Write a 1-2 page, double-spaced summary of the introduction you were assigned to read in the Norton Anthology of Literature. Focus on how the editors define the importance of “realism” and “naturalism” in American Literature.
Writing about fiction is your chance to enter a house that from the outside looks forbiddingly large and mysterious. But having entered, you find many interesting and delightfully arranged rooms filled with sunlight to explore, all really yours alone to enjoy, examine, and describe.Although the instructor may review for you formal literary criticism (alarge, well-appointed room with great oak beams and stained-glass windows),the points to be covered in your paper should reflect your thoughts and feelings
about the literary work at hand.Think of fiction at the outset of our discussion as a counterfeiting, a making up and manipulation of a series of events and characters and their thoughts. We first encountered fiction as children when we read or had read to us the classic stories assigned to children from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and other similar works. Children’s fiction, whether classic or contemporary, does not completely help us to understand fiction, but it does indicate that we are familiar with it.As you write about fiction, you should next ask yourself if you like or dislike the work you read and why. Did you like what happened and the way ithappened? In addition, you might consider the possibility that other readers liked the work as much as you did. Why would this be so? What elements of a Chekhov story could be as important to you as to a student in Russia or Indiaor France? Which elements in Dickens’ novels have made them so universally acclaimed? You may be intrigued by the plot, the events that lead you deeper and deeper into the story. You may share the same emotions as a character, and would do the same thing he or she would do in similar situations. Youmay have discovered yourself enveloped in a certain mood as you read. Wasthat an accident? Great fiction resonates with universal human experience. The rules ofhuman conduct tend to be informally agreed on in many diverse cultures,including primitive ones even before there were ten commandments. Earlierpeoples had been inclined to behave morally before such conduct becamecodified by law. The writer often reflects what is already deeply rooted in humankind. It may be these abiding universal truths that make us like awork of fiction.As you know from the first chapter, there are several schools of literary criticism, some old, some new. Authors, however, rarely write to the beat ofsuch criticism; they are assigned to a particular school after the fact. They may write at a specific time and be influenced by the style and events of that period.However, writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, FranzKafka, Richard Wright, and Flannery O’Connor were innovators of narrative styles, and found ways to write that differed from those of writers who came
before them.Consequently, you’d do well to think of the uniqueness of the writer beforeyou write about the work. When did the author live and where? Whatwas going on at the time that the writer may have been influenced by? Wheredid the writer travel and what happened when she or he got there? What kind of work did the writer do in addition to writing? (Many writers have held avariety of jobs before and while writing; several of them were journalists likeHemingway or physicians like Chekhov.) What books did the writer read?What unusual experiences, if any, did the writer have? Consider that the writer, like those cited above, discovered something new to write about or a new way of writing about something often written before, some aspect of characterization or narrative that illustrates an unusual perception of the human condition.Remember that the blank page for the writer is like a new world about to be discovered—just as it is for you. You and the writer are heirs to the oldest means of communication exclusive of voice sounds and hand signs. (The telephoneis only 125 years old; television is barely 65.) In the life of humankind writing itself is a relatively recent means of making communications visible—perhaps something over 7,500 years old. And at the very start of this literary history there was fiction. The Egyptian Tales of the Magicians, a collection of stories from about 4000 B.C., naturally supposes even earlier beginnings. Other narrative works have come from India, ancient Israel, the kingdoms of the Euphrates, the Greeks, the Arabs, and from many other peoples and places.The creative urge to tell stories is universally one of the strongest emotions in human beings. Fiction, of course, is not all pure creation; sometimes it is the reworking of experience or communal history—that is, making reality fit fictional needs, which then often go beyond reality to make specific points. Our earliest fiction consisted of moral writing; good things happened to good people (or animals) and bad things happened to bad people (or animals). Perhaps this is as it should be, but it is not what most of us understand about reality today. The drive to write fiction that in part or whole is didactic (morally instructive) is still obvious in the work of many contemporary writers of fiction. Writing about fiction should be something of both challenge and opportunity, exploration and discovery. What does this writer have to say—and how does he or she say it? you might ask yourself. A story or a novel is a special room in the house you are visiting. Unlike television where you see the story, fiction makes you envision it, stretch your knowledge and imagination to match the author’s. Understand, though, that most writers are writers because writing is for them the most lasting, perhaps even the most natural way they can reach out to others. “Writing,” of course, is a combination of thinking and writing, as we shall see. THE ELEMENTS OF FICTION Once you sense the uniqueness of an author and the significance of his or her work, you should be able to write critically about it. Critical writing requires you to deal with key elements of fiction. These elements are discussed in the section that follows. Plot Plot is the arrangement of related events, however simple or complex, in the narrative of a work of fiction with the result that subsequently some conflict around which the story revolves will be concluded. (All fiction does not contain the same degree of conflict, and there is fiction in which there is very little conflict.) Plotting a story is the ordering of a world and the lives of the characters who inhabit it. William Faulkner wrote: “I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that small as the keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse.” The real world is rarely within our ability to control. But fiction offers a “splendid economy” an artistic ordering to counteract what Henry James’ observation that life is splendid waste, “all is conclusion and confusion.” Aristotle in his Poetics calls plot the first element of drama or epic, which is composed of three elements: (1) a beginning that presumes additional action, (2) a middle that considers previous action and presumes succeeding action, and (3) an end that requires attention to earlier events but anticipates no further action. Over the years Aristotle’s three elements have been increased to five, more clearly defined fundamentals of plot. They are: (1) the beginning and exposition, which set the plot (or plots) in motion; (2) rising action, a series of