Critical Lenses

 

 

Formalist Criticism:  For formalists, meaning resides within the text.  The premise behind formalism is that everything we need to know about the book can be found in the work itself.  Formalism is concerned with analysis of the form -- the style, structure, imagery, tone, and genre -- of works of literature.  Formalists consider the interrelationships of the formal elements and the interconnection between form and content. Formalists apply close-readings to texts, which involve careful, line-by-line, and sometimes word-by-word, analyses.  

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Reader-Response Criticism:  While formalism holds that meaning resides in the text, reader-response criticism maintains that meaning resides in the reader, and because of that, a work can have as many varying interpretations as it does readers.  For reader-response critics, what a reader brings to the text (the reader's thoughts, ideas, imagination, experiences) completes the work's creation; readers, therefore, are truly partners with writers in creating literature. 

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Historical Criticism:  Historical criticism explores the historical, social, political, and cultural contexts which surround the creation and reception of a work of literature.  Two premises of historical criticism are that the social, political, and cultural contexts (the historical influences) affect the creation of works of literature and that the meaning of works of literature changes over time as these contexts change.  The responses of the original audience are of interest to the historical critic, as are the connotations and implications of specific words, symbols, images, and characters through time.

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Biographical Criticism:  Biographical criticism examines the effect and influence of the writer's life on his or her work.  The premise behind biographical criticism is that knowing something about the writer's life helps us to more fully understand his or her work.  Biographical criticism is not, however, concerned with retelling the author's life; rather, it applies information from the author's life to the interpretation of the work.  The focus remains on the work of literature, and the biographical information is pulled in only as a means of enhancing our understanding of the work.

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Feminist Criticism:  Feminist criticism explores the effect of the writer's gender on his or her work.  Some early feminist critics are essentialists; they look at works by women to see what approaches in these works, including language use, portrayal of characters and plots, and use of images and symbols, are essentially female.  Other feminist critics explore the effect which male-dominated cultures exert on works of literature and on writers of any and all genders.  Most feminist criticism is political in nature, examining these issues with the ultimate goal of fostering equality between -- and liberation for -- the sexes.  Gender criticism, which was initially spawned by, but now often used as a less-political alternate term for, feminist criticism, examines the influence of gender and sexual identity on the way literature is written and read.

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Psychological Criticism:  When critics apply psychological theories to works of literature, they engage in psychological criticism.  Psychological criticism can often help us better understand the motives and natures of characters, the interpretation of symbols, patterns, and images, and even the creative processes of the writer.  The theories of Freud and Jung (which were often inspired by literary patterns and characters) are often applied to literature by psychological critics. 

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Mythological Criticism:  Archetypes, universally shared symbols and images, and recurring patterns are the elements of interest to mythological critics.  Jung's work with archetypes and the collective unconscious and Joseph Campbell's work uncovering patterns shared by myths, stories, and literature worldwide have been instrumental in developing mythological criticism.  Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces is an important text in laying the groundwork for this school of interpretation. 

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Sociological Criticism:  Sociological criticism, as X.J. Kennedy states, "explores the relationship between the artist and society."  This form of criticism also applies sociological theory to the interpretation of literature.  For sociological critics, the social, cultural, economic, and political contexts of literature are worthy of investigation, shedding light on the content and ideology of the work of literature and its reception by readers.  Marxist critics apply Marxist economic and political theory to literature, examining literature for what it reveals about class struggle.  Other sociological critics have applied theories of Maslow, Durkheim, and other sociologists to literature.

 

 

 

 

 

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Copyright ©1995-2011

by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University, with some clarifications added.