Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray. Copyright 1998 by Bedford Books.
A type of cultural criticism, postcolonial criticism usually involves the analysis of literary texts produced in countries and cultures that have come under the control of European colonial powers at some point in their history. Alternatively, it can refer to the analysis of texts written about colonized places by writers hailing from the colonizing culture. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said, a pioneer of postcolonial criticism and studies, focused on the way in which the colonizing First World has invented false images and myths of the Third (postcolonial) World—stereotypical images and myths that have conveniently justified Western exploitation and domination of Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures and peoples. In the essay "Postcolonial Criticism" (1992), Homi K. Bhabha has shown how certain cultures (mis)represent other cultures, thereby extending their political and social domination in the modern world order.
Postcolonial studies, a type of cultural studies, refers more broadly to the study of cultural groups, practices, and discourses—including but not limited to literary discourses—in the colonized world. The term postcolonial is usually used broadly to refer to the study of works written at any point after colonization first occurred in a given country, although it is sometimes used more specifically to refer to the analysis of texts and other cultural discourses that emerged after the end of the colonial period (after the success of the liberation and independence movements). Among feminist critics, the postcolonial perspective has inspired an attempt to recover whole cultures of women heretofore ignored or marginalized—women who speak not only from colonized places but also from the colonizing places to which many of them fled.
Postcolonial criticism has been influenced by Marxist thought, by the work of Michel Foucault (whose theories about the power of discourses have influenced the new historicism), and by deconstruction, which has challenged not only hierarchical, binary oppositions such as West/East and North/South but also the notions of superiority associated with the first term of each opposition.
Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray. Copyright 1998 by Bedford Books.
Structuralism is a theory of humankind in which all elements of human culture, including literature, are thought to be parts of a system of signs. Critic Robert Scholes has described structuralism as a reaction to "’modernist’ alienation and despair."
European structuralists such as Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes (before his shift toward poststructuralism) attempted to develop a semiology, or semiotics (science of signs). Barthes, among others, sought to recover literature and even language from the isolation in which they had been studied and to show that the laws that govern them govern all signs, from road signs to articles of clothing.
Structuralism was heavily influenced by linguistics, especially by the pioneering work of Ferdinand de Saussure. Particularly useful to structuralists was Saussure’s concept of the phoneme (the smallest basic speech sound or unit of pronunciation) and his idea that phonemes exist in two kinds of relationships: diachronic and synchronic. A phoneme has a diachronic, or "horizontal," relationship with those other phonemes that precede and follow it (as the words appear, left to right, on this page) in a particular usage, utterance, or narrative—what Saussure, a linguist, called parole (French for "word"). A phoneme has a synchronic, or "vertical," relationship with the entire system of language within which individual usages, utterances, or narratives have meaning—what Saussure called langue (French for "tongue," as in "native tongue," meaning language). An means what it means in English because those of us who speak the language are plugged into the same system (think of it as a computer network where different individuals can access the same information in the same way at a given time).
Following Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, studied hundreds of myths, breaking them into their smallest meaningful units, which he called "mythemes." Removing each from its diachronic relations with other mythemes in a single myth (such as the myth of Oedipus and his mother), he vertically aligned those mythemes that he found to be homologous (structurally correspondent). He then studied the relationships within as well as between vertically aligned columns, in an attempt to understand scientifically, through ratios and proportions, those thoughts and processes that humankind has shared, both at one particular time and across time. Whether Lévi-Strauss was studying the structure of myths or the structure of villages, he looked for recurring, common elements that transcended the differences within and among cultures.
Structuralists followed Saussure in preferring to think about the overridinglangue, or language of myth, in which each mytheme and mytheme-constituted myth fits meaningfully, rather than about isolated individual paroles, or narratives. Structuralists also followed Saussure's lead in believing that sign systems must be understood in terms of binary oppositions (a proposition later disputed by poststructuralist Jacques Derrida). In analyzing myths and texts to find basic structures, structuralists found that opposite terms modulate until they are finally resolved or reconciled by some intermediary third term. Thus a structuralist reading of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) might show that the war between God and the rebellious angels becomes a rift between God and sinful, fallen man, a rift that is healed by the Son of God, the mediating third term.
Although structuralism was largely a European phenomenon in its origin and development, it was influenced by American thinkers as well. Noam Chomsky, for instance, who powerfully influenced structuralism through works such as Reflections on Language (1975), identified and distinguished between "surface structures" and "deep structures" in language and linguistic literatures, including texts.
Adapted from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supriya M. Ray. Copyright 1998 by Bedford Books.
Marxist criticism is a type of criticism in which literary works are viewed as the product of work and whose practitioners emphasize the role of class and ideology as they reflect, propagate, and even challenge the prevailing social order. Rather than viewing texts as repositories for hidden meanings, Marxist critics view texts as material products to be understood in broadly historical terms. In short, literary works are viewed as a product of work (and hence of the realm of production and consumption we call economics).
Marxism began with Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher best known for Das Kapital (1867; Capital), the seminal work of the communist movement. Marx was also the first Marxist literary critic, writing critical essays in the 1830s on such writers as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare. Even after Marx met Friedrich Engels in 1843 and began collaborating on overtly political works such as The German Ideology (1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848), he maintained a keen interest in literature. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels discuss the relationship between the arts, politics, and basic economic reality in terms of a general social theory. Economics, they argue, provides the base, or infrastructure, of society, from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art emerges.
