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Five Critical Theory

Approaches:
The Tools of the Trade for Reading Texts
Intelligently

Read the following brief descriptions of five methods used by various schools of critical
theory to interpret and decipher literary texts. Please pick the one that appeals most to you
or the one you are most curious about. For our next seminar, you will have to be prepared to
approach Shakespeare’s The Tempest using your chosen method. Further guidance and
additional materials will be provided.

1) The Psychoanalytical Approach: Who are you when you’re not looking?
Which one of the voices fighting to get on air is ‘you’?
Freudian psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of reading dreams and employed by
Freud and later theorists to interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express
the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author, that a literary work is a
manifestation of the author's own neuroses. Like psychoanalysis itself, this critical endeavour
seeks evidence of unresolved emotions, psychological conflicts, guilts, ambivalences, and so
forth within what may well be a disunified literary work. Psychological material will be
expressed indirectly, disguised, or encoded (as in dreams) through principles such as
"symbolism" (the repressed object represented in disguise), "condensation" (several
thoughts or persons represented in a single image), and "displacement" (anxiety located
onto another image by means of association).
Jungian psychoanalytic criticism attempts to explore the connection between literature and
what Carl Jung (a student of Freud) called the “collective unconscious” of the human race:
"...racial memory, through which the spirit of the whole human species manifests itself".
Jungian criticism, closely related to Freudian theory because of its connection to
psychoanalysis, assumes that all stories and symbols are based on mythic models from
humankind’s past.

2) The Feminist Approach: Girl power! But you’ve got to fight for it.
Feminist criticism is concerned with the ways in which literature (and other cultural
productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological
oppression of women. This approach looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently
patriarchal (male-dominated) and strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male
writing about women. It examines gender politics in works and traces the subtle construction
of masculinity and femininity, and their relative status, positionings, and marginalizations
within works. "Marginalization" refers to being forced to the outskirts of what is considered

ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE SEMINAR Cătălin Țăranu
socially and politically significant, since the female voice was traditionally marginalized, or
discounted altogether.

3) The Postcolonial Approach: All civilization is built on violence/ ‘Stupid


White Man!’ (Nobody, in Dead Man [directed by Jim Jarmusch, 1995])
Postcolonial literary criticism looks at literature written both by colonial powers and by those
who were colonized in order to look at the cultural impact of colonization. It is concerned
with issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work
in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized). Post-colonial
criticism also questions the role of the western literary canon and western history as
dominant forms of knowledge making.

4) The New Historicist/Foucauldian Approach: Who constructs our truths


has power over our bodies and minds.
This approach seeks to find meaning in a text by considering the work within the framework
of the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era. New Historicists concern
themselves with the political function of literature and with the concept of power, the
intricate means by which cultures produce and reproduce themselves. These critics focus on
revealing the historically specific model of truth and authority (not a "truth" but a "cultural
construct" - Michel Foucault's concept of épistème) reflected in a given work. Literary works
may or may not tell us about various factual aspects of the world from which they emerge,
but they will tell us about prevailing ways of thinking at the time: ideas of social organization,
prejudices, taboos etc. Foucauldian discourse analysis is a form of discourse analysis based
on the theories of Michel Foucault that seeks to reveal the power relationships in society as
expressed through language and practices.

5) The Ecocritical Approach: Humans – the Crown of Creation or its


destroyer?/ ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’
(Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by Robert Oppenheimer on the detonation of
the first atomic bomb)
Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,
asking us to examine ourselves and the world around us, critiquing the way that we
represent, interact with, and construct the environment, both “natural” and human-made.
Similar to critical traditions examining gender and race, ecocriticism deals not only with the
socially-constructed, often dichotomous categories we create for reality (such as ‘nature’ as
opposed ‘culture’), but with reality itself. Ecocritics examine human perception of nature and
wilderness, and how it has changed through history. Scholars in ecocriticism engage in
questions regarding anthropocentrism, and the mainstream assumption that the natural
world be seen primarily as a resource for human beings as well as critical approaches to
changing ideas in the material and cultural bases of modern society.

ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE SEMINAR Cătălin Țăranu
ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE SEMINAR Cătălin Țăranu