Literary Criticism

This paper will attempt to give a brief overview of three forms of literary criticism. Literary criticism is “[t]he art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works.”( However, as we will see, it does more than this. Some forms of criticism look beyond the text to the world in which it resides, while others, like the one we will deal with in the following paragraph, approach literary works form a different angle.

The Formalistic approach to literary criticism is one rooted in the text, its style, structure, diction, plot, syntax, etc. Utilizing this theory allows one to show that they have understood the text as it is. Instead of engaging in metatextual criticism, looking beyond the text to the author, society, or the zeitgeist in which the work is born, it deals solely with the text, and is a good base from which to build one’s critique before moving on to other theories.

Psychoanalytic criticism, specifically the freudian strand, is useful in delving into literary works that have some underlying theme of a concupiscent nature, it being overly concerned with the sexual appetites, deviant and natural, in the human being and attributing all actions to this one impulse. Furthermore it is adept at unraveling meanings silently presented in a work through “images, symbols, emblems, and metaphors’, though the ambiguous nature of these same symbols, etc., means that “there is an inevitable ‘judgement’ element involved, and in consequence psychoanalytic interpretations of literature are often controversial.”(Barry)

This last theory may lend itself well to examining literature dealing with economic inequality and class warfare. Marxism is based on a “materialist philosophy: that is it tries to explain things without assuming the existence of a world, or of forces, beyond the natural world around us, and the societies we live in.”(Barry) Marxism is agnostic, if not downright atheistic in its outlook, and it is through this lens that Marxist literary criticism peers at a text. Peter Barry opines that Marxism views religion, art, law, etc., as things that are shaped by the economic base, a belief known as “economic determinism”.(Barry)

While some methods of literary criticism employed by this theory mirror psychoanalysis, in that it “makes a division between the ‘overt’ (manifest or surface) and ‘covert’ (latent or hidden) content,” it relates these hidden messages not to the unconscious, but rather “to basic Marxist themes, such as class struggle, or the progression of society…”(Barry) To sum up, different theories hold their own strengths and weaknesses. While a certain method may give one a language with which to express certain ideas, it may not adequately address other motives in a given literary work. Thus one may need to mix between certain theories, borrowing as the text dictates