New approaches since the 1970s

New critical approaches over the last 30 years

The 'traditional' critical approaches to literature have, over the last 30 years, been supplemented by newly prominent ideas, for example:

  • A new interest in literary sub-genres, including detective stories, science fiction, supernatural fiction and Gothic fiction
  • A modification and extension of the literary canon, which is the body of works regarded by a culture as worthy of discussion, so that rather than ignoring such sub-genres – usually on the grounds that they are ‘popular' or ‘not serious' – critics have recognised that such works have a great deal to tell us about the concerns of readers in the period when they were written and first published
  • The emergence of specifically feminine and feminist literary history and literary criticism, which has sought to establish new strands of literary tradition and new viewpoints from which to discuss literature; this has led to a concentration on women writers who might previously have been ignored or neglected, often because they are overshadowed by the work of dominant male writers, including their fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers
  • Psychoanalytic criticism, which reads texts in terms of how they relate to the author's experience, to the relationship between the text and the reader, or to changing theories about individual psychology, has often turned to texts which dramatise perverse or transgressive situations
  • The development of formalist criticism has led to a new attention to the ways in which fictional narratives behave, particularly in cases where unreliable or multiple narrative voices are used
  • Finally, new historicist criticism has turned its attention to the ways in which the shape and meaning of texts in all genres may be determined by contemporary social, cultural and political concerns.

A range of critical approaches

Remember that no one critical approach necessarily excludes any others: indeed, they often work most effectively when they are used in combination as you formulate your arguments and conclusions.

Feminist criticism and literary history

Feminist criticism concentrates on:

  • The presentation of female experience in character and action, frequently pointing out the misrepresentation of female characters by male authors, and challenging sexist views and statement
  • The ‘silence' of women in certain works of literature and how different those works might seem if the female point of view were more fully represented
  • In terms of literary history it draws attention to the work of overlooked or neglected female authors, who are seen as constituting a separate literary tradition, which is different from, but not necessarily inferior to, a tradition dominated by male writers.

Psychoanalytical criticism

The development of psychoanalytic theory (deriving from the work of Sigmund Freud) has had a major influence on literary criticism in a wide variety of ways. Three of these ways that are particularly relevant to are:

  • The relationship between the writer and the text:
    • How the biographical background of the novelists can be 'read' in their work
  • The analysis of characters in psychological terms:
    • Here, critics might concentrate on how characters behave, treating them as psychological cases
    • Critics might also concentrate on the varieties of family and parent-child relationship to be found in a text
  • The relationship between the reader and the text:
    • This approach would concentrate on the reader's response to the work and how readers in some way work or collude with the author in the act of reading to construct meanings or satisfy unconscious wishes by their response to characters and events
    • This is a theoretical way of stating that readers usually have empathy or sympathy with one or more of the work's characters and may therefore identify psychologically with the fortunes of that character
      • a good deal of the reader's understanding of the text may depend on the degree of his or her sympathy or hostility towards the central character
      • readers will also bring to their reading their own expectations, often derived from their previous reading of similar texts and how they are resolved
  • The construction of identity in relation to the social order:
    • What a character discovers him/herself to be really like, and how they fit into their social world.

Post-colonial criticism

This approach to literature has emerged with the decline of the colonial empires established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (largely as a result of the expansionist aspirations of European states in territories on other continents).

Overseas territories are referred to in many nineteenth century novels:

  • In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth derives from his sugar plantations in the West Indies, which he visits in the course of the novel
  • In W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847), Jos Sedley returns from India with enormous amounts of money, and there is a fellow-pupil at Amelia Sedley's school who is clearly of mixed race
  • In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Mr. Rochester's first wife comes from the West Indies, which is also the source of Jane's inherited fortune
  • At the end of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848), some of the characters move to a new life in Canada
  • At the end of Dickens' David Copperfield (1849-50), the feckless Mr. Micawber emigrates to Australia, where he becomes successful.

Post-colonial critics of these novels draw would emphasize that:

  • These places are seen as remote and unknowable, representing difference and otherness
  • The narratives of these novels never follow the characters who visit these distant places
  • The places are often seen as sources of wealth with little concern as to how that wealth is obtained or about the lives of slaves on, for instance, West Indian sugar plantations
  • Alternatively, as in Mary Barton and David Copperfield, they provide a convenient narrative solution for characters who, for one reason or another, cannot be fitted into a future in this country.

As former colonies have become independent in the years since 1945, new voices have emerged, anxious to relate the story of colonization from the point of view of the colonized:

  • The best-known example of this approach is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, which tells the story of Rochester's first, West Indian, wife from her point of view.

New historicist criticism

This critical approach:

  • Emphasizes the historical, social, political and cultural context in which texts are conceived, written, published, distributed, read and received
  • Argues that contemporary issues, hopes and anxieties, whether or not they appear or are explicitly discussed in a particular text, may have a determining effect on the shape and direction of the text
    • Books set in the future, like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Philip K. Dick's Blade Runner (1972) tell us as much about the time in which they were written as the times in which they are set
    • Shakespeare's history plays, concerning events that take place between one hundred and two hundred years before they were written in the 1590s, reflect the problems and anxieties of the Tudor monarchy concerning such matters as legitimacy, usurpation, government and the relationship between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the mass of the people.

For many Victorian novels, a number of social issues are directly addressed:

  • Education and individual opportunity
  • Crime and punishment
  • Class and social ambition
  • The role of money, providing opportunities for some and its absence preventing others from fulfilling their potential.

At a deeper level, other contemporary issues can be detected:

  • The national debate about education and its spread to all classes of society
  • The role of education and class in a rapidly changing, rapidly urbanizing society
  • Debates concerning the nature and role of the gentleman, which is dramatized in a number of contemporary novels
  • Ethical questions concerning the use and misuse of money, relevant in a period when the high point of the Industrial Revolution was past and the commercial and financial sectors were developing
  • Discussions about democracy and the extension of the franchise to a larger percentage of the population.
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