The distinctive procedure of the New Critic is explication, or close reading: The detailed and subtle analysis of the complex interelations and ambiguities (multiple meanings) of the components within a work. "Explication de text" has long been a formal procedure in French schools, but the distinctive explicative procedure of the New Criticism derives from such books as I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism (1929) and William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, p. 223)

Abrams goes on to discuss what New Critics regard as the hermetically sealed nature of a text, that is, that it must be considered in isolation from its original referrents. Consequently, a typical New Critical perspective of a text relies on "Contextualism," on treating the text as "an integral and free-standing unity mainly through a play and counterplay of evolving 'thematic imagery' and 'symbolic action'" (p. 224). New Criticism relies heavily on the implications of connotation and figurative language (imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor, paradox, hyperbole, epithet, and irony) as these relate to the theme of the work, which is regarded solely as "a structure of meanings" rather than as a representative of a genre.


Read the passage and answer the questions that follow. Hard Times, Book I, CHAPTER XI: "No Way Out."

The Fairy palaces burst into illumination, before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown. A clattering of clogs upon the pavement; a rapid ringing of bells; and all the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled up for the day's monotony, were at their heavy exercise again.

Stephen bent over his loom, quiet, watchful, and steady. A special contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at which he laboured. Never fear, good people of an anxious turn of mind, that Art will consign Nature to oblivion. Set anywhere, side by side, the work of GOD and the work of man; and the former, even though it be a troop of Hands of very small account, will gain in dignity from the comparison.

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faced and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them for ever.--Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!

The day grew strong, and showed itself outside, even against the flaming lights within. The lights were turned out, and the work went on. The rain fell, and the Smoke-serpents, submissive to the curse of all that tribe, trailed themselves upon the earth. In the waste-yard outside, the steam from the escape pipe, the litter of barrels and old iron, the shining heaps of coals, the ashes everywhere, were shrouded in a veil of mist and rain. (See Norton edn., page 56.)

Note on the Term "Style"

In the Platonic sense, "style" implies the perfect matching of the means with their end. Thus, the term may mean "excellence," and suggest that the writer has found the unique verbal pattern. "Style" may be defined by the use of diction, syntax, imagery, rhythm, and figurative devices such as simile, metaphor, and metonymy.

1. Comment upon the stylistic similarities between this passage and the second chapter ("Murdering the Innocents").

A Close-Reading Passage from Hard Times (1854)

In the passage find examples of each the following and comment upon the effectiveness of each.

Figurative and Rhetorical Devices

2. a. metaphor:

2. b. effectiveness:

3. a. metonymy:

3. b. effectiveness:

4. a. allusion:

4. b. effectiveness:

5. a. irony:

5. b. effectiveness:

6. Based on Dickens's use of the above devices, formulate a statement about Dickens's "voice" in the above excerpt.


Voice: The manner in which the narrator speaks creates a sense of a character who stands outside the action of the story. The voice may not actually be the author's, but is a personality created or adopted by the author to create certain effects. Another term for "voice" is "persona" (Greek: "mask"). In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991), Chris Baldick describes "voice" as "the specific group of characteristics displayed by the narrator or poetic "speaker" . . . , assessed in terms of tone, style, or personality" (p. 239).

The Exercises

  1. A New Critical Approach
  2. The Textual-Biographical Approach
  3. The New Historicist Contextual Approach
  4. Cinematic Adaptation and Illustration
  5. Close-Reading a Passage
  6. Intertextuality: Hard Times and Charles Perrault "Bluebeard"

Last modified 21 May 2003