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Literary Criticism: Introduction

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Created by HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College


This guide was copied/remixed with permission from:

Ted Bergfelt, Humanities Librarian, Duquense University; OWL Purdue, Writing a Literary Analysis; Perimeter College, Georgia State University, Learning &Tutoring Center Literary Analysis Thesis; UTA Libraries, Literary Criticism

Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Taft College Library, 29 Cougar Ct, Taft, CA., (661) 763-7817). Updated January 2024.


Your English teacher has told you to pick a work of literature, find literary criticism about it, and then write a paper summarizing your research. Your instructor tells you to find both books and journal articles on your chosen literary work. And finally, you need to set the literary work in its context, meaning you need to say something about the author, his or her life, and why he or she wrote that particular literary work.

This research guide is designed to lead you through the process of finding literary criticism and writing your literary analysis paper.

In this guide, you will learn about:

  • The meaning of Literary Criticism and Literary Theory

  • Types of Literary Critical Theory

  • Ideas for developing a topic

  • How to locate sources that provide biographical information, plot summaries, overviews, book reviews, and critical materials about the literary work you have chosen.

  • literary terms to help you focus your ideas.

  • Information on citation in MLA format.

Literary Criticism

"Literary criticism” refers to the act of interpreting and studying literature.

A literary critic is someone who argues on behalf of an interpretation or understanding of the particular meaning(s) of literary texts.The task of a literary critic is to explain and attempt to reach a critical understanding of what literary texts mean in terms of their aesthetic, as well as social, political, and cultural statements and suggestions. 

Literary Theory

“Literary theory,” however, refers to a particular form of literary criticism in which particular academic, scientific, or philosophical approaches are followed in a systematic fashion while analyzing literary texts. Literary theory proposes particular, systematic approaches to literary texts that impose a particular line of intellectual reasoning to it. For example, a psychoanalytic literary theorist might take the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung and seek to reach a critical understanding of a novel such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

An Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory

  • Imagery: Used to describe an author’s use of vivid descriptions. 
  • Style: Used to describe the way an author uses language to convey his/her ideas and purpose in writing. 
  • Symbol(ism): An object or element used to represent another concept or concern. 
  • Theme: A main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly.  
  • Tone: A way of communicating information that conveys an attitude. 
  • Antagonist: A character(s) in a text with whom the protagonist opposes. 
  • Protagonist: The primary character in a text, often positioned as “good” or the character with whom readers are expected to identify. 
  • Climax: The height of conflict and intrigue in a narrative. 
  • Denouement: The “falling action” of a narrative, when the climax and central conflicts are resolved and a resolution is found.