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Introduction to Literary Criticism


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Title: Introduction to Literary Criticism

Introduction to Literary Criticism
Literary Criticism and Theory
  • Any piece of text can be read with a number of
    different sets of glasses, meaning you are
    looking for different things within the text.
  • Literary Criticism helps readers understand a
    text in relation to the author, culture, and
    other texts.

The Basic Idea
  • The point of criticism is to argue your point of
    view on a work of literature.
  • You dont have to criticize a text (but you
  • You do have to analyze a text and support your
    assertions with specific evidence from experts
    and the text.

Basic idea
  • A critical analysis is an in-depth examination of
    some aspect of the literary work
  • you may examine any element of the text
    character development, conflicts, narrative point
    of view, etc.
  • Even though its an examination of a literary
    work, its still a persuasive essay

Basic Idea
  • The goal is to prove something about the work
  • There must be a point to the discussion.
  • You must answer the questions Why?, or So what?
  • For example, why is a recurring symbol important?
    Or, why is the development of the female
    characters significant?

Basic Idea
  • There are many different approaches we can take
    to critical analysis
  • Literary theories provide a framework for our
    discussion of a text
  • We dont have to identify the theory were using,
  • We use it as a starting point for our own ideas
    and opinions

The Most Common Critical Stances for Literature
  • Formalistic
  • Biographical
  • Historical/Cultural
  • Psychological
  • Mythological
  • Philosophical
  • Gender
  • Deconstructionist
  • Marxist

Formalist Criticism (p.2095)
  • A formalist (aka New Criticism) reading of a text
    focuses on symbol, metaphor, imagery, and so on.
  • Formalism ignores the authors biography and
    focuses only on the interaction of literary
    elements within the text.
  • Its what you do
  • most often in
  • English literature.

Formalist Criticism
  • no need to bring in outside information about the
    history, politics, or society of the time, or
    about the author's life
  • does not view works through the lens of feminism,
    psychology, mythology, or any other such
  • not interested in the work's affect on the

Terms to know for this type of criticism
  • intentional fallacy - the false belief that the
    meaning or value of a work may be determined by
    the author's intention
  • affective fallacy - the false belief that the
    meaning or value of a work may be determined by
    its affect on the reader
  • external form - rhyme scheme, meter, stanza form,

  • What are some formal elements we might examine in
    a discussion of Red Riding Hood?

A Formalist Reading of The Three Little Pigs
  • What does the wolf symbolize?
  • Notice the consonance of Ill huff and Ill
  • How does the story foreshadow the final fate of
    the pigs?
  • What does the wolfs dialogue tell us about his

Pros and Cons
  • Advantages
  • can be performed without much research
  • emphasizes the value of literature apart from its
  • virtually all critical approaches must begin here
  • Disadvantages
  • text is seen in isolation
  • ignores the context of the work
  • cannot account for allusions

Biographical Criticism (p. 2097)
  • As the name suggests, this type of criticism
    reads the text looking for the authors
  • By examining the authors life, we can have a
    deeper understanding of his writing.

  • What are some biographical elements we might
    examine in a discussion of And Then There Were

A Biographical Reading of The Importance of Being
  • Wilde had an intimate knowledge of Bunburying
    because he led a double-life too in his
    homosexual relationship with a young Oxford
  • The characters flippant attitude about marriage
    mirrors Wildes own casual devotion to his wife.

Historical/Cultural Criticism (p.2101)
  • Of course, this critical viewpoint examines a
    text in relation to its historical or cultural
  • You may examine a texts effect on history or
  • A historical/cultural analysis is often very
    similar to a biographical analysis, and its
    possible to view history, culture, and biography
    in a single essay.

Pros and Cons of Historical Criticism
  • Advantages
  • works well for some which are obviously political
    or biographical in nature.
  • places allusions in their proper classical,
    political, or biblical background.
  • Disadvantages
  • "the intentional fallacy" 
  • tends to reduce art to the level of biography and
    make it relative (to the times) rather than

  • What are some historical elements we might
    examine in a discussion of Hamlet?

