Critical Approaches to Literature

Home Admissions Course Guide Critical Approaches to Literature

This Course Guide has been taken from the most recent presentation of the course. It would be useful for reference purposes but please note that there may be updates for the following presentation.


Critical Approaches to Literature

ENGL A337 Critical Approaches to Literature is a ten-credit higher-level course for undergraduate students in all academic disciplines. It is an elective course that introduces students to the historical development and practical uses of literary theory.

The history of thinking and writing about literature is almost as old as the history of literature itself. The course will provide you with a grasp of fundamental and recurring problems and concepts in Western literary theory, and with an ability to apply these concepts in the contemporary practice of criticism. Attention will also be paid to the interrelations between critical theory and other fields of study such as sociology, anthropology, and political theory.

This advanced course is designed to help you understand the complex ways in which the Western tradition has attempted to understand the meaning and the purpose of literature, and to expose you to the various types of literary criticism as they are applied in contemporary academia.

Through this course, you will learn to read, understand and appreciate different forms of literary criticism in the following areas:

  • The historical roots of literary criticism
  • The distinction between ancient and modern criticism
  • Political and ideological influence in the consideration of literature
  • Problems and new directions in contemporary criticism.

In this course you may broaden your appreciation of literature by becoming aware of broader philosophical considerations that both arise from literature and are introduced to it. While we often tend to study literary works in relative isolation from their tradition, literary criticism can offer an exciting sense of the historical continuity of intellectual preoccupation with the purpose and utility of literature. In other words, literary criticism can offer a broader perspective on the enterprise of literature as an inquiry into values, principles, and the character of reality. In this course, you will learn how to think and write about literature more deeply and with a greater sense of the intellectual and academic resources that form the conversation around it.


Course aims

ENGL A337 Critical Approaches to Literature aims to:

  • Introduce you to philosophically and theoretically grounded approaches to literature.
  • Help you understand the most important arguments and concepts of literary theory in their development and application.
  • Enable you to understand and evaluate contemporary academic writing in literary criticism and theory.
  • Provide you with a toolkit of conceptual approaches for thinking and writing about literature.

Course learning outcomes

After completing ENGL A337 Critical Approaches to Literature, you should be able to:

  • Summarize the key concepts and developments in literary criticism within the Western tradition.
  • Identify the historical continuities and breaks in the evolution of literary theory.
  • Elaborate on the functions and ambitions of literary criticism within a wider social context.
  • Outline the most important modern theoretical approaches to literature.
  • Analyse the textual applications and argumentative modes of contemporary critical and theoretical writing.
  • Critically evaluate the problems and opportunities of literary theory at the present time.

This section provides information about what materials are needed, and how the assignments and marking are arranged. Please read it carefully.


Course materials

The course will cover an extensive selection of readings in both classic texts of literary critical theory and examples of applied criticism in reference to specific texts. The ten study units will provide you with contextual information and assistance in understanding the key concepts as well as the problems and challenges presented by the readings. Additional emphasis will be placed on exploring the way that our readings work as arguments within an historical tradition of conversation about literature. To maintain the integrity of the critical approaches studied, you will be expected to complete approximately 40 pages of primary readings per unit. The study units will include a number of activities and self-tests to help you become a more critical reader.

You will notice a difference in approach between the first half of the course and the second half. In Units 1–5, the focus is on classical literature. The study units are self-contained, although you will still need to refer to the primary texts discussed in the unit. In Units 6–9, the primary learning material is the custom textbook, which you will receive in two volumes from  HKMU. There will also be study guides for each of these units prepared by the course developer to lead you through your reading of the textbook. Unit 10 will comprise a round-up of what has been learned.


Study units

This course consists of ten study units. Each unit concentrates on different aspects of literary criticism. The course material also directs you to additional resources and readings, and includes a number of activities and self-tests to help you develop your analytical skills.

Below are descriptions of each of the ten units.


Unit 1 — Introduction to critical literature theory

This unit introduces you to the history of the genre of critical writing about literature, and defines the roles and purposes of literary criticism. Definitions of basic vocabulary used in describing the analysis of literature are provided, and a road map for the remainder of the course is given.


