Back To Course10th Grade English: Homework Help Resource
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How would you want people to judge you - based off what they've previously heard about you, or your words and actions as you interact with them? Most people would want to be judged off their own words and actions. Even though our histories and reputations are important, there's a reason why we hear again and again not to 'judge a book by its cover.'
According to New Criticism, we should judge books the same way. Rather than worrying about the author's background or our own reactions to a book, we should evaluate work based only on the text itself. Since we're only dealing with the text, we'd be doing what's called a close reading, which requires taking apart a text and looking at its individual elements, such as theme, setting, plot, and structure, for example.
Prior to the 1920s, literary criticism took a largely historical slant. To understand a text, critics often looked to its historical background and the history of the language used in the text. But in 1929, a literary critic at Cambridge by the name of Ivor Armstrong Richards published Practical Criticism. His book reported on an experiment that involved people reading and responding to poems without knowing who the authors were. Richards was interested in why people responded to these poems the way they did.
In 1939, Richards began teaching at Harvard and influenced a new American literary theory. Two years later, John Crowe Ransom, an English professor at Kenyon College, published New Criticism. The new book's title was applied to this young method of examining texts. New Criticism went on to become a popular method of literary analysis throughout the middle of the 20th century.
In focusing on the text itself, New Critics intentionally ignore the author and the reader.
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.
Similarly, affective fallacy claims that we shouldn't waste time thinking about the effect a text may have on the reader, because then we're polluting the text with our own personal baggage. So, we should ignore how 'beautiful' a poem may be or our reactions to an emotional novel such as Where the Red Fern Grows. If we give in to our emotional reactions, we're less able to evaluate the text objectively.
Besides authors and readers, New Critics would also argue that a text's historical and cultural contexts are also irrelevant. For example, even if we're looking at such a culturally significant text, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, we should avoid the temptation to read it as an anti-slavery novel. Instead, we should read it to see how the novel's elements, such as its setting and theme, work together to produce a unified, whole text.
Let's take Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham as an example and evaluate it as New Critics. Although it may be a bit silly, it's a good place to start.
The story revolves around the conflict between an unnamed protagonist and Sam. The plot occurs in two main acts. In the first act, Sam tries to convince the protagonist to eat green eggs and ham in a variety of circumstances, despite the protagonist's constant refusal. In the second act, the protagonist declares his love of green eggs and ham and says he would eat them in any and all of the circumstances Sam has previously proposed.
The first act takes up the majority of the book. It's not until almost the book's end that the protagonist finally tries green eggs and ham and discovers that he likes them. The book, therefore, is mainly a story of pursuit and persuasion.
Sam's stanzas are shorter than the protagonists. The difference in the length of their speech emphasizes the protagonist's refusal to try something new and makes Sam almost a fleeting, mysterious character.
While the stanzas are of different lengths, the rhyme scheme also changes often. For example, the protagonist's early lines in the book follow an 'abab' rhyme scheme, but he later switches to 'aabb.' So, Dr. Seuss uses rhyme schemes for variety rather than to differentiate the two characters.
New Criticism would disregard what the story's moral may be or that it may have been written to encourage children to try new things. New Critics would also avoid comparing Green Eggs and Ham to any of Dr. Seuss's other books. Such intertextual examinations would take away from our examination of this text.
Now that we've gotten our feet wet, let's look at a selection from a more grown-up text. Who hasn't heard lines from Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene?
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...
If we took a New Critic's look at this passage, the first element we'd probably notice would be its verse form. Although it doesn't follow a simple rhyme scheme, the majority of its lines are in iambic pentameter, meaning they contain ten syllables of alternating stresses. This structure gives the text a natural rhythm, which makes sense since Romeo and Juliet is meant to be performed.
Throughout the balcony scene, Romeo's lines are short, so the attention is on Juliet and her yearning for this new, forbidden suitor. This attention on Juliet also fleshes out her character. Since the play begins with Romeo and his friends' hijinks, this is a chance for the reader to hear her voice and get a taste of her pining.
The fact that Romeo's name is what keeps him and Juliet apart is also representative of the play's theme of strife and futility. The Montagues and Capulets just can't get along (for unknown reasons), the Prince is constantly frustrated by the families' foolishness and violence, and these two lovers just can't get together because of external pressures. Nothing works out in this play, especially at the end.
As New Critics, we have to ignore the obvious fact that this is probably Shakespeare's most famous play, and we have to ignore the temptation to mention any of his other works. We also have to avoid any intertextual comparisons, so there goes any talk of the play's film versions or any of its modern twists, such as West Side Story.
As you can see from our two examples, New Criticism has its limitations. When you focus only on the text, there are several aspect of the literature you leave out.
This omission may not be a big deal for some literature. But, if we're looking at a book such as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, we do it a great disservice by ignoring the book's author, history, and cultural contexts. How can we really evaluate such an important book without talking about Douglass's amazing life and determination or the issue of slavery?
Or, how can we look at a Virginia Woolf novel and not take feminist concerns into account? Or Lolita without considering the moral implications of an older man taking a teenage girl as a lover? Or 1984 without connecting the story with the dictatorships of World War II?
Reading with a New Critic's eye lends itself well to short pieces. When dealing with more extensive texts, like novels, it's harder to focus on the text itself without making intertextual connections to similar stories, other books by the same author, or movies.
Eventually, new movements, such as feminism and postcolonialism, arose and challenged the cultural and literary status quo. Suddenly, New Criticism wasn't so handy because it couldn't answer new questions that were arising about social injustices. By the 1970s, it fell out of favor to make room for these new movements.
The main point to remember is that New Criticism values the text itself. Once you take anything else into account, you're no longer in New Criticism territory. This analysis tool is valuable because it forces readers to focus on literary elements. Specifically, it disregards the text's author, its cultural context, and its effects on readers.
But New Criticism doesn't stand up well on its own, especially with longer texts. It also became unfashionable as new schools of thought emerged that demanded a look at the cultural backgrounds of texts.
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Back To Course10th Grade English: Homework Help Resource
17 chapters | 215 lessons