax- the Formalists viewed poetry as a special

form of speech having its own linguistic (syntactical, lexical, semantic features. Eichenbaum

insists yet again that formalism is not a ‘fixed, ready-made system’ and that the formalists' are

too well trained by history itself to think that it can be avoided.


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Mikhail M. Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin is recognized as one of the major literary theorists of the twentieth century he

best known for his radical philosophy of language, as well as his theory of novel , underpinned

by concepts such as ‘dialogism’, ‘polyphony’ and ‘carnival’ themselves resting on the more

fundamental concept of heteroglossia. Bakhtin himself was not a member of the Communist

Party, his work has been regarded by some as Marxist in orientation, Despite his critique of

formalism he has also been claimed as a member of the Jakobsonian formalist school as a

poststructuralist, and even as a religious thinker. In 1929, Bakhtin’s first major publication

appeared, entitled ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art’ which formulated the concept of ‘polyphony’

or ‘dialogism’.

Dialogism

Ann B. Dobie writes that, at the core of Bakhtin’s literary theories is the concept of Dialogism,

the seeds of which are evident in some of his earliest known writings from the 1920s in which he

criticizes Russian formalism for its abstract nature, which is evident in its lack of attention to the

content of literary works. He then censures linguistics and the work of Saussure in particular, for

separating texts from their social context, for ignoring the relations that exist between speakers

and texts. He argues that the structuralists look only at the shape (the structure) of language

an(all forms of speech and writing) is always a dialogue, which consist of at least one speaker,

one listener/respondent, and a relationship between the two. Language, for him, is the product of

the interactions between (at least) two people. It is not monologic, an utterance issuing from a

single speaker of writer.


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Dobie is of the opinion that the idea has applications on several levels. For the individual, it

means that because it is language that defines a person, and one utterance is always responding

to other utterance (even in those internal conversations in our head), one is always a process of

becoming. And since the individual is always changing, nobody can be wholly understood of

fully revealed. Bakhtin calls the condition in which people cannot be completely known

unfinalizability.

Dobie is of the opinion that on a more general level, dialogism sees works of literature to be in

communication with each other and with other authors. One shapes the other, not just by

influencing new works but by adding to the understanding of those that have preceded it as well

as those that follow it. Works of literature do not merely answer or correct each other but inform

and become informed by them. In an even more global manner, such thinking means that all

language exist in response to what had already been said and in anticipation of what will be said.

All thought is dynamic, growing and changing with utterance.

Heteroglossia

Heteroglossia is the term Bakhtin uses to refer to the interplay of the numerous forms of social

speech that people use as they go about their daily lives. It refers to the manner which their

diverse ways of speaking- their differing vocabularies, accents, expressions and rhetorical

strategies-mix with each other. Ann B. Dobie describes it as living language because it features

multiplicity and variety; it carries suggestion of different professions, age group, and background

that intersect and shape each other, generating meaning through what he calls the “primacy of

context over text”


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Dobie explains that Bakhtin maintains that two forces are in operation whenever language is

used. Borrowing terms from physics, he calls them centripetal and centrifugal forces. The former

pushes things toward a central point; centrifugal force pushes them away from the centre and out

in all directions. Heteroglossic language, according to Bakhtin, is centrifugal because of its

dynamism and relativism. Its opposite, monologic language, is centripetal, because it forces

everything into a single form or statement that comes from our authority. Its standardizes

language and rhetorical forms, ridding itself of differences in an effort to establish a single way

of speaking and writing that is a pure, regimented discourse cleansed of differences that interrupt

the accepted way of using language.

To apply his theories to literary genres, Bakhtin examines poetry and the novel in particular.

Acknowledging the poetry has historically been the more highly valued form, he asserts that

because the two genres have different purposes, they use language (create meaning) in different

ways.

Ann B. Dobie further explains this concept. She writes, “Poetry, he asserts, is an art form; it has

an aesthetic function. It does not do anything. Operating as a self-sufficient whole, it is aware

only to itself. It exists unconnected to its context and does not acknowledged its respondent. For

example, in a poem a word refers only to itself or to an object that exists as an abstraction, not

specific item. Consequently, Bakhtin concludes that poetry is essentially monologic. (He also

views the epic and drama as monologic, but he pays particular attention to poetry.)”

In contrast, prose (indeed, rhetoric in general-which seeks to use language to persuade or

convince), has a social purpose; it does something. According to Dobie, the novel in particular

holds the attention of Bakhtin because it is dialogic (centrifugal), and with its diversity of voices,
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it is heteroglossic. It can be said to be characterized by Dialogized heteroglossia. That is, it is

composed of multiple experiences and worldviews in on-going dialogue with each other,

creating numerous interactions, some of them actual, some of them fictive, making it well

positioned to oppose the standardization promoted by monologic genres. (Even the novelist is

part of the interaction, as he or she is aware of a reader who is likely to have responses that affect

what is written.) Bakhtin deems the commenting narrator’s dialogic utterances to be the most

important ones because through them a complex unity of diverse voices, interaction, and

relationship form. He celebrates the novel for its “dialogically agitated and tension-filled

environment of alien words, value judgments and accents” that form complex, ever shifting

patterns. In it a multiplicity of languages clash, just as they do in any given culture.

Polyphony

According to Ann B. Dobie, Bakhtin uses the term polyphonic to describe the novel that depicts

a world in which the dialogue goes on ad infinitum without reaching a conclusion or closure. The

structure is not predetermined to demonstrate the author’s worldview, nor are the characters

drawn to exemplify it. It is typified by the novels of Dostoyevsky, in which the reader hears

many voices uttering contradictory and inconsistent statements in the context of a real- life event.

