Literary criticism

From LitWiki

Literary criticism is the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of literature. Literary criticism is usually found by way of a critical essay. However, book reviews that are in-depth will be sometimes considered as literary criticism[1]. Literary criticism may scrutinize a particular piece of work or it may analyze an entire collection or genre. Literary criticism is how users evaluate and interpret art. Literary criticism is about one person, the critic, telling another person, the reader/listener, their view of a particular work. They discuss how the piece works and how it doesn't and debate about it. Many good sources of literary criticism are available to users on the Internet; however, many require that users purchase a subscription in order to view them.

"The critic's precise purpose may be to make value judgments on a work, to explain his or her interpretation of the work, or to provide other readers with relevant historical or biographical information. The critic's general purpose, in most cases, is to enhance the reader's understanding of the literary work. Critics typically engage in dialogue or debate with other critics, using the views of other critics to develop their own points. Unfortunately, when critics assume that their readers are already familiar with previous criticism, the argument may be difficult to follow"[2]

History of literary criticism

Early or classical critics

Before Plato, with the exception of a few occurrences, there was no real literary criticism in the sense of theory of literature. He essentially attacked all poetry. However, Aristotle continued on his teacher’s ways, and further expanded upon Plato’s ideas thus expanding and creating more literary criticism. In the 4th century BC he wrote "Poetics" which gives specific example of critiques of contemporary works of art. These two men primarily gave birth to literary criticism[3].

Early critics and texts

  • Plato: "Ion, Republic, Cratylus"
  • Aristotle: "Poetics; Rhetoric"
  • Horace: "Art of Poetry"
  • Longinus: "On the Sublime"
  • Plotinus: "On the Intellectual Beauties"
  • St. Augustine: "On Christian Doctrine"
  • Boethius: "The Consolation of Philosophy"
  • Aquinas: "The Nature and Domain of Sacred Doctrine"
  • Dante: "The Banquet, Letter to Can Grande Della Scala"
  • Boccaccio: "Life of Dante, Genealogy of the Gentile Gods"
  • Anandavardhana: "Light on Suggestion"
  • Cao Pi: "A Discourse on Literature"
  • Lu Ji: "Rhymeprose on Literature"
  • Liu Xie: "The Literary Mind"
  • Wang Changling: "A Discussion of Literature and Meaning"
  • Sikong Tu: "The Twenty-Four Classes of Poetry"[4]

Renaissance criticism

The beginning of the Renaissance critics started in 1498 with the translation of the classic texts. The most important of these translations was of Aristotle’s Poetics, translated by Giorgio Valla. Throughout the Renaissance many authors critiqued classic works, as well as criticizing modern works[3].

Main critics and texts

  • Lodovico Castelvetro: "The Poetics of Aristotle Translated and Explained"
  • Philip Sidney: "An Apology for Poetry"
  • Jacopo Mazzoni: "On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante"
  • Torquato Tasso: "Discourses on the Heroic Poem"
  • Francis Bacon: "The Advancement of Learning"
  • Henry Reynolds: "Mythomystes"[4]

Enlightenment critics

From Milton in England to Henry David Thoreau and even later with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, these authors frequently questioned and criticized literature, arts, social norms essentially expanding their predecessors platforms[5]. The Enlightenment was a cultural movement that focused on changing society through the use of reason and logic instead of relying on faith and religion. As such, critics during the Enlightenment criticized literature through this lens, focusing on how literature could change society using logic and facts rather than chalking everything up to religion, faith, or God[6].

Examples of enlightenment criticism

  • Thomas Hobbes: "Answer to Davenant's preface to Gondibert"
  • Pierre Corneille: "Of the Three Unities of Action, Time, and Place"
  • John Dryden: "An Essay of Dramatic Poesy"
  • Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux: "The Art of Poetry"
  • John Locke: "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding"
  • Samuel Johnson: "On Fiction, Rasselas, Preface to Shakespeare"
  • Edward Young: "Conjectures on Original Composition"
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: "Laocoön"
  • Joshua Reynolds: "Discourses on Art"
  • Richard "Conversation" Sharp: "Letters & Essays in Prose & Verse"
  • Immanuel Kant: "Critique of Judgment"
  • Mary Wollstonecraft: "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"
  • William Blake: "The Marriage of Heaven or Hell"; "Letter to Thomas Butts; Annotations to Reynolds' Discourses"; "A Descriptive Catalogue; A Vision of the Last Judgment"; "On Homer's Poetry"[4]

Types of literary criticism

Moral criticism, dramatic construction

Moral criticism is a type of literary criticism that tends to teach someone right from wrong based on their morals. However, it also tends to end up praising or blaming morality by locating responsibility strictly within the character or nature of an individual[7]. In contrast to Plato's idea of this, Aristotle believed that poetry and drama do not teach morals or ethics, but instead are there for enjoyment and a meas to an end, influenced by a construction[8].

