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New Criticism in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition & Origins…
  • 1:42 What Exactly Do New…
  • 3:07 Green Eggs & Ham & New…
  • 4:53 Romeo & Juliet & New Criticism
  • 7:07 The Limitations of New…
  • 8:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Vigil
New Criticism is one of several ways of looking at and analyzing literature. In this lesson, find out what it is, go through some examples of reading with a New Critic's eye, and take a quiz to check your understanding.

Definition and Origins of New Criticism

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.

What Exactly Do New Critics Do?

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.

Green Eggs and Ham and New Criticism

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.

Romeo and Juliet and New Criticism

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?

Juliet:

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.

Romeo:

Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet:

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