What is Literary Criticism?

What is it we do when we read a piece of literature and write a paper on it for a course? We are, of course, fulfilling certain requirements, but we are also reading and responding to a text. We are writing down what we think and feel about a work of literature, and in order to do that, we must go through a process of thought and analysis about what we have read and what it means to us. Most of you might think that you have never engaged in the critical act, but this is not so. We do it all the time. When someone asks us what we thought about a film or a book, we respond in some way. We might just say, "Awesome!" or "I loved it!" and this is a rudimentary form of criticism. But what if someone asks us what we're doing, and we say we're reading a novel and they say, "Oh, what's it about?" In order to respond to that query, we have to make some decisions, to do some analysis of what we think is going on in the text. Criticism, we should recall, derives from the Greek word meaning judgment. So this is literary criticism at its simplest.

In a more sophisticated explication, literary criticism involves writing about a literary text in order to explore its form, its structure, its meaning, its interpretation, its significance. It may focus on one or more of four elements in the "artistic situation": 1) the work, 2) the artist, 3) the subject of the work, and 4) the audience. Since writing is always a means by which we discover what it is we think about something, it also becomes a way we explore our own minds and feelings. Literary criticism, then, is our response to works of literature, and since, over time, critical interpretations become a part of the discourse about a given text, our own version can also be a response to existing interpretations we have read or heard about.

What is Critical or Literary Theory? See also here and here.

Literary criticism has been around a long time, but we haven't always tried to name, describe and/or categorize it. Those who are interested in the variety of ways we can approach, enter, analyze and interpret a text, are said to be interested in theory. Many would argue that that the act of reading itself constitutes a process of "construction," not just one of "consumption." Readers do not so much retrieve what is already "in the text," as "reproduce" the text and its meanings through interpretive strategies. i.e., we don't simply receive or discover truths in the text, but to an important degree we construct those meanings and truths. If this be the case, we must recognize that we can never approach a text innocently or as completely blank readers. Everyone embodies or embraces some theoretical constructs, but we are usually unaware of them and don't or can't articulate them. In other words, the way we see the world, our worldview, our values, are what we bring to any text we read, and in a sense, we impose this vision, these values, on the texts we read. We can't help doing so, we can't do otherwise. Therefore, we do not read from some free-floating, neutral point in space and time but from the points of provisional identification the text allows in terms of a reader's historico-cultural identities and configurations. It matters who we are and where we come from when we read. The traditional belief in a neutral reading or writing position has been shown to be based on a masculinist, Western bourgeois myth or it is deeply inscribed with patriarchal or imperialist-colonialist ideologies. This seems to me particularly significant when we are reading texts from other times and places, other cultures, as we are in this course. For a guide to Critical Reading in general, please click on the link for access to pages put together by Professor John Lye of Brock University.

For if we follow the method of "close reading" which is widely practiced in all our colleges and universities--i.e., pulling out key passages and reading, thinking and writing about them, explicating them carefully, as I will have you do in your papers--we need to realize that there can be already built in to this a set of assumptions. As critic John Barrell writes:

It is never possible to speak or write except in discourse; and because all discourses embody an account of reality, they all produce a position from which that account is assembled. Whenever we speak or write we are adapting, whether we know it or not, a specific discourse, one that we feel is more or less appropriate to the topic we are addressing and the situation in which our utterances are being made. All our utterances are therefore political utterances, in the widest sense of being attempts to claim for ourselves particular positions in language, which represent us as the subject of knowledge, and represent the world as we, and as those whose interests we assume we share, claim to see it.

Even though you may think/believe that you are thoroughly neutral and apolitical, you do write from some cultural position--you have race, you have gender, you have nationality, religion, you have been raised in certain institutions, in a certain kind of family--all of which leave their mark on you. What you utter, is rooted in these aspects of your background.