Historical/Cultural Reading of The Crucible
  • How accurate is Arthur Millers account of the
    Salem Witch Trials?
  • What can The Crucible reveal about colonial New
    England and Puritan society?

Psychological Criticism (p. 2099)
  • Psychological critical theory applies the
    theories of psychology to a text to better
    understand its characters
  • Based largely on Freud, this theory hinges on the
    belief that an examination of peoples
    (characters) unconscious desires.

Psychological Criticism
  • Drives governing human behavior
  • Id the animal nature that says, Do what feels
  • Ego the reality-based part of your personality
    that makes decisions to satisfy the Id and
  • Superego the socialized conscience that tells
    you whats right or fair

Psychological Criticism
  • Oedipus Complex Every boy has the unconscious
    desire to have sex with their mother
    consequently, sons are deeply afraid of their
    fathers, and fathers are deeply threatened by
    their sons.
  • Elektra Complex Every daughter has the
    unconscious desire to have sex with their father
    consequently, daughters are deeply afraid of
    their mothers, and mothers are deeply threatened
    by their daughters.

Psychological Criticism
  • Of course, these complexes have their origins in
    literature and mythology.
  • Psychological criticism is a way to understand
    characters, not diagnose them.

A Psychological Reading of Macbeth
  • Macbeth kills King Duncan because he
    unconsciously recognizes the king as a
    father-figure. Hence, Duncan is a rival for power
    and the affections of the people.
  • In the latter acts of the play, Macbeth has
    indulged his id so often that his ego has lost
    the ability to restrain it.

Mythological Criticism (p. 2107)
  • This stance is not about mythology.
  • It is about the universal elements of human life
    common in all cultures.
  • Like ancient mythology, all literature is a
    window to creating meaning for human life.
  • In other words, stories make us feel like our
    lives are more significant.

Mythological Criticism
  • Central to the Mythological theory is the concept
    of archetypes.
  • Simply put, archetypes those universal elements
    present in the literature of all cultures.

Mythological Criticism
  • Common Archetypes
  • The Hero Beowulf, Spiderman, Luke Skywalker,
  • The Outcast Macbeths clown, Grendel, Cain
  • The Quest LOTR, Star Wars, Beowulf
  • Sacrificial King Jesus, The Lion the Witch and
    the Wardrobe, LOTR
  • Evil Personified Wicked Witch of the West, the
    Devil, the Emperor in SW, the Borg

Mythological Criticism
  • The goal of Mythological Criticism seeks to
    understand how the story constructs meaning in
    the human existence through archetypes.
  • For example, note the ways texts have examined

A Mythological Reading of Beowulf
  • Beowulf is the archetypal hero because his
    bravery and righteous behavior embodies the
    ideals and hopes of Anglo-Saxon society.
  • Grendel, the outsider, represents both the alien
    invaders of neighboring, warring tribes and the
    threat of supernatural monsters, which, as
    pagans, the Anglo-Saxons truly believed existed.

Philosophical or Moral Criticism
  • asserts that the larger purpose of literature is
    to teach morality and to probe philosophical
  • authors intend to instruct the audience in some

Pros of Philosophical Criticism
  • Advantages
  • useful for works which do present an
    obvious moral philosophy
  • useful when considering the themes of works
  • does not view literature merely as "art" isolated
    from all moral implications
  • recognizes that literature can affect readers and
    that the message of a work is important.

Cons of Philosophical Criticism
  • Disadvantages
  • such an approach can be too "judgmental" 
  • Some believe literature should be judged
    primarily (if not solely) on its artistic merits,
    not its moral or philosophical content.

  • What are some moral or philosophical elements we
    might examine in a discussion of To Kill a

Gender Criticism (p.2105)
  • Gender criticism analyzes literature through the
    lens of socially-constructed gender roles.
  • The largest part of gender criticism is feminism,
    which critiques and seeks to correct womens
    subordination to men in society.
  • In its purist form, feminism is about equality.

