Literary Criticism as a Tool for Interpreting Literature
What Is Interpretation?
In general, to interpret something is to make it
personally meaningful. Our brain takes raw data from the
senses and makes it meaningful by relating it to our previous
experiences. We may, for example, respond to a loud noise by
saying "That sounded like a gunshot." When we read or hear a
sentence, we put the words together into a meaningful whole,
rather than just noting their separate dictionary definitions.
Most everyday language is fairly straightforward and requires
little interpretation. A liberal and a conservative who read
a newspaper editorial against the death penalty may disagree
with each other on that particular issue, but (unless the
editorial is badly written) they will agree that the writer is
against capital punishment. That is, they won't have different
interpretations of what the article means. Language usually
requires special interpretation, however, when it is ambiguous
or unclear. In order to clarify a sarcastic statement, for
example, we may ask a question like "What did you mean by that
remark?" or "Are you serious?" Because literature (other than
propaganda) presents us with more than one possible meaning,
interpreting literature requires more care and attention than
does responding to an essay. Approaching literature with an
inquiring attitude helps maintain this fruitful complexity.
What Kinds of Questions Help with Interpretation?
Specific questions that allow only one answer (like "What
is the main character's nickname?") may enable a teacher to see
if a student has read or studied a story, but they rarely
challenge the reader to see beyond the plot level. Because
they respect the complexity of your own experience and the
author's vision, open-ended questions are much more useful.
After seeing the film Schindler's List, in which the
protagonist changes from a greedy businessman to the
compassionate savior of over a thousand Jews in Nazi-held
Poland, you might ask "How and why does Schindler change?" Or
you might reflect on your own values: "How would I react in
this situation?" Clearly there is no single answer for this
kind of question, and your answer may change each time you read
or think about the work.
Why Should We Interpret Literature?
Although the interpretation of literature can be
challenging, it may also provide unique and important rewards.
Authors of fiction, poetry, or drama choose literature for
their expression because they believe that there are at least
two valid sides to any major issue--not just a simple right and
wrong. Reading and interpreting literature, then, nourishes
us with a sense of the complexity of life's deepest mysteries--
love, hate, death, conflicts between the individual and
society, and so on--so that when we approach these problems we
do so with greater self-awareness and greater tolerance for the
views of others. We may react angrily to a news feature about
physically abused children, but when we read a story like James
Joyce's "Counterparts" we are asked to understand (without
necessarily excusing such an action) the reasons why an adult
would hit a harmless child. When we interpret literature at
this level, we are taking what we already know about human
nature and adding in the experience and wisdom of the author
(even if we don't share all of the author's convictions).
Interpretation then is a social act--we bring to it all of our
past experiences with people, and we come away with an even
richer, more complex understanding.
What Is Literary Criticism?
Literary criticism is an extension of this social activity
of interpreting. One reader writes down his or her views on
what a particular work of literature means so that others can
respond to that interpretation. The critic's specific purpose
may be to make value judgements on a work, to explain his or
her interpretation of the work, or to provide other readers
with relevant historical or biographical information. The
critic's general purpose, in most cases, is to enrich the
reader's understanding of the literary work. Critics typically
engage in dialogue or debate with other critics, using the
views of other critics to develop their own points.
Unfortunately, when critics assume that their readers are
already familiar with previous criticism, the argument may be
difficult to follow.
Why Is Criticism Important for Students?
As a reader of literature, you may find the views of
others very helpful in developing your own interpretations.
When you write an essay about literature, you will also find
criticism helpful for supporting your points. But criticism
should never be a substitute for your own original views--only
in very rare cases would an assignment require you to summarize
a critical work without including your interpretation of the
literature. Besides being useful, good literary criticism can
be fun in itself, like listening to and participating in a
lively discussion among friends. By reading the critic, you
add yet another point of view to yours and the author's.
Is All Literary Criticism Valid?
Certainly if a critic has added to your appreciation of a
literary work, then that person has been useful. But as you
read a variety of criticism on a given author, you will
discover that some criticism more useful than others, and you
may find some completely useless, particularly if it only
summarizes the plot, focuses on an issue you're not interested
in, concentrates too much on other critics or theories and not
on the literature itself, or uses an unnecessarily technical
vocabulary. As in all fields, there are those whose main goal
seems to be to confuse or impress rather than to communicate.
Still, an article or book that at first seems difficult or
irrelevant may be very valuable in supporting your opinion once
you see the overall picture. Since your goal in reading the
article is to enrich your view, you may find only part of the
argument valid, and you may even challenge the views of other
critics as a means of explaining and developing your own views.
When Do I Use Criticism?
Occasionally, you may want to begin with some preliminary
literary research to make sure that there is enough critical
commentary available, particularly if you're considering
writing about a recent author. You may also want to basic
overview or article in a reference work before beginning to
read and interpret a particularly difficult work.
Nevertheless, it's usually best not to worry about literary
criticism until you've already developed your own basic
interpretation of the work. If you later find a critic who
arrives at the same conclusion you've reached, you can still
use that critic as support. Remember that the main purpose of
your writing is to express and support your views on the
original literature, not to quote as many critics as possible.
How Do I Incorporate Literary Criticism into My Paper?
Just as it's usually best to read criticism after you've developed your own views,
so do you normally refer to or quote criticism after you've expressed an idea
of your own. A typical paragraph may consist of a topic sentence (expressing a
portion or subtopic of your interpretation), followed by an elaboration of the
idea, a reference to or brief quote from the work that you're analyzing, an explanation
of how this passage illustrates your point, a quote or reference from a critic
on this passage (or a similar one), and perhaps a brief discussion of the critic's
comments. In our reader, Literature and Ourselves, you'll find several
casebooks, containing essays about works of literature (the casebooks are on gray
pages). Each casebook has a student essay that uses literary criticism for support.
Notice how the most important part of every student paper is the student's own
ideas--the criticism is used within the body paragraphs to support the student's
ideas. Although there is no single best way to incorporate literary criticism
into our paper, it would be unusual to base a long section of your paper solely
on quotations or paraphrases from others.
How to Find Literary Criticism
You'll probably start your search with an index or
bibliography that targets the humanities. An all-purpose index
like the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature does include
articles about literature, but these tend to be reviews from
popular magazines. The two most useful indexes are the
Humanities Index and the MLA Bibliography, which are available
both in book form and electronically.
Book Form vs. Electronic Form
Although simpler, searching through books rather than
computer databases has several disadvantages. First, since
print indexes consist of separate quarterly or annual volumes,
you have to repeat the same search many times. A computer
database may let you search through 10-20 years of indexes by
entering a single command or search word. Book indexes have
rather limited subject headings, while computer databases let
you choose not only subject but also key words (which are much
less restrictive than subject headings). Computer searches
also let you combine subjects and key words. For example, if
you were using a print index to find material on flower imagery
in Shakespeare's poetry, you might have to browse through all
articles and books on Shakespeare's poetry (perhaps as many as
50 per year). A computer search, on the other hand, would
allow you to type in Shakespeare and poetry and flower to find
only the relevant information. Still there are times when you
may need to use print indexes (or a combination of electronic
and print), particularly if the electronic version does not go
back far enough in time to cover enough major criticism.
This essay by Steven Hale, Humanities Division, Georgia Perimeter College.
Last updated 3-4-97.
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