What has happened is that certain cultural positions, rooted in Western history and experience--the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the modern scientific method--have become privileged and have been claimed to be universal. So we may talk about "human nature," the natural order, the way things are, or "universal themes" of life and death, god, sex etc., but these may only be our principles, our assumptions, not everybody's. Recent criticism of the sort that we will describe below has denied that there are any qualities that we can identify in human beings that are universal, unchanging, and that constitute a deep ground of identity among all of us. The qualities that human beings express are entirely constructed, and further more, they are constructed within language. So one tendency we must be aware of as we read Japanese texts is our desire to either domesticate a text, to establish our Western hegemony over it, or to distance ourselves from it by exoticizing the text as weird, foreign, not like us, Other, and so easily dismissed. For example, we may talk about Japanese "novels," but they are really shousetsu小説, an indigenous genre which is really quite different from the Western novel. The Western novel, born out of early capitalism in England, was "new" because of its realism, its true-to-life-"ness", and so worked hard to persuade the reader, to bring the reader into the fictional world to make it believable. What if, in Japan, there isn't such a fiction v. truth or reality dichotomy? What if literature is perceived as a variety of truth? A Shousetsu, then, might have a different starting point, different guiding assumptions, different approaches to narrative. Maybe they will just want to flow (rather than persuade), to unfold as natural experience does, without the kind of linear, logical plot development Western readers required. Japanese writers may not feel compelled by the Aristotelian Beginning-Middle-End structure which informed Westerners, and favor instead a lyrical flow which links various experiences, sensory and otherwise, not in a chain (too linear), but in a loose association which evokes mood and atmosphere, which suggests/hints at certain truths rather than insists/ demands/argues its point of view. I want us to be aware of these impulses in us as readers as we go through this course. For a good overall website on theory see the theory.org page.


Historical Background of Criticism

Critical theory has, of course, evolved over time. A most compelling doctrine which held sway in the west for centuries, is the so-called mimetic doctrine which can be traced back to the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle. This critical mode focuses on the relationship of the work of art to the universe, suggesting that the former "imitates" or "represents" the latter. That is, the term mimesis means imitation or representation, so it was held that the work of literature refers to things which actually exist and tries to capture and portray their essence. In the West, we are very far from being free of this notion when we evaluate literature: we think works of art good or successful when they convince us that they are portraying reality accurately. Moreover, as noted above, Aristotle's notion that a work of literature has a beginning, a middle and an end, exerted a powerful influence on literary critics and the academy. Aren't you supposed to write papers that are so structured? I admit that is what I usually expect, though I hope that I can be open to other approaches. However, it is how I was programmed/trained and it is difficult to shake.

The Renaissance brought another critical perspective, a pragmatic theory which placed emphasis on the moral effect of the work and the degree of pleasure a given work afforded and the particular means by which this pleasure was given. Added to this was a strong interest in the author and the relationship of the work of art to the author's life. Is the poem sincere? Is it genuine? How closely and accurately does it portray the intentions, the feelings, the state of mind of the poet while he/she was composing it? The work, then ceases to be regarded as purely mimetic; the mirror held up to nature becomes transparent and yields the reader insight into the mind and heart of the poet. Modern or twentieth century criticism, then, is often based on the belief that the work can best be understood by examining the conditions under which it came into being, which may be supposed to explain why it is what it is. Works of literature then reflect not just the author, but the times, the culture, the society, etc.


New Criticism

The 1950s saw a reaction against the tendency to read the literary work as product of its author's personal experience and historical context, and to emphasize, instead, the FORM and meaning of the work, i.e., how the parts of the work relate to each other to form a beautiful and effective artistic unity. This critical stance came to be called FORMALISM or The New Criticism. These critics pointed out the folly of trying to determine or discern the author's purpose in writing a text, dubbing this the "Intentional Fallacy." New Critics favor looking at motifs such as color, light, darkness, imagery, sounds, repetitions, ironies, etc.

Post-formalists, or those who parted company with the New Critics in the 1960s, included those who favored a psychoanalytic approach to the novel. Arguing that Formalism may work for the poem but not the novel, these critics wanted to probe the human psyche under the theory that works of literature re-present or anticipate fundamental issues in human psychology and experience, so we can expect to find fundamental themes and issues resurfacing in various times, locations and settings. Themes so fundamental to human nature that they reappear in myths, in dreams, in universal symbols, inevitably will surface in literature. So while New Critics viewed works of art as self-contained, self-reflexive and self-referential, post-formalists related literary works to archetypes, myths, meta stories like the Bible, the myth of the Fall, etc., and other fables. And the interior drama of what goes on in the characters' minds becomes of central importance.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

So along with the mimetic doctrine, the pragmatic theory of the work's moral effect, and Formalism, psychoanalytic criticism became a dominant mode in the west. Novels, like dreams, are fictions with a truth to tell which we need to penetrate and interpret, like a mystery we can unravel. Human psychology permeates the text and it is up to us to analyze and penetrate it. Freud introduced us to and focused are attention on the Unconscious Mind, the idea that many--most--of our motivations and intentions were hidden beneath the surface. The I or the ego--the rational, orderly, logical part of our psyche--and the superego, an external projection of the ego which tells us what to do in certain situations drawing on the teachings of our parents, our schools and our religious institutions, represent only one half of the equation. What they tell us not to do or think is repressed, forced into our unconscious mind. This repressed stuff supposedly comes out in our dreams, and to the extent that novels are like dreams, in literature. So by analyzing literature from a psychological point of view, we can learn much about the author/character's deeper mind, his/her fantasies, dreams, fears. So critics in this mode try to expose the latent, underlying content of the work. Or how a work might appeal to our latent wishes, desires, fantasies.