The revolution anticipated by Marx and Engels did not occur in their century, let alone in their lifetime. When it did occur, in 1917, it did so in a place unimagined by either theorist: Russia, a country long ruled by despotic czars but also enlightened by the works of powerful novelists and playwrights including Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Russia produced revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, who shared not only Marx's interest in literature but also his belief in its ultimate importance. Leon Trotsky, Lenin's comrade in revolution, took a strong interest in literary matters as well, publishing Literature and Revolution (1924), which is still viewed as a classic of Marxist literary criticism.
Of those critics active in the Soviet Union after the expulsion of Trotsky and the triumph of Stalin, two stand out: Mikhail Bakhtin and Georg Lukács. Bakhtin viewed language—especially literary texts—in terms of discourses and dialogues. A novel written in a society in flux, for instance, might include an official, legitimate discourse, as well as one infiltrated by challenging comments. Lukács, a Hungarian who converted to Marxism in 1919, appreciated pre revolutionary realistic novels that broadly reflected cultural "totalities" and were populated with characters representing human "types" of the author's place and time.
Perhaps because Lukács was the best of the Soviet communists writing Marxist criticism in the 1930s and 1940s, non-Soviet Marxists tended to develop their ideas by publicly opposing his. In Germany, dramatist and critic Bertolt Brecht criticized Lukács for his attempt to enshrine realism at the expense not only of the other "isms" but also of poetry and drama, which Lukács had largely ignored. Walter Benjamin praised new art forms ushered in by the age of mechanical reproduction, and Theodor Adorno attacked Lukács for his dogmatic rejection of nonrealist modern literature and for his elevation of content over form.
In addition to opposing Lukács and his overly constrictive canon, non-Soviet Marxists took advantage of insights generated by non-Marxist critical theories being developed in post—World War II Europe. Lucien Goldmann, a Romanian critic living in Paris, combined structuralist principles with Marx’s base superstructure model in order to show how economics determines the mental structures of social groups, which are reflected in literary texts. Goldmann rejected the idea of individual human genius, choosing instead to see works as the "collective" products of "trans-individual" mental structures. French Marxist Louis Althusser drew on the ideas of psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who discussed the relationship between ideology and hegemony, the pervasive system of assumptions and values that shapes the perception of reality for people in a given culture. Althusser’s followers included Pierre Macherey, who in A Theory of Literary Production (1966) developed Althusser’s concept of the relationship between literature and ideology; Terry Eagleton, who proposes an elaborate theory about how history enters texts, which in turn may alter history; and Frederic Jameson, who has argued that form is "but the working out" of content "in the realm of the superstructure."
Feminist criticism became a dominant force in Western literary studies in the late 1970s, when feminist theory more broadly conceived was applied to linguistic and literary matters. Since the early 1980s, feminist literary criticism has developed and diversified in a number of ways and is now characterized by a global perspective.
French feminist criticism garnered much of its inspiration from Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book, Lé Deuxiéme Sexe (1949; The Second Sex). Beauvoir argued that associating men with humanity more generally (as many cultures do) relegates women to an inferior position in society. Subsequent French feminist critics writing during the 1970s acknowledged Beauvoir’s critique but focused on language as a tool of male domination, analyzing the ways in which it represents the world from the male point of view and arguing for the development of a feminine language and writing.
Although interested in the subject of feminine language and writing, North American feminist critics of the 1970s and early 1980s began by analyzing literary texts—not by abstractly discussing language—via close textual reading and historical scholarship. One group practiced "feminist critique," examining how women characters are portrayed, exposing the patriarchal ideology implicit in the so-called classics, and demonstrating that attitudes and traditions reinforcing systematic masculine dominance are inscribed in the literary canon. Another group practiced what came to be called "gynocriticism," studying writings by women and examining the female literary tradition to find out how women writers across the ages have perceived themselves and imagined reality.
While it gradually became customary to refer to an Anglo-American tradition of feminist criticism, British feminist critics of the 1970s and early 1980s objected to the tendency of some North American critics to find universal or "essential" feminine attributes, arguing that differences of race, class, and culture gave rise to crucial differences among women across space and time. British feminist critics regarded their own critical practice as more political than that of North American feminists, emphasizing an engagement with historical process in order to promote social change.
By the early 1990s, the French, American, and British approaches had so thoroughly critiqued, influenced, and assimilated one another that nationality no longer automatically signaled a practitioner’s approach. Today’s critics seldom focus on "woman" as a relatively monolithic category; rather, they view "women" as members of different societies with different concerns. Feminists of color, Third World (preferably called postcolonial) feminists, and lesbian feminists have stressed that women are not defined solely by the fact that they are female; other attributes (such as religion, class, and sexual orientation) are also important, making the problems and goals of one group of women different from those of another.
Many commentators have argued that feminist criticism is by definition gender criticism because of its focus on the feminine gender. But the relationship between feminist and gender criticism is, in fact, complex; the two approaches are certainly not polar opposites but, rather, exist along a continuum of attitudes toward sex, sexuality, gender, and language.
BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICISM [source:here]
Biographical criticism 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. Anyone who reads the biography of a writer quickly sees how much an author’s experience shapes—both directly and indirectly—what he or she creates. Reading that biography will also change (and usually deepen) our response to the work. Sometimes even knowing a single important fact illuminates our reading of a poem or story. Learning, for example, that Josephine Miles was confined to a wheelchair or that Weldon Kees committed suicide at forty-one will certainly make us pay attention to certain aspects of their poems we might otherwise have missed or considered unimportant. A formalist critic might complain that we would also have noticed those things through careful textual analysis, but biographical information provided the practical assistance of underscoring subtle but important meanings in the poems. Though many literary theorists have assailed biographical criticism on philosophical grounds, the biographical approach to literature has never disappeared because of its obvious practical advantage in illuminating literary texts.
It may be helpful here to make a distinction between biography and biographical criticism. Biography is, strictly speaking, a branch of history; it provides a written account of a person’s life. To establish and interpret the facts of a poet’s life, for instance, a biographer would use all the available information—not just personal documents like letters and diaries, but also the poems for the possible light they might shed on the subject’s life. A biographical critic,however, is not concerned with recreating the record of an author’s life. Biographical criticism focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author’s life. Quite often biographical critics, like Brett C. Millier in her discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” will examine the drafts of a poem or story to see both how the work came into being and how it might have been changed from its autobiographical origins.
A reader, however, must use biographical interpretations cautiously. Writers are notorious for revising the facts of their own lives; they often delete embarrassments and invent accomplishments while changing the details of real episodes to improve their literary impact. John Cheever, for example, frequently told reporters about his sunny, privileged youth; after the author’s death, his biographer Scott Donaldson discovered a childhood scarred by a distant mother, a failed, alcoholic father, and nagging economic uncertainty. Likewise, Cheever’s outwardly successful adulthood was plagued by alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and family tension. The chilling facts of Cheever’s life significantly changed the way critics read his stories. The danger in a famous writer s case—Sylvia Plath and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two modern examples—is that the life story can overwhelm and eventually distort the work. A savvy biographical critic always remembers to base an interpretation on what is in the text itself; biographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.
Eg. Isolation of Emily Dickinson as Revealed in Her Poems; Walt Whitman: A Lover of Death;
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Biographical Study of David Copperfield
HISTORICAL CRITICISM [source:here]
Historical criticism 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. Historical critics are less concerned with explaining a work’s literary significance for today’s readers than with helping us understand the work by recreating, as nearly as possible, the exact meaning and impact it had on its original audience. A historical reading of a literary work begins by exploring the possible ways in which the meaning of the text has changed over time. The analysis of William Blake’s poem “London”, for instance, carefully examines how certain words had different connotations for the poem’s original readers than they do today. It also explores the probable associations an eighteenth— century English reader would have made with certain images and characters, like the poem’s persona, the chimney-sweeper—a type of exploited child laborer who, fortunately, no longer exists in our society.
Reading ancient literature, no one doubts the value of historical criticism. There have been so many social, cultural, and linguistic changes that some older texts are incomprehensible without scholarly assistance. But historical criticism can even help us better understand modern texts. To return to Weldon Kees’s “For My Daughter,” for example, we learn a great deal by considering two rudimentary historical facts—the year in which the poem was first published (1940) and the nationality of its author (American)—and then asking ourselves how this information has shaped the meaning of the poem. In 1940, war had already broken out in Europe and most Americans realized that their country, still recovering from the Depression, would soon be drawn into it; for a young man, like Kees, the future seemed bleak, uncertain, and personally dangerous. Even this simple historical analysis helps explain at least part of the bitter pessimism of Kees’s poem, though a psychological critic would rightly insist that Kees’s dark personality also played a crucial role. In writing a paper on a poem, you might explore how the time and place of its creation affected its meaning. For a splendid example of how to recreate the historical context of a poem’s genesis, read the following account by Hugh Kenner of Ezra Pound’s imagistic “In a Station of the Metro.”
PSYCHOLOGICAL CRITICISM [source:here]
Modern psychology has had an immense effect on both literature and literary criticism. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression. Freud also expanded our sense of how language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires. Freud admitted that he himself had learned a great deal about psychology from studying literature: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dostoevsky were as important to the development of his ideas as were his clinical studies. Some of Freud’s most influential writing was, in a broad sense, literary criticism, such as his psychoanalytic examination of Sophocles’ Oedipus.
This famous section of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) often raises an important question for students: was Freud implying that Sophocles knew or shared Freud’s theories? (Variations of this question can be asked for most critical approaches: does using a critical approach require that the author under scrutiny believed in it?) The answer is, of course, no; in analyzing Sophocles’ Oedipus, Freud paid the classical Greek dramatist the considerable compliment that the playwright had such profound insight into human nature that his characters display the depth and complexity of real people. In focusing on literature, Freud and his disciples like Carl Jung, Ernest Jones, Marie Bonaparte, and Bruno Bettelheim endorse the belief that great literature truthfully reflects life.
Psychological criticism is a diverse category, but itoften employs three approaches. First, itinvestigates the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does itrelate to normal mental functions? (Philosophers and poets have also wrestled with this question, as you can see in selections from Plato and Wordsworth in the “Criticism: On Poetry” ) The second major area for psychological criticism is the psychological study of a particular artist. Most modern literary biographies employ psychology to understand their subject’s motivations and behavior. One recent book, Diane Middlebrook’s controversial Anne Sexton: A Biography, actually used tapes of the poet’s sessions with her psychiatrist as material for the study. The third common area of psychological criticism is the analysis of fictional characters. Freud’s study of Oedipus is the prototype for this approach that tries to bring modern insights about human behavior into the study of how fictional people act.
