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Presentation on theme: "CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE Literary Theory."— Presentation transcript:


2 Critical approaches to literature  The simplest definition of a critical approach to literature is: the lens through which we understand a piece of writing

3 Why are critical approaches important?  EVERY text (novels, films, ads, images, everything) contain conscious and subconscious messages placed there by the author or perceived by the consumer  Using a critical approach uncovers those messages  Understanding the layers of meaning in a text leads to a richer reading or viewing experience  Critical understanding allows you to make informed opinions and ask informed questions of a text, image, ad, film, book, news, etc.  Incorporating critical approaches into how we view the world leads to a deeper appreciation of the human experience  Critical reading/viewing promotes critical thinking in all aspects of life

4 Some critical approaches to consider 1. Reader-Response Criticism 2. Formalist Criticism 3. Sociological Criticism A. Feminist/Gender Criticism B. Marxist Criticism 4. Biographical Criticism 5. Historical Criticism 6. New Historicist Criticism 7. Deconstructionist Criticism

5 Questions to Ponder for Each Theory/Approach  What are the benefits of each form of criticism?  What are potential problems with each form?  Is there a “right” or a “wrong” form?  Can the mode of criticism alter the entire meaning of a text?

6 1. The Reader-Response Approach Reader-Response Criticism: studies the interaction of reader with text, holding the text as incomplete until it is read. This critical approach can be, and often is, combined with other approaches. Also, it:  Focuses on the act of reading and how it affects our perception of meaning in a text (how we feel at the beginning vs. the end).  Deals more with the process of creating meaning and experiencing a text as we read. A text is an experience, not an object.  Believes there is no single, fixed interpretation for any work. READER + READING SITUATION + TEXT = MEANING

7 1. The Reader-Response Approach 2 Important Ideas in Reader-Response 1. An individual reader’s interpretation usually changes over time. 2. Readers from different generations and different time periods interpret texts differently. Ultimately… How do YOU feel about what you have read? What do YOU think it means?

8 2. The Formalist Approach Formalist Criticism emphasizes the form of a literary work to determine its meaning, focusing on literary elements and how they work to create meaning.  Examines a text as independent from its time period, social setting, and author’s background. A text is an independent entity.  Focuses on close readings of texts and analysis of the effects of literary elements and techniques on the text.

9 2. The Formalist Approach Two Major Principles of Formalism 1. A literary text exists independent of any particular reader and, in a sense, has a fixed meaning. 2. The greatest literary texts are “timeless” and “universal.”

10 A formalist reading of “The 3 Little Pigs”  What does the wolf symbolize?  Notice the consonance of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”  How does the story foreshadow the final fate of the pigs?  What does the wolf’s dialogue tell us about his character?

11 3. The Sociological Approach Sociological criticism argues that social contexts (the social environment) must be considered when analyzing a text.  Focuses on the values of a society and how those views are reflected in a text  Emphasizes the economic, political, and cultural issues within literary texts  Core Belief: Literature is a reflection of its society.

12 3A. The Marxist Approach Marxist Criticism emphasizes economic and social conditions. It is based on the political theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Concerned with understanding the role of power, politics, and money in literary texts

13 3A. The Marxist Approach Marxist Criticism examines literature to see how it reflects 1. The way in which dominant groups (typically, the majority) exploit the subordinate groups (typically, the minority) 2. The way in which people become alienated from one another through power, money, and politics

14 3A. Questions in Marxist theory  Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed, etc.?  What is the social class of the author?  Which class does the work claim to represent?  What values does it reinforce?  What values does it subvert?  What conflict can be seen between the values the work champions and those it portrays?  What social classes do the characters represent?  How do characters from different classes interact or conflict?

15 3A: Marxist/Economic theory  Literature is a representation of class struggle with an emphasis on social inequalities, social justice, and economic disparity  All stories feature characters whose lives have been shaped by their economic situations  All stories feature power struggles, often between or within social classes or social ranks  How much control does one group or character have over another?  As you read…  What is the class of the characters, and how is that shown?  How are money, power, and resources used in the story?


17 Approach #2: Marxist/Economic  Examples:  Animal Farm – Pigs and humans versus the rest of the farm  Hunger Games – The Capital versus the districts; the districts versus one another  Of Mice and Men – George and Lenny’s lack of resources and recourse  To Kill a Mockingbird – How Mayella Ewell is affected by her social class and rank

18 3B. Feminist/Gender Approach  Feminist Criticism examines works by and about women. Gender Criticism evolved out of feminism to address issues of masculinity/femininity as binaries, sexual orientation, heterosexism, and differences in sexes. Both are typically concerned with fair representation and treatment of people. Both tend to believe that gender is a societal construct, not strictly a biological fact. A critic using Feminist Studies or Gender Studies might ask, "How is gender constructed or deconstructed in this text? Is the view of the text gendered or sexist?"

