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Part Two: Literary Criticism: An Introduction
Part Three: 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 Terms



a 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 Devices

techniques (e.g., allusion, allegory, metaphor, simile, rhythm, imagery, language, structure, sound, paradox, denotation connotation) used to convey an author’s message


a figure of speech or a word or a phrase that is not meant to be taken literally


the attitude conveyed toward a subject in a literary work


a 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 Terms



the 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


the extra-linguistic object to which a sign refers; the relationship between the sign and referent are also arbitrary and conventional

Binary Opposition

a 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 Terms


Binary Opposition

a pair of related terms or concepts that appear to be opposite in meaning (e.g. light/dark, good/evil, masculine/feminine)

Privileged Term

the preferred term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its privileged status

Suppressed Term

the unfavorable term of a binary opposition; the term’s connotation usually creates its unfavorable status


a 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.


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