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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

A Toolbox for Understanding Literature: Seven Critical Approaches

The toolbox of literary criticism offers us a variety of ways to tinker with the text until we have a better understanding. We can use literary criticism to help us resolve a question in the reading, to choose the better of two conflicting readings, or to form judgments about literature. Here are seven critical approaches that will enable you to delve deeply into literature.

(1) The Historical / Biographical Approach

Critics who employ this lens see works as the reflection of an author's life and times (or of the characters' life and times). They believe it is necessary to know about the author and the political, economic, and sociological context of his times in order to truly understand his works.

Advantages: This approach works well for some works--like those of Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Milton--which are obviously political in nature. One must know Milton was blind, for instance, for "On His Blindness" to have any meaning. One must know something about the Exclusion Bill Crisis to appreciate John Dryden's "Absalom and Achitophel." It also is necessary to take a historical approach in order to place allusions in their proper classical, political, or biblical background.

Disadvantages: New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic's belief that the meaning of a work may be determined by the author's intention as "the intentional fallacy." They believe that this approach tends to reduce art to the level of biography and make it relative (to the times) rather than universal.

(2) The Moral / Philosophical Approach

Moral / philosophical critics believe that the larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and to probe philosophical issues. Practitioners include Matthew Arnold, who argued works must have "high seriousness," Plato, who insisted literature must exhibit moralism and utilitarianism, and Horace, who felt literature should be "delightful and instructive."

Advantages: This approach is useful for such works as Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," which presents an obvious moral philosophy. It is also useful when considering the themes of works (for example, man's inhumanity to man in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn). Finally, it does not view literature merely as "art" isolated from all moral implications; rather, it recognizes that literature can affect readers, whether subtly or directly, and that the message of a work— and not just the decorous vehicle for that message— is important.


Disadvantages: Detractors argue that such an approach can be too "judgmental." Some believe literature should be judged primarily (if not solely) on its artistic merits, not its moral or philosophical content.

One example of this approach to literature is my collection Christian Literary Criticism. Read the introduction of that book for a justification of a moral / philosophical critical approach to literature.

(3) Formalism / New Criticism

A formalistic approach to literature, once called New Criticism, involves a close reading of the text. Famous formalistic critics include I.A. Richards, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate, to name but a few. Formalists believe that all information essential to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself; there is no need to bring in outside information about the history, politics, or society of the time, or about the author's life.

Those who practice formalism claim they do not view works through the lens of feminism, psychology, Marxism, or any other philosophical standpoint. They are also uninterested in the work's effect on the reader. Formalistic critics spend a great deal of time analyzing irony, paradox, imagery, and metaphor. They are also interested in a work's setting, characters, symbols, and point of view.

When reading the literary analysis of a New Critic, you might come across the following terms:

  • Tension is the integral unity of the work and often involves irony or paradox.

  • Formalistic critics refer to the belief that the meaning of a work may be determined by the author's intention as the intentional fallacy.

  • In New Criticism, the belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by its effect on the reader is called the affective fallacy.

  • The external form is the outer trappings of a work. For example, in a poem, the external form would include the rhyme scheme, meter, and stanza form.

  • The objective correlative, a term originated by T.S. Eliot, refers to a collection of objects, situations, or events that immediately evoke a specific emotion.

A formalistic approach to the short story "Silence of the Llano" by Rudolfo Anaya might force us to see the incestuous relationship that is established at the end of the story as a positive alternative to loneliness. If we were to take into account external things, such as morality, we could not help but be horrified at such a conclusion. But in studying the symbols, setting, and structure of "The Silence of the Llano," we get an opposite picture.

The setting of the llano, its isolation and desolation, make its loneliness the primary evil of the story, in contrast to the town where people can escape the loneliness, where Rafael can find love, and where men can talk. The only way to survive the llano is to make it more like the town— to fill it with love and words and anything to escape the loneliness. "Words" are positively contrasted to "silence," as is "winter" to "spring" and "growth" to "death." The silence of the llano is constantly referred to, and Rafael's parents die in winter. But when Rafael marries, his wife makes a garden to grow in the desolate llano, and he can hear her voice. When Rafael establishes the incestuous relationship at the close of the story, he finally speaks to his daughter, and words break the long silence. He tells her that the "spring is the time for the garden. I will turn the earth for you. The seeds will grow." (182). Growth, spring, and words— the primary symbols which are positively contrasted to death, winter, and silence— are all combined in the close.

