Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism refers to critical methods for interpreting texts and for substantiating arguments. 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. This same sort of give and take occurs among readers of texts. Works of literature invoke multiple readings. In other words, we can all read the same story or poem (or watch the same movie or listen to the same song) and come up with different, even conflicting, interpretations about what the work means. Who we are reflects how we read texts. Our experiences inspire us to relate to and sympathize with characters and difficult situations. Have we read similar stories? Have we actually faced some of the same challenges the characters in the story face?

What is Literary Criticism?

Literary Criticism is

Key Terms: Archive, Canon; Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone; rhetoric, intersubjectivity, modernism, postmodernism.

*Alternative Article Title(s): Critical Theory


General Strategies for Engaging in Literary Criticism

Engage in Rhetorical Analysis

The methods for engaging in rhetorical criticism and presenting interpretations are bounded by the values and customs of particular disciplinary communities–i.e., the conventions of particular critical schools (e.g., Critical Disability Studies or Feminist Criticism).

Focus

Distinguish between summarizing the literary work and presenting your argument. Many students fall into the trap of spending too much time summarizing the literature being analyzed as opposed to critiquing it. As a result, it would be wise to check with your teacher regarding how much plot summary is expected. As you approach this project, remember to keep your eye on the ball: What, exactly (in one sentence) is the gist of your interpretation?

Development

One of the most strategic things you can do if you’ve assigned to write some criticism is to read other critics who are well regarded by the disciplinary community you choose to address.

How do other critics evaluate an author’s work? What literary theories do literary critics use to interpret texts or particular moments in history? Reading sample analysis papers can help you find and adopt an appropriate voice and persona. By reading samples, you can learn how others have prioritized particular criteria.

Cite Other Critics’ Interpretations of the Work

Criticism written by advanced English majors, graduate students, and literary critics may be more about what other critics have said than about the actual text. Indeed, many critics spend more time reading criticism and arguing about critical approaches than actually reading original works. However, unless you are enrolled in a literary theory course, your instructor probably wants you to focus more on interpreting the work than discussing other critical interpretations. This does not mean, however, that you should write about a literary work “blindly.” Instead, you are wise to find out what other students and critics have said about the work.

Below is a sample passage that illustrates how other critics’ works can inspire an author and guide him or her in constructing a counter argument, support an author’s interpretation, and provide helpful biographical information.

In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” was published in the June 28, 1948 issue of the New Yorker it received a response that “no New Yorker story had ever received”: hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by “bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse.”1 It is not hard to account for this response: Jackson’s story portrays an “average” New England village with “average” citizens engaged in a deadly rite, the annual selection of a sacrificial victim by means of a public lottery, and does so quite deviously: not until well along in the story do we suspect that the “winner” will be stoned to death by the rest of the villagers.

[ Scholarship as a Conversation ]

Organization

The format for literary critiques is fairly standard:

  • State your claim(s).
  • Forecast your organization.
  • Marshal evidence for your claim.
  • Reiterate argument and elaborate on its significance.

In English classes, you may be able to assume that your readers are familiar with the work you are critiquing. Perhaps, for example, the entire class is responding to one particular work after some class discussions about it. However, if your instructor asks you to address a broader audience, you may need to provide bibliographical information for the work. In other words, you may need to cite the title, publisher, date, and pages of the work (see Citing Sources ).

Literary critiques are arguments. As such, your instructors expect you to state a claim in your introduction and then provide quotes and paraphrased statements from the text to serve as evidence for your claim. Ideally, your critique will be insightful and interesting. You’ll want to come up with an interpretation that isn’t immediately obvious. Below are some examples of “thesis statements” or “claims” from literary critiques:

