Literary Criticism and Theory • Any piece of text can be read with a number of different sets of “glasses,” meaning you are looking for different things within the text. • Literary Criticism helps readers understand a text in relation to the author, culture, and other texts.
The Basic Idea • The point of criticism is to argue your point of view on a work of literature. • You don’t have to “criticize” a text (but you can) • You do have to analyze a text and support your assertions with specific evidence from experts and the text.
Basic idea • A critical analysis is an in-depth examination of some aspect of the literary work • you may examine any element of the text: character development, conflicts, narrative point of view, etc. • Even though it’s an examination of a literary work, it’s still a persuasive essay
Basic Idea • The goal is to prove something about the work • There must be a point to the discussion. • You must answer the questions Why?, or So what? • For example, why is a recurring symbol important? Or, why is the development of the female characters significant?
Basic Idea • There are many different approaches we can take to critical analysis • Literary theories provide a framework for our discussion of a text • We don’t have to identify the theory we’re using, though. • We use it as a starting point for our own ideas and opinions
The Most Common Critical Stances for Literature • Formalistic • Biographical • Historical/Cultural • Psychological • Mythological • Philosophical • Gender • Deconstructionist • Marxist
Formalist Criticism (p.2095) • A formalist (aka New Criticism) reading of a text focuses on symbol, metaphor, imagery, and so on. • Formalism ignores the author’s biography and focuses only on the interaction of literary elements within the text. • It’s what you do most often in English literature.
Formalist Criticism • no need to bring in outside information about the history, politics, or society of the time, or about the author's life • does not view works through the lens of feminism, psychology, mythology, or any other such standpoint • not interested in the work's affect on the reader.
Terms to know for this type of criticism • intentional fallacy - the false belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author's intention • affective fallacy - the false belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by its affect on the reader • external form - rhyme scheme, meter, stanza form, etc.
Application • What are some formal elements we might examine in a discussion of Red Riding Hood?
A Formalist Reading of “The Three Little Pigs” • What does the wolf symbolize? • Notice the consonance of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff…” • How does the story foreshadow the final fate of the pigs? • What does the wolf’s dialogue tell us about his character?
Pros and Cons • Advantages: • can be performed without much research • emphasizes the value of literature apart from its context • virtually all critical approaches must begin here • Disadvantages: • text is seen in isolation • ignores the context of the work • cannot account for allusions
Biographical Criticism (p. 2097) • As the name suggests, this type of criticism reads the text looking for the author’s influence. • By examining the author’s life, we can have a deeper understanding of his writing.
Application • What are some biographical elements we might examine in a discussion of And Then There Were None?
A Biographical Reading of The Importance of Being Earnest • Wilde had an intimate knowledge of “Bunburying” because he led a double-life too in his homosexual relationship with a young Oxford student. • The characters’ flippant attitude about marriage mirrors Wilde’s own casual devotion to his wife.
Historical/Cultural Criticism (p.2101) • Of course, this critical viewpoint examines a text in relation to its historical or cultural backdrop. • You may examine a text’s effect on history or culture. • A historical/cultural analysis is often very similar to a biographical analysis, and it’s possible to view history, culture, and biography in a single essay.
Pros and Cons of Historical Criticism • Advantages: • works well for some which are obviously political or biographical in nature. • places allusions in their proper classical, political, or biblical background. • Disadvantages: • "the intentional fallacy" • tends to reduce art to the level of biography and make it relative (to the times) rather than universal.
Application • What are some historical elements we might examine in a discussion of Hamlet?
Historical/Cultural Reading of The Crucible • How accurate is Arthur Miller’s account of the Salem Witch Trials? • What can The Crucible reveal about colonial New England and Puritan society?
Psychological Criticism (p. 2099) • Psychological critical theory applies the theories of psychology to a text to better understand its characters • Based largely on Freud, this theory hinges on the belief that an examination of people’s (characters’) unconscious desires.
Psychological Criticism • Drives governing human behavior • Id – the animal nature that says, “Do what feels good.” • Ego – the reality-based part of your personality that makes decisions to satisfy the Id and Superego • Superego – the socialized “conscience” that tells you what’s right or fair
Psychological Criticism Oedipus Complex – Every boy has the unconscious desire to have sex with their mother; consequently, sons are deeply afraid of their fathers, and fathers are deeply threatened by their sons. Elektra Complex – Every daughter has the unconscious desire to have sex with their father; consequently, daughters are deeply afraid of their mothers, and mothers are deeply threatened by their daughters.
Psychological Criticism • Of course, these complexes have their origins in literature and mythology. • Psychological criticism is a way to understand characters, not diagnose them.
A Psychological Reading of Macbeth • Macbeth kills King Duncan because he unconsciously recognizes the king as a father-figure. Hence, Duncan is a rival for power and the affections of the people. • In the latter acts of the play, Macbeth has indulged his id so often that his ego has lost the ability to restrain it.
Mythological Criticism (p. 2107) • This stance is not about mythology. • It is about the universal elements of human life common in all cultures. • Like ancient mythology, all literature is a window to creating meaning for human life. • In other words, stories make us feel like our lives are more significant.