An example of Moral Criticism can be found in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s book "The Republic" was an example of some of the earliest literary criticism. Aristotle's Poetics was another early writing that gave Moral Criticism a start and has continued since[9].

Mythological criticism

Mythological criticism is a combination of anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion. Introduced by Carl Jung, Mythological criticism explores how the imagination uses myths, symbols to different cultures and epochs. The central concept in mythological criticism is to analyze symbols and characters to find deeper meaning. This type of criticism views literature as a gateway to reveal human desires, fears, and expectations; critics in this field uses the text to interpret how different cultures and humans in general view themselves and their place in the world[10].

There are works available that provide forms of Mythological Criticism, which was introduced by C.G. Jung, that will give the reader a good starting point for understanding this type of literature. "The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology" by Joseph Campbell gives the reader insight into this area of literary criticism. Mark Schorer, who wrote "William Blake: The Politics of Vision", provides another option for studying Mythological criticism[11].

Formalism, new criticism, neo-aristotelian criticism

Formalism, New Criticism and Neo-Aristotelian Criticism include the concerns of the parts of a text and how each of the parts fit together to make a whole. Formalist criticism excludes any information outside the actual text; biographies, historical or literary allusions, mythological patterns, or psychological traits of characters. Formalist critics examines each part of the text, each chapter, characters, settings, tone, point of views, diction, and the fictional world created in the text; after which the critic analyzes and describes how each part work together to create the story[12].

Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are two well-known authors for this type of criticism. Jakobson’s "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics", and Sholovsky’s "Theory of Prose" are examples of this kind of writing. Cleanth Brooks, David Daiches, John Crowe Ransome, and T. S. Eliot are all authors where examples of New Criticism can be found. Ransome’s book "The New Criticism", or Eliot’s essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" provide some of the best examples of New Criticism. R.S. "Crane’s Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern", and Wayne C. Booth’s "The Rhetoric of Fiction" are works that can be read to get a better understanding on the subject of Neo-Aristotelian Criticism[9].

Biographical criticism

Biographical criticism examines the effect and influence of a writer’s life on his work, whether be it intentional or not. Biographical critics consider the author’s life and recognizes literary study as being an art not a science; discovering details about the author’s life and times, providing ways to develop ideas about the story[13].

Some examples of and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. The authors of this type of criticism attempt to give a better understanding the elements in the work. "Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction" by K. J. Fielding; and "The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald" by Arthur Mizener are titles that provide examples of biographical criticism[14].

Psychoanalytic criticism, Jungian criticism

Psycholoanalytic criticism and Jungian criticism interpret writings, authors, and readers through a psychological lens. The main focus for Psychological Criticism is on the expression of the unconscious mind in the work, looking at psychology in the narrative itself as well as in the author. Psychological critics consider the symbols in the work and what they might mean; they evaluate the psychological state of characters and examine their motivations and actions with an understanding of psychology in mind. This type of criticism also explores matricide as a literary theme and can explore the author’s own history to determine why they chose to tell that particular story[15].

Some examples of Psychoanalytic and Jungian criticism can be found in the works of Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung. Psychoanalytic Criticism builds on Freudian theories of psychology [9]. His work, "Creative Writers and Daydreamers", or "The Interpretation of Dreams" are good starting points to understanding this form of criticism. Jung, who was a student of Freud, wrote "On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry", a good source for understanding Jungian Criticism[9].

Sociological criticism

Sociological criticism involves discussions of society, social relationships, and historical events that may affect society; shows the relationship between the artist and the society in which they live and how society affects an artist. Introduced by Kenneth Burke, Sociological Criticism is literary criticism directed to understanding literature in its larger social context. It examines the work of art in its social context and studies its social effects. Sociological critics focus on ideologies and experiences of people who lived in the specific time period and their culture; they look for themes of oppression and liberation[16].

Sociological criticism author, Austin Harrington discusses in "Art and Social Theory", ways in which art can be approached from a sociological standpoint. Kenneth Burke and "Literature as Equipment for Living" were at the forefront of examining sociological criticism[17]. Burke provided refinement to the way the world is experienced through his examination of sociological criticism.[17].

