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Overview of Approaches to Literary Criticism A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important. For example, if a critic is working with certain Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post- colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean. This AP Literature and Composition course is loosely organized by critical approach. It is loosely organized because a variety of approaches are often used, separately or in conjunction, when critically analyzing a text. We also may digress to discuss and explore literary devices and conventions such as allusions, allegories, symbols, and irony. Biographical Critics focus on links between a work’s content and the writer’s life; often use the writer’s intentions, experiences, motives, or beliefs to interpret his/her literary texts. The critic privileges the relationship between writer and work. The literary work is valued, first and foremost, as the creative expression of an individual writer’s ideas, beliefs, experiences, or feelings. This approach was critiqued from a variety of perspectives in the early 20th century: the approach leaves out form; ignores the extent to which an individual writer is influenced by non-individual forces such as history, language, and culture; oversimplifies the relationship between experience and representation, or overestimates the correlation between intention and performance. Today, few critics completely ignore the author’s biography. However, biographical information is treated as one variable among a broader set of “contextual” factors. *Oeuvre criticism means studying all of a writer’s works together, often including letters or journals; one focuses on the writer’s development, influences, style, predominant themes. A biographical critic may ask: How does the text reflect the ideas, values, experiences of the writer? In what ways does the writer’s life inform or further the reader’s understanding of the text? In what ways does the text inform or further the reader’s understanding of the author’s life? What were the writer’s intentions in writing the text? What were they trying to say? Formalist Critics focus on the formal aspects of a literary work (structure, meter, diction, rhyme, line breaks, imagery, symbols, style, plot, allusions to other works, etc.). This method of studying literature is sometimes called “close reading.” Formalist critics often look for connections between form and themes, and/or study a work’s relationship to its genre. The critic privileges internal dynamics of the text, and/or the text’s relationship to literary history. The literary work is valued, first and foremost, as an aesthetic object. Aristotle can be seen as an early advocate of formalism. Some degree of formalist analysis, or close reading, is essential to most literary arguments, though the field has now shifted towards historicist methodologies (described below). Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself," and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form. A formalist critic may ask: How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text? How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? What does the form of the work say about its content? Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the entirety of the work? Reader Response Humanist Critics understand literature as one of the highest forms of human self-expression; they investigate literary texts as a way of understanding what it means to be human. Reading literature is seen primarily as a means of personal growth and self-development. The critic privileges the work’s universal or timeless themes. The literary work is valued, first and foremost, for the truths it expresses—or, for the psychological, aesthetic, and emotional experience it can impart to readers. In the mid-twentieth century, new theories (described below) eclipsed the Humanist approach. These theories dispute the notion of universal or timeless truths, and thus disagree with the fundamental premises of Humanist criticism. Today, however, concerns about the diminished role of literature in our culture, and interest in the relationship between literature and ethics, have prompted something of a return to Humanism. A humanist critic may ask: What does the text tell us about what it means to be human? What universal truths or themes are portrayed in the text and what can we learn from them? In what ways does the text deepen our understanding of the human condition? Psychoanalytic Psychoanalytic criticism is based on Freudian theories of psychology. He believed that a person’s behavior was affected by their unconsciousness: "...the notion that human beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware..." (Tyson 14-15). Our unconsciousness is influenced by childhood events which Freud organized into developmental stages. Each stage revolves around a body part (oral, anal, phallic, genital) as well as relationships with parents and desires and pleasure. The most well recognized stage is the phallic stage in which the child unconsciously desires to possess the opposite-sexed parent and to eliminate the same-sexed one. This is called the Oedipus complex in men and the Electra complex in women. Boys experience castration anxiety while girls experience penis envy. Both sexes repress these fears and anxieties and eventually look toward the parent of their gender for an example on which to base their sexual identity or role. All of these repressed emotions are not gone; they are hidden in our subconscious and influence our behavior. Id, Ego, and Superego Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood: Id: The seat of our impulses Ego: Negotiates with the id, pleases the superego Superego: Keeps us on the straight and narrow A psychoanalytic critic may ask: How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work? Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - at work here? How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example...fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)? What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author? What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader? Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"? Historicist Critics study the relations between a literary work and one or more of its historical contexts (including intellectual history, social history, political history, literary history). The critic privileges the relationship between the literary work and the historical moment in which it was produced. Traditional literary historians keep the focus on the literary work, which is assumed to have intrinsic value. They study history in order to better understand the literary work. These scholars may focus on one particular period, or work on longer spans of history, studying influence and literary developments. Their research continues to be seen as an important contribution to the field. New Historicist critics give more equal weight to literature and history, often considering literary texts alongside other kinds of documents or artifacts in order to investigate some specific feature of a historical moment. The literary work itself is no longer the primary object of study. These critics do not regard history as a set of facts or realities, but rather as a changing set of “constructions.” For example, a critic may set out to study the way in which female gossip was “constructed” in 18th c. England. She assumes that gossip did not simply pre-exist its representations, but was rather made into a reality by literary works as well as other representations or “discourses.” The critic might investigate how “gossip” was constructed, when, and why, and also how and why the construction of gossip has changed over time. Traditional Historicists value historical information for what it contributes to our understanding of the literary text. New Historicists value the literary work, first and foremost, for what it contributes to our understanding of the particular historical moment in which it was written. A traditional historicist critic might ask: In what ways can the social (or political, literary, etc.) climate of the time inform our understanding of the text? A new historicist might ask: In what ways does our understanding of the text affect our understanding of the social (or political or intellectual, etc) climate of the time? How does the text help us better understand the ways in which gossip (or gender or age or fashion, etc.) affected the lives of people living at that time? *Cultural Studies, like New Historicism, sets out to understand a specific social construct. It focuses on the present or recent past and studies cultural artifacts as well as the relationships between them (such as toys, television, popular music, pulp fiction, fashions, ad signs, etc.). Cultural studies doesn’t focus on literature and sometimes even marginalizes it. Marxist Critics use the work of Karl Marx and his followers to analyze literary works, focusing on class relations and class struggle. The literary work is valued, first and foremost, for the way it reveals or combats class structure, ideology, and/or capitalist power dynamics. While historicist approaches are not necessarily Marxist, Marxist approaches are always historicist. A key concept here is “ideology”: the notion that our picture of reality is not simply a reflection of the given, but is shaped to keep some groups in power and others unaware of the ways in which they are oppressed (deprived of power). “Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience” (Tyson 277). A Marxist critic might ask: Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed etc.? What is the social class of the author? Which class does the work claim to represent? What values does it reinforce? What values does it subvert? What social classes do the characters represent? How do characters from different classes interact or conflict? How does an analysis of social class within the book further our understanding of the text? Sociopolitical Criticism is a loose descriptor for a set of approaches that have in common an implicit or explicit concern with social activism. The literary work is valued for the way it reveals or combats racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, homophobia, or ethnocentrism. While providing insights into the literary text, these critics are using literary criticism as a mode of social critique: specifically, as a way of analyzing damaging attitudes and power dynamics that support injustice and oppression. Critics look at the way a literary text represents or “constructs” variables like gender, ethnicity, or sexuality, and brings out the way the text reinforces, or contests, the broader cultural construction of such variables. In other words, they study the relationship between literary texts and “ideology,” often setting out to reveal, critique, and thus “debunk” damaging attitudes conveyed by the work. *Feminist Criticism in concerned with the way in which literature reinforces or undermines the oppression of women. This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women. A feminist critic might ask: What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)? How are male and female roles defined? What constitutes masculinity and femininity? How do characters embody these traits? Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them? What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy? What does the history of the work’s reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy? What role does the work play in terms of women’s literary history and literary tradition? *Post-Colonial Criticism is concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized). Post-colonial criticism also questions the role of the western literary canon and western history as dominant forms of knowledge making. A post-colonial critic might ask: How does the literary text, explicitly or allegorically, represent various aspects of colonial oppression? What does the text reveal about the problematics of post-colonial identity, including the relationship between personal and cultural identity? What person(s) or groups does the work identify as “other” or stranger? How are such persons/groups described and treated? What does the text reveal about the politics and/or psychology of anti-colonialist resistance? What does the text reveal about the operations of cultural difference- the ways in which race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity- in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live? How does a literary text in the Western canon reinforce or undermine colonialist ideology through its presentation of colonization and/or its inappropriate silence about colonized people? *Race Theory – examines representations of race and/or ethnicity in a text, and the social and cultural implications of these representations. A race theorist will examine texts for racial stereotypes, themes of inequalities based on race or ethnicity, and racial identity and affiliation. Like post-colonial critics, race theorists also question the role of the western (Caucasian) literary canon within our society and our educational systems. A race theorist might ask: What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of racism? How does a character’s race affect their identity, self-esteem, or perceptions? What person(s) or groups does the work identify as “other” or stranger? How are such persons/groups described and treated? What does the text reveal about the psychology of racism? What does the text reveal about the operations of race – the ways in which religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity - in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live? How does a literary text in the Western canon reinforce or undermine racial stereotypes or racist ideology through its representation of and/or its inappropriate silence about people of color?
"Overview of Approaches to Literary Criticism"