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Name: Hassan Basarally

I.D.: 806007430

Faculty: Humanities and Education

Department: Liberal Arts

Course: Key Issues in Literary Criticism

Course Code: LITS 2301

Lecturer: Dr. S. Venkatachalam

Tutor: Dr. S. Venkatachalam

Tutorial Date and Time: Wednesday 11a.m.-12 noon

Assignment: What do you understand by Literary Criticism?

Date Due: 30/09/08

Defining literary Criticism is difficult as there is no set definition that

encompasses adequately what the act entails. Instead, defining literary criticism entails

analysing several of its features and ascertaining its relationship to literary theory, a term

which is often used interchangeably.

Before discussing literary criticism, the status of the scribal culture in the English

literary canon must be examined. Books have a high degree of authority and the response

to it is viewed as highly intellectual. An individual response to a particular text is

criticism regardless of familiarity with literary jargon. The proper articulation of an

interpretation is acclaimed as criticism; hence expression rather than “any supposed

mental incapacity” is the difference between the layman and critic (Barry, 7). Therefore

literary criticism has two main principles: all readers have an ideology that affect

interpretation of a text and no reading of a text are void of such prejudices.

From the two principles one feature of literary criticism is known, criticism is an

individual response. Bressler quotes Matthew Arnold’s definition of literary criticism as

“A disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in

the world” (4). The other feature of literary criticism therefore is that it is a disciplined

activity that attempts to evaluate and analyse a text. It is also described as “the reasoned

consideration of literary works and issues” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Literary criticism

therefore raises several questions about the value of literature itself. It asks whether there

is a single meaning of the text, can a text teach the reader, can it affect the reader or can it

affect societal change. Literary criticism in its simplest terms is how the reader applies a

particular ideology or combination (Marxism, Feminism etc) to an individual text to

create a relationship with it.

Literary criticism can be divided into theoretical and practical/applied criticism.

Theoretical criticism is general and deals with the aesthetic principles and tenants of art.

It “proposes an explicit theory of literature, in the sense of general principles, together

with a set of terms, definitions and categories, to be applied to identifying and analysing

works of literature, as well as the criteria (the standards or norms) by which the works of

their writers are evaluated” (Abrams, 50). Practical/ applied criticism “applies the

theories and tenets of the theoretical criticism to a particular work” (Bressler, 5). The

practical/ applied criticism can be further divided into absolutist and relativist critics. The

absolutist believes that one theory can be used to evaluate a work while the relativist

utilises multiple, sometimes contradictory theories.

Literary Criticism

Theoretical Criticism Practical/Applied


Relativist Criticism Absolutist Criticism

Diagram 1: Subdivisions of Literary Criticism

Closely linked to literary criticism is literary theory. Theory is “the assumptions

(conscious or unconscious) that undergird” one’s interpretation of the text (Bressler, 6).

Literary criticism and theory are symbiotic. Theories are bases on socialisation and

ideology that in turn affect the interpretation of the text. In turn, since criticism is an

individual response the theory shapes the response. Usually those with similar theories

are classed into schools of criticism. However, the classification is not always welcomed

by those who are classified; it is viewed as narrowing the scope of the particular theory.

Literary theory therefore has an important function. As there exists no Meta

theory, or all encompassing theory, the reader has to acknowledge that there are multiple

interpretations of the same text. This in turn encourages the reader to validate an

individual opinion by analysing contrary ones.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. & Harpham, G.G. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage
Learning. 2007.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester;
New York: Manchester University Press. 2002.

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice. New Jersey:
Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2003.

"Literary criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23

Sep. 2008 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/343487/literary-criticism>.