Critical Theories-Overview

Reader-Response Criticism: This type of criticism attempts to describe what happens in the reader’s mind while interpreting a text. A Reader-Response (RR) critic might also explore the impact of a particular text on his or her own ideas or values. For example, one might reflect on how a particular character seems admirable or unlikable and why. One might reflect on how one’s religious, culture, or social values affect readings. RR may consider any aspect of the text they find important to understanding the text. The job of the RR is to make-meaning of the text as a reader. Personal reflection is often a part of this analysis. Read More Here.

Formalist/Structuralist/New Criticism:
“The text itself” was a phrase commonly employed by New Critics in the 1940s as a reaction to an overemphasis of many critical theorists (at the time) who looked to the author as the primary source for interpreting work. The concept of Close Reading also came thanks to the New Critics (NC). “Intentional fallacy,” was a term the NCs coined to explain what they thought was the mistaken idea that the author’s intention is the same as the text’s meaning. Instead, NCs believed a close reading and analysis of form could reveal the meaning of the text. New Critics looked for four primary devices in the text: paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension, but this practice is no longer regarded as complete. Many theorists believe that, although Close Reading remains vital, the text cannot be viewed as isolated from other forces that work to shape meaning, such as the context (both historical and ideological) in which the work was written. Examination of form and structure (Formalist Criticism) and Close Reading, however, remain valid today. For the purposes of this introductory class we will be grouping these closely aligned criticisms together, but for a more in-depth analysis of each separately, click here: Structuralism, Formalist, New Critics.

Gender Criticism: This type of criticism examines how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works. Gender studies originated during the feminist movement (1970s), when critics began investigating the unexamined assumptions around gender in a piece of literature. Feminist critics explored how an author’s gender might—consciously or unconsciously—affect his or her writing. These critics may also explore how images of men or women in literature might reflect or reject the social norms around gender in a particular society. According to Bedford's feminist criticism has evolved over the past several decades and "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." Read More Here.

Sociological Criticism: Like Historical Criticism, Sociological Criticism examines literature in the cultural, economic, and political context in which it is written or received. This type of criticism may analyze the social content of a literary work—the cultural, economic, or political values a particular text implicitly or explicitly expresses. Read More Here.

Biographical Criticism: Biographical critics explore how understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the literary work. Note: biographical critics are not concerned with simply describing the author’s life but instead with interpreting the literary work using the insights provided by knowledge of the author’s life.

Psychoanalytic Criticism: This type of criticism views the themes, conflicts, and characterizations of a work primarily as a reflection of the needs, emotions, states of mind, or subconscious desires of the author. Oedipus complex and Freud’s discovery of the unconscious play a big role in Psychoanalytic criticism. Psychoanalytic theorists also pay very close attention to dreams, drives (for love and life) and the role of family in shaping identity. Interested? Read more here.

New Historicism: New Historicist (NH) critics look at the impact of the politics, ideologies, and social customs of the author’s world on the themes, images, and characterizations of a text although a NH critic acknowledges that, like literature, history is a dialogue derived from culture. History is written, in part, with an awareness of an audience. Literature of the past, then has two audiences: one influenced its design in the moment of its creation and the other influences its interpretation in the present moment. This type of critic considers how our contemporary lens inevitably alters our interpretation. According to Bedford's, New Historicism "emphasizes the interaction between the historic context of the work and a modern reader’s understanding and interpretation of the work." Not to be confused with the "old" historical criticism of the 30s and 40s,  New Historicism has flourished since the 80s and grew out of the 70s "post-structuralist and reader-response theories... as well as by the thinking of feminist, cultural, and Marxist critics..."
(Click here for a more in-depth look at NH).   

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