Reader-Response Criticism

The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed a kind of revolt against New Criticism and Psychoanalytic criticism, though both are still widely practiced today. But now the critical marketplace is much more complex and varied. Reader-Response criticism was developed by people interested in the actual process of reading and the role of the reader. It focuses on what texts do to--and in-our minds, as opposed to viewing a text as something with intrinsic properties of its own. Without readers, the text is really nothing: just silent, mute markings on a page, Are our responses to a text equivalent with supposed meanings? Literature exists when we read argues Stanley Fish, and if we think of it as an object and describe what it is, rather than as a process and what it does, then we misconstrue what literature and reading are all about. Fish speaks about "Affective Stylistics" wanting to focus on what transpires during the act of reading. It could be that this school of criticism became a force with the advent of television as people realized how much more active and interactive reading is as compared with viewing TV. For further disucssion on Reader Response criticisn, please see more of John Lye's pages.

Wolfgang Iser writes of the gaps and blanks in the text and how we the readers fill up these spaces with our own connecting devices. The readers must jump in and fill the holes in the text with meaning. That meaning can only come from their own mind and experiences, so therefore, the mind of the reader comes to play a critical role here. Critics in this mode speak of and look for an implied reader, an informed reader, a creative reader who give rise to the texts meaning and intelligibility.

One must also think here of the French Poststructuralist critic, Roland Barthes, who declared in 1968, "the Death of the Author and the Birth of the Reader." His famous quotation is:

We know that the text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of an Author-God), but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.

So this is all part of a shift away from the author as a source of meaning and understanding of the text, to a focus on the act of reading, a dynamic, creative process in which the role of the consumer of the text--not the producer--is emphasized. The secret, hidden or latent meaning of the text is not what is sought, but the reader's process and experience becomes the object of focus. Hence, the most intriguing literature is that which most vigorously involves and exercises the reader, challenging him/her, drawing him/her into the text and calling attention to the structuring activity as reading as a process. As Barthes says, we no longer need think of the text as something with a hidden meaning lurking beneath the surface which the critic, like a detective, must uncover, unlock and decode; rather it is a complex field in which varieties of meanings blend and clash and which new readings, new experiences, new meanings are created as reach reader enters into and wanders around in the text.

A critic deploying reader-response theory can use a psychoanalytic lens, a feminists lens, or even a structuralist lens. What these different lenses have in common when using a reader response approach is they maintain "...that what a text is cannot be separated from what it does" (Tyson 154)

Tyson explains that "...reader-response theorists share two beliefs: 1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and 2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature" (154). In this way, reader-response theory shares common ground with some of the deconstructionists discussed in the Post-structural area when they talk about "the death of the author," or her displacement as the (author)itarian figure in the text. (from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/06/)



A much talked about but poorly understood newer variety of critical theory emanates from France and is known as Deconstruction, which essentially focuses on the inclusion in any and all texts of opposite discourses, tendencies built into the text which seemingly pull apart--dismantle, deconstruct--the obvious meanings, happenings and positions which are revealed to us on a first or cursory reading. The genesis for deconstruction was the philosopher of language Jacques Derrida's observation that language, in effect, names one thing in opposition to another. Something is good in the sense that it isn't bad; black in that it is not white. He begins, as do many of the French post-Structuralists, with Saussure's understanding of language as simply a chain of signifiers distinguishing one element within the system from another, but not really capable of referring to anything else but other links in the chain of signifiers, so contrary to popular belief, language does not really refer to something--anything--outside of itself. Also, he attacks the notion that writing is just a passive transcription of speech--the true logos--the repository of ultimate truth, the essential, the divine content--In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God. Writing, was merely a temporal form that tried to capture speech which came first. This constitutes a privileging of speech and is linked to the "meta-dichotomy" which privileges presence over absence. Other dichotomies flow from these: conscious/unconscious, beginning/end, male/female, construction/destruction. In the west, this privileging of the spoken word, of presence, is called logocentrism, is paramount, but Derrida wants to challenge it, arguing that all language is constituted by differance, a pun on two French words meaning to differ and to defer. In other words, language is based on difference--distinguishing one thing from another, dichotomies--but also, written language "defers" the presence of what is not there, what is absent, but brought to the page through words.

