What is Literary Criticism and How Do I Write a Paper of This Nature?

At its very basic definition, literary criticism is a written evaluation of a work of literature that attempts to enlighten a reader about the underlying meaning of the text, whether it is a play, poem, short story, or novel.


In this type of paper a writer is forming an academic argument.  As the writer you are arguing that your interpretation of the text is a valid - not the only interpretation - in an attempt to aid the reader in “seeing” the text in a new light or from a different perspective that perhaps may be different from their own. 


Your audience is made up of academics, scholars, literary critics, professors, and students (who are academics, scholars, and literary critics).  You should assume that they have read the text and are familiar with its contents.  Because of this you would never merely retell the story because your audience is already familiar with it.  This would also conflict with the purpose of this type of paper.  You are to discuss underlying meaning, not retell the events of the story.

Because your audience is a scholarly one, your paper must be presented in a formal manner.  You should use high diction and avoid first person, personal pronouns, and contractions.


The focus of your paper should be what you feel is an important idea or theme found in the work.  Although there are multiple theories and methods that a writer may explore when examining a text, we will concern ourselves only with the methods of the Russian Formalist and New Critical approaches, which emphasize close readings of the text, elevating this practice far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author's psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response.


In developing your ideas, you should concern yourself with three important steps.  First you must make a writerly assertion about the content of your text.  For instance, when considering Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”, one might assert that Dee’s plans to display her mother’s quilts on her wall illustrate a disconnectedness from her heritage, which is ironic when one conisiders that Dee views this as an act of embracing her culture.  As your second step, to “prove” this assertion as a valid one, a writer would then need to provide evidence from the text to support that assertion.  A writer could then quote Mama’s lines from the story explaining that she had attempted to give Dee these same quilts when she left for college, but Dee found them to be “old faishioned” and “out of style.”  Keep in mind, however, that you cannot stop here.  Providing a quote and then moving on to another idea is not acceptable.  As your last step, you must explain how the quote from the text illustrates the assertion that you are attempting to make.  For instance, one could explain that because Dee has recently embraced the Black Power Movement’s idea of returning to one’s African roots she is merely interested in these quilts because it is the fashionable and sylish thing to do among her peers.


Organization is sometimes quite difficult for writers who are just beginning to write a literary critical analysis.

An effective method for oraganizing an essay examining a play, short story or novel might look like this:

I. Intro (Identify the central idea or thematic thread that can be traced throughout the story and briefly discuss this themes importance in aiding  your reader in seeing this work in a new/different perspective).
II. Character (Analyze the  theme as it applies to character)
A.  Character 1
      1.   Discuss how the theme is revealed in this character’s 
2. Discuss how it is revealed in this character’s dialogue.
3. Discuss how this idea is revealed by any objects or places closely associated with this character (Here you are looking at the function of setting and symbols within the setting and story as a whole).
B.  Character 2
      1.   Discuss how this idea is revealed in this character’s
2. Discuss how it is revealed in this character’s dialogue.
3. Discuss how this idea is revealed by any objects or places closely associated with this character (Here you are looking at the function of setting and symbols within the setting and story as a whole).
III. Conclusion (Summarize the validity or force of the theme (This is your final opportunity to convince your reader that your ideas about the work are valid ones and that they are effective and relevant in aiding them in seeing this text in a unique way, perhaps one they have not considered). 

If you are writing about a poem, you may approach it in this manner:

I. Intro:  Introduce what you believe to be the main idea (theme) of the poem and discuss how the poem develops (personal statement or a story) and perhaps what the occasion of the poem might be (speculate about what brought about the speech).
II. Discuss the significance of the title.  Explain how the title is related to the overall theme or idea.
III.  The poem’s setting:  discuss specific images or phrases that contribute to the poem’s overall meaning (theme).
IV. Discuss the poem’s basic form and development:  are stanzas unified by a specific idea or thought (look at the last word of each line in the stanza)? How does this structure contribute to the poem’s overall meaning (idea/theme).
V. Conclusion:  Restate thesis

Consider the poem, "The Beginning and The End" by Wislawa Szymborska

In your introductory paragraph, you want to introduce what you believe to be the main idea of the poem (for example, the "harsh realities of war") then discuss whether you believe it is a personal statement or a story.  If for instance, you think it is a personal statement and that the speaker is male, briefly describe here why you think so and what may have brought about the speech.

In your next paragraph, discuss the significance of the title.  In other words, how does the title reveal or relate to the theme (i.e. "the harsh realities of war").

Next, In one to three paragraphs (or more), discuss how the individual images of the poem reveal the theme "the harsh realities of war."

Finally, look at the individual stanzas.  Are they unified by a specific idea?  Explain how the individual images within each individual stanza communicate your theme or a specific idea.  For instance, take a look at this stanza:

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

How do the words in italics here create a specific meaning/idea for this individual stanza?

How does this idea within this stanza relate to the overall theme?

Finally, In your conclusion, restate your thesis and explain the importance of your theme in aiding a reader or your paper in seeing this poem from a unique perspective.