To discuss literature effectively, readers and writers must be familiar with several terms. Short stories, novels, and plays generally relate the events surrounding specific characters. Some of the characters are more important than others, depending on their involvement with others and their influence on the events occurring within the work. The storyline or sequence of events in a short story, novel, or drama is referred to as the plot. Characters themselves are referred to as major and minor characters, but they also possess other distinctions. For example, characters that are well-defined, whose motivations and values are revealed for readers or audiences, are known as rounded characters. In contrast, characters whose motivations remain unknown throughout the work or whose significance is only to help propel the plot without their making any major contribution to the overall importance of the work are known as flat characters. Flat characters are given this label because they are usually thought of in a figurative sense as being one dimensional.
The main character in such a work is known as the protagonist. The protagonist may or may not be the narrator of a story, but the majority of the action involves this character. Often in literary works as in life itself, the protagonist must deal with conflict(s). The conflict is central to the plot of the play and the development of the action. It is typical for a work to build to a heightened state of action known as the climax. From this point onward, the action is said to descend and result in the dénouement, a French word that literally means "the untying of a knot." The force (or character) against which the protagonist operates is known as the antagonist. Often two characters within a work seem to represent opposing forces. They are commonly referred to as foils.
Another element paramount to the study of any work is the setting. Setting is important because it is where and when a story takes place. Alice Walker's story "Everyday Use" takes place in rural Georgia sometime following the Civil Rights movement. The southern setting calls upon readers to draw conclusions regarding attitudes toward African Americans during this time in history as well as attitudes of African Americans during this time. For example, Dee, a major character, has dropped the name Dee and adopted the name Wangero because she feels it better depicts her African heritage. Her behavior is representative of a trend that reached heightened popularity during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
All other elements of literature contribute to the study of theme. The theme of a work is a universal value or message that the work conveys to readers. For example, readers might say one theme of "Everyday Use" is that the only way to truly preserve one's heritage is to continue living it.
An understanding of figurative language plays an important role in the study of literature. While there are numerous types of figurative language, among the most common are personification, simile, and metaphor. Personification involves the attributing of lifelike or human qualities to objects or items that possess no life. Can you find the personified element in this sentence? "The wind played a solemn chord." Simile and metaphor function as comparisons just as personifications do; however, a simile is a direct comparison using like, as, than ( x is like y) whereas a metaphor states that one thing is another or ( x = y). A simile then would be "employees left their jobs like rats fleeing from a sinking ship." A comparable metaphor would be "the nurses, secretaries, technicians were all rats fleeing from a sinking ship."
While reading a literary work it is essential to pay close attention to detail because details contain clues. Often details such as objects are symbolic or something else more significant than the objects themselves. For example the setting of John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" holds clues to the story's conflict and uses much sexual symbolism to alert readers to the causes of protagonist Elisa's plight. Steinbeck opens with this description:
The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot....On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves. (Ford 288)
Here Steinbeck has used late fall of the year to parallel the stage in Elisa's life. At the time the story was written, a thirty-five year old woman was past childbearing years. And Elisa is childless. Her womb is as barren as the landscape that Steinbeck paints for us as a tightly-closed pot. Steinbeck continues to rely on sexual symbolism in this story because the conflict stems from the fact that Elisa is childless and her husband does not seem to see her as woman.
Many other elements comprise a complete study of literature, but these are the basics. Whenever reading and assigned literary work such as a poem or short story consider the above topics and how they improve comprehension of that work.
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use. Preparing for College Writing: A Practical Guide to Grammar and Composition ( A Custom Edition with additional contributions from Columbia State Community College). Boston: Pearson, 2003.
The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the creator of this site. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Columbia State Community College. Questions or Comments should be referred to firstname.lastname@example.org