Summary of Literary Criticism Handout

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The following is the handout that we made and gave to the students.

Summary of Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism: It is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature.  It goes beyond just saying that a book is good or bad.  It instead analyzes the parts of the work through several different approaches as a process towards making a claim about the work. 

Reader-Response: A type of criticism which focuses on the reader.  It emphasizes how the reader responds to a work and why.  It is not concerned with the author, history, or anything that draws away from the reader.  The name of the criticism (reader-response) explains it well; it is how the reader responds to a text. 

Questions to think about:

  1. What do you think about the work?
  2. How did the work make you feel?  What about the work made you feel this way?
  3. Have you had previous experiences with this work or similar works which would affect your interpretation of it?

Example: 

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “A Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s insanity and actions horrify the reader.  The narrator’s insistence that he was sane, his seeming logic, and his absence of guilt all add to this feeling.  The description of the narrator cutting the body into pieces and hiding them under the floorboards, along with the description of the thumping heart and “vulture eye” all further serve to make the reader respond this way.  

Mimetic: A type of criticism that focuses on how true to life a work’s characters are.  It deals with how realistic things are.  Notice the word “mime” in mimetic, in other words, it mimes or imitates real life.

Questions to think about:

  1. Is it a realistic portrayal of life?
  2. Do the characters seem to react in believable ways?  Do they have realistic emotions?
  3. If the work and characters do not seem to be realistic, what prevents it and them from being so? 

Example:

In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout could be said to be a realistic character.  At the beginning of the novel she is blind to the flaws of society.  She has her own unique personality caused by both her own personality traits and the way that Atticus has raised her.  Her development from the beginning of the story to the end truly marks her realism.  She is not blind to what goes on around her, but instead observes it all.  What she sees changes the way in which she perceives those around her and the world as a whole, just as it would any real person. 

 Intertextuality: A type of criticism which focuses on one text’s relationship to another.  However, it does not just compare and contrast two works.  Instead, it considers how the works shape our perception of other works. 

Questions to think about:

  1. Does the work remind you of any other works you have read?
  2. What is similar and different about the two works (yes, you can ask this question, just don’t stop with it)?
  3. How does each text shape or create a new understanding of the other text? 

Example:

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and High School Musical have similarities.  In High School Musical, Troy (like Romeo) must choose between what he is expected to do and what he wants to do.  Troy can play basketball as all his peers and parents wish (the equivalent to Romeo marrying Rosaline) or he can do what he really loves and be in the musical (the equivalent to Romeo marrying Juliet).  This helps one to better understand both Romeo’s and Troy’s motivations and feelings. 

Author Intention:  A type of criticism which considers the author’s intention to be the most important factor.  When there are two or more possible interpretations of a text, one must consider what the author’s intention was to determine the most probable interpretation. 

Questions to think about:

  1. What do you think the author was trying to convey?
  2. What basis do you have for thinking this is what the author was trying to convey?
  3. Why would this author have wanted to convey this?

Example:

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the insanity that the narrator descends into parallels that of Gilman herself.  Since Gilman felt trapped by her own husband after giving birth to her first child, Gilman through writing a short story where the same thing happened to her protagonist wished to show the devastation caused by male superiority. 

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