Forming your perspective on a poem, story, or play might be easier if you understand some of the approaches commonly taken toward interpreting literature’s meaning. Literary studies have been around long enough that like-minded readers and scholars have gravitated toward basic common positions as they engage in dialogue with each other. As a result, there are a number of widely-recognized critical approaches to literature, from formalists (who focus on how an author employs strategies and devices for a particular effect) to psychoanalytical critics (who explore texts to better understand humans’ psychological structure and their typical responses to particular experiences). As you consider a poem or story, you might choose one of these approaches as the general lens through which to examine that work. What follows is a list of some of the most common critical perspectives. Consider them and make a note of any that strikes you as particularly interesting. You may find that one or several of these reflect your own way of looking at the world.
This approach examines the life and attitudes of an author as the key to understanding the writer’s work. You should probably avoid heavy dependence on this approach, however, as you write essays for this class. Commonly used in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has now been largely discounted as a reliable way to understand the meaning of a text.
Formalism (also referred to as “New Criticism”)
Rising to prominence in the 1920s, this approach considers a literary work as an entity separate from its author and its historical context. The formalist explores a poem as a mechanic would explore an engine. The mechanic would assume that the engine’s parts and function can be studied without any understanding of the maker’s life and/or the history of the period in which the engine exists. Similarly, to assess a poem’s impact and understand its meaning, a scholar might “take it apart,” considering its separate elements—the form, line length, rhythm, rhyme scheme, figurative language, and diction—and how those pieces make up the effect of and shape the meaning of the whole.
Based on the theories of Freud and others, this approach examines a text for signs and symbols of the subconscious processes, both of the characters and of humans in general. Revelatory symbols in a work might include water (the womb or the subconscious), a phallus (patriarchal power or sexual desire), a vessel such as a vase or pitcher (the vagina or sexual desire), and dark passageways (the feared subconscious where we store our unacceptable impulses and desires, and in which we are afraid we might get lost from the ordered, visible world).
Springing from psychoanalytical criticism, this approach focuses on common figures and story-lines that reveal patterns in human behavior and psychology. Well-known archetypal characters are the hero, the scapegoat, the Earth mother, the temptress, the mentor, and the devil figure. Some common archetypal storylines are the journey, the quest, the fall, and death and rebirth. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, key figures in the development of this approach, found that in the many stories they collected from cultures all over the world, these figures and storylines emerged over and over again. Their conclusion was that these figures and storylines are etched into the human psyche (or subconscious), and as we recreate them in our stories, our audiences recognize them as symbolic of their own experience.
Using this approach, one examines a literary work for insight into why and how women are subjected to oppression and, sometimes, how they subvert the forces that oppress them.
Expanding on feminist criticism, gender studies explore literature for increased understanding of socially defined gender identity and behavior and its impact on the individual and on society. It includes study of sexual orientation and how non-heterosexual identities are treated by mainstream ideology, a dynamic sometimes reflected in, sometimes critiqued by, literary works.
This approach to literature examines how class and economic forces shape human dynamics. It is important to note that Marxist criticism is not a promotion of socialist government, but rather a close study of how invisible economic forces underpin, and often undermine, authentic human relationships.
This approach seeks to illuminate a text’s original meaning by uncovering details of the text’s historical context.
Modifying the historical approach described above, the new historicist assumes that material factors interact with each other, thus while this approach seeks to understand a text through its cultural context, it also attempts to discover through the literary work insight into intellectual history. For example, a new historicist might consider Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as a product shaped not only by Douglass’s experience as a U.S. slave, but also by Douglass’s challenge of finding a publisher (most of whom were white), and by his primarily Christian readership. These factors, according to the new historicist, would interact to shape the text and its meanings.
In finding a perspective that interests you, consider these common ways of approaching literary study and interpretation and how those approaches might intersect with your own passions and values. Scholarly study should be objective, in that academic arguments should be supported by credible and substantial evidence, but scholarly argument is valuable when it aids us in better understanding our world and realizing our goals as humans, communities, and societies. Connecting to these objectives as a writer will help you find your reason for writing and the most effective rhetorical methods for reaching your goals.