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Or how to enjoy some of the great literature of the world, and learn Composition skills, without buying more textbooks!
To learn strategies to facilitate our understanding of
What follows is a mere overview, an attempt to consolidate terminology and a general approach which will allow us all to work better together, with a common vocabulary and understanding. This handout should be supplemented with, at minimum, the study of Chapter 37 in LITERATURE: AN INTRODUCTION TO FICTION, POETRY, AND DRAMA (LIT), "Writing about Literature" (1393). All parenthetical page references that follow are to LIT (Second Compact Edition).
If you are using Kennedy & Gioia's anthology, LITERATURE: AN INTRODUCTION TO FICTION,POETRY, AND DRAMA (LIT), the normal EWRT 1B text, look up the terms in the index in the back of the book. Also scan the table of Contents in the front of the text. You will note that there is an entire section in the back of this text called "Writing" (LIT 1391-1499). It is worth the price of the text by itself.
All literature may be better appreciated from the title of the late John Ciardi's great critical work, HOW DOES A POEM MEAN? If we analyze a poem, a short story, a novel, or a play or movie from the perspective of its component parts, we can "put it back together againî with a better understanding of HOW it works. Not only will you understand the work better, you will be able to more clearly articulate your own evaluation of the effectiveness of the work and the techniques that underly the effectiveness.
We shall examine how THEMES (175) are developed by an author 's using
THEMES are major ideas that are contained WITHIN a work.
(You'll find an index of major themes on page 1511.) Themes are
different from MEANING--which is your PERSONAL RESPONSE to the
Typically, we shall examine POETRY from the three-headed vision of IMAGERY, SOUND, and STRUCTURE. But we supplement this by asking the questions 1. "Who is the speaker?" which carries implications about CHARACTER andPOINT OF VIEW and 2. "What is the occasion?" which carries implications about SETTING and CHARACTER. SOUND is typically of greater import in poetry than prose, and may contribute to themes. The British poet, Henry Reed, has written a poem, "Naming of Parts," which is ideal for examining how contrasts in each of the three elements, IMAGERY, SOUND, and STRUCTURE, contributes to the author's THEME.
THEMES (175) are those major ideas that the author is concerned about. A partial list of recurring THEMES includes GOOD vs. EVIL; APPEARANCE vs. REALITY; The INDIVIDUAL and his/her relationship to GOD, NATURE, COMMUNITY (or STATE as a special case of community), SELF, &/or FAMILY; MATURITY; GUILT; RESPONSIBILITY; IDENTITY, and others. Themes that are specific to the novel LOVE MEDICINE include alcoholism, the Ojibwa culture vs. the Roman Catholic (or White) culture, Life on the reservation vs. city Life, child and spousal abuse, & Vietnam. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Young Goodman Brown (see 10.4.1, below)," and Oliver Stone's movie, PLATOON (see 10.2.8, below), the authors both treat the themes of a maturing protagonist, and Appearance vs. Reality. Stories with recurring themes and plots (Here, young man goes into the woods/jungle and confronts the forces of evil), are called METASTORIES. Note the similarities of plot and theme between Disney's THE LION KING and Shakespeare's HAMLET--they are virtually the same story.
PLOT or STRUCTURE (9) refers to the order of events in a work. In addition to the chronology, the causation, may be very important. A great story, like a great life, usually has a beginning, a middle, and an end. INTRODUCTION, COMPLICATION (The interacting of characters and events), CLIMAX, FALLING ACTION OR DENOUEMENT, and RESOLUTION are terms that we often use in analyzing PLOT or STRUCTURE. A Shakespearean play normally has five acts, with the Introduction occuring in Act 1, the Rising Action or Complication in Acts 2 and 3, followed by the climax in Act 4, and the Falling Action and resolution occuring in Act 5. Most stories are told in linear, chronological fashion, from the perspective of one narrator. But LOVE MEDICINE, like Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING, is an episodic novel--or a book of episodes, which, seemingly has little plot.
SETTING (92) is the context of the work. Where does it take place? What is the weather? What is the time of day or night, or the time frame? What props or other items are introduced? The stick of the old man (Devil?) in "Young Goodman Brown" is a good example of the latter, or the sewing needle that keeps going through the ear of Tang Ao in Maxine Hong Kinston's "On Discovery." A poem set in the Maine woods (Edwin Arlington Robinson's "New England") brings different assumptions than the tale of the Trung Sisters set in Viet Nam.
IMAGERY (or DICTION) (588) are the word pictures or language used in the work. IMAGERY is particularly critical in poetry. The TONE of the language in a novel or short story is normally important. In Albert Camus' THE STRANGER, the imagery in the latter part of the novel is that of incarceration; the tone is that of a detached, indifferent protagonist. Word choice, or Diction, also influeneces the Tone of a work. The language in PULP FICTION is different in tone from that of Truman Capote's great story about a boy, his kite, and an older woman who befriended him, "A Christmas Memory." Images may be images of sight, smell, touch, or hearing. Images may be metaphors (Nguyen is a deer.) or similes, comparisons using the terms "like" or "as." (Nguyen is like a deer.) See LIT, 610 for a detailed explanation of metaphors and similes.
CHARACTER & CHARACTERIZATION (60). Characters are the
people (or animals) in the story or poem. We can think of them as
the MAIN character or PROTAGONIST, MAJOR CHARACTERS, or MINOR
CHARACTERS. In Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY, Emma is the PROTAGONIST,
Emma and Charles and Homais are the MAJOR CHARACTERS, and
Hippolyte is a minor character. Think, however about the THEME
developed by Hippolyte's operation. CHARACTERIZATION refers to HOW
characters are developed.
Characters may be further categorized as major or minor, flat or round, or foils, characters who exist in order to tell or show us things about another character. (see 10.4.9 Forrest Gump, below).
POINT OF VIEW (20) refers to WHO is telling the story (or who is the speaker in poetry). Point of View is generally FIRST PERSON, in which a character tells the story, or THIRD PERSON in which an outsider tells the story. The THIRD PERSON may be omniscient, knowing everything, including character's minds, and able to move to the past or present, or future. The third person may or may not be objective, or his omniscience might be limited to one character. The answer to the question of who is (are) the narrator(s) in John Crowe Ransom's poem "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter,î is critical to the development of the author's THEME, and your understanding.
By looking at the parts and pieces of a literary work we are
able to put them back together into a whole with a far greater
appreciation for the THEMES of the work itself. This will heighten
our understanding and therefore the MEANING of the work to our own
To effectively write about literature we may ARGUE how an element contributes to a THEME, or we might do a CLOSE READING of a representational passage. As always in effective writing, we want to think small and RESTRICT. A detailed analysis of a minor character is preferable to a surface analysis of a major character.
In 'Mr. Green' Butler develops the theme of a woman's self-discovery through the use of a plot that illustrates the inner conflicts she feels because of her traditional Vietnamese upbringing. The structure of the story unfolds throughout the life of the protagonist from a child living in Vietnam to middle adulthood living in America. The story is told in first person through the point of view of the main character. In the setting of a family environment, a female, the protagonist, maintains a close relationship to two antagonists, her grandfather, and a parrot, who symbolizes family and the passage of time. While a child, the female develops conflicts with the harsher aspects of being Vietnamese. Her grandfather is the catalyst for her struggles with religion, gender, and death. In the story, she becomes invalidated for being female when her grandfather tells her that she cannot worship ancestors because she is not male. She also learns that her Catholic religion is less than admired by her grandfather. Her struggles become more complex when she acknowledges her first experience with death. Her grandfather takes her to the market to purchase some sparrows, brings them home, and she learns from her mother how to twist the heads to prepare them for dinner. Eventually, her struggles are further complicated by the experience of her grandfather's illness and death. In adulthood she provides care for Mr. Green, the parrot bequeathed to her from her grandfather. It is while she is caring for this parrot that she comes to realize that her current struggles are due to conflicts from the past; mainly because of her grandfather. I believe the climax of the story is when she realizes that her grandfather, while dead, continues to influence her conflicts through the life of the parrot. The parrot symbolizes the presence of her grandfather and eventually she kills the parrot when the first signs of its impending death are near. By swiftly ending the parrot's suffering, the act symbolizes her deeper self realization and self acceptance.
"Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?" (Hawthorne 71) This is a concluding question in the short story "Young Goodman Brown" written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Were the events of the night actual or a dream? Real or not? Brown receives a shocking blow in this story when he becomes aware that people, whom he has revered his entire life, are not what they appeared to be. Appearance can be an unreliable measure. In "Young Goodman Brown," the author uses point of view to help develop the theme of appearance vs. reality. I say this because the author chose a non-omniscient, third person to tell his story. This speculative narrator uses words that contribute to an atmosphere of uncertainty, while he intentionally fosters ambiguity by presenting two interpretations of the same event.
The use of a nonparticipant narrator, who stays with Goodman Brown from beginning to end, provides a reliable witness to the events that take place, while his lack of omniscience adds to the mysterious nature of the story. Although he does not know everything, he can see into Brown's mind and he lets the reader know what this character is thinking and feeling. For example, when Brown decides not to go any further into the forest, the narrator tells us, "The young man sat a few moments, by the roadside applauding himself greatly and thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet the minister..."(Hawthorne 201). Or, at the beginning of the story we are given: " 'Poor little Faith!' thought he, for his heart smote him" (Hawthorne 197). Most information, though, comes to us from conversations and from descriptions of the characters and the events as they unfold. Since Hawhtorne uses the third person the reader gets a more reliable rendering of this trip into the forest than if it was told by the emotionally involved main character. By way of this calm and impartial narrator, the reader actually sees more than Goodman Brown does, as Brown is distracted by his own feelings as things are revealed to him. When the devil throws down his staff at Goody Cloyse's feet "where, perhaps, it assumed life," Brown misses seeing it because he is so astonished by the revelation that Goody Cloyse knows this evil man, he looks away for a moment (Hawthorne 200). The mysterious occurrences are more believable coming from the witness, which makes them even more mysterious. The reader can not dismiss his observations as those of an unbalanced or distraught main character; he is just reporting what he sees, or at least what he thinks he sees. Or is he?
The narrator uses words and asks questions that cause the reader to feel uncertain about what is really happening. Words like "might," "appeared to," "seemed to," "perhaps," "as if," "fancied," "might almost," and "were such a thing possible," are used to describe events, creating doubt on the part of the reader and a desire to know what is real. When Brown's companion bursts out laughing, the narrator tells us he shook so hard "that his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy," causing the reader, again, to question whether the staff might actually be a serpent (this was the second time it was mentioned in the story) (Hawthorne 199). He did not say the staff "actually wriggled," which would imply that it did, or "seemed to wriggle," which implies that it just looked like it did, but "actually seemed to wriggle," which falls somewhere closer to saying it did, but not quite. The reader finds himself squinting his eyes trying to see it for himself. The speaker also asks questions that he never gives the answers to. When the devil was about to dip his hands in the baptism bowl, the narrator asks, "Did it contain water reddened by the lurid light, or was it blood? or perchance a liquid flame?" (Hawthorne 205) The reader will never know. And the narrator only gets trickier.
Throughout the story, he teases the readers by presenting two interpretations of the same event. One of the best examples of this is the first description of the staff belonging to the man Goodman Brown met in the forest "which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself, like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception assisted by the uncertain light" (Hawthorne 198). Is the staff twisting or is it an illusion? Another example is the horses and riders in the woods. Goodman Brown hears the hoof-tramps of horses and can hear the voices of the riders. The sounds appear to be "within a few yards of the hiding place; but owing, doubtless, to the depth of the gloom" the riders and horses can not be seen" (Hawthorne 201). Are they invisible, or is it too gloomy to see them? We simply do not know. When the narrator uses the words "this of course must have been" and "but owing, doubtless," offering pat explanations for these strange circumstances, he actually increases the reader's curiosity and doubt. "These ambiguities he conveys and fortifies by what Yvor Winters has called 'the formula of alternative possibilities,' and F.O. Matthiessen 'the device of multiple choice,' in which are suggested two or more interpretations of a single event....This device of multiple choice, or ambiguity, is the very essence of Hawthorne's tale" (Fogle 16). And he uses the narrator to accomplish this task.
