CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE
- 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 form-style, 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. CLOSE READING
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 the work.” 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, but “[focus] 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.” Lewis Carroll, Wilde, Kingston
Gender Criticism: This approach “examines how sexual identity influences
the creation and reception of literary works.” Originally an offshoot of feminist movements, gender criticism today includes a number of approaches. 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 criticism attempts to correct this imbalance by analyzing and combatting such attitudes. Other goals of feminist critics include “analyzing how sexual identity influences the reader of a text” and “examin[ing] how the images of men and women in imaginative literature reflect or reject the social forces that have historically kept the sexes from achieving total equality.” WOMAN WARRIOR
*Interdisciplinary Studies: This is a form of criticism involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic areas of knowledge, and allows two or more disciplines to inform one another. In our class, we have used anthropology and photography as a way to deepen our discussion of texts. Examining Ellison alongside Louis Armstrong or the intersections between myth, “Mulan,” and The Woman Warrior would be other examples.
*Queer Theory: An offshoot of gender criticism, queer theory challenges either/or, essentialist notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality within the mainstream discourse (the “binary sexual regime,” to use historian George Chauncey’s phrase), and instead posits an understanding of sexuality that emphasizes shifting boundaries, ambivalences, and cultural constructions that change depending on historical and cultural context. “To queer” is to render “normal” sexuality as strange and unsettled, to challenge heterosexuality as a naturalized social-sexual norm and promote the notion of “non-straightness,” challenging the hegemony of “straight” ideology. When one considers the realms of fantasy, the unconscious, repression, and denial, much that is ostensibly considered “heterosexual” easily falls within the realm of queer. OSCAR WILDE; “Jesse’s Girl.”
*Critical Race Theory: Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice. Closely connected to such fields as philosophy, history, sociology, and law, CRT scholarship traces racism in America through the nation’s legacy of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and recent events. In doing so, it draws from work by writers like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others studying law, feminism, and post-structuralism. CRT developed into its current form during the mid-1970s with scholars like Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, who responded to what they identified as dangerously slow progress following Civil Rights in the 1960s. Ellison, Kingston
*Disability Studies: Disability Studies refers generally to the examination of disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. In contrast to clinical, medical, or therapeutic perspectives on disability, Disability Studies focuses on how disability is defined and represented in society. It rejects the perception of disability as a functional impairment that limits a person’s activities. From this perspective, disability is not a characteristic that exists in the person or a problem of the person that must be “fixed” or “cured.” Instead, disability is a construct that finds its meaning within a social and cultural context. In literary studies, it examines this dynamic as it plays out in texts. CARVER’S “CATHEDRAL”
- Mythological Criticism: This approach emphasizes “the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works.” Combining the insights from anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion, mythological criticism “explores the artist’s common humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols common to different cultures and epochs.” One key concept in mythological criticism is the archetype, “a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response,” which entered literary criticism from 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 critic, Northrop Frye, defined archetype in a more limited way 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.” RITES OF PASSAGE; Bierce, Hawthorne, Kafka, Carroll, etc.; thresholds.