criticism of texts
understanding them

Click on one of these to view and move around
Affective fallacy Allusion
Ambiguity Anxiety of influence
Aporia Archetype
Binary opposition Black
British criticism Carnival
Conceit Content
Contradiction Convention
Critical realism
Criticism Cultural materialism
Deconstructionism Desire
Didactic Discourse
Empathy Feminist
Form Formalism
Freudian Gay
Gynocentrism Gynocriticism
Hypotactic sentence Ideology
Intentional fallacy Irony
Imagination Imposed form
Intertextuality Jungian
Literary work Marxist
Metaphor Metonymy
Misprisions Motif
Narratology New Criticism
New Historicism Organic form
Paradox Paratactic sentence
Pathetic fallacy Patriarchy
Phenomenological Pluralist
Polyphonic Poststructuralism
Practical Psychoanalytical
Readerly Reader response
Reception theory Satire
Semiotics Structuralism
Style Subject
Symbolic order Syntax
Text Twentieth century


Affective fallacy This is a viewpoint in favour of criticising the text with some apparent objectivity rather than commenting upon subjective feelings generated in a poem.
Allusion Sometimes there is a hidden reference in a text to an outside text or situation. David Starkey in talking about aspects of some of The Six Wives of Henry VIII in his 2001 Channel 4 series might be making an allusion to aspects of modern royal marriages and affairs. Many allusions are not always obvious and in any case a writer may have thought of one for creating a text, realise that the parallels are stretched and then abandons it midstream. Alternatively the reader may see an allusion which the writer never considered.
Ambiguity This can be used deliberately to create complexity in meaning and show that the world around is is bigger than the ability to categorise it, something about which the critic should take account.
Anxiety of influence Writers have to look at the work of other writers in the tradition. Some writers are naturally found to be very impressive and influential, and they may be regarded in awe, but also as competition. There is a response similar then to the "I" who faces language in general, because of the irreconcilable nature between towering authority before and wishing to supercede. This relates to psychoanalytical criticism.
Aporia There are questions which generate an impasse among themselves which therefore cannot be answered, like in a "double bind". For the critic it is a postmodern (poststructural) condition of meanings which can never be defined finally, thus leaving a text open, fluid, ambiguous and undermining its own claims.
Archetype Basic skeletons or patterns within the texts on which hang types of stories. So one reads the story and then detects the pattern. it allows readers to be detectives of both what is historically common to stories and what is distinctive. See narratology and Jungian.
Binary opposition This is exposed in some sociological and social anthropological critical theory: particularly in structuralism and through to poststructuralism. It is also part of language, or specifically semiotics: again structuralism in particular and through to poststructuralism. The meaning of a word is given by generating its opposite. In structuralism this is real and foundational, existing in nature and manifested deeply in culture, and external, rooted in the working of the mind and society together (deep language, forms manifesting deep structures), and in poststructuralism and postmodernism the opposites are relative to each other and, because one extreme contains elements of the other, imploding. This deconstruction is a means of exposing underlying biases in the text: seeing the ideological drift of the text, working out its opposites and finding out just how much of the opposite exists "between the lines" of the text and its up front direction. The method is particularly useful where writers try to cover up their true intentions - they are still exposed. Or listen to a politician, and think the opposite, and ask how much of that is true, and whether the opposite is an undercurrent in what is being said.
Black Sometimes this criticism joins with feminist criticism, but sometimes sees feminism as a white middle class pursuit well within the existing white patriarchal structures.
British criticism F. R. Leavis (at Cambridge from 1937 to 1962) advocated focussing on the text and discussing its range of important, valuable, serious and complex meanings (rather than finding one message). He wrote The Great tradition (1948).
Carnival Subversion of authority by introducing aspects of popular humour in older texts, so that laughter from below undermines seriousness from above. It is about use of a counter-culture to overturn authority. Pluralism and democracy can attack single authority. The novel and writing is itself carnival when it introduces a variety of voices and a humorous base, where there is a competition of voices between authority and the populace. Criticism can latch on to and expose this further.
Conceit A conceit is a metaphor that seems too distant from its associated description to be appropriate. The point is to use the dissimilarity to make a connection in extremis. It is particularly useful in showing the world or the self in some sense of chaos.
Content Once form is established, content can be written. Content is what is said rather than in what way. Usually there is some restraint on content given the form.
Contradiction This is when a text contains within it opposing positions. This can reflect the situation in society, of course. Opposing words are binary oppositions, fundamental concepts in structuralism. Deconstruction is about finding the contradiction that undermines a presented unity of the text, but these are fluid and incomplete and shifting.