Sigmund Freud (1856—1939)
THE DESTINY OF OEDIPUS
Translated by James Strachey. The lines from Oedipus the King are given in the version of David Qrene.
If Oedipus the King moves a modern audience no less than itdid the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus, while we can dismiss as merely arbitrary such dispositions as are laid down in Die Ahnfrauor other modern tragedies of destiny. And a factor of this kind is in fact involved in the story of King Oedipus. His destiny moves us only because itmight have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes. But, more fortunate than he, we have meanwhile succeeded, insofar as we have not become psychoneurotics, in detaching our sexual impulses from our mothers and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. Here is one in whom these primeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled, and we shrink back from him with the whole..........
E. g. Hamlet’s Philosophical and Psychological Dilemma in His “To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy;
MYTHOLOGICAL CRITICISM [source:here]
Mythological critics look for the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works. (“Myth and Narrative,” for a definition of myth and a discussion of its importance to the literary imagination.) Mythological criticism is an interdisciplinary approach that combines the insights of anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion. If psychological criticism examines the artist as an individual, mythological criticism explores the artist’s common humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols common to different cultures and epochs.
A central concept in mythological criticism is the archetype, a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response. The idea of the archetype came into literary criticism from the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, a lifetime student of myth and religion. Jung believed that all individuals share a “collective unconscious,” a set of primal memories common to the human race, existing below each person’s conscious mind.
Archetypal images (which often relate to experiencing primordial phenomena like the sun, moon, fire, night, and blood), Jung believed, trigger the collective unconscious. We do not need to accept the literal truth of the collective unconscious, however, to endorse the archetype as a helpful critical concept. The late Northrop Frye defined the archetype in considerably less occult terms 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.”
Identifying archetypal symbols and situations in literary works, mythological critics almost inevitably link the individual text under discussion to a broader context of works that share an underlying pattern. In discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, a mythological critic might relate Shakespeare’s Danish prince to other mythic sons avenging their fathers’ deaths, like Orestes from Greek myth or Sigmund of Norse legend; or, in discussingOthello, relate the sinister figure of Iago to the devil in traditional Christian belief. Critic Joseph Campbell took such comparisons even further; his compendious study The Hero with a Thousand Faces demonstrates how similar mythic characters appear in virtually every culture on every continent.
E.g. Northrop Frye (1912—1991)
We begin our study of archetypes, then, with a world of myth, an abstract or purely literary world of fictional and thematic design, unaffected by canons of plausible adaptation to familiar experience. In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire. The gods enjoy beautiful women, fight one another with prodigious strength, comfort and assist man, or else watch his miseries from the height of their immortal freedom. The fact that myth operates at the top level of human desire does not mean that it necessarily presents its world as attained or attainable by human beings. . .
Eg. “Lucifer in Shakespeare’s Othello”；
SOCILOLOGICAL CRITICISM [source:here]
Sociological criticism examines literature in the cultural, economic, and political context in which it is written or received. “Art is not created in a vacuum,” critic Wilbur Scott observed, “it is the work not simply of a person, but of an author fixed in time and space, answering a community of which he is an important, because articulate part.” Sociological criticism explores the relationships between the artist and society. Sometimes it looks at the sociological status of the author to evaluate how the profession of the writer in a particular milieu affected what was written. Sociological criticism also analyzes the social content of literary works—what cultural, economic or political values a particular text implicitly or explicitly promotes. Finally, sociological criticism examines the role the audience has in shaping literature. A sociological view of Shakespeare, for example, might look at the economic position of Elizabethan playwrights and actors; it might also study the political ideas expressed in the plays or discuss how the nature of an Elizabethan theatrical audience (which was usually all male unless the play was produced at court) helped determine the subject, tone, and language of the plays.
An influential type of sociological criticism has been Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and political elements of art. Marxist criticism, like the work of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs, often explores the ideological content of literature. Whereas a formalist critic would maintain that form and content are inextricably blended, Lukacs believed that content determines form and that therefore, all art is political. Even if a work of art ignores political issues, it makes a political statement, Marxist critics believe, because it endorses the economic and political status quo. Consequently, Marxist criticism is frequently evaluative and judges some literary work better than others on an ideological basis; this tendency can lead to reductive judgment, as when Soviet critics rated Jack London a novelist superior to William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, because he illustrated the principles of class struggle more clearly. But, as an analytical tool, Marxist criticism, like other sociological methods, can illuminate political and economic dimensions of literature other approaches overlook.
E.g. Heathcliff: A Product of Social Environment; The American Dream in The Great Gatsby;
Collapse of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman; The Twisted Human Nature in Wuthering Heights
READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM [source:here]
Reader-response criticism attempts to describe what happens in the reader’s mind while interpreting a text. If traditional criticism assumes that imaginative writing is a creative act, reader-response theory recognizes that reading is also a creative process. Reader-response critics believe that no text provides self-contained meaning; literary texts do not exist independently of readers’ interpretations. A text, according to this critical school, is not finished until it is read and interpreted. The practical problem then arises that no two individuals necessarily read a text in exactly the same way. Rather than declare one interpretation correct and the other mistaken, reader-response criticism recognizes the inevitable plurality of readings. Instead of trying to ignore or reconcile the contradictions inherent in this situation, it explores them.
