literary theory 101

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Samuel Butler).

These days, when a story is described as a myth, it is assumed not to be true (or even an outright fabricated lie, in the case of politics). However, this was not always the case. In the first age of ancient Greece (800-500 B.C.), myths explained phenomena that people did not understand, and supplied the people of Greece with a sense of history. The inspiration for these stories was supposed to have been given to the poet by the Muses. Because the myths were the result of divine inspiration, they had authority and were seen as reliable. Since it was assumed that stories told the truth, there was no such thing as fiction.

(Interestingly, the authority of a myth depended on the audience’s response: if people appreciated the song/poem/etc. on an aesthetic level, they were likely to accept the story as true.)

Around 550 B.C., Grecian society went through a transformation. First, they forged more trade relations with other nations, which meant that the merchants came in contact with more different cultures than ever before. On top of that, there was a rise of a new scientific ways of thinking, including the development of philosophy and rhetoric. Rhetoricians, for one, realised that words have the power to manipulate factual reality, and thus, that ‘truth’ is subjective. Because they discovered more and more about the unknown, people increasingly relied on a more rational mode of thinking.

This led to the distinction between mythos and logos. Both words mean 'word’ in ancient Greece, but interpret it in different ways:

Mythos: Story (implied: lie, deceptive)
Logos: Rational (implied: truth)

With this distinction came the development of the concept of fiction. Now, people realised that a story does not necessarily correspond with factual reality.

It’s important to note that this development took place within the elite. The common people weren’t aware of this distinction. Thus, in the time between 500 and 300 B.C. (roughly), there was a double climate in Grecian society. On the one hand, logos was increasingly seen as the domain of truth, but on the other hand, mythos was still very much alive in the everyday lives of the people. Many writers chose to combine the two ways of thinking, and used the form of the myth to reflect on modern themes. For example, the hero Theseus was initially mostly depicted as a violent warrior, but was now also presented as the peaceful “founding father” of Athens, as a part of Athenian propaganda.

Additionally, we should be aware that this distinction is not absolute, and that the two ways of thinking are both essential because they complement each other. Where logos is concerned with practical matters, mythos offers meaning. Myths are not reasonable, and are not supposed to empirically prove anything. However, they can offer a way to make sense of things that logos cannot explain. They are both indispensable.

Finally, it is important not to confuse the discourses of mythos and logos, especially when it comes to religious doctrine. Mythos should not be the basis of pragmatic policy, as the results could be disastrous (see: fundamentalism). Likewise, religious truth is not rational or factual.

The mythos/logos distinction may not be absolute, but it can be a helpful conceptual tool when discussing changes in the discourses of science and religion in history.


Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.

I may not agree with everything Armstrong says, but this book does give a good historical overview of the mythos/logos distinction and the role of these two ways of thinking in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Plato. Republic.

In book ten, the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy is discussed.

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Are there any concepts at all that are understood directly, without metaphor? If not, how can we understand anything at all? (Lakoff and Johnson)

Before I start, we should clear this up first:

Metaphor: All the world’s a stage (one thing is the other thing).

Simile: All the world is like a stage (compare two things through a connective).

Metonymy: Referring to the U.S. government as “the White House” (designating one thing in terms of another experientially related thing).

Okay? Okay.

Now, in 1980, George Lakoff (a linguist) and Mark Johnson (a philosopher) published the revolutionary Metaphors We Live By, which claimed that metaphor is not just a matter of language, but a matter of thought. Lakoff and Johnson believe that language is an indicator of the nature of our conceptual system, and metaphor is so pervasive in language that it actually structures how we make sense of and interact with the world around us (unlike, say, metonymies, which only serve a referential function). Hence the term ‘conceptual metaphor.’

For example, when we talk about arguments, we use the language of battle (as per the metaphor 'argument is war’): we defend positions, attack opponents, choose strategies, and we win or lose in the end. Many things we do when we argue are influenced by our chosen metaphor, which is partially influenced by our culture and personal experiences:

Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different.

The classical theory of metaphor says that the suggested similarity arises from objective similarity, but Lakoff and Johnson argue against this, claiming that metaphors do not just point out similarities that are objectively true, but create similarities. We create these similarities by downplaying certain aspects (cooperation, working towards a resolution) and highlighting others (battle). In doing so, we can give an experience a certain meaning, and thus metaphors shape our reality. They can justify our actions, influence popular opinions, and those in power can impose their chosen metaphors on others.

Lakoff and Johnson differentiate three types of conceptual metaphor: structural, orientational, and ontological. The structural metaphor is the metaphor I’ve talked about up until now (one thing conceived in terms of another thing). Orientational metaphors organize immaterial concepts in terms of physical orientation: happiness is up (high spirits) and sadness is down (feeling low), the future is ahead and the past behind. Ontological metaphors give incorporeal things a sense of substance so we can refer to an abstract concept in terms of quantity (a lot of patience), character (brutality of war), agency (love drove him mad), directionality (prices are rising), etcetera.

Metaphor is a way of understanding a concept, and according to Lakoff and Johnson, meaning and truth depend on understanding. Truth is not objective, but depends on context, it relies on a human thinker. Thus, metaphors structure what we perceive as truth (taking cultural specificity and individual bias into account). Finding coherence leads to understanding, and this could help in our discussions of politics, communication, and self-understanding. Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of the conceptual metaphor fuses two accounts of truth, objectivism (absolute reality, reason) and subjectivism (personal experience influenced by emotion and imagination), into a sort of “imaginative rationality.” As they put it,

[…] truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in…our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily interactions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments.

