Approaches to Literary Analysis

Approaches to Literary Analysis

Since the 1960s, a number of schools or approaches to literary analysis have emerged in the academy. Some of the sources you discover may seem to obviously derive from one of the following traditions. Others may be indirectly influenced by one or more of these approaches:

Formalist

Formalist, or New Critic, analysis prioritizes close reading based solely on the text itself, its language, structure, symbols, and themes, and eschews interpretation based on the influence of outside information (such as personal history of the author, for example).

New Historicist

New Historicist analysis values the particulars of the time period and location in which the author created the text, as well as any influencing circumstances of the author’s life.

Psychoanalytic

Psychoanalytic, or psycholinguistic, analysis emphasizes the interpretation of characters’ mental and emotional states, narrative point-of-view, the unconscious potency of symbol and imagery, and/or the psychological implications of linguistic pattern, tone, and word usage.

Feminist

Feminist analysis examines the text through the lens of women’s experience and may also consider factors in the publishing or critical reception of the work when influenced by gender norms.

Marxist

Marxist analysis addresses the text as a material product of the society from which it emerged, with particular attention to socio-economic issues.

Queer

Queer analysis reads the text with strong consideration of “queer” identity and/or “queering” of characters, actions, and/or speech; for example, the cross-dressing and gender switching that occurs in some of Shakespeare’s plays can take on more significance than mere dramatic convention.

Reader-Response

Reader-Response analysis seeks to reveal the activity of the reader as contributing to — even completing — the meaning of the text by applying his or her own experiences, perspectives and cultural values; this approach is not done personally, but in consideration of “the reader” as a type or a social category.

Today, many literary scholars engage in the practice of intersectionality , that is the attention to the complexity of how cultural views and traditions often fall into more than one category. For example, while we might gain a great deal by interpreting a short story through a psychoanalytic lens, focusing only on this approach may foreclose the possibilities for our analysis to become as deeply grounded in formalist analysis, or may offer only a passing look at historical issues.

Analytical writers should not base their essays on a particular approach simply for the sake of following that school of thought, but rather to further their understanding of, and appreciation for, the literature in question, as well as the clarity of the interpretation offered. Often hybrid approaches, approaches than combine aspects of two or more of these analytical traditions, are very successful, so long as the thesis remains focused and the support specific and well-documented. As ever, consult with your professor about the specifics of your analytical project and the particular expectations he or she may have for a given assignment. (1)