Literature has an almost miraculous ability to create worlds, to invent new thoughts, to copy or change human experience as well as to divert and entertain. But it always falls short of reality itself, since the world is always bigger and more complex than can be captured in words. The ways in which literary theory have attempted to deal with this fact are manifold and complex. Countless ‘-isms,’ like Realism, Symbolism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Structuralism and Poststructuralism have been coined to define the ways in which literature and other art forms both reflect and shape the realities of which they are parts. We will not look into these -isms in great detail, but shall instead attempt to find the ground they have in common, the field they are trying to make sense of.
As mentioned several times in this module, there is a strict distinction between words and things/activities/ideas/emotions. If the word and the thing were identical, there would be no literature. We have seen that words have denotations and connotations but because of the inherent instability of language itself, this distinction often breaks down – especially in poetry where polysemy is an important factor.
Representation is a large and very complex field. Here, we will only provide a short introduction to the way it works, and we will for the most part limit our discussion to representation in literature, using the other arts only as examples for the sake of comparison.
In the twentieth century, one of the most important theoretical approaches to understanding how humans go about mimicking reality has been in the field of semiotics.