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Writing about literature


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  • 2. Major Stages in Writing about Literature Characters Historical Period & Background Social & Major Ideas Economic Conditions Artistic Additional Qualities Approaches
  • 3. Character Study• What are the characters like at the beginning of the story?• How do they change throughout the story?• Dynamic? Static?• Round/Complex? Flat/Simple?• Why do the characters undergo change?• Do the characters act in ways that might be normally expected in the circumstances?• If not, what is the reason for their behavior? The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Santiago experiences internal and external struggle throughout the text in his fight with the marlin and the subsequent sharks.
  • 4. Historical Period & Background• When was the work written?• How well does it portray details about life at the time it was written?• What is historically unique about the work?• To what degree does it help you learn something about the past or the present?• How do the actions in the work compare with actions going on today? Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Even though Shakespeare changed some of the story, the tragedy is based on the true story of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their rise to and fall from the throne of Scotland.
  • 5. Economic & Social Conditions • To what level of life, economically, do the characters belong? • How are events in the work related to their condition? • How does their money, or lack of it, limit what they do? • How do their economic circumstances either restrict or liberate their imaginations?“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.Miss Emily’s social and economic • How do their jobs and their apparentstanding in the community, while they income determine their way of life?are slipping from their past glory, play a • How do women’s circumstances differrole in the way the community from men’s in the story?addresses her. Her position as asouthern spinster leaves her vulnerableand secluded, a source of curiosity.
  • 6. Major Ideas (Theme)• Examine the context and content of the story to determine the theme or major idea that the writer is presenting.• Examine the title, the characters’ names for clues• Think about what you expected to happen vs. what actually happened. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling contains many themes: good vs.• Think in terms of the broad evil, love conquers all, coming of age meaning and overall lessons or and self-discovery of talents and morals of the story. values, love of family, the value of friendship.
  • 7. Artistic Qualities • Consider the author’s narrative method or writing style. • What type of narrative voice is present within the work? • Does the author employ symbolism, irony, or humor? • Consider the work’s plan or organization.“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by • How is the work structured?Flannery O’Connor employs • Is the closing full-circle or open-ended?humor, irony, symbolism, and anillusive theme. The work is full-circle.
  • 9. Critical Approaches• Critical theories or approaches are lenses through which literature is studied.• Literary Theories: • Moral / Intellectual • Historical / New Historicism • New Critical / Formalist • Structuralist • Feminist Criticism / Gender Studies / Queer Theory • Marxist / Economic Determinist • Psychological / Psychoanalytic • Archetypal / Symbolic / Mythic • Deconstructionist • Reader Response
  • 10. Moral / Intellectual• Concerned with values & morals• Studied texts are often religious in theme• Examines character’s intellect, morals, values, and religion• Seeks to determine whether the work of literature is both true and significant.• Determines whether a work conveys a message or a lesson and whether it can help readers lead better lives and improve their understanding of the world. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the religious values of colonial Salem and addresses how the actions of the town’s inhabitants live up to the demands of their strict Puritan views.
  • 11. Historical / Topical & New Historicism Historical / Topical New Historicism• Stresses the relationship of • Stresses that historical literature to its historical perspectives should stay period, sometimes to the neglect of connected to the literary work the story itself• Time considerations have 3 layers: • Understands that we lack certain • Time it’s read in…present day knowledge and that we have the • Time it’s written in… advantage of 20/20 vision for • Time its characters live in… historic events *Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë depicts the story of Jane and her beleaguered love interest, Edward Rochester, who has hidden away his wife – the “madwoman in the attic” – and must lead a lonely, unfulfilling life while she lives. It is told from an historical/colonial perspective. **Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys depicts the same story as told by the madwoman in the attic – Mrs. Rochester – and looks at the events through her perspective as the colonized, unwanted, imprisoned, and ill-treated wife. It is written with a New Historicism angle.
  • 12. New Critical / Formalist• Has been the dominant force in modern literary studies.• Focuses on the belief that literary texts are formal works of art – can be seen as a reaction against the topical/historical approach• Looks at what a work says…the content• Also examines how it is said…the artistic style of the author• Works best with shorter works or poetry, but can be used with novel-length works when used in conjunction with discussions of point of view, tone, plot, character, structure, etc. “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver depicts the tragic outcome of a couple’s argument, but also includes interesting stylistic choices such as en medias res (coming into the middle of the action), irony, and dialogue-driven action.
  • 13. Structuralist• Works on the premise that apparently unrelated texts reveal many common patterns or contain similar structures with important variations• Looks for relationships and connections between works that are separate and unique – comparative literature• In doing so, it finds commonalities in literature, establishes the basic premises for writing in particular genres (i.e., modern romances, detective stories, soap operas, sitcoms, and film). Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle follows the prescribed formula for detective stories.
  • 14. Feminist Criticism / Gender Studies / Queer Theory Feminist Criticism Gender Studies / Queer Theory• Evolved from the women’s • Brings attention to gender rather movement of the 1960s and first than sexual differences began to question why women writers were missing from the • Sees the masculine/feminine divide literary canon. as socially constructed rather than• Studies the way both male and innate female characters are portrayed in • Explores the ways in which powerful literature, and the way societal institutions organize our society norms about sexual difference are either enforced or subverted.• Focuses on patriarchal structures • Explores the heterosexual/ and institutions such as marriage. homosexual divide • Examines the way that homosexuals are portrayed in literature, both openly and in veiled references “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin explores the hidden desires of the heart and women’s expectations, duties, and limitations in marriage and society.
  • 15. Marxist / Economic Determinist• Cultural and economic determinism is one of the major political ideas of the 19th century.• Karl Marx argued that the primary influence on life was economic, and he saw a society embroiled in the continuous struggle between capitalist oppressors and oppressed working people.• This “proletarian” literature often focuses on the poor and oppressed, whose attempts to rise out of poverty usually fail. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck examines the lives of a family of migrant farm workers as they move from the Oklahoma dust bowl to California in search of economic stability in the wake of the Great Depression.
  • 16. Psychological / Psychoanalytic• The scientific study of the mind is a product of psychodynamic theory as established by Sigmund Freud.• Psychoanalysis provides a key to understanding a person’s character by claiming that behavior is caused by hidden and unconscious motives.• Looks for hidden causes behind a character’s actions as a way of explaining a character’s behavior. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman delves into the mind of an increasingly delusional heroine.
  • 17. Archetypal / Symbolic / Mythic• Derived from the work on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (pronounced “young”) who purported that human life is built up out of patterns or archetypes that are similar throughout various cultures and historical times.• Supports the idea that the very best literature is grounded in archetypal patterns (i.e., God’s creation of human beings, the sacrifice of a hero, or the search for paradise).• Jung asserts that these recurring patterns in literature are evidence of a “universal human consciousness” that all humans retain in their minds. Paradise Lost by John Milton is the epic tale of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden and of humanity’s fall from grace.
  • 18. Deconstructionist• Considered more a strategy of reading than a critical approach• Assumes the instability of language and the impossibility of arriving at a fixed standard to anchor interpretation • Ex: male/female and good/evil obtain their significance by contrast with one another, so that their meanings are relative, not absolute• Aim is to find disunity and disruption of language in a work, whether binary interpretations or duality of meaning Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a study in contrasts which lends itself well to a Deconstructionist examination of binary language and meaning.
  • 19. Reader Response• Assumes that our quest for truth is not found in the external world, but in our interpretation and perception of external events• Holds that the reader is a necessary third party in the writer-text- reader relationship• A text is finished only when a reader assimilates the work and brings his or her own experience and knowledge to the interpretation of the text• Interpretation of texts is open Beloved by Toni Morrison is rich with emotion, history, and meaning. Unforgettable texts make excellent candidates for Reader Response.