This formalistic approach does not allow us to account for most readers' natural (and appropriate) response of disgust to the incestuous relationship or to examine how that affects the ability of the author to communicate his story. Some would argue that an understanding of the text is where criticism should begin, and not where it ends. We should also relate the text to life, ideas, and morality.

Advantages: The advantage of this critical approach is that it can be performed without much research, and it emphasizes the value of literature apart from its context. This type of literary criticism in effect makes literature timeless.

Disadvantages: The text is viewed in isolation. Formalism ignores the context of the work. This means that, among other things, it cannot account for allusions. Some have argued that the formalist approach reduces literature to nothing more than a collection of rhetorical devices.

(4) Psychological Criticism

Psychological critics view works through the lens of psychology. They look either at the psychological motivations of the characters or of the authors themselves, although the former is generally considered a more respectable approach. Practitioners of the psychological approach to literature include Ernest Jones, Otto Rank, and Marie Boaparte.

A specifically Freudian approach to literature often includes pinpointing the influences of a character's id (the instinctual, pleasure seeking part of the mind), superego (the part of the mind that represses the id's impulses) and the ego (the part of the mind that controls but does not repress the id's impulses, releasing them in a healthy way). Freudian critics like to point out the sexual implications of symbols and imagery, since Freud believed that all human behavior is motivated by sexuality.

They tend to see concave images, such as ponds, flowers, cups, and caves as female symbols; whereas objects that are longer than they are wide are usually seen as phallic symbols. Dancing, riding, and flying are associated with sexual pleasure. Water is usually associated with birth, the female principle, the maternal, the womb, and the death wish.

Freudian critics occasionally discern the presence of an Oedipus complex (a boy's unconscious rivalry with his father for the love of his mother) in the male characters of certain works, such as Hamlet. They may also refer to Freud's psychology of child development, which includes the oral stage, the anal stage, and the genital stage.

While Jung is also an influential force in myth (archetypal) criticism, psychological critics are generally concerned with his concept of the process of individuation (the process of discovering what makes one different form everyone else). Jung labeled three parts of the self: the shadow, or the darker, unconscious self (usually the villain in literature); the persona, or a man's social personality (usually the hero); and the anima, or a man's "soul image" (usually the heroine). A neurosis occurs when someone fails to assimilate one of these unconscious components into his conscious and projects it on someone else. The persona must be flexible and be able to balance the components of the psyche.

A psychological approach to John Milton's Samson Agonisties might suggest that the shorning of Samson's locks is symbolic of his castration at the hands of Dalila and that the fighting words he exchanges with Harapha constitute a reassertion of his manhood. Psychological critics might see Samson's bondage as a symbol of his sexual impotency, and his destruction of the Philistine temple and the killing of himself and many others as a final orgasmic event (since death and sex are often closely associated in Freudian psychology). The total absence of Samson's mother in Samson Agonisties would make it difficult to argue anything regarding the Oedipus complex, but Samson refusal to be cared for by his father and his remorse over failing to rule Dalila may be seen as indicative of his own fears regarding his sexuality.

Advantages: A psychological approach can be a useful tool for understanding some works, such as Henry James’s The Turning of the Screw, in which characters obviously have psychological issues. Knowing something about a writer's psychological make-up can give us insight into his work.

Disadvantages: Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a piece of art. Critics sometimes attempt to diagnose long dead authors based on their works, which is perhaps not the best evidence of their psychology. Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Finally, some works do not lend themselves readily to this approach.

(5) The Mythological / Archetypal / Symbolic Critical Approach

"Symbolic" approaches may also fall under the category of formalism because they involve a close reading of the text. Myth criticism generally has broader, more universal applications than symbolic criticism, although both assume that certain images have a fairly universal effect on readers. A mythological / archetypal approach to literature assumes that there is a collection of symbols, images, characters, and motifs (i.e. archetypes) that evoke basically the same response in all people.

According to the psychologist Carl Jung, mankind possesses a "collective unconscious" that contains these archetypes and that is common to all of humanity. Myth critics identify these archetypal patterns and discuss how they function in the works. They believe that these archetypes are the source of much of literature's power.

