Critical Lit

Critical Analysis #

The way we interpret a piece of literature depends on the perspective we come from. Largely it is determined by the constructs or social, religious and cultural conditioning that have influenced our way of seeing the world and our way of thinking. Dr Samuel Johnson claims the “common readers” shy away from technical from the rich and pleasurable insights that balanced, intelligent literary criticism can lead to. They simply want to enjoy it.

Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation attacked critics for “usurping and desecrating works of art “. Al Pacino considers many academics, often present lofty judgments in arcane inaccessible language, killing any enjoyment. They write to justify the joys of resentment,

Traditional methods can also be called orthodox or dominant views while alternative ones can be variant, divergent, dissident, resistant or subversive views. There are no prescribed ideologies you need to consider:

What the syllabus actually says: There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.

Module B states:

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and Its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved. Art is difficult to understand, because it is meant to expand our experience.

No one has a monopoly on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next.

T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

He also claimed that “criticism is inevitable as breathing, and we we should be none the worse for articulating what passes through our minds as we read”.

As Howard Jacobson says, “a book should be something you grapple with, otherwise there’s no point.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot: “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you”.

Auden: “Now and again, an exquisite minor work can make a master feel thoroughly ashamed of himself”.

Coleridge:Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc. if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

Nicki Gemmell:“Hatred seems to be admired more than ever now. Critics are rewarded for Hatchet Jobs ( mean, vicious, vitriolic, ugly-spirited) instead of incisive, reflective, thoughtful constructive criticism. Many are no more than personal attacks”. You Hate What you cannot be. The Australian Weekend Magazine.

Newspapers prefer negative reviews over the benign in order to spice up their pages; it gets noticed, it triumphs.

Note the famed response to a carping, caviling critic, attributed to German composer Max Reger:

“Sir I am seated in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment, it will be behind me”.

Perhaps the put-downs reveal a threatened little critic, attempting to make themselves feel better.

Some writers like to critique other writers:

Mark Twain on Jane Austen

Every time I read “Pride and Prejudice

” I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too.

Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.

It appears male writers were threatened by emerging women writers need to be put back in their place.

Norman Mailer wrote.

“In the run of Updike’s pages there are one thousand other imprecise, flatulent, wry-necked, precious, overpreened, self-indulgent, tortured sentences.”

John Updike detects, in Margaret Atwood,

“awkwardly introduced straining after poetic similes, which clutter nearly every page in self-regarding, bathetic splendour.”

  1. Literary criticism (Lit Crit) has developed over a period of several thousand years beginning with Plato, -an opposing view from Aristotle - and then progressing through the ages. In the last eighty years, many of the basic assumptions have been challenged by waves of new criticisms representing an assault on traditional –moralistic approaches.

Historical/Biological approaches emphasise the influences and reflections of the life and times of the authors. While Moral/Philosophical approaches follow Plato’s moralism and Horace’s need to be delightful and instructive. Samuel Johnson felt literature should teach morality and probe philosophical issues.

  1. Formalistic (New Criticism) from the 1930’s to the 60’s. A reaction against historical/biographical emphasis, this movement claimed that art is art and can stand on its own. It pushed close reading of text to discover meaning and intent as an aesthetic appreciation.

  2. Psychological (Freudian) Approach revived from the 1950’s

  3. Archetypal and Mythical Approach (Jungian) from the 1960’s

  4. Deconstructuralists:

  5. Exponentialism – a fusion of images, metaphor, symbolism, motifs and themes.

  6. Post- Modernism - An elusive term.

  7. A wave of disenfranchised approaches giving voice to marginalised groups

Ø Feminist Literary criticism

Ø Marxist Criticism

Ø Postcolonial and Multiculturalism

Ø Homosocial – Lesbian and Gay viewpoints

Reasons for Writing #

One of the primary considerations reader’s focus on is the Purpose of the writer. Why is the composer creating his/her artifact? Let us look at some what some writer’s claim they are:

  1. Guy de Maupassant – a French writer of the 19^(th) C.

To console me, amuse me, make me sad, make me sympathetic, make me dream, make me laugh, make me shudder, make me weep, but above all to make me think!

  1. Joseph Conrad – Polish/English writer early 20^(th) C.

By the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all to make you SEE.

  1. Salmon Rushdie – Indian quoting South African Andre Brink

”Writer’s responsibility to speak against the silence” Rushdie added: as long as governments lied and journalists told at best half-truths, it was the role of the writer, through fiction, to tell the facts (truth).

  1. George Orwell (Eric Blair) shares four reasons with us:

-Sheer egotism - a desire to be recognised, remembered after death
-Aesthetic enthusiasm – perception and expression of beauty.
-Historical impulse – to see things as they are
-Political purpose – alter people’s idea on the society to strive for.

  1. Writers write for a variety of reasons, but mainly to voice their concerns; some write to document the times – chronicle or crystallise experience and distil the essence of history to give it permanency, while others use it as an emotional release of pent up tension and some write for the edification or moral uplifting of the world.

  2. A major conflict has existed between those who write for aesthetic reasons; “art for art’s sake,” and those who feel it should have a more utilitarian or purposeful function, either didactic or propagandist.

  3. Writing as therapy: One remedy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is to vent; express your anguish, get it out into the open. Severe sufferers refuse to talk about it and it festers. Writing about it and empowering yourself to fight the cause can provide greater therapy than private quiet grieving and brooding.

Franz Kafka suggests:

Writing should be an axe for the frozen sea inside us”.

Confessional poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins and Robert Lowell* found venting their anxieties releasing;

Ted Hughes’ Private Letters indicate his motives and therapeutic effect:

‘I’m not sure the effect of writing the poems isn’t just too raw’; at the end of the Birthday Letters project: It was so great, I was sorry I hadn’t done it before. Writing released a bizarre dream life, and I realised how much had been locked up inside me. “I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life,”

Hughes wrote, in despair, to London’s Independent newspaper in 1989 after someone had chiseled his name off Plath’s gravestone. This question of who “owns” truth?

In Lady Lazarus and in Daddy, Silvia Plathuses her writing as therapy; by a frank and full admission of her pain she is hoping for some cathartic release of tension and an exorcism of the demons that haunt her.

Emily Dickinson’spoems, intensely emotional, yet never dissolving into sentimentality, reveal a troubled soul searching for understanding and acceptance; a need for posterity to recognise her achievement.

Another writer who used writing as an attempt to address inner turmoil is Zelda, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, commenting on the disintegration of their marriage:

“To right myself, I write myself. Writing is an escape into the depths of my imagination.”

Kathy Lette claims she writes because “it’s cheaper than therapy”.

Historical Critical Approaches: #

I. The Traditionalist Approach

Until the 1930’s Literature was considered merely to illustrate the past, biography was more important than the work of art.

1. Textual – Linguistic #

– the meaning of words in their historical context. The vernacular writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare were analysed.

2. Historical – Biographical #

  • Literary work seen as a reflection of the author’s life and time; Piers Plowman illustrates life in 14^(th) C. Dickens – 18^(th) C., John Updike – late 20^(th) C. America.
    The creative artist responds to the tensions or conflicts of his era.

3. Moral and Philosophical #

  • Function of Literature to teach morality, to enlighten. It must have redeeming social value and demonstrate that good must conquer evil.


  1. Overlooks structural techniques of the author.

  2. Classical works become universal - transcending time or place

  3. Literature seen to replace the church in moral edification

Little room left for the reader’s response.

1.1 Poetic Forms #

are generally more distinctive and disciplined

a) Epics - sagas A narrative tale retold on a large scale

b) Ballads – narrative tales told in a rhythmical way

c) Sonnets – 14 lines simple expression of noble thought or passion

d) Ode - impersonal expression on a worthy dignified subject and manner

e) Lyric – strongly emotional, direct – rhythmical

f) Elegy – on love or war gentle melancholy rather than passion.