Nathaniel Hawthorne chose a third person, non-omniscient narrator to tell this story. The speaker uses words that cause uncertainty and he teases the readers by offering more than one interpretation of a single event, in order to create ambiguity that is central to the story's theme. In "Young Goodman Brown," the author uses point of view to help develop the theme of appearance vs. reality. We live in a society that thrives on appearances; and yet, it is near impossible to understand and attain insight into the actions and motives of others, good or bad. In the story, the reader never can conclude if anything is real or not. It offers a great example of the consequences of disappointment and disillusionment one risks when judging by appearance.
D, Richard. Peer Editor. Cyber-classmate to the author of this paper. 17 May 2000: 30 minutes
Fogle, Richard Harter. HAWTHORNE'S FICTION: THE LIGHT & DARK. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Young Goodman Brown." LITERATURE: AN INTRODUCTION TO FICTION POETRY, AND DRAMA. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 2nd compact ed. New York: Longman, 2000: 196-206.
S, John. Peer Editor. Cyber-classmate to the author of this paper. 18 May 2000: 20 minutes
W, Bill. Peer Editor. Cyber-classmate to the author of this paper. 20 May 2000: 45 minutes
A young man, Chris Taylor, drops out of college and volunteers for Viet Nam. He is white, well-educated, and naive. In the setting of the jungle he meets the contrasting forces of good in Sgt Elias (a Christ figure--note the biblical name, the crucifixion imagery when Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, is killed) and the forces of evil in Sgt Barnes (note the scar, the image of evil on the face of this character played by Tom Berenger.) Initially blamed for a blown ambush in which he is wounded, Chris returns to the unit and his soul is torn between the two camps in the Platoon. After he realizes that Barnes has caused the death of ELias by shooting him and then lying about it, Chris resolves to kill Barnes, but not before the great battle (based on the actual battle of Suoi Cat). After he kills Barnes, who dares him to, Chris leaves the jungle setting on a helicopter, resolving to tell "The World" about the meaning of Viet Nam, namely that we were our own enemy, and defeated each other. I personally believe the climax of the story is not when Tayler kills Barnes, but earlier when he broke up the rape in the village, just after he had been as evil as he ever was in shooting at the feet of the mentally handicapped, one legged boy--that to seem seems the irrevocable turning point. The Point of View is often First Person, with an interior monologue done in voice over. This is virtually the same tale as Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," but with a happier ending. (Not in PLATOON, Chris Taylor eventually became a community college teacher, with his own televised course about Viet Nam.)
Another Oscar-winning Best Picture (PLATOON won in l986), FG has a flat major character, he of the title. The flatness derives from the mental retardation (IQ of 75), nicely set against Jenny, the girl he met going to first grade on the bus. Jenny goes through much character development throughout the movie. Other major characters include Forrest's mother, Bubba, and LT Dan Taylor. The movie covers the American cultural waterfront with an allusion to Herman Melville's MOBY DICK in the scene in which Gary Sinise (LT Taylor) rides out a storm lashed to the mast, and goes from that historical starting point--and the concurrent joke of Forrest's being named for Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, all the way to Viet Nam, and Jenny sadly dying of AIDS. My 84 year-old father-in-law said it was the greatest movie he had ever seen. I concur.
I wonder where FIRE BIRDS comes in--it, like TOP GUN, is heavily based on the metastory in WINGS, the first (1928) Best Picture winner. If Paramount had let us reuse the title. . .
THEMES are developed by an author and are major ideas with
which s/he are concerned. MEANING is the personal significance of
the work to you, given your particular universe. An author might
develop alchoholism as a theme; the meaning of that theme to you
may be colored by your having a friend or relative who is an
Authors develop THEMES using PLOT or STRUCTURE, SETTING, CHARACTER & CHARACTERIZATION techniques, IMAGERY (or tone or diction), and POINT OF VIEW.
You can begin to evaluate poetry by asking the question, "How does a Poem Mean?" IMAGERY, SOUND, and STRUCTURE are the major elements of Poetry, and you should also ask the questions: "Who is the Speaker?' and "What is the Occasion?"
Recurring THEMES are noted above.
The key to effective writing about literature is to think small, and restrict. Write about a minor character, not a major one. Develop one theme, or one element, but do not try too much. Focus is the key.