actions, each of which causes another to begin and which considers the importance of tension and conflict (earlier critics used “conflict” and “crisis” interchangeably); (3) the climax, the most critical section of the narrative; (4) falling action, a lessening of tension, during which time some degree of tension (or suspension) is still maintained together with the explanation of the related events, sometimes called the denouement; (5) the resolution of the conflict—the happy or unhappy ending. Whether you prefer the pure Aristotelian formula for plot or its expanded contemporary version, remember that plot in fiction is the structuring or ordering of the narrative. How does Kate Chopin plot a story in a brief moment of time, while Kafka seems to embrace all of time in a sto does Leslie Marmon Silko divide “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” into sections? And does Arna Bontemps’ “A Summer Tragedy” conform to Aristotle’s definition of plot? These are some of the questions you might want to consider as you write about fiction. (Plot is in the map room of the house.) Character The people you come to know in stories or novels are characters; they create action in the narrative. They tend to be the focus of the work. John Dryden believed that “the story is the least part” of a work, the character the most important. The writer creates the characters and supplies us with the information that allows us to identify, positively or negatively, with them. We know something about how the characters look, live, and think; often we know about their jobs and their social status, their aspirations and problems. We enter their heads—as we cannot with real people in real life—and share their emotions; we have access to the most secret and intimate corridors of their being. It is here where character motivation originates and plot commences. If the writer has done well, the character is revealed to the reader, act by act, spoken word by spoken word, thought by thought, like a flower unfolding petal by petal in the summer sun. Not infrequently you will find characters so strongly drawn that they become the titles of the works they are in, for example, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, or Henry James’ Daisy Miller, or Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman: An Inside Narrative, or Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Short stories like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Gloria Naylor’s “Kiswana Browne” indicate the continuing popularity of character titles involving people of all kinds of stations who function as fictional heroes and heroines. Good characters must have dimension—that is, not merely inhabit the narrative for the sake of being there. The character must function; plot must turn on the character’s actions; dialogue between characters must move plot as well as enlarge the character. It is crucial that we know everything about a character that is pertinent to the story, and perhaps that knowledge will resonate beyond the bounds of fiction. For example, we want to know what happens to the hero and heroine in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” for we invest in them as people and wonder about their destinies. That is what good writing and vivid characterization do. (Character can be found in the screening room.) Point of View Point of view is the position in which the writer places the character, around whom move all the elements of fiction. Point of view, like the defined area seen through a camera lens, is the frame or boundary of a work of fiction. Frequently it is through the point of view that we discover different ways of telling a story. Traditionally there are three basic points of view: the first person or “I”; the somewhat experimental second person or “you”; and the third person “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they.” ry like “A Hunger Artist”? How does any writer create and heighten conflict and how is it resolved? Why? First-person point of view is the method by which the author centrally positions one person through whom the story is told. Every detail of the work is filtered through that character who cannot intimately know others; he or she is the “I” character of the first-person singular. This is a limiting, but often effective way of writing, but that may be precisely what the author desires. This might be called a high-intensity point of view, providing the author with a special and perhaps unique voice in a strictly circumscribed world. Joyce’s “Araby” and Louise Erdrich’s “Snares” are two examples of the use of the internal or “I” voice. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are but three of many novels in which writers have used the first-person voice effectively. The first-person point of view dictates that the protagonist can examine himself inside out, but most constantly decipher the acts and words of others to examine himself. (Untraditionally, however, there can be more than one “I” character in the same work. For example, if there are three people at the scene of a crime—the perpetrator, the victim, and a witness—the crime can be related by each character in turn, therefore bringing different first-person points of view to the story.) The use of the third-person or external voice gives writers far more leeway— though they may not use it. The “I” becomes “he” or “she” and this lets the writer use the limited or pseudo third person, focusing not on several characters, but one, as in Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” From this point of view, the writer moves that character from a distance, and does not become one with the “I.” No other character is really penetrated, or certainly not to the degree the protagonist has been. Sometimes, as in Bontemps’ “A Summer Tragedy,” two characters, Jennie and Jeff Patton, can become the third person of a story. Third person can be compared to a camera that has been focused between closeup and wide-angle, and it is this point of view many authors use to make us see a resemblance between fiction and the real world. The interior experiences of a singular major character are such that we can readily share them. Nothing stands between the writer and reader but the manipulated distance provided by the third person. Gone is the intrusive authorial voice of past use of the point of view (often opinionated, or editorializing and addressing the reader directly by the pronoun “you”). In modern fiction the characters speak; no authors are allowed. Readers tend to identify more readily with one major character, though they seem to prefer the larger reality offered by the third-person voice over the first-person. Both, however, are widely used in the short story. Unlimited third-person and omniscient or objective points of view are essentially the same. Herein, the author views all characters from an equal, objective stance; she can enter all their minds or none; the writer can share knowledge of one or more characters with every other character in the work. With the omniscient or unlimited third person and a large number of characters, through the use of the interior monologue, much like the dramatic soliloquy, the author can let us know how much one character knows about another. This achieves dynamic progress in the same way film is used to create anticipation and tension through montage. But sacrificed by this point of view is the sense of closeness to character found in the first person or limited third person. Here the author is truly a god, aiming characters at each other, constructing plots, establishing settings, issuing subjects and themes couched in a variety of styles, all conveyed through a team of characters. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a great model for the use of the omniscient point of view. The novel is a vibrant animism that conveys the movements of people and history. Tolstoy uses more than 500 characters ranging from peasant to Napoleon, with the key players meeting or crossing paths at crucial times after earlier being introduced in alternating chapters. The distance between author and characters is not always equal, since the major actors are only three of the multitude: Natasha Rostova, Prince Andrei Bolkonski, and Pierre Bezukhov. Shifts in point of view may be indicated by a new paragraph, a space break in the narrative, or nothing at all. E. M. Forster declared that with an effective shift of viewpoint the writer has the power “to bounce the reader into accepting what he says.” Dickens’ Bleak House, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Tolstoy’s epic, present examples of shifting points of view. Shifting points of view may come as relief to some readers, a change of pace. For the writer, they expand or contract perception, allow a closeup or telephoto angle. Tense usage combined with point of view offers tempting avenues for experimentation. Present tense makes narrative seem as though events are occurring as you read them; past tense is more leisurely and is used with greater frequency. A writer might shift point of view between first person, third person, and omniscient for certain specific effects (closeness or distance) and at the same time shift from past to present tense for certain other effects, for instance, pacing—speeding or slowing down the action. Traditionally, however, fiction is usually presented in only one tense and one point of view. Setting Setting is the physical place and time where action occurs in a narrative. Place and time are of immense importance in establishing the mood of a work of fiction. Just as characters often are the titles of novels and stories they are in, places, too, are frequently titles—for example, Langston Hughes’ “On the Road,” Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In Welty’s “A Worn Path,” for example, an elderly black woman wills her aching body across fields and woods to secure medicine for her sick grandchild. Welty’s setting, rich in imagery and symbolism, grows to almost epic proportions, an odyssey of sorts, expressing the greatness of the human spirit. We feel a sense of comfort with the familiar. When we read a book whose settings are known to us, or see a film set in a city that we either live in or have visited, we feel closer to the story. Yet, we are also curious about places and times we know little about. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red 42 Part 2 The Elements of Literature 6 Ways In: Approaches To Reading Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e II. The Elements of Literature 3. Writing about Fiction © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 Death,” considered one of his greatest stories, has a setting that is as much in Prince Prospero’s mind as it is in the castle to which he retires to escape the plague. We are drawn into the story to ricochet between the “real” and another level of imagination, terror. As we know, a setting in fiction is not fixed as in many plays—is not real, but a construction of words designed to give the reader a sense of place through description. But settings can also be deceptive. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” begins in a small American town (like the one in “Young Goodman Brown” quite possibly) on a day that is “clear and sunny,” but ends with a character screaming, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” (Jackson, like Poe, is a fine writer of Gothic horror.) Settings can be physical as well as symbolic, as Welty’s title suggests. In short, setting is where the fiction lives. Tone Tone, which we also find in poetry and drama, is the “attitude” of the author in a work of fiction. When we speak of a story as being happy or sad, comic or tragic, ironic or satiric, we are trying to establish the writer’s attitude toward his or her materials. Sometimes it is easy to establish the tone of a story. For example, the very title of Arna Bontemps’ “A Summer Tragedy” indicates the author’s perspective on the action. At other times, we have a sudden shift in tone that turns the title into an ironic commentary. Tone can also be a complex subject, embracing matters of setting and mood, characterization, narrative action, and style. Consider Amy Tan’s story “Two Kinds.” The story presents a young, somewhat rebellious girl who knows she doesn’t have the talents her mother ascribes to her. Yet, there are moments when, briefly, she thinks she does. Then comes the moment when she deliberately—though this might not altogether be the case—performs badly enough to make her mother have doubts. As behavior shifts, the tone also shifts from small hope to failure and to guilt because Jing-mei has failed to keep alive the immigrant’s dream of becoming “anything you wanted to be in America.” The “voice” changes, becomes more reflective and mellow when Jing-mei reaches thirty and looks back on her childhood. Moreover, there is another voice in the story, the mother’s, which lends tension to the story, heightens the conflict between mother and daughter and between reality and possibility. Here the tone is at first hopeful, then desperate, and finally, defeated. The reconciliation when Jing-mei is an adult is sad and touching, and this is the final tonality in an admittedly complex tale. Symbolism A symbol is a representation of a reality on one level that has a corresponding reality on another level; symbols are things that represent other things by habit, association, or convention. Symbols in fiction, poetry, and drama possess specific points of reference created by the writer to lead you to and inside the work. Symbols are most often associated with allegory (Greek: “to Chapter 3 Writing about Fiction 43 Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 7 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e II. The Elements of Literature 3. Writing about Fiction © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 speak other”). Allegory has two levels of meaning, but the second meaning is to be read beneath and concurrent with the surface story and may well itself be an extended story. In Kay Boyle’s “The Astronomer’s Wife,” symbolism and allegory are relatively easy to discern. You may wish to discuss the symbolism expressed by the occupations of Mrs. Ames’ husband and the plumber, or the allegory that further describes where they work, or the similarities between a plumber’s pipe and an astronomer’s telescope. In Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” a more complex story, you can find several meanings that can be read as ironic or tragic, as well as allegorical. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” abounds in allegory. A critical reading of these works should help you understand the various levels of meaning they contain. Style Style is found in the way a work of fiction is written. George Henry Lewes, who lived with Marian Evans (whose pen name was George Eliot), listed five rules of style: (1) economy (conciseness with precision); (2) simplicity; (3) sequential development of plot; (4) the inevitability of climax; and (5) variety. These rules seem to still be valid even though language has changed tremendously since Lewes’ time. But modern applications also see style as the way certain rhythms are employed in fiction writing; the way authors choose their words and use abstract, concrete, and figurative language; and the way they handle all the traditional elements of fiction—plot, character, point of view, setting, and theme. These, too, have been modified by time, and as these have been altered, so too has the heading under which more recent works fall: post-modernism. But for many writers style is simply the way they write, the way words occur to them while shaping their fiction. For others, style may have developed over time through studying, consciously or subconsciously, the work of still other writers. Writers who have journalism backgrounds, like Hemingway or Martha Gellhorn, may write in a style quite different from the one used by writers who also write or have written poetry, like Robert Penn Warren. Few poets, Walt Whitman being one of the exceptions, emerge from a background in journalism. There are many factors that may help to shape a style. And of course there are writers without any writing background who love language and ultimately find themselves to be writers. Hemingway, whose style a generation of writers tried to copy, is known for his Spartan prose which is almost devoid of adjectives and adverbs, and for his use of plain language. These helped to make him clearly understandable and accessible. Ford Madox Ford said, “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched from a brook.” William Faulkner’s style is rotund, full-blown, expansive, and not very accessible—which led Hemingway to say of him, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” 44 Part 2 The Elements of Literature 8 Ways In: Approaches To Reading Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e II. The Elements of Literature 3. Writing about Fiction © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 But then critic Max Eastman said Hemingway had “a literary style . . . of wearing false hair on the chest.” Both Faulkner and Hemingway are Nobel laureates in literature. Theme To some readers theme and subject mean the same thing. They are quite different. Matthew Arnold wrote that “all depends on subject: choose a fitting action, penetrate yourself with the feeling of its situations; this done, everything will follow.” Theme, however, really is the distillation of subject; it makes relevant all the words that are used to frame the theme, which is the fine print of subject. The following brief dialogue examines the difference between subject and theme. STUDENT A: “What’s the book about?” STUDENT B: “War.” [Subject] STUDENT A: “War?” STUDENT B: “Actually, the horrors experienced by soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge. [Theme] The subject is general; the theme is a specific statement about the subject. The same principle might be applied to Tolstoy, who wrote about armies in War and Peace and Hemingway, whose writings included pieces on the units of armies in three wars. The poet Wilfred Owen once said, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Owen thus defines the difference between subject and theme in his own work. INTERPRETING FICTION Your interpretation of a literary work begins with accepting its theme, its diction and construction, what the work conveys to you, and your reaction to it. You accept the writing as a complete entity, a work of art, that possesses values you and other readers respect. That done, you will find it worthwhile to review the elements of fiction to see if they are present or mostly present in the story you are interpreting. Then it may be expedient to note the theme of the story. If we took Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” would we be seeing another “star-crossed lovers” theme or quite some other theme? You might try to describe the kind of man Gurov is and decide whether or not there is irony in how he has changed by the end of the story. How has his openness to the “encounters of life” contributed to the plot? How effective are plot and character in support of theme? Point of view? With the questions and your answers digested, you can then move to the author’s motive, if any, for writing the story. Chekhov is very good at detail that is important to his stories, so it will help if you read this (or any other story) more than once. Chapter 3 Writing about Fiction 45 Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 9 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e II. The Elements of Literature 3. Writing about Fiction © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 There are not, really, as many kinds of fiction as there are poetry, but it would be unfair to poetry to say that it does not require as much analysis as fiction; the amount of analysis depends on the work under study, not because it is one genre or the other. Most stories, however, are longer than most poems, and will require longer, more analytical reading. Some poems provide clues to their meanings by the way they are structured on the page, with some lines indented, very brief stanzas, or the use of punctuation: colons, for instance, or dashes. In a poem, these clues tend to leap out. Such is not the case with most fiction. Outward appearances on the printed page reveal nothing. Reading is the only way to dig out the elements necessary for you to write about fiction. A first reading of a story may reveal its plot and then its theme. Plots generally come to life first, but not the theme within, so it may take a second or third reading before theme emerges. Plot, as you know, is the element in fiction where tension and conflict are found. Once you have a good idea of what the story is about you can gather the characters on stage to see how well they have carried and moved plot, if their motivations, inner thoughts, dialogues and actions support your possible conclusions about the theme. You will want to describe the function of each character as part of your analysis. Anton Chekhov said, “Cut a good story anywhere and it will bleed.” (He was a doctor, remember.) Would the story you’re reading lose anything if it had not been written the way it is? Could you cross out a paragraph and still have the story make sense, or eliminate a character without disturbing the plot? Imagine Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” without the janitor, Yakov Blotnik; would the story still work? Is the protagonist, Ozzie Freedman, unreasonable? Can you find, subtly located, the reason for Ozzie’s behavior, which explains the nature of the conflict? Crucial differences between Itzie and Ozzie arise early in the story. How do they become manifest at the climax of the story? Notice the shifts in points of view. Do they help you to understand the story, and in which ways? How do the breaks in the story add to its tension? These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself and find answers to in order to write cogently about any story. Remember that interpretations of fiction are not engraved in stone. Unless an author tells us of her intention in writing the story, or what the theme most assuredly is, or why a character does this or says that, we simply cannot know for sure why a story is the way it is. We just examine what has been given to us and come to the best interpretation we can which is, as it can only be, your opinion. EVALUATING FICTION A famous painter said, “A painting is valuable to you if you like it.” In the same light, a work of fiction is valuable to you if you appreciate it for what it is. But that is only the beginning. Almost none of us is comfortable being alone in an evaluative process. Students of literature can take heart: There is a proven track record of great fiction, whether we agree with it or not. In any case, the record is always changing. Herman Melville may be on the record for a number of years, and then he is off it; the same with Henry James and Virginia Woolf. The record may showcase at a given time some of the great Russian writers— Dostoyevski, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, for example—but never cite Leonid Andreyev. Some astoundingly good writers have never been on the record, like Martha Gellhorn. It would be a serious mistake not to read the record for information and assistance. The following questions can help to guide you in your evaluation of a story or novel: • Is the plot predictable or original? • Do the characters have unique and well-developed dimensions or are they simply flat or stock types? • Is the setting strikingly conveyed or are time, place, and atmosphere underdeveloped? • Does the symbolism, if present, enhance the story or does it merely seem tacked on or confusing? • Is the theme provocative and consequential or relatively unimportant or trite? • Is the author’s use of language original or not at all memorable? • Which critical approach seems most useful in evaluating this work of fiction, and why? Great fiction engages the universe and millions of readers, each of whom relates to it differently, yet somehow the same. And that is the way we really are. Great fiction has the ability to draw us into it as individuals and as members of a community called humanity stuck in space. We can find knowledge and comfort in fiction, pride and sorrow. Fiction is, after all, merely a reflection of what we are, have been, and perhaps may be.
Reading and Responding to Literature and Film 3 “The art of writing has for backbone a fierce attachment to an idea.” Virginia Woolf riting essays for college English courses—indeed for most courses—is a challenge. You must generate thoughts and opinions; harness and organize them; and transform these ideas into effective papers. The end product of this process should be an essay that reads clearly and expresses your insights and discoveries about a topic in a clear and convincing way. To facilitate this process, Ways In, a brief guide to writing about literature and film, will show you how to develop ideas and support them with evidence drawn from literary and visual texts and also from research. In the end, you will discover the wisdom of Virginia Woolf’s observation that you need “a fierce attachment to an idea” to produce writing that will make a positive impression on your audience. WHAT IS LITERATURE? Although critics argue over the definition, what has come to be known as literature is writing in prose or verse that contains complex yet coherent ideas and meanings; deals with significant or universal issues; contains original and imaginative writing; and interests a large number of educated readers. As the celebrated Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa states, “Literature has been, and will continue to be, as long as it exists, one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other.” Who decides if a work—whether fiction, poetry, drama, film script, or essay—meets these criteria? Admittedly, experts often decide the quality of any endeavor. But anyone can learn to study, analyze, discuss, and apply the specialized vocabulary of criticism to literature and also film. W 12 Ways In: Approaches To Reading Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 Of course, there is also a subjective element in literary criticism. For instance, in eighteenth-century England, a definition of “literature” would have included philosophy, history, letters, and essays as well as such standard forms as poetry. Literary judgments are based on the age’s personal taste and various cultural assumptions, even though such tastes have been molded by conventional standards. This is a bit different from being an expert in a less subjective field like sports. A sprinter who can run the 100-meter dash in 10.0 seconds is obviously top-notch while another who runs the same distance in 12.0 seconds would not be considered a worldclass competitor. With literature, it is more difficult to be certain of your opinions about what is good or mediocre. However, if a work stands the test of time like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Othello by Shakespeare or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you may assume that generations of readers have returned to these works and found them personally meaningful and of literary merit. This quality of literature to endure is what the writer Ezra Pound was referring to when he stated that “Literature is news that stays news.” Today, however, there is much debate over the idea of the canon, that is, the body of work we believe to be deemed literature. Many argue that what is considered literature is merely the narrow-minded view of a group of likeminded individuals from a more-or-less similar social class, with homogeneous values, who share a similar outlook on life and art. In other words, why have certain literary works been accepted, read, and taught over centuries, while others have either vanished or have been ignored? This argument embraces cultures, genres, and social classes. Nonetheless, newly discovered or rediscovered works often make for exciting and provocative reading; only the future will tell us whether they will enter the body of writing we call literature. Take the work of Kate Chopin. Her short stories, for example “A Respectable Woman,” and novels like The Awakening were neglected for many years; however, a couple of decades ago, critics began to view her work as explorations of feminism that were ahead of their time, so that now her fiction is read and discussed widely. Or consider the case of Emily Dickinson. Virtually unknown while she was alive, today she is considered to be one of America’s greatest poets. READING AND THINKING CRITICALLY To write intelligently about literature, you must first read actively and think critically about it. But why does literature require such reading and reflection? Good literature forces you to enter into a dialogue with it. The themes, style, content, meanings, and structure of true literature challenge you intellectually and imaginatively. Other forms of writing usually do not. You can read a story or novel straight through for entertainment, sensing that you have easily extracted all its meaning, derived from it all its pleasure. This is popular literature—crime fiction, romance novels, westerns, science fiction—and you consume these forms. When you are done, you find yourself 4 Part 1 Critical Reading and Writing Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 13 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 satisfied for the time being. You put the book down, often not to pick it up again. Conversely, with truly significant literature, you not only read it, but also think about it, ask questions about it. How do you know if what you are reading requires such an effort? If you find yourself thinking about what you have read; if you feel the need to review some or all of it for deeper comprehension; if there are elements such as character, theme, plot, style, and other literary components that have you curious or perplexed, the work is more likely to be literary. Informed readers of literature usually automatically ask themselves certain basic, key questions about what they