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Critical Approaches to Literature (with brief explanations)

1. The formalist approach: literary analysis: what the work means (theme) and how it conveys its meaning (style); the relation of theme to style. Good work is one that is interesting because it conveys meaning in an interesting way, an intriguing way to say the "same old thing" (Pope: "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed. . .")

2. The humanist/ethical approach: the effect the work has on the audience/ reader. The larger function of literature is to teach morality and to probe philosophical issues. Literature should instruct and delight
"Good" work has a positive, enriching, impact on the reader; "bad" work has negative, dulling, impact.

Examples: Christian humanist, Marxist, feminist, "moral crusader " (censorship)

3. The historical approach: the relationship of the work to history. The impact of the work on history and the importance of historical knowledge in understanding a work. How history and literature inform and affect each other
1) Social / political history; 2) Literary history (the development of the literary tradition)

4. The biographical approach: the relationship of the writer's life to the work.

5. The psychological approach: what the work tells us about the human mind. Literature as a tool of psychoanalysis.

Freudian literary analysis; e.g., the unconscious, dream interpretations, sexual motivation, the importance of childhood on adult development, neuroses, the tripartite scheme of the human mind (id, ego, superego), the "talking cure," etc.

6. The mythic approach: universal patterns of human behavior and thinking as conveyed in literature.

Jungian literary analysis. Archetypal story patterns; e.g., stories of creation, of "the fall," of social / sexual initiation, of the Quest. Archetypal image patterns, colors -- red, black =?)

7. The textual approach: 1) what is the actual text? changes in the history of a text; 2) impact of translation 3) oral tradition 4) Changes in the text: substantive & accidental; authorial v. those made by editor 5) Pre & post 1455

8. The linguistic approach: what the text tells us about the language of the time of the work.

9. The subjective or personal approach:  1) Reader Based criticism -- the effect that the differences of readers has on reading common "text"; 2) Personal reaction -- that which is beyond literary analysis; did you enjoy the work?


A. The literal (surface) meaning of the work (paraphrase to test for this) -- what actually happens or goes on.

B. Dramatic situation: Who is speaking to whom? When? Where? Why?

C. Tone: The relation of the writer to the work and the audience/reader.

Examples: straight, ironic, paradoxical, puzzling, humorous, satirical, bitter, pessimistic, cheerful, dark, elevated, low (vulgar), inconsistent, ambiguous.

D. Theme: What is the meaning, message? What is the writer's purpose or point? What do we learn from reading the work?

E. Style: What literary devices or techniques are used, and are they effective?


Some selected terms used in critical analysis:

1) Poetry: rhyme pattern, rhythm, alliteration, enjambment, figurative language (imagery, metaphor, symbol, allusion), paradox, verbal irony, paradox, allusion, etc.

2) Drama: character (caricature v. character, development), "plot," setting, dramatic irony, poetic language, motifs, mood (tone) levels of conflict, poetic devices (see #1 above), etc.

3) Fiction: narrative technique (1st, 3rd person narrator, objective, omniscient points of view), reliability of narrator, tone, setting, sequencing of events ("plot"), poetic language (see #1 above), levels of irony, motifs (image patterns) Genre (literary form): types of poems, plays, stories ("fiction" -- epic, novel, short, picaresque, fable, allegory, romance), non-fiction (essay, biography, autobiography, history, philosophy )

Literary Criticism

The Internet Public Library has numerous critical references, and can be browsed by author, title, or literary period.

The Problem of Meaning in Literature

Writing Papers of Literary Analysis

The Brown University Women Writers' Project

A Celebration of Women Writers

Voices from the Gap: Women Writers of Color

Return to Handouts page.