As with Barthes, Reading for Derrida is not a matter of simply finding a single, correct meaning; to do so would be to remain imprisoned in a structure of thought--logocentrism--that would oppose to meanings and declare one of them right and one wrong. Instead, he would open a text up and expose its built-in contradictions, its dichotomies, its oppositions, and focus on these areas as problems and possibilities out of which meaning can be teased. According to Derrida, deconstruction must "through a double gesture, a double writing, put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system." To deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies, by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed grounds of the argument, the key concept or premise. (Culler:86)

Structuralism believed that it could bring scientific principles found in the disciplines of linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and systematically know the form and meaning of literary works. Deconstructionists, or Poststructuralists, know that this kind of systematic knowledge is impossible. Rather than search for a single meaning, they would celebrate the limitless possibilities for the production of meaning which develop when the language of the critic enters the language of the text, and the two meet and grapple, generating readings, counter-readings, and reversals of traditional hierarchies, dichotomies and assumptions. These reversals, when what was once privileged in the old hierarchy exchanges places and properties with what was secondary---e.g. writing v. speech--are what is called deconstruction. The old isn't destroyed and a new alternative or new hierarchy isn't created, but the two are juxtaposed in a new way so that the reader can see how the old pattern worked, how easily it can be reversed and overturned, and hence how rich and contradictory the text and the reader really are. The emphasis, then, is not on the product, the result of the critical endeavor; but on the process and the problems inherent in it, and how we need to be aware and to problematize all the relationships and assumptions we are so eager to take for granted. Because we want very much to have something to take for granted, some ground to stand on; but deconstruction would reveal that there is no such comfortable ground for us to be on and have be aware of and problematize our own desire, urge to discover and get safely to that ground. Derrida seeks to demystify illusions we take for granted, like the illusion of presence and identity, to challenge oppositional or hierarchical logic, and to dismantle binary thinking. So if we go back to what I was saying at the outset, we can see that it is from the insights of structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction that we get the denial that there are any qualities that we can identify in human beings that are universal, unchanging, and that constitute a deep ground of identity among all of us. The qualities that human beings express are entirely constructed, and further more, they are constructed within language. As we read, we need to be aware and prepared to "deconstruct." For more on Postructuralism, please click on the word.



Another important variety of critical theory to surface in the 1970s and 1980s is feminism. There are many varieties of feminism just as there are of deconstruction, but in a word it has to do with focusing on language and power as realms traditionally dominated by males from which females have been historically excluded and in which they have been systematically repressed. See some more useful discussion on Feminism at web pages put together by Professor John Lye. Feminism as a movement seeks to end the subordination of women, plain and simple. Feminist literature, to use Rita Felski's definition, "encompass[es] all those texts that reveal a critical awareness of woman's subordinate position and of gender as a problematic category, however this is expressed."(14)

There are distinct strains in feminist criticism: French, American, British. The French, once again, have played a critical pioneering role, emphasizing the role of language and the existence of a particular brand of feminine writing, or ecriture feminine, replete with images drawn from the female body: "Write yourself. Your body must be heard." (Helene Cixous) Women's sexual pleasure, jouissance, is not narrowly centered in one locale, the phallus, and so can't be expressed in the dominant, ordered, masculine logic. Because female pleasure is more multiple, more diffuse, her writing, to be true, must go off in several directions at once and not be limited to the narrow linearity of the male vision. (Luce Irigaray).

According to Julia Kristeva, female writing is rhythmic and unifying, more semiotic than symbolic. She sees feminine language as derived from the pre-oedipal period of fusion between mother and child. Associated with the maternal, feminine language is threatening to patriarchal culture; but it is a medium through which women can be creative. Moreover, Kristeva, a psychiatrist, build on the work of Jacques Lacan who wrote of the mirror stage when young boys enter the realm of language, breaking away from their mothers and identifying with their fathers, rejecting the feminine as "other" and embracing the masculine. The language they learn here embodies binary oppositions as we have seen, so French feminist conclude that language itself is inherently masculine , phallocentric, privileging the masculine worldview and mode of discourse framed by binary oppositions. Women are left with the choice of either imagining themselves as men and adopting the masculine mode of speech, or they can choose silence and become the "invisible and unheard sex."


American Feminists are more comfortable analyzing literary texts than philosophizing abstractly about language. They have engaged in

1. A feminist critique of male constructed literary history.

a)Revisionist readings of "great" works of literature by male authors, giving feminist rereadings to reveal how the patriarchal ideology works to silence and suppress female characters, and how deeply masculine dominance is inscribed in our literary tradition.

b)Studies of female authors and characters


2. Gynocriticism which focuses on works be female authors, and the rediscovery of women's history and culture. Showalter sees 3 phases:

a) Feminine - women imitating male traditions


b) Feminist - attacking the standards and values of the male tradition


c) Female - advocacy of an autonomous female perspective, a view of their own.


