Fiction Lectures

Why Study Literature?
Understanding Character
Understanding Structure and Conflict
Understanding Setting
Understanding Point of View
Understanding Irony
Understanding Symbolism
Understanding Theme

Why Study Literature?

Have you ever wondered why most degree plans require between nine and twelve hours of English, even for those who hope never to read anything more demanding than the TV Guide once they finish college?  I hear the question all the time, maybe not actually said out loud, but certainly in the sprawled, slouched body language of those parked in the back seats of the classroom, in their pained, bored expressions when they make eye contact: Why do I have to take this class?  What good is it going to do me?  How will it help me become a better doctor, engineer, middle manager, sports therapist. . .Why do I have to study literature?

Do you ever wonder about people, what makes them tick?  Do you ever think about other people--analyze their actions, predict their behavior, speculate on the origin of this quirk or that attitude?  Then you're practicing on your own why we study literature.  We study literature because it's a way to understand other people, and, by extension, ourselves.

A lot of writing out there does little to help us understand anything.  Those writers produce their works to make money, to seek fame, to amuse, intrigue, mystify, horrify, or otherwise entertain their readers.  Professor Laurence Perrine terms that sort of writing escape literature.  Another way to define it is to call it popular literature.  Its purpose is to take readers outside themselves, to propel them into a fantasy world where the everyday hassles of living from breakfast to bedtime don't exist.  Nobody needs any help to enjoy this kind of literature--certainly no one needs an entire college class devoted to its study.  There's not that much to it: you sit down, get lost in it for a little while, and then forget all about it not too long after you finish reading it.  It's just fun, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that.

Some literature, however, leaves traces in your soul long after you've put it down.  You're thinking of a difficult situation in your life and a poem you thought you'd forgotten surfaces as a way to make sense of your confusion.  You're rehearsing what you want to say in a troublesome moment and a line uttered by a fictional character pops into your mind.  You're looking at something so ineffably beautiful that you grope for words to fix it in your memory and a phrase drifts in from somewhere, from nowhere and the two are linked perfectly for you from that moment on.  For lack of a better word, we call this literature serious, because its purpose is to take readers inside themselves, to look at things from a different perspective, to think about things that they normally take for granted.

Borrowing both from Professor Perrine and from Professor K. Miles from Denver Community College, the following chart lays out some of the differences between escape and popular literature.  These two categories aren't meant to be exclusive--it's more like a spectrum with a piece of literature falling more towards escape or more towards serious.  

Escape Literature

Serious Literature

Purpose: to entertain

Purpose: to enlighten

Plot Centered: 

·        It's action-packed, heavily reliant on suspense

·        Central Question is What's Going to Happen Next?

·        Outcomes are predictable, often leaving the reader feeling satisfied and good, as though everything has turned out as it should have. 

·        Endings are often happy.

Character Centered: 

·        Not much happens--most of the action is internal, i.e., in the characters' heads 

·        Central Question is Why did that happen?

·        Outcomes are less predictable and sometimes disturbing, often leaving the reader feeling unsettled. 

·        Endings are unhappy or, more often indeterminate, as well as being happy.

Simple Characters 

·        Characters are simply drawn, relying on one or two broad characteristics to suggest a type.  Main characters are often sympathetic and likable.  Characters may even be stereotypes.

·        Characters behave in predictable ways, making predictable changes in their personalities 

·        Characters tend to be straightforwardly drawn, either primarily good or primarily bad

Complex Characters 

·        Characters are drawn realistically, with fully rounded qualities, making them no more predictable than real people. 

·        Characters operate from complicated motivations, which are not always clear either to the reader or to themselves. 

·        Characters possess conflicting qualities, just as real people do, so that one character may be both good and bad at the same time.


    • These stories don't always have a theme since their central purpose is to entertain.
    • When there is a theme, it is usually a simple one that confirms the reader's already held view of the world rather than challenging it


·        These stories generally have several supportable themes, based on the reader's approach and perspective. 

