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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
It's important to be aware of
what kind of narrative voice the author has created: basically, there are
four points of view:
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:
is defined as something that means more than what it is. Symbols
function on two levels: literal and representational. Look at Robert
"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:
shall be telling this with a sigh
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.