Mythological Criticism • Central to the Mythological theory is the concept of archetypes. • Simply put, archetypes those universal elements present in the literature of all cultures.
Mythological Criticism • Common Archetypes • The Hero = Beowulf, Spiderman, Luke Skywalker, Braveheart • The Outcast = Macbeth’s clown, Grendel, Cain • The Quest = LOTR, Star Wars, Beowulf • Sacrificial King = Jesus, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, LOTR • Evil Personified = Wicked Witch of the West, the Devil, the Emperor in SW, the Borg
Mythological Criticism • The goal of Mythological Criticism seeks to understand how the story constructs meaning in the human existence through archetypes. • For example, note the ways texts have examined betrayal.
A Mythological Reading of Beowulf • Beowulf is the archetypal hero because his bravery and righteous behavior embodies the ideals and hopes of Anglo-Saxon society. • Grendel, the outsider, represents both the alien invaders of neighboring, warring tribes and the threat of supernatural monsters, which, as pagans, the Anglo-Saxons truly believed existed.
Philosophical or Moral Criticism • asserts that the larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and to probe philosophical issues • authors intend to instruct the audience in some way
Pros of Philosophical Criticism • Advantages: • useful for works which do present an obvious moral philosophy • useful when considering the themes of works • does not view literature merely as "art" isolated from all moral implications • recognizes that literature can affect readers and that the message of a work is important.
Cons of Philosophical Criticism • Disadvantages: • such an approach can be too "judgmental" • Some believe literature should be judged primarily (if not solely) on its artistic merits, not its moral or philosophical content.
Application • What are some moral or philosophical elements we might examine in a discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird?
Gender Criticism (p.2105) • Gender criticism analyzes literature through the lens of socially-constructed gender roles. • The largest part of gender criticism is feminism, which critiques and seeks to correct women’s subordination to men in society. • In its purist form, feminism is about equality.
Stages of the female identity • Feminine: the female accepts the definitions and roles male authorities have created for her • Feminist: rebels against male authority and intentionally challenges all male definitions and roles • Female: no longer concerned with male definitions or restrictions; defines her own voice and values
Mad Woman in the Attic • Critics Gilbert and Gubar identify a pattern in the treatment of female characters in literature, even when written by women. • based on the plot of Jane Eyre • the practice of removing a female character who is no longer useful to the male characters
Gender Criticism • A newer segment of gender criticism is “queer theory,” which looks for the influence of homosexuality within texts. • Research of this type is fairly difficult because, as you’ve learned, homosexuality was largely suppressed in Europe and America, and it hasn’t been openly discussed until the last few decades.
Application • What are some gender-based elements we might examine in a discussion of Hamlet?
A Feminist Reading of Goldilocks • As a single, young woman, Goldilocks finds herself without means or opportunity because she is unattached to a father or a husband. Perhaps, this is why she’s alone in the woods. • An independent woman, then, is a threat to the “normal” nuclear family, represented by the three bears.
Deconstructionist Criticism (p. 2111) • Deconstructionism argues that since there is no single meaning of any word, there can be no single meaning of a text. • EVERY text, therefore, has multiple valid meanings because the reader may interpret the words differently than the writer intended them.
Deconstructionist Criticism • As your book notes, most literary criticism is about constructionofa larger meaning from a text. • Deconstructionism emphasizes the breakdown of any meaning within a text because the variety of different readers. • Example: “Write the author of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’”
Deconstructionism • "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." • Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair
Deconstructionism • Deconstructionism is basically a verbal Sophism; because there is no concrete meaning of anything, there is no single truth applicable to all human beings. • Hence, everything is relative to you.
A Deconstructionist Reading of “The Tortoise and the Hare” • The homophone hare/hair would make this fable incomprehensible without pictures. • In Native American cultures, the tortoise is a symbol of honor, so Indians would interpret the “race” as a contest of honor and fair play instead of endurance.
Marxist Criticism • Marxist criticism examines the nature of power structures within a novel. • It asks questions like: Who has power? Who lacks power? Who is exploited by whom and why? How does power remain constant or shift throughout a work of literature? What makes certain characters powerful or powerless?
Marxist Approach • It also examines commodities, possessions that give power • Typical commodities are things like land and money but can also be things like social position, knowledge, or even a person • Marxist criticism can also examine what commodities bring power and why within a work of literature
Application – Hamlet • Who is in power within the novel? • What commodities does that character possess that allows him/her to have power? • How does power shift or remain static throughout the novel?
Reader Response Criticism • analyzes the reader's role in the production of meaning • lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from formalism • the text itself has no meaning until it is read by a reader • The reader creates the meaning. • can take into account the strategies employed by the author to elicit a certain response from readers • denies the possibility that works are universal (i.e. that they will always mean more or less the same thing to readers everywhere) • makes someone's reading a function of personal identity.
Pros and Cons of RR Criticism • Advantages: • recognizes that different people view works differently and that people's interpretations change over time. • Disadvantages: • tends to make interpretation too subjective • does not provide adequate criteria for evaluating one reading in comparison to another