Ashford 6: – Week 5 – Instructor Guidance

“The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics.”

– C.S. LewisThis week’s overview

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Literary Criticism is a tool that helps you find meaning in stories, poems and plays. There are many different ways to interpret a novel, poem, or short story.

When we read literature, we do so to learn more about:

  • The human condition
  • The experience of loss and death
  • The structure of power in society and how it is implemented (including race and gender)
  • The psychology of individuals
  • The sociology of cultures

So, what IS literary theory? Check out this video series by Tim Nance; it covers all of the theories quickly and entertainingly.Strategies for this week’s assignments

You have two Discussion forums this week that require your participation:

  • Discussion 1: Distinguish critical approaches. In this discussion, you will discuss two approaches in detail from the literary analysis handout that is your required reading for this week.
  • Discussion 2: Forming questions based on critical reading. In this discussion, you’ll offer an open-ended question to your classmates and have the opportunity to reflect on your experience in the course.

Your written assignment is your final literary analysis paper. Be sure to meet the minimum word requirement but do not go over the maximum words. I look forward to reading the projects that you’ve been working on throughout this course.

Week 5: Assignment February 20, 2017 2

Intellectual elaboration

Literary Theory helps us discover the things listed above in the books and stories we read. Before exploring, in brief, different theories, it is important to develop a reading strategy that will help you form ideas. First of all, you should keep a reading notebook and write down ideas and information as you read. Here is a checklist of things to notice:

  • Title. How does it pertain to the story? Does it symbolize events or people in the story
  • Narration: Who is telling the story? How does the narrator approach the topic?
  • Subject: What is the basic situation? What is happening to the characters and how are they reacting to events?
  • Mood: What is the mood of the story, i.e. the emotional background? How is it expressed in the language and setting?
  • Characters: What do the characters learn in the course of the story? What are their failings and how do they overcome them, or not? What is the main character’s desire? Is that desire ever fulfilled? How does the main character change?
  • Character Interaction: How do the characters interact in the story? How do they communicate with each other? How do they handle conflict?
  • Plot: What are the main events in the plot that lead the character to new insights, or to his or her failure?

When you read a book, you should highlight the passages that strike you as significant. You can also write notes in the margin of the text to yourself. Before you choose a literary theory, spend some time brainstorming an idea. For instance, in reading Macbeth, you might be interested in exploring a few ideas, like “hubris and ambition” (hubris means excessive pride), or “the role of women in Macbeth,” or “the pathology of betrayal and murder.”

Brainstorm by writing down whatever comes into your mind about the play. You can also write questions to help you think about the literature, like:

  • Macbeth is a hero at the play’s beginning and by its end has become a villain. Does this mean power corrupts, or did Macbeth just have bad judgment?
  • Macbeth’s wife is often viewed as wicked, pushing her husband to do evil, however, is she totally evil or displaying loyalty to her husband?
  • Compare and contrast Lady Macbeth to Lady Macduff.
  • How does Macbeth express manhood and masculinity? How do other characters define it?
  • Macbeth’s famous speech in lines 16-27 state valuable truths about Macbeth’s situation. What is he saying? How does he feel about life at this point
  • What is the role of the witches in the play? How do they articulate Macbeth’s fate?

By exploring questions like these, you can develop a way of reading and interpreting the play. In doing so, you might also try employing a “literary critical theory” to help you pull ideas and analysis out of the text. To use the tools of literary critical theory, let’s refer to a story called “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien found in your textbook in section 5.4

This story is part of a novel describes a young man’s experience in the Vietnam War. The tale describes the things soldiers carried into the war: equipment, weapons, pictures of loved ones, good-luck tokens, their emotions and each other. It tells the story of war, how young soldiers died, how they survived and how they struggled with PTSD when the war ended. Below is a brief description of the various literary critical “tools” that you can use to interpret O’Brien’s story and novel:

Biographical: here, the scholar does biographical research on the writer and uses the writer’s history to explain the text. For instance, O’Brien was a soldier in the Vietnam War. You can research his biography and use it to analyze his writing. How did he view the war? Why did he participate in it? What lasting effects did he suffer from it? How are these elements revealed in how he portrays the war he experienced?

New Criticism or Formalism: O’Brien’s work is detached from his biography and historical content; in other words, you do not use his biography or history to interpret the story. Instead, you look at all elements inside the work: diction (use of language), metaphor, and imagery. How does the language convey a specific representation of the Vietnam War? What are dominant metaphors and imagery and what do they symbolize?

