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Introduction to Literary Criticism


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Title: Introduction to Literary Criticism

Introduction to Literary Criticism
  • English 12
  • Ms. OConnor

  • Can you read this mans mind?

  • How about this mans?

  • Or this womans?

The old way
  • This was the old way of reading.
  • Authors were seen sole proprietors of the meaning
    of their writing.
  • Readers take it at face value.

Romanticism centered on the artist and creative
genius text was indebted to previous writers and
ideas The power of the natural world
Romanticism centered on the artist and creative
genius text was indebted to previous writers and
ideas The power of the natural world
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Realism Art should replicate the world around us.
Literature represents the times it is written
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Modernism Overturn traditional modes of
representation and express the new sensibilities
of their time. The Artist as savior. "irrationalit
y at the roots of a supposedly rational world
Michel-André Bossy
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Postmodernism Resist definition or
classification The artist is impotent, and the
only recourse against "ruin" is to play within
the chaos. Death of the author.
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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 Most Common Critical Stances for Literature
  • Formalistic
  • Biographical
  • Historical/Cultural
  • Psychological
  • Archetypical
  • Feminist or Gender
  • Deconstructionist
  • Marxist

What is theory?
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Speculative
  • Thinking about
  • thinking

The Author is Dead
  •  The reader's role
  • active agent who
  • imparts "real existence
  • to the work and
  • completes its meaning
  • through interpretation

  • Dispute common sense meanings
  • Literary theory suggests that we cannot know what
    the writer had in mind.
  • The text holds no truths
  • Instead there are various ways of reading a text
    and interpreting a text.
  • Be suspicious of that which we find natural.

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Formalist Criticism
  • 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.

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

  • Capitalism is a social
  • system based on the principle
  • of individual rights.
  • means of production are
  • privately owned
  • Key points
  • exploitation of an entire class
  • of society by another
  • the ruling class controls the means of
  • production
  • Subjectification of working class

Questions Marxist theorists 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 conflict can be seen between the values the
    work champions and those it portrays?
  • What social classes do the characters represent?
  • How do characters from different classes interact
    or conflict?

The Hunger Games
  • What are some of examples you could use to
    support a Marxist argument?

Psychological Criticism
  • 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 behaviour
  • 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.

Questions Psycho-analytical theorists ask
  • How do the operations of repression structure or
    inform the work?
  • Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other
    family dynamics - are 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
  • 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"?

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.

Archetypical Criticism
  • 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.

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

Archetypical 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

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

A Archetypical 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.

Gender Criticism
  • 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.

  • Belief in the social, political, and economic
    equality of the sexes.
  • An example of a
  • marginalized groups
  • attempt to re-appropriate
  • meaning.

  • Concerned with the
  • ways in which literature
  • reinforce or undermine
  • the economic, political,
  • social, and psychological
  • oppression of women
  • inherently patriarchal

  • Patriarchal ideology is the primary means by
    which women are politically, economically,
    psychologically or socially oppressed.
  • Women as other she is marginalized, defined
    only by her difference from male norms and values
  • All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is
    deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for
    example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the
    origin of sin in the world.
  • Biology determines our sex (male or female)
    culture determines our gender (masculine or

Questions Feminist theorists ask
  • How is the relationship between men and women
  • 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 work imply about the possibilities
    of sisterhood as a mode of resisting 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 the work play in terms of women's
    literary history and literary tradition? (Tyson)

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.

Gender Criticism Queer Theory
  • 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

Gender Studies/Queer Theory
  • What elements of the text can be perceived as
    being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine
    (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters
    support these traditional roles?
  • What sort of support (if any) is given to
    elements or characters who question the
    masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those
  • What elements in the text exist in the middle,
    between the perceived masculine/feminine binary?
    In other words, what elements exhibit traits of
    both (bisexual)?
  • What are the politics (ideological agendas) of
    specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how
    are those politics revealed in...the work's
    thematic content or portrayals of its characters?
  • What does the work contribute to our knowledge of
    queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history,
    including literary history?
  • How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in
    texts that are by writers who are apparently
  • What does the work reveal about the operations
    (socially, politically, psychologically)
  • How does the literary text illustrate the
    problems of sexuality and sexual "identity?

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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.