A Few Critical Approaches to Literature
Aesthetic - Approaches a work strictly in terms of beauty, independent from any moral message; examines its form and its ability to embody artistic expression. (Some would call this brand of criticism "structuralism.")
Biographical/Historical - Seeks to understand each work's meaning based upon a close examination of the personal life of the author in relation to the text; also compares the epoch portrayed in the work to historical data.
Christian - Interprets literature in terms of theological concerns such as evil, sin, damnation, love, mercy, grace, redemption; there is a variety of Christian approaches to literature, offering as many views as there are denominations.
Deconstructionist - Words of a text are probed for their multiple linguistic significations; because words lack perfect correspondence to objects in the world, no definitive interpretation exists; meaning is something we create.
Existentialist - Perceives literature as a means for the reader to question his existence; looks for evidence of life's absurdity, alienation, anxiety, and emptiness; since the future is unknown, the present is all we can be sure of.
Feminist - Approaches literature with a special regard to the feminine consciousness; notes how women are portrayed socially, politically, sexually, economically, and religiously, especially in a society with a male hegemony.
Marxist - Interprets literature according to the philosophical and political ideology put forth by Karl Marx, focusing on issues such as class, capitalism, inequality, exploitation, revolution, and the restructuring of society.
New Critical - Argues that a work should be considered as a complete, organic unit, with each part working to support the whole; close analysis of the text itself, without outside information, would reveal the authoritative meaning.
Psychological - Appropriates the profound discoveries of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories as tools to understand an author and/or characters of a work; explores the unconscious in relation to behavior and sexuality.
Rhetorical - Considers the interactions between the work, the author, and the audience; observes what effect a piece of literature has upon its reader, and how that work accomplishes a particular persuasive result.
NOTE: The above critical approaches are seldom found in pure form. It is quite possible, and probable, that a critic will consciously or unconsciously combine two or more as she analyzes a work.