New Criticism as a Branch of Literary Criticism

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New Criticism is a school of literary theory that emerged in the mid-1900s as a result of idealist philosophy. To understand New Criticism, one must understand idealism as its primary influence. Idealism broadly defined is “the metaphysical and epistemological doctrine that ideas or thoughts make up fundamental reality.” In essence, idealism preaches that the physical world is purely resultant of our perceptions hence we cannot trust anything exterior to our consciousness to truly exist.

New Criticism embodies this approach by viewing literature as a means of exploring the universal human condition separate from the physical world that impacts it. Sociological, philosophical and autobiographic influences are viewed as exterior and therefore irrelevant to the interpretation of the literary work as a whole. Additionally, a reader’s emotional response to a text is meaningless because it is a personal reaction that is not applicable to all. Meaning is alternatively found within the way literary devices resolve spiritual universal truths and disrupts the predictability of reality.

New Critics analyze the ways paradox, fallacy, irony, connotation, and denotation are presented in a piece and how overall meaning can be derived from them. The ambiguity of these literary devices is what classifies literature as an art form, rather than a factual and provable science. Science is dictated by the realities of the physical world, while literature, like art, is manifested through the discovery of unprovable yet universal meaning within the text. Only through the act of Close Reading, a thoughtful and gradual literary analysis does the reader uncover discreet yet explicit truths within a work’s literary devices.

Brooks and Warren’s critique of “The Fall of the House of Usher” embodies the New Criticism through its exclusion of “exterior” sociological and psychological factors that affect Poe’s characters. Instead, Brooks and Warren define the characters through the text’s paradoxes and supernatural descriptions. Poe’s use of unsettling diction to describe the atmosphere and physical façade of the estate is deemed symbolic of the decayed morals of its inhabitants. While the estate’s physical depiction of “bleak walls…vacant eye-like windows…few rank sedges” rivals that of Roderick Usher’s, it is incorrect to assume that the audience should apply these morbid descriptions to Usher’s moral character.

If anything, the house’s decay symbolizes Roderick’s deteriorating mental state. Usher’s estate is described as structurally coherent, yet the “stones of the home of his forefathers” are individually crumbling. The paradox of appearance versus reality contrasts the past social prominence and regality of the Usher family with their private struggles of debilitating mental illness. Roderick is condemned by Brooks and Warren as a character who much like the estate is “doomed” from the start. His apparent lack of struggle and choice is presumed to elicit a negative response from the reader. Readers who pick up on the text’s suggestions of mental illness and familial distress are more likely to sympathize rather than criticize Roderick’s character.

Brook and Warren’s assumption that Roderick’s character is devoid of characteristics reflective of universal human struggle is uninformed. Various suggestions of incest and addiction within the text expose the origins of Roderick’s mental instability. Roderick’s depression and anxiety may be effects of incest, as “the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, lain.” This “undeviating transmission from sire to son” genetically explains the passing down of anxiety or depression that infect Roderick by no choice of his own.

Furthermore, Roderick’s erratic behavior may be linked to laudanum abuse. Laudanum was widely prescribed by 19th-century doctors as a multipurpose remedy for anything from constipation to hysteria. Roderick’s temperament is described as “alternately vivacious and sullen…”, which parallels a laudanum addict’s initial induced euphoria and the subsequent unpleasant withdrawals. Brook and Warren’s oversimplification that Roderick is wicked because he is “in love with the morbid acuteness of the senses” is a dismissal of the overpowering drug cravings laudanum induces. Roderick’s disturbing actions result from addiction and mental illness that is beyond his control, rather than an inherent evil within him.

Brooks and Warren are justified in concluding that the “meaning of the story lies in its perception of the dangers of divorcement from reality…” but their application of this sentiment is superficial because they attribute this divorcement to the house’s supernatural hold over the narrator. Poe successfully suspends reality through the narrator’s grim observations but I argue the supernaturalism inflicted upon the reader is the result of the narrator’s increased state of paranoia. The estate’s immediate impact on the narrator is so significantly disturbing that it may contribute to a pre-existing depression within the storyteller.

As the story progresses, the narrator’s constant comparisons of opium to both his and Roderick’s affectations is suggestive of self-medication. The narrator aides Roderick in the entombing of Madeline’s body, experiences “irrepressible” tremors and observes objects around him “glowing in the unnatural light of a fairly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation.” These unusual behaviors and sensations suggest that the narrator is grappling with burgeoning mental distress and opioid addiction, rather than a supernatural force.

A well rounded Interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” cannot be deduced from the New Criticism perspective. Brooks and Warren neglect to address the exterior circumstances affecting the characters while assuming that their fates are “something special and even peculiar.” To fully grasp the story and sympathize, one has to interpret the struggles of the characters beyond what is written in the text. The horror conjured up in Poe’s tale is deeply distressing because it reflects the universal human suffering inflicted by addiction and mental illness.


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New Criticism as a Branch of Literary Criticism. (2021, Apr 17). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/new-criticism-as-a-branch-of-literary-criticism/

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