Introduction to Literature
The University of Mississippi
Department of English
Critical Approaches to Literature
Plain text version of this document, suitable for printing.
Described below are nine common critical approaches to the literature.
Quotations are from X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia's Literature: An
Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, Sixth Edition (New York:
HarperCollins, 1995), pages 1790-1818.
- Formalist Criticism: This approach regards literature as
"a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own
terms." All the elements necessary for understanding the work are
contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to the formalist
critic are the elements of formstyle, structure, tone, imagery,
etc.that are found within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics
is to determine how such elements work together with the text's content to
shape its effects upon readers.
- Biographical Criticism: This approach "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
Hence, it often affords a practical method by which readers can better understand a text.
However, a biographical critic must be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writer's life too far in criticizing the works of that writer:
the biographical critic "focuses on explicating the literary work
by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author's life....
[B]iographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out
with irrelevant material."
- Historical Criticism: This approach "seeks to
literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context
that produced ita context that necessarily includes the artist's
biography and milieu." A key goal for historical critics is to understand
effect of a literary work upon its original readers.
- Gender Criticism: This approach "examines how sexual
identity influences the creation and reception of literary works."
an offshoot of feminist movements, gender criticism today includes a number of
approaches, including the so-called "masculinist" approach recently
by poet Robert Bly. The bulk of gender criticism, however, is feminist and
takes as a central precept that the patriarchal attitudes that have dominated
western thought have resulted, consciously or unconsciously, in literature
"full of unexamined 'male-produced' assumptions." Feminist
to correct this imbalance by analyzing and combatting such attitudesby
questioning, for example, why none of the characters in Shakespeare's play
Othello ever challenge the right of a husband to murder a wife accused
of adultery. Other goals of feminist critics include "analyzing how sexual
identity influences the reader of a text" and "examin[ing] how the
men and women in imaginative literature reflect or reject the social forces
that have historically kept the sexes from achieving total equality."
- Psychological Criticism: This approach reflects the effect
that modern psychology has had upon both literature and literary criticism.
Fundamental figures in psychological criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose
"psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by
or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and
repression" as well as expanding our understanding of how "language
operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or
desires"; and Carl Jung, whose theories about the unconscious are also a
foundation of Mythological Criticism.
Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually
employs one (or more) of three approaches:
- An investigation of "the creative process of the artist: what is
nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental
- The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an
author's biographical circumstances affect or influence their
- The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of
- Sociological Criticism: This approach "examines
in the cultural, economic and political context in which it is written or
received," exploring the relationships between the artist and society.
Sometimes it examines the artist's society to better understand the
literary works; other times, it may examine the representation of such societal
elements within the literature itself. One influential type of sociological
criticism is Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic
and political elements of art, often emphasizing the ideological content of
literature; because Marxist criticism often argues that all art is political,
either challenging or endorsing (by silence) the status quo, it is frequently
evaluative and judgmental, a tendency that "can lead to reductive
when Soviet critics rated Jack London better than William Faulkner, Ernest
Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, because he illustrated the
principles of class struggle more clearly." Nonetheless, Marxist criticism
illuminate political and economic dimensions of literature other approaches
- Mythological Criticism: This
approach emphasizes "the recurrent universal patterns underlying most
works." Combining the insights from anthropology, psychology, history, and
comparative religion, mythological criticism "explores the artist's
humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols
common to different cultures and epochs." One key concept in mythlogical
criticism is the archetype, "a symbol, character, situation, or
that evokes a deep universal response," which entered literary criticism
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. According to Jung, all individuals share a
"'collective unconscious,' a set of primal memories common to
the human race,
existing below each person's conscious mind"often deriving from
primordial phenomena such as the sun, moon, fire, night, and blood, archetypes
according to Jung "trigger the collective unconscious." Another
Northrop Frye, defined archetypes in a more limited way as "a symbol,
an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an
element of one's literary experience as a whole." Regardless of the
of archetype they use, mythological critics tend to view literary works in the
broader context of works sharing a similar pattern.
- Reader-Response Criticism: This approach takes as a
fundamental tenet that "literature" exists not as an artifact upon a
page but as a transaction between the physical text and the mind of a reader.
It attempts "to describe what happens in the reader's mind while
text" and reflects that reading, like writing, is a creative
According to reader-response critics, literary texts do not "contain"
meaning; meanings derive only from the act of individual readings. Hence, two
different readers may derive completely different interpretations of the same
literary text; likewise, a reader who re-reads a work years later may find the
work shockingly different. Reader-response criticism, then, emphasizes how
"religious, cultural, and social values affect readings; it also overlaps
gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the same text with
different assumptions." Though this approach rejects the notion that a
"correct" reading exists for a literary work, it does not consider
permissible: "Each text creates limits to its possible
- Deconstructionist Criticism: This approach "rejects
traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality."
Deconstructionist critics regard language as a fundamentally unstable
mediumthe words "tree" or "dog," for instance,
undoubtedly conjure up
different mental images for different peopleand therefore, because
literature is made up of words, literature possesses no fixed, single meaning.
According to critic Paul de Man, deconstructionists insist on "the
impossibility of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be
expressed, of making the actual signs [i.e., words] coincide with what is
signified." As a result, deconstructionist critics tend to emphasize not
what is being said but how language is used in a text. The
methods of this approach tend to resemble those of formalist
criticism, but whereas formalists' primary goal is to locate
within a text, "how the diverse elements of a text cohere into
deconstructionists try to show how the text "deconstructs," "how
it can be
broken down ... into mutually irreconcilable positions." Other goals of
deconstructionists include (1) challenging the notion of authors'
of texts they create (and their ability to control the meaning of their texts)
and (2) focusing on how language is used to achieve power, as when they try to
understand how a some interpretations of a literary work come to be regarded as
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