Introduction to Literature
New Criticism emphasizes explication, or “close reading,” of “thework itself.” It rejects old historicism’s attention to biographicaland sociological matters. Instead, the objective determinationas to “how a piece works” can be found through closefocus and analysis, rather than through extraneous and eruditespecial knowledge. It has long been the pervasive and standardapproach to literature in college and high school curricula.
New Criticism, incorporating Formalism, examinesthe relationships between a text’s ideas and its form, betweenwhat a text says and the way it says it. New Critics “mayfind tension, irony, or paradox in this relation, but they usuallyresolve it into unity and coherence of meaning” (Biddle 100).New Criticism attempts to be a science of literature, with a technicalvocabulary, some of which we all had to learn in junior high schoolEnglish classes (third-person, denoument, etc.). Working withpatterns of sound, imagery, narrative structure, point of view,and other techniques discernible on close reading of the text,they seek to determine the function and appropriateness of theseto the self-contained work.
New Critics, especially American ones in the1940s and 1950s, attacked the standard notion of “expressiverealism,” the romantic fallacy that literature is the effluxof a noble soul, that for example love pours out onto the pagein 14 iambic pentameter lines rhyming ABABCD etc. The goal thenis not the pursuit of sincerity or authenticity, but subtlety,unity, and integrity–and these are properties of the text, notthe author. The work is not the author’s; it was detached at birth.The author’s intentions are “neither available nor desirable”(nor even to be taken at face value when supposedly found in directstatements by authors). Meaning exists on the page. Thus, NewCritics insist that the meaning of a text is intrinsic and shouldnot be confused with the author’s intentions nor the work’s affectivedimension (its impressionistic effects on the reader). The “intentionalfallacy” is when one confuses the meaning of a work withthe author’s purported intention (expressed in letters, diaries,interviews, for example). The “affective fallacy” isthe erroneous practice of interpreting texts according to thepsychological or emotional responses of readers, confusing thetext with its results.
To do New Critical reading, ask yourself, “Howdoes this piece work?” Look for complexities in the text:paradoxes, ironies, ambiguities. Find a unifying idea or themewhich resolves these tensions.
Abrams, M.H. “New Criticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 180-182.
Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.