Literary Criticism: An Introduction

What is Literature and Why Does it Matter?

Literature is what makes the world whirl. Whether a student is reading about Miranda’s encounter with a “Brave New World” in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, a “falling star” in John Milton’s poem “Song,” or “a Spring Saturday” in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, what the student reads was written by an author who aimed to give a reader his or her perspective—or spin—on the world in the form of literature. By reading literature with a critical eye, one can begin to go beyond simply expressing a like or dislike of a particular text, delving deeper into the particular view of the world that an author wanted to convey. Literary criticism enables students and critics to develop an informed opinion about the meaning of a literary work.

What is Literary Criticism?

This article focuses on literary interpretation, which may be called second-level literary criticism. The difference between first- and second-level criticism is similar to the distinction between a like or dislike of a text versus giving an interpretation of it. Imagine that a group of friends gathers outside a movie theater after watching a re-release of Twilight, the first film in the Twilight film series, based on the novel of the same name by Stephanie Meyers. Some of the people in the group say they do not like the film because it portrays Bella as a weak female who becomes obsessed with Edward Cullen whom she cannot marry without leaving her loving father and losing her precious mortality. Other people like those aspects of the film, however, arguing that the film makes them disagree with its representation of some women as meek characters. In each case, everyone states his or interpretation of the film to contribute to a conversation about it; everyone offers literary criticism.

Literary criticism advances a particular argument about a specific text or a set of texts, so literary criticism should be persuasive. The first step in formulating a critical argument is to assume a rhetorical stance that engages a type, school, or approach of literary criticism. The critical approach will determine the content of the interpretation. Although literary theory and criticism have existed from classical through contemporary times, a feature of modern and postmodern literary criticism is the division of criticism into various schools. In this article, students will learn about the modern and contemporary critical movements that scholars and students most frequently use, gaining the ability to handle any literary analysis assignment.

Russian Formalism and New Criticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Forma genre or literary type (the lyric form, the drama form); the principle that determines how a work is organized; a work’s shaping principle
Literary Devicestechniques (e.g., allusion, allegory, metaphor, simile, rhythm, imagery, language, structure, sound, paradox, denotation connotation) used to convey an author’s message
Tropea figure of speech or a word or a phrase that is not meant to be taken literally
Tonethe attitude conveyed toward a subject in a literary work
Paradoxa statement that initially seems to be a self-contradiction but that may prove to be true; a statement that leads to a conclusion that seems self-contradictory

Formalist critics ignore the author, his or her biography, and historical context, focusing on the literary work, which they uphold as autonomous. As Jonathan Culler explains in Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, the Russian Formalists of the early years of the twentieth century stressed that critics should concern themselves with the literariness of literature, the verbal strategies that contribute to the form of a literary text, and the emphasis on language that literature itself invites (122). Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, and Viktor Shklovsky oriented literary studies toward questions of form and technique. T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and William Empson significantly influenced the Anglo-American tradition of Formalism.

New Criticism and its seminal figures, including Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and W.K. Wimsatt, borrowed some of the methodologies of Russian Formalism. The New Critics also resisted emphasizing the author’s biography, focusing instead on how the parts of a literary text contribute to the whole. These two schools cannot be conflated, however. Russian Formalism locates its origins in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century. New Criticism began in the 1930s and 1940s, in Great Britain and in the United States.

Criticism that adopts an approach espoused by either the schools of Russian Formalism or New Criticism analyzes how the elements and devices (e.g., words, plot, characters, images, tone) in a literary text contribute to its meaning. Consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which narrates the tale of a sea mariner who kills an albatross and then experiences intense guilt before he finds redemption. The imagery that appears in the poem after the Mariner kills the albatross is unnatural: “Day after day, day after day / We stuck, ne breath ne motion / As idle as a painted Ship / Upon a painted ocean” (2.111-114). The unnatural imagery creates a visual depiction of the Mariner’s guilt—as if he is stuck thinking about the fact that he killed the albatross. The language of the poem creates an additional image that enhances the audience’s awareness of the Mariner’s guilt: “Ah wel-a-day ! what evil looks / Had I from old and young; / Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung” (2.135-38). The “hung” albatross serves as the ultimate symbol of the mariner’s guilt, as if the albatross is haunting the Mariner. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a narrative poem, so Coleridge has to rely on language—in these examples words with negative connotations (“stuck,” “idle,” and “evil”) and words that create images (the idle ship and the hung albatross)—to show how guilty the Mariner feels after killing the albatross. Critics who use an approach from the schools of either the Russian Formalists or the New Critics thus focus on elements and devices within the literary text in order to analyze how they create meaning.

