Note on New criticism

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New Criticism

New criticism is one of the modes of criticism originated in America during the 1940s and become more dominant up to 1060s. It came as a reaction against the biographical, historical and sociological criticism during the 19th century. This is because all these modes of criticism focus on the external references of the text. New criticism is a purely textual approach to the specific work of literary art. So, the new critics focused on the text itself since they realize that those external references would not bring the valid and convincing interpretation. The new criticism treats literary work of art as an autonomous entity and to interpret it, nothing is necessary except the text. To reach in the valid interpretation close reading is essential. And while having the close reading, one has to look at closely to the formal element- rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, simile, symbol, paradox, irony of a text. So new criticism focuses both on the formed and content of the text that is not only what is being said but also how the things are said.

The text in itself

The new criticism has come against the biographical- historical criticism. It is such type of criticism which links the meaning of the text with the letters, personal histories, personal relationship, and notes left by the author. New criticism found this tendency fallacious. The authorial intention cannot be the best clue for interpretation. For example, William Shakespeare is not with us now. If we are asks to interpret Hamlet, we cannot telephone Shakespeare and asked him now hope he intended us to interpret Hamlet's hesitation in carrying out the instruction of his father’s ghost and Shakespeare left no return explanation in his intention. And sometimes a text gets more popularity and meaning than he expected. Therefore, the authorial intention has nothing to do with the meaning of the text. Therefore, the text itself is the best remedy from such fallacy. For them, literary work is a timeless, autonomous verbal object. The literary language has its own specific features. It functions through connotation.

Literary language and organic unity

The language of literature is different from the standard language or scientific language. Parts working together to the whole and the whole fitting to the part are an organic unity in new criticism. Organic unity in literary work of art produces complexity due to the use of linguistic devices. These all devices focus on the theme and we should look at figurative language for better understandings. There are four linguistic devices that help to create complexity within the text. They are:

  • Paradox

It is a self-contradictory statement. The statement contradicts itself on what it states. Such as ‘A child is the father of a man’. At surface level it is contradictory, how can a child be the father of the man. But in a deep level, it is stating the future that child will grow up and one day he will be the father of the man. However, the phrase means paradox is responsible for much of the complexity of human experience and the literature that portrays it.

  • Irony

The irony is a gap between what is said and what is intended to be said. In ‘Othello’ Lago says ‘I am not what I am’ is an example of an ironic statement. His villainous character is invisible to Othello. Irony generates the complexity in a literary text.

  • Ambiguity

It is state of multiple meaning. Literary language has a lot of figure of speech which sometimes creates multiple meanings. Readers get confused in between the bundle of meaning which is ambiguity, the unclearness. In ordinary language, ambiguity is marked as the flow of communication but in literature, it is considered as a source of richness, depth, and complexity.

  • Tension

It is the integration or association of a concrete object with an idea or theme. The complexity should be resolved and put in order. The complexity of a text should be resolved by adding it to the central theme of a text. A close reading of the complex relationship between a text’s formal elements and its theme help to resolved the complexity and so the organic unity. Besides, the above discussed formal element- images, symbols, metaphors and simile are the most frequently used kinds of figurative language.

New criticism as intrinsic, objective criticism

New criticism asked us to look closely at the formal elements of the text to help us to discover the theme. It means that it tells us to look at the text itself to find the meaning of it. It denies the external references to interpret the text. It rather focuses on the references of the text itself. So it becomes an intrinsic criticism. New criticism is an objective criticism because it focuses on the object itself while going through the interpretation. The subject entirely disregarded in this form of criticism on the text, not on the writer. A text is an object of objective criticism. New criticism is a kind of objective criticism. New criticism emphasizes that criticism should be based on texts on intrinsic value. The association of meaning with authorial intention and responses of the reader is both fallacious.

A text has its own intrinsic value. It has its own language. The literary language has a figure of speech which functions through annotation. The complexity, the literary language generates can be resolved only by disinterested mind and through a close reading of the relation between the text formal elements and the theme of the text.

The intrinsic value of text supposes that a text is a self-sufficient verbal object. While interpreting a text, the author never comes to state the meaning. The language or text uses is not a private property. So as soon as a text is completed it becomes public. Besides, the popularity and meaning of a text do not depend on the author's intentions. A text is timeless. The readers may vary but the text remains same all the time. The interpretation, therefore, should be single and unique and it is only possible when a critic text as an object whose value can be judged through the intrinsic features it has.

The single best interpretation

New criticism takes the text as an independent entity with the stable meaning of its own. The single best meaning is exposed along with the explanation of text organic unity. The new critics at first look at the other critics’ interpretation to show that everyone’s interpretation lacks something. They do not have reserved the tension of the text. So their interpretation would be the best one fulfilling all the lacks. New critics’ analysis is based on close reading. They prefer short text, poems, instead of novels and long text. Because the shorter the text, the more of its formal elements could be analyzed. Whatever formal element was analyzed, it had to be shown to play an important role in the text advancement of its theme and thus contribute to the unity of the work as a whole.

Nowadays, new criticism is outdated from the field of critical practices. Now criticism is not practiced by new critics. New criticism links the symbol or concrete evidence with an abstract idea. The practice of linking formal elements with the meaning of the text is still evident in the way we study literature today.


Tyson, L. (2013). the critical theory today. Kathmandu: Ekta Publication.

  • The literary work has an objective existence as a self-sufficient work of art, a verbal icon.
  • All formal elements of a text work together to create and organic unity.
  • Organically unified text has an objective meaning that must be determined by intrinsic criticism that analyzes all the elements of its formal structure.
  • The key principle to seek when interpreting the text is tension, paradox, irony and ambiguity.
  • Extrinsic criticism which analyzes a work in relation to its author, audience, society or other text is misguided through affective fallacy.

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