Critical Approaches to Literature - English

A Brief Overview
(Adapted from X.J. Kennedy and Dana
Gioia’s Literature: An Introduction to Fiction,
Poetry, and Drama)
What is literary criticism?
• A natural human response to literature
• A discourse – spoken or written – about literature
• Discussing the merits of song lyrics or the latest film
among friends is informal criticism
• Since Aristotle, our great thinkers have tried to come up
with ways to formalize this process
• The critical approaches in this presentations do not
exhaust ALL possibilities
• Presents the most widely used contemporary approaches
1. Formalist Criticism
• Sees literature as a unique form of human knowledge that
needs to be examined on its own terms
• A poem or story is not primarily a social, historical, or
biographical document…
• … it is a literary work that can be understood only by
reference to its intrinsic literary features – those elements
found in the text itself. (how it’s written)
Formalist Criticism
• Critic pays attention to style/literary elements:
• Irony
• Humor
• Simplicity
• Imagery
• Symbolism
• Figures of speech
• Tone
• Genre
• Allusion
• And form and structure:
• Sentence structure: short, long, simple, complicated, loose
• Repetition
• Parallelism
• Climax and anti-climax
• Oxymoron or contradictions
Formalist Criticism
• Method:
• Close reading
• Step-by-step analysis
• Explication of text
• Possible titles:
• Color Imagery in Tess of the D’Urbervilles
• The Use of Contrast in “The Solitary Reaper”
• Verbal Irony and an Irony of Fate in The Cop and the Anthem
• Ultimate goal: to determine how such elements work
together with the text’s content (what happens) to shape
its effect upon readers
2. Biographical Criticism
• Begins with understanding that literature is written by people
• An understanding of the writer’s life can help readers more
thoroughly comprehend the work
Think Mary Shelley and Frankenstein – easy to see how much
an author’s experiences shape the writing
Think about Roethke or Plath poetry
Critic does not recreate an account of author’s life but rather
interprets the work by using the insight provided by knowledge
of the author’s life
But be careful … remember what Amy Tan said in her
Sample titles:
• Isolation of Emily Dickinson as Revealed in her Poetry
• A Biographical Study of David Copperfield
3. Historical Criticism
• Seeks to understand a literary work through the social,
cultural, and intellectual context that produced it
Less concerned with explaining a work’s significance for
today’s readers …
More with helping reader understand the work by
recreating the exact meaning and impact it had on its
original audience
Might answer “How does the text embody a history of its
Sample titles:
• An Historical Perspective of Kate Chopin’s Story of an Hour
• Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro Through an Historical Lens
4. Gender Criticism
• Examines how sexual identity influences the creation and
reception of literary works
• Began with feminist movement, and influenced by:
• Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949)
• Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970)
• Feminist criticism:
• How an author’s gender affects his or her writing (e.g. the female
psyche, female language, literary career)
• How sexual identity influences the reader (e.g., woman as reader,
stereotypes, omissions or misconceptions, manipulation of female
audience) … reader sees text through eyes of his/her sex
• How the images of men and women reflect or reject the social
forces that have historically impacted women and equality
Gender Criticism
• Sample titles:
• Female Characters in Lawrence’s Literary Works
• A Character Analysis of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind
• Gender Influence in The Yellow Wallpaper
5. Psychological Criticism
• Modern psychology has had huge effect on literature and
lit crit
• Two key figures: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung
• Freud: psychoanalytic theories involving wish-fulfillment,
sexuality, the subconscious/unconscious mind (id, ego,
superego), repression, interpretation of dreams. Also,
“the Oedipus Complex”
• Jung: theories of unconscious – Mythological Criticism
Psychological Criticism
• One or more of the following:
• An investigation of the creative process of the artist: what is the
nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental
• The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how
an author’s biographical circumstances affect or influence their
motivations and/or behavior.
• The analysis of fictional characters using the language and
methods of psychology.
• Sample titles:
• A Freudian Approach to Lord of the Flies
• Hamlet’s Psychological Dilemma in his
“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquoy
6. Sociological Criticism
• Examines literature in the cultural, economic, and political
context in which it is written or received
• Art is not created in a vacuum
• Explores relationship between author and society
• Can look at
• Sociological status of author
• Social context of writing (what values does work promote?)
