Literary Theory by 942flXN

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                                 CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE

What is Literary Criticism?

        An ongoing conversation; one that began before we arrived and will continue after we leave
         (Kenneth Burke)
        Adding your voice to those of others who have read the same work of literature and want to talk
         about it
        Your task: to contribute to the conversation
        Philosophers Plato and Aristotle laid the foundation for studying the creation, interpretation,
         and impact of the written and spoken word; they began the conversation we now join
        Literary critics and theorists are influenced by major shifts in philosophy, politics, history,
         science, technology, economics (i.e. the feminist movement led critics to apply ideas about
         gender roles to literary criticism)
        Think of each of the below critical approaches as a lens through which a piece of literature can
         be examined – while the lens itself cannot do the interpreting, it provides the reader with a set
         of guiding principles with which to limit all of the possible questions the reader might ask.

Points to keep in mind:

    i.   Many critics are comfortable adopting methods from several critical approaches. For instance, a
         reader who considers herself a Marxist critic may draw on historical theories to help her analyze
         a work.
    ii. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and it’s possible for critics to choose the most
         useful strategies from several approaches in their own writing. There are very few scholars who
         confine themselves solely to one theory without sometimes turning to other approaches.
    iii. Each theory has its own merits and shortcomings, proponents and skeptics.



                              AN OVERVIEW OF MAJOR CRITICAL METHODS



    I.   FORMALIST CRITICISM/NEW CRITICISM
               Emerged in Russia in early 20th century (Viktor Shklovsky, Mikhail Bakhtin) and ideas
                  were adopted and further developed in U.S and Britain under heading “new
                  criticism.”
               Consider a successful text to be a complete, independent, unified artifact whose
                  meaning and value can be understood purely by analyzing the interaction of its
                  formal and technical components, such as plot, imagery, structure, style, symbol,
                  tone.
               Focus on a text’s intrinsic elements versus extrinsic (i.e. historical, political,
                  biographical elements)
               Relies heavily on close reading or explication of the text in order to analyze the ways
                  in which distinct formal elements combine to create a unified artistic experience for
                  the reader.
               Form and content are intertwined and cannot be separated.
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              Interpretation of literature is a valuable intellectual activity vs. a means to advance
               moral, religious, or political ideologies.
              Any essential meaning in a text should be discernable to readers purely through
               close reading. Reject notion that an author’s thought processes and stated
               intentions for a text necessarily define the work’s meaning.
              ALL study of literature has to include at least a component of close reading; some
               critics wonder if this method suffices as a way to approach a text; some argue it is
               elitist and willfully dismissive of historical and biographical factors in the work.

II. BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICISM
           Emphasizes the belief that literature is created by authors whose unique
              experiences shape their writing and therefore can inform our reading of their work.
           Often consult author’s memoirs to uncover connections between author’s life and
              author’s work. May also study rough drafts or trace evolution of a given text.
           Example: awareness of Flannery O’Connor’s devout Catholicism will make religious
              elements of her stories and novels more meaningful to readers.
           Often used as part of a larger critical approach rather than as the primary critical
              strategy.

III. HISTORICAL CRITICISM
             Emphasizes the relationship between a text and its historical context.
             Highlight the cultural, philosophical, and political movements and ideologies
               prevalent during text’s creation and reception.
             Some argue that these methods reveal more about context surrounding a text than
               about the meaning or value of the text itself; text should be viewed as autonomous,
               idiosyncratic expressions of a particular author’s views

IV. PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM
           Originally stemmed, like psychology itself, from Sigmund Freud who sought to
            analyze the conscious and subconscious mental workings of his patients by listening
            to them discuss their dreams, erotic urges, and childhoods.
           These critics study characters and authors as they would patients, looking in the text
            for evidence of childhood trauma, repressed sexual impulses, preoccupations with
            death, etc.
           Freud’s “unconscious” (id) – a repository of repressed desires, feelings, memories,
            instinctual drives (many of which have to do with sexuality and violence). As a child
            grows, he/she learns to repress those instinctual drives; this repression creates a
            second self, a place where all that cannot be expressed or realized in civil life takes
            up residence – these drives often emerge in dreams and fears/compulsive
            behaviours; ego (self); superego (conscience – brings reason, order, logic, social
            acceptability to otherwise uncontrolled and potentially harmful realm of biological
            drives). When conscious control breaks down altogether and drives and unconscious
            content are expressed directly, without mediation by consciousness, one is in the
            realm of psychosis or schizophrenia.
           At the core of Freud’s sexual theory is the “ Oedipus Complex”
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               Use textual and biographical evidence as a means to better understand the author’s
                psychology. I.e. attribute somber tone of poems to poet’s contemporaneous loss of
                a spouse or may look for patterns in several texts to identify an author’s
                subconscious preoccupations, fears, motivations – i.e. attributing sexist tendencies
                to Hemingway by arguing women rarely play major roles in his fiction and are often
                manipulating or emasculating when they do . . . related to Hemingway’s conflicted
                love for his mother? (Note use of both psychoanalytic theory and biographical
                theory)
    Key Questions:
    i.     Is there evidence of Oedipal or Electra complexes in the text?
    ii.    How does the unconscious affect the conscious actions of the characters?
    iii.   Can we identify the effects or influences of the aspects of the personality, i.e. Freud’s
           concepts of superego, ego, and id?

