The remarks in this section pertain particularly to imaginative or creative “literature.” However, they may apply to other kinds of texts used in the humanities curriculum.
(A) Elements of Literary Works:
There are at least four basic forms of literature: poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction prose. Many of the readings you confront in humanities courses take the form of non-fiction prose, and the kinds of questions we ask about literary texts can also be directed to many of the texts in those courses, which might be viewed as “literary” in a broad sense.
Why do people write in these forms rather than in “ordinary” language? The purpose of literature, of course, goes beyond practical communication: it aims to evoke emotion, an atmosphere, a unique experience, moral or political conflicts and psychological development, with an intensity beyond that attainable in everyday speech.
Hence, when we look at literature, we need to consider not only the content, or what is said, but how this is conveyed. In other words, we stress the form of a text as much as its content. There are a number of strategies typically used in literature: symbolism, allegory, metaphor, irony, and the material connections of words as apparent in alliteration, assonance, rhyme and metre.
(B) Understanding a Literary Text:
(i) It’s a good idea to read the entire text once to gain a sense of its overall structure and then to re-read it closely, attempting to understand it on a line by line basis. Are there any expressions, or inversions of normal word order which need to be explained? Are there any difficult or ambiguous words which need to be looked up in a dictionary?
(ii) You might try reading the text aloud so as to gain some sense of its emotional power and of the actual effects of its verbal strategies, which may remain dormant if the text is merely read silently. How does the text affect you? Does it appeal to your emotions, intellect or prejudices? What are its tone and mood?
(C) Interpreting and Analyzing a Literary Text:
Confronted by a text, we might feel at a loss for something worthwhile to say about it. Here are a few initial questions we could pose:
(i) What is the world-view implied in this text? By “world-view” we mean the broad set of assumptions — religious, political, ethical and artistic — underlying the uses of language in the text.
(ii) What kind of world or what kind of society and what motivations generated this text?
Once we have addressed the foregoing issues, we can begin to narrow our focus to the following questions (which need not always be posed in this order):
(iii) Questions of Content:
(a) What type of passage is it? Philosophical, literary, theological, political? What is the text’s relation to “reality”? Realist, idealist, symbolic, empirical, mythical, historically informed?
(b) What are the themes of the text? There is a distinction between theme and subject-matter: for example, the subject-matter of Shakespeare’s first marriage sonnet is a young man; but its theme might be characterized as the moral imperative for beauty to propagate itself, in this instance through marriage.
(c) How is this theme developed? Is it a logical argument or appearance thereof? Is it an emotional progression? A catalogue? Or an analysis of external objects?
(d) Is there any kind of progression in the text? Or does it rehearse a given situation through various viewpoints?
(e) Are there any central ideas, words, phrases, comparisons and contrasts which structure the text?
(iv) Questions of Form:
(a) What is the basic mode of the text? Is it a linear narrative, description, exhortation, argument or apostrophe (a direct address to a person or entity)? Is it better read literally or allegorically?
(b) Is the text primarily “subjective” (expressing the movement of the author’s emotions and thoughts) or “objective” (observational, presenting objects and events in the world), or does it effect some interaction between these?
(c) What is the relation between the author and text? Does the author appear to be speaking in her own voice or through a persona or with presumed impersonality? Is the tone of the text ironic, ambiguous, sincere or sarcastic?
(d) What is the relation between text and reader? To which aspects of the reader’s potential response does the text appeal? Emotional, moral, logical? What rhetorical devices are used to persuade the reader? Does the text invite the reader’s complicity, hostility, or liability to shock?
(e) What symbols, allusions and metaphors are used? Are there any structural parallels, oppositions, contrasts and repetitions in the text?
(f) In the case of a poem, what are the significance, potential, and limitations of its general form (e.g. Petrarchan sonnet, terza rima, sestina etc.)? What is the metre of the poem? Is there any consequential use of rhyme, assonance, alliteration and other devices?
In the case of a novel, you might ask questions relating to the author’s point of view, plot, narrative structure and narrative style/techniques. With a drama, you might pose questions pertaining to characterization of individuals, central conflicts between characters, dramatic setting, the function of the chorus (if present) and the general characteristics of tragedy/comedy.
(g) Imagine that you yourself were the author of the text: how would you justify this precise arrangement of words, phrases, stanzas and paragraphs?
(v) Questions comprehending Form and Content:
(a) What is the overall structure of the text?
(b) What is the connection between form and content? Do these support, or conflict with, each other?
(c) How do the parts of the text (as analyzed through the questions above) contribute to the significance of the whole?
In general, we might strive to analyze the text as a totality structured by certain basic concepts and formal devices while scrutinizing the part played by the minutest details.
It’s worth acknowledging that different people are likely to have differing views of the text’s basic theme and significance. There is rarely one acceptable meaning ascribable to a literary work. Its “meaning” depends upon many factors, including the reader’s own cultural background, education, values and assumptions.
However, not just any reading is acceptable. Arguing about literature shares basic elements with the other forms of argumentation: a clear thesis; both internal evidence from the text itself, and any available “external” evidence (from biography, letters, general historical contexts); reasoning, both deductive and inductive; illustration; and refutation of opposing positions.
The basic format of your paper analyzing literature will fall under one of the categories given earlier: exposition, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, or argumentation. Depending on the precise nature of your assignment, you should consult the appropriate guidelines given in this handbook.