Critical Approaches

Art courtesy of Janet Preslar, FrActivity

These are the narrowly defined critical approaches that one would use to analyze a literary work or a non-fiction piece. These can be used alone or in conjunction or in contrast with others. Although some critical approaches are limiting in terms of likely responses to a work, others by their nature give the opportunity for a quite varied series of acceptable responses. It is important as a student, however, that you endeavor to produce as fair a response as possible, keeping in mind that purposely distorting the writer's work and intention to fit your viewpoint leads, ultimately, to weak arguments. (See ARGUMENT WEAKNESSES.) That is not to say you can't disagree with an author or find fault with any work. It does mean that you are responsible for showing both sides of an argument completely enough that the weaknesses are clear to the reader.
N.B. Any opinions expressed in the following videos are entirely that of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views or attitudes of the school, the faculty, or anybody else for that matter.


  • BIOGRAPHICAL: VIDEO Focuses on the life and works of a particular author, revealing how the author's life up to the point the work was written is reflected in the work and vice versa. In other words, the only biographical information that should be included in your analysis is that which specifically applies to the work under discussion. This is not an opportunity for you to create a biography. You must be very selective. Sometimes a biographical criticism is merely historical; other times it can be much greater impact on the work...even autobiographical, such as Coal Miner's Daughter. The critic is not allowed to project beyond the time in which the work was written and the translation should be mostly literal. Symbolic translations to the author's life are psychoanalytical.

  • CULTURAL CRITICISM: VIDEO a theory based on the notion that different cultures have different values and belief systems and that these values are a reflection of the art and other cultural phenomena within a group. These values are often misunderstood or misinterpreted by other cultures, which may see these values as either unimportant or negative. Often cultural criticism is centered around a racial, ethnic or religious perspective. It is imperative that the analysis written by you is from the perspective of the culture as to how they would translate and respond to the work. Cultural criticism is not necessarily a discussion of the culture that is being presented in the work, as much as it is a discussion of how the culture and its values would translate the work under discussion. More interesting cultural perspectives have to do with how cultures outside of the speaker's culture would respond to work, such as how a conservative Christian would respond to gangsta rap or vice versa. (Discussions of the author's experience is biographical criticism. Discussion of the realities and experiences of the culture being portrayed is historical criticism.) There several cultural perspectives that have become major courses of study so universities and you should be aware of them. The following are a few of the many that are now currently available.
    • African-American studies: VIDEO African-American studies is a cultural perspective on work that focuses on the African-American experience specifically and, of course, the African-American response to literature in a more general way. Not only are prominent African-American authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Tupac Shakur or James Baldwin and their works analyzed, but also African-American culture and values, in all its variations, can be utilized as a cultural response to work that is either written by African-Americans, about African-Americans or, even about characters whose experience mirrors that of African-Americans, including experiences with slavery and oppression, cultural bias, and even the impact of a prominent minority on the predominant culture. Keep in mind that the translation of a work from a upper middle-class suburban African American perspective is going to be profoundly different from that of the inner city struggling male African-American perspective. Make sure that your resources and your cultural criticism from this perspective narrows the topic down sufficiently. As with most cultures, this is not a monolithic culture.
    • Asian American studies: VIDEO The Asian-American experience in the United States varies between eras and between countries of origin, as each group has had a different experience in terms of immigration and incorporation into the United States general culture. The influx of Chinese to build the transcontinental railroad affected the Chinese American experience in a very fundamental way, as the Japanese internment during World War II affected the Japanese-American identity and cultural response. Likewise, the refugee status for many so-called "boat people" of the 1970s fundamentally affected the way that many Southeast Asians identify themselves within the American fabric. To that end, you must identify the translation from a specific Asian perspective, and whether you are analyzing works by prominent Asian writers like Amy Tan, Jeanne Houston or David Henry Hwang, or you are using the Asian-American voice to translate a work, you are looking for a cohesive argument within your paragraph. In other words, once you choose the Korean American response, stick to the Korean-American translation. If you want to try a different Asian cultural response to work, that will be a different paragraph.
    • Latino studies:VIDEO Latino studies, also commonly referred to as Latin American studies, is, like many of these other cultural studies programs, an amalgamation of different perspectives from different countries and different groups within those countries put together because of the certain connections that Latinos have cross-culturally. Certainly works by Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende are prominent in not only these cultural studies, but also as critics themselves from the Latino cultural perspective. To that end, while some generalizations about perspective and translation and cultural response may be made from the Latino perspective, when you're creating an argument based on a Latino cultural perspective, you're looking for consistency of argument, and very often it is best to find a cohesion either by country or by region or by identifying factor, such as religion or socio-cultural economic status. The Boriquén in New York and the itinerant Mexican farm worker in California may share similarities in language and religion, but their experience in the United States has some fundamental differences, and their translation of literature either about, by or referencing the Latino experience will have some differences. Issues with immigration, language and cultural assimilation, as well as the growing power of Latino influence in the United States may be reflected in literature and certainly cultural responses from that perspective will analyze some of that perspective.
    • Native American studies: VIDEO The Native American experience is unique in this country in the sense that it is, legally, countries within a country. To that end, as with other cultural responses, the specific response when using the Native American cultural response will need a focus. Whether it is from the Lakota (Sioux), the Diné (Navajo) or the Shoshone, each perspective will reflect individual cultural beliefs, as well as the specific influences that each unique environment that these peoples inhabit will have on their view of a work. Thus, works by a prominent Native American author, such as Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko or Louise Erdrich, or written about the Native American experience can be translated within the specific culture or from a different Native American perspective. Obviously, the Native American cultural response can also be used to translate work that is written about experiences that Native Americans would understand, such as the notion of invasion, transplantation, enslavement, or recognition and repatriation. Choose your cultural analysis perspective narrowly and stick with that for the analysis.

