Critical Theory: New Criticism

New Criticism and “Formalist” Reading

The school of critical theory known as New Criticism argues that texts should be approached as stand-alone objects and that our interpretations of any text should be based on only what the text itself presents.

  • Social and historical context should not be part of our considerations.
  • An author’s intentions should notbe part of our considerations either.
  • We should simply read the text and ask what the elements of the text mean.

Note: This approach may seem familiar. The New Criticism approach closely resembles a typical method for analyzing texts in the classroom.

However, we should be aware that in applying New Criticism, we are choosing to avoid considering anything other than what is on the page.

Context cannot be considered at all when applying New Criticism.

Applying New Criticism

In applying New Criticism, we might focus our analysis in the following areas. 


When reading the text, consider the significance of symbols/symbolism.

  • What objects, events, settings or characters have a symbolic meaning in the text?
  • How do these examples of symbolism connect to the main themes of the text?
  • Why are they significant to the larger meaning of the text?


Examine the characters in the text as they relate to one another and as they relate to the themes of the text. 

  • Who is the protagonist of the story (if there is one) and what are this character’s most prominent traits and attributes?
  • Are the characters complex and complicated?
  • What seems to keep a character from  fulfilling a desire or wish?
  • What specifically drives a character to take action?
  • What values does the character represent?
  • How and why do the characters help or hinder one another? 


Consider the major conflicts presented in the text.

  • Which conflicts are internal?
  • Which conflicts are external?
  • Are these conflicts connected somehow?

Theme & Meaning

Analyze the ways in which the elements above might be seen as interacting. Assess how these elements communicate specific ideas. Think about what the text means, what commentary it offers, etc.

  • What are the central ideas in the text and how are these ideas communicated through literary devices like symbolism, conflict, character, irony, setting, etc.?
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