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Dec 27, 2011

New Criticism

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.
The New Criticism posits that every text is autonomous. History, biography, sociology, psychology, author’s intention and reader’s private experience are all irrelevant. Any attempt to look at the author’s relationship to a work is called “the intentional fallacy.” Any attempt to look at the reader’s individual response is called “the affective fallacy.”

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)


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  4. New Criticism is an approach to literature made popular in the 20th century that evolved out of formalist criticism. This term, set current by the publication of John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism in 1941, came to be applied to a theory and practice that was prominent in American literary criticism until late in the 1960s. The movement derived in considerable part from elements in I.A. Richards's Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), and from the critical essays of T.S. Eliot. It opposed the prevailing interest of scholars, critics, and teachers of that era in the biographies of authors, the social context of literature, and literary history by insisting that the proper concern of literary criticism is not with the external circumstances or effects or historical position of a work, but with a detailed consideration of the work itself as an independent entity. The most simplistic definitions of New Criticism identify it as a critical movement that propagates the idea of “art for art's sake.” In focusing on the text itself ("close reading"), New Critics intentionally ignore the author, the reader, and the social context. New Criticism is distinctly formalist in character. The method of New Criticism is foremost a close reading, concentrating on such formal aspects as rhythm, meter, theme, imagery, metaphor, etc.
    According to intentional fallacy, it's impossible to determine an author's reasons for writing a text without directly asking him or her. And even if we did determine the author's intentions, they don't matter, because the text itself carries its own value. So, even if we're reading a book by a renowned author like Shakespeare, we shouldn't let the author's reputation taint our evaluation of the text. Affective fallacy is a term from literary criticism used to refer to the supposed error of judging or evaluating a text on the basis of its emotional effects on a reader. The new critics believed that a text should not have to be understood relative to the responses of its readers; its merit (and meaning) must be inherent.
    The New Critics privileged poetry over other forms of literary expression because they saw the poem as the purest exemplification of the literary values which they upheld. However, the techniques of close reading and structural analysis of texts have also been applied to fiction, drama, and other literary forms. The aesthetic qualities praised by the New Critics were largely inherited from the critical writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was the first to elaborate on a concept of the poem as a unified, organic whole which reconciled its internal conflicts and achieved some final balance or harmony.

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