Part One: Literary Criticism: An Introduction 
Part Two: Literary Criticism: An Introduction    

Feminist (Gender Studies) Criticism

Key Terms

Definitions

Gender Roles

a theoretical construct that refers to a cluster of social and behavioral conventions that are typically considered to be socially appropriate customs for individuals of a specific sex within a particular culture

Stereotypical Representations of Gender

representations of gender that rely on stereotypes and, therefore, represent men or women as underdeveloped individuals

Patriarchy

a social system in which men predominantly hold power in familial, social, and political spheres

 

Feminist criticism, or gender studies, focuses on the role of women (or gender) in a literary text. According to Bressler, “central to the diverse aims and methods of feminist criticism is its focus on patriarchy, the rule of society and culture by men” (168). Feminist criticism is useful for analyzing how gender itself is socially constructed for both men and women. Gender studies also considers how literature upholds or challenges those constructions, offering a unique way to approach literature.

Feminist theory can be traced to the theories of Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1929). In 1919, however, Virginia Woolf formed the foundation of feminist criticism in her seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. In this text, Woolf hypothesizes that Shakespeare had a sister called Judith, but that even if Judith had actually existed, Judith's gender would have prevented her from having a room of her own in which to write. As a result, Shakespeare’s sister would not have gone to school (81), might have entered a miserable marriage, and would have either committed suicide or died a lonely death (82-4). If women write what they think, however, Shakespeare’s sister will be born (199). Consequently, according to feminist criticism, patriarchy, in its masculine-focused structure, socially dictates the norms for both men and women.

For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Austen represents gender in characters’ attitudes towards marriage. Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, initially scorns marriage, rhetorically asking, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” (119). After falling in love with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s perspective of men and marriage changes. She then happily accepts Mr. Darcy’s proposal. In contrast, Mrs. Bennet steadfastly views a good marriage as the highest achievement for a woman. Mrs. Bennet cites the marriage of one of her five daughters as “the first object of her wishes since Jane [the eldest Bennet daughter] was sixteen” (237). Pride and Prejudice celebrates and subverts marriage as a societal expectation that if not fulfilled can render a man or woman as a socially inferior individual. The novel can be viewed as a subversive novel that challenges patriarchal power.

Questions to Ask:

  • Are men or women noticeably present in the text? If so, how?
  • Consider stereotypical representations of women as the beloved, mothers, virgins, whores, and goddesses. Does the text refer to, uphold, or resist any of these stereotypes? How?
  • What roles have been assigned to the men and women in the text? Are the roles stereotypical? Do gender roles conflict with personal desires?
  • Does the text paint a picture of gender relations? If so, how would you describe gender relations in the text? On what are they based? What sustains them? What causes conflict between men and women?
  • Are gender relations in the text celebrated? Denigrated? Mocked? Mystified? If so, how?

Online Examples:

Harry Potter through the Focus of Feminist Literary Theory: Examples of (Un) Founded Criticism by Krunoslav Mikulan

Discussion Questions and Activities: FEMINIST/GENDER STUDIES

  1. Define gender, gender roles, patriarchy, and stereotypical representations of gender in your own words.
  2. Describe the relationship between culture and gender roles. How do culture and gender roles inform each another?
  3. Read “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy. Choose the stanza that you think most markedly represents how gender itself is socially constructed. What words, phrases, or lines in the stanza inform your choice?
  4. Compare and contrast how society treats and advises the girl in the poem with what she does after her good nature wears out “like a fan belt.” Does the poem present the socially constructed nature of gender as positive?
  5. Evaluate the role that the lines “Consummation at last, / To every woman a happy ending” play in the poem. Quote from the poem to support your interpretation.

 

New Historical/Cultural Materialist Criticism

Key Terms

Definitions

Culture

the values, conventions, social practices, social forms, and material features of a racial, religious, or social group

Discourse 

written or spoken language that is often used to study how people use language

Historical Milieu

a materially rooted social environment tied to a specific historical period

 

New Historicism, or Cultural Materialism, considers a literary work within the context of the author’s historical milieu. A key premise of New Historicism is that art and literature are integrated into the material practices of culture; consequently, literary and non-literary texts circulate together in society. New Historicism may focus on the life of the author; the social, economic, and political circumstances (and non-literary works) of that era; as well as the cultural events of the author’s historical milieu. The cultural events with which a work correlates may be big (social and cultural) or small.

Scholars view Raymond Williams as a major figure in the development of Cultural Materialism. American critic Stephen Greenblatt coined the term “New Historicism” (5) in the Introduction of one of his collections of essays about English Renaissance Drama, The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance.

Many New Historicist critics have studied Shakespeare’s The Tempest alongside The Bermuda Pamphlets and various travel narratives from the early modern era, speculating about how England’s colonial expeditions in the New World may have influenced Shakespeare’s decision to set The Tempest on an island near Bermuda. Some critics also situate The Tempest during the period of time during in which King James I ruled England and advocated the absolute authority of Kings in both political and spiritual matters. Since Prospero maintains complete authority on the island on which The Tempest is set, some New Historicist critics find a parallel between King James I and Prospero in The Tempest. Additionally, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe can be interpreted in light of the true story of a shipwrecked man named Alexander Selkirk. Analyzing a text alongside its historical milieu and relevant documents can demonstrate how a text addresses the social or political concerns of its time period.

Questions to Ask:

  • Does the text address the political or social concerns of its time period? If so, what issues does the text examine?  
  • What historical events or controversies does the text overtly address or allude to? Does the text comment on those events?
  • What political figures does the text allude to or criticize? Does the text overtly or subversively critique these figures? 
  • What types of historical documents (e.g., wills, laws, religious tracts, narratives, art, etc.) might illuminate the meaning and the purpose of the literary text?
  • How does the text relate to other literary texts from the same time period?

Online Example:

Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: A New Historicist Reading

Discussion Questions and Activities: NEW HISTORICAL/CULTURAL MATERIALIST

  1. Identify and define key words that you would consider when approaching a text from a new historical/cultural materialist position.
  2. Discuss the significance of the fact that art and literature are integrated into the material practices of culture.
  3. Employ a New Historicist approach to demonstrate how a specific literary text addresses a social topic of its historical milieu.  
  4. Using the Folger Digital Texts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, examine act one, scene two, lines 385-450 of The Tempest. What political concerns, social controversies, or historical events of this time period do you think The Tempest treats?
  5. What research would you conduct to argue whether or not The Tempest addresses either slavery or colonialism? Support your viewpoint with a few examples of sources that you would explore and include in a research paper about the topic.

 

Marxist Criticism

Key Terms

Definitions

Class

a classification or grouping typically based on income and education

Alienation 

a condition Karl Heinrich Marx ascribed to individuals in a capitalist economy who lack a sense of identification with their labor and products

Base

the means (e.g., tools, machines, factories, natural resources) and relations (e.g., Proletariat, Bourgeoisie) or production that shape and are shaped by the superstructure (the dominant aspect in society)

Superstructure

the social institutions such as systems of law, morality, education, and their related ideologies, that shape and are shaped by the base

 

Marxist criticism places a literary work within the context of class and assumptions about class. A premise of Marxist criticism is that literature can be viewed as ideological, and that it can be analyzed in terms of a Base/Superstructure model. Karl Heinrich Marx argues that the economic means of production within society account for the base. A base determines its superstructure. Human institutions and ideologies—including those relevant to a patriarchy—that produce art and literary texts comprise the superstructure. Marxist criticism thus emphasizes class, socioeconomic status, power relations among various segments of society, and the representation of those segments. Marxist literary criticism is valuable because it enables readers to see the role that class plays in the plot of a text.  

Bressler notes that “Marxist theory has its roots in the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Heinrich Marx, though his ideas did not fully develop until the twentieth century” (183). Key figures in Marxist theory include Bertolt Brecht, Georg Lukács, and Louis Althusser. Although these figures have shaped the concepts and path of Marxist theory, Marxist literary criticism did not specifically develop from Marxism itself. One who approaches a literary text from a Marxist perspective may not necessarily support Marxist ideology.

For example, a Marxist approach to Langston Hughes’s poem “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” might examine how the socioeconomic status of the speaker and other citizens of New York City affect the speaker’s perspective. The Waldorf Astoria opened during the midst of the Great Depression. Thus, the poem’s speaker uses sarcasm to declare, “Fine living . . . a la carte? / Come to the Waldorf-Astoria! / LISTEN HUNGRY ONES! / Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the / new Waldorf-Astoria” (lines 1-5). The speaker further expresses how class contributes to the conflict described in the poem by contrasting the targeted audience of the hotel with the citizens of its surrounding area: “So when you’ve no place else to go, homeless and hungry / ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags” (lines 15-16). Hughes’s poem invites readers to consider how class restricts particular segments of society.

Questions to Ask:

  • What classes, or socioeconomic statuses, are represented in the text?
  • Are all the segments of society accounted for, or does the text exclude a particular class?
  • How do the socioeconomic statuses of various characters affect their choices and actions?
  • Does class restrict or empower the characters in the text?
  • How does the text depict a struggle between classes, or how does class contribute to the conflict of the text?
  • How does the text depict the relationship between the individual and the state? Does the state view individuals as means for production, or as ends in themselves? 

Online Examples:

Marxist Criticism and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” by Jay Massiet

The Working Class Beats: a Marxist analysis of Beat Writing and Culture from the Fifties to the Seventies by Paul Whiston, Sheffield University, United Kingdom

Discussion Questions and Activities: MARXIST

  1. Define class, alienation, base, and superstructure in your own words.
  2. Explain why a base determines its superstructure.
  3. Choose the lines or stanzas that you think most markedly represent a struggle between classes in Langston Hughes’s “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria.” Hughes’s poem also addresses racial issues; consider referring to the relationship between race and class in your written response.
  4. Contrast the lines that appear in quotation marks and parentheses in Hughes’s poem. How do these lines differ? Does it seem like the lines in parentheses respond to the lines in quotation marks, the latter of which represent excerpts from an advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria published in Vanity Fair? How does this contrast illustrate a struggle between classes?
  5. What is Hughes’s purpose for writing “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria?” Defend your interpretation with evidence from the poem.

 

Ethical Criticism

Key Terms

Definitions

Ethics

the branch of philosophy that deals with morality and moral principles

Metaethics 

a branch of ethics that studies the nature of morality itself

Normative Ethics

a branch of ethics that studies ethical conventions and principles

Applied Ethics

a branch of ethics that examines private or public moral issues that entail matters of moral judgment

 

Theorists who lived as early as Plato and Aristotle were broadly concerned with ethics and literature. Hence, Plato banned poets from his Republic. Similarly, during the Renaissance in England, an anti-theatrical movement swept the country. Leaders of this movement feared that spectators might imitate the immoral actions they viewed on the stage. Derek Attridge, who has lectured and published on ethical debates in literary studies, has emerged as a contemporary theorist of the ethics of reading. Attridge proposes that literature provides a vehicle in which readers can explore ethical issues in literature.

Ethical criticism focuses on issues related to morality or ethics within a literary text. This school recognizes that literature can reflect or generate ethical principles or questions. Since ethics can be divided into metaethics (the nature of ethics), normative ethics (ethical principles), and applied ethics (ethical principles applied to specific circumstances), ethical literary criticism may be approached in a manner that is similar to the field of ethics itself.

For example, a metaethical reading of a sacred or religious text might concentrate on how the text presents good and evil as polarized, abstract, real entities that empirically exist. In contrast, in Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the protagonist Judah has his lover Dolores killed after she threatens to reveal their affair to his wife. After experiencing intense regret, he works through his guilt and begins to enjoy his life again. The film presents morality and ethics as creations of the mind that are not empirical truths. To consider normative ethics, one can approach John Milton’s Paradise Lost and analyze the principles it upholds, such as obedience to a monotheistic deity, submission to a spouse, or even commitment to environmental stewardship. Literature is also rife with opportunities to examine literary characters and their circumstances as “case studies” in applied ethics. For example, Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” narrates an affair between a married man (Dmitri Gurov) and woman (Anna Sergeyevna). Since both Dmitri and Anna are affected by their unhappy marriages, Chekhov invites the reader to conduct a case study in sexual ethics by examining the affair between them.

Questions to Ask:

  • Does the text present concepts such as good, bad, evil, moral, or immoral? If so, how are these concepts presented—as empirical truths, as rationalized mental phenomena, or as something else? Does the text explore shades of gray?
  • What ethical principles does the text present, challenge, question, probe, confirm, or deny?
  • What are the sources of ethical principles in the text? Are the sources intrinsic (e.g., from beliefs and values) or extrinsic (e.g., from family, social customs, or religious institutions)?
  • Does the text espouse a set or system of values?
  • What characters provide opportunities to conduct case studies? Does the text offer verdicts for its cases?  

Online Example:

The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray by Patrick Duggan

Discussion Questions and Activities: ETHICAL

  1. List and define the three branches of ethics.
  2. Explain the difference between metaethics and normative ethics.
  3. Read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (translated by Gregory Rabassa). Interpret the role of the “flesh-and-blood angel.” Does the angel represent or evoke concepts such as goodness, evil, morality, or immorality? How so?
  4. Examine the ethical principles that the text evokes. What ethical principles does the text present, challenge, probe, confirm, or deny?
  5. At the end of the story, Elisenda observes that “he [the angel] was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.” Evaluate this conclusion. Does Elisenda uphold ethical principles with regard to her view of the angel? Why or why not?

