Lee's Lecture Notes on New Criticism (from Tyson): 1.4

last updated 10/111/16


New Criticism was a reaction against biographical criticism where most of what was looked at in the author's work was their lives. New Critics wanted to deal with only "the text itself," the text as a self-contained, organically unified gem of form and meaning (the how and what of it's meaning) who's elements could be disected and then synthesized in order to show how great, complex, and universal the work itself was. In other words, when well executed, mimesis, or Aristotle's idea of holding up of a mirror to "reality" (re-presenting reality in a dramatic, complex, and unified way) is the goal of all great literary works. The more complex the re-presentation (with order, of course), the greater the work can seem to readers.

In other words, New Critics want to look at the most complex texts that are also the most "universally" significant.

Things about New Criticism that are problematic:

Things that are still in play:

A text's (real) Central Tension (the larger complexity) resolved by the Theme that involves some key universal human significance, and ALL the formal elements of the text, when closely read, support this, even (or especially) the contradictory/complex elements.

Universal human meaning, for me, seems to be encapsulated in some aphorism or truism (or a cultural cliche), or some saying our culture could believe is of larger human significance. But it still has to have complexity if it is to be truly great (you might see non-complex use of aphorisms on motivational posters; but then there are the deconstructions of those posters that try to point out the cliched, non-complex qualities of the "serious" posters). Tyson mentioned some paradoxes from songs (which could be the larger, universal human theme, or they might simply be one of the many paradoxes operating in the text):




tension: the linking of opposites (binaries)..."general ideas embodied in specific images," or concrete universals, that have symbolic significance; where both the concrete and the symbolic have meaning (140); also created by the following:

paradox: a situation, idea, image etc. that seems self-contradictory if only looked at literally; "represents the actual way things are" (138); adds realism or mimesis

irony: "statement undermined by the context in which it occurs" (139); often dramatic irony involves the reader knowing something the characters don't--differing POV's can undermine each other's credibility (avoid a reader's ironic distance with complexity)

ambiguity: a word/image/event that generates multiple meanings (is connotatively rich)





close reading of the connotations and complexities of "formal elements"--patterns and contradictions which are helped by context:

  • metaphors (and other figurative language--language that is not literal, but compares unlike things)
  • images (often visual)
  • symbols (repeating images that stands in for something else; private and public; repeating images), or concrete universals
  • meter, line breaks, end jambs
  • rhyme
  • POV (narration--voice, tone, awareness)
  • character (flat, round; protagonist, antagonist)
  • plot (Freytag's Triangle; the three act restorative; complex Freytag's; narratology)
  • setting (as background; as character)
  • pacing
  • punctuation and page layout

...with an eye toward supporting (with textual evidence) complexity, theme and...

universal human significance (a comment on human values, human nature, the human condition)--a stable and coherent meaning (140) that should "resolve" the formal complexities (the tensions) of the text



...everything has to fall in place...all the incongruities of meaning and form must come together in the end if it is to be a "great," "universal" work...