Literature Toolkit

When faced with a work of literature (for our purposes we will define literature as any written work in prose, such as philosophy, narrative, or written history), we may be intimidated simply by its scale. Works of literature can be long, dense, or abstract; they challenge the reader to comprehend what it transmits. In order to decipher and appreciate the meaning of a work of literature, we need to employ a series of techniques.  For our purposes we will break up these techniques into four basic categories: narrative, meaning, imagery, and figures of speech. Each of these categories have various components, some of which are explored briefly below. Let's look at some of these techniques.


Narrative

The first technique involves understanding and decoding the narrative. Although not all literature is narrative (a work that tells a story), even non-narrative works often borrow various elements from narrative. In fact, very often the narrative itself functions as an encoded literary component (like fables or parables). Taking a step back from the story to understand the symbols and types at play reveals unbedded meaning that was otherwise invisible. 

Theme

For our purposes we will group the concepts of theme and topic together. This consists of the message(s) or larger-scale ideas that connect the various components of a story. While a work make have one theme, there may also be a series of themes colliding simultaneously throughout the story, producing a kaleidoscope of interconnected messages. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the theme of a work, consider the following questions:

  1. What is the general message of the story in just a few words? 
  2. How does the author develop this theme throughout the work? 
  3. Are there multiple themes that return throughout the work (sometimes called motifs)? 
  4. What specific passages communicate this theme to the reader? 

Plot 

The plot consists of the sequence of actions taken throughout the story. Like a hero's journey, there are generally several typical components of plot: exposition (the setting up of the story and introduction to the characters), conflict (generally between the main character and an adversarial force), crisis (the moment upon which the rest of the story hinges), climax (the point of greatest tension in the story), and resolution (the resolving of the tension and remaining loose ends in the story). Authors rarely pronounce these various moments to the reader directly; their identification is subjective and disputable. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the plot of a work, consider the following questions: 

  1. At what moments in the story is there a climax, crisis, or conflict? How does the author prepare the reader for this moment? 
  2. In what ways is the plot preparing the reader and the characters for resolution?

Setting

The setting refers to the place where the action of the story occurs. The author may opt for a historical setting, emphasizing the time and place of the story, or for an atmospheric setting, a feeling, mood, or emotion established by descriptive language. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the setting of a work, consider the following questions: 

  1. Where does the story take place? How does the author present this information to the reader?
  2. How does the setting of the story affect the action? 
  3. What would we lose if the descriptions of the settings were suddenly removed from the work? 

Character

The characters are the principal actors within the work. There are many types of characters, but we will just look at four. The first is the hero or protagonist. This is the character that faces challenges and grows as a result ultimately to come out victorious in the end. The second is the villain or antagonist. This is the figure that works against the hero. Like the hero, the villain is active like the hero, making choices that affect the plot. Unlike the hero, however, the villain's actions lead to negative outcomes. The third character is the guide or mentor. Frequently a wise and strong character, the guide assists the hero in his or her quest though his or her actions do not affect the story's plot. The guide, in fact, often seems to have a hero's backstory, a tale of overcoming and growth that led to his or her current wisdom. The last character is the victim or the static character. The victim desires to live the life of the hero, often believes that he or she could be a hero, but consistenly resorts to passive behavior. The victim is defined and limited by the action of the story and is unable to alter it.

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the characters in a work, consider the following questions: 

  1. Who is the hero, villain, guide, and victim in the story? Who is the narrator?
  2. How does the hero overcome his or her obstacles? 
  3. In what ways does the victim or the guide assist the hero or block the villain? 
  4. How does the author employ symbolism in the use of characters?

Meaning

The second technique requires us to take time to understand the language being used. Rather than the abstract sense of meaning transmitted by a work in its entirety, this technique focuses on the local, literal meaning of an author's words. Although there are many things to consider, let's just focus on a few categories.

Definitions

Authors often intentionally use varied and colorful vocabulary. They carefully select words for their nuances in meaning and use. While this is most obvious when we are faced with an unfamiliar or antiquated word, this is also true for words that may seem familiar to us but that have alternate or diverse meanings. Occasionally an author will select a word due to the ambiguity that it creates for the reader, adding meaning to the work without adding any extra text. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the definitions of words, consider the following questions: 

  • What is the etymology of the word (where does the word come from)? 
  • What alternate definitions might be applicable? 
  • Why did the author choose this particular word instead of one that might be more easily understood?
  • How does this word interact with the author's more general point?

Technical Terms, Dialects, and Idioms

Sometimes authors will adopt the vocabulary of a specific trade or profession, either for literal or figurative purposes. These terms may serve a variety of functions, but for a reader to comprehend these functions we must understand their specific and technical meaning. In addition, authors also work within their social contex, adopting phrases that are common in their cultural community but that may be difficult to understand for people outside of that community. Dialects are colloquial methods of grammar and syntax (the formation of language) and idioms are colloquial phrases, expressions, or sayings (like "I have butterflies in my stomach"). While this is essentially a matter of understanding the basic definition of terms if an author is merely using them as part of his or her regular language, it becomes a different matter when an author is intentionally employing or avoiding certain dialects or idioms (especially those that are foreign to him or her). In this way, authors may communicate via a subtext that may be lost without a reader's careful attention. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the technical terms, dialects, or idioms within a work, consider the following questions: 

  • In what field, profession, or discipline is this term or phrase regularly used?
  • Is this a term or phrase that is native (or familiar) to the author?  
  • How is this term used by people within that field, profession, or culture? 
  • What does this term add to the text overall? 

Allusions and Connotations

Allusions and connotations are probably the trickiest categories of this group. An allusion is an intentional but imprecise reference to another work. While a quotation consists of an insertion of someone else's words into another's words, an allusion is the suggestion of another's words. Authors do this in many ways: they can employ a specific word that might recall a well-known passage, they can borrow familiar sentence structure or syntax, or they might employ a collection of words in close proximity to one another but in a different order. A connotation is a collection of non-literal but allied meanings or associated ideas that come to mind in connection with a particular word or phrase. An author may choose a synonym of a word for its distinct connotations even while the literal meaning remains unchanged. In either case, the author relies on the assumed understanding of his or her reader. Allusions and connotations are only effective when detected by the reader.

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the use of allusions and connotations within a work, consider the following questions: 

  • What other works might the author be suggesting? How? 
  • What ideas, images, or emotions come to mind through the author's choice of words? 
  • What does the author's use of allusion or connotation suggest about the audience? 
  • In what ways does allusion or connotation add to the overall meaning of the work? 

Imagery

The common adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words," suggests that our human minds process visual information much more quickly than text. Authors employ imagery to take advantage of this reality. They may select certain words for the pictures they produce in our minds or use image-provoking words to convey a scene or an emotion more effectively. Imagery, however, is not wholly confined to images; authors may use their words to duplicate any of our physical senses. 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the use of imagery within a work, consider the following questions: 

  • In what ways is the author provoking a mental image of a scene, scent, sound, smell, or touch?
  • How does the author's use of imagery communicate the meaning more intensely to the reader? 
  • How does the imagery in the text affect the overall point?

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech consist of expressions that deviate from more traditional and direct methods of communication. That is to say, they make the meaning of a word, phrase, or idea more precise through less concrete language. These are very common in both formal and colloquial communication. While the category is extraordinarily large, we will explore just two types of figures of speech and leave the rest for future personal investigation.  

Simile and Metaphor

Simile and metaphor are the most commonly used figures of speech. Both of them attempt to clarify a word, phrase, or idea by making a comparison to something else. The difference between the two is merely grammatical: simile includes the word of comparison, while metaphor does not. Thus, the simile, "it is as hot as an oven" can become a metaphor by stating the same thing as an equivalence, "it is an oven." Authors often use similes and metaphors to transmit their meaning more vividly. However, due to the absence of comparison words in metaphors, the reader must be careful not to misunderstand, lest a reader comprehend literally what the author intends to be figurative.  

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the use of simile and metaphor within a work, consider the following questions: 

  • How does the author's use of simile and metaphor enhance the meaning of the text? 
  • How might the text's meaning change if interpreted literally? 
  • What role does the enhanced precision of the meaning play in the overall work? 

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche are also both common figures of speech in both formal and colloquial communication. Both of these terms refer to a similar concept (synecdoche is essentially a broader form of metonymy). In this figure of speech, a borrowed term replaces the intended meaning. For example, we might refer to the British crown when speaking of the British royal family and its political powers. To make such a replacement is to employ metonymy. Synecdoche merely means the use of a smaller or larger component in place of a larger or smaller object, such as "Washington D.C." in place of the "United States government." 

Questions to Consider

When evaluating the use of metonymy and synecdoche within a work, consider the following questions: 

  • To what is the author referring by his or her choice of words?
  • What are the implications in meaning if we interpret a particular passage as a figurative representation of a larger or smaller object or idea? 
  • How does the author's use of metonymy or synecdoche enhance the overall meaning of the text?

Critical Response

The reader's approach to the work as a whole is also a valuable tool in understanding works of literature. The following are various methods or approaches that may alter how you understand the various elements at play in a work. 

Reader-Response

As the name implies, reader-response criticism focuses on the reader rather than the work itself. This approach to literature describes what goes on in the reader’s mind while reading a text. In a sense, all critical approaches concern themselves with a reader’s response to literature, but there is a stronger emphasis in reader-response criticism on the reader’s active construction of the text. Reader-response critics do not assume that a literary work is a finished product with fixed formal properties, as, for example, formalist critics do. Instead, the literary work is seen as an evolving creation of the reader as he or she processes characters, plots, images, and other elements while reading. There is no definitive reading of a work because the crucial assumption is that readers create rather than discover meanings in texts. Readers who have returned to works they had read earlier in their lives often find that a later reading draws very different responses from them. Reader-response critics are not after the “correct” reading of the text or what the author presumably intended; instead they are interested in the reader’s experience with the text. 