• Role of audience in shaping lit
• For example, Shakespeare
Sociological Criticism
• A major “sub group”: Marxist Criticism
• Focuses on economic and political elements of the work
• Usually evaluative and judgmental
• Sample titles:
• Heathcliff: A Product of Social Environment
• The American Dream in The Great Gatsby
• Collapse of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman
7. Mythological Criticism
• Emphasizes recurrent universal patterns underlying most
literary works
• Interdisciplinary approach: anthropology, psychology,
history, and religion
• Explores the artist’s common humanity by tracing how the
individual imagination uses myths and symbols common
to different cultures
• Key concept: the archetype
• A symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep
universal response (from Jung)
Mythological Criticism
• Sample titles:
• Hamlet as a study of Orestes in Greek Mythology
• Lucifer in Shakespeare’s Othello
Mythological Criticism: Archetypes
• Archetypal Settings
• The River – the importance of life
• The Garden – place of earthly delights
• The Forest/Wilderness – dangerous world/evil
• The Sea – mother of all life (good and evil)
• Boats – brave the sea and return to a rebirth
• The Island – metaphor for isolation
• The Mountain – center of universe / can see all
• The Wasteland – (desert) emotionally/physically barren place
• The Pasture/Field – simple life, predictable and calm
• The Tower – places of worship or burial
• The Castle/Gothic Mansion – two-faced identify like sea
• The Inn – remote roadside / rarely a place of good news
• The Small Town – everyone knows and judges everyone else
• The Underworld – descent or depths of hell (caves, belly of whale)
Mythological Criticism: Archetypes
• Archetypal Characters: GOOD
• The Hero – protag who fulfills task (Odysseus, Theseus)
• The Young Person from the Provinces/Orphan (Harry Potter)
• The Initiates – young pre-hero (King Arthur)
• Mentors – teachers (Gandalf, Merlin, Dumbledore, Rafiki)
• Loyal Companions/Sidekicks – protect the hero at all costs
• The Earth Mother – female, natural, motherly, fertile
• The Librarian/Professor – male and female
• The Fool/Free Spirit – optimistic, blind hope
• The Swashbuckler/Adventurer – always ready (Jack Sparrow)
• The Warrior/Protector – the original “knight in shining armor”
Mythological Criticism: Archetypes
• Archetypal Characters: BAD
• The Rebel – reckless and fearless (Dallas Winston)
• The Seductress – female beauty who gets her man
• The Tyrant – male or female obsessed with power
• The Devil – truly evil, charming and poised, tempts hero
• The Traitor – uses words carefully, weaves elaborate plots to trap
• The Evil Genius – once bullied, now seeks revenge
• The Sadist – loony! Usually male; derives pleasure from pain
• The Creature/Predator – nightmare monster or wild beast
Mythological Criticism: Archetypes
• Archetypal Characters: NEUTRAL
• The Matriarch/Patriarch – strong leaders of family (the Godfather)
• The Star-Crossed Lovers – victims of a bad situation (R&J)
• Evil figure with a good heart – dark figure redeems himself (DV)
• The Damsel in Distress – true victim (Snow White) or week-minded
idiot who can’t save herself
• The Cause Fighter/Terrorist – Can take two paths
• The Tragic Artist/Outcast – start creative/sensitive but go in
different directions
• The Uncommitted Lover – a true charmer / male “player”
• The Best Friend – loyal companion and moral center
• The Trapped Spouse – marriage based not on love
• The Hag/Witch/Shaman – usually good or neutral
• The Prophet/reporter – sometimes blind serves to warn hero
Mythological Criticism: Archetypes
• Archetypal Plots
• The Quest – find something
• The Task – do something
• The Journey – figure it out as you go
• The Fall – begin high up, suffer, end low
• The Battle of Good vs Evil – usually good triumphs
• The Wound that Never Heals – sometimes leads to insanity
• The Magic Weapon – equipment
• Boy-meets-Girl – the basis of all romantic plots
• Loss of Innocence – good person sees something and grows up
• The Rite of Passage/Ritual – organized child to adult
• The Initiation – the moment of maturity
8. Deconstructionist Criticism
• Rejects that language can accurately represent reality
• Language is unstable medium; therefore books have no fixed
• Tend to focus not on what is being said, but how language is used
• Paradoxically, resembles formalist approach
• Close reading
• How a text “deconstructs” or can be broken down
• Not for the novice 
9. Reader-Response Criticism
• Attempts to describe what happens in the reader’s mind
while interpreting a text
Literary texts do not exist independently of readers’
A text is not finished until it has been read and interpreted
Explores contradictions
For example: rereading a favorite book
Rejects notion that there is a single correct interpretation
– HOWEVER it’s not “anything goes”