Various Literary Critical Theories

by Gayla Nelson

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

New Criticism

        Great literature does not occur in a vacuum.  While I agree that it is important to focus on the text, I do not agree with the notion that reader response, historical context, and other factors are not as pertinent to interpretation as careful reading.  Such is the belief of what is called "New Criticism."  At this point I believe that you do a disservice to yourself if you confine your reading, interpretation, and enjoyment of wonderful literature through a strict mode of critical thinking.  

        A reader cannot truly appreciate a work such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea unless they have an understanding of Ernest Hemingway, the man, or the times in which he lived and wrote.  Virginia Woolf's Flush would be impossible to comprehend without some knowledge of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a feminist approach to understanding Woolf.  As a matter of fact, I cannot think of a single work in which a comprehensive understanding could be attained without a combination of critical approaches to it.  It is for these reasons that I do not like, or agree with, the New Criticism theory.

Marxist Criticism

        To illustrate Marxist criticism, the theory I have a propensity to use personally, I will use an example to illustrate my point.  The example is the Robert Frost poem below:

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

On a Tree Fallen Across the Road

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey's end for good 

But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks, 
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an axe.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

        A Marxist critic could easily see this Frost poem as the relentless push of capitalism, especially for Americans.  It is interesting that the tree is referred to as the "tempest", a word synonymous with hurricanes, thunderstorms and blizzards because those are naturally occurring events, and capitalism is as natural to Americans as weather.  "We have it hidden in us to attain" implies that in-born tendency of Americans to possess, by purchase or capture, those material things we want.

        The "tempest wood" could be viewed as all those elements that have attempted to stand in the way of this capitalistic take-over: from the native Indians that we drove out of their homes and land in order to possess it; to the Africans we brought over in ships to work the land; to the Chinese we used to build our railroads; to the cold war with the Soviet Union, and all other countries who have dared to stand in the way of American imperialism.  They may question who we think we are, but certainly do not dare to bar our way from attaining our goal.

        While we may debate "what to do without an axe", history has shown that while we may have not readily had on hand that tool needed at that moment, we certainly are capable of producing it, once the barrier is in front of us, be it a need of money to buy our way in, or weapons to force our way in.  We have a seemingly endless supply of young men whose lives we are willing to sacrifice and factories to build weapons, and the masses of common labor (even if it is composed of illegal immigrants) to produce them.

        American capitalism has seemed to "seize earth by the pole", pushing aside those who might claim earlier right, to force labor through slavery, and mass production to build and stake a claim.  American history is a plethora of attainment of land and people and material possessions.  The final two lines of Frost's poem exemplifies  this push for the gluttony of capitalism that permeates the American psyche.  We tire and grow bored of one place and seek to conquer another, whether it be on earth or in space exploration.  There really is no end in sight.  It is as infinite as space.

Psychoanalytic Criticism

        Delving into the psyche of literary characters can be not only fascinating, but can shed new light onto, and new ideas about, those characters.  I think it has a definite place in literary criticism, but it is not the be-all or do-all of an effort to fully comprehend a particular text.  There are so many other issues involved: setting, time frame, events, etc... Also, not all writers have an in-depth comprehension about the work of Jung or Freud of Lacan. So many great writers wrote before the birth of psychoanalysis.  And so these critics respond to a work with this knowledge and their interpretations can sometimes be more "out there" than would be found though a different approach.  

        At the same time, I think people are basically the same as they have been for centuries, so certain characteristics, mannerisms, and activities do not change that much over time.  A psychoanalytic critic can uncover potential meaning that may not have even been evident to the author, but be valid in today's interpretation of a work.  Perhaps the way in which an author has a character appear is a manifestation of his "collective unconscious."

        It is the very complexity of literature that hooks those of us into the study of it who spend their entire lives as students of it.  I find psychoanalytic criticism to be valid and reliable, but still not one which should be used solely in the study of any one work.

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

back to "I was thinking" Menu

thinkbar.jpg (1504 bytes)

Gayla's Garden 1997-2007  Celebrating 10 years on the World Wide Web  All rights reserved