Questions to Consider

  1. How do you respond to the work?
  2. How do your own experiences and expectations affect your reading and interpretations? 
  3. What is the work’s original or intended audience? To what extent are you similar to or different from that audience?
  4. Do you respond in the same way to the work after more than one reading?

Formalism

A formalist reads literature as an independent work of art rather than as a reflection of the author’s state of mind or as a representation of a moment in history. Historical influences on a work, an author’s intentions, or anything else outside the work are generally not treated by formalists. Instead, formalists offer intense examinations of the relationship between form and meaning within a work, emphasizing the subtle complexity of how a work is arranged. This kind of close reading pays special attention to what are often described as intrinsic matters in a literary work, such as diction, irony, paradox, metaphor, and symbol, as well as larger elements, such as plot, characterization, and narrative technique. 

Formalists examine how these elements work together to give a coherent shape to a work while contributing to its meaning. The answers to the questions formalists raise about how the shape and effect of a work are related come from the work itself. Other kinds of information that go beyond the text—biography, history, politics, economics, and so on—are typically regarded by formalists as extrinsic matters, which are considerably less important than what goes on within the autonomous text. 

Questions to Consider

  1. How do various elements of the work—plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, symbols, and so on—reinforce its meanings?
  2. What is the work’s major organizing principle? How is its structure unified?
  3. What issues does the work raise? How does the work’s structure resolve those issues?

Historical and Biographical

A knowledge of an author’s life can give insight into his or her work more fully. Events in a work might follow actual events in a writer’s life just as characters might be based on people known by the author. Formalist critics often argue that interpretation should be based exclusively on internal evidence rather than on any biographical information outside the work. They argue that it is not possible to determine an author’s intention and that the work must stand by itself. Although this is a useful caveat for keeping the work in focus, a reader who finds biography relevant would argue that biography can at the very least serve as a control on interpretation. 

Literary historians move beyond both the facts of an author’s personal life and the text itself to the social and intellectual currents in which the author composed the work. They place the work in the context of its time (as do many critical biographers, who write “life and times” studies), and sometimes they make connections with other literary works that may have influenced the author. The basic strategy of literary historians is to illuminate the historical background to shed light on some aspect of the work itself. 

Questions to Consider

  1. Are facts about the writer’s life relevant to your understanding of the work?
  2. Are characters and incidents in the work versions of the writer’s own experiences?  Are they treated factually or imaginatively?
  3. How do you think the writer’s values are reflected in the work?
  4. How does the work reflect the period in which it is written?
  5. What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?
  6. How important is the historical context to interpreting the work?

Mythological or Allegorical

Mythological or allegorical approaches to literature attempt to identify what creates deep universal responses in readers. Mythological critics interpret the hopes, fears, and expectations of entire cultures. In this context, myth is not to be understood simply as referring to stories about imaginary gods who perform astonishing feats in the causes of love, jealousy, or hatred. Myths can be a window onto a culture’s deepest self-reflexive perceptions because myths attempt to explain what otherwise seems unexplainable: a people’s origin, purpose, and destiny.

Mythological critics look for underlying, recurrent patterns in literature that reveal universal meanings and basic human experiences for readers regardless of when or where they live. The characters, images, and themes that symbolically embody these meanings and experiences are called archetypes. Surely one of the most powerfully compelling archetypes is the death and rebirth theme that relates the human life cycle to the seasons. 

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the story resemble other stories in plot, character, setting, or use of symbols?
  2. Are archetypes presented, such as quests, initiations, scapegoats, or withdrawals and returns?
  3. Does the protagonist undergo any transformation such as a movement from innocence to experience that seems archetypal?

Deconstructionism

Deconstructionist critics insist that literary works do not yield fixed, single meanings. They argue that there can be no absolute knowledge about anything because language can never say what we intend it to mean. Anything we write conveys meanings we did not intend, so the deconstructionist argument goes. Language is not a precise instrument but a power whose meanings are caught in an endless web of possibilities that cannot be untangled. Any idea or statement that insists on being understood separately can ultimately be “deconstructed: to reveal its relations and connections to contradictory and opposite meanings.

Deconstructionism seeks to destabilize meanings instead of establishing them. Deconstructionists try to show how a close examination of the language in a text inevitably reveals conflicting, contradictory impulses that “deconstruct” or break down it’s apparent unity. Deconstructionists focus on the gaps and ambiguities that reveal a text’s instability and indeterminacy. They also look at the competing meanings within the text rather than attempting to resolve them into a unified whole. The questions deconstructionists ask aim to discover and describe how the elements of a text generate a variety of possible readings. Deconstructionists look for ways to question and extend the meanings of a text.

Questions to Consider

  1. How are contradictory and opposing meanings expressed in the work?
  2. How does meaning break down or deconstruct itself in the language of the text?
  3. Would you say that ultimate definitive meanings are impossible to determine and establish in the text? Why? How does that affect your interpretation?
  4. How are implicit ideological values revealed in the work?


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