  • In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the protagonist is oppressed and represents the effect of the oppression of women in society. This effect is created by the use of complex symbols such as the house, the window, and the wall-paper which facilitate her oppression as well as her self expression. [“‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: A Twist on Conventional Symbols” by Liselle Sant]
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman is a sad story of the repression that women face in the days of the late 1800’s as well as being representative of the turmoil that women face today. [Critique of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Brandi Mahon]
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a story of a woman, her psychological difficulties and her husband’s so called therapeutic treatment of her aliments during the late 1800s. . . Gilman does well throughout the story to show with descriptive phrases just how easily and effectively the man “seemingly” wields his “maleness” to control the woman. But, with further interpretation and insight I believe Gilman succeeds in nothing more than showing the weakness of women, of the day, as active persons in their own as well as society’s decision making processes instead of the strength of men as women dominating machines. “The View from the Inside” by Timothy J. Decker
  • In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain creates a strong opposition between the freedom of Huck and Jim’s life on the raft drifting down the Mississippi River, which represents “nature,” and the confining and restrictive life on the shore, which represents “society.” [ “‘All I wanted was a change’: Positive Images of Nature and Society in Chapter 19 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from Professor Matthew Hurt’s “Sample Essays for English 103: Introduction to Fiction”]
  • In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” an unexpected visitor comes down from the sky, and seems to test the faith of a community. The villagers have a difficult time figuring out just how the very old man with enormous wings fits into their lives. Because this character does not agree with their conception of what an angel should look like, they try to determine if the aged man could actually be an angel. In trying to prove the origin of their visitor, the villagers lose faith in the possibility of him being an angel because he does not adhere to their ordered world. Marquez keeps the identity of the very old man with enormous wings ambiguous to critique the villagers and, more generally, organized religion for having a lack of faith to believe in miracles that do not comply with their master narrative. [“Prove It: A Critique of the Villagers’ Faith in ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings'” from Sample Essays for English 103: Introduction to Fiction, Professor Matthew Hurt]

Style

Literary criticism is a fairly specialized genre. Instead of writing to a general lay audience, you are writing to members of a literary community who have read a work and who developed opinions about the work–as well as a vocabulary of interpretation.

Across Schools of Criticism, critics share a common vocabulary of critique. Below are some common words used by literary critics.

  • Protagonist: The protagonist is the major character of the story; typically the character must overcome significant challenges.
  • Antagonist: The protagonist’s chief nemesis; in other words, the character whom the protagonist must overcome.
  • Symbols: Metaphoric language; see A Catalogue of Symbols in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Viewpoint: Stories are told either in the first person or third person point of view. The first person is limited to a single character, although dialog can let you guess at other characters’ intentions. The third person allows readers inside the character’s mind so you know what the character feels and thinks.Viewpoint can be “limited,” where the character knows less than the reader, or “omniscient,” where the reader can hear the thoughts and feelings of all characters. Occasionally writers will use multiple character viewpoint, which takes you from one character’s perspective to another.
  • Plot: Plots are a series of scenes, typically moving from a conflict situation to a resolution. To surprise readers, authors will foreshadow “false plants,” which lead readers to anticipate other resolutions. The term “denouement” refers to the unraveling of the plot in the conclusion.

Cite from the Work

Literary criticism involves close reading of a literary work, regardless of whether you are arguing about a particular interpretation, comparing stories or poems, or using a theory to interpret literature. The purpose of the document is not to inform the readers, but to argue a particular interpretation. You only need to cite parts of the work that support or relate to your argument and follow the citation format required by your instructor

FAQs

What are Schools of Literary Criticism?

Literary theory and criticism have existed from classical through contemporary times. Over time, schools of criticism have evolved as critics (aka communities of practitioners) have introduced new ideas about texts and intertextuality, rhetoric, intersubjectivity, modernism, postmodernism.

Schools of Literary Criticism include

Most schools of literary criticism draw extensively on the work of other theorists and critics, while others concentrate on the reader’s thoughts and feelings. Additionally, some theorists analyze a work from an historical perspective, while others focus solely on a close reading of a text.

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 you employ to engage in textual analysis will shape the content of your interpretation.

[ Rhetorical Stance | Rhetorical Reasoning ]

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