Convention A fashion followed by many texts. Conventions become traditions to be followed by writers in the field to make works recognisable and identifiable, but then they should become distinctive within these traditions. This is the literary version of the academic writer's task - to follow forbears and then write distinctively.
Critical realism This is where the text represents, informs and shapes the human character according to the social and economic system all around. People reading the texts acquire the characteristics demanded by the economic system. The texts reveal how this is done to the critic. After Georg Lukács.
Criticism The contemporary view is that there is no correct way to read a text in terms of authorial intention. Rather social, feminist and historical criteria can be applied to a text to see how it shapes up. But these other criteria are texts too. The text read contains something of others by which some judgement is made. Texts are in effect compared and contrasted with other texts. The criticism never stops, running to even the concepts involved in criticism, because even these are social constructions, and the whole enterprise suggests power play.
Cultural materialism This is the specifically British equivalent of New Historicism where a text displays its ideological position (Raymond Williams). There is a greater stress on resisting authority than in American New Historicism which reveals where existing authority is operative and dominant.
Deconstructionism This takes poststructuralism to a more theoretical and sceptical position, debunking the motives of a writer through examining the intentional coherence of a text and yet its inconsistencies, via the necessity of "misreadings", and seeing it implode in its own relativity. Everything is text and every text is deconstructed, including the critic's, so that the whole of any kind of reality within text dissolves. As in structuralism and poststructuralism, the critic may not be extreme as the theory. The critic may use deconstruction to simply point up the complexity in the account of the world around, and thus its complexity, so the critic might accept that there is a world out there but we cannot see it with any sense - the text seems limitless in its implications about reality. The writer may set out to be coherent, but can never achieve this because the concepts and images will clash with each other and lead on to contradictory positions). Against this position those opposed want to say what a text says, rather than deconstructing suggesting what a text does not say or says too far, although the deconstructionist suggests that a traditional critic finding what a text does say is just looking in a mirror. Some though have wanted some sense of order at least, and found it in looking at how texts are generated in patterns over historical epochs, even though they are still texts, and this is the basis of a return to poststructuralism and New Historicism.
Desire Part of psychoanalytic theory, in which the semiotic system is like the law of the father to the person who grows up into it, for whom "I" is the person and yet only according to the language beyond the I. This I tries to seek unity with it (in transference from the mother) but cannot, so desire is maintained via this absence of fulfilment. So it's about the instability of langauge as pre-existing and the users of the language, to be seen and analysed as unfulfilled instability in texts (Jacques Lacan and psychoanalytical criticism).
Didactic In texts this means pushing moral, religious or philosophical themes, which may be simple or complex, resolved or unresolved. It has a different meaning from teaching.
Discourse This usually refers to how a text has been written (rather than what is in it), but in postructuralism it is about how language is constructed in particular areas of talking, eg science, religion (to take two broad sweeps) and the power relations as disclosed in the texts themselves.
Empathy Researched or imaginary immersion into a situation and becoming one with it to understand it. This is the same meaning as in sociological research.
Feminist There are different strategies of feminist criticism of a patriarchal society which produces literature to match its patriarchy. The patriarchal and oppressive content of literature is exposed. Then certain female-experience texts are highlighted and praised and what constitutes the canon of literature is reassessed. Postmodern feminists (Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray being theorists, Alice Jardine, Mary Jacobus and Jacqueline Rose doing the textual criticism) find space for female writing within the fictionality of language itself (Derrida and Lacan), though some see this approach as over theoretical in response to the over theoretical. Feminism joined with New Historicism to be more concrete about power and structures, where gender and class based oppression mix (Catherine Gallagher, Nancy Armstrong, Gillian Beer, Mary Poovey). Both the theoretical and more concrete type feminists ask about how gender is constructed and might be reconstructed. Anyway, as definitions change, and contexts change (e.g., gay criticism) feminism also changes, which is in line with the kind of fluidity it seeks, playing the game by its own rules rather than the male logic which seeks fixity and coherence.
Form This is the way something is written, rather than the content (though one is very connected with the other). Form includes genres used and the imagery employed. How form influences content and then work together is the subject of formal analysis, practical criticism or critical appreciation, where what is written is related to how it is delivered.
