Guide to Literary Terms

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What does "paradigm" mean in the context of literature?

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The question of how paradigm is applied to literature is, to some, a complex question that does not have a simple answer. While paradigm started out to mean, and still does mean, a pattern or model of how something works, grammar, science, and other academic disciplines have appropriated the word, and it has grown to house a complex organization of thought. Ironically, this is pretty much the very definition of paradigm when applied to academic disciplines like literature.

Collins Dictionary says paradigm is a "very general conception of the nature of [academic] endeavour within which a given enquiry is undertaken." American Heritage dictionary says it is a "set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline." Longman Dictionary says that, when used as a technical term, it is "a model or example that shows how something works or is produced." While an American Heritage usage note says a paradigm is a "theoretical framework," George P. Landow, Ph.D., Brown University, expands the idea and says of paradigms: "Paradigms are means of interpreting the world, and therefore to exchange paradigms requires that one change one's interpretation of things."

The final analysis of paradigm and how it applies to literature is that a paradigm presents a complex organization of thought that represents a theoretical framework as a means of interpreting the world that both determines and is determined by cultural and individual perspective. When analysing literature, the critic/reader is emerged in the view of the world the author embraces--or the culture embraces or the literary period embraces--and perceives characters and events through the authors paradigm (theoretic framework and world view). At the same time, the critic/reader brings to the work their own paradigm to which the other paradigm is compared or against which it is measured or under which it fails. In literary analysis, the paradigm presented informs the critical and interpretive assessment of the work.

This is, in my opinion, a complex concept that may take time to understand, yet in practical application to analysis, it requires, at a beginning level, analysis that looks for and takes into account the theoretic framework of the period, genre, and author and attempts to understand from within the text and period rather than understand from an individual and contemporary opinion and point of view. Think of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen: the former you must read from within her theoretic framework, her complex organization of thought, while the latter (Austen) you must read from the complex organization of thought that comprises the social perspective of her cultural era. In other words, you must take account of their paradigms.

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Actually, I suspect the question was about Kuhn and paradigm shifts in literary genre and criticism.

Paradeigma isn't the same as meter or genre or theme ... It is actually a technical Greek rhetorical term meaning an example that can be used as a model for imitation -- thus tupto (Greek) or amo (Latin) for verbs.

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Basically, a paradigm is a pattern. Greek tragedy generally had a 5-act paradigm, with the crisis and the reversal always occurring at certain points in the drama. A sonnet can have one of two paradigms, depending upon the rhyme scheme and the "balance" of its stanzas. A haiku always has 17 syllables and a very concentrated image. A TV series will have segments of each episode designed to maintain a bit of tension during commercial interruptions. A novel might have such paradigms as "boy meets girl," the quest, the growth toward maturity of the protagonist, the revelation of reality in contrast to appearance, the struggle to achieve one's destiny, or the hopelessness of attempting to defy one's fate. An author chooses not only whether to employ familiar paradigms but also whether to conform to them or to defy them.

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