 

Post-Colonial Criticism

Key Terms

Definitions

Colonialism

the process of acquiring political control of a country, affecting the economics, language, and culture of the colonized country

Post-Colonial Studies 

an area of study that focuses on the history of colonialism and its effects on colonized peoples and their culture, art, and literature

Decolonization 

the dismantling of colonialism and, sometimes, of colonial structures in countries previously colonized by European countries

 

Post-colonial literary criticism frequently focuses on relationships between colonizers and colonized people in literary texts. Post-colonial criticism also analyzes whether a text upholds or subverts colonial ideals. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “colonialism” as a colonial system or principle involving the exploitation of weaker peoples by a larger power. Methods of colonialism may include the domination, subjugation, or enslavement of an indigenous population and their land; the exploitation and exportation of resources; or the creation of a settlement project. Post-colonial criticism is particularly important in the twenty-first century. As  John Springhall observes in Decolonization Since 1945, approximately a third of the world’s population lived under colonial or imperial rule at the time that the Second World War broke out in 1939 (1).

Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, authors of The Empire Writes Back (1989), are three key figures who significantly oriented literary studies towards Post-colonial studies. Post-colonial theorists and literary authors also engaged these same issues in their theoretical and literary works in the 1950s and 1960s, however, especially as countries around the world gained independence from colonial powers. Gender, economics, race, and ideology are all subjects for consideration in post-colonial studies, so post-colonial criticism overlaps with some of the other critical schools of thought.

For example, some post-colonial literary critics argue that the central conflict of Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman revolves around the interference of the British colonial officers in the ritual suicide of the King’s Horseman (Elesin). According to the Yoruba tradition, Elesin’s duty was to follow the King into the afterlife in order to ensure the King’s safe passage.

Soyinka based this play on a historical incident that took place in Nigeria during British colonial rule. Although the Yoruba custom dictated that Elesin commit suicide after the King’s death, the British deemed the tradition a barbaric one. In the play, Elesin tarries in the marketplace, leading women of his tribe to accuse him of not fulfilling his duties as a man of the tribe. Elesin’s delay also enables the British colonial officers to arrest him in order to prevent him from carrying out the ritual suicide. The gendered colonial conflict affects the play’s meaning because it illustrates the refusal of male British authorities to respect traditional customs in Nigeria. The conflict takes on a tragic dimension when Elesin’s son, Olunde, who had been studying abroad in England, returns to Nigeria to take the place of his father and restore order. The play does not celebrate Olunde’s sacrifice, however, since performing the ritual suicide was not Olunde’s duty. The play also concludes by dramatizing Elesin’s suicide, which presumably resulted from his grief. Soyinka’s play invites readers to analyze how colonialism operates as an antagonistic force in the play.  

Questions to Ask:

  • Where and when is the work set—in a colony, a former colony, or a country that has gained its independence from Great Britain Spain, France, or another political power?
  • How does the text depict relations between the colonizer and the colonized?
  • What principles of colonialism operate in the text? Do colonial powers usurp land, exploit the economy or environment, or enslave the indigenous population?
  • How do the colonial conflicts and politics of the text affect its meaning?

Online Example:

"Otherness and its pound of flesh: Body politics in the film "Dirty Pretty Things". By Melisa Cavcic.

 

Discussion Questions and Activities: POST-COLONIAL

  1. Define colonialism, post-colonial studies, and decolonization.
  2. Discuss the significance of post-colonial studies, particularly given the fact that, as John Springhall observes in Decolonization Since 1945, approximately a third of the world’s population lived under colonial or imperial rule at the time that the Second World War broke out in 1939 (1).
  3. Read an excerpt from Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith). Interpret a passage to explain how it illustrates relations between the colonizer and the colonized. For example, why does the speaker turn toward “paradises lost for him and his kin” after telling a cop to “beat it?”
  4. Compare and contrast the principles of colonialism that operate in act one, scene two, lines 385-340 of The Tempest with those evoked in the excerpt from Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.
  5. Read this brief biographical information about Aimé Césaire and evaluate the central purpose of the excerpt from Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Use support from the excerpt to defend your interpretation.

 

Why Does Literary Criticism Matter?

Although analyzing literature by offering a specific interpretation of it can seem like a daunting task, approaching a text from one of these angles can help anyone write a literary analysis paper. Each lens through which one examines a literary text undoubtedly reveals a “brave new world” theretofore undiscovered by the reader. The happy critic is one who sees and understands new aspects of a text after reading or rereading it. The generous critic shares his or her interpretive insights by writing and sharing literary criticism, helping other readers discover new worlds within literary texts as well.

References:

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed. Boston: Thomson Higher Education, 2005. Print.

Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History. Natural History, Aug.-Sept. 1966. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2007. Print.

"colonialism, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 10 December 2014.

Coleridge, Samuel. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Lyrical Ballads.  Eds. R.L Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction. The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1982. 3-6. Print.

Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Print.

Hughes, Langston. “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Pride and Prejudice: With Reader’s Guide. New York: Amsco School Publications, 1989. Print.

Springhall, John. Decolonization Since 1945: The Collapse of European Overseas Empires. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929. Print.