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How does a student learn to write with confidence about such things as theme and characterization in a novel or a work of short fiction; and how is a student to confidently state what a work "means"? There is usually not a place in a short story where the writer comes out and says, "And the point of all this is . . . " Figuring out how the story might be meaningful beyond itself, or beyond being simply a good or a bad story, is generally difficult for students. For example, most students think the novel The Scarlet Letter is a pretty boring book at first; one student, whose work is posted at a site for "free" essays says of The Scarlet Letter, “What’s the point of reading this book? No one understands it at all, we’re just all confused until my teacher explains it all out for us” (see the footnote below on "free essay" web sites). One of the lessons in an English class is in how to analyze and respond to literature in writing—how to see the truths about human experience explored in the work, and then show others how to see them, too. The point of a literature analysis lesson is not, as the student above says, to have the book's meaning explained to students by the instructor.
This module will provide students with instruction and practice in analyzing literary fiction. Students will learn how to draw conclusions about the author's artistic judgement in the work, and to present those conclusions to a reader in writing.
By the end of this unit students should be able to do the following:
Note on plagiarism and "free essay" web sites:
Though the getfreeessays.com web site warns students that "all papers are for research and reference purposes only," students all too frequently turn to these free essay web sites for essays to purchase and submit as their own work (as these companies fully realize and expect). Plagiarism is a serious offense. It can get you an immediate "F" in a course, and even expulsuion from school. Also, know that instructors are aware of these sources for essays and are adept at spotting work that is not the student's own.
The Pleasure of Reading
What was the last good book you read? Was it a classic like Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, or perhaps a great fantasy, such as Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkein, an epic Western like Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, a good detective novel such as Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley, or a best-seller like The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold?
The pleasure of reading a good novel rivals the pleasure of watching a good movie or television program; and many would argue that reading a good book is the best of all forms of entertainment. Victor Null, author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, eloquently describes the rewards of reading:
Perhaps a good film can "envelop us in alternative realities" just as books can, but the film gives us only a fleeting glimpse of that other reality—we will be there only a few short hours, while the dream world of the novel endures over days, weeks, or even months of reading.
Moreover, a good novel allows the reader to participate in the dream more fully than a film will, as George Kennan observes in his article "American Addictions,"
Kennan, George. "American Addictions," New Oxford Review (June 1993).
Null, Victor. "Introduction." Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. Yale University Press, 1988.
Literature in Educaton
When the novel is assigned reading, however, students may find themselves in an "alternate reality" they would rather not experience. And they may wonder why their instructor would choose a novel that in terms of entertainment seems to be pretty poor. But when the instructor chooses a novel for an academic course she chooses that novel for criteria other than (or in addition to) how gripping or absorbing the novel is.
A novel is often chosen to supplement textbook readings, which tend to be "dry," reportorial presentations of information. In an American history course, for example, a textbook may offer an "objective" account of the way the invention of the assembly line changed labor in America; or in a psychology course, the textbook may discuss the brain chemistry and behavioral symptoms of depression; however, true objectivity is not really possible. The writers of textbooks, as well as the writers of original texts that are interpreted and summarized in the textbooks are all people who are shaped, or "positioned," by numerous factors—gender, cultural background, class, region, and the historical times they are live in, and this positioning shapes what the writer sees and does not see, values and does not value as worthy of documentation. And so, the textbook can approach objectivity and "truth," to a greater or lesser degree depending on the self-awareness and honesty of the writer, but never achieve it. The novel, on the other hand, does not attempt to remove the subjective, but instead embraces it and explores it. The novel provides insight into how historical events may have been experienced and interpreted by particular individuals. In his rich discussion of the rise of the novel for the Lectures on the Harvard Classics series, Professor W. A. Neilson agrees:
A novel works well as curriculum because it adds this "artistic judgement" of the individual back into the representation of human experience—one can read what Theodore Drieser felt about the rise of the industrial city in America and the effect of late 19th century urban life on the individual in his novel Sister Carrie, or one can study The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in a Psychology course for a first-hand account of the life of a person suffering from severe depression. A novel allows readers get inside experiences they could not—or would not really wish to—experience for themselves, and to consider the insights of others about complex human experiences.
Neilson, William Allan "Prose Fiction: General Introduction." Lectures on the Harvard classics Ed. William Allan Neilson, et al. Vol. XLI. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.
How to Read Literary Fiction
Read the following short fable, then see if you can identify the point, or "moral" of the story:
The moral of the story is . . .