1.2 Novel Forms or genres #

can vary according to purpose and target audience:

a) Social satire

b) Diary

c) The Western

d) Romance

e) Science Fiction

f) Historical biographical

g) Supernatural

h) War

i) Children’s Lit

j) Detective, Who dun-nits, pot boilers, page turners…

II. The Formalistic Approach #

From the 1930’s emphasis on works of art in themselves intensified. With an emphasis on form, design, craft, plot, structure, point of view, sentence structure, diction (connotative and denotative meanings) and use of allusions.*

We will look at a some of these in great detail:

1.Form or Structure #

– sometimes called scaffolding, shape, plot, patterns

  • the symmetry of the shape provides unity.
    In novels or short stories and some plays, movies and T.V. plots, structural patterns are significant. Here are some prominent ones:

a) Rising Action – Climactic - a chronological beginning middle and end.

The model favoured by Aristotle because it creates a slice of life evoking a sense of realism, verisimilitude and emotional empathy - Catharsis. Unity is the primary goal.

b) In Medias Res - The Flashback technique favoured by Plato. You start at an engaging point and then go back to fill in the expository situation.*

The action begins at a high point of interest and then once the reader or audience is gripped, it will flip back to the beginning of the story and then progress through to the end. Plato stressed that this was a superior technique because the reader was constantly aware that the story was a story – not real life and so therefore more detached, objective and cerebral.

c) Horizontal - Episodic - The reader follows the first person participant narrator along a linear path of a series of episodes or random thoughts. This can be a journey of Quest (self-discovery), or in the modern novel a “Stream of Conscious” approach. Strong vibes of realism. Ex: Huck Finn

d) Vertical - A series of apparently disconnected incidents or episodes that are tenuously bound by the interaction of common geography, motifs, or ideas. Many feminist writers – Virginia Woolf, Margaret Laurence.

e) Convergent - An incident occurs at a central point and the author traces the situations, motivations and journeys as they converge on the crucial meeting.

Ex: The Bridge of St Louis Rey, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Towering Inferno, Cannon Ball Run II

f) Amorphous – random – chaotic experimental

Some novels, movies or plays appear to have no discernible structure. This is not wholly true as usually you can find some form. Many absurdist writers such as Catch 22, a war novel by Joseph Heller have been accused of simply shuffling the chapters like cards into a random order. Yet close analysis demonstrates a fundamental order perhaps cyclical.

2. Style – #

Difficult to label, but affected by language, allusions, sentence structures

3. Setting, Character, Themes #

4. Point of View or Perspective #

  • i) Omniscient observer - objective, detached, aloof

  • ii) Commentator, interpreter, moraliser

  • iii) first person participant
    a) innocent naïve persona
    b) observer *

Deconstruction #

Controversial mode of textual analysis that can reveal hidden ideological assumptions. Questions hierarchical thinking in which one term is privileged over another (e.g. culture versus nature, man versus woman). Draws on thought of French theorist Jacques Derrida, who elaborated

Homo-social #

Throughout history it is estimated that about 10% of the population has a sexual orientation known as homo-sexual; either male to male – gay or female to female – lesbianism.

Most literary criticism has been written from the perspective of the hetro-sexual and the homo-social approach addresses this imbalance by approaching literature from a divergent perspective.

Issues to be considered:

· Does the work deal with sexual identity or orientation? Does it allow for alternative orientations?

· Is there any covert coding of alternate sexual preferences?

· Is there any unspoken or unconscious lesbian, gay or queer tension?

· Are there power struggles or politics that may be due to conflict between gay culture and dominant heterosexual ones?

Flaws or limitations in Homo - social views

Extreme views attempt to impose homo – erotic views on the general population with the danger that reactionary forces will prevail and squash their views. A lesbian group in England attempted to have Romeo and Juliet banned in schools because it presented a strong case for hetro-sexual love but none for homo sexual.

Is an artist’s idea of what their work means more important than the viewer’s interpretation, or are they both valid? – Art News Blog

A captious critic is relentlessly negative; carpingly dismissive of all. It is important to realise that we are all flawed individuals and criticism, unless constructive can appear petty, trivial and pedantic if it merely serves the purpose of venting by ranting and raving.

Good criticism should provoke underlying questions, spurring readers to think for themselves. Kant called this the task of enlightenment; it is certainly the mark of good criticism.