·        The theme is often complex, forcing the reader to see the world in a different light or to challenge previously held assumptions and beliefs

Understanding Character:

One of the best and easiest ways to understand a serious work of literature is to focus on the characters in it.  Since the purpose of serious literature is to gain insight into the human condition and since the most interesting action often takes place inside the main character's head, you need to know what to look for in a character.

To begin with, you need to know the difference between direct and indirect character presentation.  In direct presentation, the writer tells you what kind of person a character is while in indirect presentation, the writer lets you observe the character in action and then draw your own conclusions.  For example, as a writer, I might tell you that a certain little boy is a very bad kid, a very very bad kid, I mean a really baaaaad kid.  I'd be presenting the character directly.  Alternatively, I might tell you about a little boy who liked finding a newborn kitten, which he would take squirming from its mother's side into his backyard, where he would dig a little hole, bury the kitten in it up to its head, and then get out his daddy's lawn mower. . .You get the picture.  Which kid seems worse, the one I presented directly or the one I showed you indirectly so that you could draw your own conclusions?  Most serious literature will rely heavily on indirect presentation for a number of reasons:

    • it's more realistic since in real life we don't have someone telling us definitively what kind of person so-and-so is;
    • it allows for more ambivalence since different readers bring different perspectives to a story--that way a story and a character can have more than one interpretation, just like in real life;
    • it draws the reader more fully into the story and the character (remember your repulsion over the bad little boy example?)

Since you'll probably need to figure out for yourself the dominant traits of the characters in any work, it's important to realize that not all characters are equally useful to understand.  When you focus on character as a way to understand a literary work, you need to focus on the main character or the protagonist.  The protagonist is the central character in the central conflict (we'll talk about conflict in the next lecture section).  Usually, but not always, the protagonist is a round character, which means that the writer has sculpted them in greater depth with more generous detail.  Round characters are three-dimensional, like people, with multiple facets to their personalities,  Flat characters tend to be two dimensional: they have one or two distinguishing characteristics, but no real depth.  They populate the story, but you don't gain much insight into them because the writer provides you with little detail about them.  Novelist E. M. Forster says that the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it  never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. Most stories only have room for one round character with all the rest of the characters being flat.  It takes time and space to round a character, and to do so for all characters would probably detract from the focus that the authors wishes to place on the main character.

Once you've identified the main character, the most useful thing to determine is whether that character is static or dynamic.  Dynamic characters are affected by what they go through--they can become wiser and more enlightened by what they have endured or they can even deteriorate: the point is, a dynamic character is fundamentally different at the end of a work than he or she was at the beginning.  Static characters don't change in any meaningful way, regardless of what happens to them.  Life just slides off them like they were teflon.  Whether the characters change or not gives you insight into their personality and very often it gives you insight into the meaning (or theme) of the literary work.

Understanding Structure and Conflict:

Although you'll usually focus on character when trying to understand the meaning of a literary work, you need to know about conflict and plot, for these two things offer important clues and insights also.  All literary works revolve around conflict, which is defined as a clash between opposing forces.  Generally, your focus is on the conflicts that involve the main character or protagonist.  A simple way to understand conflict is to divide it into four basic categories:

    • Person vs. Person: the main character is in conflict with some other character in the story: Luke Skywalker clashing light sabers with Darth Vader.  This conflict tends often to be the simplest and least helpful sort of conflict to focus on when trying to determine the meaning of a literary work.
    • Person vs. Society:  The main character is in conflict with a larger group: a community, society, culture, etc.  Remember Mel Gibson and the post apocalyptic Mad Max movies--his character stays in conflict with the culture around him, a classic example of man vs. society.
    • Person vs. Nature: The main character is struggling with some element of nature, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, struggling to survive on the desert island.
    • Person vs. Self:  The main character is experiencing an inner conflict.  Remember how angry Hamlet gets with himself while he's waiting for the right time to take revenge upon his uncle for killing his father.  He calls himself "pigeon-livered" and "an ass" that his father's murderer has not yet been punished.  He's in conflict with himself between the part of him that wants quick and bloody revenge and the more cautious part of him that wants to make sure that his uncle is truly guilty first.  Usually, if there is self-conflict, it will be the most important conflict for helping you understand the character and the story.

