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Literary Criticism

Literary theory/criticism?

Why do writers write poems or novels? Are they pure entertainment pieces or are they written to impart some sort of hidden meaning to the audience, almost subliminally?

When any artist creates a work, be it a screenplay, novel, a painting or a sculpture, etc. some sort of basic communication is going on between the artist and audience, and critics try to puzzle this meaning – and even go as far to explore the subconscious mind of the artist in interpreting why he or she produced such a work at a given time of their life.

When you ‘criticise’ something, that is not to say a work of art is a load of rubbish, it is to ‘evaluate’ the piece using the knowledge you bring to bear to reason why the artist has produced the work.

Literary critics are a little like journalists in quality newspapers – they review a film and consider how it might be like another film, or how the creators of such have been influenced by the work of others, or by recent events.

Think also how music has developed over years; there has always been basically two types – the classical grand style which was initially designed to appeal to the court and the social hierarchy, and popular music which was always for the broader classes.

In modern day pop music, a group like The Beatles in the 60s always said they were influenced by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Elvis Presley might have been influenced by an even older singer.

One Direction might have been influenced by Take That who in turn might have been influenced by a piano lyricist like Elton John etc.

Mozart may well have been influenced by Bach, and Wagner by Beethoven etc.

So next time you read a book or listen to some music or see a work of art, have a think as to how to appraise it.

Critics have been thinking about this for so long that they have formed themselves into distinct ‘schools’ of thought.

If you think that the prime motive of a certain work/author was to demonstrate how people who are downtrodden can rise up against their masters, then you might agree that historical or social factors are the major theme in the work.

You might also subscribe to the theory of ‘historical criticism’ which general suggests that the history of events on-going or in a past time might be the major influences in the writer.

To use Lord of the Rings as an initial example, some people have considered that Tolkien, who actually wrote it during the WW2 years (it was finally published in 1954) was heavily influenced by both World Wars (he fought in WW1 and experienced WW2) -  and also by the development of the atomic bomb at the time.

The Ring, as the ultimate weapon, is seen as metaphor or symbol for the power of the atomic bomb – being both secret, known only by a few people, and having immense destructive power.

Tolkien was a war veteran so it is possible to argue that it must have been difficult for him as a writer (and as a Professor of English Literature) not to react to the on goings of major historical events in Britain when writing.

You can point to evidence of this in the book – the characters have an affection for The Shire, (which could be taken to be an representation of England) against the dark powers spreading from the East – is there a parallel here between Mordor and Nazi Germany?).

They also have an affinity for the old agricultural ways of the Shire; anything vaguely industrial is frowned upon and they long for an era of parties, and fields, and pubs and beer, and nice cottages etc.  Is this ideology representative of Middle England at the time which Tolkien might have feared would be swept away by WW2 and the new world powers?

Tolkien in interviews always denied this – he said he wrote the piece as an exploration of the language primarily. But even some critics would say that from a psychological point of view he could not have helped but be influenced by such. In other words he was ‘automatically’ writing the work as a reaction to his own subconscious.

The school of thought which looks at works in this way is called the school of psychoanalysis and is a major one in and among all the different schools of thought.

Within this school is a strand called Freudian criticism which I’ll mention later.

Here is a broad overview of the ten main schools of literary theory. Note – other schools exist for art, paintings etc.

  1. Historical criticism. Looks at how events in the author’s life might or might not have influenced his work. Often a major influence in the minds of some critics. Would Shakespeare have written Hamlet (which has as one theme the relationship between father and son) had his own son Hamnet not have died in 1596 (three years before he wrote Hamlet?).

Hamnet (who was 11 upon his death) was a twin of Shakespeare’s (and Anne Hathaway’s) daughter Judith.  Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night not long after Hamnet’s death – which has as its focus the separation of a twin boy and girl, the former of which is presume dead? Surely more than just a coincidence?

Is it a mere coincidence that Shakespeare should write Macbeth (which is a play about the downfall of a Scottish king) at the time of the accession of James I of Scotland to the English throne; and if not, what was Shakey trying to say in the play?

  1. Psychoanalysis.

The school of psychoanalysis often links with the above; but is the study of emotion and the mind-set of how characters both react.

