An Unusual Introduction Coming from a Teacher:

Some Things to Think About When Reading Anything

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D.,
for Scholars Online

What this document is for

This document is being offered on the Web as an introduction for new students and as a refresher for continuing students; it contains some basic thoughts on how I approach literature, and how I expect you to approach it too.

It also gives the definitions of some terms I tend to sling around rather more freely than you might be used to, together with how to use these questions in helping you crack some of the nuts any of these courses can offer. In the long run, I hope it will be fun!

Hunting the Literary Animal

When I first went to the San Diego Zoo (a wonderful place), I was amused to hear the guides talk about this or that move an animal might make as “a behavior.” Well, of course, I thought. That’s pretty stupid. Whatever the animal does is its behavior. Big deal. I soon came to realize, though, that this was a form of verbal shorthand, meaning, “Something unusual that this particular species does.”

In experiencing literature, we are doing something like watching animals, but the beast we are interested in is the literary work, something that exists at the crossroads where the mind of the creator and the mind of the reader meet in a text. Note the two-part definition: there are two things very distinct in reality — the written thing itself, and what people think about it. The one is objectively lifeless — just ink and paper, a sequence of signs on paper or a computer, neither better nor worse (in themselves) than any other set of signs or ink-marks; the other the immortal souls (or so I believe) that we can glimpse through the work. One of the hardest things about literature has always been that, no matter how obviously different these two things are in theory, we are not able to separate them in practice. This can cause some real problems.

But given that dilemma, experiencing literature is like experiencing an animal — direct. When you are playing with a dog, you are dealing with something entirely different from any series of statements you could make about dogs in general, or even about this particular dog. It is interesting, surely, that a twitching tail has one meaning in a dog, and another in a cat. But however important, this piece of knowledge is not a dog or a cat itself. The animal produces effects in you — sensations, feelings, thoughts, ideas, allergic reactions, and so on, depending on a thousand different things, only some of which have anything to do with the animal itself. Some of them depend on what you bring to the process. But everything you can know about an animal is not the same as experiencing the animal itself.

It’s like that with literature, too. Some scholars, I think, forget that, but it’s important. All I can hope to do as a teacher of literature is to be like the zoo guide, and try to get you to recognize certain literary “behaviors.” That is, I can teach you names for what you see, and perhaps some new ways of thinking about how pieces fit together. It may, in fact, improve your relationship with literature, just as knowing that a cat wagging its tail usually does not want to play may save you a good scratching.

But beyond this rather limited role as guide and guided, we are not so much student and teacher as just joint experiencers of the literature. I may have more practice doing that than some people (and surely a lot less than others), but we’re all out here in the jungle together, encountering the animals as they come at us. For me to tell you how to experience them is about as intelligent as my telling you, “You should like cats,” or perhaps, “Do not be eaten by this tiger.” Sound advice, maybe, but not especially useful. And it won’t work.

All I can really tell you is how to recognize certain behaviors of the literary beast, and then show you where you can see lots of them behaving one way or another. You may find your reactions to some of them just like mine. You may not. You may like them, or dislike them, and certainly you will have a more complicated range of experiences than just like or dislike (otherwise why bother with literature? You could just find a flavor of candy you liked and have that instead.)

So, as your guide through the literary zoo (or jungle), I can help, direct, and advise you. But I can’t experience the literature for you, any more than I could eat dinner for you, suffer as you would the loss of someone close to you, or summon the memories of your childhood. I can’t even affect your experiences very much (certainly not much at a time), just as I can’t tell you to like a particular flavor that you didn’t otherwise like.

What I am trying to express with this extended simile is that I am not going to do what often passes for literature instruction today, even in some rather advanced circles. Most of the English classes I took in junior high and high school (except for the two good ones) seemed to be concerned with getting the students to feel this way or that way. Such “instruction” often takes the form of extracting something you will like from the work in question, in the hope that you will like the work in which it appeared. That’s nonsense. It doesn’t work. Just look at the number of people our school systems turn out who will tell you that they “don’t like literature.”

The idea that it should work is even more disturbing, though, I think, because it presumes that with the “proper” instruction you won’t be able to tell one thing from another. To get you to like a book about someone who bakes a pie, they have you bake a pie. If you like the pie, then you’re supposed to have gotten something from the book. Others try to “use” literature to help you solve your problems by showing you how someone else in a fictional work has addressed the same problem. Most of the elementary curricular materials for literature I looked at for my own kids rely on this kind of approach. It is doubtless meant well, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging. At its most harmless, it’s pointless — a kind of free-association game of the sort, “other things this book made me think about.” If your mind works like the teacher’s, you have the right reaction and do well; if it doesn’t, you don’t, and do badly. If this kind of thing really takes, and you become “good” at literature this way, it mostly means that you aren’t much good at thinking for yourself. Such people can be led around by the nose by anyone with the right tools and an authoritarian platform to stand on. Most students, thank goodness, aren’t very good at this game — they think too clearly for themselves — and, unless they are inclined to be rebellious, they will conclude that there’s some mystery about literature that they just don’t get. In other words, many get frustrated with literature precisely because they haven’t thrown away their brains. If their teachers tell them what experiences to have, and they don’t have those experiences, they figure they’ve failed. On such a basis, anyone with the intelligence of a soft-shelled crab is sooner or later going to wonder, “Why should I bother even trying to do this?” It’s a good question. I can’t imagine why, myself, other than that they are supposed to be doing it.