  • Abrams, M H, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) Oxford UP; pp. 3–29
  • Lentricchia, F and McLaughlin, T (1990) Critical Terms for Literary Study, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; entry for 'Representation'.

Unit 2 — Classical theory I: Plato and Aristotle

This unit develops your understanding of the foundational developments in literary theory, and of the first important debate between schools of theory. The unit begins by exploring the arguments of Plato against literature, and then moves on to consider Aristotle's response. We will also define the influence of Plato and Aristotle on later critical theory.


  • Plato, Ion; Republic (selections)
  • Aristotle, Poetics.

Unit 3 — Classical theory II: Horace, Longinus and Sidney

This unit describes further historical development of the arguments of Plato and Aristotle. First, it describes the social and historical transformations and the changes of context and purpose in the second classical Golden Age: the Roman world of Horace. Second, it examines the theories of Longinus, as a particularly influential response to and re-evaluation of Plato.


  • Horace, The Art of Poetry
  • Longinus, On the Sublime (selections)
  • Sidney, Defence of Poetry (selections).

Unit 4 — The Enlightenment and modern subjectivity: Burke and Kant

This unit traces the break between classical and modern theory. It describes Burke's idea of the sublime and its extension by Kant. Our aim in this unit is to apprehend the new philosophical perspective of subjective truth, to relate this idea to developments in the literature and society of the time, and to understand its consequent implications.


  • Burke, On the Sublime, Part 1, Sections 7–8; Part 3, Section 27
  • Kant, Critique of Judgment (selections).

Unit 5 — Arguing about progress: Hegel, Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche

This unit builds on Unit 4 in describing the evolution and development of subjectivity in modern theory. We begin with Hegel's introduction of historical forces to aesthetic theory, and then study the way that Marx extends and reconfigures these ideas. Marx's focus is illustrated by a comparison of the reading of Robinson Crusoe with that of Rousseau. Finally, we look at how Nietzsche rejects the concerns of Hegel and Marx while not proposing a return to a pre-Hegelian and pre-Marxist understanding of society. With all three thinkers, we focus on what common ground they share in their agreements and disagreements with classical philosophy and literary theory.


  • Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit; Lectures on Fine Art (selections)
  • Rousseau, Emile; excerpt on Robinson Crusoe
  • Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Capital (selections)
  • Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human.

Unit 6 — New Criticism and reader-response criticism

In this unit, we focus on two approaches in the reading of literature that seem to be diametrically opposite to each other, with one focusing on the text and the other on the reader. While New Criticism interprets a work using only textual evidence, reader-response theories move away from the text to the extreme of just focusing on the reader.


Chapter 5 'New Criticism' and Chapter 6 'Reader-response criticism' in Tyson, L (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide, 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge. These readings can be found in your custom textbook.


Unit 7 — Structuralism, deconstruction and psychoanalytic criticism

In this unit, we are going to look at some of the major critical concerns that arose at the end of the 20th century. In addition to the discussion of some of the key concepts in structuralism, deconstruction and psychoanalytic criticism, surveying the far-reaching influence of structuralism, we will also explore the interrelationship between them and evaluate the major advantages and shortfalls of each of the three approaches.


Chapter 7 'Structuralist criticism', Chapter 8 'Deconstructive criticism' and Chapter 2 'Psychoanalytic criticism' in Tyson, L (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide, 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge. These readings can be found in your custom textbook.


Unit 8 — New historicism and cultural criticism

This unit examines two outward approaches in the reading of literature. New historicism and cultural materialism both have a strong focus on the relationship between a piece of work and its historical time or location, although the text itself remains crucial.


Chapter 9 'New historicism and cultural criticism' in Tyson, L (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide, 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge. This reading can be found in your custom textbook.


Unit 9 — Feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism

This unit has a focus on how the Other reacts against the established conventions that place him or her in a disadvantaged position. Other than exploring some of the key concepts of feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism, this unit also discusses the interdisciplinary nature of these two critical perspectives.


Chapter 4 'Feminist criticism' and Chapter 12 'Postcolonial criticism' in Tyson, L (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide, 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge. These readings can be found in your custom textbook.


Unit 10 — A summary of theories and looking to the future

The final unit of the course aims to define and consider the problems faced by academic criticism of literature at the present time. We explore other contemporary factors that may undermine or redefine the practice of literary criticism.


Assignment File

This course features four assignments. The four assignments along with guidance on completing them will be made available on the Online Learning Environment (OLE).


Presentation Schedule

The Presentation Schedule is available on the OLE, and it gives the dates for completing your assignments, and for attending tutorials, day schools, and so on.


Custom textbook

Students will need to refer to a custom textbook for Units 6-9 of the course. The custom textbook comprises selected chapters from the following publication:

Tyson, L (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide, 3rd edn, London and New York: Routledge.


Other texts for study

You will need to refer to required readings for each unit. For some of the readings, you may be required to obtain the texts yourself by searching online or in the library. You should follow the instructions in each unit to locate the relevant readings.



  • Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp.
  • Achebe, 'An image of Africa: racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness'.
  • Adorno and Horkheimer, 'The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception'.
  • Aristotle, Poetics.
  • Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 'Odysseus' scar'.
  • Barthes, 'From work to text'.
  • Beardsley and Wimsatt, 'The affective fallacy'.
  • de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Chapter XI, 'Myth and reality'.
  • Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
  • Burke, On the Sublime.
  • Editors of Lingua Franca, The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy.
  • Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.
  • Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally, 'Why no one's afraid of Wolfgang Iser'.
  • Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
  • Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter V, 'The material and sources of dreams'.
  • Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Lectures on Fine Art.
  • Heidegger, 'Language'.
  • Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment.
  • Lentricchia and McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study, entry for 'Representation'.
  • Longinus, On the Sublime.
  • Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Capital.
  • Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense.
  • Plato, Ion, Republic.
  • Rousseau, Emile; excerpt on Robinson Crusoe.
  • Saussure, Course in General Linguistics.
  • Sidney, A Defense of Poetry.
  • Woolf, A Room of One's Own.

Audiovisual materials/software

You may need to access the Internet from time to time for this course, so Web access capability is necessary.

For students without Internet access, HKMU's computer labs provide sufficient Web access for this course.



While they are not required material, you may find these general and topical websites useful:

Equipment needed (IT resources)


  • a PC with a Pentium III 800 MHz processor or better;
  • 512 MB RAM (ideally 1GB RAM);
  • 1GB of free disk space; and
  • a broadband connection to the Internet.


  • English Windows XP or later; or OpenOffice.
  • Web browser: Firefox 2, Internet Explorer 7, or a compatible equivalent.

These will enable you to write and consult information available through the Internet.




There will be four assignments in the form of short-answer essays. Assignment 1 covers Units 1 to 3 and Assignment 2 relates to Units 4 and 5, while Assignment 3 covers Units 6–7 and Assignment 4 deals with Units 8–9. These four assignments emphasize your critical, analytical and written abilities and are designed to help you in exploring the selected literary texts and relevant concepts further. They comprise 50% of the total course marks.


Final examination

The final examination will be course-wide in scope and will cover all dimensions of ENGL A337. Through a two-hour closed-book examination session, students will have the opportunity to display their understanding and analytical ability in the learned areas. Both short questions and essay questions will be included.


Assessment summary

The assessment items are summarized in the following table.


AssessmentCourse area coveredWeighting
Assignment 1Units 1–312.5%
Assignment 2Units 4–512.5%
Assignment 3Units 6–712.5%
Assignment 4Units 8–912.5%
Final examAll units50%

This table brings together the units, the time taken to complete them, and the assignments that follow them.


1Introduction to critical literature theory2 
2Classical theory I: Plato and Aristotle4 
3Classical theory II: Horace, Longinus and Sidney4Assignment 1
4The Enlightenment and modern subjectivity: Burke and Kant4 
5Arguing about progress: Hegel, Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche4Assignment 2
6New Criticism and reader-response criticism4 
7Structuralism, deconstruction and psychoanalytic criticism4Assignment 3
8New historicism and cultural criticism4 
9Feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism4Assignment 4
10A summary of theories and looking to the future4 

Please ensure that you make the most of tutor contact and tutorials, the day school, and online materials.

