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Literary Theories

What is the Difference Between Theory and Criticism?
• Literary criticism is a value judgment of a particular work. Such judgments are not simple— what constitutes value? What is the personal and social value of literature? On what criteria do we base a judgment of a work’s artistry (aesthetic)? Such judgments are frequently based on criteria such as:
– Personal or cultural significance of themes, use of language – Insights and impact of text – Aesthetic appeal

reader.What is the Difference Between Theory and Criticism? • Literary Theory is not a judgment but understanding the frames of judgment • Concerned with the nature of literature. the relationship between text and author. and history • A lens through which one may examine a work to make the critical judgments in Literary Criticism . its functions. language. society.

and metaphor • Reading stands on its own – all information needed comes from the text itself • Awareness of denotative and connotative implications • Alertness to allusions to mythology. paradox. imagery. history.Formalistic Approach • Close reading and analysis of elements such as setting. literature • Sees structure and patterns – close reading • Primarily used during the first two-thirds of the 20th century • This is the “AP” style of analysis. involving a close reading of a text and the assumption that all information necessary to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself . irony.

and tension . paradox.Formalistic Approach • Advantages – Performed without research – Emphasizes value of literature apart from its context • Disadvantages – – – – Text is seen in isolation Ignores context of the work Cannot account for allusions Tends to reduce literature to just a few narrow rhetorical devices. such as irony.

or character revealed to readers? How do we come to know and understand this figure? – Who are the major and minor characters. similes. explain. metaphors. narrate. or otherwise create the world of the literary work? More specifically. symbols appear in the work? What is their function? What meanings do they convey? . speaker. what do they represent. what images.Formalistic Approach • A Checklist of Formalistic Critical Questions – How is the work structured or organized? How does it begin? Where does it go next? How does it end? What is the work’s plot? How is its plot related to its structure? – What is the relationship of each part of the work to the work as a whole? How are the parts related to one another? – Who is narrating or telling what happens in the work? How is the narrator. and how do they relate to one another? – What are the time and place of the work—it’s setting? How is the setting related to what we know of the characters and their actions? To what extent is the setting symbolic? – What kind of language does the author use to describe.

economical. and sociological context of the time period to understand a work • Moral-Philosophical – The larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and probe philosophical issues .Biographical/Historical Approach • Historical-Biographical – Art seen as a reflection of author’s life and times (or of the characters’ life and times) – Necessary to know about the author and the political.

unless the author has put into writing his/her intent. which.Biographical/Historical Approach • Advantages – Works for some works obviously political or moral in nature – Helps place allusions in proper classical. is not reliably discernable – New Critics believe such an approach reduces art to the level of biography and makes art relevant to a particular time only rather than universal – Some argue that such an approach is too judgmental . or biblical background as well as to consider the themes of works – Recognizes that the message of a work—not just the vehicle for that message—is important • Disadvantages – “The Intentional Fallacy”—The New Critics’ term for the belief that the meaning or value of a work lies in determining the author’s intent. political.

Biographical/Historical Approach • Checklist of Biographical Critical Questions – What influences—people. perception. or essay? – What has the author revealed in the work about his/her characteristic modes of thought. events— evident in the writer’s life does the work reflect? – To what extent are the events described in the word a direct transfer of what happened in the writer’s actual life? – What modifications of the actual events has the writer made in the literary work? For what possibly purposes? – What are the effects of the differences between actual events and their literary transformation in the poem. or emotion? What place does this work have in the artist’s literary development and career? . story. movements. play. ideas.

Biographical/Historical Approach • A Checklist of Historical Critical Questions – When was the work written? When was it published? How was it received by the critics and public and why? – What does the work’s reception reveal about the standards of taste and value during the time it was published and reviewed? – What social attitudes and cultural practices related to the action of the word were prevalent during the time the work was written and published? – What kinds of power relationships does the word describe. or embody? – How do the power relationships reflected in the literary work manifest themselves in the cultural practices and social institutions prevalent during the time the work was written and published? – To what extent can we understand the past as it is reflected in the literary work? To what extent does the work reflect differences from the ideas and values of its time? . reflect.

critical voice) – Ego (conscious mind stuck between these two opposing forces) – Eros (sexual desire. always seeing gratification) – Superego (roughly.Psychological or Psychoanalytic Approach • Freud: Map of the mind – Id (primitive. urge toward life. conscience. Oedipus. Hamlet) – Thanatos (urge toward death) .

least appreciated form Associated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers Emphasis on the unconscious aspects of the human psyche Experimental and diagnostic. many of our desires and memories are repressed The psychoanalytic critic tends to see all concave images as female symbols and all images whose length exceeds their diameter as male symbols Such activities as dancing. closely related to biological science All human behavior is motivated ultimately by the prime psychic force.Psychological or Psychoanalytic Approach • • • • • • • • • Most controversial. riding. they often simplify and distort . libido Because of the powerful social taboos attached to sexual impulses. most abused. and flying are symbols of sexual pleasures Pitfalls: the practitioners of the Freudian approach often push their critical theses too hard at the expense of other relevant considerations.

individual characters. Some works simply do not lend themselves to this approach .Psychological or Psychoanalytic Approach • Advantages – Helpful for understanding works whose characters have psychological issues – A valuable too in understanding human nature. – Critics tend to see sex in everything. and symbolic meaning • Disadvantages – Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study. exaggerating this aspect of literature. neglecting to view it as a piece of art.

