This is the second part in our six-part series on understanding different methods of literary criticism. In this one, we will discuss New Criticism – a method that assumes all great works have warring tensions, and it is only by the resolution of those tensions that we can get to the deeper meaning of the text.
Introduction: meet the New Criticism, same as the old criticism
If you have grown up in American and been in school in the last 40 years or so, New Criticism won’t be all that new to you. It’s probably what you’ve been doing the whole time; you just haven’t known the name to it.
New Criticism started around the 1920s and peaked in universities around the 1950s-60s. Its main tenets are the consideration of a text by itself, with “outside” information (such as the author’s life, or how the text made you feel) being less important than what the text says and how it says it. According to the critical theory, all great works of literature are unified and complex, and every part of them works towards a central theme. There may be many seemingly-paradoxical points in a work, but even these, in truly great literature, will work with each other to bring out a deeper theme.
Throughout this post, I’ll attempt a New Criticism reading of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) by J.R.R. Tolkien, so I’ll try to reference all examples back to this well-known story.
What not to do when using New Criticism (NC)
First, we’ll begin by saying what NC is not, and what we should avoid.
The Intentional Fallacy
First, in a NC reading, we should avoid all attempts of trying to understand what an author intended to say. This concept is called “The Intentional Fallacy.” NC critics argue that the author’s intention is essentially unknowable for us as a reader, and it only matters what s/he put down on the page. They would argue that if it isn’t in the text, it shouldn’t really be worth discussing since, at that point, you aren’t discussing the book but unknowable conjectures.
Example of The Intentional Fallacy in LotR: “Well, Tolkien wrote the books during World War Two, so he obviously means for us to understand the ring as a metaphor for a nuclear bomb.”
The Affective Fallacy
The other thing someone using NC should not do is talk about how the text makes them feel, or their own experiences. This idea is called “The Affective Fallacy,” and NC critics argue that this isn’t something having to do with the text itself, but the results the text produces on the reader. It has the potential to cloud our judgement as critics.
Example of The Affective Fallacy: “I felt really sad and depressed as Sam and Frodo were slogging their way across Mordor. This obviously demonstrates the crushing effect of prolonged resistance to temptation on someone’s state of mind.”
A book divided against itself cannot stand
So now that we’ve talked about what not to do, I’ll talk about how a NC criticism is understood. Since we are only looking at the text, we need to pull out some broad themes. NC critics argue that a great text is constructed on competing concepts, so something like, good vs. evil or freedom vs. slavery. Since the work is complex, these ideas can sometimes seem to come out as paradoxes. In a good work of literature, the NC critics argue, these paradoxes are resolved in a unified theme.
An example of a New Criticism reading of Lord of the Rings
Finding the tensions
To start to do a NC reading, you first must identify the tensions in the work. For example, in LotR, we can identify several
- Good v. Evil
- Strong v. Weak
- Peace v. War
- Closed society v. Open society
- Order v. Chaos
- Freedom v. Slavery
- Fascism v. Free society
Let’s look at the concept of freedom. It’s great, right? Sauron hates it, the kingdom’s love it, and it’s great for everyone. Except that, while we don’t know how Sauron feels, we can’t say the other two reasons are particularly strong.
The issue of the kingdoms lead us to talking about government. At least the alternative to Sauron is a strong democracy where the rulers exercise power with the consent of the governed. Oh, wait, it’s a monarchy based on archaic traditions where one ruler long ago seized power and dictated how everything is supposed to go? And that same monarchy left an extremely weak steward in place who almost cost everyone in Minas Tirith their lives, and the sole reason for this was the unquestioned word of an (extremely) long-dead king? So, except for intention, there isn’t much of a “free society” so much as a different form of autocracy.
Oh, but the king is different, he wouldn’t leave an entire population of people as slaves until they follow his will, right? (For an example of Aragorn and his descendants doing just that, see the cursed men under the mountain)
Even the Shire, sadly, is kind of a mirror of Mordor. It’s on the other side of the map and not as violent, but the people there are just as xenophobic – even among their fellow hobbits (Bucklanders). Give the wrong hobbit enough power, and you might have a situation where an army of xenophobic hobbits are marching across the land, imposing what they think is proper.
In addition, the more-free societies outside the kingdom’s control demonstrate a high level of chaos, and it’s very bad to be someone who’s not big and strong. Two weeks outside of the Shire, and Frodo has a friend eaten by a willow tree, is kidnapped (and naked, for some reason) by wrights, and is stabbed. Chaos prevails outside the autocratic rule, and maybe things might be a little better if they were orderly?
Bringing it all together
So now that we see that the dichotomies aren’t as neat as they first seem, how can we resolve them? The central assumption of NC is that, in good works of literature, the tensions exist and they are resolvable. Deconstructionism assumes that these tensions are irresolvable and texts ultimate collapse against one another. New Criticism, on the other hand, assumes everything is intentional, and we can resolve them by looking deeper.
Ok, so we need to resolve these problems, or else this seminal fantasy series is just a mess of inconsistencies. To do this, we need to look a little deeper into these dichotomies and reason our way through the initial assumptions, seeing how the work unifies itself.
For example, in LotR both of the “good” and “bad,” free and un-free sides of the dichotomies have autocratic governments with some degree of chaos (orcs etc. with Sauron and balrogs/bandits/oak trees in the kingdoms). Even on the good side, you see people suffering under the likes of Theoden (when under Wormtongue) and Denethor, the steward. These competing tensions are not resolved until Aragorn takes the throne after the defeat of Sauron, and true prosperity reigns. What is different? His character and strength. Aragorn spent years patrolling the world, learning about and fighting the enemy. He demonstrates his humility by sleeping in the dirt with hobbits, and his self-sacrifice when he was willing to walk up to the gates of Mordor to give Frodo precious (pun intended) time to destroy the ring. In short, it is not the conventions, the structure, the traditions, or the openness of a society that gives it strength and goodness in the LotR (or possibly in any society, but remember, outside references are fobidden in New Criticism), but the strength, goodness, and character of its leader. Those conventions/traditions/etc. are to blame for the fall (Isildur), poor maintenance (Denethor), and flourishing (Aragorn) of Gondor, so they are somewhat neutral, but the tension that both the good and bad sides of the fight are ultimately operating under the same systems of government with the same problems are ultimately resolved in the character of Aragorn.*
Limitations of New Criticism
New Criticism, though helpful, has some limitations.
- It assumes the work is complex: You can’t really dissect a terrible work with no nuance, so the work has to be up to a certain standard in terms of writing before you can hope to use NC to understand it. On “polished” works such as The Lord of the Rings it works, but you need to understand the nature of the work when using NC. That being said, you can make some terrible books/poems say some fun things by employing NC
- It works better on shorter, clearer works: NC works the best when dissecting a poem or, at longest, a short story. You can map out, sometimes down to the word, all the times a particular theme (and its opposite – remember, you need to keep track of the tensions) comes up. Things can get a bit muddy with longer works. I’m sure you were able to spot inconsistencies with my NC reading of the LotR above. I’m sure it would be theoretically possible to track down every instance of the competing tensions in the trilogy, but it would be a big task. You can definitely still use NC on longer works, but be aware that you are leaving yourself open if someone should take an extremely close look and formulate a counter argument regarding something you missed.
*I absolutely understand that this is not an airtight argument. It was only to illustrate how tensions in a work could be reconciled by an understanding of that work, which is the central tenet to New Criticism.