True to the lessons held within this book, author Kelley Griffith Jr. tells us with simple clarity, right up front in the preface, “that essays about literature are almost always arguments and, as such, must persuade an audience.” This is the overriding point of “Writing Essays about Literature, A guide and style sheet how to write a cause and effect essay.” The book is broken into two main sections. The first part deals with the analysis of literature, including sections on how to generate essay topics about fiction, drama, and poetry, the variety of specialized approaches to interpreting literature, and how to evaluate the quality of literature. The second part deals with the mechanics of writing about literature – how to handle quotations, apply rules of usage, and document sources.
I read Griffith’s superb book because I plan to devote vast amounts of time to reading and reviewing books during this, the remaining half of my life. The first part of the book holds most interest, so this is what we’ll summarize. Most of what follows is either paraphrasing or direct wicked quoting:
While both attempt to create ‘reality’, fictional worlds are potentially more complete and coherent than historical worlds. Fiction writers can produce facts at will, and fit them into a coherent plant (Don Delillo’s Libra). “They can enter their characters’ minds, look into the heavens, create chains of cause and effect, pierce the future. They must establish at least an aesthetic order, possibly a philosophical order too. They must build conflict into their worlds. Events of history are not always characterized by conflict, events of fiction always are. Fiction writers celebrate separateness, distinctness, and the importance of all individuals and individual experiences. Historians record and celebrate human experiences that affect or represent large numbers of people. Fiction writers see reality as welded and seen through the individual’s psychological perception. Time as an experienced emotional phenomenon, as a river flowing inside the mind.
ELEMENTS OF FICTION
Plot: A pattern of carefully selected, causally related events that contains conflict. Freytag pyramid (1863) unstable situation, a conflict that sets the plot in motion. Exposition that explains the nature of the conflict, introduces characters, describes setting, and provides historical background. Series of events then occur, each of which causes the one that follows and each of which intensifies the conflict. Plot rises to climax, the most intense event in the narrative. This is followed by ‘falling’ action, which is usually brief and less intense, and leads toward the resolution of conflict and a stable situation.
There are two categories of conflict: external and internal, e.g. Fights between two people, or one person against nature versus temptation within the mind of one person. Protagonist usually a main character fighting for something. Antagonist is the opponent of the protagonist, usually an individual, but it can be a nonhuman force…the protagonist’s tendency toward evil, or self-destruction. The most crucial question you can ask of a work: What conflict does it dramatize? Analyzing conflict reveals action, illuminates characters and points to the meaning or theme of a story.
Characterization: Simple/complex. Stereotypes/real, complicated people. Former tend to remain the same, latter change, and grow to a climax or epiphany where a sudden revelation of truth is experienced. Questions to ask: What is this character like? What traits? What kind of character is this person? What do they learn? Does what they learn help or hinder them? What types do they represent?
Theme: The central idea of the work, the comment it makes on the human condition: the nature of humanity, of society, of humankind’s relationship to the world, and of our ethical responsibilities. Are human beings innately sinful or good? Does fate control us or do we it? What does a particular social system do for, and to, its members? Distinguish between subject: usually stated in one word: e.g. Love; and theme: what the work says about the subject. Stating a theme involves moving from the concrete situations within the work to the general situations of people outside the work. Many works have more than one theme. Some may not have any. Difficult to say what they mean. Themes in complex works can never be determined with certainty. You must seek patterns and support your interpretations with logic and evidence. Questions to ask: What is the work about? What does the work say about the subject? How does the work communicate its theme – plot, setting, characterization, etc?
Setting: The physical sensuous world of the work, the time in which the action takes place, the manners, customs and moral values that govern the characters’ society. Questions to ask: Get the details of the physical setting clear in your mind. Where does the action take place? What sensuous qualities are present? What relationship does place have to characterization and theme? What period of history are we in? How long does it take for the action to occur? How is the passage of time perceived? Slow/fast. What reaction do we and the characters have to atmosphere, the sensual quality of the setting?
Point of view: Position from which the story is told. Omniscient: the author assumes complete knowledge of the characters’ actions and thoughts. Limited Omniscient: this knowledge is restricted to one character. First person: one character tells the story, eliminating the author as narrator. Narration is restricted to what one character says or observes. Objective: author is narrator who refuses to enter into the minds of any of the characters. We see them as we would in the real world. Don’t know what they think unless they tell us.
Tone: is the narrator’s predominant attitude toward the subject: flippant, cynical, stoical, hard-boiled, bemused. Once you’ve determined point of view, ask why the author has chosen it. Can you trust the narrator? Does the author differentiate between his or her own view and the characters’ view?
Irony: makes visible a contrast between appearance and reality; exposes and underscores a contrast between what is and what seems to be, what ought to be, what one wishes to be, one expects to be. Verbal irony: people say the opposite or what they mean, under and over statement, sarcasm. Situational irony: where someone we expect to be upstanding – minister or judge – is a repulsive, lying scoundrel. Attitudinal irony: where a naïve character thinks everything will always turn out for the best, when in fact the people they meet are consistently corrupt and the things that happen to them are destructive and painful. Dramatic irony: where characters say things they believe to be true, when the audience knows it to be false. Oedipus. Reader foreknowledge is key.