Questions to Ask:

  • How does the work’s form contribute to its meaning?
  • How do the work’s devices (e.g., rhythm, imagery, language, structure, sound, paradox, denotation, connotation, and allusion) enhance meaning?
  • Does the work contain any paradoxes? If so, how do they complicate, create, or enhance meaning?
  • What is the tone of the work? What formal elements reveal the tone? How does tone contribute to meaning?

Online Examples:

Evidence of the New Orthodoxy: Sound in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, A Formalist Reading of Sandra Cisneros’s ‘Woman Hollering Creek” by Skylar Hamilton Burris

Discussion Questions and Activities: RUSSIAN FORMALISM AND NEW CRITICISM

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: form, literary devices, trope, tone, paradox.
  2. Define both Formalist Criticism and New Criticism in your own words.
  3. Review the types of literary devices, and view an additional list of figures of speech. Then, read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” What formal elements and literary devices appear frequently in this poem (e.g., images, rhyme scheme, repetition, and metaphor)? Identify and list these elements and devices.
  4. Choose one of the formal elements or literary devices you listed above. Write a paragraph about how that element or device contributes to the meaning of the poem.
  5. Compare and contrast two of the literary devices that Plath employs in “Daddy.” Write a paragraph in which you take a stance regarding which device contributes more significantly to the meaning of the poem.

Structuralist Criticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Signthe basic unit of Saussurean linguistics, a physical entity consisting of a signifier (an acoustic image) and a signified (a concept); a sign is said to be arbitrary because a logical relationship between the signifier and signified does not necessarily exist
Referentthe extra-linguistic object to which a sign refers; the relationship between the sign and referent are also arbitrary and conventional
Binary Oppositiona pair of related terms or concepts that appear to be opposite in meaning (e.g., light/dark)

The popular structuralist critic Terence Hawkes defines structuralism as a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the description of structures (17). Structuralism focuses on literature as a system of signs in which meaning is constructed within a context. Words inscribed with meaning may be compared to other words and structures to determine their meaning. Unlike Formalist critics or New Critics, structuralist critics are primarily interested in the codes, signs, and rules that govern social and cultural practices, including communication.

Structuralism first developed in Anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss), in literary and cultural studies (Roman Jakobson, Roland Barthes, and Gérard Genette), psychoanalysis, and intellectual history (Culler 17). Structuralism enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and 1960s in both European and American literary theory and criticism.

The seminal text of structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure’s published collection of lecture notes, Course in General Linguistics (1915). These notes present a structuralist approach to language that focuses on an abstract system of signs. Two parts constitute a sign: the signifier (a spoken mark) and the signified (a concept):

Sign = Signifier


For example, when someone says the word “tree,” the sound he or she makes is the signifier, and the concept of a tree is the signified. The relationship of the signifier to the signified determines the meaning of the sign. As David Macey notes in The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, signs do not designate an external reality. Signs are meaningful only because of the similarities or differences that exist between them (365). Significantly, cultural communities determine the meanings and relationships of signs. A ghost that appears in a literary text such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes on a specific meaning in a European culture. As demonstrated by “Shakespeare in the Bush,” however, the word ghost does not correspond to a concept in all cultures, preventing individuals of different cultures—in this case the Tiv of Nigeria in West Africa—from understanding what it means for a ghost to appear in Hamlet.

