Friday, December 30, 2011

Approaches to analyzing literary works


At any given moment in mature interpretation of a piece of literature, the reader may be responding from one particular orientation—perhaps a biographical, historical, formalistic, or psychological approach.  Ideally, however, the ultimate response should be multiple and eclectic.  This is so because a work of literary art is the embodiment of a potential human experience; and because human experience is multidimensional, the reader needs a variety of ways to approach and make real that experience.


- HISTORICAL-BIOGRAPHICAL: It sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author’s life and times or the life and times of the characters in the work.

- MORAL-PHILOSOPHICAL: The basic position is that the main role of literature is to teach morality and to examine philosophical issues.

THE FORMALISTIC APPROACH:  Its sole objective is the discovery and explanation of form in the literary work.  What the work says and how it says it is seen as inseparable issues.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL, PSYCHOANALYTIC or FREUDIAN APPROACH: It provides many profound clues toward solving a work’s thematic and symbolic mysteries, but can seldom account for the beautiful symmetry of a well-wrought poem or of a fictional masterpiece.  Though this approach is an excellent tool for reading beneath the lines, the reader must often use other tools, such as the traditional and formalistic, for a proper rendering of the work itself.

MYTHOLOGICAL and ARCHETYPAL APPROACHES or JUNGIAN APPROACH: It tends to emphasize mythical patterns in literature, on the assumption that myths are closer to the elemental archetype than the artful products of sophisticated writers.  Its affinities are with religion, anthropology, and cultural history.  Myths are stories, whether true or not, which human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.  The myth critic sees the work holistically as the manifestation of vitalizing, integrative forces arising from the depths of mankind’s collective psyche.

THE EXPONENTIAL APPROACH: The thematic statements made in literature are frequently more implicit than explicit, if only because they are often made by the communicative and evocative power of symbols and images rather than by expository language.  This approach recognizes such images and symbols.  In the creation of a literary work, the writer has an idea he wishes to communicate. Consciously or otherwise, he then uses a means of doing it.  He must select specific devices and must arrange them so that they can communicate or embody that experience.

ARISTOTELIAN CRITICISM (including THE CHICAGO SCHOOL): It develops the concept of form in Aristotle’s Poetics.  From the Poetics we have such basic notions as catharsis (the cleansing of the soul), the characteristics of the tragic hero (the noble figure; pride, or hubris; the error of judgment, or harmatia; the tragic flaw), the formative elements of drama, the unity of plot, and perhaps more significantly, the basic concept of mimesis, or imitation, the idea that works of literature are imitations of actions.

FEMINIST CRITICISM: It is concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and the representation of women’s condition within literature.

GENRE CRITICISM: It is a traditional way of approaching a piece of literature and assumes that if one knew into what genre a literary work fell (poetry, fiction, or drama), he would know much about the work itself.

THE LINGUISTICS APPROACH: Linguistics is the study of language.  This approach suggests that since language is the medium of literature, the more we know about the medium, the more we will know about literature.  The reader may gain insight into the writer or the work or both by discovering patterns in the linguistic choices that the writer, consciously or unconsciously, has made.

THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH: When a reader places himself in the hands of an author, surrendering his time and attention to that author’s creation, he begins to live within the world that the author has created.  Phenomenology is a method for changing our relation to the world, for becoming more acutely aware of it.  Criticism demands above all that gift of participation, that power to put oneself within the life of another person.

THE RHETORICAL APPROACH: It is a mode of internal criticism which considers the interactions between the work, the author, and the audience.  It regards the literary work as an artistically structured instrument for communication.  It is more interested in a literary work for what it does than for what it is.

THE SOCIOLOGICAL APPROACH (including MARXIST CRITICISM):  It emphasizes the importance of social themes when dealing with literature.  Writers have often expressed special interest in social reform, and literature has projected the movement of social history.

SOURCE STUDY and RELATED APPROACHES (GENETIC): A literary work is considered in terms of its “origins.”  It studies how the work came into being, and what influences were at work to give it exactly the qualities that it has. 

THE STRUCTURALIST APPROACH: It views literature as a second-order system which uses language, the first-order system, as its medium, and is itself to be analyzed primarily on the model of linguistic theory.  At a different level, structuralism might be the study of how recurrent patterns may be detected, not just within a particular work, but throughout literature, perhaps revealing something about the way the human mind works.

THE STYLISTICS APPROACH: Stylistics is the study of the way the author uses his words and grammar.  It focuses mainly on how something is said rather than what is said.  The stylistic features may be (1) phonological (patterns of speech sounds); (2) syntactic (types of sentence structure); (3) lexical (abstract vs. concrete words, the relative frequency of nouns, verbs, adjectives); or (4) rhetorical (the characteristic use of figurative language, imagery, and so on).

THE NEW CRITICISM emphasizes the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author’s psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response.  Each literary work should be regarded as an independent and self-sufficient object.

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