Archetypal Theory: Using this theory, you look at archetypal images or events that are considered “universal” to every culture in that cultures use these things in various symbolic ways. The hero-quest myth, for instance, appears in most cultures (though with different heroes and events), with the hero having to endure obstacles in order to achieve a certain goal (King Arthur and the Holy Grail is an example of this). Another archetypal image is water, or the flood. Many cultures include myths “flood” stories; Noah’s Ark is an example of a flood story. Using archetypal or myth theory, you find the archetypal elements in literature and compare them. Other archetypes include the underground journey, rebirth and resurrection, and Prometheus stories. In “The Things They Carried,” you can look at the narrator’s story as a “hero” quest, and how it compares to mythical warrior tales. You can also compare and contrast Lieutenant Cross (the main character in the story) to King Arthur or Achilles, or to another mythical warrior-leader.

Marxist Criticism: This criticism is derived from Marx and Engels theory of social and economic forces. Basically, Marx argued that the “proletariat” lacked control of the means of production and therefore is a wage-earner who is taken advantage of by the economic system. Marx also wrote about the power relationships between different classes and the political conflict caused by an unequal distribution of resources. Marxist Criticism centers “on power and money in works of literature. Who has the power/money? Who does not? What happens as a result?” In the case of this story, you can look at the Vietnam War waged for the sake of capitalism: what impact does this war, as a war against communism, have on the soldiers’ lives? Some literature naturally lends itself to Marxist analysis; the novels of Charles Dickens, for instance, often critique industrialized England and the “haves” and “have nots.” In “The Things They Carry,” you can view the common soldier as the “proletariat” and discuss his lack of power in the capitalistic system that caused and sustains the war.

Psychoanalytical Criticism: This criticism centers on the psychology of the characters and analyzes character motivation, behavior and actions. If you can figure out the protagonist’s psychology, then you can use that to interpret the text. For instance, in O’Brien what is the narrator’s psychology in the face of war? How does the Vietnam War influence, both negatively and positively, his psychology? You can compare and contrast his behavior to that of his platoon-mates. What does their behavior reveal about the psychological stresses of war?

Reader’s Response Theory: This theory holds that there is no objective, outside meaning in any text. Readers bring their own thoughts, views, experiences and attitudes to the text and interpret the story through a personal lens. This critical theory is often used to discuss a text in a classroom setting where students are supposed to provide their own insights on the literature read. You can easily apply this theory to “The Things They Carried.” For instance, if you have experienced war, you can discuss it in relation to how O’Brien represents war. If you were raised in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, you can reflect on your memory of that time period and use it to find meaning in the story. I remember my parents sitting me and my four brothers down one evening and telling us that we would move to Canada if my older brother’s “number” came up in the draft. They emphatically told us they did not support the war and wanted it to end. I can use that memory to interpret and analyze the story. For instance, what were these young men fighting and dying for if many people in America did not support the war and wanted the troops to pull out?

Historical Criticism: Here, you research the historical time period and discuss the work within its historical context. To analyze O’Brien, you’d research the Vietnam War, or a specific battle of that war, and analyze the story using historical fact and detail.

Post-Colonial Criticism: Using this critical method, you will analyze issues that are caused by centuries colonialism, including the dynamics of racism and Third World politics. If you applied this theory to “The Things They Carried,” you would research Vietnam as a former colony of France and how/why the United States became involved in a civil war there. You would use that research to interpret O’Brien’s representation of that war.

Structuralism: This theory claims that every piece of literature has a structure that determines its meaning. It recognizes that stories use different patterns to represent human experience. The hero-quest story, for instance, follows a pattern of the hero leaving the community, facing obstacles that prevent him from reaching his goal, his overcoming of those obstacles and then returning back to the community a stronger, wiser leader. However, this pattern has been changed by various writers. In the Heart of Darkness, the hero undertakes a very dark journey into the Congo and there confronts the most primitive form of human behavior. His journey significantly differs from King Arthur’s journey. The structuralist scholar, then, discusses a particular pattern as it appears in a certain piece of literature. Consider, for instance, the pattern in the movie Apocalypse Now compared to “The Things They Carried.” They are both about the Vietnam War, but represent war using different patterns.[2] The critic will focus on a dominant pattern in O’Brien’s story and discuss how pattern represents O’Brien’s view of this particular war. [1] Denotative: the literal meaning of the word. Cat, for instance, is a small, furry animal that purrs; that is the denotative meaning of the word. Connotative, on the other hand, is the emotional and cultural elements of the word. “Cat” can mean a mean “woman” usually in the negative sense, “that Lady Macbeth is a cat in planning murder,” or it can mean a “snazzily-dressed black man,” as in “he’s a cool cat.” [2] Apocalypse Now is also a reworking or revision of Heart of Darkness, containing themes similar to Conrad’s story, but doing so by using an analogous (or similar), but different pattern that the original text. Instead of taking place in Africa like the original book, it takes place in Vietnam.Helpful links for this week’s assignments

Writing Standards for Students at Ashford University

Ashford Writing Center Thesis Generator


Cummings, Michael. “Literary Terms Including Figures of Speech.” Retrieved 15 August 2011.

Nance, Tim (March, 2015). “Literary Criticism.” Retrieved 14 November 2015.

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