Critical Questions

The following lists of questions should be useful in discovering arguments you might make about a short story, poem, play, or film.

Formalist Questions

  1. How do various elements of the work-plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, symbol, etc.-reinforce its meaning?
  2. How are the elements related to the whole?
  3. What is the works major organizing principle? How is its structure unified?
  4. What issues does the work raise? How does the works structure resolve those issues?

Biographical Questions

  1. Are there facts about the writer’s life relevant to your understanding of the work?
  2. Are characters and incidents in the work versions of the writer’s own experiences? Are they treated factually or imaginatively?
  3. How do you think the writer’s values are reflected in the work?

Psychological Questions

  1. How does the work reflect the author’s personal psychology?
  2. What do the characters’ emotions and behaviour reveal about their psychological states? What types of personalities are they?
  3. Are psychological matters such as repression, dreams, and desire presented consciously or unconsciously by the author?

Historical Questions

  1. How does the work reflect the period in which it was written?
  2. How does the work reflect the period it represents?
  3. What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?
  4. How important is the historical context (both the work’s and your own) to interpreting the work?

Marxist Questions

  1. How are class differences presented in the work? Are characters aware or unaware of the economic and social forces that affect their lives?
  2. How do economic conditions determine the characters’ lives?
  3. What ideological values are explicit or implicit?

Feminist Questions

  1. How are women’s lives portrayed in the work? Do the women in the work accept or reject these roles?
  2. Is the form and content of the work influenced by the author’s gender?
  3. What are the relationships between men and women? Are these relationships sources of conflict? Do they provide resolutions to conflicts?

Mythological Questions

  1. How does the story resemble other stories in plot, character, setting, or use of symbols?
  2. Are archetypes presented, such as quests, initiations, scapegoats, or withdrawals and returns?
  3. Does the protagonist undergo any kind of transformation such as movement from innocence to experience that seems archetypal?

Personal Response Questions

  1. How do you respond to the work?
  2. How do your own experiences and expectations affect your reading and interpretation?
  3. What is the work’s original or intended audience? To what extent are you similar to or different from that audience?

These questions will not apply to all texts; and they are not mutually exclusive. They can be combined to explore a text from several critical perspectives simultaneously. For example, a feminist approach to Romeo and Juliet could also use Marxist concerns about class to make observations about the oppression of women’s lives in the historical context of the Renaissance. Your use of these questions should allow you to discover significant issues from which you can develop an argumentative essay that is organized around clearly defined terms, relevant evidence, and a persuasive analysis.

Schools of Theory from Shmoop

Literary theory is a wonky world where monocle-sporting people say things that not even they understand. Our guides are here to bring this stuff down to earth and show you how it might actually be—gasp!—useful.

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