In memory of Tzvetan Todorov, leading modern literary theorist

He died on February 7, having written several foundational books on Narratology as a theoretical school of thought commonly applied in literature research

In Summary

• He is famous for the quote, “For evil to take place, the acts of a few people are not sufficient; the great majority also has to remain indifferent"

Tzvetan Todorov
Tzvetan Todorov

There are three main branches of literature, and each one can best be viewed as a domain. The primary domain is the one which deals with the creation of the literary art in its various forms, whether oral or written. Out of this domain, writers and their texts exist, and without it, the other two domains are null and void. This is the domain where literature is created.

The second and third domains are closely connected. They are called literary theory and literary criticism, respectively. The latter is the domain where the audience or readers of literature exist. It is the reception domain. Here the literary works created in the first domain are read, analysed, interpreted and evaluated in terms of their merit, impact, nature or function. One can argue that this domain is inextricably related to the first one.

Whereas the first one deals with literary creativity, the second one deals with literary criticism. Writers who occupy the reception domain in literature are often called literary critics and deal with literary criticism. They exist in tandem with the literary creators of authors of creative writers who occupy the first domain.

Good writers get endorsements from literary critics, who also chastise poor writers and at times help them to be better writers through progressive criticism of their works.

The remaining domain out of the three identified above is the one that is mainly occupied by academics and scholars of literature. This is the domain of literary theory. It exists between the two domains earlier identified: one of literary creativity and that of literary criticism.

This domain of literary theory provides the critic with interpretive tools. Theories are essentially ideational instruments that sophisticated readers called critics use to gain a deeper and broader understanding of literature in its diverse forms and styles of writing.

In recent times, it has become quite complex to attempt any definition of literary theory without tying it to literary criticism. Literary criticism and literary theory are sometimes used as interchangeable concepts that dwell on the idea of the interpretation of the literary arts and passing upon them of aesthetic judgement.

Literary theory today comes in diverse and sophisticated kinds. Some are schools of thoughts that look at the meaning of literature by focusing on the author; others focus on the contexts of the work of art and yet others focus their exegetical energies simply on the text or work of art itself per se. Finally, we have yet other theories that come together to underscore the role of the reader or audiences in the literary experience and its value evaluation.

Some of the theories of literature that have attained prominence in contemporary societies are Marxist literary theory, feminist literary theories, psychoanalytic literary theory, deconstruction, postcolonial literary theory, ethnopoetics, reader-response theory as well as Narratology. They are all taught across the disciplines in departments of literary studies from the West to the rest, including here in Kenya.

It is in this light that scholars locally saluted the passing away of one of the leading literary theorists of recent times, Tzvetan Todorov. Born in Bulgaria but bearing French nationality also, this literary philosopher and philologist rose to become one of the most influential commentators on the nature of literature at the turn of the century.

He died on February 7, having written several foundational books on Narratology as a theoretical school of thought commonly applied in literature research. His seminal and pioneer book is entitled, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1973). It was first published in French but has been translated to many languages, English included.

According to Dr Murimi Gaita, a leading Kenyan scholar and editor of Hybrid Journal of Journal of Literary and Cultural Studies, the death of Todorov has come as a shock to many who relied on his ideas and tenets to investigate literature using structuralism as a framework of data analysis. He is one of the many literature and culture researchers who have used Todorov’s ideas in his postgraduate academic publications.

The Bulgarian critic had consolidated his position as a voice of incisive analysis across the humanities and social sciences. His works are cited in fields as diverse as sociology, cultural studies and linguistics in spite of his main area of specialisation and focus being literature.

He will be remembered for the many books and public speeches on digital platforms that now form part of his legacy. However, it is one of his recent-most quotes that I leave you with as we reflect on the importance of literary theory in literary studies and creativity.

He once said that, “For evil to take place, the acts of a few people are not sufficient; the great majority also has to remain indifferent.” Let us remember him as a clarion call to all of us to be engaged with literature, society and the realities around us even as we pursue better futures.


Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University