Interpreting Texts from a Critical Perspective

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you will be thinking about the influence that different critical perspectives have on literary analysis and criticism. You will learn some of the dominant critical theories and see how perspectives determine the approach to a single text.

Understanding Literary Criticism

Have you ever noticed that when you don't like someone, you tend to focus more on what is wrong with them? One could say that you were being 'critical' of them. However, in Literary Studies, the word 'criticism' takes on a somewhat different meaning.

One important similarity between criticism in literary studies and the criticism mentioned above, is that criticism in literary studies also leads one to focusing on a particular 'side' of things, often ignoring some other aspects in the process. Instead of giving an opinion on the work (as 'critics' in newspapers or online might do), the literary critic is involved in a process of studying a text and making certain statements about its features, usually informed by a specific theory or method.

Critical Approaches

Critical Approaches

Critical approaches to literature originate in theories, in which frameworks are constructed to delineate (or outline) a system of beliefs and general principles informing an analysis. This means that a description of an approach's perspective exists to give a sense of its particular interests in literary studies.

Some of the most common theoretical approaches to criticism that you find in literary studies are: New Criticism, Reader Response Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Marxist Criticism, and New Historicism. However, it is important to note that these are only some of the dominant critical approaches and there are several others, like Queer Studies and Ecocriticism, which have been gaining increased interest in the field.

Although this lesson is focused on demonstrating the influence of adopting any particular criticism might have on your reading and interpretation of the text, it may be a good idea for you to look up some of these approaches. Knowing some of the key concerns in the field can really help you see literature in a new and engaging way.

Applying Critical Approaches

For the purpose of this lesson, we will be looking at the first stanza from Archibald Lampman's 'The Return of the Year' (1895) in order to demonstrate how the same text can be read very differently when it is approached through different theoretical lenses. Note that some of the statements made will seem quite dramatic. Normally in academics, one would write a lengthy essay that explains their reasoning, so keep this in mind when formulating your own arguments about a text.

'The Return of the Year'

Again the warm bare earth, the noon

That hangs upon her healing scars,

The midnight round, the great red moon,

The mother with her brood of stars

Feminist Criticism

Feminist critics are particularly aware of the position of women in literature, and often demonstrate the underlying assumptions regarding femininity and gender roles that inform an authors' writing. In this text, we are dealing with a male poet who casts both the earth and the moon as feminine objects.

Feminist critics could argue that the association of women with nature is an outdated one. Nature is often contrasted with things that are 'man-made' and considered a part of social development. As such, these critics could argue that the idealized idea of femininity is as something constant, like nature, instead of being associated with progress and action.

Looking more directly at the text, such critics could also question why the moon is referred to as a 'mother' (line 4). When the poem was written (during the late nineteenth century), most women did not have professions, but instead would have to stay at home and take care of their children. Those who did work often did so in professions that were associated with the idea of 'nurturing'.

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