Literary Criticism



1. What is Criticism?

Criticism, in the sense that we use it as students of literature, has nothing to do with its everyday meaning, which is something like 'complaint'. Literary criticism is commentary on a text. The focus in literary criticism is on the reader's response to the text.

Again, 'reader's response' means something more exact than it would to a non-specialist. Most people respond to literature in a highly personal way, relating it to their own experience or to their own philosophy of life. That kind of response is similar to what is called, in Japanese, a  dokushoukansoubun.

Literary criticism is something different. It aims to comment in a more objective way on the themes and techniques of the text. It explores such issues as why the writer chose certain words and not others, or why the writer included certain details and not others.

2. The History of Criticism

Criticism can be traced back more than two thousand years, to the ancient Greeks. Certain passages in Plato's Republic, and Aristotle's Poetics, are usually considered to be the origins of western critical theory. In these early days, criticism mainly took the form of setting out to define the various literary genres. Tragedy, for example, was defined partly through its subject matter (a flaw or weakness in an otherwise great person), partly by its technical qualities (Greek tragedy took place on a single scene in a single day - the 'unities' of time and place), and partly by its effect on the audience (causing them to feel pity and fear).

Central to the ancient Greeks' approach was the idea that art (including literary art) was imitative of life. This idea was generally accepted until about the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson, for example, says of Shakespeare that 'his drama is the mirror of life' (Preface to Shakespeare). Round about this time, though, the focus was beginning to shift from the relationship between art and life to the relationship between art and its audience. It was also Johnson who said, 'The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing' (ibid.).

With the romantics, the emphasis changed yet again. Now it was the relationship between art and the artist which was seen as central. From being a mere imitator of nature, the artist (and especially the literary artist) had evolved, through the stage of being a servant to the taste of his or her audience, to being a creator, almost comparable with God.

From these beginnings, a wide range of critical schools have grown up in the 20th century. Perhaps the most significant development has been the break with the idea that the author's relationship to the text is the centrally important basis for literary criticism. The reason for this break lies mainly in the awareness that authors write from within a social and psychological framework that lies outside their control, and this framework plays a large part in shaping the text.

An example may help here. When Margaret Mitchell created the character of 'Mammy', in Gone With the Wind, she showed her as a black woman whose sense of pride came from the fact that she was enslaved to a high-class white family. She even insults other blacks, calling them 'niggers'. Mitchell's text, therefore, contains the ideas that it is acceptable for white people to own black people, that black people gain their sense of pride from the quality of their white owners, and that they naturally despise other blacks.

All of these ideas are a product of Mitchell's society. It is hard to imagine anyone writing a book with such ideas in it today.

Modern criticism, therefore, focuses mainly on the text itself, or on the relationship between the text and the reader.

3. Some of the Main Schools of Modern Criticism

This section is not exhaustive; Psychoanalytic criticism, reader-response criticism and Russian formalism are among the schools of thought that I have omitted through lack of space.

i)    New Criticism

This school of thought grew up in America. It was developed from the ideas of the English critic I.A. Richards, and influenced by T.S. Eliot. Basically, the New Criticism is very similar to what I usually expect when I ask for a practical criticism. The basic approach could be summed up as, 'There is the text; read it. What does it tell you?' New criticism usually focuses on shorter poems, and allows the text to speak for itself. Historical and biographical information is excluded. Underlying the New Criticism is the idea that, while the world itself is complex and full of apparent contradictions, the poet can see an order and a meaning in it, and reflect that in his or her poetry. The New Criticism was popular from about 1940 to 1960, and still influences thinking about literature today.

ii)    Leavisite Criticism

F.R. Leavis, like the New Critics, believed that analysis of the text should be based on the text itself. A text is not, he argued, a vehicle for a 'message', but says something about the complicated nature of human experience. I agree, up to a point. If we think the text simply carries a message, we could just pick out the message (for example,'The message of Macbeth is that those who do wrong will be punished for their evil actions') and then we could throw the text away!

The main qualities Leavis looked for in a text were 'moral seriousness' and depth of feeling. The text should not only have beauty and mastery of language, but also should say something important about life. His approach dominated the study of literature until the 1970s.

iii)  New Historicism

Unlike the New Criticism, New Historicism, strongly influenced by the English Marxist critic Raymond Williams, seeks to see works in their political and historical context. However, the traditional view of history, which focuses on kings and queens and the lives of the privileged few, is turned on its head. The New Historicism looks at the wider picture. In studying Shakespeare, for example, New Historicists will want to consider Elizabethan England, not only as the scene for courtly living, but in the light of the poor and the underprivileged. Explorers and adventurers like Francis Drake may create a sense of wonder on the one hand, but on the other their ships were full of rats and diseases. Does Shakespeare speak for the common people? Or does he speak on the side of power and authority? Or does he speak for a repressed minority? New Historicism will seek to answer questions such as these. 

iv)  Marxist Criticism

Like the New Historicism, Marxist criticism looks at the social context of the text. Above all, it sees literature in the light of the class struggle and economic balance of the society in which that literature was written. It has little to do with the politics of communism. George Lukacs is the leading writer of such criticism.

v)    Feminist Criticism

While Marxist criticism sees society as divided between rich and poor, feminist criticism analyses literature in terms of a society divided between men and women. On the one hand, feminist criticism has 'rediscovered' and reappraised literature written by and about women and, on the other, it has asked questions about the assumptions writers make in their use of language and their portrayal of women. Why, for example, did I write 'men and women', not 'women and men'?

Of course, there are other perspectives from which literature can be viewed. For example, the emergence of Black Studies shows the potential for approaching literature from the point of view of race. However, I have only limited space here, and cannot do justice to all these topics!

vi)  Structuralism

Structuralism developed from a linguistic approach to literature, based on the ideas of Saussure. In some ways it follows on from the Leavisite and New Criticism schools, but many of the followers of those schools were bitterly opposed to it. The structuralist approach went one step further than simply putting the text first; essentially, it rejected anything else except the text. While Leavis and the New Critics were looking at literature as a way of expressing some fundamental order in the apparent complexity of life, the structuralists refused to consider the relationship of the text to anything outside itself.

From this we can see that they also rejected the New Historical approach and related schools, such as Marxist and feminist criticism, which see literature in its social context. Paradoxically, though, structuralism is such a challenge to society's normal understanding of things, that it takes on a social context - that of opposing society.

This extreme initial impact of structuralism has softened greatly in recent years. The long-term impact of structuralism has been, on the one hand, to provide literary criticism with a new range of technical terms and definitions for which the critic can use as tools with which to analyse literature and, on the other, to point out that, contrary to the position of Leavis and the New Critics, it is not that literature orders reality, but that it very often fails to order it, since it operates within narrower limits.

vii)  Deconstruction

The structuralists operated with a sense that the linguistic approach to literature was sufficient to bring about a complete analysis of any given text. Following them a range of post-structural critics have developed a variety of approaches which basically, in a sense, admit defeat; that is to say, they assume - and set out to demonstrate - that any analysis will, in the end, fall short of fully defining the qualities of the text.

The main position that has arisen from this is that put forth by Jaques Derrida, and known as 'deconstruction'. Writers attempt to use language to give order to reality, but the literature which results gives only an illusion of order. In fact, the text will contain contradictions and illogicalities, and of course there will always be omissions. In turn, the reader and the critic also attempt to give order to the text. Thus, the structuralist idea that reality is too complex for literature to order it is extended; just as literature cannot order reality, so criticism cannot order literature. The 'truth' (and there are two schools - one which believes that there is a truth, and one which does not) is always outside our reach.

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