Formalism These analyists at the time of the Russian Revolution brought science to language and literary works. Literary writing is different in that it obscures, mystifies and defamiliarises rather than presents a coherent picture of the world. It posits itself as different and draws attention to its method. The seed was sown then for a focus on language itself, the form rather than content, as happened in structuralism and beyond. However, form leads on to content, and setting up this form as a construction suggests that content, and ideology, is a relative construction, and so an implosion of meaning is a consequence of later analysis. Another consequence is a focus on the ideology/ies of the text, and their place, leading to New Historicism.
Freudian The text is a symptom of the author's somewhat repressed infantile desires, the dream produced by the dreamer. There is obvious interest in the sexuality displayed in the text.
Gay This takes feminism further by showing how sexual minorities are even further repressed by patriarchal society and its language and symbolic order.
Gynocentrism This is a focus on women writers, and tries to develop a mirror of patriarchy to redress the balance of what has been lost. It looks at what are women's styles of writing, their historical experiences, creative forces, career paths and female traditions of writing.
Gynocriticism Critics who call themselves feminist should focus on texts of female experience, otherwise known as gynotexts, according to Elaine Showalter. The intention is to be gynocentric.
Heremeneutics This is the study of deeper meanings within a text, and is open to the assumption that there can be deep meanings in the text although this itself is problematic.
Hypotactic sentence This uses a lot of subordinate clauses in a complex sentence via subordinating conjunctions (how, though, when, which). Such usage suggests that the world around is complex or the mind is in a state of disorder. Used in poetry, it can break the pattern of a poem for added effect.
Ideology This is a way of thinking, in an era, that biases common sense without most of us realising, so pervading is it (Louis Althusser). Our individuality only forms in the context of the general ideology, and ideology has real concrete institutional maintenance. Works of fiction usually contain within them ideological stances of their day, even where they show signs of resistance or independence.
Intentional fallacy In literature the most important of fallacies (according to Wimsatt and Beardley, The Verbal Icon, 1954) is to try and ask what where the author's intentions. It is better to look at the texts themselves.
Irony Irony is pointing something up by bizarre reverse comment. A comic comment or an extravagent comment is made, in order to suggest the opposite. It shows how things really are compared with a more naive view. Irony is key to poststructuralism and deconstruction because ironic statements contain the seed of the opposite being pursued, and thus allow collapes of meaning. There is therefore a slight degree of ambivalence in any writing, yet confidence in its delivery. Irony also offers humour in the comic novel, where a character's seriousness can be laughed at through ironic narration.
Imagination Coleridge (in Biographia Literia, 1817) says that imagination is a strong mental process in poetry (different from fancy, which is light). The process of imagination is to break down the disunity around in order to build unity within the mind. This ideal is often not reached leaving unfulfilment regarding serious poetry.
Imposed form This is a given style in the tradition which writers feel obliged to follow for their particular area, as in poetry and at a stretch drama.
Intertextuality One text does not stand in isolation of another. It refers either overtly or subconsciously (between the lines) to other texts around. This position reinforces the idea that language is collective and comes to us, and links everything. Nothing as such is original, except at the margin.
Jungian How much does a text reveal common collective archetypes? Critics can look to myths, images and symbols that have deep meanings and reproduce throughout all cultures so that individuals can attach to them for replenishment.
Literary work This is an old fashioned way to describe a text. It suggests high art, privileged truth and the importance of the author. Contemporary criticism focuses on the text rather than speculates on the author.
Marxist This is a view of history as an unfolding drama, which literature reflects, although Marxist criticism has become increasingly complex, and often forms just elements of other critical stances. Georg Lukács likes realistic novels to facilitate Marxist analysis. There is a focus on ideology transmitted within literature (false consciousness) and resistance. The idea of criticism is to change things (Terry Eagleton, who followed on from Raymond Williams). New Historicism has clear Marxist elements.
Metaphor One description takes place in the context of another. An enhancement takes place. Metaphors draw on experience and can generate mind images. Except in the case of a conceit, there is a similarity between the metaphor and description of the subject. Metaphor both brings worldly elements together, and suggests their distance and complexity.
Metonymy The subsitution of a name by an attribute of it; thus the metonymy is a kind of already very related metaphor, and so denies the external play that comes from a proper metaphor. An example is the childish "puffa" for a steam train. Focussing on an attribute suggests something visual and animated to the original term which though replaced is still present by close association.
Misprisions Without a correct reading being possible, this poststructuralist position states that all texts are in a sense misread by the next reader and critic. This type of critic does not interpret and come to some evaluation but carries out a misprision, so that the text is moved on through a process of reading and application. From Harold Bloom.
Motif This is an incident or image that recurs within a text which may lead on to identifying the theme.