Finding the point of a fable is an exercise in finding underlying meaning. The process is fairly simple: look at the behavior of a character as the character responds to some event; then look at what happens to that character as a result of his behavior; next, ask yourself, "What is the lesson the character needs to learn to get a better outcome of events?" Finally, ask yourself, "How does that lesson apply to people who hope to become successful and ethical human beings?" In the fable above, the crow is vain about her voice; therefore, she suffers. Thus, we can conclude that we, too, will suffer if we are vain.
As in a fable, there is underlying meaning in literary fiction. However, finding a human truth in a novel or short story is a bit more difficult than figuring out the moral of a fable. In literary fiction, the author usually tells a far more complex story than that found in a fable. A novel can represent a lifetime of an individual; one who changes over time, learning from hard experiences to see the world in a new way. A novel may also represent many individuals having diverse, and competing perspectives. And the places described in the novel where events take place may be drawn with sensual and concrete detail to create mood and communicate information about the world. The story itself may take many twists and turns before settling itself out in a meaningful way. The manner of narration, or storytelling, might affect the meaning as well: if the narrator is a character in the story, for example, can one be sure he is trustworthy? And though a short story is less complex than a novel, finding the underlying meaning is still difficult: because a short story is so brief, every word counts; and elements like setting and characterization become concentrated hot points that suggest theme.
In reading and drawing conclusions about meaning in literary fiction, therefore, one needs a strategy.
The first time through, the primary goal should be to absorb the story: get a feel for the author's style, follow the plot, get to know the characters, and think about what effect events have on the characters. One may also, even after a first reading, begin to have a feel for the larger issues in the work.
To keep track of these inklings about larger issues and meanings, some readers underline and/or take notes about suggestive passages of text. A particularly effective version of this record keeping is to enter a title for a recurring topic, such as "love" or "country vs. city" or "emptiness" in a reading notebook, and then jot down a reference for each interesting and relevant passage in a kind of shorthand underneath that topic heading; for example, under "Feelings of Emptiness," the following reference: "Mrs. Blodgett, staring out train window, sees nothing."
Re-reading, and particularly re-reading a nove,l may seem unecessary at first, but this second reading will reveal the author's careful use of language to comment on the world and say those things "that need to be said," as author Maxine Hong Kingston puts it. The second reading will also give the reader confidence, focus, and a sense of purpose for writing. Before beginning, however, take stock of your reactions to your first reading, and trust your feelings! Who did you like? What was tragic, comic, or beautiful in the story? What commentary about people and the world seemed important or even profound? Take a minute to reflect, and even to jot down your impressions in a reading notebook. Your re-reading will be most productive if you have an idea about what most interests you. If you have been given an essay assignment, or discussion topics, try to read with these topics in mind, seeking passages that will further your understanding of these topics.
As mentioned above, writers of literary fiction are doing more than just telling a story with a moral; there is a world in literary fiction! So if one is to comment on the meanings in the story, it helps to break it down according to the elements used by the writer to create that world: plot, setting, characterization, point of view, and tone. Asking the following questions and taking good notes will help you deepen your response to the novel.
questons about plot:
questions about setting:
questions about characterization:
questions about point of view:
questions about theme:
You will have a productive second reading if you begin with
an idea—even a vague one—about a theme in the
novel. The goal of your reading should be to enlarge and
deepen your understanding of the theme, and to move from
a vague idea to a clear conclusion. Consider the following
examples of evolving ideas between a first and a second reading:
Writing about Literary Fiction
Topic || Theme || Thesis
A topic in a work of literary fiction is what the author is saying something about through the actions of characters, elements of the setting, and the plot. A topic could be "romantic love," or "alienation."
Theme is what the author is saying about the topic—for example, "romantic love eventually fades," or "technology is destroying what is best in humanity." The author's theme is an idea about human eperience that extends beyond the story itself.
A thesis typically appears in the introduction of a literary analysis essay. In the thesis, the writer focuses on elements of the text that the author uses to communicate the theme. A strong thesis in a literary analysis essay focuses on writing as writing. In other words, don't immerse yourself in the story in the essay, but stand back to talk about how the story makes meaning. Take a look at the following thesis statements to better see the difference between these approaches:weak thesis:
The writer of the first argument may be discussing the same theme as the writer of the second argument, but in developing her thesis, the first writer only discusses the theme in terms of the story itself and not in terms of how that theme expresses an idea about humanity that extends beyond the story. The writer of the second thesis focuses on the author of the story, Katherine Mansfield, and how Mansfield communicates an idea about loneliness in general, as a human experience, not just Miss Brill's experience, through her crafting of Miss Brill's character and way of being in the world.
