Questions Critics Ask

– or A beginner’s way to (literary) critique and academic discovery

The kinds of questions different critics ask
by Christina M. Garmer

The following lists of questions are derived from Robert C. Evans’s book Close Readings and are designed to give students and other readers a practical series of questions to ask of any literary work as they try to make sense of its phrasing, structures, and meanings.


How does the work

  • reflect enduring reality?
  • appeal to the reader either mainly logically (which is good) or mainly emotionally (which is bad)?
  • attempt (successfully or unsuccessfully) to influence society?
  • ask and/or answer philosophical questions?
  • stress subject matter and content as opposed to form and craftsmanship?
  • utilise logic or reason rather than emotional or sensory stimuli to explore truth?
  • convey ideas about absolute truth and beauty?
  • readers discover philosophical truths?
  • inform or instruct rather than simply entertain?
  • seem objective, rational, and systematic?
  • attempt to make reason and virtue attractive?
  • endorse or undermine truth?


How does the work

  • suggest or reveal enduring truth?
  • demonstrate conscious, deliberate craftsmanship?
  • reflect the writer’s skill in using a particular genre (or kind) of writing?
  • reflect any general insight into human nature, thoughts, and actions?
  • combine unity and complexity, especially in relations between its various parts?
  • imply natural, inevitable, consistent connections between different parts of the work?
  • reflect some natural, necessary way of ordering or understanding experience (such as tragic experience or comic experience)?
  • help satisfy an innate, inevitable human desire for knowledge?
  • reveal how individual experience reflects larger truths?
  • reflect the existence of a general human nature?
  • provoke general, typical human responses rather than idiosyncratic ones?
  • provoke responses to both its form and its content, which are inseparable?
  • reveal the dynamic forms, patterns, or processes inherent in reality?
  • reveal the way a thing can change while still remaining the same thing?
  • help us discover truths about reality, both external and internal?
  • help us understand meaningful patterns of human behavior?
  • lend itself to objective, rational, and systematic examination?
  • seem valuable as an imitation of reality?


How does the work

  • reflect or respond to the preferences of its intended audience?
  • adhere to or depart from the requirements of a particular genre?
  • reflect literary traditions or customs?
  • make each character look or act in ways that are appropriate or expected for that character? (For example, how does an old, male character look or act like a stereotypical old man?)
  • connect events in the text in ways that seem natural or expected?
  • balance simplicity and complexity and seem consistent?
  • utilise or fail to utilise language which is familiar to the reader?
  • reflect real life, especially by presenting characters who seem realistic or credible?
  • reflect the deliberate craftsmanship of the writer?
  • instruct and/or entertain the reader?
  • appeal to a broad audience?
  • meet or violate the reader’s expectations?
  • imply the values, customs, and conventions of its intended audience?
  • reflect any general insight into human nature?
  • reflect the ways that conventions and audiences change over time?


How does the work

  • demonstrate the writer’s conscious, deliberate craftsmanship?
  • reflect the character of the writer?
  • display the writer’s genius or inspiration?
  • convey sublime spiritual, moral, and/or intellectual power?
  • inspire artistic or ethical achievement in others?
  • reflect the fact that humanity is capable of producing great, powerful works?
  • display noble ideas or elevated language?
  • achieve unity and harmony?
  • reveal the author reflecting or building upon the skill of his/lher predecessors?
  • emphasise spiritual and ethical greatness as opposed to triviality or materialism?
  • reveal the shared human nature and fundamental desires that people possess?
  • use rhetorical devices (such as metaphor, simile, etc.)?
  • encourage noble aspirations?
  • transcend the boundaries of class, gender, race, nation, and time to appeal to a wide variety of readers?

Traditional historical criticism

How does the work

  • reflect the writer’s values?
  • reflect the values of a particular historical era?
  • reflect the author’s individual experiences?
  • become more comprehensible the more we know about the era in which it was written?
  • give us insights into the period in which it was written?
  • reveal the influence of previous texts?
  • become more comprehensible the more we understand the language of its era?
  • seem open to different interpretations in different historical eras?
  • seem affected by the society in which it was produced?
  • influence the society in which it was produced?