metaphors. or the actions and motivations of the author? – How does a particular literary work—its images. biographical.Psychological or Psychoanalytic Approach • Checklist of Psychological Critical Questions – What connections can you make between your knowledge of an author’s life and the behavior and motivations of characters in his or her work? – How does your understanding of the characters. and other linguistic elements—reveal the psychological motivations of its characters or the psychological mindset of its author? – To what extent can you employ the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis to understand the motivations of literary characters? – What kinds of literary works and what types of literary characters seem best suited to a critical approach that employs a psychological or psychoanalytical perspective? Why? – How can a psychological or psychoanalytical approach to a particular work be combined with an approach from another critical perspective—for example. their actions. and their motivations in a literary work help you better understand the mental world and imaginative life. their relationships. or feminist criticism? . formalist.

Mythological/Archetypal Approach • • • • Appeals to some very deep chord in all of us Illuminates dramatic and universal human reactions Concerned with the motives that underlie human behavior Speculative and philosophic. and cultural history Myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place. anthropology. reaches toward future Interested in prehistory and the biographies of the gods Probes for the inner spirit which gives the outer form its vitality and enduring appeal Sees the work holistically. unites past with present. integrative forces arising from the depths of humankind’s collective psyche • • • • . as the manifestation of vitalizing. affinities with religion.

Mythological/Archetypal Approach • Jung—collective unconscious. interpretation of dreams. numinous (the big dream) – Archetypes • • • • The shadow (devil) Anima (female in male) Animus (male in female) Descent into hell – Works best with dream-like narratives .

.Mythological/Archetypal Approach • Advantages – No other critical approach possesses quite the same combination of breadth and depth – Takes us far beyond the historical and aesthetic realms of literary study—back to the beginning of humankind’s oldest rituals and beliefs and deep into our own individual hearts – Works well with work that is highly symbolic • Disadvantages – Because this approach is so interesting. can’t open all literary doors with the same key – Myth critics tend to forget that literature is more than a vehicle for archetypes and ritual patters. must take care not to discard other valuable instruments.

Mythological/Archetypal Approach • Checklist of Mythological Critical Questions – What incidents in the work seem common or familiar enough as actions that they might be considered symbolic or archetypal? Are there any journeys. reversals of fortune. or objects be compared to or affiliated with? Why? . elements.? – What kinds of character types appear in the work? How might they be classified? – What creatures. falls. battles. elements of nature. or man-made objects playing a role in the work might be considered symbolic? – What changes do the characters undergo? How can those changes be characterized or named? To what might they be related or compared? – What religious or quasi-religious traditions might the work’s story. etc. characters.

cultures • Feminist criticism reasserts the authority of experience • Exposes patriarchal premises and resulting prejudices to promote discovery and reevaluation of literature by women • Examines social. cultural. classes.Gender Approach • Sees the exclusion of women from the literary canon as a political as well as aesthetic act • Works to change the language of literary criticism • Examines the experiences of women from all races. and psychosexual contexts of literature and criticism • Describes how women in texts are constrained in culture and society • Gender is conceived as complex cultural idea and psychological component rather tan as strictly tied to biological gender • Always political and always revisionist • Feminist literary criticism has most developed since the women’s movement beginning in the early 1960s .

– Often too theoretical .” – When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style. this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary canon. a feminist approach to literature helps redress this problem • Disadvantages – Feminist critics turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider “patriarchal. feminist critics tend to regulate women’s literature to ghetto status.Gender Approach • Advantages – Women have been somewhat underrepresented in the traditional canon.

Gender Approach • Checklist of Feminist Critical Questions – To what extent does the representation of women (and men) in the work reflect the place and time in which the work was written? – How are the relationships between men and women or those between members of the same sex presented in the work? What roles do men and women assume and perform and with what consequences? – Does the author present the work from within a predominantly male or female sensibility? Why might this have been done. and with what effects? – How do the facts of the author’s life relate to the presentation of men and women in the work? To their relative degrees of power? – How do other works by the author correspond to this one in their depiction of the power relationships between men and women? .

Deconstruction Approach • By some hugely oversimplified definitions. difference from • Opposites are united or they can’t be opposites— definition includes the other • Requires a great deal of subtlety and skill . there is no meaning to be found • Anti-analysis • There is no “outside of the text” • Everything we know is text • Texts include that which they exclude—we understand through comparison.

single meaning because words are—by their very nature— unstable • Believe that what is understood can never match up with what was originally intended to be said • Desire to show how the text can be broken down into irreconcilable positions • Do not believe in authorial control over language • Believe all texts are equally untrustworthy and there is no need to distinguish “art” from anything else • Can find unexpected significance in texts lost by other literaryapproaches . have no fixed. which are made up of words.Deconstruction Approach • Rejects the traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality • Literary texts.

deconstruction). mythological/archetypal. describe how each theory might change your reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and complete the chart . determine what theory is being applied to the text in each criticism • Discuss with a partner how each of these theories changes the reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and complete the chart • For the theories that are not covered by criticisms (formalistic.“The Yellow Wallpaper” and Literary Theory • Take a look at the criticisms of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and make note of anything that stands out and distinguishes this criticism from others • Using the text and the title.

Literary Theory in Hamlet Project .