Some examples of archetypes follow:

  • archetypal women - the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother, and the Soul Mate (such as the Virgin Mary)

  • water - creation, birth-death-resurrection, purification, redemption, fertility, growth

  • garden - paradise (Eden), innocence, fertility

  • desert - spiritual emptiness, death, hopelessness

  • red - blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder

  • green - growth, fertility

  • black - chaos, death, evil

  • serpent - evil, sensuality, mystery, wisdom, destruction

  • seven - perfection

  • hero archetype - The hero is involved in a quest (in which he overcomes obstacles). He experiences initiation (involving a separation, transformation, and return), and finally he serves as a scapegoat, that is, he dies to atone.

Numerous archetypes appear in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Fedallah can be seen as Ahab's shadow, his defiant pagan side wholly unrestrained. The sea is associated both with spiritual mystery (Ahab is ultimately on a spiritual quest to defy God because evil exists) and with death and rebirth (all but Ishmael die at sea, but Ahab's death as if crucified is suggestive of rebirth). Three is symbolic of spiritual awareness; thus we see numerous triads in Moby Dick, including Ahab's three mysterious crew members and the three harpooners.

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner also utilizes archetypes. We might, for example, view Isaac McCaslin's repudiation of the land as an attempt to deny the existence of his archetypal shadow—that dark part of him that maintains some degree of complicity in slavery. When he sees the granddaughter of Jim and can barely tell she is black, his horrified reaction to the miscegenation of the races may be indicative of his shadow's (his deeply racist dark side's) emergence.

Advantages: This type of literary criticisms provides a universal approach to literature and identifies a reason why certain literature may survive the test of time. It works well with works that are highly symbolic.

Disadvantages: Literature may become little more than a vehicle for archetypes, and this approach may ignore the "art" of literature.

(6) The Feminist Approach

Feminist criticism is concerned with the impact of gender on writing and reading. It usually begins with a critique of patriarchal culture. It is concerned with the place of female writers in the cannon. Finally, it seeks to present a feminine theory of or approach to texts. Feminist criticism is political and often revisionist. Feminists often argue that male fears are portrayed through female characters. They may argue that gender determines everything, or, in contrast, that all gender differences are imposed by society, and gender determines nothing.

In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter argued that literary subcultures all go through three major phases of development:

  • The Feminine Stage involves "imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition" and "internalization of its standards."

  • The Feminist Stage involves "protest against these standards and values and advocacy of minority rights...."

  • The Female Stage is the "phase of self-discovery, a turning inwards freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity."

Advantages: Women have been underrepresented in the traditional cannon, and a feminist approach to literature redresses this problem.

Disadvantages: Feminists turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider "patriarchal." When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style, they tend to relegate women's literature to a ghetto status; this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary cannon. The feminist approach is often too theoretical.

(7) Reader Response Criticism

Reader response criticism has been used by literary critics ranging from I.A. Richards and Louise Rosenblatt to Walter Gibson and Norman Holland. Reader response criticism places strong emphasis on the reader's role in producing the meaning of a literary work. It is in some senses an opposite approach from that of formalism.

Whereas formalists treat meaning as objectively inherent in the text, in reader response criticism, the text has no meaning until it is read by a reader who creates the meaning. Unlike the formalist critical approach, this type of literary criticism insists that works are not universal, that is, that they will not always mean more or less the same thing to readers everywhere. Indeed, according to one practitioner of reader response criticism, Norman Holland, the reader imposes his or her own identity on the work, "to a large extent recreating that text in the reader's image."

In reading the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament, different readers are likely to have different responses. Someone who has lived a fairly straight and narrow life and who does not feel like he has been rewarded for it is likely to associate with the older brother of the parable and sympathize with his opposition to the celebration over the prodigal son's return. Someone with a more checkered past would probably approach the parable with more sympathy for the younger brother. A parent who had had difficulties with a rebellious child would probably focus on the father, and, depending on his or her experience, might see the father's unconditional acceptance of the prodigal as either good and merciful or as unwise and overindulgent. While the parable might disturb some, it could elicit a feeling of relief from others.

When using reader response criticism as a tool of analysis, you could write about how the author evokes a particular reaction in you as the reader, what aspects of your own identity influence you in creating your interpretation, and how another reader in a different situation might interpret the work differently.

Advantages: Reader response criticism acknowledges that different people view works differently and that interpretations change over time.

Disadvantages: This approach tends to make interpretation highly subjective and consequently does not provide sufficient criteria for judging between two or more different interpretations of the text.

These seven critical approaches to literature can be combined to create a multi-level analysis of a literary work. While imperfect individually, each of these tool can be useful in chipping away at the text until the student of literature arrives at an in-depth understanding.

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