Q and A

Questions about New Criticism

Q: What is a “chief paradox”?

A: According to the New Critics, a poem is built on a “paradox.” This is because,  on one hand, new critics and formalists think about language as precise and  exact. On the other hand, a main characteristic of a poem is that the language a  poet uses has many connotations (or implications and associations that are  serived from placing that words in other contexts). For instance, when Emily  Dickinson uses the words “circuit” or “circumference” in the first poem I  distributed, she is drawing upon the more explicit, dictionary definition of an  electrical circuit, or a circular outline, but using it to describe an aspect of  her experience that goes beyond either of those things; the same goes for her  use of “windows” in the final stanza of the third poem, or “beads” [strung upon a forehead] in the fourth poem. As a result, the very meaning of a poem is built on a “paradox”—a combination of basic meaning and connotations that all come  together to support the central idea. When you consider the basic and the connotative meanings side by side, you are “juxtaposing” those meanings and trying to figure out how they all contribute to a more unified tone, sense of  tension, or feeling of irony. The fact that a unified sense of the poem can exist, even though the language is complex enough to include many meanings, is  what the New Critics believe to be the “chief paradox” of any poem.

Here’s another way to break down the task of analyzing a poem as a New Critic would:

First,  address the poem’s formal qualities (thus the name “formalist” is another way of  referring to a New Critic): the roots of words, allusions, symbols, imagery,  patterns of rhyme or meter (prosody).

When you have looked at this for a single poem, then try to discuss its tone and point of view.

After that, try comparing all the ideas you’ve gathered about the poem to think about how its language or tone conveys a sense of tension or irony (something you sense as a result of a paradox).

Finally, attempt to describe what that central tension, irony, or “paradox” is.


Q: I know that the term Denotation is the physical, dictionary meaning…but how are you supposed to figure out a literal dictionary meaning to an entire poem?

A: When we refer to “denotation” and “connotation” we’re usually talking about individual words, not a whole poem. “Denotation” is the most tangible, literal, dictionary definition of a word, and “connotation” points to associations with
or implications of that most immediate definition. For example, think about the five possible definitions of the word “circuit” (a favorite of Dickinson’s). Depending on the context in which we’re using it, any of these meanings might feel like the most literal or obvious, while the others would be associations or “connotations” that are outside the immediate context of our use.




a. A closed, usually circular line that goes around
an object or area.
b. The region enclosed by such a line. See Synonyms
at circumference.

a. A path or route the complete traversal of which
without local change of direction requires returning to the starting
b. The act of following such a path or route.
c. A journey made on such a path or
3. Electronics

a. A closed path followed or capable of being
followed by an electric current.
b. A configuration of electrically or
electromagnetically connected components or devices.

a. A regular or accustomed course from place to
place; a round: a salesperson on the
Detroit-Minneapolis-Chicago circuit; a popular speaker on the lecture
b. The area or district thus covered, especially a
territory under the jurisdiction of a judge in which periodic court sessions are

a. An association of theaters in which plays, acts,
or films move from theater to theater for presentation.
b. A group of nightclubs, show halls, or resorts at
which entertainers appear in turn.
c. An association of teams or clubs.
d. A series of competitions held in different
intr. & tr.v. cir·cuit·ed,
cir·cuit·ing, cir·cuits

To make a circuit or circuit of.

Etymology of the word: [Middle English, circumference, from Old French, from
Latin circuitus, a going around, from past participle of
circumre, to go around :
circum-, circum- + re, to go; see
ei- in Indo-European roots.]
click for a larger image




Questions about Structuraliam, Poststructuralism, and Saussurian linguistics

Q: If “CAT” is the signifier and   (i.e. a real cat) is the signified, what is the sign?

A: The sign is the word itself: cat — or, you might say, the sign is how the word operates. Any sign is made up of two elements, the signifier, which can be a written or spoken expression of a thing/person/idea, and the signified, that to which the signifer refers (the “real” thing). Here are other examples, expressed in what I think is a helpful paragraph, from Bressler: “…when we hear the sound ball, the sound is the signifer and the concept of a ball that comes to our minds in the signified. Like the two sides of a sheet of paper, the linguistic sign is the union of these two elements. As oxygen combines with hydrogen to form water, Saussure says, so the signifier joins with the signified to form a sign that has properties unlike those of its parts. Accordingly for Saussure, a word represents a sign, not a referent in the objective world. Unlike previous generations of philologists who believed that we perceive things (word=thing) and then translate them into units or meaning, Saussuree revolutionizes linguistics by asserting that we perceive signs” (97).

Questions about analyzing a text through a postcolonialist lens

Q. What types of questions might a reader analyzing a work from a postcolonial perspective ask?

A. Here are a few examples of ways one might pay attention to issues of race and the effects of colonialism while reading:
  • What kinds of portrayals are offered of ethnic “others”? What kinds of social roles are “others” allowed to portray? (And what are they not?) How much power do “others” have in the text? Where and how is that power checked? Are these portrayals stereotypical in some way or do they break with stereotypical convention?
  • Does one group/individual seem to construct its group identity based on the exclusion of/difference from another group? If so, how does that work?
  • How do characters of specific races/ethnicities/backgrounds understand themselves? Do they understand themselves in ways that are marked by race, background, culture, or history or do they seem to free themselves (or try to) from these categories?

What are the main goals of a reader-response critic and how might he/she accomplish them?

Goal 1: Show that the text gives readers something to do (what types of things does it ask us to wrestle with? does it lead us to scenes where we face  certain moral questions or paradoxes? what are those questions and through what  characters, conversations, or actions do we encounter them?)
Goal 2: Consider how a reader responds to what the text is asking her/him  to do
Here are some ways you can carry out these goals: first, you might look for  direct references to reading of some kind in the text (one big one in HoD would be Marlow’s reading of Kurtz’s letter that ends with “exterminate the brutes!”) in order to justify the focus on reading and show that the world of the text is continuous with the reader’s own world (because both reader and narrator are caught in the act of reading); secondly, you might show how even non-reading situations in the text mirror the situation the reader is in; and third, this can lead you to demonstrate the way in which the reader’s response is–or is analogous to–the story’s main action or conflict (what would you say the main action is in
Conrad’s novel?).
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