Structuralist critics also look closely at patterns. For example, observing patterns in literature, critic Northrup Frye coined the term “green world” to describe the practice of release and reconciliation to which characters retreat in Shakespeare’s festive comedies. As You Like It epitomizes the characteristics associated with this pattern of festive comedy. The play begins in a masculine, courtly world where the playwright introduces the love interests of Rosalind and Orlando. After Rosalind is banished by her uncle, who has usurped the throne from her father, she retreats to the feminine green world of the forest. In the forest, she gives lessons to Orlando about how to court and properly treat her, and she reunites with her father. She facilitates the play’s reconciliation by marrying other characters in the play, including Phoebe and Silvius and Audrey and Touchstone. Rosalind also marries Orlando, and her father and her uncle reconcile in the “green world” as well. Shakespeare wrote other plays, such as Twelfth Night and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which follow this pattern of retreat, release, and reconciliation. These plays also explore an opposition between the masculinity of the courtly world and the femininity of the “green world,” inviting the reader to analyze how each pole of the binary is valued.

Questions to Ask:

  • Does the plot follow a recognizable pattern?
  • What patterns in the text reveal its similarities to other texts?
  • What binary oppositions (e.g., light/dark, good/evil, old/young, masculine/feminine, natural/artificial, etc.) operate in the text?
  • How is each part of the binary valued? Does the binary imply a hierarchy (e.g., is light better than dark, is an old age more valuable than a young age, etc.)?
  • What dialogue or other aspects in the text indicate how each pole of the binary is valued?
  • Do words, dialogue, imagery, or allusions associated with the binaries contribute to the denigration or elevation of one part (e.g., light) over the other part (e.g., darkness)?

Online Example:


Discussion Questions and Activities: STRUCTURALIST

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: sign, referent, and binary opposition.
  2. Explain the following concepts: sign and binary oppositions.
  3. Read “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Explain why Laura Bohannan decides to abandon the words “ghosts” and “devil” to describe Hamlet’s deceased father, insisting that “a witch-sent omen it [he] would have to be.”
  4. Read Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare. Analyze the poem’s use of words like “black,” “fair,” “fairing,” “beauty,” “art,” [“art’s”] and “false.” Write a paragraph about how the poem creates tension around the meaning of these words. For example, does the poem seem to contrast the meaning of words like black, fair, or beauty? How does the poem contrast the connotation of these words?
  5. Analyze Sonnet 127 and write a paragraph in which you argue what relationship blackness and beauty share in the poem. Provide evidence from the poem for your viewpoint.

Deconstructive and Post-Structuralist Criticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Binary Oppositiona pair of related terms or concepts that appear to be opposite in meaning (e.g. light/dark, good/evil, masculine/feminine)
Privileged Termthe preferred term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its privileged status
Suppressed Termthe unfavorable term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its unfavorable status
Hierarchiesa system in which ideas, objects, people, groups, and institutions are ranked one above the other according to privileged status or authority

Deconstructive criticism also explores patterns within texts, but deconstructive criticism aims to demonstrate how conflicting forces within the text undermine the stability of the text’s structure, revealing meaning as an array of undetermined possibilities. Deconstructive criticism may also focus on binaries in a text, such as good/evil, light/dark, male/female, poor/rich, linear/nonlinear, old/young, masculine/feminine, or natural/artificial, to expose one aspect of the binary as privileged and the other as suppressed. The discussion of deconstructionist criticism below will focus on the light/dark binary.

Jacques Derrida is the originator of deconstruction. As M.H. Abrams points out in A Glossary of Literary Terms, however, Derrida did not intend for deconstruction to serve as a method for writing literary criticism. Rather, Derrida viewed deconstruction as a technique for exposing and subverting many assumptions of Western thought in a variety of texts (59). Additionally, Paul de Man, Barbara Johnson, and J.H. Miller have all been instrumental in the development of deconstructive readings of literary texts.

Deconstruction is a type of theory that arose from post-structuralism, which asserts that since systems are always changing, it is impossible to describe a complete system, such as one that insists on the association of darkness with evil and vice versa. As such, post-structuralists also view subjects—subjects such as readers—as caught up in the forces that produce the very structures they study as objects of knowledge. Discovering Truth with a capital T is, therefore, an impossible task to carry out with deconstructive criticism.

For example, a deconstructionist critic would ask how and why more importance is placed on light versus dark in a text, thereby questioning the truth of these associations within—and even outside of—the literary text. For example, if a reader can see how a literary text intentionally correlates light with goodness and darkness with evil, a reader might begin to question the truth of these correlations. Similarly, a deconstructionist critic would point out how the construction of these contrasting forces undermine their stability.