Metaphors We Live By was an absolutely groundbreaking work when it first came out  in 1980: the objectivism/subjectivism divide was one that had existed since the dawn of philosophy. The work is not without its flaws, but did introduce some fascinating new ideas about the power of language and how it influences the way we see the world.


Sontag, Susan. Illness As Metaphor.

In this book, Sontag talks about disease metaphors and how harmful they can be to both patients and health care professionals. Read the Literary Theory 101 post here.

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Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

Susan Sontag started writing on disease metaphors when she underwent surgery and treatment for stage-four breast cancer in the 1970s. Fearing that she would die soon, she wrote Illness As Metaphor (1978) in an almost manic frenzy. In this work, she tried to demystify diseases and the metaphors people use to discuss them.

I want to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation: not real geography, but stereotypes of national character.

Sontag argues that the most truthful way of regarding illness (and the healthiest way of being ill) is one most purified of metaphoric thinking. She admits that this is nearly impossible since metaphorical thinking is inevitably part of of how the human brain makes sense of things. However, we should mind the metaphors we decide to use because, as we have learned from a previous Literary Theory 101 post, these metaphors influence our actions and how we interpret the world around us.

In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag discusses two diseases and their metaphors: tuberculosis and cancer. She shows how, in the nineteenth century, TB patients were seen as delicate, artistic, and superior people with great feeling and passion, and how this glorification of the disease caused people to want to look like they had TB, almost like a fashion trend. People like Lord Byron were convinced that dying from TB was the Romantic way to go (‘I should like to die of consumption. […] Because the ladies would all say, “Look at that poor Byron, how interesting he looks in dying”’). In the case of cancer, the opposite is the case. Sontag argues that according the “mythology of cancer,” the disease is caused by a steady repression of feeling and subsequent frustration. Because of this idea, the disease is seen as something shameful and the metaphors make it so for cancer patients.

Many critics have disagreed with her on this point, but do concur that the metaphors we choose to discuss a certain disease will affect the way patients experience their illness and how they estimate their chances of recovery. Thus, metaphors can be incredibly harmful in a psychological sense. They can influence how a doctor approaches a patient, how research into possible treatments is conducted, and how the patients are treated by their friends and family. Thus, Sontag argues that we should resist the temptation to interpret illnesses and make a disease into something more mysterious than it really is: a medical matter.


Sontag, Susan. AIDS and its Metaphors.

This is an addendum Sontag wrote in 1989. Here, she addresses a couple of the criticisms Illness As Metaphor had received and speaks on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in relation to other epidemics. AIDS and its Metaphors and Illness as Metaphor are often published in a single volume, so if you’re interested in the subject, get one of those editions.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By.

In this book, Lakoff (a linguist) and Johnson (a philosopher) explore how our use of conceptual metaphors in everyday language shapes the way we think and act, down to the most mundane little details. Read the Literary Theory 101 post on Metaphors We Live By here!

More Literary Theory 101 here!

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Big Brother is watching you.

1984, George Orwell.

Jeremy Bentham was an 18th-century British philosopher and jurist, who specialised in philosophy of law. In a letter he wrote in 1787, Bentham talked about reforming the penitentiary system. He reasoned that a prisoner would be less likely to stir up trouble if he believed that he was being watched at all times:

It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. 

So how can you make a great number of inmates believe that they are being watched when you don’t have the resources to assign each of them their own guard?

This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.

In order to tick the inmates into believing that they were under constant observation, Bentham designed a building that would allow a watchman to observe the prisoners without them ever being able to tell whether he was watching them or not: the Panopticon.

It was a circular building with cells lining the walls and an ‘inspection tower’ in the middle. The idea was that the prisoners would be able to see the tower at all times, but that the windows of the inspector’s lodge were blinded, so that they could never be sure whether they were being observed. In theory, there wouldn’t even have to be a guard in the watchtower: the feeling of being watched would be enough to keep the inmates in check. This would allow the prison to operate with less staff members.

In 1975, philospher Michel Foucault developed a social theory called ‘panopticism,’ based on Bentham’s design. Foucault used the Panopticon as a metaphor for modern disciplinary society, where observation has become a form of power: the consciousness of visibility is enough for domination, without the need for chains or locks.

… the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.

Building on that theory, contemporary critics have drawn a line from the Panopticon to surveillance in our own society. Just think of all the CCTV cameras installed in public places: you never know if someone’s watching, but the possibility that you might be observed is enough to make you act like you are.

So what does this have to do with literature? George Orwell drew inspiration from the Panopticon for his book 1984! In the novel, the telescreens that have been installed in people’s homes fulfil the same function as the watchtower in the Panopticon:

there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live… in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised

That is why it is so difficult for Winston to take even the tiniest step out of line: he never knows if Big Brother is watching him, and thus, at all times assumes that he is. It’s hard to rebel when you feel that someone is always watching over your shoulder.

Further Reading:

Orwell, George. 1984.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison.

And, of course, this song: Rockwell (feat. Michael Jackson) - Somebody’s Watching Me.

More Literary Theory 101 here!

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