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Research Starter - ENGL 448: Modern Literature

A research starter for ENGL 448 / Modern Literature

Modern Literature

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Historical criticism seeks to interpret the work of literature through understanding the time and culture in which the work was written. The historical critic is more interested in the meaning that the literary work had for its own time than in the meaning the work might have today.

Biographical criticism investigates the life of an author using primary texts, such as letters, diaries, and other documents, that might reveal the experiences, thoughts, and feelings that led to the creation of a literary work. 

Formalistic criticism examines plot, characterization, dialogue, point of view, setting, and style to show how these elements contribute to the theme or unity of the literary work. The meaning and value of a literary work resides in the text itself, independent of the author's intent. This approach stresses the close reading of the text and insists that all statements about the work be supported by references to the text.

Philosophical (or moral) criticism evaluates the ethical content of literary works. However, these critics evaluate the work in its totality, not passages taken out of context. Philosophical critics acknowledge that literature can have positive effects on people by increasing their compassion and moral sensitivity, but it can have negative effects on people, too. If humans are rational, they will listen to reason when it is spoken; and they will reject evil and embrace good. 

Psychological criticism examines the work in terms of the motivations of the characters and the writers who create them. The psychological approach analyzes the symbolic fictions that arise from the inner thoughts and subconscious of the characters or the writers and attempts to explain them in a rational manner.

Sociological criticism focuses on the relationship between literature and society, the social function of literature. Literature is always produced in a social context. Writers may affirm or criticize the values of the society in which they live, but they write for an audience and that audience is society.

Archetypal criticism examines recurring patterns that represent universal situations and experiences. The archetypal critic assumes that human beings all over the world have basic experiences in common and have developed similar stories, characters, and symbols to express these experiences.


Approaches to Literary Criticism. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2019, from file://leeshares/users/dbixler/My Pictures/Approaches to Lit Crit--brief.pdf


Socio-historical World history timelines 
Subversion/Inversion Subversion - Squires catalog search
  Inversion - definition, with examples, of Inversion as a literary device
  Subversion - definition, with examples, of Subversion as a literary device
Character analysis Gale Literary Sources 
  Scribner Writers Series 

These research starters, supplied by Salem Press through the library's EBSCO Discovery Service, provide an excellent place to begin your research.  Each research starter gives a brief summary of some of the popular literary theories or schools of criticism and each entry includes a bibliography.  Use these research starters to become more familiar with the different literary and critical theories and to look for words, terms and phrases that might help you develop your search strategy.   

Remember: the bibliography or works cited page of any work is a vital resource; it can lead you to other credible resources to use in your research!

Tips for searching:

  • Utilize both the catalog and EBSCO search
  • Search with author's name, or chosen work, as a subject, not keyword
  • When you find a resource, check the "subject" headings for related information


  • Use advanced search to combine terms 


  • Try synonyms (literature, literary, literary criticism, etc).  Search box will "suggest" terms