This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams
Last Edited: 2018-01-24 02:41:39
Form Follows Function: Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelianism
Formalists disagreed about what specific elements make a literary work "good" or "bad"; but generally, Formalism maintains that a literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory "...defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in the text" (Richter 699). Therefore, it's easy to see Formalism's relation to Aristotle's theories of dramatic construction.
Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself" (a common saying among New Critics), and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).
- How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by constant association)
- What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole..." (Tyson 121)? In other words, does how the work is put together reflect what it is?
- How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
- How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text?
- How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work?
- How does the author resolve apparent contradictions within the work?
- 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?
- How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the piece?
Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:
- Victor Shklovsky
- Roman Jakobson
- Victor Erlich - Russian Formalism: History - Doctrine, 1955
- Yuri Tynyanov
- John Crowe Ransom - The New Criticism, 1938
- I.A. Richards
- William Empson
- T.S. Eliot
- Allen Tate
- Cleanth Brooks
Neo-Aristotelianism (Chicago School of Criticism)
- R.S. Crane - Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, 1952
- Elder Olson
- Norman Maclean
- W.R. Keast
- Wayne C. Booth - The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961
Masterworks of English Literature
Critical Approaches to LiteraturePlain text version of this document.
Described below are nine common critical approaches to the literature. Quotations are from X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioias Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, Sixth Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pages 1790-1818.
- Formalist Criticism: This approach regards literature as a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms. All the elements necessary for understanding the work are contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to the formalist critic are the elements of formstyle, structure, tone, imagery, etc.that are found within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics is to determine how such elements work together with the texts content to shape its effects upon readers.
- Biographical Criticism: This approach begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an authors life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work. Hence, it often affords a practical method by which readers can better understand a text. However, a biographical critic must be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writers life too far in criticizing the works of that writer: the biographical critic focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the authors life.... [B]iographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.
- Historical Criticism: This approach seeks to understand a literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced ita context that necessarily includes the artists biography and milieu. A key goal for historical critics is to understand the effect of a literary work upon its original readers.
- Gender Criticism: This approach examines how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works. Originally an offshoot of feminist movements, gender criticism today includes a number of approaches, including the so-called masculinist approach recently advocated by poet Robert Bly. The bulk of gender criticism, however, is feminist and takes as a central precept that the patriarchal attitudes that have dominated western thought have resulted, consciously or unconsciously, in literature full of unexamined male-produced assumptions. Feminist criticism attempts to correct this imbalance by analyzing and combatting such attitudesby questioning, for example, why none of the characters in Shakespeares play Othello ever challenge the right of a husband to murder a wife accused of adultery. Other goals of feminist critics include analyzing how sexual identity influences the reader of a text and examin[ing] how the images of men and women in imaginative literature reflect or reject the social forces that have historically kept the sexes from achieving total equality.
- Psychological Criticism: This approach reflects the effect that modern psychology has had upon both literature and literary criticism. Fundamental figures in psychological criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression as well as expanding our understanding of how language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires; and Carl Jung, whose theories about the unconscious are also a key foundation of Mythological Criticism. Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually employs one (or more) of three approaches:
- An investigation of the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental functions?
- The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an authors biographical circumstances affect or influence their motivations and/or behavior.
- The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of psychology.
- Sociological Criticism: This approach examines literature in the cultural, economic and political context in which it is written or received, exploring the relationships between the artist and society. Sometimes it examines the artists society to better understand the authors literary works; other times, it may examine the representation of such societal elements within the literature itself. One influential type of sociological criticism is Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and political elements of art, often emphasizing the ideological content of literature; because Marxist criticism often argues that all art is political, either challenging or endorsing (by silence) the status quo, it is frequently evaluative and judgmental, a tendency that can lead to reductive judgment, as when Soviet critics rated Jack London better than William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, because he illustrated the principles of class struggle more clearly. Nonetheless, Marxist criticism can illuminate political and economic dimensions of literature other approaches overlook.
- Mythological Criticism: This approach emphasizes the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works. Combining the insights from anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion, mythological criticism explores the artists common humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols common to different cultures and epochs. One key concept in mythlogical criticism is the archetype, a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response, which entered literary criticism from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. According to Jung, all individuals share a collective unconscious, a set of primal memories common to the human race, existing below each persons conscious mindoften deriving from primordial phenomena such as the sun, moon, fire, night, and blood, archetypes according to Jung trigger the collective unconscious. Another critic, Northrop Frye, defined archetypes in a more limited way as a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of ones literary experience as a whole. Regardless of the definition of archetype they use, mythological critics tend to view literary works in the broader context of works sharing a similar pattern.
- Reader-Response Criticism: This approach takes as a fundamental tenet that literature exists not as an artifact upon a printed page but as a transaction between the physical text and the mind of a reader. It attempts to describe what happens in the readers mind while interpreting a text and reflects that reading, like writing, is a creative process. According to reader-response critics, literary texts do not contain a meaning; meanings derive only from the act of individual readings. Hence, two different readers may derive completely different interpretations of the same literary text; likewise, a reader who re-reads a work years later may find the work shockingly different. Reader-response criticism, then, emphasizes how religious, cultural, and social values affect readings; it also overlaps with gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the same text with different assumptions. Though this approach rejects the notion that a single correct reading exists for a literary work, it does not consider all readings permissible: Each text creates limits to its possible interpretations.
- Deconstructionist Criticism: This approach rejects the traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality. Deconstructionist critics regard language as a fundamentally unstable mediumthe words tree or dog, for instance, undoubtedly conjure up different mental images for different peopleand therefore, because literature is made up of words, literature possesses no fixed, single meaning. According to critic Paul de Man, deconstructionists insist on the impossibility of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual signs [i.e., words] coincide with what is signified. As a result, deconstructionist critics tend to emphasize not what is being said but how language is used in a text. The methods of this approach tend to resemble those of formalist criticism, but whereas formalists primary goal is to locate unity within a text, how the diverse elements of a text cohere into meaning, deconstructionists try to show how the text deconstructs, how it can be broken down ... into mutually irreconcilable positions. Other goals of deconstructionists include (1) challenging the notion of authors ownership of texts they create (and their ability to control the meaning of their texts) and (2) focusing on how language is used to achieve power, as when they try to understand how a some interpretations of a literary work come to be regarded as truth.
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