Narratology This is about patterns in stories, and the variety of voices in the novel (Bakhtin) which can lead to a clash (relates to clashes in society - Marxism). Another interest is uncertainty within a text (D. A. Miller) and the tension between opening out a story and having a pattern to guide it along and eventually close it towards a neat finish. These contrasts can be found in texts at many levels and kinds. A source on narratology is Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse (1980).
New Criticism The meaning of a poem is found only by closely reading the poem and excluding all else. Its American followers (popular from 1940's to 1960s) favoured the intellectual and liked ambivalence, irony, paradox, tension in that these opposites could be brought together within a single overall spiritual vision. William Empson was a British version, yet was happy to leave meanings plural in the tradition of F. R. Leavis.
New Historicism Texts are looked at to display their historical context (Stephen Greenblatt). This tends to be about displaying dominant ideology (an American tendency).
Organic form This does not follow an imposed traditional form for the subject area in poetry but develops its own form for the content.
Paradox Life contains many contradictions which might be expressed, and in fact paradox may be the only way to express this within a small number of words.
Paratactic sentence Easy to read sentence due to the use of simple joining words (and, or, but) suggesting simplicity especially when contrasted with hypotactic sentences.
Pathetic fallacy This is the objection (begun with John Ruskin)
against writers giving human attributes to inanimate objects. But then why not personify? It has happened in religion since it began and happened because it adds to descriptive power.
Patriarchy Not just the institutional superiority of men, but the built in way language gives up patriarchal undercurrents. Hymns contains strong patriarchal assumptions (even in restricting the areas that given over to "her", for example). Patriarchy is not solved just by shifting he to she or they, but by replacing pyradmial authoritarian assumptions in the text to networking and co-operative subtexts. Fluidity replaces order and logic. This change in the means of writing can be called écriture féminine after Hélène Cixous. Attacking patriarchy is also a means to release the writing efforts and styles of ethnic and cultural minorities. Patriarchy is also about the decisions made throughout history about who are the great authors of a canon.
Phenomenological The author's mind is approached through the text (and the critic approaches the text with no presumptions), which is a sort of half way house between the stress on focussing on the text and yet still being interested in the author and motives behind the writing. More European than American (from Georges Poulet of Geneva), the method hasn't lasted, and J. Hillis Miller abandoned it in favour of structuralism and deconstruction.
Pluralist A text is looked at without preconditions, whilst hoping to see rationality and coherence from the individualist makers of meaning. This pluralist position is described by Marxists as having a liberal humanist precondition. It is indeed a largely consensual critical position. It is associated with F. R. Leavis who was an optimist, and was less interested in political and historical conflict. The question is whether pluralist critics read in a coherence that individuals are said to produce. Whatever, this approach intends to demonstrate the value and worthy nature of literature.
Polyphonic A number of different discourses compete within a novel, like certainly the narration and characters, but it as much concerns cultural standpoints of authority and difference and resistance. A text is found not to be a unified whole, even if the central thrust seems to suggest this at first.
Poststructuralism The text is self-contained, as in structuralism, but each word only signifies another word in a stream of referents. This is never ending. A word contains an element of another word, including its opposite, so there is no binary opposition (except as a device for speaking) and so no foundationalism within the system. It leads on to the much more subversive deconstructionism which is more theoretical and detached than poststructuralism, which still intends to engage with collective and social categories from its language only centred stance, as does New Historicism.
Practical Analysing what a poem says without any external information about the author or its time is practical criticism (I. A. Richards).
Psychoanalytical This is an umbrella term. Jacques Lacan applied and changed Freud (the ego conscious controlling self overplayed) towards structuralism, and that the individual lacks coherence as it sees its other self in language to which it desires to be reattached. It's clearly an attack on liberal individualism and criticism which starts there (e.g. Leavis). However, the collective area is hardly stable. Others have applied Marxism to Freud, so that the uncertain self is the result of repression, and desire response back (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari).
Readerly This is a text that is easily read, as in airport pulp fiction. It is realist in its suggestive style. However a readerly text may also be analysed in a writerly way by the critic.
Reader response The reader invests his effort into the text to interpret it, though according to Wolfgang Iser (1978, in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response) it is the text that determines how much the reader invests in terms of the gaps left to fill in. Thus the reader completes a process begun by the text, and it is a fairly regular process. However, as one gets to poststructuralism, the reader as much makes the text as the author did (in that in considering the reader, the author is always in the frame).
Reception theory A more collective approach than the individuality of reader response. This is the generality of the response (Hans Robert Jauss).
