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Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism


Literary Critical Theories 101 series intends to concentrate on how literary analysis represents itself through five different critical approaches by portraying the basic principles of the theory with both earlier and current versions of them as all define themselves against earlier versions of each. The approaches will be exemplified by different literary works for readers to comprehend how analysis from different lenses highlights the different aspects.

Literary Critical Theories 101 is divided into six chapters:

Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism

New Criticism dominated literary studies between the 1940s and 1960s by leaving a mark on how people read and write about literature. Some of its most essential concepts, such as the nature and importance of textual evidence, meaning specific examples from the text to validate interpretations, have been incorporated into the way most literary critics today support their literature readings. The focal point of New Criticism is the individual literary work in isolation from other literature and other cultural productions (Lentricchia, 1980, p. 3-28). The battle cry of the New Critical efforts to focus on the literary work as the primary source of evidence for interpretation emphasizes the text itself. The author's life and the culture in which he or she lived are not certainly of interest. New Critics argued that these elements do not provide literary critics with information that can be used to analyze the text itself. Certain knowledge of the author's intended meaning is usually unattainable since a literary text may not always live up to the author's intentions. It is occasionally more meaningful, rich, and complex than the author realized. And sometimes, the text's meaning differs from what the author intended. Knowing an author's intention tells nothing about the text itself, that is why New Critics named the term "intentional fallacy" to refer to the false belief that the author's intent is the same as the text's meaning: "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the . . . work of literary art" (Wimsatt & Beardsley, 1946, p. 468).

Figure 1: Recreating Dutch Masters with a modern twist.

Readers' feelings or judgments about a text may be influenced more by a personal association from previous experience than by the text itself. For example, one may respond to Hamlet's mother simply based on one's thoughts towards its own mother. Despite this, one believes he or she accurately interpreted the literary character. This would be an example of what New Critics called the "affective fallacy". It causes impressionistic judgments (if a reader dislikes a character, that character must be bad) and relativism (the book means whatever any reader believes it means). The result is chaos: there are no criteria for understanding or judging literature (Wimsatt & Beardsley, 1949, p. 31-55). All the data offered by the language of the text: its metaphors, images, rhyme, symbols, meter, point of view, characterization, location, plot, and so on, are termed "formal elements" (Bezeczky,1991, p. 603-611). According to New Criticism, a literary work is a timeless, autonomous linguistic object. Readers and readings may shift, but the literary text remains constant. Its meaning is as objective as its physical existence because it is constructed of words placed in a specific relationship to one another within a particular order. This relationship creates a complex meaning that no other combination of words can reproduce. The significance of a literary text's formal elements results from the nature of literary language, which is distinct from scientific and everyday language. In contrast, literary language is based on connotation: the implication, shades, and association of meanings (Bezeczky, 1991, p. 603-611). For example, while the term father refers to a male parent, it may also refer to power and protection. Furthermore, literary language is expressive: it conveys attitude, tone, and emotion.

Figure 2: Great Gatsby, How Fitzgerald was Inspired.

The complexity of a text is formed by the various and contradictory interpretations woven within it. These interpretations result from four types of language devices: paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension. A paradox is a remark that seems self-contradictory; yet, actually describes the way things are. Irony refers to a statement or incident undermined by the context in which it happens. It is called ambiguity when a word or event creates two or more alternative interpretations. Finally, the tension in a literary term builds its complexity, roughly characterized as the joining of opposites. Because New Criticism believes that interpreting the literary text begins with analyzing its form,  a deep understanding of the definitions of certain formal elements is essential. In addition to the linguistic terms such as paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension, it is needed to explain the most used types of figurative language: image, symbols, metaphors, and similes. An image is defined as a phrase or words related to an item perceived by the senses: colors, forms, lighting, sounds, tastes, scents, textures, temperatures, etc. In literary text analysis, imagery is visual, consisting of descriptions of things, characters, or locations as perceived by the eye. A symbol is an image with both literal and figurative meaning such as the swamp in Ernest Hemingway’s “Big, Two-Hearted River” (1925). The swamp is a literal swamp, but it also stands for the protagonist's emotional problems. A metaphor refers to a comparison of two different items in which the attributes of one are ascribed to the other. The transition from metaphor to simile necessitates adding "like" or "as."

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby criticizes American values in the 1920s by presenting Daisy's hypocrisy, Tom's betrayal, Jordan's dishonesty, Myrtle's vulgarity, and the shallowness of the American people that are personified as Gatsby's party attendees. Characters are consumed by self-interest, and their world is filled with selfishness, heavy drinking, and vulgarity. This analytical focus, however, ignores a more significant conflict in the novel than the one between Gatsby and his surroundings. The primary tension of the text under New Criticism lenses is the unfulfilled longing is a part of the human experience. Longing for the lost past embodies itself in Fitzgerald’s lyrical imagery. Jordan recalls,

I was walking along from one place to another, half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground. . . the largest of the lawns belonged to Daisy Fay’s house. She was . . . by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville. She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night“ (Fitzgerald, 1920, p. 58)

Figure 4: The Great Gatsby Illustrated Book.

Clean, crisp mornings, soft ground, new skirts, white gowns, white roadsters, ringing telephones, and gorgeous young officers: this is a world of pure romanticism (Bettina, 1963, p. 140-142). Even the ground dust has a lovely radiance. Even little images of nostalgia convey emotional weight in The Great Gatsby. The images used to represent Daisy, Jordan, and Nick's childhood conjure a world that is eternally gone. "The impact the past has on the theme of this fiction and its relationship to Fitzgerald's narrative structure shows time to be anything but an inexorable tick-tock" (Magistrale et. all, 1989, p. 118). According to New Criticism, the most proper interpretation of any text can be discovered by analyzing the text itself. What the text means and how it develops that meaning with figurative languages such as images, symbols, metaphors, and similes and formal elements such as paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension is the key components. When The Great Gatsby is analyzed under New Criticism lenses through these literary devices, it is seen that Fitzgerald uses lyrical imagery to portray the characters' past lives. Hence, it can be concluded that the novel's theme is the unfulfilled longing which is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

Bibliographical References

Baldick, Chris. (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Bettina, M. (1963). The Artifact in Imagery: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Twentieth Century Literature, 9(3), 140–142.

Bezeczky, G. (1991). Literal Language. New Literary History, 22(3), 603–611.

Brooks, C. (1979). The New Criticism. The Sewanee Review, 87(4), 592–607.

Elton, W. (1948). A Glossary of the New Criticism. Poetry, 73(3), 153–162.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. (1920). The Great Gatsby. E-Book. Retrieved from

Lentricchia, F. (1980). After the new criticism. University of Chicago Press. E-Book. Retrieved From

Magistrale, T., & Dickerson, M. J. (1989). The Language of Time in “The Great Gatsby.” College Literature, 16(2), 117–128.

Pinsker, S. (1976). Seeing “The Great Gatsby” Eye to Eye. College Literature, 3(1), 69–71.

Wellek, R. (1978). The New Criticism: Pro and Contra. Critical Inquiry, 4(4), 611–624.

Wimsatt, W. K., & Beardsley, M. C. (1949). The Affective Fallacy. The Sewanee Review, 57(1), 31–55.

Wimsatt, W. K., & Beardsley, M. C. (1946). The Intentional Fallacy. The Sewanee Review, 54(3), 468–488.

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Melis Güven

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