Truth in Dostoyevsky’s work is perceived through multiple consciousnesses and expresses in

many simultaneous voices, not conceived in a single speaker. There is no central voice in his

novels, only multiple unfinalizable characters that talk about ideas in their distinctive, individual

ways. They exist with each other and through each other as they interact in social circumstances.

In addition to the characters that participate in the experience, there are the author and the reader,

too, who with the character help to create the novel’s “truth,” not simply one certain truth.

Characters influence characters. Readers watch as they shape each other and listen as their
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utterances conflicts with each other, all the while filtering the character observations through

their own experiences and understanding. Bakhtin contrast Dostoyevsky’s approach with that of

the nonpolyphonic monologism of Tolstoy, who reveals his own understanding of truth by

expressing it through his characters’ words, action, and choices.

Carnival

Ann B. Dobie explains another key concept in Bakhtin’s theory of the novel that is of carnival,

an idea that made its first appearance in his dissertation, “Rabelais and His World,” and was

further developed in Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. His nation of carnival builds on the

ancient tradition of the saturnalia, a roman festival that mocked and reversed the official culture,

if only for a short while. For a limited period of time the powerless became the powerful, the

outsider became the insider, slave and master exchanged the role.

Dobie is of the opinion that Bakhtin judges the novel to operate with similar social impact.

Building on his study of Rabelais’s novel cycle gargantua and pantagruel, the protagonist of

which he sees not only as a challenge to an official culture ruled by dogmatism and deadly

seriousness but also as producers of energy and vitality, he extends that analysis to consider the

novel as genre that uses laughter and parody to challenge restrictive social forces, such as the

tyranny and repression of his own day. It obliterates social forces, such as tyranny and repression

of his own day. It obliterates social hierarchies and blurs distinctions between young and old,

rich and poor, public and private, in short revering the traditional system of authority and order.

In doing so, it open the way to joyful renewal.

Dobie further explains that the polyphonic nature of the novel, in which the reader hears

conflicting statements from many voices interacting and helping to shape each other, is
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carnivalesque. The clash of ideas destroys any notion of regular conventions, standardization, or

rules, and even suggests a certain freedom of being. Each character is individually defined, and

at the same time the reader witness how each is influenced by the other. Each one is touched by

the others, and in turn shapes the character of the others. Carnival is the context in which voices

are singly heard but interact together.

Roman Jakobson

The work of Jakobson occupies a central and seminal in the development of formalism and

structuralism. Essentially a linguist, Jakobson co-founded the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915,

which also included Osip Brik and Boris Tomashevsky. He was also involved in a Russian

Formalist group, the ‘Society for the Study of Poetic Language’, formed in 1916. In 1926

Jakobson founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, which engaged critically with the work of

Saussure. He moved to America in 1941 where he became acquainted with Claude Levi-Strauss;

in 1943 the co-founded the Linguistic Circle of New York.

According to M.A.R. Habib, Jakobson in his paper “Linguistics and Poetics” (1958) argues that,

since poetics concerns the artistic features of a “verbal message,” and linguistics is the “global

science of verbal structure,” poetics is an integral part of linguistics. Jakobson insists that

“literary criticism,” which often evaluates literature in subjective terms, must be distinguished

from “literary studies” proper, which engage in “objective scholarly analysis of verbal art”.

Habib further explains Jakobson’s concept that like linguistics, literary studies, whose focal point

is poetics, are concerned with problems of synchrony and diachrony. Synchronic description

views the various elements of a literacy tradition as they occur at a given point of time; these

elements will include, however, literary values and figures whose influence has persisted. A
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diachronic study would analyse the various in the given tradition or system over a period of time.

Jakobson urges that the poetic function of language must be situated among the other functions

of language, which he schematizes as follows:

CONTEXT

ADDRESSER MESSAGE ADDRESSEE

CONTACT

CODE

In any act of verbal communication, the “addresser” sends a message to the “addressee”; the

message requires a “context” that is verbal or at least capable of being verbalized; a “contact”

which is a physical channel or psychological connection between them; and a “code” that is

shared by them. Jakobson explains that each of these factors determines a different function of

language, and the verbal structure of any given message depends on the predominant function.

The three functions of language so far mentioned by Jakobson – referential, emotive and

conative – belong to the traditional model of language as formulated by the German psychologist

Karl Buhler. What distinguishes poetic function from the others mentioned above is that it

focuses on the “message” for its own sake. In poetry itself, diverse genres employ the other

verbal functions along with the poetic function. Here is how Jakobson schematizes the various

functions:
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REFRERENTIAL

EMOTIVE POETIC CONATIVE

PHATIC

METALINGUAL

Jakobson’s essay “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (1956)

suggests that the language has a bipolar structure, oscillating between the poles of metaphor and

metonymy. This dichotomy, he urges, “appears to be of primal significance and consequence for

all verbal behaviour in general”.

Conclusion

To sum up, Russian Formalism was a path changing movement that provided a fresh concept for

analysis of literary works. For decades people learned to read, analyse, and appreciate literature

using this approach, making it one of the most influential methods of literary analysis which

emphasised close reading of the work itself by putting the focus on the text without considering

it as an expression of social, religious or political ideas. It paved the way for the development of

Structuralism in the later part of the twentieth century.


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Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Viva Books Private Limited, 2010.

Blamires, Harry. A History of Literary Criticism. Macmillan Publishers India Ltd., 1991.

Buchanan, Ian. Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Fifth. Penguin Books, 2013.

Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice. Cengage Learning, 2012.

Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory. Wiley Blackwell, 2005.

Holland, Owen and Piero. Introducing Literary Criticism- A Graphic Guide. Icon Books, 2005.

Nagarajan, M.S. English Criticism and Theory. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Private Limited,

2006.

Sim, Stuart and Borin Van Loon. Introducing Critical Theory- A Graphic Guide. Icon Books,

2012.