Literary Criticism

Sharing with you notes on various literary theories you may want to consider on your next literary analysis/ criticism:

FORMAL CRITICISM is an approach to literature that focuses on the formal elements of a work, such as its language, structure and tone. Formalist critics offer intense examinations of the relationship between form and meaning in a work, emphasizing the subtle complexity in how a work is arranged. Formalist pay special attention to diction, irony, paradox, metaphor and symbol, as well as larger elements such as plot, characterization and narrative technique. Formalist critics read literature as an independent work of art rather than a reflection of the author’s state of mind or as a representation of a moment in history. Therefore, anything outside of the work. Including historical influences and authorial intent, is generally not examined by formalist critics.

  • Make an inventory of the key words, symbols, and images in the work by listing those that seem most insignificant to you. What meanings seem to be attached to these words, symbols, and images?
  • How do these words, symbols, and images help to provide unity or define the over-all pattern or structure of the work?
  • Under what genre should the work be classified? What generic conventions are readily apparent? If it is a fiction or drama, what does each of the five structural elements—plot, characters, setting, theme, and mood—contribute to the work? If it is a poetry, how do meter, rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language contribute to your experience of the poem?

BIOGRAPHICAL CRITICISM begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work. Anyone who sees the biography of a writer quickly sees how much an author’s experiences shapes—both directly and indirectly—what he or she can create. Reading the biography usually change (and usually deepen) our response to the work. Sometimes, even knowing a single important fact illuminates our reading of a poem or any story. Though many literary theorists have assailed biographical criticism on philosophical grounds, the biological approach to literature has never disappeared because of its obvious practical advantages in illuminating literary texts.

Obviously, the first step is to get some biographical information about the author!

  • What biographical facts has the author used?
  • What biographical facts has the author changed?
  • Does the work provide insight into the author’s life?
  • How do the facts about the author’s life increase our understanding of the text?
  • In what ways does the author view his life as “typical”? OR In what ways does the author view her life as significant or extraordinary?

PSYCHOLOGICAL CRITICISM is an approach to literature that draws upon psychoanalytic theories, especially those of Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan to understand more fully the text, the writer, and the reader. The basis of this approach is the ideaof the existence of human unconscious—those impulses, desires, and feelings about which person is unaware but which influence emotions and behaviors. Critics use psychological approaches to explore the motivations of characters and the symbolic meanings of events, while biographers speculate about the writer’s own motivations—conscious or unconscious—in a literary work. Psychological approaches are also used to describe and analyze the reader’s personal responses to a text.

  • What are the principal characteristics or defining traits of the protagonists or main characters in the work?
  • What psychological relationships exist between and among the characters? Determine which characters are stronger and which are weaker. What is the source of their strength or weakness?
  • Are these unconscious conflicts within or between characters? How are these conflicts portrayed in the work? Is the Freudian concept of the id-ego-superego applicable?
  • Is sexuality or sexual imagery employed in the work? are there implications of Oedipus Complex, pleasure principle or wish fulfillment?
  • How do the principal characters view the world around them and other characters in the work? Is that view accurate or distorted?

READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM is an approach to literature that focuses on the reader rather than the work itself, by attempting to describe what goes on in the reader’s mind during the reading of a text. Hence, the consciousness of the reader—produced by reading the work—is the actual subject of reader-response criticism. These critics are not after a “correct” reading of the text or what the author presumably intended; instead, they are interested in the reader’s individual experience with the text. Thus, there is no single definitive reading of a work, because readers create rather than discover absolute meanings in texts. However, this approach is not a rationale for mistaken or bizarre readings, but an exploration of possibilities for a plurality of readings. This kind of strategy calls attention how we read and what influences our readings and what that reveals about ourselves.

  • How do you feel about the work? For example, what feelings did it evoke when you read it? Pity, fear, suspense, surprise, joy, humor?
  • Does your attitude toward or understanding of the work change as you read it? What brings about the conditions that change? How many ways can the work be read?
  • By manipulating such literary devices as tone and point of view, authors try to establish a relationship between their work and their readers. What relationship to the reader does this work (or author) assume? What element of the work help establish this relationship?

MYTHOLOGICAL CRITICISM is an approach to literature that seeks to identify what in a work creates deep universal responses in readers, by paying close attention to the hopes, fears and expectations of entire cultures. Mythological critics (sometime called archetypal critics) look for underlying, recurrent patterns in the literature that reveal universal meanings and basic human experiences for readers regardless of when and where they live. These critics attempt to explain how archetypes (the characters, images and themes that symbolically embody universal meanings and experiences) are embodied in literary works in order to make larger connections that explain a particular work’s lasting appeal. Mythological critics may specialize in areas such as classical literature, philology, anthropology, psychology, and cultural history but they all emphasize the assumptions and values of various cultures.

  • Does the work contain mythic elements in plot, theme, characters? Are these recognizable mythic patterns such as rebirth/ fertility, quest/ journey, struggle or return of the hero?
  • Are there archetypal characters, images or symbols such as the great mother, the great old man , the seas or seasons?
  • Do you find Jungian archetypes, such as shadow, persona, anima, growth or individuation?

SOCIOLOGICAL CRITICISM  is an approach to literature that examines social groups, relationships, values as they are manifested in the literature. Sociological approaches emphasize the nature and effect of the social forces that shape power relationships between groups and classes of people. Such readings treat literature as either a document reflecting social conditions or a product of those conditions. The former view brings into focus the social milieu; the latter emphasizes the work. Two important forms of sociological criticisms and Marxist and feminist approaches.

  • What is the relationship between the work and the society it presents or grew out of? Does it address particular social issues either directly or indirectly—such as race, sex, class, religion or politics?
  • Does the sexual identity of the main character affect relationships and ultimately the events in the story?
  • Finally, does the story, poem or play lend itself to one of the various interpretative techniques more than the others?


Bascara, Linda. (1999). World Literature: A Tertiary Textbook for Literature II. Manila: Rex Bookstore, Inc.

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