The easiest way to explain reader-response criticism is to relate it to the common experience of rereading a favorite book after many years. Rereading a novel as an adult, for example, that “changed your life” as an adolescent, is often a shocking experience. The book may seem substantially different. The character you remembered liking most now seems less admirable, and another character you disliked now seems more sympathetic. Has the book changed? Very unlikely, but you certainly have in the intervening years. Reader-response criticism explores how the different individuals (or classes of individuals) see the same text differently. It 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.
While reader-response criticism rejects the notion that there can be a single correct reading for a literary text, it doesn’t consider all readings permissible. Each text creates limits to its possible interpretations. As Stanley Fish admits in the following critical selection, we cannot arbitrarily place an Eskimo in William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” (though Professor Fish does ingeniously imagine a hypothetical situation where this bizarre interpretation might actually be possible) poem would be forthcoming. This poem is not only a “refusal to mourn,” like that of Dylan Thomas, it is a refusal to elegize. The whole elegiac tradition, like its cousin the funeral oration, turns finally away from mourning toward acceptance, revival, renewal, a return to the concerns of life, symbolized by the very writing of the poem. Life goes on; there is an audience; and the mourned person will live through accomplishments, influence, descendants, and also (not least) in the elegiac poem itself. Merwin rejects all that. IfI wrote an elegy for X, the person for whom I have always written, X would not be alive to read it; therefore, there is no reason to write an elegy for the one person in my life who most deserves one; therefore, there is no reason to write any elegy, anymore, ever.
X. J. Kennedy, An Introduction to Poetry, New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994
Gloria Henderson, William Day & Sandra Waller, Literature and Ourselves, New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994
DECONSTRUCTIONIST CRITICISM [source: here]
Deconstructionist criticism rejects the traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality. Language, according to deconstructionists, is a fundamentally unstable medium; consequently, literary texts, which are made up of words, have no fixed, single meaning. Deconstructionists insist, according to critic Paul de Man, on “the impossibility of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual signs coincide with what is signified.” Since they believe that literature cannot definitively express its subject matter, deconstructionists tend to shift their attention away from what is being said to how language is being used in a text.
Paradoxically, deconstructionist criticism often resembles formalist criticism; both methods usually involve close reading. But while a formalist usually tries to demonstrate how the diverse elements of a text cohere into meaning, the deconstructionist approach attempts to show how the text “deconstructs,” that is, how it can be broken down—by a skeptical critic— into mutually irreconcilable positions. A biographical or historical critic might seek to establish the author’s intention as a means to interpreting a literary work, but deconstructionists reject the notion that the critic should endorse the myth of authorial control over language. Deconstructionist critics like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have therefore called for “the death of the author,” that is, the rejection of the assumption that the author, no matter how ingenious, can fully control the meaning of a text. They have also announced the death of literature as a special category of writing. In their view, poems and novels are merely words on a page that deserve no privileged status as art; all texts are created equal—equally untrustworthy, that is.
Deconstructionists focus on how language is used to achieve power. Since they believe, in the words of critic David Lehman, that “there are no truths, only rival interpretations,” deconstructionists try to understand how some “interpretations come to be regarded as truth. A major goal of deconstruction is to demonstrate how those supposed truths are at best provisional and at worst contradictory.
Deconstruction, as you may have inferred, calls for intellectual subtlety and skill, and isn’t for a novice to leap into. If you pursue your literary studies beyond the introductory stage, you will want to become more familiar with its assumptions. Deconstruction may strike you as a negative, even destructive, critical approach, and yet its best practitioners are adept at exposing the inadequacy of much conventional criticism. By patient analysis, they can sometimes open up the most familiar text and find in it fresh and unexpected significance.
Cultural studies is an innovative interdisciplinary field of research and teaching that investigates the ways in which “culture” creates and transforms individual experiences, everyday life, social relations and power. Research and teaching in the field explores the relations between culture understood as human expressive and symbolic activities, and cultures understood as distinctive ways of life. Combining the strengths of the social sciences and the humanities, cultural studies draws on methods and theories from literary studies, sociology, communications studies, history, cultural anthropology, and economics. By working across the boundaries among these fields, cultural studies addresses new questions and problems of todays world. Rather than seeking answers that will hold for all time, cultural studies develops flexible tools that adapt to this rapidly changing world.
S.Flores/Advice on Critical Essays
For a usefully concise version of this advice, see this highlighted weblink. Note: the advice below uses examples from writing about Shakespeare but the general principles apply to any literary text and its contexts.
The primary aims of a thesis-seeking/problem-posing exploratory essay assignment is to engage with the text (literary text, typically, or film) and its critical interpretation/reception by identifying problems, developing claims and arguments, and enriching your literary understanding, interests, and commitments. Use/learn Modern Language Association format for any notes or works cited (see, for instance, link to MLA format guidelines further below, and see the other resources and examples that I provide in the Bblearn folder on Advice for Writing, those include samples of strong student essays and an full example of developing a research essay (on Austen's novel MansfieldPark).
A first step, basic approach is to ask to what extent the text presents a question or problem that seems challenging to represent and to resolve (solve/answer) without being caught up in some kind of conflict or contradiction--typically these include conflicts/contradictions between a culturally/historically predominant way of valuing or understanding particular identities and relationships versus alternative (perhaps dissenting/oppositional/other) perspectives and arrangements. The text then explores and discloses a debate over how to understand its world via such conflicting desires (including desires for power, for stability or for transgressive change)--a debate over 'systems' of belief, over ideology. And (therefore) an ideological debate over what characters and the reader/audience should do and be (including, typically, a debate over what literature should do and be).
