Friday, February 26, 2016

Selected Methods of Literary Criticism

Note that these are only a few methods of literary criticism. For more information, see the Introduction to Modern Literary Theory at

New Historicism
New Historicists argue that the best framework for interpreting literature is to place it in its historical context: what contemporaneous issues, anxieties, and struggles does the work of literature reflect, refract, or try to work through? New Historicist criticism tries to relate interpretive problems (such as why Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius as he prays) to cultural-historical problems (such as contemporaneous debates about purgatory, transubstantiation, and salvation, as well as anxieties about what constituted legitimacy in the church, the monarchy, and succession to the throne). New Historicists also tend to stress that authors and poets are not secular saints--that even though they may be more circumspect about their societies than the average citizen, they nonetheless participate in it. Consequently, New Historicist critics often point out places in artists' work where their attitudes do not anticipate our own, or may even be distasteful to us.

A sociological approach to literature that views works of literature or art as the products of historical forces that can be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. In Marxist ideology, what we often classify as a world view (such as the Victorian age) is actually the articulations of the dominant class. Marxism generally focuses on the clash between the dominant and repressed classes in any given age and also may encourage art to imitate what is often termed an “objective” reality. Contemporary Marxism is much broader in its focus, and views art as simultaneously reflective and autonomous to the age in which it was produced.

New Criticism

The New Critics were united in an effort to free literary criticism from what they regarded as fallacious interpretations, including assessments of value and meaning based on impressionistic, emotional, and historical criteria. They insisted on the autonomy and uniqueness of the text, whose language could be clinically described only by reference to itself—not to the author's biography or to abstract concepts such as genre.


Feminism might be categorized into three general groups:
  • theories having an essentialist focus (including psychoanalytic and French feminism);
  • theories aimed at defining or establishing a feminist literary canon or theories seeking to re-interpret and re-vision literature (and culture and history and so forth) from a less patriarchal slant (including gynocriticism, liberal feminism);
  • theories focusing on sexual difference and sexual politics (including gender studies, lesbian studies, cultural feminism, radical feminism, and socialist/materialist feminism).
Further, feminist critics believe that women (and men) need to consider what it means to be a woman, to consider how much of what society has often deemed inherently female traits, are culturally and socially constructed.


Psychoanalytic criticism refers to the application of specific psychological principles (particularly those of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan) to the study of literature. Psychoanalytic criticism may focus on the writer's psyche, the study of the creative process, the study of psychological types and principles present within works of literature, or the effects of literature upon its readers.


In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying invariant structure. Structuralists posit that literature is an individual instance of a larger system of language and structure; literature is a special kind of language use that has its own rules and conventions which govern how individual works are formed. Structuralists study sets or genres to determine the rules that govern them; an example is Propp's eight actions in the fairy tale. They divide the work up into lexie or divisible components based on functional codes to do with the plot, suspense, character development, social knowledge, and themes.

Siegel, Kristi. “Introduction to Modern Literary Theory.” 13 March 2008. Web 25 Jan 2009.

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