Thursday, July 5, 2007

Critical Approaches to Literature

Deconstruction is a school of literary criticism that suggests that language is not a stable entity, and that we can never exactly say what we mean. Therefore, literature cannot give a reader any one single meaning, because the language itself is simply too ambiguous. Deconstructionists value the idea that literature cannot provide any outside meaning; texts cannot represent reality. Thus, a deconstructionist critic will deliberately emphasize the ambiguities of the language that produce a variety of meanings and possible readings of a text.

Feminist criticism tries to correct predominantly male-dominated critical perspective with a feminist consciousness. This form of criticism places literature in a social context and employs a broad range of disciplines, such as history, psychology, sociology, and linguistics, to create a perspective that considers feminist issues. Feminist theories also attempt to understand representation from a woman’s point of view and analyze women’s writing strategies in the context of their social conditions.

Marxist criticism is a strongly politically-oriented criticism, deriving from the theories of the social philosopher Karl Marx. Marxist critics insist that all use of language is influenced by social class and economics. It directs attention to the idea that all language makes ideological statements about things like class, economics, race, and power, and the function of literary output is to either support or criticize the political and economic structures in place. Some Marxist critics use literature to describe the competing socioeconomic interests that advance capitalistic interests such as money and power over socialist interests such as morality and justice. Because of this focus, Marxist criticism focuses on content and theme rather than form.

New criticism evolved out of the same root theoretical system as deconstructionism, called formalist criticism. It was popular between the 1940’s and the 1960’s, but can still be found in some mutated forms today. New criticism suggests that the text is a self-contained entity, and that everything that the reader needs to know to understand it is already in the text. New critics totally discount the importance of historical context, authorial intent, effects on the reader, and social contexts, choosing to focus instead on the layers in the next. This school of criticism works with the elements of a text only – irony, paradox, metaphor, symbol, plot, and so on – by engaging in extremely close textual analysis.

New historicism focuses on the literary text as part of a larger social and historical context, and the modern reader’s interaction with that work. New historicists attempt to describe the culture of a period by reading many different types of texts and paying attention to many different dimensions of a culture, including political, social, economic, and aesthetic concerns. They regard texts as not simply a reflection of the culture that produced them but also as productive of that culture by playing an active role in the social and political conflicts of an age. New historicism acknowledges and then explores various versions of “history,” sensitizing us to the fact that the history on which we choose to focus is colored by being reconstructed by our present perspective.

Psychological criticism uses psychoanalytic theories, especially those of Freud and Jacques Lacan, to understand more fully the text, the reader, and the writer. The basis of this approach is the idea of the existence of a human consciousness – those impulses, desires, and feelings about which a person is unaware but which influence emotions or behavior. Critics use psychological approaches to explore the motivations of characters and the symbolic meanings of events, while biographers speculate about a writer’s own motivations – conscious or unconscious – in a literary work.

Queer theory, or gender studies, is a relatively recent and evolving school of criticism, which questions and problematizes the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation in literary texts. Queer theory overlaps in many respects with feminist theory in its aims and goals, being at once political and practical. To many queer theorists, gender is not a fixed identity that shapes actions and thoughts, but rather a “role” that is “performed.” It also challenges the notion that there is such a thing as “normal,” because that assumes the existence of a category for “deviant.” Queer theorists study and challenge the idea that these categories exist at all, but particularly in terms of sexual activities and identities.

Reader-response criticism removes the focus from the text and places it on the reader instead, by attempting to describe what goes on in the reader’s mind during the reading of a text. Reader-response critics are not interested in a “correct” interpretation of a text or what the author intended. They are interested in the reader’s individual experience with a text. Thus, there is no single definitive reading of a text, because the reader is creating, as opposed to discovering, absolute meanings in texts. This approach is not a rationale for bizarre meanings or mistaken ones, but an exploration of the plurality of texts. This kind of strategy calls attention to how we read and what influences our readings, and what that reveals about ourselves.


  1. Literature is a form of knowledge with intrinsic elements--style, structure, imagery, tone, genre.
  2. What gives a literary work status as art, or as a great work of art, is how all of its elements work together to create the reader's total experience (thought, feeling, gut reactions, etc.)
  3. The appreciation of literature as an art requires close reading--a careful, step-by-step analysis and explication of the text (the language of the work). An analysis may follow from questions like, how do various elements work together to shape the effect on the reader?
  4. Style and theme influence eachother and can't be separated if meaning is to be retained. It's this interdependence in form and content that makes a text "literary." "Extracting" elements in isolation (theme, character, ploy, setting, etc.) may destroy a reader's aesthetic experience of the whole.
  5. Formalist critics don't deny the historical, political situation of a work, they just believe works of art have the power to transcend by being "organic wholes"--akin to a being with a life of its own.
  6. Formalist criticism is evaluative in that it differentiates great works of art from poor works of art. Other kinds of criticism don't necessarily concern themselves with this distinction.
  7. Formalist criticism is decidedly a "scientific" approach to literary analysis, focusiing on "facts amenable to "verification" (evidence in the text).


  1. Real life experience can help shape (either directly or indirectly) an author's work.
  2. Understanding an author's life can help us better understand the work.
  3. Facts from the author's life are used to help the reader better understand the work; the focus is always on the literary work under investigation.


  1. Historical criticism investigates the social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced it. This investigation includes the author's biography and the social milieu.
  2. Historical criticism often seeks to understand the impact of a work in its day, and it may also explore how meanings change over time.
  3. Historical criticism expolores how time and place of creation affect meaning in the work.


  1. These critics hold the belief that great literature truthfully reflects life and is a realistic representation of human motivation and behavior.
  2. Psychological critics may choose to focus on the creative process of the artist, the artist's motivation or behavior, or analyze fictional characters' motivations and behaviors.


  1. Mythological criticism studies recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works (for example, "the hero's journey").
  2. It combines insights from a variety of academic disciplines--anthropology, psychology, history, comparative concerns itself with demonstrating how the individual imagination shares a common humanity by identifying common symbols, images, plots, etc.
  3. Mythological critics identify "archetypes" (symbols, characters, situations, or images evoking a universal response).


  1. These critics examine literature in its cultural, economic, and political context; they explore the relation between the artist and the soceity--how might the profession of authorship have affected what's been written?
  2. It is concerned with the social content of literary works, pursuing such questions as: What cultural, economic or political values does the text implicitly or explicitly promote? What is the role of the audience in shaping what's been written?
  3. Marxist critics assume that all art is political.
  4. Marxist critics judge a work's "ideology"--giving rise to such terms as "political correctness."


  1. This type of criticism attempts to describe the internal workings of the reader's mental processes. it recognizes reading as a creative act, a creative process.
  2. No text is self-contained, independent of a reader's interpretive design.
  3. The plurality of readings possible are all explored. Critics study how different readers see the same text differently, and how religious, cultural, and social values affect readings.
  4. Instead of focusing only on the values embedded in the text, this type of criticism studies the values embedded in the reader. Intersections between the two are explored.


  1. Deconstructive critics believe that language doesn't accurately reflect reality becuase it's an unstable medium; literary texts therefore have no stable meaning.
  2. Deconstructive criticism resembles formalist criticism in its close attention to the text, its close analysis of individual words and images. There the similarity ends, because their aims are in fact opposite. Whereas formalist criticism is interested in "aesthetic wholes" or constructs, deconstructionists aim to demonstrate irreconcilable positions--they destruct (or deconstruct)--by proving the instability of language, its inability to express anything definte.

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