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Natalie L. Bannerman
Professor Issifou
English 406.001
5 May 2016
Old Criticism vs. New Criticism
Throughout history there have been a plethora of methods when it comes to
understanding and grasping the concept of text in novels, music, poetry, movies, paintings and
etc. However, there are two main methods that many critics(readers) divide themselves among
claiming which is better than the other, old criticism and new criticism. Old criticism and new
criticism are two theories that many teachers, critics, and students choose between when its time
to understand and interpret the text that is in front of them. Although, both theories are there to
help readers interpret text better, old criticism is the theory many still use and in the end deny
new criticism because many feel that a reader needs to have more information on a certain
subject to better understand, grasp, and interpret the text that they are reading, while new
criticism is against taking that route. To first choose a side, one must know what each theory is
about, so that they can apply that theory when interpreting literature. However, for a reader to
understand which one is better they would first begin with old criticism in order to compare and
contrast it to new criticism. Then take a piece of literature or text and apply the theory that better
suits them.
To begin with, we must take a look at the old way of observing a text, before we can look
at the new way. Old criticism is defined as the classroom study of English literature routinely
focused on history (pg.13, HIL). In other words, old criticism is about looking up information

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before reading a piece of text, for one to gain their own impression, moralize text and for readers
to read aloud. Concepts that is used to better grasp what the writer or artist is wanting you to
know. Old criticism is basically about having your facts about the authors background, the topic
on which they are discussing and any other interesting knowledge they can gain before engaging
with the text.
It is stated many historical critics gave special attention to studying a writers influences
and biography (pg.13, HIL). When, it comes to old criticism we must know that the history of
an author, poet, singer and etc. It is very important to an old critic, to know who influenced some
of their writings or pieces of work. In an old critics mind, it helps them rationalize why the
writer wrote what they did, and why did the writer focus on this topic to speak on. For example,
when it is black history month many teachers teach on people who made a difference during the
civil rights movement, and one of those people they would talk about is Martin Luther King Jr.
Whom was an activist, public speaker and etc. Before the teacher would read his work or expose
it to their students they would give his background history and who influenced him. This would
be labeled as old criticism. Many teachers may have felt like this was a way because they
believed it was easier for students to better understand the meaning behind the speeches or in
other words the text. Because they knew that he was a man that got world recognition for many
of his speeches and with those speeches came people reading them and analyzing them.
Wondering who is this man, and who influenced his work. Therefore, many teachers take the
time out to learn that information, and tell their students prior to them reading his speeches. By
the teachers doing this they put the old critic way of doing things upon their students. Which
many students still apply today because of their previous teachers exposing them to that way of

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When old critics read a piece of literature, they would sometimes get some sort of
impression from a piece of work or feeling. For example, it is stated in How to Interpret
Literature to say Tennysons Marianna is the saddest poem in the English language (pg.14).
Many old critics would argue that a reader can get some type of impression or feeling from a
piece a work. That the feeling sometimes over comes the body of work. Not only is that an
impression, but it is also an opinion. When an old critic gets an impression from a piece a work,
they would then try to moralize it.
Moralizing is better known as when a reader tries to understand the lesson the writer is
trying to teach. Which is what many old critics do because they feel some piece of work tries to
teach a lesson or speak about a certain issue or the morals of it. In other words, an old critic
could say that Emily Dickinsons Further in summer than the birds is for the purpose of
learning to appreciate the environmental value of the crickets or even to gain a profounder
understanding of loneliness (pg.14, HIL). Old critics are known for trying to find the moral of
the story, to look deeper through the words and find its true meaning (lesson) it is trying to
Additionally, many old critics that are teachers make students read out loud, thinking that
it helps students grasp the concept behind the text more. The belief is that reading it out loud
brings the words to life, and gives it some character. It is a way to act out the words and not
really focus on the text, but bring it to life with performance, so that the reader can connect more.
It is a way for students to see that poetry, novels, and etc. is just not letters, but it is literature that
have feeling. Old criticism is known for looking at the history behind a body of work before
reading it, looking for the impression it is trying to show, moralize what the reader is trying to
say and to read it out loud to give it character. Now that we have grasped all the concepts in