Consider Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” After initially reading the story, many readers associate darkness with the dangerous character, Arnold, and light with the innocent victim, Connie. And yet some astute readers have noticed the pale (light) skin that surrounds Arnold’s dark eyes. If Arnold represents evil, why are his dark eyes surrounded with pale light? Additionally, Connie attempts to get a tan in the natural sunlight, while Arnold puts on makeup to make himself appear tan. A meaningful difference between light and dark in the text is undermined by Arnold’s ability to simply paint on the type of tan that Connie strives to acquire. How can light represent goodness if a bad person can simply make himself appear light—or tan—like Connie is? The deconstructionist critic recognizes how the text plays around with the assumptions readers make based on the connotations of the words and the images they create, enhancing the tension in the story, and undermining the possibility of the text creating only one meaning. For example, Connie lives in a suburb where everyone notices that Arnold doesn’t fit in, but no one confronts him. Connie’s friends and neighbors silently consent to Arnold’s presence, leading to his eventual abduction of Connie. Oates’s story invites us to consider that her story can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Questions to Ask:

  • What binary oppositions or tensions (e.g., light/dark, good/evil, old/young, linear/nonlinear, poor/rich, masculine/feminine, western/eastern) operate in the text?
  • How do other details and aspects of the text (e.g., dialogue, denotation, connotation, allusion, and imagery) undermine or subvert tension in the text?
  • How does the text uphold, versus resolve, contradictory meanings?
  • How does the text undermine the possibility of the text creating only one meaning?
  • How does the text explore the free play in between two polarities?
  • How does the text invite ambiguity versus certainty?
  • How can a work be interpreted in multiple ways?

Online Example:

A Deconstructive Reading of George Crumb’s Black Angels

Discussion Questions and Activities: DECONSTRUCTIVE AND POST-STRUCTURALIST

  1. Define the following terms without looking at the article or your notes: hierarchies, privileged term, and suppressed term.
  2. Explain the concept of hierarchies in your own words.
  3. Read “America” by Claude McKay. What binaries exist in the text? Do they have a stable meaning?
  4. Write a paragraph that describes how the binaries in the poem create tension for the speaker. Does the speaker resolve this tension?
  5. Does Claude McKay portray America as positive, negative, or both? Defend your perspective by citing words, phrases, and lines from the poem.

Biographical Criticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Authorthe composer, or writer, of a literary text
Biographyan account of someone’s life written by someone other than the subject of the biography
Personaa character or role adopted by an author

In contrast to analyzing the structure, codes, or patterns in a literary text, biographical criticism emphasizes the relationship between the author and his or her literary work. Since the premise of biographical criticism maintains that the author and his or her literary work cannot be separated, critics look for glimpses of the author’s consciousness or life in the author’s work. Early childhood events, psychological illnesses, relational conflicts, desires (fulfilled or unfulfilled), among other things, may all arise in an author’s work. Biographical criticism is not a new approach to literature. The overlap of biographical criticism with cultural studies, psychoanalytic criticism, and other schools of criticism has encouraged students and critics to approach literature from the perspective of the author’s biography.

For example, critics who study the poetry or drama of Amiri Baraka may concentrate on his life growing up as an African American or being involved in the Black Arts Movement in the United States. In Baraka’s play Dutchman, a racist female, Lula, confronts the protagonist, Clay. She initially seduces him but then insults and kills him. From a biographical perspective, the play may represent Baraka’s encounter with racism during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, since some Americans opposed the individual rights and freedoms of black Americans. From this perspective, Clay allegorically represents African Americans, and Lula depicts white, racist Americans who possess a history of manipulating, abusing, and enacting violence against black Americans.

Questions to Ask:

  • What verifiable aspects of the author’s biography show up in his or her work?
  • Do places where the author grew up appear in his or her work?
  • How does the author weave aspects of his or her familial life into the world of the literary text? Does the author address relationships with parents, siblings, or significant others? If so, how do these relationships create meaning in the text?
  • What distinguishes the author from his or her persona in the text? Is there a distinction? How can you tell?