A subset of it is Freudian criticism (named after the well-known psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud), who often ascribed many human drives being down to a sexual influence.

Freud studied how people react in life in general and he thought that the mind had three different psychological ‘compartments’.

First, there was something called the ‘id’, which is the part of the mind which contained man and woman’s basic drives – survival, reproduction, fight or flight, etc.

It could correspond to the primitive mammalian brain we have inherited from animals, if you subscribe to that theory. (There is another school of literary thought which is coincidentally centred upon Darwinian Theory).

On top of this, almost like a constructed platform, sits the ‘ego’; that part of the brain which controls our normal everyday emotions, and which to some extent keeps the drives of the ‘id’ in check. It ‘checks’ the id’s desire for instant pleasure, and is more in touch with the ‘reality’ of any given situation. It is the more ‘reasoning’ part of the brain/mind.

When a dog, which is essentially an animal, walks into butcher’s shop, if it sees some nice steaks on a table when the butcher was in the back of the shop, nine times out of ten it would snatch the steaks from the table. The dog is reacting to its ‘id’ brain.

Had the dog an ‘ego’ it might tell itself, ‘No  - I shan’t steal those steaks even though my natural instincts are telling me to devour such.’

The super ego controls our social interactions even more by containing those parts of the mind which strive for intellectual greatness and almost perfection.

It is the part of the mind which appreciates art, and contains the higher brain functions (and ironically that part of the ability to conduct  literary ‘criticism’.

Had the dog a super ego it might say: “No, I shan’t devour those steaks on the table, but in fact I shall learn how to cook a Steak a la crème with crushed peppercorns to serve to my master when I return home and thank the butcher for occasioning me the opportunity of such.”

In summary the ego is the sandwich mediating between the higher functions/thoughts/drives of the super ego, and the carnal, impulsive desires of the id. 

How does all this apply to literature?

Well, from a character point of view, it often influences how they behave, and much of it operates subconsciously (i.e. we are not aware of such).

If you read a novel by Jane Austen, many of her character often meet at social balls and gatherings and interact.

On the surface, much as in society today, the polite meetings and gossip are all part and parcel of the superego  dominating; how to interact with people, what certain social norms are and, very much in Austen’s case, the reactions to social class.

Within all these groups, and the minds of such at such grand balls, the id also comes into play – simmering away beneath the repressions of the super ego, ego and the necessity of social norms.  Fanciability and sheer lust (and revulsion) creeps in here; primitive sexual desires basically.

Darcy might initially quite fancy Elizabeth Bennet, and vice versa, but the social norms and requirements of such dictate that they remain in different classes and remain indifferent to each other. The id of course ‘knows’ that the situation is quite different.

Some critics have argued whether actually Elizabeth Bennet does ‘fancy’ Darcy or whether two different interplays might be going on here. Is Ms Bennet attracted by Darcy’s wealth and social standing more than his physicality – i.e. is her superego switched on more than her ‘id’?

And conversely, whereas Darcy operates on the superficial, aloof level initially, does he actually physical fancy Elizabeth, but is being kept in check by his superego which is reacting to his inbred social norms?

Eventually he mellows and allows himself to descend more into the ‘id’ side of his brain.

A see-saw could be said to be on-going between the two which builds the dramatic tension of the novel.

Freud argued that real people in real life are reacting to their super ego/id balance all the time and that the ego is what reacts/balances the two higher and lower functions. Others have argued that the ‘class system’ of England also reinforces these views.

And yet, and most importantly, critics suggest that the more one supresses one of the three sections of the mind, the greater one of the other reacts.

A character might be supressing for many years the fact that he loves someone (heavily drawing on the characteristics of the super ego/social norms), but finally this imbalance cracks and the ‘id’ /’passion’ reacts back in a dramatic way.

Psychoanalysis is also very good in analysing why ‘bad’ characters react in certain ways. In Othello, why is Iago such a scheming character right from the start?; did Hitler start WW2 with the express intention of destroying the Jews; or was he motivated primarily by the desire to do the best for Germany?

And in The Hunger Games, what are the motivations behind President Snow?

  1. Marxist theory

Karl Marx was a philosopher who was a proponent of socialism, against the capitalist way of thinking.

Marxism was closely allied to the ‘good of the many before the individual’ and the ethos that individuals have a debt to the wellbeing of society as a whole, before their own self-gratification.

He also theorised that social class is dictated by the means of production - and that entrapment within a class dictates how people think.

“The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

In other words, a bit like this: all humans need to survive and therefore basic production work needs to be done to produce simple needs; food, water, power, clothes etc. etc.

He argued that the nature of a capitalist society was such that it had three different class systems: the aristocracy and nobles; the middle class and the working class.

The working class still produced all the food etc. and basic means of survival, and by doing so, maintained the other classes, who, being less labour intensive, found themselves freer to contemplate their existence and social standing, and gain power.

These opportunities are less available to the working class which is conditioned by 1) their social situation and 2) the other classes who use their power to keep them in their place.

He argued that if all society was equal and effectively working class under a socialist ideology, then all workers would be free to theorise on an equal level, and collectively benefit from the greater output of all for the collective good of the people.

In short, Marxist theory introduced the idea of ‘class struggle’  as a factor as to how authors might create works, and how we might interpret them.

In The Hunger Games, Hitler as a reader, might have sided with President Snow and agreed with his philosophies, given Snow is the head of a totalitarian regime, and would have wiped out a district at the drop of a hat.

Then again, from an historic perspective, we know Hitler hated communism and, according to some historians, wanted the very best for ALL the German people with him as Fuhrer.

How does this ideology influence our take on the ‘regime’ which is in place in the Hunger Games?

We might ask ourselves, why has the regime arisen in the first place and why does it behave in such a way – what is its motive; the collective good of the nation or power for one man?

Other ‘schools;

Feminist criticism:

A little like Marxist theory in a way but this time focussing on the ‘battle of the sexes’ and in particular women’s roles, reactions, history and society.

Throughout history in the West, women have experienced certain social ‘disadvantages’ compared to men; they were unable to vote for much of the history of the world, and were often in lower class/less well-paid jobs compared to men, even if they were doing the same job.

Men, probably as a result, thus came to represent a form of repression to some women; a little like a capitalist might be seen as being a repressor to the socialist ideology.

Traditional gender roles were of the man as the head of the family, as the wage earner, who supported his wife (who bore children, baked, and who looked after their education).

We might ask ourselves ‘What are Karnes’s’ drives in The Hunger Games; is she a feminist icon emblematic of the feminine struggle against male repression? Or is she a traditional ‘romantic’ all too willing to fall for the charm of a man?

Are feminine characters in the novel shown to be generally ‘stronger’ than the male roles who have inherent ‘weaknesses’. As an extended thought, is she the new ‘Eve’, not the one who caused the downfall of Man(kind) (through giving into temptation)  but more the saviour of such – a female Messiah in a way?

Religious criticism

Tends to focus on the moral and allegorical aspects of the work; does the artist/author deliberately inject the work with religious imagery/phrases/metaphors and metonyms?

Crowns/thorns/kings/cross/rood/saviour. Snake/demon/Jerusalem/heaven/latin phrases etc.

These can often be very subtle – in The Tell Tale Heart, can the murder of the old man, who remains unknown,  in anyway be taken to parallel the death of Jesus.

William Blake’s Milton (part of which contains the famous poem (now song) Jerusalem) is famous for questioning whether Jesus might have visited England.

“And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains’ green

And was the Holy Lamb of God/In England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

There are five other schools of thought: New Criticism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post structuralism, and deconstruction which look more specifically at how text works etc., and different forms of writing; but the above are the main schools. If you are interested in the latter you can look up separately.

Some are very counter-intuitive; Russian formalists don’t ask “What happens to Huckleberry Finn in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But “What happens to the novel in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”

I.e. they are more concerned with the stylistic layout and structure of a work compared to the characters and action.

While this might sound silly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was ground breaking in that it told the first half of the plot in a series of letters exchanged between the main protagonists – not just via the usual prose narrative. While the plot is fascinating, the style of the novel is just as fascinating as it intersperses letters, newspaper clippings and entries from Jonathan Harker’s diary etc., which to the reader can seem just as enticing. It also has the effect of adding a little distance between us the reader and the ‘characters of the novel’….do they become more mythic even through a reported tale, or one told second or third hand?


See also


New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.