  • DECONSTRUCTION: VIDEO A theory based on the concept that all written word is an attempt to communicate, but the translations are so varied that there is no real truth or any one answer to an analytical question. Essentially, a key word or words from a work are retranslated within the confines of either a standard dictionary or current slang to change the contextual meaning of the work. The new theme that is created is then used to retranslate other words as much as possible. This is not psychoanalytical criticism, in which something is translated SYMBOLICALLY... this is wordplay. For example, in the phrase "safe at home," the most obvious translation would be either that an individual is secure in her domicile or that a baseball player has scored a run. However, changing the word SAFE from an adjective to a noun would change its meaning from a state of being to an object in which people lock up valuable objects. Thus this simple phrase would have different meanings depending on whether the work in which the phrase occurred is a crime novel or a sports story. While the translation between these various versions of this simple phrase are not too far from each other, the application of deconstruction to more complicated or more open-ended word choices reveals more divergent meanings. For example, "fire at will" is a common phrase in war movies that simply means that individuals can discharge their weapons at their own discretion. However, the word FIRE is not only a verb that refers to discharging weapon, but is also a verb that refers to discharging an employee or two put something under intense heat. As a noun, it refers to combustion or open flame, and the word WILL as a noun refers to a document delineating the dispersal of one's assets after death or, as a proper noun, is another name for a person whose given name is William. Again, with all these various translations of the individual words, the phrase itself comes with multiple meanings. Deconstruction involves a lot of work and attention to detail. The idea is not to make complete gibberish out of a work, but to change the context of the work through careful word retranslation. This is considered by some to be the direct opposite of FORMALIST criticism. Deconstruction also can lead to specious arguments based solely on a critic's viewpoint, ignoring the basic elements of the work itself.

  • FEMINIST: VIDEO This is a commonly used approach that is a gender-focused theory based on the belief that men and women read, write and interpret literature from different viewpoints. This approach also focuses on how men and women are portrayed in literature, usually seeing both men and women drawn into stereotypical roles, often to the detriment of women. This theory also includes the underlying assumption that a canon chosen by (mostly) men will reflect the values and likes of men more than women. This particular critical perspective even a waste to work in terms of its presentation style in a way that makes the critical perspective and advocacy of sorts... in other words, a feminist analysis is going to, in many cases, indicate whether or not the work is good or bad based on feminist values. (see GENDERD)

  • FORMALIST: VIDEO A critical approach that is limited to what is in the story itself...nothing else. Author, historical period, reader's response, or any other critical approach, such as psychoanalytical, are not considered. More attention is given to classical literary thematic approaches, like setting, symbolism and irony.

