How to Write a Research Paper: Using Literary Criticism

What is literary criticism? What is its goal? How is a literary article structured? And most importantly for you, how can you use it as evidence in your English research paper?

To start: literary criticism makes an argument about how a text works using close readings of that text (or those texts) as evidence. It then adds a theoretical framework or component to its close reading–that is, it will rely on literary theory and prior literary criticism as a lens through which to look at a literary work.


You’ve all already seen literary criticism performed: both Professor Griffin (in pretty much every lecture) and Shay (in her guest lecture connecting affect and psychoanalysis with Never Let Me Go) have used literary criticism and theory to further their own arguments about a text. When making an argument about a text, both Professor Griffin and Shay answered the questions: what do critics have to say about a particular text or a particular topic? While Shay and Professor Griffin haven’t made explicit thesis statements in their arguments (their lectures were not structured like essays), they still made interpretive claims about what was going on in a particular text–their own personal contribution to the larger critical discussion surrounding a text–through an argument about something that isn’t obvious about how a text works and what it is doing.

As you all start surveying the critical field for evidence for your own arguments, the articles you will use as evidence will be, essentially, doing the same work you will be performing–albeit at a professional level. Take a look at how they incorporate others’ arguments, and how they engage with their primary (source) text(s).

When reading criticism, it may be helpful to keep in mind the basic structure of a piece of criticism: 1. This is my argument. 2. This is what has been said by other critics about this/closely related topic(s) (this is why it seems that so much of a critical article is comprised of reiterating other people’s arguments). 3. This is how my argument builds on these other peoples arguments. In this assignment, you will really only be concerned with 1 and 3–you don’t need to spend time accounting for what the field at large has to say about your subject, only to explain how the 2-3 critics you have chosen to engage with have contributed to your argument.

When writing with literary criticism, you are inserting yourself into a pre-existing critical conversation. It’s your job to figure out, “Where exactly do I fit?” (How is my argument different from everyone else’s? Have I adequately explained how these other critical arguments I’m engaging relate to what I’m trying to argue?)

You’ve already written essays in which you provide your own close reading of a text, but so far we’ve been limited to the primary text as our source. In your past essays, you’ve been asked to make an interpretive argument about a text, using evidence from that text to support your interpretation–this is what close reading is. But now you will be looking at the arguments of others as a way of making your own more specific, more powerful, more tailored to your own interests.

As I’ve told many of you, there are a few different ways to engage with criticism: 1) by agreeing with it, using it as evidence to on which to found/with which to further your argument; 2) by disagreeing with it, pointing out how the point it’s making fails to account for something in the text; and 3) looking to it as a source of an idea, term, or concept that you may find especially helpful.

For the first, I should point out that this doesn’t mean that you agree with the entire argument of an article, or that the whole argument is pertinent to your argument. It’s not. It couldn’t be, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing anything other than repeating what this other critic has already said. Don’t lose your voice in other people’s.

Instead, it might be a sentence, or an idea that you agree with. It may only be part of a sentence. But if you can use that to help build your argument, use it. Just be sure to transition satisfactorily from one idea to another; that is, your use criticism should flow along with your argument, and you should explain what it is doing there. Here is an example from a paper of mine, in which I use several critical sources to further my larger argument about two particular poems written on a particularly famous rape case in the 18th century:

In contrast, the poem seems to imply that it is Grey’s body on which needless violence has been performed. Dickie notes, “It was… widely thought that death was too harsh a penalty for [rape], and any woman must be really vindictive to pursue the matter so far” (Cruelty 224). Halsband agrees that Murray’s situation placed her in a fraught social position: “Some of [her] friends told her that if the footman was reprieved she would be ruined in her reputation; others that if he was hanged she would be cruelly revenged: her dilemma gave her no choice but to be thought unchaste or bloodthirsty” (696). This leaves Murray in the impossible situation of responsibility for Grey’s death, a responsibility that Grey places on her as well (“Condemn’d by you, I wait the righteous doom” (89)), all the while asserting that he is the victim of her ruthlessness—not she of his. “Sure you may pity what you can’t approve,” Grey begs (93).

This is an example where I use the arguments of others to further my own about sex, spectacle, and speculation, as it is figured in these two poems and as it relates to the historical and personal documentation of those involved in the scandal.

But this doesn’t mean that I agreed with everything critics have to say on my chosen subject–at times I feel their characterizations, analyses, or conclusions are oversimplified, misguided, or just plain wrong. Consider the following, from a paper about the unconscious and imagination in two under-read Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnets, “The Candle Indoors” and “The Lantern Out of Doors”:

When critics do address these two sonnets, the treatment is generally brief: Loomis merely designates “Lantern” as “the affective paean to Christic beauty” (110), stating that Hopkins’s “boisterous confidence…advertising universalism” in the poem is off-putting, but belies the “naïveté” of Hopkins’s 1877 devotional poetry (72, 70). He adds that the “basic thesis of the poem” can be summed up as “Christ’s rich love” (72). Heuser, meanwhile, treats the poem with half of a page of attention, essentially considering at as simply one of the “sonnets of 1877”, that apparently all shared the concern of “the current of grace” in “unfallen Eden” (54).

Oftentimes, it is most helpful to also pull in a term, idea, or argument from a source that isn’t dealing with the work you will be addressing, but nevertheless offers something that you think would be extremely productive in to your argument. If you choose to do this, be sure to clearly define/explain what that term/idea/argument is, in words of the critic/theorist. This is again from the Hopkins paper, in which I wanted to discuss the “traffic” between the conscious and unconscious in the poems, as well as between the poems as a complementary pair:

Specifically, I’d like to demonstrate the presence of what E.S. Dallas, a contemporary of Hopkins, calls the “traffic” between the “two spheres of consciousness” (52), and the role that imagination plays as both messenger and message in this “dynamic and vitalistic” exchange (Hayes 12 ). In tracing the similarities between Dallas’s theory of the imagination and Hopkins’s depiction of the speakers in the two sonnets, we can see a common interest: namely, the desire to break down the binary opposition between the conscious and the unconscious, promoting instead a kind of appositional situatedness and interconscious permeability fueled by a dynamic imaginative process.

In any case, make the relevance of any criticism you use extremely clear in your argument: what is it doing here? How are you engaging with it? How are you building on it–adding something new to the critical conversation. I hope this helps–feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts/questions/feedback.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Oyebo says:

    Reblogged this on GLORIOUS YOUTH and commented:

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