Critical Theory: Summaries

Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

Literary Critical Theory:
Interpretive Strategies

Historicismconsiders the literary work in light of “what really happened”during the period reflected in that work. It insists that to understanda piece, we need to understand the author’s biography and socialbackground, ideas circulating at the time, and the cultural milieu.Historicism also “finds significance in the ways a particularwork resembles or differs from other works of its period and/orgenre,” and therefore may involve source studies. It mayalso include examination of philology and linguistics. It is typicallya discipline involving impressively extensive research.

New Criticism examinesthe relationships between a text’s ideas and its form, “theconnection between what a text says and the way it’s said.”New Critics/Formalists “may find tension, irony, or paradoxin this relation, but they usually resolve it into unity and coherenceof meaning.” New Critics look for patterns of sound, imagery,narrative structure, point of view, and other techniques discernibleon close reading of “the work itself.” They insist thatthe meaning of a text should not be confused with the author’sintentions nor the text’s affective dimension–its effects onthe reader. The objective determination as to “how a pieceworks” can be found through close focus and analysis, ratherthan through extraneous and erudite special knowledge.

Archetypalcriticism “traces cultural and psychological ‘myths’ thatshape the meaning of texts.” It argues that “certainliterary archetypes determine the structure and function of individualliterary works,” and therefore that literature imitates notthe world but rather the “total dream of humankind.”Archetypes (recurring images or symbols, patterns, universal experiences)may include motifs such as the quest or the heavenly ascent, symbolssuch as the apple or snake, or images such as crucifixion–allladen with meaning already when employed in a particular work.

Psychoanalyticcriticism adopts the methods of “reading” employed byFreud and later theorists to interpret what a text really indicates.It argues that “unresolved and sometimes unconscious ambivalencesin the author’s own life may lead to a disunified literary work,”and that the literary work is a manifestation of the author’sown neuroses. Psychoanalytic critics focus on apparent dilemmasand conflicts in a work and “attempt to read an author’sown family life and traumas into the actions of their characters,”realizing that the psychological material will be expressed indirectly,encoded (similar to dreams) through principles such as “condensation,””displacement,” and “symbolism.”

Feminist criticismcritiques patriarchal language and literature by exposing howa work reflects masculine ideology. It examines gender politicsin works and traces the subtle construction of masculinity andfemininity, and their relative status, positionings, and marginalizationswithin works.

Marxist criticismargues that literature reflects social institutions and that itis one itself, with a particular ideological function: that literatureparticipates in the series of struggles between oppressed andoppressing classes which makes up human history. Similar to Marx’shistorical theory, Marxist criticism will focus on the distributionof resources, materialism, class conflict, or the author’s analysisof class relations. It examines how some works attempt to shoreup an oppressive social order or how they idealize social conflictout of existence, how others offer an alternative collective lifeor propose a utopian vision as a solution.

Cultural criticismquestions traditional value hierarchies and takes a cross-disciplinaryapproach to works traditionally marginalized by the aestheticideology of white European males. Instead of more attention tothe canon, cultural studies examines works by minority ethnicgroups and postcolonial writers, and the products of folk, urban,and mass culture. Popular literature, soap opera, rock and rapmusic, cartoons, professional wrestling, food, etc. — all fallwithin the domain of cultural criticism. We are focusing on itparticularly as it concerns questioning the ways Western culturaltradition expressed in literature defines itself partly by stiflingthe voices of oppressed groups or even by demonizing those groups.We will focus on how literary tradition has constructed modelsof identity for oppressed groups, how these groups have constructedoppositional literary identities, and how different communitiesof readers might interpret the same text differently due to variedvalue systems.

New Historicism“finds meaning by looking at a text within the frameworkof the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historical era,or by considering its contents within a context of ‘what reallyhappened’ during the period that produced the text.” NewHistoricists concern themselves with the political function ofliterature and with the concept of power, “the complex meansby which societies produce and reproduce themselves.” Thesecritics focus on revealing the historically specific model oftruth and authority reflected in a given work.

Reader-Response criticism”insists that all literature is a structure of experience,not just a form or meaning,” and therefore focuses on findingmeaning in the act of reading itself and examines the ways individualreaders or communities of readers experience texts. These criticsexamine how the reader joins with the author “to help thetext mean.” They determine what kind of reader or what communityof readers the work implies and helps to create. They examine”the significance of the series of interpretations the readergoes through in the process of reading.”

Deconstructionis a recent school of criticism which ventures beyond the structuralists’assertion that all aspects of human culture are fundamentallylanguages–complex systems of signs: signifieds (concepts) andsignifiers (verbal or non-verbal–and that therefore a quasi-scientificformalism is available for approaching literature (and advertising,fashion, food, etc.). Deconstructionists oppose the “metaphysicsof presence,” that is, the claim of literature or philosophythat we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or prior tolanguage itself. Like formalists, these critics also look “atthe relation of a text’s ideas to the way the ideas are expressed.Unlike formalists, though, deconstructionists find meaning inthe ways the text breaks down: for instance, in the ways the rhetoriccontradicts the ostensible message.” Deconstructive criticism”typically argues that a particular literary, historical,or philosophical work both claims to possess full and immediatepresence and admits the impossibility of attaining such presence,”–thattexts, rather than revealing the New Critic’s “unities,”actually dismantle themselves due to their intertwined, inevitablyopposite “discourses” (strands of narrative, threadsof meaning).

[Quotations from Arthur W. Biddle andToby Fulwiler, Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature(NY: Random House, 1989): 75-84, 100.]

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature