Approaches to Literary Criticism

There are many ways in and out of works of literature. Here are a few of the most widely espoused. This is by no means a complete list, but it covers many of the most historically influential approaches.

Agonistic Criticism Criticism that focuses on the anxieties of influence (how writers react against prevailing, previous-generation work and, especially, against overly strong influences on what they perceive to be the cultural Zeitgeist). So, for example, the critic might examine how Milton reacted against Homer and Virgil, Christianizing the epic. (Representative critic[s]: Harold Bloom)

Anti-interpretive Criticism Criticism that emphasizes the sensual, surface features of and/or the imaginative experience had when reading a work of literature and that eschews translation of that work into pat “meanings.” (Representative critic[s]: Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”)

Archetypal Criticism Criticism that interprets a text by focusing on its use of recurring myths and archetypes. (Representative critic[s]: Northrup Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism)

Author’s Intention What an author meant to communicate in his or her work; the author’s intended meaning. Some critics hold that the purpose of reading is to recover the author’s intention, just as the purpose of writing is to carry out an intention. However, the seemingly reasonable claims that the meaning of a work is the author’s intention and that the purpose of criticism is to recover the author’s intention are both controversial. Some critics, for example, doubt that recovery of intended meaning is possible or desirable, but believe, rather, that meaning lies in the text itself (New Criticism) or in the reader’s responses to the text (Reader-Response Criticism). See New Criticism and Reader-response Criticism. (Representative critic[s]: E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation)

Biographical Criticism  Interpretation or evaluation of a work of literature based upon the writer’s life experiences. Along with philological criticism, this was, in the nineteenth century, a primary mode in which critics worked. A variant is criticism as intellectual biography, the great example of which is John Livingston Lowe’s The Road to Xanadu. (Representative critic[s]: Samuel Johnson.)

Colonial and Post-Colonial Studies Criticism that addresses literary works in the context of the production of those works under colonial rule and prejudices or in response to or as part of the overthrow of colonial rule and prejudices. (Representative critic[s]: Edward Said)

Deconstruction A controversial approach to criticism, associated with the French theorist Jacques Derrida, that involves subjecting to critique the inherited structural (typically binary) categories of thought that inform one’s understanding of a work and, especially, those aspects of one’s thought (of one’s carving up of the mental landscape) that are typically privileged. People tend to think in terms of inherited binary oppositions: hot/cold, good/bad, sacred/profane, male/female, democratic/totalitarian, rational/irrational, rich/poor, and so on. Commonly, in a particular language community, one of these poles is privileged. Deconstruction involves critiquing these inherited assumptions by various means, such as denying that the distinction exists, describing the categories as existing along a continuum with in-between states, positing additional categories, or privileging the category that is ordinarily not privileged. For example, the play Romeo and Juliet is usually read as being about the rashness, or lack of forethought, of young people in love. This reading privileges reason over impulsiveness. A deconstruction of the play might argue that, in fact, it celebrates impulsiveness, showing that despite the dangers of such impulsiveness, its rewards are worth the price, or it might argue that the play is a critique of the very categories of impulsiveness versus careful, calm, rational planning and forethought. (Representative critic[s]: Jacques Derrida, Paul de Mann)

Didactic Criticism  Criticism that addresses the moral or political message(s) of a work in order to advance a moral or political point of view. Most quotidian Biblical criticism, of the kind found in sermons, is didactic criticism. (Representative critic[s]: Jonathan Edwards)

Euhemerism  The interpretation of a literary work (or a work from an oral tradition) as having made fantastical, through retelling, actual historical persons, places, and events. (Representative critic[s]: Euhemerus)

Evaluation The process of making judgments about the quality of a literary work.

Evolutionary Criticism Criticism that focuses on how a work of literature meets survival needs (e.g., “Storytelling is a means of practicing theory of mind and, importantly, of others’ motivations, an important survival skill”). (Representative critic[s]: Brian Boyd)

Feminist Criticism Criticism that explores works of art in light of the social construction of gender roles and identities and that subjects works to scrutiny with regard to those constructions. (Representative critic[s]: Judith Butler, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar)

Formalism Criticism that focuses on features intrinsic to a work of art, such as its structure, genre, motifs, and techniques, as opposed to extrinsic features (ones outside the work), such as its historical origins or milieu. Formalism strives toward objectivity, viewing the work as an object for analysis by scientific or quasi-scientific methods. (Representative critic[s]: Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, Stith Thompson)

Freudian Criticism Criticism that examines works of art, including literary works, using the concepts and techniques of Freudian psychoanalysis. Often such criticism analyzes works or the actions of characters as expressions of unconscious motivations or desires (for example, as wish fulfillment or as symbolic representations of suppressed wishes or desires), or as vicarious working out of unresolved conflicts, such as childhood competition with the father. (Representative critic[s]: Sigmund Freud and Ernest  Jones on Hamlet, Lionel Trilling)

Hermeneutic Circle The process of successively arriving at an understanding of an object of interest, such as a literary or other artistic work, by revisiting and revising those understandings. The basic idea is that one can never, at the outset (or ever), simply see the work as it is in itself. People bring their own preconceptions to a work. They revise their preconceptions based on the work, and their understandings of the work based upon their revised conceptions. So, they circle back and forth between the work and their own conceptions, in stages. The phrase hermeneutic circle is also sometimes used to refer to the successive process of understanding part of a work in terms of the whole and the whole in terms of its parts. (Representative critic[s]: Martin Heidegger)

Hermeneutics The theory and, less frequently, the practice of interpretation.

Historicism Criticism that examines works of art, including literary works, as reflections of the historical periods in which they were created, recognizing that understanding of the historical period is reconstructive and difficult, given one’s own different context and understandings. Such criticism is typically thought of as requiring confrontation with the unfamiliar and an attempted “merger of horizons” (of the perspectives of the reader and the perspectives found in the text). See New Historicism and the hermeneutic circle. (Representative critic[s]: Hans-Georg Gadamer)

Interpretation  The process of arriving at the “meaning” of a literary work (however that is construed).

Interpretive Community A group of persons with a shared lens through which literary works are viewed. (Representative critic[s]: Stanley Fish)

IntertextualAnalysis 1. Narrowly speaking, an analysis that looks at the relationships between or among spoken or written texts. A description of the influence of West African song on American blues music would be an intertextual analysis in this sense. 2. More broadly, an analysis that looks at relationships between or among worldviews. A description of the differences and interactions between the worldviews of, say, prewar slave owners and enslaved persons would be an intertextual analysis in this sense. For example, post-Civil-War white minstrel shows made use of exaggerated racist stereotypes based on such aspects of pre-war African-American culture as the cakewalk dance but without understanding that the cakewalk was itself a satirical form used to parody the exaggerated pretensions of the slave-owning class. Such an explanation of minstrel shows is an example of intertextual analysis. (Representative critic[s]: Henry Lewis Gates, Jr.)

Marxist Criticism Criticism based upon the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and his followers, and especially criticism that focuses on works of art as products of or responses to antagonistic relations among the social classes (class struggle), and criticism that views works as products of deterministic historical or economic forces. (Representative critic[s]: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson.)

Mimetic Criticism Criticism that naively evaluates works of art based upon their verisimilitude, or correspondence with “reality.” (Representative critic[s]: Plato, Aristotle, Eric Auerbach)

New Criticism A critical movement of the twentieth century that emphasized close reading and treatment of works as self-contained objects of study (“little worlds”) to which matters such as the author’s biography and the historical circumstances of the work are irrelevant. (Representative critic[s]: William Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren)

New Historicism An approach to literary criticism that considers works as they are determined by their limited historical contexts and perspectives and by the power relations that existed in the time in which the works were created and vice versa (recognizing that works of art help to create those). The New Historicism focuses on exposing or critiquing those contexts, perspectives, and power relations while acknowledging the inevitable historical biases of the critic herself or himself and thus the anachronistic nature of any critical undertaking. (Representative critic[s]: Stephen Greenblatt)


Paradigmatic Analysis In Structuralist thinking and criticism, consideration of conceptual structures or relations existing simultaneously, especially relations in which concepts are determined negatively in relation to one another by what they are not (e.g., a raw thing is that which is not cooked, and a cooked thing is that which is not raw). Paradigmatic analysis is contrasted with syntagmatic analysis. The classic example is Claud Levi-Strauss’s analysis of the structure of the Oedipus myth. (Representative critic[s]: Claude Levi-Strass, Roland Barthes)

Philological Criticism Criticism based upon study of word origins, meanings, and relationships across languages over time. A primary mode in which nineteenth-century critics worked, this approach was used in the so-called German “higher criticism” of Hebrew religious texts that established the various strands of texts that made up the Old Testament Torah and was used by Max Müller and others to bolster the Solar Hypothesis that folk tales and later versions of myths derive from a primordial solar mythology involving a sky father and an Earth mother. (e.g., Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen, Max Müller)

Reader-Response Criticism Criticism based upon the idea that interpretation and evaluation of a literary work is a highly subjective process in which the reader “constructs” the text in the process of reading it. A controversial approach to literary criticism, reader-response criticism is summed up in the phrase “There are no texts, only readings.” (Representative critic[s]: Louise Rosenblatt, Stanley Fish)

Structuralism  An approach to the human sciences, such as anthropology, literary criticism, and philosophy, that emphasizes understanding of the structures of thought, feeling, and interaction in a culture, and, in particular, understanding of conceptual structures involving binary relations such as raw/cooked, human/animal, kin/not-kin, male/female, acceptable/taboo, foreign/native, right/wrong, in-group/out-group, etc.  See Paradigmatic Analysis and Syntagmatic Analysis. (Representative critic[s]: Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes)

Syntagmatic Analysis  In structuralist thinking and criticism, consideration of formal structure or relations over time, such as the unfolding grammar of a sentence, the unfolding argument of a piece of writing, or the changes in a language over time. Contrasted with paradigmatic analysis. (Representative critic[s]: Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes)

Textual Criticism Close analysis of the attributes of a text and of its alternate versions, often done in order to establish a definitive version for publication. (Representative critic[s]: Bruce Metzger, Kurt and Barbara Aland)

Theory 1. A set of general or abstract principles that are potentially falsifiable and so scientific and that both explain and relate a body of facts and have predictive power. Examples of theories in this sense are the Theory of Gravitation and the Theory of Relativity; 2. In literary studies, a general name given to a wide variety of recent approaches to literary criticism that emphasize examination and critique of constructed social and critical norms—a shortened version of the term critical theory.

A few notes:

  1. It is important to distinguish between meaning as the author’s intention and meaning as significance to the reader (the consequences for you of having had the experience of the work). A LOT of the confusion in literary studies (even among great critics) results from not understanding this distinction.
  1. With regard to meaning as significance, you must first enter imaginatively into the world of the work and have that experience, and it is that experience that then will have (perhaps) significance to you. There is no substitute for taking the author’s trip.
  2. Arriving at an understanding of meaning as intention requires a LOT of attention to matters outside the text (such as genre and other conventions employed, historical circumstance of the work, and the author’s biography and concerns). Texts exist in context.
  3. Sometimes you have to live with a text. It will mean more to you as you gain in knowledge and experience.

Copyright 2015, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. Feel free to copy and use this piece in your own teaching, but please include this copyright notice. Thank you!

For more pieces by Robert Shepherd on teaching literature and writing, go here:

For Bob’s short stories and essays on the reading and writing of fiction, go here:

For Bob’s poems and essays on the reading and writing of poetry, go here:

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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2 Responses to Approaches to Literary Criticism

  1. Pingback: What Should Be Taught in an English Teacher Preparation Program? | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

  2. Pingback: Criticism and the Common [sic] Core [sic] | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

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