British feminists are more political, more radical and Marxist than their American counterparts; they see us as too willing to assign a role to key individuals rather than stressing class and race along with gender. Brits emphasize the historical process, materialism, in order to promote social change. For another website on Feminism click here.

Although a writer like Enchi Fumiko may not formally write about feminists or raise feminist issues pr se, she is surely concerned almost entirely with the subordination of women and the psychological toll it exacts from women. Masks is a complex, multilayered tale of vengeance which fuels a plot to end the patriarchal dominance of an oppressive landlord family, the Togano. There are pairings, triangulations and intertexts all of which point to a significant role for powerful, shamaness-like women who summon up vengeful spirits. The Waiting Years, another of Enchi's powerful novels, has a prewar historical setting, specifically from the 1880s to the 1920s, and chronicles a family in which the husband, a powerful government official, humiliates and abuses his wife by moving "consorts" into his household as secondary and tertiary wives, leaving her feeling spurned and powerless. She does what she must do, all the while store housing an amazing reserve of inner strength and will which she finally turns upon her husband in the concluding pages of the novel. The depiction of female rage, anger, and resententment against the patriarchy which surfaces in these texts is nothing short of remarkable.


The New Historicism

A new, still evolving field which seeks to destabilize our established conception of what history and fiction are. It is a critical movement interested in providing a "thick description" of historical contexts to literature. So it likes to keep literature enmeshed in a web of historical conditions, relationships and influences. The conditions of production and reception of the text are both valued. History had figured in psychoanalytical criticism, but had been rejected by the New Criticism. Now it makes a comeback!

Michael Foucault is an important, influential figure for this movement. Foucault sees history as not a forward movement, "development" or progress; nor is it an abstraction, an ideal, something which began "In the beginning" and ends with closure as in the "Final Day of Judgment." He makes us aware that we as investigators are part of puzzle: we are situated in relation to the text and we have cultural practices imbedded within us. Foucault sees history in terms of Power, i.e., as a complex of forces: that which produces what happens. One change always connected with a host of others. Literary works, then, are not "self-enclosed verbal constructs, or looped intertextual fields of autonomous signifiers and signifieds." Referentiality is what is emphasized.


A very significant term in critical theory though it overlaps with poststructuralism somewhat. Associated with people like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, postmodernism argues that the the realist world view which fostered modernism has been replaced by a view that sees truth as decentered and contingent. Therefore, all notions of cohesion, unity and certainty should be exposed and made fun of. Postmodernist writers and critics enjoy satirizing and critiquing much of what people accept as reality in the world as an absurdity or a fantasy. For more information on Postmodernism compiled by Professor Lye, click here.


How do these different sort of critical theories or approaches actually work? In his article on literary theory noted above, John Lye takes a few lines from a Shakespeare poem

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

and discusses how different critical approaches might look at the poem:

Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different aspects of these considerations, give them different weight. A deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the sentence works against itself, proving for instance
the dominance of law and the body while apparently proclaiming the freedom of the mind — it might be claimed that what I have done is to "deconstruct" the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with something that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the lowly foot in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and might show how the meaning ultimately depends on that exclusion or marginalized element. An ideological approach might concentrate on the complex of linguistic and social meanings which attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction of an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in with, say, the development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self' in the western capitalist regime. It might also want to look at the conditions of production and consumption of the line — who wrote it for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and class exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those things shape and are subtly present in the line itself. This form of poetry was written for the leisure class, the world which had power over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or those who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged individuals in manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published. A psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of projection, denial and pre-symbolic conflicts that swirl through the line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or loss of identity) and displacement that the line suggests. A reader-response reading would concentrate on how the line structures our responses, and on the larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions. A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard to see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the line tied in with those of other texts and with the cultural practices of the time, and to thus articulate the sentence in its culturally embedded implications, meanings and conflicts. It would he most interested in the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the social structures of the time, and in the power of the discourses themselves (the areas of for instance personal demand, philosophy of love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social institutions) and how they work with and against each other.

(for the text of the entire article, click here)

These, then, are historically ways that critics have examined, analyzed and theorized about texts. It is important, when you are writing your essays for this course that you be aware of how you are "situated" critically in relation to the texts and the culture you are writing about. It is my hope that when you complete a paper you can observe and comment upon the methodology, the approach you have used in analyzing your texts. Were you fundamentally psychoanalytic? Or have you been formalistic? Did you bring a feminist perspective to your essay? Did you try and deconstruct what you read and experienced, or did you focus on reading as a process?