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Literature Criticism Resources: Home

Find sources to critically anlyaze your short story,novel, or other piece of literature. Includes a link to our MLA Style Guide page.

A Word about Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism is not a synopsis of the work's plot.  It is not a book report.  It is an examination of the work itself from any one of number of perspectives (see the definition found on this page.)

Literary Criticism examines the work itself.  It is usually not concerned with biography, or the life of the author.

At times you will be able to find an analysis of the author's style in general, but not an article on the particular work you are examining.  You may have to apply the general observatiions to the specific work.

Definition of Literary Criticism

literary criticism also called (jocularly, and chiefly in academic contexts) lit crit [ˈlit-ˈkrit]

A discipline concerned with a range of enquiries about literature: criticism asks what literature is, what it does, and what it is worth.

  History of Literary Criticism

The Western critical tradition began with Plato in the 4th century BC. In the Republic he attacked the poets on two fronts: their art is merely imitative, and it appeals to the worst rather than to the best in human nature. A generation later Aristotle, in his Poetics, countered these charges and developed a set of principles of composition that were of lasting importance to European literature. As late as 1674 Nicolas Boileau was still, in L'Art poétique, recommending observance of the Aristotelian rules—or unities—of time, action, and place.

European literary criticism from the Renaissance onward has for the most part focused on the same two issues: the moral worth of literature and the nature of its relationship to reality. At the end of the 16th century Sir Philip Sidney argued in The Defence of Poesie that it is the special property of literature to express moral and philosophical truths in a way that rescues them from abstraction and makes them immediately graspable. A century later, John Dryden, in Of Dramatick Poesie, An Essay (1668), put forward the less idealistic view that the business of literature is primarily to offer an accurate representation of the world “for the delight and instruction of mankind.” This remains the assumption of the great critical works of 18th-century England, underlying both Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1711) and the extensive work of Samuel Johnson.

William Wordsworth's assertion in his “Preface” to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800) that the object of poetry is “truth . . . carried alive into the heart by passion” marks a significant change from the ideas of the mid-18th century. Other important statements of critical theory in the Romantic period were Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817) and Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry (written 1821). The later 19th century saw a development in one direction toward an aesthetic theory of art for art's sake and in another direction toward the view, expressed by Matthew Arnold, that the cultural role of literature should be to take over the sort of moral and philosophical functions that had previously been fulfilled by religion.

The volume of literary criticism increased greatly in the 20th century. An early example of this in the English-speaking world was I.A. Richards' Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), which became influential as the basis of Practical Criticism. From this developed the New Criticism of the 1940s and '50s, which was associated with such American critics as John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks. The premise of the New Critics, that a work of literature should be studied as a separate and self-contained entity, set them in opposition both to biographical criticism and to those schools of criticism—Marxist, psychoanalytical, historical, and the like—that set out to examine literature from perspectives external to the text.

The late 20th century witnessed a radical reappraisal of traditional modes of literary criticism. Building on the work of the Russian Formalist critics of the 1920s and the examinations of linguistic structure carried out by the Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure, literary theorists began to call into question the overriding importance of the concept of “the author” as the source of the text's meaning. Structuralist and poststructuralist critics, such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida of France, instead directed attention toward the ways in which meaning is created by the determining structures of language and culture. See also CHICAGO CRITICS; DECONSTRUCTION; FEMINIST CRITICISM; FORMALISM; FREUDIAN CRITICISM; GENEVA SCHOOL OF CRITICISM; MARXIST CRITICISM; NEW CRITICISM; NEW HISTORICISM; POSTSTRUCTURALISM; PRACTICAL CRITICISM; READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM; STRUCTURALISM

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