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Nov 22, 2011

Theory of Literature: Ren Wellek

A Resume of Theory of Literature by Ren Wellek and Warren
We have to answer some basic questions when we study theory of literature. What is literature? What is literary study? Are they both different? What is the distinction? These questions are followed by the questions about the nature of literature, its functions, etc. Theory of literature, as much as possible, tries to answer these.

Literature and Literary Study
First, it is quiet necessary for us to know the definition of literature. Literature is a creative act. It is an art. On the other hand, literary study is knowledge about literature itself. Since long ago, there are some efforts to differ them. But these efforts only make literature and literary study come to a very complicated relation.

To overcome this, there are some problem-solvings. First, some literary theorist who didn’t agree that literary study is the knowledge about literature said it is wiser to say that literary study is a “second creation”. The second theorist come to the extreme point, that both literature and literary study can’t be studied at all. For the rest, we can only accumulate all kinds of information ‘about’ literature (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 15).

Since first, it is said that literature is an art. Literature had ever been approached scholarly by applying the natural science attitudes such as objectivity, impersonality, and certainty. In practice, then, it concludes that the more general a theory, it is emptier.

Another opinion stated that to conclude the general law in literature, individually is needed. Thus, there are two extreme points: first, the universal-objective; second, the particular-subjective. Both of these concepts are dangerous to apply at once.

The universal-objective leads to the absolutism. It is quite mistaken, of course, because each of literary works is unique. It can’t be simply summed up in universality. The particular-subjective is totally doubted because it must result in personal intuition. Personal intuition, then, may rise an emotional appreciation to complete subjectivity.

The Nature of Literature
At the beginning, it is important to distinguish what literature is and what is not. First, literature ought to be everything in print. Literature was learnt using any other science of culture. But this effort replaced the pure literary criteria. Other criteria came to the literature realm. Literature was supposed to give nothing to the knowledge. This occurred when in the further, the knowledge notably increased.

Second, literature ought to be the great-book namely “notable for literary form or expression”. The criteria, namely the aesthetic, dealt with the “general intellectual distinction”. This has resulted in value judgement, particularly to the non-great-books. Social background, linguistic, ideology, and other conditional circumstances, then, had no means.

Third, the term of ‘literature’ ought to be limited at imaginative literature. It was too difficult to find the exact word in any languages. To overcome this, the speech community had to be divided in detail. It was a must to note that language is a human creation contained cultural heritages of linguistic group.

Here, it can obviously be seen that there are four natures of literature. The first nature of literature is imaginative. Traditional literary works fulfill this nature. The second, everything strongly relates to such “fictionality”, “invention”, or “imagination”. Philosophist, claimed as the third nature of literature. Fourth, literature, sometimes, may exist in ‘boundary’ area.

Literature is commonly identified with imagery. Imagery is used both in prose and poems. As much as possible, the authors indicate the visualization by imagery. Generally, imagery describes what the author wants to visualize. Most of visualizations by imagery can be well wondered by the readers. But, it is not in a little number that imagery even doesn’t help the readers to understand the visualizations. Visualization using imagery normally appears in prose than poems.

The Functions of Literature
The discussion about the function of literature started at the Age of Greeks. Plato wrote how the poets and the philosophers quarreled. At the Renaissance Age in America, Poe criticized the didactic poems. In his opinion, a poem shouldn’t have to be in didactic purpose. Poe, then, argued that a poem must be a didactic heresy.

At the late of 19th century, the doctrine art for art’s sake was issued. This doctrine followed by poesi pure at the early of 20th century. Horace proposed a concept of dulce and utile which means sweet and useful. This concept which contained two words, should be understood at once. Poems supposed as a craft (a work) and a play at time. The view poems as a craft or a work, lost its “purposelessness”, lost its pleasure. Meanwhile told poems as a play, it didn’t regard the care, skill, and planning of the author. Given this, it ought to be dulce and utile.

How much, then, the function of literature? Here are some –especially poems’ function. First, as Aristotle said, he himself tended to prove that the function and the seriousness of a poem represented how deep the knowledge it contained. Secondly, poems as the medium of telling either truth or propaganda. Thirdly, poems have a purification function. But actually, its prime and chief function is fidelity to its own nature (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 37).

The function of literature, some say, is to relieve us –either the writers or readers- from the pressure of emotion (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 36). The validity of this opinion is questioned since literature, actually not only relieve neither the writers nor readers from the pressure; but also evokes the emotion.

Literary Theory, Criticism, and History
Indeed, there’s no proper term to mention literary study. It is usually called scholarship. This term is, sometimes, listened too academic. The other term had ever used is philology. The using of this term is open to misunderstanding. Literary theory itself is the study of the principles of literature, its categories, criteria, and the like, and by differentiating studies of concrete works of art as either “literary criticism” (primarily static in approach) or “literary history” (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 39).

The distinction of literary theory, criticism and history is clear enough. There’s a strong relation among them. Nevertheless, the efforts to separate them have ever been done. These give result in some views.

Historicism is the first view then evoked. This view wanted to separate literary history from literary criticism. Federick A. Pottle had a more extreme view. His argument was each period has its own different critical conceptions and conventions. The rest convinced that Classic and Romantic period can’t be connected: the classical works tends to be “poetry of statement”, meanwhile the romantic tends to be “poetry of implication”.

It is common that the writer’s intention in a literary work becomes the subject matter of literary history. It can’t be done because literary work itself is a system of values (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 42). Value is all about judgement. In practice, however, it is difficult to give a value judgement: the relativism comes to the “anarchy of value”; and absolutism emphasizes on “unchanging human nature” or “universality of art”. Perspectivism is in the boundary or gray area.

There’s no literary history that was written without a selection. A literary historian can’t separate himself from literary critic. Literary works, whenever it is made, is always interesting to learn. The literary historian must be a critic even in order to be a historian (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 44).

The works of 18th century is the main subject matter of conventional literary history. This is due to their gracious, more stable, and more hierarchic world. The works from the late 19th century followed its previous. It was learnt as well. The scholarly attitude, which firstly didn’t want to learn the works of contemporary works, then faded away. The reason not to study these works was due to the writers were still alive. Mostly, the critic chose the “verdict of the ages” namely writing of the other critics or readers. So that, simply we can sum up that literary history is quiet important for the critics.

General, Comparative, and National Literature
In practice, the term “comparative” literature has covered and still covers rather distinct fields of study and groups of problems (Wellek & Warren. 1977: 46).

Secondly, “comparative literature” includes the relation between two or more literatures. But this only came at the surface. “Comparative literature” like this only learns about the facts, sources, and influences.

Thirdly, some terms are used as the synonyms of “comparative literature”, such as “world literature”, “general literature”, and “universal literature”. But it was supposed to be an exaggeration of the comparative literature intention.

Literature, however, has to be seen totally. The debate among the terms “comparative literature”, “general literature”, or “literature” was caused by misunderstanding of the term “national literature”. “National literature” was understood narrowly.

History literature, which is concerned with themes, forms, techniques, genres, and metrics, is spread out internationally. Its different move in each country is as the result of the romantic nationalism followed by modern organized literary history.


  1. This is a wonderful exposition to the world of literature.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


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