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Literary Theory | New Criticism

May 20, 2021

In English studies these days, literary theory dominates. One would have a hard time being published in a  professional journal without subscribing to at least one modern theory. In reality, however, an older approach to literary criticism still plays the major role in interpretation even today—that is, New Criticism. Why? Because it still works very well.

New Criticism was born in the 1930s in Britain. It originated out of a desire to abandon the stale approach in which literature was appreciated in an historical sense. Time of publication, influences, biography of the author, intellectual context were all the rage.

This 19C approach paid little heed to the why of literary merit, or remarked in the vaguest ways about the freshness of imagery or the intellectual significance of a literary work.

The New Critics wanted to examine texts more accurately and precisely using carefully defined terms. They wanted to read “closely.” And they paid little attention to historical context or the intention of the author. A text, particularly a poem, meant what it said, not what the author intended it to say. The interpretation and the words of a text became the same thing. Paraphrased meaning destroyed meaning, in their view.

One result of New Criticism was an emphasis on irony. Irony is a figure of speech in which the meaning of a text is radically different than the surface meaning of a text. Close reading lends itself to uncovering ironic meanings. The best example of this sort of close reading can be found by examining Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” (1916).

This poem is misinterpreted by the vast majority of readers today, according to a close reading of the text.

Below is the poem.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The common reading of the poem says, for example, that running a small organic farm is the “road less travelled” because organic farming is not corporate farming, which is the way most food is now grown in the United States. Henry David Thoreau’s choice of the unfettered life is the proper choice to make. No one should want to be a cog in the wheel of industrial America.

Robert Frost may have meant just that, but it doesn’t matter what he meant. The poem itself is opposed to that interpretation. The poem is actually ironic. The two roads in the woods are not actually all that different. They are really “about the same.” Besides, no one who goes down one road can ever come back and go down the other road, in a figurative sense. If I make a choice in life to become a teacher rather than a nurse, I have gone down a road of life, but I can’t really know what the other road would have led to.

Everyone likes to think that his or her choices lead to the best outcome, but that’s not really knowable. The result? Life is about making choices without enough information to make the truly right choice. That’s ironic! That’s even tragic!

This interpretation is the secular view of life’s choices. The Christian view is quite different. The Christian can pray to be led and trust that God will lead. The happiness of the choice is equal to the Christian’s faith in God’s providence.

In Southern’s English Department, you will learn to read texts much more carefully with an eye for what the Bible says about the important elements of life.