Reading Lenses

What are Reading Lenses?

Critical reading lenses, or critical approaches, or critical theory, or literary theory? A number of terms are used on this page and elsewhere to describe how to read a work of literature from a specific perspective. I like the term lens because it suggests putting on a pair of glasses that influence how you look at something--you might have heard someone say, for example, "She's looking at the world through rose-colored glasses," meaning that she sees the world with an optimistic or rosy view.

That's how you should think of these approaches, which are approaches that any reader can use to view any work of literature, film, art, or even life experience. If you think that a feminist/gender reading of a work would be interesting because of the ways women and men are portrayed in it, then put on your feminist/gender reading lenses and look for a collection of evidence in the text that add up to an interpretation. On another day, put on your psychological lenses and analyze the author or one of the characters, and see if you come up with an interpretation different from the feminist/gender one.

Critical approaches to literature are tools at your (the reader's) command that help you enter a text from a variety of positions. Just as you have a variety of writing strategies to use when you write, now you will have a variety of reading strategies to use when you read. The brief descriptions below are supplemented in class discussions.


archetypal and myth criticism

archetypal criticism has its roots in both psychological and anthropological studies of recurring stories and images (archetypes) in cultures throughout the world and throughout recorded history. Archetypes may take the form of characters, concrete objects or symbols, or narrative patterns such as the following: trickster figures who perform socially transgressive acts; the dangerous female or female who devours; the hero; death and rebirth or any human experience; elements of nature; journey motifs; the hero's quest; loss and wandering. An archetypal or mythological reading of literature might focus on pointing out such archetypes, comparing them to uses in other works, and discussing how their presence adds a deeper level of meaning in the work for readers, or for that matter, how readers might be attracted to or respond to the archetypes. A myth critic is not too concerned with whether an author has intentionally incorporated archetypes for a larger purpose, but more in whether such archetypes recur in literature because as humans, we all share the same mental inventory of images on which to draw.

biographical criticism

biographical criticism is concerned with how knowledge of an author's life and experiences can help readers understand and interpret literature. Like any other historical knowledge, biographical knowledge helps to place the work in its human and social context, and may help to explain why the author made certain choices. For example, knowing that Nathaniel Hawthorne had an ancestor who was a judge in the Salem witch trials might shed light on Hawthorne's fascination with sin and punishment in his novels. However, critics must use biographical information with caution so as not to diminish or overwhelm the author's work. So much has been made of the suicides of poets Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton that some readers view their works as mere concrete proof of aberrant psychology and may miss a broader richness.

formalist criticism

formalist criticism focuses on the features within a work of literature (i.e. the grammar and rhetorical structure) rather than on those features outside the work (i.e. biographical, historical, or social contexts). As a reaction to interpretive methods that foregrounded such extrinsic features, formalism is often classified as a conservative approach that itself was tied to the politically conservative period in which it flourished, the 1940s and 1950s, although its origins date back to the 1920s-30s. Called the New Criticism in the United States, the formalist approach is best known for its method of reading, called "close reading." In a close reading, the critic examines a text line-by-line and often word-by-word in order to find a grand unity of meaning, shown by how all the parts of the text work together. Such readings, as you might imagine, are best done on smaller texts, like poems, or on selected passages from novels and plays.

reader-response criticism

reader-response criticism is grounded in the phenomenon of readers' diverse reactions to and interpretations of literature. Readers are thus primary in the act of reading, and critics consider the validity of multiple responses as evidence of the work's depth and potential. In any single reading, the reader brings meaning to the work; in a sense, the work exists anew with each reader. A reader-response critic might posit an imagined or implied reader and discuss how that reader would respond to the text, how the reader would make meaning out of it, how the reader's historical or social situation might affect his or her reading. There would, of course, also be a consideration of how the reader's response might fit with or contradict an author's expressed intentions, if such intentions could be known. The idea that any interpretation is valid or that the text is without its own integrity as a work of art is not what reader-response theorists suggest. It is the interaction, the negotiation of the reader with the text, the act of reading that is at stake. If you have ever read a book at two very different times in your life and you had two distinct responses to it, or if you know someone who interprets a work much differently than you do, then you understand one of the basic principles of the reader-response approach.

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historical criticism

the older form of historical criticism is concerned with how knowledge of the historical context in which an author wrote contributes to our understanding of the literary work, much as biographical criticism is concerned with knowledge about the author. The contemporary criticism called New Historicism is concerned with the same historical context, but takes a more eclectic approach to examining the context. New historicist critics might examine related cultural documents or social practices in great detail and not just as background to the literary work, and they might make use of concepts from a wide variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, history, economics, or the sciences. A new historicist reading of a 1920s novel, for example, might examine advertisements in popular magazines of the period in order to better understand what contributed to the author's development of a character or some depicted behavior. Some critics of new historicism argue that the literary work is overshadowed by such close examination of extrinsic factors; new historicists would argue that the works are simply better grounded in their historical contexts. Some new historicists bring a decidedly Marxist approach to their readings as they expose the social power relations that the work reflects.

sociological/Marxist criticism

Marxist criticism is a sociological approach to reading literature that seeks to expose the sociological conditions, especially the economic and political, that produced the particular work. Because the works examined were produced in societies that did not achieve a perfect classless state, Marxist readings often focus on exposing how the works depict the class struggle of the societies in which they were written. Thus a Marxist reading of Gone With the Wind might compare the class and power relations depicted during the Civil War era to the ones in the American South of the 1930s, when the novel was written. Similarly, a reading of Vladimir Voinovich's science fiction novel Moscow 2042, which is set in that year, would examine how the imperfections in that imagined future were actually a reflection of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the decade in which it was written. As you may see by these two examples, Marxist critics are concerned with examining the literary work as a product of its time and place, and are not easily tricked into ignoring that context in exchange for the one depicted in the work.

feminist/gender criticism

feminist criticism is a sociological approach that might focus on exposing how a society's patriarchal power structure is revealed in a literary work, perhaps in its content or its production. A feminist reading might examine the depiction of women in the text, the forces acting upon women authors, the reception by the scholarly community of works written by men or women. And feminist critics might try to recover and reintroduce neglected works written by women. Gender criticism is a broad approach that may be seen as encompassing feminist criticism. Gender critics are interested in the social implications of gender roles and behavior, whether gender is an essential feature of one's sex or a social construct, and most recently with gay and lesbian studies. A gender critic might read a text for its depiction of a specific behavior and draw connections between the character's sex and sexuality and the social gender expectations.

psychological/psychoanalytic criticism

both psychological and psychoanalytic criticism have their beginnings in the discipline of psychology. Psychological critics are more concerned with the psychology of authors and how it is reflected in their works. Such critics might also study the psychology of characters in a work. Psychoanalytic critics use the psychoanalytic approach developed by Freud to analyze characters. Perhaps the most famous use of the interrelationship between literature and psychoanalysis is Freud's use of the Greek myth of Oedipus to describe a stage of human development in which boys desire to kill the father and have sex with the mother--this is the well-known Oedipus complex. In turn, psychoanalytic critics have used this complex to interpret Hamlet's behavior in Shakespeare's play, examining his relationship with both his father and stepfather and his mother in terms of Freud's concept.