Interpreting Literature: the Function of Criticism

Written by on June 23rd, 2013. Subject: Literature. Filed in Criticism, about Art

|||Schorer, Mark, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie. Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.|||

Writing Literary Criticism Critics ask where art comes from, how it becomes what it is, and what it does; their questions are about the Source, the Form, the End of art. The first question, which concerns the artist’s experience, emphasizes the matter that goes into art; the second, which analyzes the structural elements that compose the work as a whole, emphasizes the qualities of art in itself, the formal means; the third, which examines the response of the audience, emphasizes the function of art. Other emphases of course adhere to these; it is interesting to observe, for example, how frequently the first position regards art as “expression”; the second, as a mode of “imitation”; and the third, as “communication.”

Yet these are varieties of emphasis only. The difference among the three categories is not radical, and it is probably a loss to insight whenever a critic takes so “pure” a position as to make his emphasis appear so. p. viii.

Now, it is worth remembering that all great works of art arouse in men a great many thoughts, many of which seem in opposition. Oscar Wilde, fond of such paradoxes, went so far as to claim that art demands such disagreements1. We should not wonder, then, at the diversity of opinions that surround various works of literature, for such diversity is a sign that they are worth reading. And although a text may be difficult, and opinions about it vary, still it is the function of the critic to analyze the work, to interpret it, and to determine its overall quality. And lest we are quick to dismiss opinion since it is not fact, we should remember that all knowledge is evidenced through persuasion, made credible by the discernment of a refined and educated judgement. All literature, especially literary interpretation, belongs not to the demonstrable sciences, but to the persuasive.

The first step in analyzing any literary work is to determine what it is that we are analyzing. This is no small task when so many disagree about the purpose and function of literature. Literature is a mode of knowing reality; literature, like art is a “reording of reality or breaking of surfaces that leads to an imitation of what is discovered at deeper levels of existence”2. The purpose then, of interpreting literature is not to determine its root causes or effects, but rather to understand what deeper levels of reality it explores.

As we go through a work of literature we must not fall into the error of idealogical abstraction. For ideologies are a condition of the human mind formed by the collation of filtered conceptions. But reality itself may never be filtered; we experience reality fully and unadulterated. And should we try to organize and understand our experiences, such belong more to ontology and metaphysics than to belief. Likewise, that part of literature which partakes in the deeper levels of reality, is an attempt to get at not the opinions of some men, but the conditions of reality all men experience. This is what some have called the universal and others common experience.

About B. R. Mullikin

B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

Do you enjoy Netcrit Articles?

Use the affiliate link below to buy a book from Amazon. You’ll receive the gift of knowledge, and we will get a portion of the proceeds.

  1. “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself” Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

  2. Harvey, Lawrence E. “Art and the Existential in En attendant Godot.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (1960): 137–146. p. 137.