Literary Theory: An Introduction (Online)


Literary theory has changed the way we think about literature, language, identity, and society. Although theory might sometimes seem intimidating, it can be very accessible and exciting. This course aims to demystify literary theory, showing how it illuminates literary texts and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of literature.

Over the course of the twentieth century, modern literary theory has transformed the field of English studies. It has also changed the way we read literature, and how we understand language, identity, and society. Despite its enormous influence, literary theory can seem overly abstract, complex, and intimidating to readers and critics. This course aims to demystify some key ideas and debates in modern literary theory, and to show exactly how these exciting ideas enhance our understanding and enjoyment of fiction and poetry. This course is for anyone who would like to know what terms such as deconstruction, Marxist criticism, and postcolonialism really mean, and for those who are curious about the relationships between history, politics, philosophy, and literature. This course is also aimed at anyone interested in honing their critical reading skills, and most importantly, anyone who enjoys reading and would like to learn even more about literature.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

Unit 1: Why literary theory?

  • What do we do when we read?
  • Approaches to literature
  • Literary criticism vs. literary theory

Unit 2: Russian Formalism and the New Criticism

  • A scientific approach to literary language
  • A Russian Formalist: Viktor Shklovsky
  • Reading like a Russian Formalist
  • A practical approach to literary texts
  • Reading like a New Critic

Unit 3: Reader response

  • You, the reader
  • Hermeneutics and phenomenology
  • A reader response critic: Stanley Fish

Unit 4: Structuralism

  • Structure
  • Structure in language: the sign
  • Structure in literature: metaphor and metonymy
  • Reading like a structuralist

Unit 5: Post-structuralism

  • After structuralism
  • A post-structuralist critic: Jacques Derrida
  • Deconstruction
  • Reading like a post-structuralist

Unit 6: Psychoanalysis and literature

  • The human subject
  • The foundation of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud
  • Reading like a Freudian
  • A post-Freudian critic: Jacques Lacan

Unit 7: Feminist literary theories

  • Literature and politics
  • Feminisms
  • Women’s writing
  • Gender and language
  • Reading like a feminist critic

Unit 8: Marxist literary theories

  • Dialectics and Marxism
  • Ideology
  • Reading like a Marxist critic

Unit 9: Postcolonial literary theory

  • Colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Coloniser and colonised
  • Reading colonial literature
  • Reading post-colonial literature
  • Politics and theory

Unit 10: Theory now

  • A review
  • The end of theory?
  • New directions
  • You, the critic and theorist

We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:


Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Jenn Dunn

Dr Jennifer Dunn, lecturer in English at Oxford University from 2002-2009, has taught for OUDCE since 2007. She is the supervisory tutor for online writing and literature courses, and Assessor in English for the Undergraduate Certificate. She has published on twentieth-century and contemporary fiction, and her teaching and research interests also include women's literature, nature writing, and eco-criticism.

Course aims

This course will enable participants to:

  • Understand the historical development of literary theory and its role in English studies;
  • Understand and discuss relationships between different theories and critical schools;
  • Understand and discuss some key ideas of particular theories and schools;
  • Understand extracts from works by selected theorists and critics;
  • Understand the practical applications of literary theory;
  • Apply literary theory themselves in analysing prose and poetry.

Teaching methods

Introductory section; reading required and recommended; handouts; online forum; online personal reading diary; posted short responses to literary extracts and exercises; tutor responses to forum and exercises; assessment and feedback.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course you will know:

  • The broad development of literary theory from the early twentieth century to the present;
  • Differences and similarities between several theories and critical schools;
  • Some key concepts of individual theories;
  • How theory has been applied to literary analysis;
  • How to use theory when reading and analysing literature.

By the end of the course you will have developed the ability to:

  • Enhanced ability to read, contextualize, and compare primary material by different literary theorists;
  • Ability to apply literary theory when analysing literary texts;
  • Enhanced ability to understand their own critical/theoretical stance as readers.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.