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Joe Moxley


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Part One: Literary Criticism: An Introduction
Part Three: Literary Criticism: An Introduction

Biographical Criticism

Key Terms



the composer, or writer, of a literary text


an account of someone’s life written by someone other than the subject of the biography


a 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 Terms


Incomplete Text

a text that remains incomplete because it has not been interpreted by a reader


a view or judgment not necessarily based on facts

Interpretive Community

a 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 Terms


Conscious Mind

the 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)


the domain of the mind that often remains hidden, containing desires, motivations, and emotions; this aspect of the mind may also store repressed memories


an 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 Unconscious

in 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.


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


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:

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.


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

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham


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