The term “New Criticism” defines the critical theory that has dominated Anglo-American literary criticism for the past fifty years. Its method of close reading and emphasis on the text provided a corrective to fuzzy biographical criticism and subjective enthusiasm, but for many teachers in North America and Britain, it became not a method of criticism, but criticism itself. Alternatives to its interpretive strategies have until recently been regarded with deep suspicion. It is important to understand the precepts of the New Criticism as critical positions and not as the truth about literature before looking at other strategies.
New Criticism argues that each text has a central unity. The responsibility of the reader is to discover this unity. The reader’s job is to interpret the text, telling in what ways each of its parts contributes to the central unity. The primary interest is in themes. A text is spoken by a persona (narrator or speaker) who expresses an attitude which must be defined and who speaks in a tone which helps define the attitude: ironic, straightforward or ambiguous. Judgements of the value of a text must be based on the richness of the attitude and the complexity and the balance of the text. The key phrases are ambivalence, ambiguity, tension, irony and paradox.
The reader’s analysis of these elements lead him to an examination of the themes. A work is good or bad depending on whether the themes are complex and whether or not they contribute to the central, unifying theme. The more complex the themes are and the more closely they contribute to a central theme (unity) the better the work.
Usually, the New Critics define their themes as oppositions: Life and death, good and evil, love and hate, harmony and strife, order and disorder, eternity and time, reality and appearance, truth and falsehood, emotion and reason, simplicity and complexity, nature and art. The analysis of a text is an exercise in showing how all of its parts contribute to a complex but single (unified) statement about human problems.
The method the reader must use is “close analysis.” The reader must look at the words, the syntax, the images, the structure (usually, “the argument”). The words must be understood to be ambiguous. (The more possible meanings a word has, the richer the ambiguity. The reader should search out irony (ambiguous meaning) and paradox (contradictory meaning, hence also ambiguity). The reader must discover tensions in the work. These will be the results of thematic oppositions, though they may also occur as oppositions in imagery: light versus dark, beautiful versus ugly, graceful versus clumsy. The oppositions may also be in the words chosen: concrete versus abstract, energetic versus placid)
The reader must guard against two evils, stock responses (autumn should not make the reader sad unless the poem directs sadness at the thought of autumn) and idiosyncratic (affective) responses. (Lush grass should not make the reader think of cows however often he or she has seen cows in lush grass unless the poem clearly directs the reader to associate cows and lush grass. (See, Jonathon Culler, The Pursuit of Signs)