In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, for instance, the predominant patriarchal ideology supports/directs that the daughter (Portia) submit to the will of her father, yet the play seems to support the disobedient actions of a daughter (Jessica) who rebels against her father (Shylock), and one might argue that even Portia is supported in her cross-dressing actions as the young lawyer Balthazar. Why? How so? A cultural analysis of this problem could begin with the critical-theoretical premise (see Stephen Greenblatt's essay on "Culture") that meanings and identities and relationships can be understood within a particular cultural-historical context as engaging with specific ratios between mobility and constraint--that is, terms/identities have a range of mobility to move across a range of meanings and yet face culturally coded/enforced limits or constraints upon, for instance, what a daughter is permitted to say or to do. The relation or ratio between degrees of mobility and constraint are determined by a principle of exchange--in the case/example above, the dominant Christian culture in Venice supports Jessica's transgressive rebellion against her Jewish father, because she offers the culture something in exchange (she is paying for her mobility): she robs and flees Shylock in order to marry the Christian Lorenzo. Shylock can save his life and some of his property by converting to Christianity.
Another way to identify a problem is when interpretations differ and the difference constitutes an implied/explicit argument and debate. The quotes from the following critics illustrate opposing assessments of the degree to which the character Rosalind in Shakepeare's As You Like It, ultimately manages on the one hand, to enlarge or to redefine what she (women) can do and be (see first quote by Howard), or on the other hand, shows the disciplinary limits and ideological forces that return her character to dominant ways of being (see second quote by Erickson):
“As You Like It is poised carefully on the razor’s edge separating fantasy from harsh reality. . . . [the play] is to a remarkable degree open to the infinite malleability of human beings and their social practices. . . . It is with the heroine, however, that As You Like It offers its richest dramatization of a figure who plays endlessly with the limits and possibilities of her circumstances. . . . this he/she, continues to the end to defy the fixed identities and the exclusionary choices of the everyday world, offering instead a world of multiple possibilities and transformable identities.” (Jean E. Howard, The Norton Shakespeare, 378-384)
“Male friendship, exemplified by the reconciliation of Duke Senior and Orlando, provides a framework that diminishes and contains Rosalind’s apparent power. . . . Concentration on Rosalind to the neglect of other issues distorts the overall design of As You Like It, one that is governed by male ends. . . . as the play returns to the normal world, [Rosalind] will be reduced to the traditional woman who is subservient to men” (Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama 16, 21).
Another example: consider how critics' comments on Twelfth Night invoke/refer to debates over (im)proper boundaries of gender-identity and desire as represented in that play.Valerie Traub states "The homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity. In other words, Twelfth Night closes down the possibility of homoerotic play initiated by the material presence of the transvestized boy actors. The fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se; homoerotic pleasure is explored and sustained until it collapses into fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality. The result is a more rigid dedication to the ideology of binarism, wherein gender and status inequalities are all the more forcefully reinscribed" (Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama p.123). Catherine Belsey observes that "If the speech acts in 1.5 are gendered, the gender in question fluctuates from moment to moment in a tantalizing display of discontinuity and deferral. This is not consistently either a straight or a drag act" (Why Shakespeare? 139). Bruce Smith sums up the play’s erotic confusions in this way: “Desire of male for female (Orsino for Olivia, Sebastian for Olivia), of female for male (Olivia for ‘Cesario,’ Viola for Orsino), of male for male (Antonio for Sebastian, Orsino for ‘Cesario’), of female for female (Olivia for Viola), of male for either, of female for either, of either for either: the love plots in Twelfth Night truly offer ‘what you will’” (Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts 15). In his introduction to the play, Greenblatt states that the "transforming power of costume unsettles fixed categories of gender and social class and allows characters to explore emotional territory that a culture officially hostile to same-sex desire and cross-class marriage would ordinarily have ruled out of bounds" (446 or 1762), which may lead to something "irreducibly strange about the marriages with which Twelfth Night ends" (449 or 1764). Jean Howard argues that the "play enacts . . . the containment of gender and class insurgency . . . . the play seems to me to applaud a crossdressed
To continue with examples/advice, you might explain the social dimensions or importance of a particular character's desires and relations to and for another (or to others, including a group or "category" of people or to/for some concept or principle or desired identity/achievement); your analysis may also speculate on the degrees of authority or power exercised or available to particular "figures" or "subjects" (characters) in the work/text; moreover, how are such identities or relationships represented and enacted (presented rhetorically in language and through narrative and dramatic structure and style), and to what extent are these desires and power relations and identities in flux, dramatized as being put into question or debate between different social/political/class/gender/ethnic/religious arrangements or configurations. And how do such meanings become presented in literature/text and in performance? For drama, how would a director and actors embody and perform (and address the choices for performance) and communicate a particular interpretation. . . .
Review some aspect of one of the specified, selected texts in view of such or similar problem-posing questions and critical/theoretical framework for identifying/understanding. Take care not to assume that we readily know what particular texts mean, or what meanings are possible, given our assumptions about the time periods in which the texts were composed and how we make sense of these texts today. It is productive to inquire into the possibilities for meaning and for debate, rather than to foreclose such debate by assuming in advance that a text means something or that it could not possibly mean something that seems out of bounds, out of context. As always, you need to find ways to read closely and well, and to work from the evidence and posited aims/arguments of the texts, of critics/scholars' research and arguments, and of your sense of the text's functions/meanings/effects.
