Approaches to literary criticism

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Historical Criticism

During the nineteenth century, the growing faith in science influenced both literature and the interpretation of literature.

  • Historical criticism became a popular approach.

  • Historical criticism emphasizes the social and cultural environment that surrounds a work.

  • Influenced by the philosophical outlook of an era, literature can be grouped into periods or movements which demonstrate common methods of composition and subject matter.

  • Historical criticism is responsible for terms like neoclassicism, romanticism modernism and is generally the method used to categorize literature in anthologies.

  • Historical criticism attempts to understand literary references in the context of the environment in which they were written since both language and taboos change over time.

  • Chopin’s piece is placed in the context of its time and the question or situation of women. The larger social context is apparent.

Biographical Criticism

  • Closely related to historical criticism, biographical criticism studies how an individual author's life and thoughts influence a work.

  • This approach is particularly useful when a work is ahead of its time or seems to breach two historical periods.

  • Biographical criticism is not the attempt to draw parallels between the author's life and his fiction, but rather a study of the author's intention and audience.

  • Biographical criticism seeks to illuminate the deeper meaning of themes, conflicts, characters, settings and literary allusions based on the author's own concerns and conflicts.

  • One drawback to this approach is the reliance of source material that may not be accurate or complete. How reliable is the biography? How objective is the autobiography? (credibility)

  • May cause further complication – may not change our understanding as much as it enhances it.

  • Kate Chopin was a woman who experienced much loss and was very much in tune with trying to reflect individualism and unconventional characters in her writing.

Social Criticism (Marxist criticism)

  • Social Criticism is also very similar to historical criticism in that it recognizes the influence of environment on literature.

  • Social criticism became very popular during the Great Depression as many critics attempted to apply Marxist solutions to the overwhelming issues of poverty and class distinction.

  • Literature not only serves as a reflection of the social issues of its time, but it may attempt to reform them as well. Social criticism seeks to define the social situations represented in a work as well as the author's attitude towards them.

  • Chopin’s story would be examined as part of a larger class issue or socioeconomic struggles.

Psychological Criticism

  • Just as the economic theories of Carl Marx engendered social criticism, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud inspired a new form of literary interpretation.

  • Psychological criticism is usually applied in one of three ways.

    • A work of literature can be viewed as a "dream", the expressive manifestation of the subconscious. By interpreting the symbolic nature of the work, we gain insight into the psyche of the author.

    • Psychological criticism can also focus on the characters of a work, analyzing their motives, desires and conflicts. Although these characters are fictional, it is a valid form of criticism. Characters, as well as their underlying traits, are often drawn from real people and therefore can display some of the same psychological patterns. Psychological theory also influenced authors as they utilized these new ideas to create more complex characters.

    • Psychological criticism can also be used to interpret the relationship between the text and the reader. In this approach critics acknowledge that a work of literature functions as the secret expression of what the reader wants to hear. It is this aspect that creates our enjoyment of a book.

Central to the psychoanalytical approach is the Oedipus complex – based upon a boy’s rivalry with his father for his mother’s love. Son wants to take father’s place. Opposite is the Electra complex – a girl’s desire to take her mother’s place beside her father – unconscious rivalry for her father.

  • Chopin’s piece shows that the death of Mr. Mallard has released unconscious desires in Mrs. Mallard – repressed feelings are released.

Id – instinctive/pleasure seeking part of the mind

Superego – part of the mind that represses the id

Ego – Doesn’t repress, but rather expresses or releases the id’s impulses in a healthy way.

Archetypal Criticism (sometimes called Mythological strategies)

  • Freud's protégé Carl Jung broke away from his doctrine of the "individual unconscious" and proposed a "collective unconscious". Examines the hopes, fears and expectations of an ENTIRE CULTURE

  • The collective unconscious is a set of shared "memories" represented in the form of cultural myth, symbols, rituals, and literature.

  • Patterns that recur generation after generation are known as archetypes.

  • When using Archetypal criticism to discuss literature, there are three basic categories:

    • archetypal characters (i.e. rebel, outcast, tyrant, saint),

    • archetypal situations (i.e. the quest, the fall, the initiation), and

    • archetypal symbols (i.e. light/dark, water/desert, spring/winter).

