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Ways to Talk About Literature (Taken from Write for College page 200-201 and Jacobs

and Zani’s Questions and Critical Approaches to Accompany Literature)

Text-centered approach (often called formalist criticism) – focuses on the literary

work itself.
a. Claims that the work’s structure and genre are crucial to its meaning (i.e. “form
and content cannot be separated in determining meaning” Jacobs and Zani)
b. Determines how the various elements of plot, character, language, etc. reinforce
the meaning and unify the work
Questions: How do the main elements of irony and symbolism in
________develop the main theme of _______ ?
Poetry: How do the patterns of rhyme and meter used in a poem differ from
expected patterns?
Novel: How is the narrative voice presented throughout the work? How many
narrators are their?
Drama: Does it adhere to the traditional Aristotelian rules of dramatic
presentation (unities of time, place etc.?)

Biographical/Author-centered approach – focus on the origins of a text (the writer’s

life and the historical background)
a. Examines the writer’s life
b. Shows connections, contrasts, and conflicts between the author’s life and the
Questions: Does it seem that the author is present in the work, either an explicit
or implicit narrator?
Do textual elements such as settings, situations or events mimic or mirror those in
the author’s life?
Do characters in the text (lovers, friends, parents, siblings) seem to somehow
relate to the author’s own?

Historical/Sociological studies explore the social and intellectual trends at play during
the time the author was writing. They seek to show connections or links between an
author’s writing and the ideas, events, and institutions of the historical period in which he
or she wrote. Important to note: “virtually all texts are related to historic or sociological
concerns to some degree, even those texts (fairy tales, science fiction, etc.) that seem
entirely divorced from contemporary civilization” (Jacobs and Zani).
Questions from Jacobs and Zani:
When was the text written and how does this time frame and setting help
readers understand its meaning?
Have readers of different time periods, classes, political systems, and
cultures received and interpreted the text differently?
Are the cultural and historical conditions of the characters commented on
in the text?
Is money or any other symbol or object of value exchanged? How does the
handling of wealth and symbols of value relate to wealth, capitalism,
labor, social structures, hierarchies, status, etc.?
Are their workers/slaves and owners/masters in the work?
How do characters perceive their own labor, value, status in society,
community, etc.?
Biographical/Author Centered Approaches: Literary historians may also approach a
text by looking for and making connections between an author’s earlier and later works.
Questions: What were ______’s views of marriage and family? What were _____’s
views of women and men? Class and wealth? What was marriage like during the
historical period when _____ wrote _______ ?

Psychoanalytic approach – applies ideas outside of literature to literary works

a. The assumption that literature mirrors life is the premise for this approach.
b. This critics apply psychological theories to literary works. This can be done by
examining the dreams, symbolic meanings or motivation of characters.
c. Can take on a psychological, religious/ethical, economic, ethnic/cultural, or
feminist approach to the work.
Questions: What does the poem ______ say about the narrator’s psychological
state and personality? How does the reference to _____ deepen the meaning of the
poem? What does the story suggest about the nature of injustice? In what ways
are the actions of character _____ motivated by class and social status? How are
men and women portrayed in the work? What is the status of women in this
society? What ethical dilemmas do the characters in __ face and what decisions
do they make based upon their ethical principles? What are the consequences of
their actions?
Feminist or gender criticism: examines how a literary work portrays women or
defines their roles in society. Many feminist critics explore the way literary works
portray the relationships of power between men and women (Neal).

Audience-centered approach – focus on the “transaction” between text and reader or

the way the reader interacts with the text.
a. Often called Reader-response
b. Doesn’t see the text as something to be analyzed
c. They see the text as an activity that is different for each reader
d. However, the reader still needs to support his/her interpretation of the work
with logic, the text, etc.
Questions: How do men and women read/see ________ differently?
How does the reader become aware of the true character of _____ in _______ ?

All of the approaches share the following:

1. close attention to literary elements such as character, setting, plot, theme,
symbolism, and metaphor.
2. There is a desire not to distort the work
3. Increasing interest and understanding a text are the goals.

See also Appendix C in Literature pgs. 1427-1431.

Extra notes – from Appendix C in Literature pgs. 1427-1431.

History and author’s bio less important than structure
New Criticism: “whole is more important than the sum of the individual parts”
Good candidates: Short poems
Not so good candidates: works that have been translated from another language

Biographical Criticism-
Tries to tie the author’s life events, work habits, influences etc. to the creation of
their work
Poe and Plath are great candidates

Historical and Sociological Criticism –

Old style – “demonstrates how events and cultural forces influenced work”
New Historicism – “reevaluates race, class and gender as essential forces shaping
literary creation”
Marxist readings can come into play – social class, etc.
Examples/Candidates: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, Alice Walker’s “Everyday

Feminist and Gender Criticism –

Looks at woman as a reader of man’s literature and woman as a writer of her own
Good candidates: Chopin, Hurston, Rich, Plath

Structuralism: Psychological Criticism

Good candidates: ANYBODY! Poe, Blake, Plath, etc.

Reader Response/Deconstruction: can be applied to any work to generate lively