  • GAY, LESBIAN OR QUEER: VIDEO Like Feminist criticism, looks at work as potentially hostile to a particular social group, in this case focusing on sexual orientation issues, noting differences between the writing and reading tendencies of straights and gays, often seeing gays portrayed in a worse light than non-homosexuals. Like feminist criticism, this translation is usually evaluative in the sense that it will grade the work on how well or how poorly it has portrayed the homosexual community. (see GENDER BASED)

  • GENDER: VIDEO This is a generalized term referring to any approach that looks at a work as a comment on gender/sex-based roles in the society in which it is placed, and includes FEMINIST and BI/GAY THEORY. This approach has a problematic aspect in that the antagonistic feelings of the critic for a work may lead to a less than unbiased response to the work. However, these critical approaches are also powerful tools to illustrate the effect that mainstream literature has on those who have been, or feel they have been, disenfranchised. Unlike feminist criticism, this translation is usually not evaluative in the sense that it will not grade the work on how well or how poorly it has portrayed the either gender, but is more about identifying stereotypes and or broken stereotypes in a more objective way.

  • HISTORICAL: VIDEO Analysis of a work taking the time period in which it is set and the time it was written into account, often giving understanding to portrayals of certain aspects of life and viewpoints not seen the same today (for instance, specific roles for minorities or women). Requires a clear understanding of the time period being discussed, not just a passing knowledge. The work itself is likely to be a window into mores and attitudes of the time portrayed or the era in which the work was written. This is not an opportunity for you to write a general history of the era. Every bit of information that is included in the essay should relate specifically to some specific aspect of the work under discussion.

  • MARXIST: VIDEO Based on the social philosophies of Karl Marx, this criticism sees all work in the light of class struggle and everything, including literature, as a commodity. There are three main ways to use this, either by themselves or mixed together.
    1. The first is seeing all work as a means to discuss and evaluate class struggle. Usually, the work will involve one such struggle as a means to discuss or exemplify class struggle in a larger sense. This is probably the most classic of the Marxist approaches, as the author may (although not always) take sides as to which class is more deserving than the other. This particular critical approach leads itself to the next type of Marxist analysis.
    2. Marxist criticism can be further used to directly PROPAGANDIZE. Literature will reflect the class or values mindset from which it is written, reflecting the values and mores of that particular socioeconomic, moral or social status, which most of the time is a reflection of the writer's own views. In many cases, a particular group will be presented as deserving and praiseworthy, while another group will be seen in a negative light. For example, the working class will produce works that extol the virtues of and validate the working class values. This can be used in a traditional Marxist sense of showing a conflict between the upper class and lower class (Les Miserables or Death of a Salesman or in a contextual sense of explaining how someone feels about a particular political situation (Bono or Toby Keith).
    3. Another aspect of Marxist criticism which may seem in direct opposite but is actually part and parcel of the same philosophy is that all work is done to sell product. In other words, a work is PANDERING to its audience. This concept is rather complex, but in a nutshell the idea is that all works are products to be consumed, and therefore will be written to please, not necessarily to dispense truth. Therefore, for example, someone who wishes to sell Christian music will make sure that they are product hits the themes and values of their intended audience, whether they believe that personally or not. The same goes for hip-hop or heavy metal. In fact, ever since the invention of the "parents advisory" warning on record and CD sales, it has become evident that if a person can get that sticker, they are more likely to sell product then if they did not get that sticker, depending on the musical genre.

    Finally, Marxist criticism also takes into account the criticism itself. In essence, Marxist theory declares that it is the critic's role to influence society by revealing the truth in the criticism of the work, to show what aspects (often hidden, often negative) of the class are revealed inadvertently by the work. This type of critical advocacy is something that you will see, but is not something that you will do on your papers in this class.

  • MYTH: VIDEO This is a criticism, based on Jungian Psychology, that takes into account the universal experiences of humans as reflected in literature. The notion here is that, regardless as to culture, era or any other specific influence, ALL humankind has a shared history, and it is told through stories and imagery shared by them. This is reflected in the multitudes of religions and cultures that share origin stories, great floods and cataclysms, and even the demi-god sent to earth to sacrifice (usually him)self for all humankind. The specific details are different; the overall themes are the same. These common experiences lead to instant understanding of the basics of a work, even if the reader is unschooled. Examples include the plot device of the Quest or Journey, in which a life-changing experience proves the mettle of the protagonist, and also reflects the universal life experience of growth and maturing. Another aspect is Archetypal characters: the hero (heroine), the evil stepmother (witch), the Wise man, the damsel in distress, etc. These can lead, though, to predictable outcomes and static (stereotypical and predictable) characters. From a critic's standpoint, it can lead to seeing these patterns even when they are not limits the meaning of works down to only one or two possibilities.