19 3B. The Feminist Approach Feminist Criticism is concerned with the role, position, and influence of women in a literary text.  Asserts that most “literature” throughout time has been written by men, for men.  Examines the way that the female consciousness is depicted by both male and female writers.

20 3B. The Feminist Approach 4 Basic Principles of Feminist Criticism 1. Western civilization is patriarchal. 2. The concepts of gender are mainly cultural ideas created by patriarchal societies. 3. Patriarchal ideals pervade “literature.” 4. Most “literature” through time has been gender-biased.

21 3B: Feminism/Gender Studies  Examples:  The Office – The stereotypical office roles by gender (Michael Scott is the boss, Pam Beesly is the secretary  Of Mice and Men – The only female character is Curly’s wife, who plays the role of the temptress and has no name  Hunger Games – Katniss is a female protagonist who departs from traditional gender stereotypes  The Scarlet Letter – Hester Prynne is the first American female protagonist

22 A Feminist reading of “Goldilocks”  As a single, young woman, Goldilocks finds herself without means or opportunity because she is unattached to a father or a husband. Perhaps this is why she’s alone in the woods.  An independent woman, then, is a threat to the “normal” nuclear family, represented by the three bears.

23 4. The Biographical Approach Biographical Criticism argues that we must take an author’s life and background into account when we study a text.

24 4. The Biographical Approach Three Benefits: 1. Facts about an author’s experience can help a reader decide how to interpret a text. 2. A reader can better appreciate a text by knowing a writer’s struggles or difficulties in creating that text. 3. A reader can understand a writer’s preoccupation by studying the way they apply and modify their own life experiences in their works.

25 Approach #3: Historical  Literature reflects the life of the author, the historical period in which the work was produced, and the historical period in which the work is set  How is the work related to the life of author or the time period in which it was written?  To what extent is the work a mirror of a time period?  To what extent is the work a judgment of a time period?  As you read…  What was happening in the world when this was written/produced?  What is the setting of the work? How is that setting used to create a mood?

26 Approach #3: Historical  Examples:  The Lord of the Rings – Books were written post WWI; films were made post 9-11  The Crucible – Arthur Miller lived during the Red Scare of the 1950’s and uses the Salem Witch Trials to parallel that experience  The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved fame during the 1920’s for his excesses, yet struggled to fit in with social elites  To Kill a Mockingbird – Written during the Civil Rights movement  The Lorax – Written during the beginning of the environmental movement in the 1970’s.

27 5. The Historical Approach  It is concerned with how the author’s original audience would have understood the writing. It takes into account the author’s biography and the time and place in which the author wrote.  For example—How accurate is Arthur Miller’s depiction of the Salem Witch trials?  Miller wrote the play in the 1950’s. Would his audience have connected McCarthyism and the people of Salem?  What aspects of America’s political climate from the 1950’s matter to this work?

28 6. The New Historicist Approach  New Historicism is a literary theory based on the idea that literature should be studied and interpreted within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic/reader.  New Historicism acknowledges not only that a work of literature is influenced by its author's times and circumstances, but that the critic's response to that work is also influenced by his environment, beliefs, and prejudices.

29 New Historicists  Believe "history" cannot be truly objective or comprehensive because it is constantly written and rewritten  Believe studying the historical context of a work can illuminate our biases and hopefully enable us to understand the text (and the culture, context, ourselves) better.

30 Historicism vs. New Historicism  Historians ask, 'What happened?' and 'What does the event tell us about history?' In contrast, new historicists ask, 'How has the event been interpreted?' and 'What do the interpretations tell us about the interpreters?'" (278).  New historicists do not believe that we can look at history objectively, but rather that we interpret events as products of our time and culture and that "...we don't have clear access to any but the most basic facts of history...our understanding of what such facts a matter of interpretation, not fact" (279). Moreover, New Historicism holds that we are hopelessly subjective interpreters of what we observe.

31 And in case this hasn’t overwhelmed your brain…  There is always Deconstructionist theory

32 7) Deconstructionist Approach (simplified)  Deconstructionists believe that language cannot accurately represent reality.  It seeks to break down binaries—good/bad, mind/body, rational/emotional, man/woman  They believe that literary texts cannot possibly have a single meaning. Ex. What does this sentence mean to you? Time flies like an arrow.

33 A deconstructed text— from OWL/Purdue University  Time (noun) flies (verb) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Time passes quickly.  Time (verb) flies (object) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Get out your stopwatch and time the speed of flies as you would time an arrow's flight.  Time flies (noun) like (verb) an arrow (object) = Time flies are fond of arrows (or at least of one particular arrow). Did your brain just implode?

34 Deconstruction in the news "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."  Bill Clinton, during his 1998 grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky affair

35 Deconstructionism  There is much more to this. If it interests you, talk to me about the founders of this theory.


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