are reading. The following questions can help you grasp the significant elements of what you are reading and serve as springboards to pursue further and more detailed issues in the text. 1. What is the author’s purpose? A Raisin in the Sun has been viewed as one of the first plays that simultaneously brought the weakness and strength of the African-American family to light for mainstream America. Was that the purpose of Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright? Was the play’s purpose to evoke sympathy, outrage, or was it meant to engage its audience in an evening of riveting theater, one that would make them raise issues about their own attitudes toward racism? Or did the playwright have in mind breaking racial stereotypes that many white Americans had about African-American families? All these would be valid purposes. But without the author directly stating his or her purpose, we must infer it. The value of inquiring about purpose is that it can assist you in understanding the theme of what you read. 2. What is the author’s theme or main idea? The theme of Raymond Carver’s frequently anthologized short story “Cathedral” is that an individual whose perception is limited psychologically can be blind to reality while a truly blind person may have a rich experience of reality. If that statement seems emphatic, it was meant to be. It is one person’s summing up of his interpretation of a work of fiction. The term “theme” is sometimes referred to as an author’s main idea or major statement or “what the author is trying to say.” Regardless of what term you use, you should be cautious in assuming that the theme you have determined to be the correct one is the only valid one. Of course, common sense and rational thought will prevent one from accepting any theme as possible; still, there may be more than one acceptable one. Stating your interpretation of a theme of a work of literature and then writing about it is an important step toward understanding what you read. It is often the starting and end point for making sense of a work of literature. Discovering a theme gives your reading clarity so that all the elements of what you read are more easily and succinctly comprehended. 3. What is the emotional effect of the writing? Critics and philosophers have been concerned with the emotional effect of literature since the Greek philosopher Aristotle discussed the issue in his Chapter 1 Reading and Responding to Literature and Film 5 14 Ways In: Approaches To Reading Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 Poetics some 2,500 years ago. He referred to the concept of catharsis as that emotion one experiences when watching a drama that purges one of pent-up emotions. Identification, anger, glee, sadness are all emotions that may be evoked by literature. In fact, tragedy and comedy, two modes of dramatic literature, are often defined by them. Your emotional response to literature will most probably be tempered by your own personality and life experience, perhaps even your gender. For years, critics called Hemingway a “man’s writer” because his work portrayed stoic men who endured life without complaint. His story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and novels like The Old Man and the Sea are fine examples of this tone of stoicism. Do you identify with the older waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or the old, solitary fisherman in Hemingway’s novella? If so, how much has it to do with whether you are a man or woman? How much does it have to do with whether you yourself feel lonely or not and how you regard your loneliness? Raising questions about the emotional effect of writing helps you understand what you read and can assist you in understanding yourself as well. 4. What biases or ideological viewpoints do you detect? Many students of literature claim that all authors have a personal bias and/or an ideological viewpoint that bears on their writing. For example, the mere fact that a writer has had a college education places him or her in a certain class, and therefore places that writer in a particular educational class. For your purposes, it is probably better to consider the bias or ideological leanings of a writer based on his or her gender, economic class, racial and ethnic background, and political viewpoint. Some authors present such viewpoints in more obvious ways than others. For example, Langston Hughes, an African American, was often critical of American society; if you read his poetry, plays like Soul Gone Home, and his short fiction, you will discover a humorous, lucid, and straightforward critique of class and caste. Similarly, when we apply such terms as Orwellian, Kafkaesque, quixotic, or Rabelaisian to literature, we use these words to capture certain characteristics of the human condition that Orwell, Kafka, Cervantes, and Rabelais reveal to us. Good literature often poses radical questions about the world in which we live. 5. What personal experiences and/or biases do you bring to the work? The flip side of the author’s bias is your own. You should not necessarily consider the word “bias” in this context a negative one. Rather, it is meant to denote your own perspective based upon your social, economic, and ethnic background. For example, if you are an African American and read the fiction of John A. Williams or August Wilson’s plays, you are more likely to have a personal response based upon your racial heritage than if you are a white American. Raising these questions (merely a sampling of the many you could ask) about what you read should demonstrate how literature challenges you, makes you wonder and question. True literature requires that you do this in order to derive full appreciation of it. 6 Part 1 Critical Reading and Writing Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 15 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 LEARNING TO ANALYZE LITERATURE To illustrate the need to read literature critically, examine the following two passages. The first is a fictive episode; the second is a very brief story entitled “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. As you read the two passages, think about how they differ: “You should be more tidy in your everyday habits,” Janine’s mother said sternly, as she examined her daughter’s messy room. Janine averted her eyes from her mother’s severe gaze and uttered a deep sigh, as if to communicate that she had heard it all before. “I want you to pay attention to me. I am your mother, and I set the rules for conduct in this house,” her mother continued. “Mother, why are you always lecturing me? The way I keep my room is my business. Patricia’s mother lets her keep her room any way she likes. Besides that, she lets her stay out late, and gives her plenty of spending money.” Janine was getting more and more frustrated. Janine’s mother was wishing her daughter would stop this endless comparison. She felt it undermined her authority. “I’m not Patricia’s mother. I’m your mother. And you’re not Patricia, you’re Janine, my daughter. Now I expect you to start following the rules around here.” ••• Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna1 in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you musn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with spit; don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze the bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread? Now ask yourself a few questions. • Which of the two excerpts is more challenging to you, the reader? • Which one is more intriguing and more original? • Which one requires