  • NEW HISTORICISM: VIDEO Almost a complete reversal of Historical criticism, New Historical Criticism claims that there is no time but now...that there is no way to read a work as it was presented in, say, 1822 because we do not live in 1822, and more importantly, do not hold the same views of race relations, gender relations and class distinctions as then. Thus, for instance, we may reevaluate a work today as reflective of a corrupt society and philosophy, when in previous times it may have been seen as glorious and enlightening.

  • PSYCHOANALYTICAL: VIDEO This criticism involves multiple aspects, taken into account either separately or together. These theories are based on the teachings of Sigmund Freud, and are played out when the character inadvertently reveals in a vision (1) or acts out (2) some hidden desire:
    1. The belief that desires are revealed in dreams and fantasies. In this case, usually in fiction or some other type of longform prose, a character will experience some kind of vision, dream or even hallucination in which the truth of their essential nature is shown. Certainly anyone familiar with Walt Disney's version of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day is familiar with his nightmare concerning Heffalumps and Woozles, not only revealing his fear of having honey stolen from him, but also reflecting his own gluttony, which is later revealed not only in this particular story but in further stories.
    2. The theory that all struggles are based in a conflict with same sex parent, the son replacing the father for mother's affections and daughter conflicting with mother for father's affection. The most famous of these conflicts is the root of Freud's naming of this tendency, Oedipus Complex, which is the story of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), in which a boy grows into a man, kills his father and marries his mother. For women, this comes out as the Electra Complex. In terms, since there are few stories that indicate something as blatant as an incestuous relationship, the theory is used to explain conflicts between a child and the same-sex parent such as that found in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been (Connie versus her mother) and in Death of a Salesman (Biff versus his father). Essentially, the conflict really lies in the parent wishing to maintain control over the child, and even fearing the child's youth and vitality, while the child covets the parent's power and position and resents being controlled.
    3. The work portrays internal struggle of a character OR the work's creator as revealed through word play (Freudian slips,etc) or plot resolution. In this case, a character will "accidentally" say something that they truly mean or reveals their true feelings. For example, if a doctor says to his busty female patient, "You are my breast...uh...BEST patient," he may be revealing what's really on his mind. Furthermore, Freud maintained that essentially where a person ends up is what they wanted all along... a character who maintains that they want to be successful but is continually set back by accidents, problems and other diversions is actually creating those things him or herself because subconsciously they do not want to succeed.
    This can become cumbersome when the critic sees nothing but hidden subtexts, especially when there was no intention of such by the author. Nonetheless, this is a popular and oft-applied critical tool. These perspectives can be applied either to the author as a revelation of author's own psyche through the text (unintentionally revealed) or as an intentional manipulation of the character by the author to reveal character's own hidden fears or desires.

Two-fold approach.

  1. Determine author's intent, taking into account literary translation as well as the likely influences on author's viewpoint, such as experience or situation. Things like race, era and gender are covered under cultural, historical and gender criticisms respectively. Reader response opens the door up to any other experiential context for reading something...such as any person who has lost their job or had trouble with their children would respond to Death of a Salesman.
  2. Determine how it has impacted a reader, taking into account the reader's own perspective, including biases revolving around reader's age, gender, and sociopolitical viewpoints.
The result is a mixture of the two, the second factor changing as reader and time eras change. Be aware of the likelihood that some critics will put a particular spin on a work, often distorting the work's meaning far beyond anything the author ever intended. In other words, the critic is using the work as a springboard or a speech extolling his/her own view of the world. The idea is to meet the author halfway in the meaning, trying to see things in as equitable a light as possible. The way that this works in this class is you must identify a particular reader that has had a particular experience that is somehow reflected in the work. For example, if you're reading a work that involves a robbery, finding analysis or anecdote that is PUBLISHED concerning either a victim or the perpetrator of such a crime would be appropriate reader response material. YOU MAY NOT RESPOND AS YOURSELF. If you want to respond from a perspective that you yourself hold, you are still required to find secondary sources that support that particular experience and report it objectively, without any first person reference to yourself.

The purpose of any critical approach should be enlightenment. A mature reader will use these critical approaches to bring out the author's message, not to create an opportunity for a sociopolitical diatribe that is more a reflection of critic than of writer. Be sure when using the critical approach that you know what you are talking about. Get some background information and look for some understanding.

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998-2018
Last modified: March 3, 2017