Literary and Critical Theory Julia Kristeva
Gina MacKenzie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0063


Julia Kristeva is a seminal figure in modern psychoanalytic, linguistic, and feminist criticism. A native of Bulgaria, Kristeva was born on 24 June 1941. As a young girl, because of her Bulgarian citizenship and the country’s connection to the Soviet Union, she was denied admission to her school of choice. Her connection to Bulgaria has also caused her, in the early 21st century, to be accused of being a Soviet spy in the 1970s, claims that have yet to be proven. Her critical career, however, is remarkable. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Sofia and moved to France in 1964 to further her education. In France, she quickly became a leader of the intellectual movement of the 1960s. She married Phillipe Sollers in 1967, and together they led the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel to its enormous literary, intellectual, and cultural importance. Kristeva’s work bridges the gaps among psychoanalysis, structural linguistics, and feminist theories. In psychoanalytic criticism, her most innovative work focuses on her concepts of abjection and melancholia. She is specifically and frequently interested in the application of her theories to women, particularly mothers. Her linguistic developments center on the distinct differences she draws between the semiotic and symbolic realms of communication and language, and their ability to inform psychoanalytic thought as well. Her critical work is in direct conversation with other great French thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Simone de Beauvoir. Her critical work is informed by her active practice as a trained psychoanalyst and is popular both in Continental and transatlantic criticism and theory. It is through her experiences as an immigrant that her theory has transnational appeal, and from that experience, in part, she formulates her theory of the stranger, which has cultural, linguistic, and psychoanalytic significance. Her work is unique because much of it is multifaceted and difficult to contain within a specific discipline or school of thought; this is also her brilliance as a theorist and critic. Kristeva’s work has far-reaching implications for literary and art criticism, linguistics, and psychoanalytic, feminist, and cultural studies. She has been awarded such prestigious honors as the Order of the Arts, the Holberg Prize, the Hannah Arendt Prize, and the Vaclav Havel Prize. She founded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize committee. Along with her groundbreaking work in literary and philosophical thought, she has written many works of fiction. Her most recent work has engaged with art and social criticism. She is still an active author and scholar.

General Overviews

Frequently the best way to get to know the entirety of a scholar’s work is to approach it through a collection of her writings. There are several outstanding collections of Kristeva’s work. Kristeva 1969, although not a collection of essays or excerpts, functions as an overview to the majority of theoretical developments that were to come in Kristeva’s extensive career. Moi 1986 introduces readers to the first half of Kristeva’s career and includes excerpts that highlight her major theoretical developments focused on feminist thought. Oliver 1997 anthologizes much of Kristeva’s work specifically related to the concept of revolt. Volat 2018 presents a concise bibliography of primary texts. The Kristevan Circle also presents bibliographical information and supports work developing Kristeva’s theories.

  • Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

    While on the surface it seems like an advancement of theoretical linguistics, this text is quite anti-theoretical. It sets the precedent for Kristeva’s work as that which defies classical categorization. Her work sets up its own terms and parameters for exploring and combining linguistics, psychoanalysis, and feminist theories. While some chapters take a relatively structural approach to linguistic analysis, others attempt to uncover the genesis of the language theory itself. As a text, it acts as a foundation for the wealth of literary and critical works to follow.

  • Kristevan Circle.

    This website presents bibliographical material and supports materials and research about or using Kristeva’s work. The website also serves as a repository and advertising course for the Kristevan Circle Conference, an important annual academic meeting focused on Kristeva’s body or work and its application.

  • Moi, Toril, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    This, the first collection of Kristeva’s work, serves as an anthology of Kristeva’s most important works in psychoanalytic criticism and semiotics, and political thought from the first half of her career. Collected by an early important figure in feminist thought, this book introduces readers to the foundational conceptions in the Kristevan lexicon.

  • Oliver, Kelly, ed. The Portable Kristeva. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

    While this anthology collects many of Kristeva’s important works, from the beginning of her career until its publication, it highlights works on the concept of revolt in personal, political, and psychic spheres. This collection is useful for all interested in Kristeva’s work but is particularly relevant for those working with her concept of the stranger or the other.

  • Volat, Hélène. “Julia Kristeva: A Bibliography.” Hélène Volat website, April 2018.

    This web page presents a concise and accurate bibliography of primary sources. While it does not cover the secondary sources covered in this article, it does list all major works written by Kristeva.

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