The Art of Literary Criticism
- Grades: 9–12
A goal of the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition test, which helps to make sure that students are truly college ready, is the careful reading and critical analysis of literature. Literary criticism requires students to study, evaluate, and interpret what they read — a valuable tool for all students, not just those in an AP class.
A goal of the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition test, which helps to make sure that students are truly college ready, is the careful reading and critical analysis of literature. Literary criticism requires students to study, evaluate, and interpret what they read — a valuable tool for all students, not just those in an AP class. But what is the best way to do help students develop this skill? How can you get high school students to think deeply and critically about literature?
My Advanced Placement course focuses on helping students develop the tools necessary to closely read, evaluate, and appreciate literature. In the beginning months of the course, I focus on providing my students with exemplars of literary criticism from the masters. One of the best starting points is a reading of Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants." I then provide students with a copy of Pamela Smiley's literary criticism "Gender-Linked Miscommunication in 'Hills Like White Elephants,'" which examines the ways in which Jig and the American conceal and confuse their intentions to each other based on male and female communication strategies. Since the idea that men and women communicate differently is hardly a new one, most students readily recognize what Smiley calls the "subjective and creative potential of traditional gender-linked patterns" and how, "through the understanding of such linguistic functions" there is a "possibility of harmonizing its frustrating circularity and actualizing its creative potential of breaking through the confining limitations of a language in which 'all is so simple,' so sterile, and so hopeless." This is truly a great place to begin the study of literary criticism.
As the term goes on, students are provided with literary criticism for every book that they read. For The Catcher in the Rye, students read essays from Sanford Pinsker's The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence Under Pressure, a collection including "Down and Out in Midtown Manhattan" and "O Pencey, My Pencey." For To Kill a Mockingbird, Claudia Durst Johnson's "The Gothic Tradition" provides students with everything they need to know to closely read and explore a gothic novel. As students read and digest these wonderful models of literary criticism, they begin to internalize the different styles and techniques used to create them.
The goal is that students will begin to recognize patterns in literature and to make connections. These connections may be between a work and the reader's experience. They may be between and among readers. Or, as in comparative claims, they may be between and among works of literature. Examining and exploring these connections will help students become able to write their own essays of literary criticism.
The next step in helping students think critically about literature is to ask them to write essays using prompts that zone in on the ideas and details that make up a literary criticism. For example, they might be asked to write an analysis of religious imagery in King Lear or of how The Awakening and Tess of the D'Urbervilles can be considered proto-feminist novels. As students continue to write essays of literary analysis throughout the year, they become more familiar with the deep examination that results from the critical and careful reading of a text.
A FRAMEWORK FOR LITERARY ANALYSIS
The true challenge comes when you ask students to do their own literary critique of a novel, providing them only with the framework of reading, exploring, and focusing to guide them. This year, my students read the contemporary novel The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. Because the novel is relatively new, it has not been at the heart of any literary criticisms. It is uncharted territory.
The steps to doing the literary analysis are as follows:
1. Reading. It is necessary for students to do a close reading of the novel in order to arrive at an idea for a literary criticism. Students must have a strong working knowledge of the book. I ask them to keep a journal as they are reading in order to notice connections and other links or relationships.
2. Exploration and Examination. At this point, I ask students to look for some element, some feature, or some quality about which to write. Is there a particular theme or character that stands out? Is there a style that draws attention? Is there a concept that demands exploration? Is there something in the narration, purpose, or archetype that demands further analysis? An important similarity with another novel? A significant difference?
3. Convergence and Focus. Begin with a sentence or two that expresses your exploration and findings. How would you express the main point of what you discovered? At this point, students should make sure they are able to answer the "So What?" question — Why is this important to talk about? I usually write their topic ideas on the board, so that students can bounce ideas off one another.
I was amazed at the topics my students chose for their literary analysis of The Book of Ruth. By far, this was the most exceptional writing that I received from this AP class. It was certainly the most original and the most discerning. Topics included: "Leaving the Creek: Escape in the Book of Ruth," "Sibling Rivalry in The Book of Ruth," "An Exploration of Broken Lineage," "The Importance of the Workplace in The Book of Ruth," and "Outsiders in the Novel."
Marissa Maccioli's (first photo above) exploration of "Domestic Violence in The Book of Ruth" was brilliant. Marissa uncovered the roots of domestic violence, which begins with control, and she analyzed the book according to the patterns of domestic violence committed by nearly everyone in the family: May, Ruth, Ruby, and Matt. It was interesting to note that in almost every case, the characters were both victim and perpetrator.
My favorite literary criticism, however, was written by Krystina Donovan (second photo above). Krystina explored "Animals in the Novel," and her work was truly groundbreaking and insightful. She looked at the author's use of both wild and domestic animals, and she explored the comparisons between the characters and animals. Krystina made me think about The Book of Ruth in a totally new way.
Now I have excellent handouts for students in next year's class. This assignment really helped my students to think outside the box, and it helped to make them critical and discerning readers who really understand literature. This is a great assignment to do when exploring newer fiction and poetry. It enables the students to be true pioneers in the literary field.