Online Example:

The Ideal Source for a Tory Message: Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, Motivation in Cisneros’s “Never Marry a Mexican” A Historical-Biographical Critical Approach by Skylar Hamilton Burris

Discussion Questions and Activities: BIOGRAPHICAL

  1. List the aspects of a literary text and its author that you can use in a biographical approach to a text.
  2. Explain the difference between an author and his or her persona.
  3. Read “The Caged Bird” and at least two webtexts that offer biographies of Maya Angelou. Consider this webtext to get you started. Write a one-paragraph interpretation about how her biography may have influenced “The Caged Bird.”
  4. Using the information in the paragraph you wrote to answer the question above, compare and contrast how the influence of Angelou’s life history is evoked in a.) the first and fourth stanzas and b.) the second, third, fifth, and sixth stanzas.
  5. Who is the caged bird that “sings for freedom?” Is it Angelou, the speaker of the poem, or both? Support your argument with evidence from the poem and biographical information about Angelou.

Reader-Response Criticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Incomplete Texta text that remains incomplete because it has not been interpreted by a reader
Opiniona view or judgment not necessarily based on facts
Interpretive Communitya term coined by Stanley Fish for describing a group of informed readers who share similar assumptions about language and literary conventions

Reader-response criticism, or reader-oriented criticism, focuses on the reading process. As Charles Bressler notes in Literary Criticism, the basic assumption of reader-oriented criticism is “Reader + Text = Meaning” (80). The thoughts, ideas, and experiences a reader brings to the text, combined with the text and experience of reading it, work together to create meaning. From this perspective, the text becomes a reflection of the reader. The association of the reader with a text differs from the premise of Formalist criticism, which argues for the autonomy of a text. Reader-response criticism does not suggest that anything goes, however, or that any interpretation is a sound one.

The origins of reader-oriented criticism can be located in the United States with Louise Rosenblatt’s development of theories in the 1930s (Literature as Exploration). Rosenblatt further developed her theories in the late seventies (The Reader, the Text, the Poem). American critic Stanley Fish has also significantly influenced reader-response theory. Fish conceived of “interpretive communities” that employ interpretive strategies to produce properties and meanings of literary texts (14-15).

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a novel that critiques the dangers of a fictional utopian society, incorporates an intriguing exploration of reader-response criticism into its plot. John and Mustapha Mond both read texts written by Shakespeare, but they report very different responses to Shakespeare’s plays. For John, a noble savage born on a reservation in New Mexico, plays by Shakespeare represent a useful way to learn about the finest aspects of humanity and human values. In contrast, Mustapha Mond views literary works written by Shakespeare as useless high art. Mustapha Mond’s position as the Resident Controller for Western Europe influences his perspective as a reader as much as John’s encounter with Shakespeare on a Reservation in New Mexico does. Recognizing how John’s and Mustapha Mond’s experiences differ in the novel helps readers understand why these characters respond to Shakespeare in dissimilar ways.

Questions to Ask:

  • Who is the reader? Who is the implied reader?
  • Does the text overtly or subtly ask the reader to sympathize or empathize in any way?
  • What experiences, thoughts, or knowledge does the text evoke?
  • What aspects or characters of the text do you identify or disidentify with, and how does this process of identification affect your response to the text?
  • What is the difference between your general reaction to (e.g., like or dislike) and reader-oriented interpretation of the text?

Online Example:

Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”: A Reader’s Response

Discussion Questions and Activities: READER-RESPONSE

  1. List and define two to three of the key terms you would consider to approach a text from a reader-response approach.
  2. Explain why a text that has not been interpreted by a reader is an “incomplete text.”
  3. Using the Folger Digital Texts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, interpret the soliloquy in act three, scene one, lines 64-98 of Hamlet from a reader-response approach. Consider the following questions as you construct your response: what previous experiences do you have with the drama or poetry of William Shakespeare, and how have those experiences shaped the way you currently approach his work? If you read this soliloquy in the past, has your view of it changed? Why?
  4. Differentiate between your general opinion of Hamlet’s soliloquy (your like or dislike of it) and your interpretation of it.
  5. In your view, what does Hamlet mean when he says, “To be or not to be—that is the question” (3.1.64)? Defend your interpretation.