To reach the desired learning outcomes, students will need to:

  • read the materials;
  • interact with the read materials;
  • work through the assigned readings, including online items;
  • attempt the designed activities and connect these attempts to the feedback given underneath or at the end of a unit; and
  • produce and present assignments to the tutor / Course Coordinator within the specified timeframe.

Tutors and tutorials

Ten two-hour tutorials will be provided in support of ENGL A337 Critical Approaches to Literature. Tutorials are not compulsory, but students are strongly encouraged to attend.



Students will be offered a two-hour dayschool in this course. The speaker will give a talk on a special topic related to the course.


Assignment extension policy

The assignment policy of the University as stated in the Student Handbook should be observed. Students are required to submit assignments for a course in accordance with the dates communicated by the course coordinator. Students may apply for a submission extensionon the grounds of illness, accident, disability, bereavement or other compassionate circumstances.

Applications for extensions of up to seven days should be submitted to the tutor. The tutor shall consider valid and unexpected emergencies on an individual basis. Normally, documented proof of the extenuating circumstances is not required for extensions of up to seven days. The tutor shall decide and advise the student of the revised date for submission.

For extensions of over seven days, students should note the following:

  1. If students require an extension of more than seven days on the grounds of illness, accident, disability, bereavement or other compassionate circumstances, they are required to complete an 'Application Form for Assignment Extension over seven days' and submit it to the Course Coordinator.
  2. Supporting documents must be submitted along with the application for extension of over seven days to justify the claim.
  3. Applications for extension should normally be lodged before or on the due date.
  4. Applications are considered by:
    • the Course Coordinator for extensions of 8 to 21 days; and
    • the Dean for extensions of over 21 days.

If the assignment is posted to the tutor, it is the responsibility of the student to check that the assignment has successfully arrived (see Assignment File). Extension applications without supporting documents on the grounds of postal loss will not be accepted. The University cannot accept any responsibility for assignments that are not received by your tutor due to problems with the post. As a precaution, you are advised to keep a copy of each assignment you submit and obtain a certificate of posting from the post office when you post your assignment.

According to the University's policy, there is no extension of the cut-off date for the final assignment.


Online Learning Environment

This course is supported by the Online Learning Environment (OLE). Students can find course materials and the latest course information on the OLE, and use the discussion board to communicate with their tutors, the Course Coordinator and fellow students.

ENGL A337 is a course designed to introduce students to the history and practice of thinking philosophically and theoretically about Western literature. It focuses on the main approaches and currents of criticism of literature. The course provides a grounding in how literature has been understood and debated, and how that understanding and debate reflects more general concerns and themes in Western culture. Additionally, we will see some of the main modern problems of philosophy and culture through our engagement with how literature has been interpreted and studied.

In studying the course, you will refer to written study units and excerpts from literary texts. In the second half of the course, you will also refer to a custom textbook. Support will be provided through tutorials, a day school and the OLE. The course will be assessed though four written assignments and a final examination.

Good luck and enjoy the course!

Dr Jerry Czarnecki (developer of Units 1–5) gained his BA in English Literature and Classical Languages (Latin and Greek) from the University of Michigan, and his MA and PhD in Comparative Literature (English and French) from the University of Chicago. Previous to his connection with HKMU, he was Assistant Professor of English at Hanyang University in Korea between 2008 and 2012.

Dr Bobo Wong Yuk-yin (developer of Units 6–10) is currently Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities of Sun Yat-sen University. She has taught courses ranging from Introduction to Literary Theory to Modern Fictions, as well as Cultural Issues in Translations. Her research project looks at the intersection of philosophy and literature, especially the idea of knowledge in the history of literary discourse. Other areas of interest include Modernism, Humanism and Post-humanism. She has been a Chevening Scholar, Swire Scholar, and a University Postgraduate Fellow of the University of Hong Kong.

Coming soon