more thought, more critical thinking? • Which requires a second reading? • Which seems to have a unique style? • Which has an authorial voice, something special that makes it stand out from other things you’ve read? If you review the two selections, only “Girl” requires you to think in order to appreciate and understand it. For example, who is speaking and who is being spoken to in the second excerpt? In the first, it is all clear and obvious. The dialogue sounds familiar, and has probably been echoed in numerous stories to be found in magazines and in the drawers of would-be authors. In the second, however, things are not as transparent upon first glance. You must infer certain meanings based on what the author has provided in the way of tone, diction, and voice. In the first selection, the author is “telling” the reader how the character feels with such indicators as “Janine’s mother said sternly” and “Janine was getting more and more frustrated.” In the latter, the author is “showing” you. What is she showing? That is the key to the meaning of the short story. The fact that the story is written in the imperative mode, that its tone is stern, didactic, and commanding should indicate that the author is demonstrating what strategies are needed for survival among women who live in a specific culture, and how these strategies are transmitted from generation to generation. By figuring out how the speaker is feeling and what her relationship is to the person being spoken to, you arrive at an understanding of the selection. 8 Part 1 Critical Reading and Writing Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 17 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 Another critical issue an educated reader might pose is what formal aspects make “Girl” special. What is there about its style that sets it apart from other writing? For example, consider the issue of person. The latter excerpt is written in the second-person narrative or “you” form (implied but not stated since it is in the imperative mode). This in itself adds a bit of originality to the work, for it is probable that most if not all fiction you have read has been written in the first-person or “I” form, or the third-person or “he/she” form. (A complete discussion of this subject appears in the “point of view” section in Chapter 3.) But it is not enough merely to be original. You should also consider the purpose or effect of using the second person. Perhaps it provides a way for the writer to more directly imitate true conversation. If you compare the two excerpts, you will probably agree that the latter does seem to mirror the vibrant, continuous quality of speech, while the former seems a bit stilted and contrived, and perhaps worst of all, generic. Yet another element of active reading is recognizing the author’s use of language. Like spoken language, written language has rhythm, sound, tone, diction, imagery, and syntax. In the second selection, you may have noted the music-like quality of the speaker. This may be attributed to the Caribbean dialect and its intonations. For example, if you review the selection by Kincaid, you will notice the author employs such literary devices as alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), and inventive use of punctuation (the string of clauses held together by semicolons to keep up the movement of the language). Originality, subtlety, concerns with the aesthetics of language: all three are good indicators that what you are reading is literature, and not just standard prose. Notable writers like Jamaica Kincaid are aware of and incorporate these aspects of language into their writing. And the more you read, think critically about, and write about literature, the more mastery you will acquire in identifying these and other components that enable literary artists to make significant and memorable statements about human experience. DEVELOPING A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE The more you read literature, the easier it will be for you to spot those elements that are worthy of critical analysis and further study. If you read a poem, for example, you can base your reading and understanding of it on your past experience of thinking critically about texts you have already mastered. Reading the short poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson—after having read and analyzed “Girl”—should provide you with the skills to scrutinize and “decode” the poem as a more informed and educated reader. Take a few moments to read the “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” in its entirety and reflect upon it: Wild Nights–Wild Nights! Were I with thee Wild Nights should be Our Luxury! Chapter 1 Reading and Responding to Literature and Film 9 18 Ways In: Approaches To Reading Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Futile–the Winds– To a Heart in port– Done with the Compass– Done with the Chart– Rowing in Eden– Ah, the Sea! Might I but moor–Tonight– In Thee! Thinking critically about the poem should now come easier. You should be able to raise and answer for yourself questions of narrator, voice, style, language, and syntax. An important aspect of being an educated reader is being able to ask appropriate questions on your own. You may ask yourself such things as what is the tone (emotional tenor) of the poem? Who is speaking? How is syntax used to contribute to the poem’s effect? Note, for example, how Dickinson’s use of dashes breaches the conventions of customary punctuation. Mentally rearrange the lines in a more typical way and compare the two renderings. What do you discover? Examine the phrase “Rowing in Eden.” What does it imply? How does it fit into the overall message of the poem? What is the effect of the nautical imagery? It should be clear to you now that the more you know the method and “language” of literary criticism (a subject treated fully in Part Two of this text), the richer your experience of it will be, and the more discriminating a reader you will become. Ultimately, when the time comes to write about literature, you will have the critical tools necessary to forge your ideas and thoughts into a well-crafted essay. WRITING ABOUT LITERATURE Writing about literature adds a unique variable to the equation of an assignment for English class. In order to write about a poem, short story, novel, or play, you must read critically and understand the unique and peculiar aspects of literature. With such an understanding, the analysis, interpretation, and decoding of literature can become a more organized and often more rewarding activity for you. When you write, you write for a reason or a purpose. The well-known British essayist, journalist, and novelist George Orwell addressed this issue in his famous essay, “Why I Write.” In it, he enumerated the reasons he wrote. Among them were “the desire to seem clever,” the “desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed,” “to find out true facts,” and the “desire to push the world in a certain direction.” Perhaps the reason this essay has become a classic is that it articulates an important issue about writers themselves. Orwell was addressing the reason for and purpose of his own essays and fiction, but it may be just as fruitful to ask the same question of the type of writing you will be doing in this course (and perhaps in future courses and careers). While your motives for writing may not be as ambitious as Orwell’s, an understanding of the purposes of writing about literature may help you address the challenge with more clarity and understanding. 