Psychological Criticism 

Key TermsDefinitions
Conscious Mindthe aspect of the mind of which one is aware and can discuss and analyze rationally (Freud associates this aspect of the mind with the ego, or the captain of the ship)
Unconsciousthe domain of the mind that often remains hidden, containing desires, motivations, and emotions; this aspect of the mind may also store repressed memories
Symbolsan object, idea, or action  that stands for something else; symbols are recognized as the language of dreams, suggesting a relationship between the everyday world and the world of dreams
The Collective Unconsciousin Jungian psychology, an aspect of the mind shared by all humanity that contains imprints of our ancestral experiences

Psychological criticism, or psychoanalytic criticism, emphasizes psychological issues in a literary text. Psychological criticism frequently addresses motives—conscious or unconscious—of human behavior as well as the development of characters through their actions. Drawing on theories and concepts of human psychology developed by psychoanalysts, psychoanalytic criticism has also influenced other schools of literary criticism, especially Post-colonial criticism.

Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan are two key figures who have oriented literary studies toward questions of psychological processes. The works of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow have also been used in psychoanalytic criticism. Each of these theorists explored how the conscious mind interacts with the unconscious mind. Freud

According to Freud, a work of literature is an external expression of the author’s unconscious mind. The literary work can be treated like a dream by viewing its content as a representation of the author’s motivations, desires, or wishes. Yet, when certain repressed feelings cannot be sufficiently expressed in dreams (or literature), they are blocked, resulting in neurosis, or a conflict between the ego and the id. For Freud, the “id” accounts for the irrational, instinctual, and unknown parts of the psyche. The id operates by impulse. It attempts to find pleasure and to satisfy instinctual desires. The ego, however, is the rational and logical part of the mind that, in acting as the captain of the ship, regulates the instincts of the id. Finally, the superego acts as an internal regulator or censor. The superego takes social pressures into account to make moral judgments, protecting both individuals and society from the id.

As such, Freud is very popular for his theory of the Oedipus Complex, a theory he developed after studying Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and pondering what unconscious desires and motives affected Oedipus. Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex attempts to explain a child’s sexual attraction toward the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. In the play Oedipus Rex, the protagonist Oedipus unknowingly kills his father Laius and marries his mother Jocasta. For Freud, all human behavior is sexually motivated and can usually be traced to early childhood experiences. Thus, from Freud’s perspective, Oedipus unconsciously desired a sexual relationship with his mother. After Oedipus fully discovers what he has done—that he has married his mother and killed his father—he intentionally blinds himself. Freud used a story from literature to develop a universal psychological theory, and students who aim to apply Freud’s theories to understand literature can examine a character’s relationship to his or her parent of the opposite sex, assuming that sexual tension motivates almost all human—and literary—actions. For example, many students and critics also view the tension between Hamlet and his mother as a type of unconscious sexual conflict, especially since Hamlet’s mother marries another man so quickly after she becomes a widow.

Online Example

A Freudian Analysis of Erin McGraw’s “A Thief by Skylar Hamilton Burris Jung

Carl Gustav Jung disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality. Jung proposed that in addition to sexual imagery, mythological images also appear in dreams. He conceived of the personal conscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. For Jung, the unconscious is a common aspect of all human experience. As Bressler notes, Jung asserted that the collective unconscious stores knowledge and experience of the whole human species (150). The collective unconscious accounts for why people respond to stories and myths the same way—because everyone remembers humanity’s past (150). These archetypes are patterns or images related to the human experience (e.g., birth, death, rebirth, and motherhood).

Archetypes act as seeds that determine the development of a human, like an acorn fixes the growth of an oak tree. The goal of archetypes is potentiality; they represent possible narrative accounts of a person’s life. Readers recognize archetypes in literature through recurring plot patterns, images, and character types. Since these archetypes often remain at rest in the unconscious, the piecing together of conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche can, therefore, lead to “individuation.”

