Critical Literary Theories

Critical Literary Theories

Purpose: Use this resource to learn about literary criticism.
What is literary criticism?
Literary Critical Theory is a tool that helps you find meaning in stories, poems and plays. There are many
different ways to interpret a novel or short story.
When we read literature, we do so to learn more about:
 The human condition
 The experience of loss and death
 The structure of power in society and how it is implemented (including the issues that surround
race and gender).
 The psychology of characters and individuals in general
 The sociology and history of cultures that produce specific pieces of literature
Literary Theory helps us discover the things listed above in the books and stories we read.
How do I apply Literary Critical Theory to read a book?
So how do you use theory to read a book? Before exploring, in brief, different theories, it is important to
develop a reading strategy that will help you form ideas.
Woman Reading Book in a Landscape, Camille Corot
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
You should keep a reading notebook and write down ideas and information as you read. Here is a
checklist of things to notice:
 Title: How does it pertain to the story? Does it symbolize events or people in the story?
 Narration: Who is telling the story? How does the narrator approach the topic?
 Subject: What is the basic situation? What is happening to the characters and how are they reacting
to events?
 Mood: What is the mood of the story, i.e. the emotional background? How is it expressed in the
language and setting?
 Characters: What do the characters learn in the course of the story? What are their failings and how
do they overcome them, or not? What is the main character’s desire? Is that desire ever
fulfilled? How does the main character change?
 Character Interaction: How do the characters interact in the story? How do they communicate
with each other? How do they handle conflict?
 Plot: What are the main events in the plot that lead the character to new insights, or to his or her
failure?
When you read a book, you can highlight the passages that strike you as significant. You can also write
notes in the margin of the text to yourself, which is called “annotation.”
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
What are the Critical Literary Theories?
There are many different kinds of theories, including gender/feminist criticism; race theory; Marxist;
Biographical; Deconstructism; Structrualism; Post-colonial critical theory. However, the four Critical
Literary Theories that we will learn about in this class include:
 Formalism or New Criticism
 Reader Response Theory
 Psychological Theory
 New Historicism Analysis
What is Formalism Theory or New Criticism?
This approach views each piece of literature as “a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be
examined on its own terms” (Kennedy & Gioia, 1995). Contained within the work itself are all the
elements necessary for understanding it. The formalist critic focuses on the form, including style,
structure, tone, imagery, etc. These critics analyze how certain elements work together within a text to
impose certain effects on the readers.
Example: Tim O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carry” (about his experience in the Vietnam War) is
analyzed not by using his biography or history to interpret the story. Instead, you look at all elements
inside the work: diction (use of language), character, plot, metaphor, and imagery. Key questions a
Formalist Critic asks:
Empire of Light by René Magritte
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
 How does the language and other literary elements convey a specific representation of the
Vietnam War?
 What are dominant metaphors and imagery and what do they symbolize?
What is Reader-Response Theory?
This approach views “literature” not as an artifact upon a printed page but as a transaction between the
text and individual reader. It regards reading, like writing, as a creative process. This theory holds that
there is no objective, outside meaning in any text. According to Kennedy and Gioia (1995), reader
response criticism focuses on “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.”
In other words, readers bring their own thoughts, views, experiences and attitudes to the text and interpret
the story through a personal lens. This critical theory is often used to discuss a text in a classroom setting
where students are supposed to provide their own insights on the literature read.
Example: You can easily apply this theory to “The Things They Carried.” For instance, if you have
experienced war, you can discuss it in relation to how O’Brien represents war. If you were raised in the
1970s during the Vietnam War, you can reflect on your memory of that time period and use it to find
meaning in the story. If you have personal and religious ideas of war, you can use that to interpret the
text. Key questions a Reader Response critic asks:
 How does the interaction between the text and reader create meaning?
 How do the images and language in the work influence or affect the reader?
What shapes our knowledge of reading, what is our purpose of reading and how does that influence how
we read a particular story, poem or novel?
The Reading, Frederico Zandomeneghi
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
What is Psychological Theory?
Based on the theories of Freud and Jung, this criticism centers on the psychology of the characters and
analyzes character motivation, behavior and actions. If you can figure out the protagonist’s psychology,
then you can use that to interpret the text. There are three main offshoots of this critical theory:
 It examines “the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does it
relate to normal mental functions?” (Kennedy & Gioia, 1995)
 It investigates the psychology of particular writer usually focusing how an author’s biographical
situations affect or influence their motivations and/or selection of theme and use of literary
techniques.
 It analyzes fictional characters using the concepts, terms and methods of psychological theories.
Example: To apply this theory to O’Brien’s short story you can ask explore the narrator’s psychology in
the face of war; How does the Vietnam War influence, both negatively and positively, his
psychology? What does the soldiers’ behavior reveal about the psychological stresses of war? Key
questions a psychological critic asks:
 What does the work suggest about the psychological aspects of the author?
 Does the work have any hidden meanings, or subconscious elements that help to interpret the
work?
 How can characters’ actions be explained using theories of fear or attraction to death, or using the
struggle between the id, ego and the superego?
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
What is New Historicism Analysis?
Here, you research the historical time period and discuss the work within its historical context. As
Kennedy and Gioria (1995) indicate, this theory “seeks to understand a literary work by investigating the
social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced it—a context that necessarily includes the artist’s
biography and milieu.” The text serves as a “retelling of history” and might provide a radically different
viewpoint that what is commonly known about an event, era and/or person.
Example: To analyze O’Brien, you’d research the Vietnam War, or a specific battle of that war, and
analyze the story using historical fact and detail. Key questions a New Historicism critic asks:
 How does the portrayal criticize the event and the political figures around it?
 How does the text change meaning when read by a different generation that experiences different
kinds of war?
 What language/characters/events/setting reflect the current events, political and cultural, of the
author’s time period?
Ancient text written in Latin
ENG125: Introduction to Literature
References
X.J. Kennedy, X.J. & Gioia, D. (1995) Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, Sixth
Edition. New York: HarperCollins.
All images are gathered from Creative Commons.