Remember that the protagonist is defined as the central character in the central conflict.  In other words, sometimes you need to have an idea of the conflicts in the story and which ones are important before you can determine who the main character is and why.  As mentioned above, often the most important conflict in a story is the conflict a character experiences with himself.  Another clue to an important conflict is one that appears as a dilemma, a point of conflict where any resolution to the problem is negative.  The antagonist is defined as whoever or whatever opposes the protagonist.  While generally, a story has only one protagonist, it can have multiple antagonists, ranging from other people in the story (person vs. person) to a bad snowstorm (person vs. nature) to the main character himself (person vs. self).  The primary reason to analyze conflicts is to determine how they impact the main character--how the main character reacts to the conflicts and what steps he or she takes to resolve the conflicts.  You can learn a lot about a person, fictional or not, by the way they handle or ignore adversity.

Plot is defined as the sequence of events in a literary work.  In simple terms, plot means whatever happens in the story.  Most plots follow a clearly defined structure though, which consists of five elements: exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, and resolution.  What follows is a discussion of each.

Exposition:  Any piece of literature begins in media res, which is Latin meaning "in the midst of things."  In other words, no matter where an author chooses to begin the story, you can be sure that there are events preceding the story that you'll need to know about in order for the story to make sense.  Most stories, then, begin with exposition, which introduces the main characters, lays out the main conflicts, and supplies any necessary background information.  One useful device in providing exposition is the flashback,  which is a scene relived in a character's memory.

 Rising action:  This part of the plot is also called complications.  You begin to see what sort of conflicts the main character faces.  During this time, the author sometimes utilizes suspense, which is the anxiety the reader feels over what will happen next.  Additionally, the author can foreshadow, providing indications or hints of what is to come.

Crisis:  In the most important conflict in the story, whatever that may be defined as, the main character will come to a point of highest tension, just before the resolution of that conflict.  It's the point in the plot of greatest indecision: the character is poised between the two sides of the conflict, without having yet decided how to resolve the conflict.  Sometimes, the crisis involves an epiphany, some moment of insight, discovery or revelation by which a character's life or view of life is greatly altered.

Climax: This point usually occurs very close to the crisis: it is the resolution of the crisis.  At the point of climax, the character makes his decision and resolves the conflict.  At this point in the plot, the outcome of the story is inevitable.

Falling action: the resolution of the remaining conflicts.

Resolution: also called denouement--all the loose ends are tied up.

The main reasons to understand these elements of plot are first so you'll know what to expect: the lay of the land.  Early in a plot, the author will be providing background; everything in the plot is moving to a culmination, and everything important in the story turns on how the characters respond to that culmination.  And if you train yourself to look for the moments of crisis and climax in a literary work, you'll be better positioned to understand and benefit from what you've read.

Setting is the time and place of a story.  Generally, when setting is important in a story, the writer will indicate its importance by emphasizing through description and detail.  Often, where  and when the writer chooses to place a story can suggest deeper meanings and can help you interpret theme.

Though understanding character and conflict will help you tremendously in understanding the works we study, you have to be aware of the author's point of view in telling the story because it can affect your perception of the character and conflict without your realizing it, if you're not careful.  Point of view is defined simply as who is telling the story.

The author

creates a narrative voice 

which then tells the story.

It's important to be aware of what kind of narrative voice the author has created: basically, there are four points of view:

    • First person: somebody in the story is telling the story.  It might be a major character telling his or her own story or it might be a minor character telling someone else's story.  The first person narrator might be telling the story as it happens or as it has just recently happened or this narrator might be relating a story that occurred a long time ago. Note:  Anytime you have a first person narrator, you should at least consider the possibility of that character being the protagonist, even if the story seems to be about another character.
    • Third person omniscient: this narrator is not a participant in the story, like the first person narrator.  Instead, this narrator stands outside the events and relates them.  Because the narrator is omniscient--all-knowing--this narrator can tell us what any or all of the characters are thinking and feeling.  This point of view is fairly rare in modern fiction.
    • Third person limited omniscient:  this narrator takes us inside the head of usually just one character.  We know what the main character is thinking and feeling, and we see the world through that character's eyes.
    • Third person dramatic (also called third person objective):  This narrator relates only what we can see and hear.  We have no access to any character's thoughts or feelings.  It's like watching a play (or like observing real life).

