Traditional Literary Criticism Vs. Formalism and New Criticism

Formalism and New Criticism

One of the significant topics for students of English in advanced stages is the understanding of literary theory. It is a wide subject of study that requires in-depth critical thinking and philosophical knowledge. As students, it is vital to understand the importance of studying these ideas to make more informed decisions while interpreting literary works.

Literary theory can be defined as a set of principles and intellectual assumptions that form the basis of understanding literary studies. They are focused on explaining or interpreting the texts in literature. It can also be understood as any concepts drawn from the internal break-down of a text or from an understanding of external factors to the text that can be used during an interpretation. In other words, there must be an underlying structure of ideas that lead to the interpretation of textual contexts. Based on this, the underlying factors affect the understanding of a text in at least two way; one, that theory offers a guideline for what is included in the subject matter under criticism, in this context "the literary," and the action of interpreting; the specific goals of critical practice.

Traditional Literary Criticism

Tradition approach to literature focused on tracking influence, establishing the canon to major authors through different periods, and putting into historical classification context in a text. Also, the use of biography was, and still, and a major contributor to the study of literature. Many historical critics believed that a writer's biography and background could be a major reference point for their work. Even their geographical background determined their styles, themes, and use of language. For instance, while looking at the works of Chinua Achebe, a literary student should try to look at the geographical, political, and social-economic background of West Africa. And such a study goes deeper to the period the author lived. The situation during the pre-colonial was obviously different from the colonial and post-colonial times.

And because of this, literary biography has been a critical interpretative method in and out of the academy. In the traditional context, versions of criticism and aesthetic criticism ( like genre study) were also practiced largely. But the Leavis School of Britain took a different approach than this. Well, there were many points of diversions in traditional criticism. Many scholars had varying opinions and approaches to interpreting literature. However, there were several unifying features, and perhaps the major one was the consensus with the academy. In this case, both the literary canon (must-read books and the goals and purposes of literature has a similar approach. Hence, it was easy to agree on specific ideas of approaches that could of common interest. Collectively, subsequent movements in literacy theory could only be viable where they raised a certain set of questions, including, what was the definition of literature, why we should read literature, and what do we read in literature. And this means the traditional approach to criticism was more on the basis of unifying factors that described one's methods of understanding text.

Formalisms and New Criticism

Well, whereas tradition theory looked at biography in totally, some scholars believed there was more to it than just the life of the author. They, therefore, considered an interpretive approach that encouraged literary form and the study of stylistics within the story. In other words, 'Formalism, just like the name suggests, focuses on what is within the text rather than what the author intended to be. And by so doing, it eliminates dependants on a biography like in the case of former approaches.

This is to say, the duty of Formalists has a huge effect on later developments. It was like a bridge between the traditional and the subsequent theories like "Structuralism" and other ideas of narration. And "Formalism," similar to "Structuralism," sought to elevate literary study to a scientific level. This happened through objective research into motifs, devices, techniques, and other components that comprised a piece of literary work. Hence, Formalist scholars prioritized and focused on the literariness of texts. And as we all know, a text can be defined by the way it is structured. It is the qualities that differentiated different forms of written works.

Formalist did not value the author or the context. They believed it was unnecessary since it was the narrative that spoke. For instance, the "hero-function" that had meaning was only revealed through the narrative, and it could not go beyond that. A plot or the strategy of the narrative was criticized for its function in the specific text and not how it worked in other literary works. Some of the most common Russian Formalist critics include Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovsky.

According to the Formalist purpose, "the stone is to be made stonier" as it expresses more openly the nature of literariness. And perhaps the best example of "Formalism" is Shklovsky's concept of "defamiliarization," in which he argued the routine of normal experience presented hidden uniqueness and especially of the existence objectivity.

"Formalism" created a bridge for scholars to break with traditional methods into a new dawn of "New Criticism," a product of the American University in the 1930s through the 40s. More of less like the French pedagogical precept "explication du texte," the "New Criticism" emphasized looking at a work of literature through a close reading of the self text. It considered written art as an aesthetic object independence of historical contextualization; hence it brought together the sensibility of the artist. In his essay on John Donne, T.S. Elliot may have attempted to present the same opinion, focusing also on other metaphysical poets, who Elliot believed could fully experience thought and feeling. Base on this, it can be seen that "New Criticism" focused on bringing a better intellectual rigor to the studies of literature, closing itself only to careful digging into the text alone and the formal aspects of paradox, ambiguity, irony, metaphor e.t.c.

The Meeting Point

It is clear that the study of literature can only be achieved through an understanding of different levels of criticism. Both the Traditional, Formalism, and New Criticism Theories touch all important aspects of a narrative; the author, the text, and the context; henceFormalism and New Criticism, it might not be a bad idea to combine them in a single process. 

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May 19, 2020

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