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learning what old criticism is, we must now turn to learning about the theory of new criticism,
which many believe is an improved theory; however, many deny this belief.
New criticism is a theory that came between the years of 1930-1940. It is a theory that
some critics try to obtain. The skill of not looking up any background information, but rather to
interpret a work of literature that forms an organic whole, to read only the work of literature
itself (pg.17, HIL). A new critic is supposed to only look at the body of text and only look at the
text, no looking up the history or reading out loud. A new critic believes that to be able interpret
a body of work, one must start close reading a text which means detailed, careful attention to a
text itself, to the words on the page (pg. 16, HIL). To close read a text, a reader must apply these
key concepts, paradox, ambiguity, tension, and irony, while also finding the pattern and symbols.
These key concepts help the new critic find the unity(balance).
Paradox, ambiguity, tension, and irony, for the new critics typify the connotative are of
literary writing, as opposed to what they saw as the denotative straitjacket of scientific writing
(pg. 18, HIL). These key elements provide a platform that new critics use in order for them to
close read as thoroughly as possible. A paradox is a piece of text that have one thought, but
oppose one another at the same time, for example happy is sad and sad is to happy. The next key
concept to look at when close reading is ambiguity. Ambiguity is known for literature or text
having more meanings than one. It is a way that a person can get multiple meanings from a word,
rather than the meaning that is applied to it. Sometimes it can be a deeper meaning, but the
reader must close read in order to find it in the body of text. Thirdly, the concept of tension
within a body of text. Tension is a key concept that is known for confusing many students, due to
them using the word for another meaning that many connect it to; however, when it is applied to
close reading it is about ideas that are combined to one another, but is pulled apart before having

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an agreement. It is about a story having many different scenarios that could play out, but the
reader knows due to close reading that it will never be a resolution. Finally, the key element
irony. Irony refers to an expression or event that means something different connotatively from
what it means denotatively (pg. 19, HIL). All these key elements come together to provide a
new critic a way to close read a text and take it for what it is, but we must also remember that in
order to see the unity in a text a reader must tie in the patterns and symbols.
When a reader reads literature they may sometimes see a pattern with the use of symbols.
Patterns in such areas such as language or description. When new critics see the patterns, their
job is to then interpret the symbols. By seeing the patterns and interpreting them the new critic
then will be able to recognize the unity within the body of text. While being able to look at the
patterns, we must then take a look at the impact symbols have in making a body of text unified.
Which a new critic believes is the primary concern of criticism (pg.19, CT). The new critic
believes that many students are taught to look for the symbol behind a body of text; however,
they believe that by doing this, the reader is not really close reading because some body of works
have multiple symbols. When readers look for a symbol, they may miss what the body of text is
saying and that is what the new critic do not want. The new critic wants the reader to engage in
the text and let the symbols come out, as you apply the other key concepts, while trying to
interpret it and find the unity.
Now that we know what each theory is we must apply it to a piece of literature, and
choose which one is better. Which I have already done and came to the conclusion that old
criticism is better for me as a reader. I came to this decision by reading the Changes: A Love
Story by Ama Ata Aidoo. When I first came across this piece of literature was in class. My
teacher took the new criticism way and told all of her student to begin reading the book, before

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she even gave us any background knowledge. After getting a feel for the novel and then finishing
it, I realize that I needed background information on the author. Also, information on the topics
that were discussed in the novel. I believe that if I had got that first it would have made a
difference in my reading. I would have interpreted the novel better because I would have had
outside knowledge on some of the things I really did not have too much knowledge on.
This novel was about polygamy and the Muslim religion that is all tied into the African
tradition. Topics I really do not know nothing about because I was never exposed to it. So after
reading it the first time, I then went back and learned on the Muslim religion, polygamy, the
African tradition, and the roles women are put into based on this tradition. After gaining
knowledge on these topics I then re-read the book, which gave me a better understanding of the
work. Which led me to the decision that for me as a reader, I prefer applying the theory of old
criticism when it comes to interpreting a text. By learning the information and applying it to the
book made me aware that although these sort of things are not normal to me; however, it is still
normal to someone else. I do believe that if I did not take the old critic way of doing things, I
would have not interpreted the body of work the way I did, which helped me get a clearer
In conclusion, when it comes to these two theories they are both used to achieve the same
goal; however, the reader must decide which one is better for them. Which in most instances man
would say old criticism because old habits are hard to break. When students are taught a certain
way for a long period of time, reading habits stay with them. The way they are taught to interpret
may not be able to conform to the new critic way, which is what happen to me. A reader must try
both methods and see which one works for them, because not all readers are alike.

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Work Cited

Aidoo, Ama A. Changes: A Love Story. London: The Womens Press, 1991. Print.
Parker, Robert D. New Criticism. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for

Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 1142. Print.
Parker, Robert D. New Criticism. Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press,
2012. 735. Print.