The Return of Thematic Criticism

Overview

Once it was anathema to speak about the content of a work of art in the wake of high modernism and formalism. Critical practice has moved beyond such limits, and today the focus on themes is the hallmark of feminist, new historicist, ethnic, and even deconstructionist approaches, though that focus may not always be openly declared. This manifesto reasserts the validity of the thematic approach to criticism in our day, bringing together for the first time an international group of critics and theoreticians who ...

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Overview

Once it was anathema to speak about the content of a work of art in the wake of high modernism and formalism. Critical practice has moved beyond such limits, and today the focus on themes is the hallmark of feminist, new historicist, ethnic, and even deconstructionist approaches, though that focus may not always be openly declared. This manifesto reasserts the validity of the thematic approach to criticism in our day, bringing together for the first time an international group of critics and theoreticians who have thought deeply about literary motifs and themes.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Virginia Quarterly Review
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, Sollor's 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.
Southern Humanities Review

This collection of essays on thematic criticism, edited by Werner Sollors, can be considered among the most successful and useful examples of the genre...The Return of Thematic Criticism gives a new turn to, and offers new points of observation on, a critical debate that has reached a phase of general confusion and has entered some blind alleys. It should stimulate a broad discussion of international scope, given the importance of the subject and the numbers of centers of research interested in it. The book can also be of notable help to scholars and students, for it can give new theoretical awareness to those who are engaged in some form of thematic criticism without having a theoretical awareness of what they do and without being bothered to consider the methodological problems involved.
— Remo Ceserani

Ariel

This study of thematics opens up afresh the problems of literary theory...It also might be an impetus to re-examine the history of postmodernist theory which has co-opted one aspect of thematics in response to modernism but appears to have blithefully ignored what remains problematic.
— John Stephen Martin

Choice

This is a judicious, wide-ranging study.
— J. F. O'Malley

Southern Humanities Review - Remo Ceserani
This collection of essays on thematic criticism, edited by Werner Sollors, can be considered among the most successful and useful examples of the genre...The Return of Thematic Criticism gives a new turn to, and offers new points of observation on, a critical debate that has reached a phase of general confusion and has entered some blind alleys. It should stimulate a broad discussion of international scope, given the importance of the subject and the numbers of centers of research interested in it. The book can also be of notable help to scholars and students, for it can give new theoretical awareness to those who are engaged in some form of thematic criticism without having a theoretical awareness of what they do and without being bothered to consider the methodological problems involved.
Ariel - John Stephen Martin
This study of thematics opens up afresh the problems of literary theory...It also might be an impetus to re-examine the history of postmodernist theory which has co-opted one aspect of thematics in response to modernism but appears to have blithefully ignored what remains problematic.
Choice - J. F. O'Malley
This is a judicious, wide-ranging study.
Ariel
This study of thematics opens up afresh the problems of literary theory...It also might be an impetus to re-examine the history of postmodernist theory which has co-opted one aspect of thematics in response to modernism but appears to have blithefully ignored what remains problematic.
— John Stephen Martin
Choice
This is a judicious, wide-ranging study.
— J. F. O'Malley
Southern Humanities Review
This collection of essays on thematic criticism, edited by Werner Sollors, can be considered among the most successful and useful examples of the genre...The Return of Thematic Criticism gives a new turn to, and offers new points of observation on, a critical debate that has reached a phase of general confusion and has entered some blind alleys. It should stimulate a broad discussion of international scope, given the importance of the subject and the numbers of centers of research interested in it. The book can also be of notable help to scholars and students, for it can give new theoretical awareness to those who are engaged in some form of thematic criticism without having a theoretical awareness of what they do and without being bothered to consider the methodological problems involved.
— Remo Ceserani
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674766877
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1993
  • Series: Harvard English Studies Series , #18
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 350
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

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

Introduction
"Theme" as a Theme 1
General Essays
Theme and Interpretation 21
A Brief Genealogy of "Theme" 38
Concept and Theme 46
A Generative Approach to Thematics: Poetics of Expressiveness and Modern Criticism 60
Motif and Theme as Structural Content Units and "Concrete Universals" 80
The Concept of Motif in Literature: A Terminological Study 92
On Thematic Practice
Literary Histories and the Themes of Literature 109
Thematics and Historical Evidence 121
Autumn Poems: Reflections on Theme as Tertium Comparationis 146
The Thematics of Jean-Pierre Richard 161
In Search of the Narrative Theme 169
Case Studies
Shakespeare's Themes, with Variations 191
"Topoi" of Realism: The Metamorphosis of Colors 209
Bachelors in Paradise: The State of a Theme 217
Topology and Typology: A Study of Shifting Sign/Code Relations 242
Wagner's Parsifal between Mystery and Mummery; or, Race, Class, and Gender in Bayreuth 261
Short Takes
Love and Death 288
Thematizing 289
Reflections on Stoffgeschichte 290
Themes and the "Kernel of Truth" 294
Beyond "Form vs. Theme" 297
Roncevaux 299
Selected Bibliography 301
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