In Chopin’s story, her life mirror’s the end of winter and the renewal of spring. Death is also more appealing than the “living death” of being married to her husband.

3 PARTS of the self:

  1. the Shadow – darker, unconscious self (villain)

  2. the persona – man’s social personality (hero)

  3. the anima – man’s “soul image” (heroine)

*problems or neurosis occurs when these 3 parts can not coexist

New Criticism (Formalism)

  • New Criticism proposes that literary works are self-contained.

  • According to this philosophy, the reader does not need to know anything about the historical, biographical or social context.

  • Everything needed to understand the work is contained in the work itself.

  • However, because of this self-contained ideal, new critics believe "good' works are complex.

  • According to new critics a good work should balance conflicting ideas and utilize indirect representation through the use of symbolism, metaphor, connotation, diction, irony…

  • Kate Chopin’s story would be examined

    • for its ironic ending.

    • Or, are there symbols that hint of the ending?


  • Like New Criticism, Structuralism denies the importance of historical, biographical, and social influences.

  • Structuralism is based on linguistics and asserts that language is the self-contained unit. Literature is a form of this language.

  • Therefore, Structuralists study the linguistic form of a text.

  • The Story of an Hour” would be examined solely for its diction and word choice.


  • Post-Structuralism, also known as deconstructionism, notes that since the signifier (the linguistic sound used to represent an object) is arbitrary, words represent concepts not actually objects.

  • This creates a gap between the reader and the text that will never really be breached.

  • Post -structuralism asserts that it is impossible to find true meaning in a text because whatever connection seems to exist between the work and the real world is nothing more than the clever manipulation of language.

  • Tends to break down meaning rather than establish it. There can be NO absolute meanings because language can NEVER say what we really mean for it to say.

  • In Chopin’s story, deconstructionism may have issues with ending and look at it as if there is no life without her husband as the doctor thinks.

  • VERY difficult.

Reader Response

  • Reader-Response Criticism lies on the opposite end of the biographical spectrum.

  • Instead of relating to the author's intention, it is related to the reader's intention. Focuses on what goes on in the reader’s mind during the process of reading the text.

  • Although it borrows the linguistic methodologies found in New Criticism, structuralism, and post-structuralism; proponents of Reader-Response believe a text is incomplete until the reader interacts with it. A literary work continues to evolve and change depending on the reader.

  • It is the reader who creates meaning as he interprets what the words mean. The reader's biographical and cultural experiences will influence the contextual meaning of the literature.

  • In Chopin’s story the reader recognizes her feelings when Mrs. Mallard does and may share the same shock OR may be repulsed by her reaction depending on the reader’s past experiences. A modern reader may question why she did not kill the marriage herself (divorce or separation) rather than letting it kill her.

New Historicism

  • New Historicism is based on the idea that historical, biographical, and social issues do affect a work but tends to sympathize with the marginalized peoples of those cultures.

  • New Historicists believe that the dominate culture imposes an ideology on the minority.

  • From this perspective a work either upholds that majority or undermines it.

  • New Historicists believe that individuals who do not maintain the values of the majority are devalued and exploited.

  • They also believe that literature cannot transcend its culture because it is culturally constructed.

  • Chopin’s story would be examined by the assumptions and values of the majority – assumed she dies from “joy” because that is what would be expected.

Feminist Criticism

  • Feminist and Gender criticism called for a re-evaluation of literature based on the idea that men had previously dominated literary interpretation.

  • This literary philosophy proposes that male dominance resulted in an under representation of female authors in the canon of "great literature" and that female characters were misconstrued.

  • Places literature in a social context.

  • Kate Chopin’s story – might explore the emotional effects that the expectations of marriage have on women – identifying main character by her role in life – “Mallard” – comes from a French base meaning male…

Gay and Lesbian Criticism

  • Focuses on a variety of issues – how homosexuals are represented in literature, how they read literature and/or whether gender is culturally constructed or innate (genetics or environment)

  • Chopin’s story may be analyzed by thinking that Mrs. Mallard’s joy is not so much over her husband’s death as it is over her rejection of her heterosexual identity.

  • Often causes controversy but has always opened interesting discussions.

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