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Literary Criticism

• Literary criticism is the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of literary works. It is usually in the form of a critical essay, but in-depth book reviews can sometimes be considered literary criticism. Criticism may examine a particular literary work, or may look at an author's writings as a whole.

• Literary criticism or literary analysis can be defined as,

“An informed analysis and evaluation of a piece of literature”.


“A written study, evaluation and interpretation of a work of literature”.

The literary criticism is a concept, formed on the basis of critical analysis and primarily estimates the value and merit of literary works for the presence or quality of certain parameters of literary characteristics.

The practice of describing, interpreting, and evaluating literature (Morner and Rausch, 1998:121)

• the art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works. (Oxford dictionary)

Examples of Literary Criticism

Some popular topics and areas for literary analysis are:
Literary Criticism for Oedipus the King
• Literary Criticism on the Metamorphosis
• Literary Criticism on Keats John
• Literary Criticism on James Joyce’s Novel Dubliners
• Literary Criticism on Gothic the Wasp Factory
• Literary Criticism on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Literary Criticism and Theory

There are many different approaches to literary criticism today. This briefly explains some of the most common.

Traditional Approaches

Type of criticism that dominated until the 1930s.
Study of literature was mostly biography or history.

Two types: historical-biographical or moral-philosophical.


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, economical, and sociological context of the time period to understand a work.


The larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and probe philosophical issues.


Works for some works obviously political or moral in nature.
Helps place allusions in proper classical, political, 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.


“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, which, unless the author has put into writing his/her intent, 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.

Formalistic Approach (New Criticism)

Close reading and analysis of elements such as setting, irony, paradox, imagery, and metaphor.
Reading stands on its own.
Awareness of denotative and connotative implications.
Alertness to allusions to mythology, history, literature.
Sees structure and patterns.
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.


Performed without research.
Emphasizes value of literature apart from its context.


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, paradox, and tension.

Psychological Approach (Freudian)

Most controversial, most abused, least appreciated form.
Associated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers.
Emphasis on the unconscious aspects of the human psyche.
Experimental and diagnostic; closely related to biological science.
All human behavior is motivated ultimately by the prime psychic force, libido.
Because of the powerful social taboos attached to sexual impulses, 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, riding, 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; they often simplify and distort.


Helpful for understanding works whose characters have psychological issues.
A valuable too in understanding human nature, individual characters, and symbolic meaning.


Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a piece of art.
Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Some works simply do not lend themselves to this approach.

Mythological and Archetypal Approaches

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; affinities with religion, anthropology, and cultural history.
Myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place, unites past with present, 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, as the manifestation of vitalizing, integrative forces arising from the depths of humankind’s collective psyche.


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.


Because this approach is so interesting, must take care not to discard other valuable instruments; 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.

Feminist Approaches

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, classes, 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, 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.


Women have been somewhat underrepresented in the traditional canon; a feminist approach to literature helps redress this problem.


Feminist critics turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider “patriarchal.”
When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style, feminist critics tend to regulate women’s literature to ghetto status; this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary canon.
Often too theoretical.

Criticism 2

Formalist Criticism: This approach regards literature as “a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms.” All the elements necessary for understanding the work are contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to the formalist critic are the elements of form—style, structure, tone, imagery, etc.—that are found within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics is to determine how such elements work together with the text’s content to shape its effects upon readers.

Biographical Criticism: This approach “begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work.” Hence, it often affords a practical method by which readers can better understand a text. However, a biographical critic must be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writer’s life too far in criticizing the works of that writer: the biographical critic “focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author’s life.... [B]iographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.”

Historical Criticism: This approach “seeks to understand a literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced it—a context that necessarily includes the artist’s biography and milieu.” A key goal for historical critics is to understand the effect of a literary work upon its original readers.

Gender Criticism: This approach “examines how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works.” Originally an offshoot of feminist movements, gender criticism today includes a number of approaches, including the so-called “masculinist” approach recently advocated by poet Robert Bly. The bulk of gender criticism, however, is feminist and takes as a central precept that the patriarchal attitudes that have dominated western thought have resulted, consciously or unconsciously, in literature “full of unexamined ‘male-produced’ assumptions.” Feminist criticism attempts to correct this imbalance by analyzing and combatting such attitudes—by questioning, for example, why none of the characters in Shakespeare’s play Othello ever challenge the right of a husband to murder a wife accused of adultery. Other goals of feminist critics include “analyzing how sexual identity influences the reader of a text” and “examin[ing] how the images of men and women in imaginative literature reflect or reject the social forces that have historically kept the sexes from achieving total equality.”

Psychological Criticism: This approach reflects the effect that modern psychology has had upon both literature and literary criticism. Fundamental figures in psychological criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose “psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression” as well as expanding our understanding of how “language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires”; and Carl Jung, whose theories about the unconscious are also a key foundation of Mythological Criticism. Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually employs one (or more) of three approaches:

1. An investigation of “the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental functions?”

2. The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an author’s biographical circumstances affect or influence their motivations and/or behavior.

3. The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of psychology.

Sociological Criticism: This approach “examines literature in the cultural, economic and political context in which it is written or received,” exploring the relationships between the artist and society. Sometimes it examines the artist’s society to better understand the author’s literary works; other times, it may examine the representation of such societal elements within the literature itself. One influential type of sociological criticism is Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and political elements of art, often emphasizing the ideological content of literature; because Marxist criticism often argues that all art is political, either challenging or endorsing (by silence) the status quo, it is frequently evaluative and judgmental, a tendency that “can lead to reductive judgment, as when Soviet critics rated Jack London better than William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, because he illustrated the principles of class struggle more clearly.” Nonetheless, Marxist criticism “can illuminate political and economic dimensions of literature other approaches overlook.”

Mythological Criticism: This approach emphasizes “the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works.” Combining the insights from anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion, mythological criticism “explores the artist’s common humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols common to different cultures and epochs.” One key concept in mythlogical criticism is the archetype, “a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response,” which entered literary criticism from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. According to Jung, all individuals share a “‘collective unconscious,’ a set of primal memories common to the human race, existing below each person’s conscious mind”—often deriving from primordial phenomena such as the sun, moon, fire, night, and blood, archetypes according to Jung “trigger the collective unconscious.” Another critic, Northrop Frye, defined archetypes in a more limited way as “a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one’s literary experience as a whole.” Regardless of the definition of archetype they use, mythological critics tend to view literary works in the broader context of works sharing a similar pattern.

Reader-Response Criticism: This approach takes as a fundamental tenet that “literature” exists not as an artifact upon a printed page but as a transaction between the physical text and the mind of a reader. It attempts “to describe what happens in the reader’s mind while interpreting a text” and reflects that reading, like writing, is a creative process. According to reader-response critics, literary texts do not “contain” a meaning; meanings derive only from the act of individual readings. Hence, two different readers may derive completely different interpretations of the same literary text; likewise, a reader who re-reads a work years later may find the work shockingly different. Reader-response criticism, then, emphasizes how “religious, cultural, and social values affect readings; it also overlaps with gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the same text with different assumptions.” Though this approach rejects the notion that a single “correct” reading exists for a literary work, it does not consider all readings permissible: “Each text creates limits to its possible interpretations.”

Deconstructionist Criticism: This approach “rejects the traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality.” Deconstructionist critics regard language as a fundamentally unstable medium—the words “tree” or “dog,” for instance, undoubtedly conjure up different mental images for different people—and therefore, because literature is made up of words, literature possesses no fixed, single meaning. According to critic Paul de Man, deconstructionists insist on “the impossibility of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual signs [i.e., words] coincide with what is signified.” As a result, deconstructionist critics tend to emphasize not what is being said but how language is used in a text. The methods of this approach tend to resemble those of formalist criticism, but whereas formalists’ primary goal is to locate unity within a text, “how the diverse elements of a text cohere into meaning,” deconstructionists try to show how the text “deconstructs,” “how it can be broken down ... into mutually irreconcilable positions.” Other goals of deconstructionists include (1) challenging the notion of authors’ “ownership” of texts they create (and their ability to control the meaning of their texts) and (2) focusing on how language is used to achieve power, as when they try to understand how a some interpretations of a literary work come to be regarded as “truth.”

Aristotle vs Plato
Plato makes it clear, especially in his Apology of Socrates, that he was one of Socrates' devoted young followers. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates' last day, explaining Plato's absence by saying, "Plato was ill" (Phaedo 59b).
The relationship between Plato and Socrates is not unproblematic, however. Aristotle, for example, attributes a different doctrine with respect to the ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11), but Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new" (341c); if the Letter is Plato's, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues' historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates than Plato paints. Leo Strauss calls attention to problem of taking Plato's Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates' reputation for irony.
The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars.
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