I encourage you to develop and to support your ideas as clearly and as cogently as space allows, including brief citations of specific lines that illustrate your interpretation, and concise use of summary and paraphrase in support of your analysis. It may be helpful for your response to include a statement that makes a claim or presents a thesis with brief explanation and support (such as in the form of “One of Portia's main concerns is that she . . . because . . . . But her desire for . . . conflicts with . . ., and she must . . . in order to . . . . The play thus represents . . . in its depiction of . . . . Moreover, it is only through X's relationship to Y that Z can be realized or established or resolved, even though . . . .” This is just a partial and overstated (!) example of a structure that might inform your reasoning and writing--the main advice is that you may find it effective to compose a thesis for your analysis/essay.
Tory Young, for instance, offers this general schemata/structure for an essay that is concerned with argument and interpretation and analysis (from Studying English Literature): (1) The issue; (2) the claim; (3) The supporting evidence; (4) The explanation that connects the evidence to the claim about the subject; (5) Rebuttals and qualifiers; ( 6) The explanation that connects them to the claim about the subject. Some of these stages or building blocks for the essay may be repeated (steps 2-6 or 3-6), and each stage should contribute to developing the argument and potential expressed in your thesis statement. As Young states, "Your thesis statement is a sentence-long summary of your argument . . . .Your thesis statement is an argument that you are going to examine with recourse to evidence from primary and secondary research" (106). Moreover, does each paragraph in the essay provide support for the argument or clearly analyze opposing views to the argument.
Katherine Acheson (in Writing Essays About Literature) states that "the task of a student assigned to write an essay about literature is to present a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works" (7). She describes the task of writing such an essay as one in which you "produce a narrative that offers an explanation for the effects the work of literature has" (8)--these effects, for instance, are the ideas and feelings produced by the work of literature (produced through the things that are used to make it, the words). Acheson describes the thesis statement in this way: "The thesis statement describes the evidence you are using, states your interpretations of this evidence, and brings those insights together into a conclusion that is about the way the literature works, what it means, or how and why it has the emotional impact it does" (97). She also emphasizes that arguments in literary criticism analyze "examples in order to come to broader conclusions"--these arguments therefore demonstrate inductive reasoning that moves logically and persuasively from particular pieces of compelling evidence to broader generalizations that advance/deepen/enrich understanding.
Acheson notes, like Tory Young, that the paragraphs in the body of your essay "will each make a point contributing to your argument, and each will highlight the evidence that supports that point. The subject for each body paragraph is provided by your subtopic sentences" (111) and typically the concluding sentence in each paragraph "stipulates the relationship " of the paragraph "to the argument as a whole" and also "leads to the next paragraph." One's writing need not be so formulaic--you can depart from these guidelines--but this is sound general advice. Acheson offers an additional caution and encouragement: "The analytical reasons that a piece of evidence supports the argumentative contention of the paragraph are implicit in the choice you made to include that evidence in that category. But remember this important advice: your sentences must make those reasons explicit. Whenever you feel uncertain, return to two home bases: 1) your research and the evidence it has provided and 2) the thesis statement and the argument it articulates" (118).
William Whitla (The English Handbook: A Guide to Literary Studies) echoes such sentiments: "For an argument to be convincing, the relationship between generalizations or assertions and supporting evidence must be considered carefully. Many students have the most trouble at exactly this point: they either cannot qualify a generalization in the face of contradictory evidence and so ignore the exception, or they suppress that evidence and continue to assert a generalization. . . . An academic argument, then, is not a contest of absolute rights and wrongs, but rather is a structured statement of position that moves logically to persuade an audience of your views" (92).
Assume your audience is familiar with the text, but take care to articulate clearly your understanding and interpretation of the material, especially problems or contradictions that seem difficult to resolve.
Keep in mind that your analysis should aim to supplement or to build upon class discussion; in short, don't simply repeat an argument discussed substantially unless you were engaged substantially in that discussion.
Wow, this is a lot of (largely general) advice so how to sum up: Some writers use the first paragraph to describe an interpretative problem that arises in a specific passage or for/in a character (and the relations of that character to others or to the text's cultural context), or to present a conflict of critical approaches to a topic or issue that is pertinent to or evident in the literary work. This opening often includes reference to how the text or an aspect of it has been regarded by other scholars--what are some prior or 'traditional' ways of framing and understanding what's at stake in this text? In contrast or in some kind of supplementary extension, what do you understand differently--what difference does your reading make/add and why is it significant/important to consider your line of analysis and argument? What is lost by sticking with prior views and what is gained by considering your counter-view or extension of the prior view to push its analysis further? Can you state this difference that you bring to the conversation in the form of a thesis/hypothesis that addresses (answers or resolves) the problem you have identified?And as Young and Acheson note/advise above, what will be your series of claims supported by evidence and reasoning and taking into account arguments/evidence that may qualify or limit your claim along with any counter argument you make in turn to rebut or take into account the arguments and evidence against your position? As you conclude, you may find a way to restate or reframe your main claim/argument, including its value/significance (the import/importance), and whether your line of analysis suggests further avenues of inquiry and research to be done.
Here's a reminder of a guiding principle/observation from our main course website.