Stages of the female identity
  • Feminine the female accepts the definitions and
    roles male authorities have created for her
  • Feminist rebels against male authority and
    intentionally challenges all male definitions and
  • Female no longer concerned with male definitions
    or restrictions defines her own voice and values

Mad Woman in the Attic
  • Critics Gilbert and Gubar identify a pattern in
    the treatment of female characters in literature,
    even when written by women.
  • based on the plot of Jane Eyre
  • the practice of removing a female character who
    is no longer useful to the male characters

Gender Criticism
  • A newer segment of gender criticism is queer
    theory, which looks for the influence of
    homosexuality within texts.
  • Research of this type is fairly difficult
    because, as youve learned, homosexuality was
    largely suppressed in Europe and America, and it
    hasnt been openly discussed until the last few

  • What are some gender-based elements we might
    examine in a discussion of Hamlet?

A Feminist Reading of Goldilocks
  • As a single, young woman, Goldilocks finds
    herself without means or opportunity because she
    is unattached to a father or a husband. Perhaps,
    this is why shes alone in the woods.
  • An independent woman,
  • then, is a threat to the
  • normal nuclear family,
  • represented by the
  • three bears.

Deconstructionist Criticism (p. 2111)
  • Deconstructionism argues that since there is no
    single meaning of any word, there can be no
    single meaning of a text.
  • EVERY text, therefore, has multiple valid
    meanings because the reader may interpret the
    words differently than the writer intended them.

Deconstructionist Criticism
  • As your book notes, most literary criticism is
    about construction of a larger meaning from a
  • Deconstructionism emphasizes the breakdown of any
    meaning within a text because the variety of
    different readers.
  • Example Write the author of The Tell-Tale

  • "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is'
  • Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury
    testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair

  • Deconstructionism is basically a verbal Sophism
    because there is no concrete meaning of anything,
    there is no single truth applicable to all human
  • Hence, everything is relative to you.

A Deconstructionist Reading of The Tortoise and
the Hare
  • The homophone hare/hair would make this fable
    incomprehensible without pictures.
  • In Native American cultures, the tortoise is a
    symbol of honor, so Indians would interpret the
    race as a contest of honor and fair play
    instead of endurance.

Marxist Criticism
  • Marxist criticism examines the nature of power
    structures within a novel.
  • It asks questions like Who has power? Who lacks
    power? Who is exploited by whom and why? How does
    power remain constant or shift throughout a work
    of literature? What makes certain characters
    powerful or powerless?

Marxist Approach
  • It also examines commodities, possessions that
    give power
  • Typical commodities are things like land and
    money but can also be things like social
    position, knowledge, or even a person
  • Marxist criticism can also examine what
    commodities bring power and why within a work of

Application Hamlet
  • Who is in power within the novel?
  • What commodities does that character possess that
    allows him/her to have power?
  • How does power shift or remain static throughout
    the novel?

Reader Response Criticism
  • analyzes the reader's role in the production of
  • lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from
  • the text itself has no meaning until it is read
    by a reader
  • The reader creates the meaning.
  • can take into account the strategies employed by
    the author to elicit a certain response from
  • denies the possibility that works are universal
    (i.e. that they will always mean more or less the
    same thing to readers everywhere)
  • makes someone's reading a function of personal

Pros and Cons of RR Criticism
  • Advantages
  • recognizes that different people view works
    differently and that people's interpretations
    change over time.
  • Disadvantages
  • tends to make interpretation too subjective
  • does not provide adequate criteria for evaluating
    one reading in comparison to another

Application 19 Minutes
  • What are your personal responses to this novel?
  • Are there certain elements you respond to
    strongly or with which you identify?

More Literary Theory
  • New ways of viewing literature (and the world)
    continue to develop, but these are the main
    theories youll come in contact with.