• Lecture: New Criticism
• The Great Gatsby
CRITICAL THEORY IS A TOOL!
• Our goal is to learn to use the tools as a way to put
together an opinion about a piece of literature.
Each of you will encounter tools that are easier or
better for you to use, and that is fine. But for now,
let‟s focus on learning how to use each tool.
• Generally, New Criticism (or Formalism) maintains that a
literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory
“defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in
the text" (Richter 699).
• Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct
piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This
point of view developed in reaction to “forms of 'extrinsic'
criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social
and historical forces or a document making an ethical
statement” (699). Formalists assume that the keys to
understanding a text exist within "the text itself," ("the battle
cry of the New Critical effort" and thus focus a great deal on
[…] form (Tyson 118).
• For the most part, Formalism is no longer used in the
academy. However, New Critical theories are still used in
secondary and college level instruction in literature and even
writing (Tyson 115).
With the permission of http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/03/
NEW CRITICISM: HOW TO USE IT
• Ask yourself “”what single interpretation of the text
best establishes its organic unity? In other
words, how do the text‟s formal elements, and the
multiple meanings those elements produce, all work
together to support the theme, or overall
meaning, of the work? Remember, a great work will
have a theme of universal human significance. (If
the text is too long to account for all of its formal
elements, apply this question to some aspect or
aspects of its form, such as imagery, point of
view, setting, or the like)” (Tyson 150).
• Because New Critics believed their interpretations were
based solely on the context created by the text and the
language provided by the text, they called their critical
practice intrinsic criticism, to denote that New Criticism
stayed within the confines of the text itself.
• In contrast, forms of criticism that employ psychological,
sociological, or philosophical frameworks—in other words,
all criticism other than their own—they called extrinsic
criticism because it goes outside the literary text for the
tools needed to interpret it.
• New Critics also called their approach objective criticism
because their focus on each text’s own formal elements
ensured, they claimed, that each text—each object being
interpreted—would itself dictate how it would be interpreted.
PARADOX, IRONY, AMBIGUITY,
•For New Criticism, the complexity of a
text is created by the multiple and often
conflicting meanings woven through it.
And these meanings are a product
primarily of four kinds of linguistic
devices: paradox, irony, ambiguity,
• “Briefly, paradox is a statement that seems self-
contradictory but represents the actual way
things are” (Tyson 138).
• “Many of life’s spiritual and psychological
realities are paradoxical in nature, New Critics
observed, and paradox is thus responsible for
much of the complexity of human experience
and of the literature that portrays it” (139).
EXAMPLES OF PARADOX
• Nobody goes to
because it is too
• Deep down,
• In George Orwell's Animal
Farm, the words "All
animals are equal, but
some are more equal than
• In Shakespeare's Hamlet,
the title character states "I
must be cruel to be kind."
• “Irony, in its simple form, means a statement or event
undermined by the context in which it occurs” (139).
• “New Criticism [. . .] primarily valued irony in a broader
sense of the term, to indicate a text’s inclusion of varying
perspectives on the same characters or events. [ …] The
result is a complexity of meaning that mirrors the
complexity of human experience and increases the text’s
• “[T]he text’s own internal irony, or awareness of multiple
viewpoints, protects it from the external irony of the
reader’s disbelief” 140).
EXAMPLES OF IRONY
• It was a tragic irony that he made himself sick by
worrying so much about his health.
• I posted a video on YouTube about how boring and
useless YouTube is.
• The name of Britain‟s biggest dog was “Tiny.”
• You laugh at a person who slipped stepping on a
banana peel and the next thing you know, you
• The butter is as soft as a marble piece.
• “Oh great! Now you have broken my new
• “Ambiguity occurs when a word, image, or event
generates two or more different meanings” (140).
• In […] everyday language, ambiguity is usually
considered a flaw because it‟s equated with a
lack of clarity and precision. In literary
language, however, ambiguity is considered a
source of richness, depth, and complexity that
adds to the text‟s value” (140).
EXAMPLE OF AMBIGUITY
A good life depends on a liver.
Liver may be an organ or simply a living person.
Foreigners are hunting dogs.
It is unclear whether dogs were being hunted or
foreigners are being spoken of as dogs.
Each of us saw her duck.
It is not clear whether the word “duck” refers to an
action of ducking or a duck that is a bird.
The passerby helps dog bite victim.
Is the passerby helping a dog bite someone? Or is he
helping a person bitten by a dog? It‟s not clear.
• “Finally, the complexity of a literary text is created
by its tension, which, broadly defined, means the
linking together of opposites. In its simplest
form, tension is created by the integration of the
abstract and the concrete, of general ideas
embodied in specific images.” (140).
• Tension is also created by the dynamic interplay
among the text‟s opposing tendencies, that
is, among its paradoxes, ironies, and
ambiguities.[One example is] “the tension between
reality and illusion” (140).
IN GROUPS • Discuss new
QHQ: NEW CRITICISM
1. Q: Why did new critics value the form, organic unity,
and literary language/devices so much within the text
that they decided to abandon the preceding
2. Q: Why did New Critics believe that the author‟s
background is irrelevant to the significance of a text?
3. Q: What aspects of new criticism still work today, and
what aspects don‟t?
4. Q: To what extent do changes in our society and culture
affect the popularity of different critical theories?
5. Q: Do you think New Criticism has readers create
symbols or meanings that are not intended by the
author? And if so, does this affect any messages that the
author might be trying to convey?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
6. Q: Can a literary text have multiple meanings?
7. Q: What are the two fallacies of New Criticism and why
are those supposed to be important to know?
8. Q: When we narrow a novel down to a single topic or
theme, intending to unpack it, supported by
evidence, are we in essence creating a thesis
statement for a novel as we do when writing essays?
9. Q: Why is ambiguity, according to the New
Critics, considered a source of riches, depth, and
10. Q: One specific aspect studied in New Criticism is irony.
Why is irony important in a story?
11. Q: HOW EXACTLY DOES A READER MAKE THESE SORT OF
INTERPRETIVE LEAPS AND DETAIL CONNECTIONS?
“Then we see Myrtle Wilson, whose posture at this
moment, „straining at the garage pump,‟ embodies longing for
future fulfillment, presumable in the form of marriage to Tom
Buchanan, who will rescue her from the „valley of ashes‟ and
deliver her into a world of, from her perspective, paradisal
happiness. That she is „panting with vitality‟ underscores her
connection with life, with springtime, with nature, in direct
opposition to the „desolate area of land‟ (27; ch. 2) in which she
lives, where people and objects alike appear „ash-grey‟ in the
„powdery air‟ (27; ch. 2).” (155, ch. 5)
“Notably, it‟s the color [blue] the novel frequently associates with
Gatsby‟s hopefulness: the mansion he bought in order to be near
Daisy has „blue gardens‟ (43; ch. 3) and a „blue lawn‟ (189; ch.
9); his trees have „blue leaves‟ (159; ch. 8); and when he and
Daisy reunite, „a damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint
across her cheek” (90; ch. 5).” (155, ch. 5)
TYPICAL QUESTIONS NEW CRITICS ASK
1. How does the work use imagery to develop its own
symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by
2. What is the quality of the work's organic unity “the
working together of all the parts to make an inseparable
whole” (Tyson 121)? In other words, does how the work is
put together reflect what it is?
3. How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
4. How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in
5. How do these parts and their collective whole
contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic
quality of the work?
6. How does the author resolve apparent
contradictions within the work?
7. What does the form of the work say about its
8. Is there a central or focal passage that can be
said to sum up the entirety of the work?
9. How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a
poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the
With permission from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/03/
•Post #7: QHQ: