Literature: General Comments



For most people, the only question they really need to ask themselves about a text is, 'Is it fun; am I enjoying it?' Students of literature need to look a little bit deeper, and think a little bit harder about what they are reading. That may sound like hard work, but the good news is that, if you follow the advice here, you will probably find that reading becomes more enjoyable. Here some basic points to bear in mind, whatever text you are reading, prose or poetry.

1. Literature is for everyone, not just for 'experts'.

Most texts are about things which are common to all of us - love, hope, death, despair, etc. Even if the language seems difficult, the writer is not talking about something that only philosophers or experts can understand. Literature speaks to ordinary people, across the ages and across continents. Take a look at some of my examples of practical criticism of prose and poetry, or at some of the model essays written by students, and you will see that most of the texts discussed are saying things that it is well within our ability to understand. Even if we do not have direct experience of what the writer is talking about, we can nearly always enter into the experience imaginatively. Approach the text with an open mind, just as if it was a person talking to you.

2. Look for the basic ingredients that give life to a text.

What does that mean? Well, at the broadest level, literature is about a conflict, or crisis, on the one hand and a resolution or harmony on the other. This balance between tension and rest, worry and ease, anxiety and comfort, runs through almost any text. In some texts the crisis will be stressed, in others the sense of harmony will be stronger. Sometimes the whole text may seem to be one crisis after another, with very little sense of harmony. Sometimes it is the other way around - the whole text is harmonious, with almost no sense of conflict or crisis. As literature students, we should be looking for these elements, and weighing up their importance in the text.

For example, we might say that Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray depicts a conflict between physical beauty and moral ugliness, or that Keats's To Autumn paints a basic picture of peace and harmony, but there are worrying hints that after fruit ripens it will become rotten, and after autumn winter will come .

Finding these basic patterns of conflict and harmony gives us a 'handle' on the text. If we are right, we will usually find more and more examples in the text, which will confirm our analysis.

Another basic ingredient that can be found in most texts is character and change of character. This is especially noticeable in narrative texts (novels, dramas, etc.). Take a look at the characters at the beginning of the text, then at the end of the text. How have they changed? Why did they change? Usually, the events which cause characters to change are the most important part of the text. For example, in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff changes and becomes bitter and revengeful because Catherine marries someone else. If we recognise the central importance of this, we can begin to analyse the rest of the text in relation to this central point. We will start to ask such questions as, 'Why didn't Heathcliff just go away and marry someone else? Why did he stay to torture himself and everyone around him?' That way, we will begin to develop a perspective on the text.

3. Let the text speak for itself; don't put your meaning into the text.

Very often students decide that a text has a certain meaning and after that they stop really seeing the text and only see the meaning that they have decided on. For example, I gave a class of students a poem about the war in Vietnam (To Whom it May Concern, by Adrian Mitchell). Most of the class decided that this must be a poem written by an American soldier. In fact, I had told the class that I would use British texts, not American ones and, anyway, there was nothing in the text to suggest that the poem was by, or about, a soldier. The poem was not by a soldier, or even about a soldier, but because they had decided that it was, most students then became blind to what the poem was actually saying.

Another example is The Blue Film, a short story by Graham Greene. The last sentence of the story is, 'He felt that night he had betrayed the only woman he had ever loved.' Since he was a married man who had slept with a prostitute, many students supposed that he had betrayed his wife by sleeping with the prostitute. I pushed them to look more closely, and they found that in fact he did not love his wife and he did love the prostitute, so the point of the story was that, in this case, a man had betrayed a prostitute by sleeping with his wife. (If you want to find out how that could be so, you will have to read the story!)

In both these cases, students were blinded to the text by their ideas about the text. The best way to avoid this mistake is to make sure that there is evidence in the text to support whatever opinions or ideas you may have about the text. In other words, whatever idea you have about the text, you should be able to defend that idea by pointing to the words of the text itself.

Of course, it is good to develop your own relationship to the text, and in a sense every text has its own special meaning for every reader. It is fine to interpret the text in your way, but I am not one of those people who would say 'every interpretation is equally valid'. The following example is rather ridiculous, but it illustrates my point:
A: "I think Wordsworth's poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is about daffodils because the word 'daffodils' is repeated twice in the text."

B: "I think Wordsworth's poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is about chrysanthemums, but I don't really know why I think that."

Let's face it, would you really want to say that B's interpretation is as valid as A's? Both A and B have an equal right to their opinion, but having a right to an opinion doesn't mean that your opinion is right! If you want to come to an understanding of the text, you have to pay close attention to what the text actually says. One way to do this is, every time you make a comment about the text, to give a quotation or make a reference to the text, to illustrate your point. (See Writing Literature Essays.)

4. Irony.

All right, suppose you have approached the text with an open mind, identified the central crisis (or crises; there may be several), given quotes to back up all your opinions about the text, and done all the 'right' things. You might still be a long way from feeling that you have any real understanding of the text. Why? Probably because you have failed to see the ironies that lie behind the surface of the text.

Irony is central to literature. Whether you are studying Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens or  Pinter, almost every writer you can name uses irony. If we don't see the irony we not only misunderstand the text, but also miss a lot of the enjoyment that can be got from reading it.

For example, when Jane Austen begins her novel Emma with the words, 'Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich...' we may feel that the novel is not going to be very interesting. But if we realise that Jane Austen's 'real' meaning is something like, 'Emma Woodhouse, spoilt, selfish and self-satisfied...' we begin to see that Emma is being presented to us as someone who needs to learn a lesson, and we start to take an interest in exactly how she will be taught it and what the result will be.

You may ask why Jane Austen didn't simply say what she meant. The answer is that she did say what she meant. She shows us Emma as Emma sees herself, but gives little hints (such as pointing out that Emma has 'a disposition to think a little too well of herself') to make it clear that the way Emma sees herself is not the way we, the readers, should see her.

Irony makes a text more interesting, and gives it more impact. When Jonathan Swift, in A Modest Proposal, suggested that a perfect solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland would be for the Irish to sell their children to be eaten by rich landlords and English aristocrats, he made a much more powerful impact than if he had simply said, 'The landlords and the English aristocrats treat the Irish people so badly that there is nothing worse they can do, unless they start eating their children.'

Whatever text you are reading, be sure to ask yourself whether the writer intends you to accept the words as they are written, or whether there is perhaps another meaning that lies behind the apparent meaning. Becoming sensitive to the ironies that lie behind many of the greatest texts is an important part of your development as a literature student.

For recommended texts, etc., see Web Links and Further Reading.

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