This book is both a guide to, and interpretation of, the course of modern literary theory. Exploring the various theories of reading which have informed post-war literary criticism, it shows that for all the fervour of current debate about new movements in criticism, all these different approaches share at root a common notion of literary meaning. Through a successive examination of the most influential theoretical works, William Ray provides the reader with a clear view of how literary critics have conceived their object of study and of how they have sought to grasp the nature of fictional meaning. Starting with the French and German critics who brought the notion of consciousness to the fore in the fifties and sixties, he proceeds lucidly through expositions of Reader Response Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Structuralism, Semiotics and finally Deconstruction. These different schools, Ray argues, all implicitly acknowledge that one cannot account for literary meaning purely in terms of 'structures' or 'events', yet they have persisted in trying to do just that.
Some writers, such as the psychoanalytic and reader response critics, see meaning as deriving from the author's intention or the individual act of reading. Others, notably the structuralists and semioticians, hold that meaning has its source in the shared conventions of an author's and reader's culture. The repeated failure of either position to provide a critical practice consistent with its theory has driven literary criticism towards post-structuralism. The paradoxical formulations of deconstruction are best understood, Ray suggests, as an extreme, but historically predictable, attempt to bring the 'structural' and the 'eventual' definitions of meaning together within a peculiarly elusive, perhaps inconceivable, notion.