V. ARCHETYPAL, MYTHIC, OR MYTHOLOGICAL CRITICISM
           Focuses on the patterns or features that recur through much of literature,
              regardless of its time period or cultural origins
           Stems from the work of Carl Jung who argued that humans share in a collective
              unconscious, or a set of characters, plots, symbols, and images that each evoke a
              universal response. Jung called these recurring elements archetypes and likens them
              to instincts – knowledge or associations with which humans are born
           Examples of archetypes: the quest story, the story of rebirth, initiation story; the
              good mother, the evil stepmother, the wise old man; a desert symbolizing
              hopelessness, a garden symbolizing fertility or paradise (SEE ADDITIONAL
              HANDOUT)
           Analyze the way archetypes function in literature and attempt to explain the power
              that literature has over us or the reasons why certain texts continue to hold power
              over audiences many centuries after their creation
           Other key terms (Jung): Persona - the image we present to the world; Shadow -
              darker, sometimes hidden (deliberately or unconsciously) elements of a person's
              psyche
   Key Questions:
   i.     What archetypes, image clusters, myths, characteristics of the genre recur in the text?
   ii.    How do the archetypes “work” with the social/thematic issues in the text?

VI. MARXIST CRITICISM
           Based on theories of Karl Marx (1800s) who perceived human history to have
              consisted of a series of struggles between classes, between oppressed and
              oppressing. Materialism was the driving force – a notion involving the distribution of
              resources, gain, production, and wealth. Getting and keeping economic power is the
              motive behind all social and political activities (education, religion, government,
              arts, media, etc)
           Economic power includes social and political power (hence “socioeconomic class”)
           Battle is between the “haves” and “have nots,” between the bourgeoisie (those who
              control the world’s natural, economic and human resources) and the proletariat
              (the majority of the global population who live in substandard conditions and
              perform the manual labor, mining, factory work, that fills the pockets of the rich)
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              The study of literary texts as products of the cultural, political, and economic
               context of the author’s time and place
            Examine practical factors such as the ways in which economics and politics influence
               the publishing and distribution of texts, shaking the audience’s reception of a text
               and therefore its potential to influence society
            Identify and analyze the sociological content of literature, or the ways in which
               authors or audiences may use texts directly or indirectly to promote or critique
               certain sociological views or values
            Culture – including literature – is shaped by the interests of the dominant (most
               powerful) social class
            I.e. focus on ways in which a character’s poverty or powerlessness limits his or her
               choice of actions in a story, making his or her efforts futile or doomed to failure
            Raise awareness about powerful relationship between class and culture
            Also promote literature or interpretations of literature that can change the balance
               of power between social classes, often by subverting the values of the dominant
               class, or by inspiring the working classes to heroic or communal rebellion
    Key Questions:
    i.     What are the conflicting forces in the work? Are they related to social conditions?
    ii.    Does the work raise fundamental criticisms about the emptiness of life in bourgeois
           society?
    iii.   What are the values of each class in the work?
    iv.    How do characters overcome oppression? What types of oppression do they encounter
           and why?
    v.     In what ways does the work serve as propaganda for the status quo; does it try to
           undermine or change it?
    vi.    How does politics (of the time of the text) impact on the characters?

VII. GENDER CRITICISM
        i. Feminist Criticism – focuses on sociological determinants in literature, particularly the
               ways in which much of the world’s canonical literature presents a patriarchal or
               male-dominated perspective. Highlight ways in which female characters are viewed
               with prejudice, are subjugated to male interests, or are simply overlooked in
               literature. Highlight these injustices and seek to reinterpret texts with special
               attention to the presentation of women. Also study the ways in which women
               authors have subjected to prejudice, disregard, or unfair interpretation. Attempt to
               recover and champion little-known or little-valued texts by women authors – who
               have been marginalized by male establishment since the formal study of literature
               began. (SEE ADDITIONAL HANDOUT)
        ii. Gay and Lesbian Studies/Queer Theory – Focuses on submerged or hidden aspects of a
               text, as well as more overt referents to recover lost or little known works of art from
               earlier generations.
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VIII.   ETHNIC STUDIES AND POSTCOLONIALISM
            Emerged after Civil Rights movement in U.S. and its roots are in writings of W.E.B.
               DuBois and others of the black arts movement and Harlem Renaissance.
            Concerned with social, economic, cultural aspects of ethnic groups and an approach
               to literature that includes artistic and cultural traditions that are often pushed to
               the margins or considered only in relation to a dominant culture.
            Asian American, Native American, Afro-Carribean, Italian American, Latinos – a few
               of many examples of groups that ethnic studies might explore.
            Seeks to give a voice to literature that has been previously overlooked in the
               traditionally Eurocentric worldview by reclaiming literary traditions and taking on
               subjects that explore identity outside the Eurocentric mainstream.
            Works that are not written by ethnic writers are studied as well – i.e. analyzing
               William Faulkner’s work from an ethnic studies perspective might focus on his
               portrayal of African Americans.
            Helped to open the literary canon to works by authors outside the white majority.
            Postcolonialism – relations between the colonizing West and colonized nations and
               regions that differed sharply from the conventional Western perspective
            Roots go back to 1978 publication of Orientalism by Edward Said who posits that the
               concept of the Orient was a projection of the West’s ideas of the “other.”
    Key Terms:
            Diaspora: used to refer to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to
               leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts of
               the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture
            Eurocentrism - the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing emphasis on
               European (and, generally, Western) concerns, culture and values at the expense of
               those of other cultures.
            Hybridity - referring to the integration (or, mingling) of cultural signs and practices
               from the colonizing and the colonized cultures. The assimilation and adaptation of
               cultural practices, the cross-fertilization of cultures, can be seen as positive,
               enriching, and dynamic, as well as oppressive

								
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