Satire Satire is a positive critical approach. This is because although it lampoons, it indends that right should come from the wrong if only the authorities will put it right. So although anti-authority, it can also be seen as pro-authority in most cases.
Semiotics This is about the conveying of meanings through the relationship that signs have to each other. Signs may point to signifiers and suggest deep meanings in the real world (structuralism, binary oppositions) or to other signs alone in a relative fashion (poststructuralism). They generate codes of meaning and we understand these codes. As regards textual criticism, the issue is what codes are being generated from the signs and how do we know what the codes mean.
Structuralism This is the idea that there is a deep language behind all languages. Ferdinand de Saussure said parole is actual language being carried out whereas langue is the deep structure they all obey and derive from. The words people use derive their meaning not from objects referred to but other words as an internal order. Claude Lévi-Strauss applied the idea of deep structures and binary oppositions to what happens behind actual societies (so that societies are in effect the parole to the deep langue of binary oppositions). The effect on criticism is to say there is no need to go beyond the text, to see how it relates to real life, but to look within its world and its formation. To look beyond, to a world out there, as a basis for criticism, is simply to indulge in an external deflection from the main focus what lies in front of the critic, and inevitably leads to complications of personal viewpoint and bias. However, if the world beyond is also texts, there is then no theoretical problem, so long as the notion of an outside referent is excluded. In terms of actually doing criticism, structuralism has shifted the focus from the outside world (what this text relates to) to a focus on the matter of the form of the texts, but has not been so extreme as to ignore the world of experience and indeed may argue that the form and content of the text is inadequately handling experience, and it is impossible to remove the critic's own worldly position and way of thinking.
Style Although it can be claimed that literary language is more deliberately and qualitatively emotive than ordinary language, in fact all language is styled to some effect or another. How it is used depends on an appropriate style for the message. The reader knowing the topic expects an appropriate style and no doubt finds it, especially as the style will reinforce interpretation of the subject matter. This is what New Criticism suggested - that language contains the context of a text. New Historicism does ask how a text reflects an historical period, so it identifies style. Criticism is always, in the end, about style and subject.
Subject The subject is a category of person. This is preferred by postructuralists who wish to get a way from the individualism of the Enlightenment because the individual receives rather than makes meaning, and meaning is collective, as is language. That the subject may say "I" or think this "I" is reflective of autonomy leads on to distance between the individual and new collective, the irreconcilable desire to unite the self with the collective that is the authority over the individual. This subject usually comes first in a sentence - the "I" etc. who does. Subject also means the topic area being discussed in a text.
Symbolic order This is the world the child is born into, the language structure and its generated meanings which we try to bring to ourselves and master. The symbolic order creates what we call "common sense" and to be identified as common sense, supported by institutions, is what Althusser called ideology in the Marxist sense. The more complex the symbolic order, the more chance there is for space for critical texts.
Sympathy No attempt is made to become one with the victim but this is just a sense of undertanding being expressed.
Syntax This is about how the order of words affects their overall meaning. Most sentences follow subject, word, object, and because of this strong, regular rule, changing the order can have comic or emphatic impact.
Text This is the object of study, the words on the page or screen, rather than anything else that may be speculated upon, like the author's intentions.
Theme This is to look at a text and say what is it about in a few words. Book reviews obviouly have to summarise.
Twentieth century Ferdinand de Saussure developed the notion of the sign between 1906 and 1911 in Geneva. Russian formalism began in 1915. The two were merged by the Prague School about 1929 and called it structuralism, though this was updated in the 1950s (by the then structuralist Roland Barthes and the social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss). Marxism as a literary critical method was developed (by Georg Lukács) but this was overhauled through adopting structuralism to radical critical effect in the 1960s (with Louis Althuser, Lucien Goldmann and Pierre Macherey). At this time feminist criticism began, but as it got into its stride it had to deal with poststructuralism (eg Baudrillard), deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) and psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan). New Historicism again drew on Marxism and poststructuralism but against the nihilism of deconstructionism because, whilst accepting the view that there is no beyond the text, it nevertheless sees styles of text as indicating historical epoch and political impact (after Michel Foucault).
Writerly This is a book or similar that demands enagement of the reader in the style and language of the text. The text itself is exposed as text, rather than just as a window into the world. Barthes in S/Z (1970) thought up these distinctions during his structuralist period, but poststructuralists are interested too.





For more detailed explanations see Peck, J., Coyle, M (1993), Literary Terms and Criticism, London: MacMillan.