Thematic criticism

How does the work

  • intentionally or unintentionally incorporate abstract ideas?
  • use abstract ideas or concepts to convey meaning?
  • imply the beliefs and values of its author?
  • repeat or reflect ideas emphasised in other works by its author?
  • imply that ideas are important aspects of reality?
  • reflect any general insight into human nature?
  • reflect any larger truths about existence or the nature of the world?
  • repeatedly emphasise one central theme or motif?
  • provoke thoughts about abstract ideas?
  • focus on ideas rather than on details of phrasing or structure?
  • use one or more ideas to convey the overall message or meaning of the text?
  • use general ideas to make sense of particular details of the work?
  • rely on the human desire or need to understand experiences in terms of large, meaningful patterns or ideas?
  • emphasise broad, familiar ideas (good vs evil; right vs wrong; the purpose of living; the nature of happiness; fate vs free will; war and peace; crime and punishment; the nature of love, or of justice, or of duty, or of truth, etc.)?
  • convey lessons about and/or insights into the ideas it explores?


How does the work

  • attempt to reveal truth?
  • reflect the writer’s skill in the use of a particular genre (or kind) of writing?
  • demonstrate conscious, deliberate craftsmanship?
  • exhibit complex unity, so that every part of the work is necessary to the work as a whole?
  • reveal connections between different parts of the work that seem natural and inevitable?
  • reflect, through its own complexity, the complexity of reality?
  • provoke responses both to its form and to its content (which are inseparable)?
  • suggest the dynamic forms, patterns, or processes inherent in reality?
  • help us understand meaningful patterns of human behaviour?

Psychoanalytic criticism

How does the work

  • suggest the unconscious drives or motives of the writer, the reader, and/or the works’ characters?
  • reveal the influences of the writer’s unconscious mind?
  • suggest the interaction of the id (the subconscious, instinctual, pleasure-seeking mind), the ego (the conscious, rational mind), and the superego (the conscience), either in the writer, the reader, and/or the work’s characters?
  • imply repression (especially sexual repression) of the id, either in the writer, the reader, and/or the work’s characters?
  • suggest or reveal larger truths about various stages of human development imply or express ideas about psychosexual or gender roles?
  • imply or present a writer and/or characters who express highly individual or personal psychological realities?
  • imply the collective psychology of society during the writer’s lifetime?

Archetypal criticism

How does the work

  • appeal to thoughts and feelings that almost all readers share?
  • provoke general, typical human responses rather than idiosyncratic reactions?
  • reveal multiple levels of complexity and psychological significance?
  • reveal both a surface meaning and an underlying level of meaning which is, in many cases, more important than the surface meaning?
  • use patterns of imagery or themes that provoke the same responses in most people?
  • imply the existence of a general human nature?
  • use general human associations to imply deeper meanings (e.g. by using darkness to suggest danger or springtime to symbolise life or rebirth)?
  • explore the relationships between humans and nature?
  • disclose underlying patterns that contribute to the text’s deeper unity or coherence?
  • use symbols that can have multiple meanings depending on their contexts?
  • appeal to readers’ most basic desires and needs?
  • appeal to readers emotionally or psychologically rather than intellectually?
  • transcend barriers of age, race, language, gender, and so on to appeal to a more universal human nature?
  • resemble many other texts in its underlying meanings and impact?
  • employ patterns or symbols also found in popular literature?
  • imply universal feelings or responses that are typically very important or powerful and, therefore, very difficult to put into words?
  • use symbols, themes, or ideas appropriate to the text’s genre?
  • manipulate characters, symbols, or themes to uphold or undermine the reader’s expectations?

Marxist criticism

How does the work

  • reflect the writer’s socioeconomic circumstances?
  • reflect its own social or historical contexts?
  • depict or deal with the social structure that helped produce it? (For instance, does the work describe, distort, falsify, criticise, or endorse the social structure, or does it do some combination of these things?)
  • reveal the distribution of power within the social structure?
  • strengthen or weaken the interests of a particular economic class?
  • reveal anything about power struggles or injustices within or between social classes?
  • reveal how the dominant class uses “spiritual” or “natural” practices to maintain dominance?
  • deal with values or systems of belief that stifle or weaken progress for the majority?
  • reveal the social and/or political agenda(s) the characters and/or writer support?
  • support or oppose the dominant ideology of its time?
  • provoke different potential reactions in readers of different economic classes?
  • challenge individual readers or society as a whole?

Feminist criticism

How does the work

  • reflect the assumptions the writer or his/her culture makes about sexuality and gender?
  • accept and/or reject prevailing assumptions about sexuality and gender?
  • reflect the impact of the writer’s gender or sexual identity?
  • reflect and/or reject the sexual or gender stereotypes of the writer’s culture?
  • influence the sexual or gender stereotypes of the writer’s culture?
  • challenge and/or affirm the sexual or gender identities of audience members?
  • show characters within the text behaving in terms of their gender identities?
  • show characters upholding or challenging society’s assumptions about gender and/or sexuality?
  • promote or stifle social progress or individual freedoms, especially freedoms relevant to sexuality and/or gender?

Structuralist criticism

How does the work

  • use particular codes or structured languages?
  • reveal anything about the codes or structures that people use to understand the world around them?
  • suggest that codes change in different cultures or time periods?
  • use opposites (such as good vs evil, light vs dark, young vs old, etc.) to reveal meaning within the text?
  • adhere to or depart from the rules or codes of its genre (or kind) of writing?
  • use specific words or ideas that reveal or imply the codes that govern the text?
  • present characters who abide by or oppose the codes within the text?
  • seem consistent or inconsistent in its use of codes or structures?
  • use codes or structures that allow a reader to understand the meaning of the text more deeply or completely?
  • use overlapping codes or structures?


How does the work

  • employ particular codes or structured languages?
  • reveal that the codes or structures that govern the text are full of contradictions, inconsistencies, or even paradoxes?
  • lack unity or patterns of consistent meaning?
  • suggest that it is readers who impose structures on the text in order to find meaning within the text?
  • imply anything about the codes or structures that people use to understand the world around them, especially the inconsistencies of those codes?
  • reflect but also violate the rules of a particular genre?
  • reveal parts that seem inconsistent with the text as a whole?
  • seem consistent and/or especially inconsistent in its use of codes or structures?
  • seem unsuccessful in depicting an objective reality?
  • undermine readers’ expectations or assumptions about reality?

Reader-response criticism

How does the work

  • seem subject to the reader’s control rather than controlling the reader?
  • seem open to different interpretation by different readers or different kinds of readers?
  • reveal that the author’s control over the text is limited?
  • suggest anything about different readers’ differing perceptions of reality?

Dialogical criticism

How does the work

  • show the effects of having been written for an intended audience, so that the text is in a kind of dialogue with its potential readers?
  • seem focused on affecting its intended audience, so that the text seems shaped with this audience in mind?
  • present literal or figurative dialogue within the text, as when characters speak to each other, or different styles seem to interact, or different world views interact?
  • present individual voices in the text (whether those of the writer or those of the characters) that represent the interests, beliefs, or thoughts of multiple points of view?
  • communicate, or seem engaged in a dialogue, with other texts?
  • allude to or quote another text? How does any such reference affect the text’s meaning or the ways readers interpret the text?
  • use first-, second-, and/or third-person narration throughout the text?
  • use different kinds of narrative points of view, such as omniscient or limited perspectives?
  • use points of view that communicate with or represent various points of view in society?
  • imply meaningful relationships between what the text says and what it leaves unsaid?

New historicism

How does the work

  • suggest that it and/or its author are affected by multiple, even contradictory, influences?
  • reveal highly complex historical contexts (plural)?
  • seem affected by contemporary social forces while also trying to affect society?
  • seem an active historical force rather than a passive product of historical influence?
  • seem especially meaningful when read in light of other texts from its historical period, even (or especially) texts that do not seem immediately or obviously relevant?
  • seem affected by diverse, conflicting, or unstable ideologies rather than a single, unified ideology?
  • provoke complicated, conflicting, or unstable reactions from readers?
  • suggest that the popular view of a historical event (such as the view presented in a history textbook) is not the only view or even the most accurate view?
  • suggest that an individual’s experience of reality is influenced by multiple forces?
  • suggest that one individual’s experience of reality may contradict another individual’s experience of reality?
  • suggest the numerous, often conflicting interests of individuals in a society?
  • suggest relations of power and how those power relations change?
  • explore historical figures or events in new or unusual ways?


How does the work

  • reflect the fact that the writer is a member of multiple, often overlapping cultural groups? (Cultural groups can center on a nearly infinite number of values or characteristics. Some examples are race, sexual identity, nationality, age, gender, height, hair color, education level, religious affiliation, political affiliation.)
  • reflect the influence of the groups to which the writer belongs?
  • reveal anything about the writer’s experiences as a member of a group or groups?
  • appeal to readers as members of multiple, often overlapping cultural groups?
  • seem open to different interpretations by members of different groups?
  • present characters who seem to be members of multiple, often overlapping cultural groups?
  • present characters who seem affected by their memberships in particular groups?
  • suggest that a truly neutral or objective interpretation of the text may be impossible?
  • suggest that each person experiences reality differently from every other person, partly because each person belongs to particular groups?
  • suggest that a general “human nature” does not exist?
  • explore—or attempt to ignore—human differences?
  • either affirm and/or undermine the values or social powers of a cultural group or groups?
  • reflect relations (often tense relations) between a dominant culture and a less powerful culture?
  • reflect relations between a colonial power and a culture that is (or was once) colonised?


How does the work

  • explore multiple positions, roles, attitudes, or stances (for the writer, reader, and/or characters) within the work?
  • seem complex, ambiguous, or even contradictory?
  • suggest that incoherencies or chaos in the text represent a degree of freedom?
  • interact with and appropriate popular culture?
  • suggest that popular culture is in a constant state of change?
  • blur the lines between “high” and “low” art?
  • reveal internal gaps, inconsistencies, or randomness?
  • mix, juxtapose, and/or combine varying genres?
  • adhere to and/or depart from the traditional rules of traditional genre(s)?
  • implicitly or explicitly reject the existence of a coherent, unified reality?
  • seem to undermine or subvert systems of belief, ideologies, world views, logic, or reason?
  • seem playful or ironic?
  • implicitly or explicitly challenge ideologies (such as Marxism, structuralism, Christianity, Freudianism, etc.) that try to make sense of or impose order on the text or the world?
  • emphasise surface meaning over the existence of some deep, underlying meaning?
  • use elements that seem ornamental, decorative, or illusory?
  • seem open to multiple, often contradictory interpretations?
  • seem to lack any absolute, stable significance?


How does the work

  • emphasise relationships between humans and nature, especially relations with other animals as well as plants, but also including the physical environment?
  • reveal the ways that humans often misuse or exploit the rest of “nature” (in all the various senses of that term)?
  • implicitly (and ideally) oppose human misuse of nature, especially other living things?
  • appeal to a deeply rooted human love of nature and/or appeal to humans’ sense of self-interest in being good stewards of nature?

Darwinian criticism

How does the work

  • imply the existence of a general human nature resulting from millions of years of evolution?
  • reflect and appeal to general psychological traits that have evolved over millions of years?
  • suggest a general human artistic desire to make things “special” (or make “special things”)?
  • reflect the fact that the author is a human speaking to other humans in ways they will enjoy or comprehend because both author and audience share the same evolutionary past?
  • reflect a basic human tendency to tell the same basic stories repeatedly and to find those basic stories continually relevant or interesting?
  • imply relations between humans and nature that reflect millions of years of evolution?
  • reflect or promote patterns of thinking and/or behavior that promote evolutionary “fitness,” including the passing on of genes from one generation to the next?

Author: krabat

digter, forlægger, oversætter, admin på kunstnerhotellet

One thought on “Questions Critics Ask”

  1. # reflect whether the writer loves people?

    Det er det vigtigste ved en bog for mig. Basta. Pasta. Hvis forfatteren ikke kan lide mennesker, er den tidsspilde, uanset. Det får mig til at rejse det, højst tænkeligt, vanvittige spørgsmål om hvorvidt aktører, tøhø, hedder de sådan?, i det engelske sprogområde, dem er der en del af høhø, “har særlig godt fat i kærlighedsordet”? Hvorfor kogte Shakespeare? Hvorfor bavlede Keats (a thing of beauty is a joy forever), hvorfor vrinskede Whitman? Jeg skal ikke kunne sige det, Kenneth, men jeg ved at vi her i Danmark kan noget særligt med kærlighed og ord. Derfor skal vi blive ved med at digte. Derfor skal vi blive ved med at tænke. Verden følger trop når vi taler Kierkegaards sprog. Engelsk kan ikke alt og tysk er et ringe supplement. Jeg hører Spotify 27-7 og de spiller alle de engelsksprogede evergreens. Jeg hører Avalon af Bryan Ferry hver dag uden at have haha bedt om det. Og jeg er stolt af det. Jeg er da stolt af det mere end jeg elsker Avalon. Avalon er en livsform som jeg solidarisk tager del i for at kunne forstå andre og den situation vi er i, cirka hahaha. Men engelsk kan ikke alt. Det kan dansk. Det kan kærligheden. Jeg vil da gerne, afslutningsvist, pege på et band som illustrerer min pointe, sandsynliggør at jeg har ret i at engelsk som kærlighedssprog er rædderligt og det er gruppen The Lightning Seeds. Også gruppen The Beautiful South. Tak for bloggen som jeg endelig har fundet og tilføjet ovre på Dbh. Morten

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