TCLC – Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (Photo credit: CCAC North Library)
Textual Analysis, or ‘close reading’
You might be surprised to discover that the academic discipline of English literature, as we know it today, only came into existence around 1900. Eager to make the study of English literature an academically rigorous undertaking, early twentieth-century literary critics sought to codify and professionalize their discipline, and developed a technique that is now called ‘close reading’. By paying careful, specific attention to the ways in which words are put together, we can form some significant evidence for what we believe to be happening in a literary text. In many ways, close reading forms the backbone of what we now know of as literary criticism, and is the skill that differentiates English literature students from students in other Humanities departments. Historians, art historians, theologians, and philosophers share many of the same skills that we do, but what sets us apart is our sensitivity to the words on the page. The skill of close reading is an important one, and one which you will develop over the course of your degree.
Much of the debate in twentieth-century literary criticism centred on the role which historical and authorial context should play in analysis. Should the critic be concerned that Charles Dickens’ childhood experience in a workhouse contributed to many of his most famous novels? When reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library should the critic be aware that AIDS-victims were heavily stigmatized during the early 1980s? The answer is almost certainly ‘yes’ in both cases. In order to put forward a clear, convincing argument about a text, it is important that the critic has a working knowledge of the relevant contextual material which bears weight upon the text.
Literary analysis does not happen in a vacuum, and the changing understanding of texts across generations is important. We know that Bram Stoker was convinced that Dracula was a moral, ethical parable about good versus evil. Literary critics, however, have been unable to leave unacknowledged the significant, and sometimes subversive, sexual imagery which marks that text. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw was left purposefully ambiguous as a stylistic feature, and that is an issue with which generations of critics have contended. It is for this reason that a compelling argument about a literary work must take into account the critical context and what other critics have said about it.
A theory is a system of acute observations of the material world, which can provide the literary critic with a useful framework for exploring meaning in literary texts. Through the accumulated conventions of style, lexis, and incentive, theory creates cogent models of analysis. These models often seek to foreground the sociological issues which bear significant weight in English literature (e.g. psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, eco-criticism, and disability studies). Theory can provide a powerful, robust route into texts, but it is important that you do not allow theoretical context to overpower your analysis. Remember, your argument is about the text, and theory is only one of four analytical tools which you have at your disposal.
The major debates between various schools of twentieth-century literary criticism came from the differing levels of importance afforded to each of these four categories. For example, New Criticism favoured textual analysis at the expense of historical context; psychoanalytic literary criticism saw historical context as significantly more important than critical context; the Poststructuralists thought that theoretical context was of prime importance. Literary criticism in the twenty-first century tends to acknowledge the value of all four of these categories of evidence, though each critic will inevitably develop his or her own personal style of working with these. As you develop increasing confidence and skill in analysis, you will likely find yourself moving through these categories. It is important to remember, however, that it is impossible to produce sophisticated, well-nuanced essays if appropriate attention is not paid to textual analysis. It is for this reason that many of your tutors will focus a great deal of attention on the skill of close reading.
This post is based upon teaching materials developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds.