Lecture: Text-Oriented Approaches: Formalism/New
Criticism Discussion: Formalism/New Criticism
Group Activity: Participation 10 points
“My Papa’s Waltz” and “My Papa’s Waltz: A New
Identify and discuss qualities of New Criticism as they
are (or are not) applied in this essay. Provide specific
examples from the essay, the poem, or the
definition/description of New Criticism.
What made New Criticism new?
What is the critical focus of New
Criticism? Of Formalism?
What makes New Criticism unique and how
is related to every other literary theory?
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,
I. A. Richards
1. a situation or statement which seems impossible or is difficult
to understand because it contains two opposite facts or
2. a statement or idea that contradicts itself;
3. a person who has qualities that are contradictory;
4. something that conflicts with common opinion or belief
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one part of the
cardinal rule is the statement above. This
statement seems to not make any sense.
However, on closer examination, it gets clear
that Orwell points out a political truth. The
government in the novel claims that everyone is
equal but it has never treated everyone equally.
It is the concept of equality stated in this
paradox that is opposite to the common belief
This statement by Hamlet seems contradictory at
first. How can an individual treat others kindly
even when he is cruel? However, Hamlet is
referring to his mother and his intention to kill
Claudius (his father’s brother [and murderer] and
his mother’s husband) to avenge his father’s death.
This act will be a tragedy for his mother, but
Hamlet does not want her to be with his father’s
murderer any longer; he believes that the murder
will be good for his mother.
Irony, in its simple form, means a statement or event
undermined by the context in which it occurs. Irony
involves a difference or contrast between appearance
Irony exposes and underscores a contrast between
A. what is and what seems to be
B. what is and what ought to be
C. what is and what one wishes to be
D. what is and what one expects to be
1. Verbal irony occurs when people say the opposite of what they
mean. This is perhaps the most common type of irony. The reader
knows that a statement is ironic because of familiarity with the
situation or a description of voice, facial, or bodily expressions which
show the discrepancy.
• There are two kinds of verbal irony :
• Understatement occurs when one minimizes the nature of something.
• Overstatement occurs when one exaggerates the nature of something.
• Verbal irony in its most bitter and destructive form becomes sarcasm .
• Someone is condemned by a speaker pretending to praise him or her.
2. In situational irony , the situation is different from what common
sense indicates it is, will be, or ought to be. Situational irony is often
used to expose hypocrisy and injustice. (The pickpocket being
3. Dramatic irony occurs when a character states something that they
believe to be true but that the reader knows is not true. The key to
dramatic irony is the reader's foreknowledge of coming events.
• Second readings of stories often increases dramatic irony because of
knowledge that was not present in the first reading.
Once in the winter the rector would come to dine, and her
husband would beg her to go over the list and see that no
divorcées were included, except those who had showed
signs of penitence by being remarried to the very wealthy
Part of the ironic implication of this passage is that the
husband is a hypocrite: he condemns divorce only if it is
not followed by the acquisition of equal or greater wealth,
so what he really condemns, under the guise of moral
principles, is financial decline (Tyson)
Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) offers us
perspectives from which we may utterly condemn
Willoughby for his treachery to Maryanne; forgive him
because his behavior resulted from a combination of love,
financial desperation, and a weakness of character which he
himself laments; sympathize with him for the severity of the
punishment his behavior has brought upon him; and see the
ways in which Maryanne’s willful foolishness contributed to
her own heartbreak.
Such a variety of possible viewpoints is considered a form of
irony because the credibility of each viewpoint undermines
to some extent the credibility of the others. The result is a
complexity of meaning that mirrors the complexity of human
experience and increases the text’s believability
Ambiguity occurs when a word, image, or event
generates two or more different meanings.
For example, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), the
image of the tree produced by the scar tissue on Sethe’s
back implies, among other things, suffering (the “tree”
resulted from a brutal whipping, which is emblematic of all
the hardships experienced under slavery), endurance
(trees can live for hundreds of years, and the scar tissue
itself testifies to Sethe’s remarkable ability to survive the
most traumatic experiences), and renewal (like the trees
that lose their leaves in the fall and are “reborn” every
spring, Sethe is offered, at the novel’s close, the chance
to make a new life).
In scientific or 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.
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
For example, the concrete image of Willy’s tiny house, bathed in
blue light and surrounded by enormous apartment buildings that
emanate an angry orange glow, embodies the general idea of
the underdog, the victim of forces larger and more numerous
than itself. Similarly, the concrete image of Linda Loman singing
Willy to sleep embodies the general idea of the devoted wife,
the caretaker, the nurturer. Such concrete universals—or
images and fictional characters that are meaningful on both the
concrete level, where their meaning is literal and specific, and
on the symbolic level, where they have universal significance—
are considered a form of tension because they hold together
the opposing realms of physical reality and symbolic
reality in a way characteristic of literary language. In other
words, the Loman home and the character of Linda Loman
represent both themselves and something larger than
For example, we might say that the action of Death of a
Salesman is structured by the tension between reality and
illusion: between the harsh reality of Willy Loman’s life and
the self-delusion into which he keeps trying to escape.
Ideally, the text’s opposing tendencies are held in
equilibrium by working together to make a stable and
coherent meaning. For example, the tension between
harsh reality and self-delusion in Death of a Salesman is
held in equilibrium by the following meaning: so great is
Willy’s desire to succeed as a salesman and a father that
his only defense against the common man’s inevitable
failures in a dog-eat-dog world is self-delusion, but that
self-delusion only increases his failure. Thus, the play
shows us how harsh reality and self-delusion feed off each
other until the only escape is death.
Discuss the poem, “My Papa’s Waltz” and the essay,
“My Papa’s Waltz: A New Critical Approach.”
Identify and discuss qualities of New Criticism as it
is applied in this essay. Provide specific examples
from the essay, the poem, or the
definition/description of New Criticism.
Read: T.S Eliot: “Tradition
and the Individual Talent”
Post #5: QHQ Eliot