The quote that follows serves as a general guiding premise/claim for the course and its outcomes (also see expected learning outcomes noted further below, following the semester schedule): Literature provides us with a way of understanding how our social life works. Human social life consists of narratives for living, with ‘narratives’ being understood here as an actual life experience spread over time and guided by cultural stories that justify it to participants. Both the cultural and real-world narrative can change; both use frames to exclude norm-dissonant perspectives and values and to ensure that the meanings that support the continuity and homogeneity of the lived process are stable, predictable, and enforced. Who tells the stories in the culture thus largely shapes how that cultural world will be organized. Stories are what people believe and how they believe, and how people believe determines how they act and how they live. Stories can change how people think, perceive, believe, and act. The analysis of the work they perform is thus an important endeavor. And that is what criticism is all about. (An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture--Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
Evaluation/Assessment Rubric for Critical Essay and Term Essay, with check mark along a scale, including specific comments to supplement my notations on the texts of the essays themselves:
Rubric for Initial Criteria for Evaluating Critical Writing/Essays: Excellent Very Good-Good Competent-Fair Weak
Note: Ultimately the evaluation of your work is holistic,
and therefore also intends to register the different, nuanced,
unexpected and evocative effects of your analysis,
exploration, creative expression/affect, and engagement
with learning and discovery.
1. Strength and clarity of (hypo)thesis/focus,
this may include your introduction to the problem to be
addressed, the critical/scholarly question and
conversation that your essay will contribute to,
intervene in, with scholarship appropriately introduced
and integrated into your text…
2. Intellectual/conceptual strength and persuasiveness of
main claim as well as ensuing argument (including
counter-argument to respond to differing or opposing views
3. Cohesive and coherent development, logical
organization, including well-structured paragraphs with
clear points and compelling, specific support/evidence
4. Analysis of text’s/topic’s relevant cultural/historical
contexts and if deployed, of related scholarship/criticism that
supports and strengthens the argument;
analysis of text’s rhetorical/persuasive strategies, structure
(narrative/dramatic/poetic structure, aspects of performance)
5. Topic’s depth/complexity, including explanation of
problem to be addressed, recognition of text’s
creativity and sense of discovery/affective engagement
conveyed—the articulated sense of “what’s at stake, why
it matters” —what difference your essay makes
6. Significance/ conclusion
7. Effective sentences, syntax, active verbs/consistency in verb tense,
diction, punctuation, complexity, and suitable style: academic,
critical, appropriate to your understanding of the
materials/subjects; avoids clichés and trite expressions, avoids overusing
prepositional phrases, appropriately concise
8. MLA style—parenthetical citation of sources,
Works Cited; formatting; spelling ungraded but noted
Academic Misconduct: Any act of academic misconduct, including but not limited to cheating, fabrication, plagiarism or facilitating academic dishonesty, will result in failure of the assignment and given the points available, likely failure of the course. Your case will be reported to the Dean of Students according to campus guidelines, and such matters are subject to policies in the UI Student Code of Conduct. Unfortunately, I have had to refer students' plagiarized work to the Dean of Students in past sections of classes, nearly every year. See this helpful highlighed weblink to learn more about academic integrity on the Dean of Students' website, including plagiarism: Plagiarism includes the using of ideas, data, or language of another as one’s own without specific or proper acknowledgement or citation, lack of knowledge of proper citation is not valid excuse for plagiarism as it is the responsibility of the author writing the material to know the proper methods for appropriate citation and/or seek guidance/help when using another’s work.
Plagiarism can be committed in any type of assignment and includes, but is not limited to, the following behavior that also does not include the full, clear and proper acknowledgement of the original source:
- The copying of another person’s work, published or unpublished;
- The paraphrase of another person’s work, published or unpublished;
- Using another person’s ideas, arguments, and/or thesis from a published or unpublished work;
- Using another person’s research from a published or unpublished work;
- Using materials prepared by a person or agency in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.
See UI Library Guidance on Avoiding Plagiarism
Purdue OWL workshop/guidelines on using MLA for citation
MLA Quick Guide to Works Cited/citation
Basic Refresher Guidelines on Conducting Academic Research (via UI Library's site for English 102) including support for process of finding and citing articles from peer-reviewed journals, books, and the option for direct research assistance/session with a UI librarian.
Lessons on Style (general advice/quited dated handout but perhaps worth looking over) [pdf]
Quick Advice on Punctuation (also dated) [pdf]
Summary/Overview of Perspectives on Critical Theory
Online Writing Center Resources (from writing essays to grammar and usage advice):
Questions to Guide Review of Draft of Critical Essay:
1. Does the essay clarify and advance understanding of problem/topic/method/perspective related to the “literary” text’s purposes and rhetorical strategies and to the ‘student’ writer’s interpretation and understanding of the text?
2. Can one understand the writer’s approach and strategies for introducing and developing the critical essay?
3. Sum up the essay’s central idea, hypothesis or purpose in one sentence.
4. What might a reader like best about the essay? Where might the reader want to know more or to pose a critical question?
Desired learning outcomes in the context of the Department of English and its major:
1) Students exhibit knowledge of diverse literatures in English and the cultural and historical contexts in which these works were produced.
2) Students can discern and evaluate the aesthetic and formal qualities of various texts.
3) Students can write an analytic essay that exhibits both critical thinking and effective argumentation.
4) Students can write a research essay that exhibits effective deployment of research as evidence.
5) Students’ writing exhibits correct usage of grammar and of MLA format and citation conventions.