10 Part 1 Critical Reading and Writing Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 19 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 Since the times of classical Greece, philosophers have created taxonomies to identify the various forms and purposes of writing. While these systems vary from theorist to theorist, the following list provides convenient categories and sample selections from your literature anthology to elucidate them. Writing to Summarize Summarizing requires that you distill the major aspects of a work of literature, for example, its theme, characterization, setting, tone, and the like. Summarizing is helpful in formulating what you believe to be the essential elements of what you have read, and communicating them to others. You may also think of summarizing as an exercise for the mind. It challenges you to think about and express succinctly what you have read. Thus, in writing an essay tracing the developments of African-American drama in the twentieth century, you might begin your discussion of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to include its basic characters, setting, theme, tone, and mood. A summarizing paragraph might go something like this: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in a makeshift recording studio during the 1930s, depicts the economic and artistic control of black artists by white producers through a series of vignettes that show the resentment felt by black musicians toward their employers and to each other, despite the fact that they have been selected to play backup for a leading singer of the period by the name of Ma Rainey. Their banter reveals feelings of oppression, hopelessness, self-deprecation, and desperation, and culminates in a violent and ultimately deadly confrontation between two of the musicians: one who advocates that the black man take greater control of his destiny; the other attempting to exploit the issue by devising music more to the white man’s taste. Writing to summarize is often an intermediate step in the writing process in that it can be a preparation to writing an essay comparing and contrasting different works of literature or classifying a particular work of literature for inclusion into a particular school or genre. WRITING TO RESPOND PERSONALLY Perhaps the very first way we responded to writing as children was emotionally, before we had criteria established for us as to how we were to respond or what we were to seek out in a text to respond to. When you respond personally, you are actually developing a thesis about what you have read, even if it is merely to demonstrate how you feel about a particular work of literature. Responding to a text personally puts you directly in touch with what affects you about a work of literature. Writing to Analyze Writing is a process where feedback plays a crucial role. When you analyze what you read, you can more succinctly express on paper the significance of what you have read. By the same token, writing itself often helps stimulate ideas that had not occurred to you or were existing in only an inchoate state. Writing to analyze often enables you to zero in on a particular aspect or feature of a work of literature. For example, reading, then writing an analysis of sexual and religious imagery in the poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson can make the experience of reading and understanding the poem a more profound one. Like all forms of analysis, writing an analysis of a work of literature broadens and deepens your understanding. Writing to Compare and Contrast You gather knowledge about a field of inquiry through study. The more you study, the more you are likely to gain expertise in your field of endeavor. Comparing and contrasting works of literature is perhaps one of the most salient ways of developing your ability to discriminate between what is good and bad; understand what is unique about an author’s work; and discern differences between authors, literary styles, genres, and different periods of literary history. You may compare many different aspects of literature. Perhaps the most fruitful forms of comparison are those that you spontaneously or instinctively become aware of through your reading. For instance, you may discover common themes between two poems, two short stories, or two plays, and to enrich your discovery, choose to write about what you see are the essential similarities and/or differences between the two. For example, the poems, “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year” by Raymond Carver and “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, relate the memory of a father by his son. Neither memory is positive, and much sadness and betrayal seem to be expressed by both authors toward their respective fathers. But on closer examination, Carver’s portrait seems to have the more pathos and sympathy. Thus, in contrasting the two poems, you might generate a theme such as the following: “While both ‘Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year’ by Carver and ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ by Roethke portray a father/son relationship absent of healthy emotional affiliation, Carver’s portrait is the more tender, sympathetic, and kind.” An essay presenting this thesis would be one that compares tone; however, comparison/contrast essays can also address style, ideology, theme, and culture. Writing to Classify You probably spend much of your waking life classifying: classifying types of professors, types of food, types of jobs, and so forth. The ability to classify is a vital part of your intelligence. It helps you to see connections, understand relationships, and hone your skills at discerning similarities and differences between people and objects. Classifying literature provides you with a means of organizing your readings and coming to conclusions about what you have read in terms of where it fits in to a particular style, genre, historical period, ideology, or theme. For example, your anthology is classified around genres: fiction, poetry, and drama. As an exercise in classification, see if you can de- 12 Part 1 Critical Reading and Writing Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e 21 Muller−Williams: Ways In: Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2/e I. Critical Reading and Writing 1. Reading and Responding to Literature and Film © The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2005 rive a meaningful classification from some of the works you have read in your anthology. Remember, however, that there are innumerable ways to classify, but the fruitful ones provide you with a means of gaining insights and helping to appreciate more fully what you have read. Writing to Present an Argument When you see the term “argument” in a writing assignment, it usually means something similar to “prove” or “demonstrate.” You do this in writing about literature through developing your main point, and then providing supporting evidence to prove your point. Presenting an argument when writing about literature is very similar to the way a lawyer argues a case in court. He or she presents the thesis—that his or her client is innocent—then provides the proof to demonstrate the truth of the argument. Take, for example, the well-known short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. Since its publication, critics and students have tackled its meaning through analyzing the nature of the community it depicts, the behavior of its characters, its setting, social relationships in the town, and other elements. Some critics say it demonstrates blind adherence