Developing Your Thesis
You may have a great thesis, but if you don't have adequate, well-organized support for that thesis, your essay will be weak and unconvincing. After reading your thesis, your reader will be thinking, "Ok, sounds interesting, but prove it!" Your job, in the body of your essay is to prove it.
To make this simple, support in an analytical essay should be analysis—an examination of elements of the story and a discussion how those elements offer insight into the author's larger purpose. So before developing your essay, you will need to decide which passages of text will best support your argument. In making this decision, it is useful to think like your reader about what the thesis actually says. Consider again the second thesis above:
This thesis implies that the writer will do a couple of things: talk about the things Miss Brill says to herself; explain how this monologue reveals something about Miss Brill's loneliness; and show how, through these details, Mansfield says something about the problem of loneliness and isolation as a real human concern.
The next step is to locate passages that will best accomplish the goals above. The writer will need passages that demonstrate Miss Brill's isolation and, by extension, which explain the effect of loneliness and isolation on real people. Below is just one possible development plan and passages of text to support each step in the plan:
Overall Development Plan:
(1) Describe how and why Mansfield makes the reader think that Miss Brill is happy at the beginning of the story (—to the reader inside Miss Brill's version of things; her point of view and better accentuate the collapse of this version of things), (2) and then reveals slowly but surely through a description of Mis Brill's thoughts that the protagonist is creating a fiction in order to make herself happy. Through small details of Miss Brill's monologue, seen more objectively, Mansfield shows that in fact her life is quite lonely. (3) Then discuss the climax of the story in the overheard comment and the way Miss Brill's behavior after this scene reveals the depth of her loneliness, (4) and tragedy of isolation generally.Text Selections to Support Argument:
(point 1) First goal is to show that Miss Brill creates a story of her life: Mansfield accentuates this by at first making the reader believe the story: passage suggests light-heartedness, an easy mind:
(point 2) Next point: show that Mansfield then causes the reader to see the story is slightly suspicious: Mansfield hints at unhappiness, isolation in this passage:
In comment: the fact that Miss Brill listens in on others' conversations says she is often alone, with no one to talk to. focus on "she had become really quite expert. . . "
Further evidence . . . In another passage, Mansfield starts out having Miss Brill notice happy people in the park: a woman and child, groups of happy people, couples buying flowers, but then her thoughts turn dark:
In comment: emphasize the fact that she does not seem to notice that she, too is silent, staring out into the crowd. Mansfield creates a clue to her situation, and foreshadows the ending of the story in this scene.
Further evidence (and advancement of our understanding of Miss Brill's character) . . . This passage reveals Miss Brill's unconscious identification with a forlorn woman, and the identification says something about Miss Brill's own situation:
comment: What really happened here? Did this woman even know this man? The key image is of her smiling "more brightly than ever" after her rejection by the man. She passes over the pain, pretends to be fine, just like Miss Brill; and like Miss Brill, this is a faded woman, with a shabby ermine and yellowed gloves. In the end of the passage, the question, "What would she do?" applies to the woman, but also to Miss Brill herself: how does a woman deal with rejection and loneliness?
(point 3) After overhearing the comment "Why does she come here at all--who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?" Miss Brill's actions reveal how much she needed that fiction, and how loneliness can destroy her life.
comment: the quote shows Miss Brill's realization that she is like the odd, silent, staring old people in the park. Putting the fur back in the box is a symbol for the end of her fantasy. The something crying could be her.
(point 4) Conclusion: explain the significance of the conclusion in a larger context. Explain that Mansfield, through the story of Miss Brill, telling a story to herself, if talking about how we cope with loneliness. Also explain what Mansfield shows us about needing the company of others, even if the others are strangers, but in the end, how poor a substitute the company of strangers is for actual companionship.
It is very important to plan out your essay before you write. Choose your examples, and know why you are choosing them—how they will actually support your argument. The essay plan above is effective in that it keeps the emphasis on the student's ideas rather than the story, and on what the student's interpretation of what the author does to create her story and communicate something about human loneliness.
Avoid beginning paragraphs with quotes or elements of the plot. Such paragraphs are typically unfocused adn leave the reader wondering how the paragraph will support your argument. In a strong analytical essay, paragraphs are based on ideas rather than information.
The conclusion to an analysis of literary fiction should focus on the broader signficance of the story: how the author is saying something about human experience through the story. You should also synthesize your key assertions about the story in a meaningful sentence or two. Take a look at the following examples:
1. The pleasure of reading
2. Literature in education
3. Reading literary fiction
4. Seeing connections
5. Drawing inferences
6. Writing about literary fiction: topic, theme, thesis
7. Developing a thesis
English Department | Santa Rosa Junior College | @ 2007