Until New Criticism appeared on the scene of literary criticism, most critics would analyse literature based on the author’s entire body of work. The identity of an author and his/her tendencies in their body of work would be applied to explain a particular work.
However, New Criticism shifted the focus of literary analysis back to the individual work. Thus, just as when one visits an art museum, one doesn’t use the painter’s identity to assert an interpretation of a beautiful painting, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (which almost always contains the author’s name). Instead, one should read and reread the work, considering carefully important features such as repetition, image patterns, patterns of sound, and minute details; according to this school of thought, every detail unifies the literary work. One shouldn’t consider the work in its social context; literature is an art form, not a political, social, or moral treatise, as literature is not meant to represent reality.
Another interesting facet of New Criticism is that characters are also divested from reality. Thus, one shouldn’t analyze character’s based on psychological considerations (per the Freudian approach) or based on archetypes (sorry, Carl Jung); instead, one should view characters as symbolic of a particular type of person, group of people, mental state, etc.
New Critics consider factors such as how a work’s organization affects its meaning, its plot, foreshadowing, how authors manage passage of time, use of nature (e.g. summer v. winter), extended metaphors, diction, denotation, connotation, type of language (compressed, suggestive, multi-leveled), symbolism, point of view, and tension (which is created by ambiguity).
Another extension of New Criticism is to eschew all paraphrase (as one loses the precise language of the author), assertion of authorial intention (for one can only view the work as a work of art), biography, and emotional response from the reader, which is too subjective to withstand the rigors of a New Critical approach.
Despite the great contributions of New Criticism to literary analysis, the movement still has its critics. Most readers aren’t comfortable with eliminating literature’s emotional value and replacing emotional response with cold analysis. Furthermore, it is difficult to divest a work from its historical or authorial context without losing at least a little meaning.
Nevertheless, New Criticism has still made valuable contributions to the world of literary analysis, and is very important for any student of literature.