I. FORMALIST APPROACH. Question--HOW does the work mean?

"New Criticism" assumes that the literary work is autonomous, a thing in itself which can be explicated in order to discover its organic unity and the relationship between medium and message. This criticism developed in response to the 19th century confusion of literature and biography, morality, or philosophy. Such a close look at the components of a work helps us to enter into the text, even if a reader does not agree with the method's aesthetic, apolitical, disinterested, reserved judgment regarding content.
A. Plot, Narrative Line, Plain Sense (the first things we find).
  • How important is action, if there is any? Why?
  • What are the nature and significance of the action? (In some works the action may be internal, not external. Ask yourself why.)
  • Is the action compressed, large and diffuse, episodic? Is the overall structure organic, i.e. appropriate to the content?
  • Is the plot plausible or probable? If improbable, why? What does the story-line mean?
  • How is conflict created? What is its nature? Why?
  • Is there a basic plot structure? Dramatic, melodramatic, impasse, linear or a variation, combination or assault on these forms? Why?
B. Character(s) or, in a poem, persona.
1. Are characters individuals or types? Why?
2. What motivates the character(s)?
3. What is the function of minor characters, if any?
4. Are there significant character contrasts or parallels? To what end?
C. Emotional effect (assuming that you let your reading happen to you. If you prejudge it, the effect may be boredom or annoyance at being assigned such reading.)
1. What emotional effects occur? To what end?
2. How is emotional response related to the plot or situation and character(s)?
D. Special effects.
1. Who tells the story or narrates the poem and why? Is the narrator (a.) omniscient, (b.) third person, limited, (c.) objective, (d.) first person?
2. Is there meter or poetic form and/or characteristic use of language? Significance?
3. Style:
  • Characterize the author's language (abstract, general, metaphorical, plain, precise, effusive, repetitious, economical, naturalistic, realistic?)
  • Is sentence structure significant? (Loose, periodic, parallel, declarative, subjunctive, imperative, active, passive voice, etc.)
  • Does author use metaphor, simile, symbol? Does s/he create a pattern through such devices? Why?
  • Does the author use irony? dramatic irony? Why?
4. What part do setting, physical description, or dramatic scene play? Is there unity of time, place, action? If not, why not?

5. Is there a "deep structure "--mythic or archetypal modes underlying the surface of the work?

II. CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES. Question--WHAT does the work mean?

A. How would the FORMALIST evaluate the work? What are its aesthetic merits? How well do medium and message work together?

B. "NEW HUMANISTS" insist on the value of a patriarchal literary tradition (mainly of dead white European males) which posits traditional values. Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt in America, F. R. Leavis in England and contemporaries favoring a Great Tradition argue that literary merit can be assessed in terms of a work's effectiveness in communicating Hellenic and Judeo-Christian values.

C. ARCHETYPAL critics, influenced by Carl Jung, find deep structures in literature based upon archetypal patterns and myths deriving, according to Jung, from our collective unconscious; they express patterns of personality or human strivings and values. Great works of literature are, to them, often intertextual, interfacing with myths or other works of literature. Cf. Northrup Frye and Joseph Campbell.

D. FREUDIAN critics interpret literature in terms of psychological patterns found in texts; some use texts as examples of psychological theory (say, regarding the oedipal complex); some find Freudian dream symbolism useful in analyzing a text; some use the text as a fulcrum from which to analyze the psychology of the author or of the culture that a work represents.

E. SOCIOLOGICAl critics evaluate a work as a product of race, moment and/or milieu (as H. Taine put it).

  • Some look for BIOGRAPHICAL implications. Such criticism may dialogue with psychological criticism interested in the psyche of the author.
  • How does the text reveal the Zeitgeist, the cultural history of its time? "NEW" HISTORICISM is making a comeback.
  • How would a MARXIST, FEMINIST, or ETHNIC critic evaluate a given work? MARXISTS examine the cultural biases of literature, assuming that it is propaganda, both a cause and effect of social behavior; they argue that good literature should be propaganda for their political agenda. FEMINISTS examine patriarchal biases, the depictions of the sexes in relationship to gender prejudices and expectations. ETHNIC and BLACK critics examine the role of race and racial biases in literature.
F. LINGUISTIC critics examine the significance of language in literature. Language is to STRUCTURALISTS a system of signs which can be studied for their own sake, not as they relate to the world outside or to the author: literature exemplifies linguistic theory.

G. DECONSTRUCTIONISTS (anarchic, hedonistic, nihilistic?) assume that literature itself is an ideology, a sort of tyranny which sets up rules of propriety and excellence. It sometimes exposes the failures of literature to obey its own internal logic, shows how a given work is indeterminate, instead of a closed system, or makes the reader creator instead of consumer of literature; s/he may subvert the text by reorganizing or indeed rewriting it. Its merit is rebellion against inflexible, authoritarian critics who insist on a single, final "correct" interpretation of literature.

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