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Literary Criticism

Criticism in literature is the study/evaluation of literary works, including but not limited to plays, poems, novels, and essays. 

Critics evaluate, interpret, and judge literary work according to various theories (often closely connected to literary movements like modernism). Sometimes, critics are influenced by the work of literary theorists who are better known for discussing a written works goals and are usually engaged in more philosophical discussions. 

Literary Criticism Definition and Examples

Criticism Definition

Criticism in the literary world is the analysis of literature. Critics study, evaluate, and critic poems, plays, novels, and more. Some literary critics work for well-known publications, like The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and The New Yorker; others are more independent and publish their work on blogs and websites. 

History of Criticism in Literature 

Literary criticism has a long history, dating back to Aristotle’s Poetics in the 4th century B.C. Most literary criticism focused on religious texts and only grew in popularity during the Enlightenment. Critics began influencing authors’ work and the public’s perception of it.

In the 19th century, criticism was published in journals and magazines, often in the same publications as the literary works themselves. Aestheticism, Romanticism, Modernism, and theories like “the sublime” were incredibly influential. 

Types of Literary Criticism 

  • New Criticism: a formal movement in literary theory that was important in the middle of the 20th century. 
  • Feminist Criticism: uses feminist language and ideas to critique literary language. 
  • Cultural Criticism: explores how religion, class, politics, and more influence the way literature is created. 
  • New Historicism: based on the idea that literature should be interpreted within the context of the author’s personal history as well as the history of the critic.
  • Post-structuralism: rejection of structuralism, or the idea that culture can be understood through a structure. Critics include Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard.

Examples of Literary Criticism 

Thinking About Women by Mary Ellmann

Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women is a book of essays published in 1968. It is one of the most important examples of feminist critics. It attacks misperceptions of women in literature, discusses the representation of women how it has evolved throughout time, and speaks out against literary prejudice. 

Critique of Judgement by Immanuel Kant 

Kant’s Critique of Judgment is an important piece of 18th-century literary criticism. It was published in 1790 and explored the limits of knowledge. He writes that there are four possible aesthetic reflective judgments: the agreeable, the beautiful, the sublime, and the good. Here is a quote: 

Just as we must assume that objects of sense as appearances are ideal if we are to explain how we can determine their forms a priori, so we must presuppose an idealistic interpretation of purposiveness in judging the beautiful in nature and in art if the critique of taste is to explain how there can be judgments of taste that claim a priori validity for everyone (yet without basing on concepts the purposiveness presented in the object).

New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom 

John Crowe Ransom published New Criticism in 1941. It explores a formalist criticism movement in the United States popular in the mid-20th century. It focused on the importance of close reading, specifically when it comes to poetry. The entire movement takes its name from Ransom’s 1941 publication.

“Hamlet and His Problems” by T.S. Eliot

This New Criticism essay by famed poet T.S. Eliot is regarded as one of the most important and influential essays in literary criticism during this period. It was published in 1920 in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Hamlet, the poet begins, is only the secondary issue the play contends with. It is the play itself, he asserts, that is the real problem. Here are the first lines: 

Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.

Read T.S. Eliot’s poetry.


What is the relationship between criticism and literature?

Throughout history, writers have used techniques of critique to analyze literature. There are many movements in criticism that focus on styles and genres of literature. Often, entire literary movements are influenced by the opinion of well-regarded critics. 

What is the importance of criticism in literature?

Using critical techniques while reading should help anyone come to a better understanding of what a literary work is about and why the author chose to write it. Whether one is reading from a strict cultural perspective or is inspired by the feminist theory of historicism, there is much to be interpreted. 

What is the purpose of criticism?

The purpose of criticism is to break down a literary work and craft a judgment regarding its positive and negative qualities. 

What are the two main functions of literary criticism?

The two main functions of literary criticism are to analyze or study a literary work and form principles for the further examination of other literary works. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused on Europe and North America.
  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Implied Reader: the person the author directs their writing toward. It is usually the person, or type of person, they believe would most enjoy or benefit from their literature. 
  • New Woman Movement and Writing: a feminist ideal profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.

Other Resources 

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