An introduction to Critical theories
New Historicist Literary Theory
New Historicists are interested the way that literature is shaped by both the history of the author (their biography), the life and times in which the text was written and also by that of the reader/critic.
A New Historicist looks at literature in a wider historical context, examining both how the writer’s times affected the work and how the work reflects the writer’s times, in turn recognizing that current cultural contexts colour that critic’s conclusions.
New Historicism acknowledges and embraces the idea that, as times change, so will our understanding of great literature.
Feminist literary theory
Feminist Criticism comes in many forms and it is important to realise that feminist critics have a variety of goals. However, nearly all feminist criticism starts from one fundamental perception: the recognition that society is patriarchal, that the world is organised on terms dictated by men and to the advantage of men.
To this end some might revisit books by male authors and review them from a woman’s point of view to understand how they both reflect and shape the attitudes that have held women back.
Some might focus might focus on what the text shows of the power struggle between men and women.
Others might critique the ways in which the structure of language reflects and shapes patriarchal attitudes – privileging the male experience over the female.
They might examine misogynistic attitudes in Literature – the way the male and female characters and their behaviours are presented and depicted. Not just characters though, they might also examine how symbols or objects or roles typically associated with a particular gender are treated.
All psychoanalytical criticism begins with the ideas of Freud which sought to explore the nature of the unconscious mind. Freud’s concern was with the sense of loss the subject experiences upon separation from its mother’s body.
Freud believed that people have desires, often sexual, that are denied or repressed because of social conventions or personal circumstances. The desires do not go away, however, and literature can be a means by which the unconscious mind can express its repressed needs. Thus the unacceptable becomes acceptable as the author’s deep rooted desires are disguised by symbolism to be decoded by the reader; for example, the lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse has been seen by some as a symbol of sexuality.
The psychoanalytic critic might explore the symbolic elements in the story. They examine the idea of dreams and desires that have been repressed and surface in the literature. And most often these are SEXUAL!
POST-COLONIAL LITERARY CRITICISM
You believe the text is related to the social context of its author and the historical contexts in which it was written and read. You recognise that the power base in the world works to the advantage of the colonisers: the white Europeans and that the world is organised on terms dictated by them and to their advantage.
You are interested in the struggle against injustice and oppression, chiefly
between black and white. You look at what a text reveals about attitudes to race.
You might be interested in the ways people from different heritages are represented in a text and what attributes are associated with them. Likewise you might examine the attributes associated with particular colours or other symbols and how these reflect and shape the attitudes of the culture.
You might examine to what extent the text supports or challenges the dominant philosophy that privileges white over black, the Western Anglo-Saxon over the non-Western.
MARXIST literary theory
The Marxist critic is very clear about the stance from which he or she writes. The text is always seen in relation to a Marxist view of history in which the idea of class struggle is central. Marx believed that there would eventually be a revolutionary class war in which the proletariat, working class, would pit themselves against the bourgeois capitalists and create a new social and economic order.
The Marxist literary critic examines the ways in which the texts shape and reflect the values of the society in terms of economics and power. They might analyse the presentation of the characters as representative of different classes.
But also the Marxist literary critic may examine the ways in which the structure of the story supports or challenges dominant ideologies and that this may subvert the seeming ‘political’ message of the text. Oliver Twist for example rails against the Workhouse and the treatment of the poor, but ultimately Oliver is returned the bosom of the bourgeois family – the ‘happy ending
Archetypal / Jungian criticism and most recently into the work of Stephen Booker in his weighty tome : The Seven Basic Plots
The basis of archetypal criticism is the ideas of Carl Jung. You explore the text for the revelation of images, myths and symbols of cultures that occur repeatedly throughout time.
In texts you see recurrent patterns and figures. These are mythical patterns in literature which, because they are based on experiences intrinsic to human existence, are both deeply rooted and enduring. Such themes which are rooted in myth include the death-rebirth cycle; the search or quest for healing or regeneration; the battle with, and defeat of, a monster. The Jungian critic is not interested particularly in the personal unconsciousness of the writer (as a Freudian critic would be), rather they examine the ways in which the structure of the story follows these mythical patterns and the ways in which symbols are used.
This criticism suggests that underlying all stories is the fundamental struggle with ego – our capacity to behave selfishly. Ego limits our vision of the world, it leads to greed and holds us back from maturity.
The stories are seen to show us how the next generation is to carry on the ‘torch of life’ and how we can reunite ourselves with our deeper centre.
All stories are figured around the conflict between Dark & Light, between Death & Life. Dark being the egocentric which represents the isolating inability to feel for others and blinkered inability to see whole. The light, meanwhile, connects us with a true selfless feeling for others, with a proper understanding with the world outside us.
Dark figures (the ego) have the negative version of the qualities needed for self-actualisation, the qualities that the hero/heroine must show themselves to possess. Two sets of values are brought together – the masculine (strength & power of mind; the physical and mental) and the feminine (selflessness & intuition; the heart and soul). The feminine must be liberated from the ego in order to become whole.
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