Marxist criticism

Marxist criticism was developed by Karl Marx and influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This literary criticism is written in an attempt to reveal ways in which the socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience. It uses material dialect, which is what drives the historical change in the material realities of the economic based society rather than just using the ideological superstructures, such as law, philosophy, politics and art built upon that economic base[9].

Marxist Criticisms are based on the theories of Karl Marx. The writings of Leon Trotsky’s "Literature and Revolution", and Georg Lukács’ "The Ideology of Modernism", are available to assist with the understanding of Marxist Criticism in literature[9].

Reader-response criticism

Reader-response criticism is a literary criticism that focuses on what texts do. These critics raise rhetorical questions that regard how the readers join in with the author in a way of being able to help the text have meaning. Instead of being an impressionistic free-for-all, subjective or legitimizing of all half-baked personal comments on a literary work. Instead, reader-response criticism is focused on finding the in the act of reading and looking at the ways readers or communities responses through examination of their individual experiences through texts[18].

The works of authors Peter Rabinowitz’s "Before Reading, or Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response", are sources for expanding your understanding of Reader-Response Criticism. Hans Robert Jauss’ "Horizons for Reading" is also another source for information on this type of literary criticism[9].


Structuralism and semiotics are used to show readers see how works can be understood and give conventions that will enable readers to make sense of them. Through this type of literary criticism, there are specific rules, which include exposition, flashbacks, foreshadowing, syntax and diction. These rules are to help the reader convey how the work is put together to make a deeper meaning[16].

Two important theorists form the framework of structuralism are Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. "Syntactic Structures", written by Noam Chomsky, "Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays" by Northrop Frye, and "The Elementary Structure of Kinship" by Claude Lévi-Strauss are good sources for better understanding on Structuralism[9].

New historicism/cultural studies

New Historicism is a method of literary criticism that looks to the historicty of the text by using relations to the configuration of power, society or ideology at a specific time within the past. This type of criticism notes the important of the text, but make sure to use historical events in assessing and examining the work. Through this, new historicism critics see whether or not the past ideologies are being passed from the past to the present, and possibly even to the future[19].

New Historicism has been studied and explored extensively in many works. Clifford Geertz’s "The Interpretation of Cultures" or Pierre Bourdieu’s "Outline of a Theory of Practice" are good places to start when researching important examples of New Historicism literature. Stephen Greenblatt wrote "The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance", another good source for information on this form of literary criticism[9].


  1. Leon, Hilary (2010) “Literary Criticism: Definition, Examples & Forms”. Accessed on July 1, 2014
  2. Hale, Steven (2007) “Literary Criticism as a Tool for Interpreting Literature” Accessed on July 9, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hall, V. (1963). A Short History of Literay Criticism . London: The Merlin Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Wikipedia Literary Criticism Accessed July 6, 2014
  5. van Gelder, G. J. H. (1982), Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, Brill Publishers, pp. 1–2, ISBN 90-04-06854-6
  6. Kors, Alan Charles. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  7. Miller, Jessica;Mikhitarian, Michele oral Criticism Accessed July 10, 2014
  8. Karki, Roman Moral Criticism and Dramatic Construction Accessed July 10, 2014
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 Brizee, Allen;Tompkins, J.Case “Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism”Accessed July 7, 2014
  10. Persad, Krishen Mythological CriticismAccessed July 8, 2014
  11. Rutgers "Mythological and Archetypal Approaches" Accessed July 10, 2014
  12. Smith, Nicole "An Overview and Extended Definition of Formalism in Literature and Theory" Accessed July 8, 2014
  13. Wikipedia Biographical criticism Accessed July 6, 2014
  14. CLA "Critical Approcahes to Literature" Accessed July 10, 2014
  15. wiseGEEK "What Is Psychological Criticism?" Accessed July 2, 2014
  16. 16.0 16.1 mmaurno Types of Literary Criticism Accessed July 8, 2014
  17. 17.0 17.1 Anders, Abram "Pragmatisms by Incongruity: ‘Equipment for Living’ from Kenneth Burke to Gilles Deleuze" Accessed July 10, 2014
  18. Delahyde, Michael Reader Response Criticism Accessed July 10, 2014
  19. Murfin, Ross;Ray, Supryia M. Definiton of New Historicism Accessed July 10, 2014

External links

Literary criticism data base
The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism
Literary Criticism and Theory of Criticism is a deeper look into literary criticism
The Library of Congress Annotated List of Reference Websites
Galileo Literature and Literary Criticism Articles & Databases
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism