The term “horizon of expectations”( German is Erwartungshorizont) is devised by Hans Robert Jauss to denote the criteria which readers use to judge literary texts in any given period. It is a crucial aspect of Jauss’s aesthetics of reception, and the term designates the shared set of assumptions that can be attributed to any given generation of readers. The criteria help constitute readers’ judgments of, say, a poem (e.g. pastoral or elegy.) in a trans-subjective way. Horizons of expectation change. The poetry of one age is judged, valued, and interpreted by its contemporaries, but the views of that age do not necessarily establish the meaning and value of the poetry definitively. Neither meaning nor value is permanently fixed because the horizon of expectations of each generation will change.
As Jauss puts it: ‘A literary work is not an object which stands by itself and which offers the same face to each reader in each period. It is not a monument which reveals its timeless essence in a monologue.’ Each age reinterprets poetry (and we can say literature in general) in the light of its own knowledge and experience, its own cultural environment. Literary value is measured according to ‘aesthetic distance‘, the degree to which a work departs from the ‘horizon of expectations’ of its first readers.
Jauss’s essay Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory (1967) attempts to provide a theory of literature based on a socio-historical context and a solution to the problem of how texts are evaluated. In Reading and Interpretation, Ian Maclean comments helpfully on the concept: ‘The “horizon of expectations”… is detectable through the textual strategies (genre, literary allusion, the nature of fiction and of poetical language) which confirm, modify, subvert or ironize the expectations of readers.’ ‘Aesthetic distance’ becomes a measure of literary value, ‘creating a spectrum on one end of which lies “culinary” (totally consumable) reading, and, on the other, works which have a radical effect on their readers’.
Also read: Aestheticism Movement