How to Get More from Your Reading V: Use a Critical Lens

In this final edition of my series on getting the most of your reading, I want to focus on a more advanced method of literary analysis.  In English departments today, you’ll find a large focus on Literary Theory, which is essentially a range of philosophies that can be applied to the study of texts.  Over the past 100 years, these philosophies have greatly changed the way we study literature and have led to different schools of literary criticism.

These dates are very rough, but they give you the general idea. Prior to 1930, the method of literary criticism was what we now call formalist criticism.  Basically, the focus was on the text and only what was within the text, without considerations of authorial intention or historical setting.  C.S. Lewis’ literary criticism fits this category. 

But then in the 30s, a great deal changed. Sigmund Freud hit the literary world, and it was never the same.  His theories introduced the idea of the unconscious mind, which meant that the author might be writing things unawares.  It shook the whole foundation of how we thought about texts and gave rise to psychoanalytical criticism of texts.

Also around this time, critics started doing more biographical criticism, where they took on the mantle of biographer and dug deep into an author’s life to determine what that could tell us about the text.  For example, if an author was a racist, it tended to show up in his or her work, sometimes in subtle ways.

When Karl Marx introduced his ideas about economics, critics began looking at how money and the class system shaped both the creation and certain representations within literature.  For example, authors from the higher classes often depict the lower classes in ways that reinforce the class system.  Jane Austen is a good example of this.  Marx especially made the term “ideology” useful when thinking about the beliefs of an author that influenced his or her writing. While you don’t have to be a literal Marxist to benefit from this perspective, there are a surprising number of Marxists in English departments today, using The Communist Manifesto as their guide to the world and literature.

Historical critics are those who look at the historical context of writing, to see what was happening at the time it was composed.  Knowing that a period of political upheaval was taking place while Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress can inform some of the images of rulers in his famous allegory.

With the second wave of feminism gaining speed in the 1970s, critics became interested in how the gender of authors affected their writing, and whether or not they depicted gender biases in their writing.  Tied with this study of gender came a study of sexuality, including how homosexuality gets represented in texts.

You’ve probably heard of deconstruction, with men like Jacques Derrida at the foreground of this movement.  These theories influenced literary critics to look at the instability of texts, how their words fail to adequately describe life. If you like spotting inconsistencies and reasoning out why they exist, this can be a fun type of criticism.

In the 1980s, critics began focusing more on the reader and his or her own unique responses to the text, giving rise to reader response criticism.  Your own background and values can affect your own experience of a text. 

You can lump these last two groups in the postmodern or post structuralism category, which is where we find ourselves now, or some might argue that we’re moving past this now.  Either way, postmodernism has changed how we view texts in a static, authoritative, and objective way.  The phrase “death of the author” (from Rowland Barthes) defines this movement in literary criticism.  Basically, it means there isn’t just one interpretation of the text, as defined by the study of the author.  The meaning is situated in multiple places, most notably in the experience of the reader.

I don’t throw all these theories at you to overwhelm you, but to show you how texts are being thought about in a multitude of ways.  Seldom will you find a literary critic today who embraces only one of these perspectives. It’s often a mixed bag.

 If anything, keep in mind how your philosophy of the world, including a Christian worldview, shapes how you view literature. And if you tend to gravitate towards one of these perspectives, your interpretation of literature is greatly affected by it.

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