A Brief Overview of Literary Criticism
Woman Reading Book in a Landscape, Camille Corot
Literary Critical Theory is a tool that helps you find meaning in stories, poems and
plays. There are many different ways to interpret a novel or short story.
When we read literature, we do so to learn more about:
● The human condition
● The experience of loss and death
● The structure of power in society and how it is implemented (including the issues
that surround race and gender).
● The psychology of characters and individuals in general
● The sociology and history of cultures that produce specific pieces of literature
Literary Theory helps us discover the things listed above in the books and stories we
read. So how do you use theory to read a book? Before exploring, in brief, different
theories, it is important to develop a reading strategy that will help you form ideas.
You should keep a reading notebook and write down ideas and information as you
read. Here is a checklist of things to notice:
● Title. How does it pertain to the story? Does it symbolize events or people in the
● Narration: Who is telling the story? How does the narrator approach the topic?
● Subject: What is the basic situation? What is happening to the characters and how
are they reacting to events?
● Mood: What is the mood of the story, i.e. the emotional background? How is it
expressed in the language and setting?
● Characters: What do the characters learn in the course of the story? What are their
failings and how do they overcome them, or not? What is the main character’s
desire? Is that desire ever fulfilled? How does the main character change?
● Character Interaction: How do the characters interact in the story? How do they
communicate with each other? How do they handle conflict?
● Plot: What are the main events in the plot that lead the character to new insights, or
to his or her failure?
When you read a book, you can highlight the passages that strike you as significant. You
can also write notes in the margin of the text to yourself, which is called “annotation.”
Example of an Annotated Book
Literary Criticism In Brief:
This handout provides information on four theories; however, keep in mind there are
many different kinds of theories, including gender/feminist criticism; race theory;
Marxist; Biographical; Deconstruction; Structrualism; Post-colonial critical theory.
The Five Critical Literary Theories that we will learn about in this class include:
Formalism or New Criticism
Reader Response Theory
New Historicism Analysis
Formalism or New Criticism:
This approach views each piece of literature that possesses
all of its meaning inside the text. Meaning does not exist
outside the text. In other words, the history behind the text or
its author’s biography do not contribute to the text’s theme or
content. To analyze literature through formalism, you will
focus on the style, structure, tone, imagery, etc. You will
analyze how certain elements work together to create
meaning within a text.
Empire of Light by René Magritte
Example: Tim O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carry” (about his experience in the
Vietnam War) is analyzed not by using his biography or history to interpret the
story. Instead, you look at all elements inside the work: diction (use of language),
character, plot, metaphor, and imagery. Key questions a Formalist Critic asks:
● How does the language and other literary elements convey a specific
representation of the Vietnam War?
● What are dominant metaphors and imagery and what do they symbolize?
Reader Response Criticism
This approach views “literature” not as an object, like
formalism does, but as a dynamic interaction between the
text and reader. This theory holds that there are many
different ways to interpret the text based on the reader’s
cultural, religious, economic, etc. background.
In other words, readers bring their own thoughts, views,
experiences and attitudes to the text and interpret the
The Reading, Frederico Zandomeneghi
story through a personal lens. This critical theory is often used to discuss a text in a
classroom setting where students are supposed to provide their own insights on the
Example: You can easily apply this theory to “The Things They Carried.” For instance,
if you have experienced war, you can discuss it in relation to how O’Brien represents
war. If you were raised in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, you can reflect on your
memory of that time period and use it to find meaning in the story. If you have personal
and religious ideas of war, you can use that to interpret the text. Key questions a Reader
Response critic asks:
● How does the interaction between the text and reader create meaning?
● How do the images and language in the work influence or affect the reader?
● What shapes our knowledge of reading, what is our purpose of reading and how
does that influence how we read a particular story, poem or novel?
Based on the theories of Freud, this criticism centers on the
psychology of the characters and analyzes character
motivation, behavior and actions. If you can figure out the
protagonist’s psychology, then you can use that to interpret
the text. The theory is also used to analyze the author’s state
of mind. There are two main offshoots of this critical theory:
● It investigates the psychology of particular writer focusing how an author’s
biographical situations affect or influence their selection of theme and use of
● It analyzes fictional characters using the concepts, terms and methods of
Example: To apply this theory to O’Brien’s short story you can ask explore the narrator’s
psychology in the face of war; How does the Vietnam War influence, both negatively and
positively, his psychology? What does the soldiers’ behavior reveal about the
psychological stresses of war? Key questions a psychological critic asks:
● What does the work suggest about the psychological aspects of the author?
● Does the work have any hidden meanings, or subconscious elements that help to
interpret the work?
● How can characters’ actions be explained using theories of fear or attraction to
death, or using the struggle between the id, ego and the superego?
New Historicism Criticism
Here, you research the historical time period and discuss
the work within its historical context. This theory looks
at the cultural makeup of a certain era and the ideas and
values that define that era. The text serves as a “retelling
of history” and, if viewed as a historical document, can
supply a radically different viewpoint than what is
commonly known about an event, era and/or person.
New Historicism also provides cultural and historical
critique as well as helping the reader to find new
meanings in a text.
Ancient Text Written in Latin
Example: To analyze O’Brien, you’d research the Vietnam War, or a specific battle of
that war, and analyze the story using historical fact and detail. Key questions a New
Historicism critic asks:
● How does the portrayal criticize the event and the political figures around it?
● How does the text change meaning when read by a different generation that
experiences different kinds of war?
● What language/characters/events/setting reflect the current events, political and
cultural, of the author’s time period?
Using this critical method, you will analyze issues that
are caused by centuries colonialism, like England’s
economic role in India and Africa in the 1800 and
1900s. This theory includes the dynamics of racism
and Third World politics. If you applied this theory to
“The Things They Carried,” you would research
Vietnam as a former colony of France and how/why
the United States, as a powerful and wealthy country,
became involved in a civil war there. Some questions
a post-colonial critic might ask:
● How did the American intervention in Vietnam change the social and cultural
climate there and how does O’Brien represent those changes in his story?
● What issues of race are associated with the Vietnam War and how are they
depicted in the literature?
● What caused the Vietnam War and how were those causes linked to the world
powers at the time? How does the story relate to or describe those causes?
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