New Criticism: T. S. Eliot & Ronald Barthes

New Criticism Introduction:

The New Criticism, an approach to the interpretation, close reading, re-reading and teaching of literature, was formulated in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It influenced literary study in American colleges and universities in the middle of the twentieth century.  It emphasizes close reading, peculiarly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functions as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. The New Critics focus the formal structure of literary works, isolating the work from the author`s personality and social influences. The movement derived its name from John Crowe Ransom`s 1941 book “The New Criticism.”

New Criticism Background:

It is a reaction to the previously philological and literary history schools which focused the history and the meaning of individual words and their relations to foreign and ancient languages and biographical circumstances of the authors. New criticism examines the relationships between a text`s idea and its form, between what a text says and the way it says. Working with the patterns of sound, imagery, narrative structure, point of view, and other techniques of perceivable on close reading of the text, they seek to determine the function and appropriateness of these texts to the self-contained work.

New Criticism Explanation:

New Critics believes the structure and meaning of the text are closely connected and that they should not be analyzed separately. In order to bring the focus of literary studies back to analysis of the texts, they aim to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.

The new critics insist that the meaning of a text is present inside the text itself and should not be confused with the author`s intentions nor the work nor the work`s affective dimension. New criticism tends to consider texts as autonomous and closed meaning is needed to understand every meaning a work has, is present within the text. The reader does not need outside sources, such as the author`s biography, to fully understand a text.  New Critics do not completely discount the relevance of the author, background, or possible sources of the work, but they also say that these informations have very little bearing on the literature produced.

The text itself becomes the battle cry of the New Critical effort to focus our attention on the literary works as the sole source for interpreting it. The life and times of the author and the spirit of the age in which he or she lived are certainly of interest to the literary historian but they do not provide the literary critic the information which can be used to analyze the text itself. In the first place, they point out that knowledge of the author`s intended meaning which is usually unavailable. We cannot telephone Christopher Marlowe and ask him how to interpret the blood clotting, good angle and evil angle of Doctor Faustus in understanding Faustus` damnation because Marlowe has left no written explanation of his intention. Sometimes a literary text does not live up to the author`s intention. Sometimes it is more meaningful, rich and complex than the author realized. And sometimes the text`s meaning is simply different from the meaning the author wanted it to have.  We now know that an author`s intention cannot tell us something us about the text itself. So, New Criticism coined the word “intentional fallacy” to refer to the mistaken belief that the author`s intension is the same as the text`s meaning.

For most of the New Critics, the job is” practical criticism” or “close reading” in which the poem or literary text is treated as a self- sufficient verbal piece. By careful attention to the language, the text is presumed to be a unique source of value and meaning, sharply distinguished from the other texts or other uses of language. Similarly, the meaning of the poem is not explained by the prose paraphrase. The main focus of the New Critics is on the problems of individual texts and for this the opponents charged them that they ignore history, ideology, politics, philosophy, or other factors that shape literary experience.

T.S Eliot’s New Criticism:

New Criticism as a movement that began after the First World War with critical work of modern poets and critics, especially T.S.Eliot. It is of the interest that the use of the term, “The New Criticism” is in an essay “Creative Criticism” (1917) by Joel Spingarn.

The essays of Elliot shapes the two germinal ideas of both Critical Theory and Practice. In “Tradition and The Individual Talent,” Elliot argues that the literature of Western Europe can be viewed as a “simultaneous order” of works, where the value of any work depends on the relation to the order of tradition. Therefore, the literature of the “individual talent” does not express personality because as it affects and is affected by the literature of past. In fact, Elliot is complaining that the modern poetry is, too, hard to understand. Elliot`s essays says that difficult language reflects an equally difficult modern historical and psychological predicament.

In “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919) Elliot further proposes that the effects of poetry stem from the relation between the words of the text and events, states of minds or experiences that offer an “objective correlative”. Elliot suggests that there is unique experience to which the language of the poem corresponds: the poem means just what it says, but it is the objective correlative in experience that makes the intellectual and emotional value of the poem.

Ronald Barthes’ New Criticism:

“The Death of an author” is an essay by Ronald Barthes. Ronald Barthes` essay argues against tradition practice of literary criticism for understanding the author`s intentions and biographical perspective in an interpretation of a text, His opinion is that writing and creator are two different things and they must not be interfused because both carry different identities.

Ronald Barthes, in his essay, argues that the method of critical reading and evaluation relies on the number of aspects to extract the meaning for the work of an author. The aspects are;

  • Author’s own identity.
  • His political views.
  • His historical context
  • His religion.
  • His ethnicity.
  • His psychology.
  • And other biographical or personal attributes.

In this type of critical analysis, the experiences, biases and prejudices of the author serve as a definite explanation of the text. But Barthes argues that this method of reading is to impose a limit on that text.

He further argues that readers must separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate the text from interpretive tyranny. Each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings.. The core meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions or tastes of the writer. As he says “a text’s unity lies not in its origins, but in its destination.”