Viewed by many as an art form, the only requirements of literature are for readers keep an open mind to the ideas and lessons that are being offered by the artists, the authors. To ensure that you’re best equipped for each journey, I am providing you with valuable interpretation tools that could be used for any form of literature. By understanding the basics of literature, you’ll have a better understanding of the artist’s work-of-art and intentions, thus allowing you to connect with that particular piece of literature on a more personal level.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve decided to post a good educational summary of the basics of literature by Jennifer Jordan-Henley (1988) that’s still applicable today:
Theme–The idea or point of a story formulated as a generalization. In American literature, several themes are evident which reflect and define our society. The dominant ones might be innocence/experience, life/death, appearance/reality, free will/fate, madness/sanity, love/hate, society/individual, known/unknown. Themes may have a single, instead of a dual nature as well. The theme of a story may be a mid-life crisis, or imagination, or the duality of humankind (contradictions).
Character–Imaginary people created by the writer. Perhaps the most important element of literature.
- Protagonist–Major character at the center of the story.
- Antagonist–A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
- Minor character–0ften provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
- Static character–A character who remains the same.
- Dynamic character–A character who changes in some important way.
- Characterization–The means by which writers reveal character.
- Explicit Judgment–Narrator gives facts and interpretive comment.
- Implied Judgment–Narrator gives description; reader make the judgment.
Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character’s history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.
Plot–The arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story.
- Causality–One event occurs because of another event.
- Foreshadowing–A suggestion of what is going to happen.
- Suspense–A sense of worry established by the author.
- Conflict–Struggle between opposing forces.
- Exposition–Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
- Complication or Rising Action–Intensification of conflict.
- Crisis–Turning point; moment of great tension that fixes the action.
- Resolution/Denouement–The way the story turns out.
Structure–The design or form of the completed action. Often provides clues to character and action. Can even philosophically mirror the author’s intentions, especially if it is unusual.
Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.
Setting–The place or location of the action, the setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters.
Point of View–Again, the point of view can sometimes indirectly establish the author’s intentions. Point of view pertains to who tells the story and how it is told.
- Narrator–The person telling the story.
- First-person–Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
- Objective–Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character’s perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
- Omniscient–All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator takes us into the character and can evaluate a character for the reader (editorial omniscience). When a narrator allows the reader to make his or her own judgments from the action of the characters themselves, it is called neutral omniscience.
- Limited omniscient–All-knowing narrator about one or two characters, but not all.
Language and Style–Style is the verbal identity of a writer, oftentimes based on the author’s use of diction (word choice) and syntax (the order of words in a sentence). A writer’s use of language reveals his or her tone, or the attitude toward the subject matter.
Irony–A contrast or discrepancy between one thing and another.
- Verbal irony–We understand the opposite of what the speaker says.
- Irony of Circumstance or Situational Irony–When one event is expected to occur but the opposite happens. A discrepancy between what seems to be and what is.
- Dramatic Irony–Discrepancy between what characters know and what readers know.
- Ironic Vision–An overall tone of irony that pervades a work, suggesting how the writer views the characters.
Allegory–A form of narrative in which people, places, and events seem to have hidden meanings. Often a retelling of an older story.
Connotation–The implied meaning of a word.
Denotation–The dictionary definition of a word.
Diction–Word choice and usage (for example, formal vs. informal), as determined by considerations of audience and purpose.
Figurative Language–The use of words to suggest meanings beyond the literal. There are a number of figures of speech. Some of the more common ones are:
- Metaphor–Making a comparison between unlike things without the use of a verbal clue (such as “like” or “as”).
- Simile–Making a comparison between unlike things, using “like” or “as”.
- Personification–Endowing inanimate objects with human characteristics
Imagery–A concrete representation of a sense impression, a feeling, or an idea which appeals to one or more of our senses. Look for a pattern of imagery.
- Tactile imagery–sense of touch.
- Aural imagery–sense of hearing.
- Olfactory imagery–sense of smell.
- Visual imagery–sense of sight.
- Gustatory imagery–sense of taste.
Rhythm and Meter–Rhythm is the pulse or beat in a line of poetry, the regular recurrence of an accent or stress. Meter is the measure or patterned count of a poetry line (a count of the stresses we feel in a poem’s rhythm). The unit of poetic meter in English is called a “foot,” a unit of measure consisting of stressed and unstressed syllables. Ask yourself how the rhythm and meter affects the tone and meaning.
Sound–Do the words rhyme? Is there alliteration (repetition of consonants) or assonance (repetition of vowels)? How does this affect the tone?
Structure–The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a sonnet is a 14-line poem usually written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form is a poem in which the author uses a looser form, or perhaps one of his or her own invention. It is not necessarily formless.
Symbolism–When objects or actions mean more than themselves.
Syntax–Sentence structure and word order.
Voice: Speaker and Tone–The voice that conveys the poem’s tone; its implied attitude toward its subject.
Please note that my goal is not to take the fun away, or intimidate, you about literature. Instead, my only intention is to provide you with additional information to assist you with scientifically dissecting literature further in an effort to understand the true intentions from the artists – authors.
As an author myself, I wanted to do my best to avoid litter and brain pollution by filling people’s mind with useful information highlighting the actual power of literature. That literature has many faces, roles, and countless benefits applicable to readers. In fact, the impact of literature is long-reached, and exorbitant, because it can affect all aspects of the reader’s lives. Not only can the long-arms of literature instantly grab the readers by capturing their imagination in an effort to connect with them on a personal level but also change their attitudes, habits, beliefs, and lives altogether.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to provide the community here at Success Pen Pal with the necessary tools needed to positively take control of their literary lives. Hopefully this post has provided you, the reader, with the right bifocals to correctly interpret the different elements of each literary masterpiece that you encounter.
Until next time my friend, cheers and let’s continue to fight brain pollution through education and other literary works!