Consider Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” The story presents a narrative pattern of sacrifice, and the characters all play a role in carrying out the ritual sacrifice. Many students and critics view “The Lottery” as a harsh critique of tradition. Students also note the story’s use of flat, stock characters, but the characters also mirror archetypal figures and patterns. Jackson’s story evokes the narrative pattern of a social group carrying out a sacrifice so that the seasons can continue. Viewed from this perspective, the characters unconsciously act out historic events that are common experiences of humans, rather than consciously engage in sadistic activities. Consequently, the children of the town also participate in stoning Tessie, the unlucky sacrificial victim. Ironically, Old Man Warner, an unpopular character who staunchly upholds the tradition of the ritual sacrifice, can be viewed as the archetypal wise old man who understands that customs and traditions, especially those rituals which people associate with necessary sacrifice, rarely change, and that perhaps they should not be altered. Thus, Jackson integrates recognizable patterns and character types into “The Lottery” to invite readers to analyze historic and current traditions that may otherwise be taken for granted, encouraging readers to recognize their own unconscious motivations or patterns.

Online Example:

A Catalogue of Symbols in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening by Skylar Hamilton Burris

Questions to Ask:

  • What motivates the speaker or protagonist? Does the speaker or protagonist appear to be consciously or unconsciously motivated?
  • How do desires and wishes manifest in the text? Do they remain largely fulfilled or unfilled? How does their fulfillment, or lack thereof, affect the character’s development?
  • Does the text chart the emotional development of a character? How?
  • What archetypal narrative patterns do you observe in the text? Are there archetypal characters in the text? What purpose do these narrative patterns or characters serve?
  • Do principle characters resolve their psychological conflicts? Do they successfully recognize their unconscious complexes, desires, sense of lack, or previously unrecognized or unintegrated aspects of their personality?
  • How do the characters in the text evoke archetypal figures such as the Great or Nurturing Mother, the Wounded Child, the Whore, the Crone, the Lover, or the Destroying Angel)?

Additional Online Example (Lacanian Criticism):

Student Sample Paper: Sarah David’s “A Lacanian Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark’”

Discussion Questions and Activities: PSYCHOLOGICAL

  1. List and define the following terms in your own words: conscious mind, unconscious, symbols, and the collective unconscious.
  2. Explain the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind.
  3. Read “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich. You might also listen to Rich read the poem:
    1. Diving Into the Wreck
    2. Interpret the speaker’s motivations. Are the speaker’s motivations conscious, unconscious, or both? How do you know?
  4. Compare and contrast Rich’s poem from a Freudian and a Jungian perspective. From a Freudian approach, what sexual imagery pervades the poem? What are the speaker’s motivations, desires, or wishes? Do we see the id operating in this poem? Do the ego or superego prevail? Considering a Jungian perspective, what mythological images appear in this dream-like poem? How is the collective unconscious represented in the poem? Does the speaker seek individuation?
  5. Is the “wreck” in this poem a metaphor or something real? Select particular words, phrases, lines, images, or other literary devices to use as evidence to support your view. Feminist (Gender Studies) Criticism
Key TermsDefinitions
Gender Rolesa 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 Genderrepresentations of gender that rely on stereotypes and, therefore, represent men or women as underdeveloped individuals
Patriarchya 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 MikulanDiscussion 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 TermsDefinitions
Culturethe values, conventions, social practices, social forms, and material features of a racial, religious, or social group
Discoursewritten or spoken language that is often used to study how people use language
Historical Milieua 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 ReadingDiscussion 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 TermsDefinitions
Classa classification or grouping typically based on income and education
Alienationa condition Karl Heinrich Marx ascribed to individuals in a capitalist economy who lack a sense of identification with their labor and products
Basethe 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)
Superstructurethe 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 Crticism

Key TermsDefinitions
Ethicsthe branch of philosophy that deals with morality and moral principles
Metaethicsa branch of ethics that studies the nature of morality itself
Normative Ethicsa branch of ethics that studies ethical conventions and principles
Applied Ethicsa 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 TermsDefinitions
Colonialismthe process of acquiring political control of a country, affecting the economics, language, and culture of the colonized country
Post-Colonial Studiesan area of study that focuses on the history of colonialism and its effects on colonized peoples and their culture, art, and literature
Decolonizationthe 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.

Works Cited

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