Why is it important to be aware of point of view?  Different reasons depending on the point of view.  If the point of view is either first person or third person limited omniscient, you have to question the reliability of the narrator.  A reliable narrator is one who tells the story accurately and correctly, within the limits of his or her knowledge.  Unreliable narrators can't be trusted: the character telling the story might be intentionally lying or naive or self-deceiving or inattentive or stupid or even insane.  Think of any reason that a real person might not give you a straight story and that reason can be applied to a fictional person.  How do you know if a narrator is reliable or not?  If you sense that you know more than the narrator does (or more than the narrator is telling you) about the narrator's story, then it is likely that the person telling the story is unreliable.  When the point of view is omniscient or limited omniscient, then you know more than you can ever know in real life because you have access to the character's thoughts and feelings, even if you determine that the narrator is unreliable.  Consequently, you're better able to determine if the character undergoes any significant, dynamic change and then to define the nature of that change.  When the point of view is dramatic, you have to wonder why the writer has chosen to deny the reader any access to the character's internal thoughts and feelings, since the focus of most serious literature is to understand the psychology of human behavior.  The absence of that internal access is often itself a clue to the meaning of the work.

Ultimately, everything you do in literature--all your thinking, all your wondering, all your analyzing--is towards one end: to determine a theme of the work.  The purpose of serious literature is to enlighten, to take a person inside him or herself towards greater self-awareness and understanding; theme is a statement of that understanding, that new and broadened perspective.  In short, theme is defined as a literary work's central idea or insight--it's the meaning of the work.  Not all works have statements of theme.  Laurence Perrine says that "Theme exists only (1) when an author has seriously attempted to record life accurately or to reveal some truth about it or (2) when he has mechanically introduced into the story some concept or theory of life that he uses as a unifying element and that his story is meant to illustrate....In interpretive fiction [theme] is the purpose of the story" (Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense 113).

Before you can even think about coming up with a theme, it will help you to know some ground rules for stating theme:

·     There's a difference between a statement of subject and a statement of theme.  If you say, The theme of John Updike's "A&P" is the difficulty of growing up, you haven't stated the theme of the story; you've stated its subject.  To state the theme, you have to say something about the difficulty of growing up:  John Updike's "A&P" suggests that sometimes small, seemingly insignificant actions and events can push a person to make a life-changing decision.

·      A statement of theme is a generalization about life rather than a statement about the particulars of the story.  When you state the theme for "A&P," you won't mention the story or characters at all--instead, you'll talk about a general statement about life you've realized having read and understood what Sammy went through.

·     The theme has to fit the details of the story--it cannot be larger than the details of the story can support.  In other words, you can't say that The theme of "A&P" is that when people make hasty decisions for superficial reasons, they can ruin their lives because we don't know that Sammy's decision ruined his: the story stops too soon.  Conversely, you can't ignore parts of the story in constructing your theme; for example, it's clear from what he says that Sammy--this intelligent, articulate 19-year old-- is not thrilled about working at the A&P either now or for the rest of his life, so his decision to quit, even though on the surface it seems hasty and foolish, may not be a bad decision for him.  So even if you disapprove personally of what he did or why he did it, you cannot ignore the details of the story in constructing a theme.

·     Any good story can probably support more than one theme.  In fact, depending on what you focus on in your analysis, you are likely to come up with statements of theme that differ from your classmates' or from mine.  Don't worry about it--as long as you can support with text your interpretation, then it's valid (keeping in mind that anyone can challenge an interpretation).

·     Avoid reducing the theme to a cliché or a platitude.  Even if you really think a story's theme is Look before you leap, please use different words to express it.  You'll find that in searching for those different words, you arrive at a deeper and more satisfying meaning for yourself because it will have forced you to think through what you're saying rather than just mouthing the cliché mindlessly to yourself.

Begin right now to work with the concept of theme, because all semester long, with every single work we approach, you'll need to be able to answer that inevitable question: What do you think this means?  Keep in mind that any theme or interpretation is possible, as long as you can back it up with reasonable and evidence thorough evidence from the text.

The following literary devices are present and useful in your analysis of short fiction, although they will probably not be as critical in your understanding of fiction as the devices already discussed:

Having mentioned reliable and unreliable narrators, we might as well talk briefly about irony.  Irony is defined as a literary device or situation that depends on the existence of at least two separate and contrasting levels of meaning or experience.  There are three principle types of irony:

  • Dramatic Irony: the reader knows more than the characters do.  For example, while Miss Brill sees herself as an important member of some great cosmic theater company, we see her as a sweet, lonely, naive dreamer who has more in common with the old silent people on benches who look as if they've come from cupboard than any of the livelier people she observes.
  • Situational Irony: the situation turns out differently than we are led to expect it will.  Though we'll see situational irony in a number of the short stories we'll read, one of the plainest examples of it occurs in Edwin Arlington Robinson's famous poem "Richard Cory."  (pp. ?? in your book or click on this link to read it).  Simon and Garfunkel turned it into a song--you can hear the first verse and chorus on this link, if you have RealPlayer.  Richard Cory apparently had everything anyone could ever want, and he was still unhappy enough to kill himself.  His situation certainly turns out differently than we would expect.
  • Verbal Irony:  the speaker means the opposite of what he or she says.  It's important that both speaker and listener know that the speaker means the opposite of what's been stated--otherwise, it's not irony: it's lying.  If I say to you that I have a little assignment I think you'll enjoy and then ask you to have read and annotated Tolstoy's War and Peace ( a really long and hard book) by next Saturday, I'm being ironic and you know it.  It's not a little assignment and you probably won't enjoy it.  Overstatement, understatement, and sarcasm are all types of verbal irony.

A symbol is defined as something that means more than what it is.  Symbols function on two levels: literal and representational.  Look at Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," p. 910 in your text.  On the surface, it's a poem about taking a walk in the woods, but I've never had a class who stopped there: they all know instinctively that this is a poem about making decisions in life.  They all know distinctively that the road not taken is not a woods path, but rather a life path.  When I ask them how they know, they point to lines in the poem that don't make sense if we read it literally:

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two road diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If it were only a walk in the wood, he could come back tomorrow and take the other road, rather than doubting he should ever come back.  If it were only a walk in the woods, there would be no reason to be telling it "with a sigh" a long time from now; there would be no reason to remember it at all.  If it were only a walk in the woods, it wouldn't make any difference let alone make "all the difference."

But symbolism is tough for students; they're tempted to see symbolism in everything.  Here are some guidelines to help you determine when something might be a symbol and when the road is just a road.

  • The story will tell you when something should be taken symbolically, usually through emphasis, repetition or position.  If something in a story is described in an odd way (Miss Brill's fur, for example) or if something just keeps showing up (the sky that is both sun-less and cloud-less in "A Good Man is Hard to Find") or if something appears in the key positions of a story--the title, the first paragraphs, and the last paragraphs ("Hills Like White Elephants"), then you might be able to make a case for its being symbolic.
  • The meaning of the symbol has to exist inside the story.  The rose in Robert Burns's O, my love is like a red, red rose" (p. 783) is very different from the meaning of the rose in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily."  The rose in Burns's poem is symbolic of beauty and grace and freshness while the rose in the title of that story suggests casket flowers in the death of her lover and in the death of what Emily represents as a fading belle of the Old South.
  • A symbol has to be different in kind from its literal meaning.  The American flag literally is a rectangular piece of patterned cloth; symbolically, it is the United States, the original thirteen colonies, patriotism, love of country--whatever the multiple meanings.  Miss Brill is not symbolic of an old lonely woman who finds solace in an elaborate fantasy world because she is an old lonely woman who finds solace in an elaborate fantasy world.
  • Symbols can have more than one meaning, more than one interpretation.