But I do think that literature is something worth doing — not just for “literature types” but for everyone. But you have to do it for yourself, and I can’t do it for you. I strongly believe that for me to attempt to manage your experience by confusing you is arrogant, destructive, and wrong. If you ever see me doing something that looks like this, challenge me on it. We all slip up sometimes, but I would rather be corrected myself — even lose you as a student — than have you lose the largest cultural legacy our civilization has to give you. You are entitled to have your own experiences of a book or a poem, and nobody else can tell you how you will or should respond to it. It’s your heritage as much as mine, if you will have it. Take it. Make it yours. Make yourself a part of it.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that your feelings and reactions to literature are not worth discussing; merely that they need no justification to me or anyone else. On the other hand, though, your subjective reactions need to take a place alongside many objective things one can discover and learn about the topic, and in time those will help you experience the literature itself, unless I am very much mistaken. I shall sometimes move from subjective topics to objective ones and back again, and I may tell you my own reactions. But they are mine, and they need not be yours.

Mostly — certainly to start — I will probably seem to be talking a lot about certain objective things one can learn about literature. There are areas where there are right and wrong answers, even in a field that is often so awash in feelings. Milton really did write before Coleridge, and your feelings about the matter isn’t going to change that. Herman Melville really was influenced heavily by his reading of Shakespeare. We have his word on it. There are lots of patterns, forms, and kinds of expression that can be handled objectively. In certain arrangements of words and ideas, you can recognize the development of a theme or a technique, without having to feel one way or another about it.

As I said above, knowing all these things about a piece of literature is not the same as experiencing the literature. But they are tools, and with these tools you can perceive more clearly and attune your reactions more closely to what is really there to be seen. While sharpening these tools, moreover, we shall in fact experience a good deal of literature. In the process we should acquire practiced and disciplined habits of thought that will help us see and understand better what the author really has to say to us. So, without further ado, let’s look at the toolbox.

Tools of Literary Discussion: Vocabulary and Questions

People who work with literature often use a somewhat specialized vocabulary. Sometimes they use it to obscure what they are doing, which is a shame, since good literature deserves a wider appreciation than it normally gets. But there are legitimate uses for special terms. At their best, such terms help direct our thinking by posing a series of more or less “automatic” questions — questions that will help us probe the work and get a pretty good impression of what’s really there under the surface; they also give us some way of talking to each other about the material. In a field as vast and formless as this one often seems, we need all the help we can get. It should go without saying that asking these questions, even if you come up with answers that satisfy you, should not be the end of dealing with a work, but its beginning. Every piece of literature worthy of the name will generate questions unique to itself, and it is perfectly legitimate to pursue these. But every work, too, can be asked certain broad questions, and these will help us get our bearings. The following are some topics, discussed very briefly, just to get you rolling.

Under each heading, you will notice, there is a set of questions that call for you to make some decisions about the work in question. After that, I usually ask you to produce some further observations about how you know what you have just claimed to be true. This may appear — and may be — a specious separation, since the two processes often occur simultaneously. It may even seem a backward or wrong-headed way of going about things, since it seems to call for forming conclusions before gathering evidence. This is hardly what I mean to suggest, and I would submit that as a reader becomes more astute, the more likely the process is to become deliberate and objective. But it is also true, partly because we have language in and around us from a very early age, that the intelligent but untutored reader can form fairly accurate perceptions about things done in language without being able to attribute that perception to any demonstrable facts. We need to recognize this intuitive capacity in ourselves: it even enters (strongly) into the scientific process, in the formation of hypotheses. But, as in science, if we gather evidence that contradicts our first hypotheses, we should be willing to modify them — because, as should be obvious to everyone who ever got offended because of something someone else said as a joke, our intuition is not 100% sound.


We will repeatedly address the question of diction in both poetry and prose. It refers to what tone an author achieves, and in particular what attitude he is trying to produce in his reader toward the material. We sometimes talk about a “high” or “low” dictional level: this is not a question of reading level (e.g., “Fourth Grade”) but of seriousness of tone and other such qualities.

Keep your eye on diction. It’s one of the first things to strike you about a work. You should have a pretty good feel for it by the time you are a few paragraphs in. If diction suddenly swerves, pay attention: if something that seems high becomes suddenly low (or vice versa) you are observing a literary behavior worthy of note. You should be able to answer these questions about anything you have read thoughtfully:

  1. Is the tone serious or not? Does the author seem to expect you to be serious?
  2. Is the author writing ironically — i.e., saying something he doesn’t really mean to produce an opposite effect in you?
  3. Is the author trying to persuade you of something? If so, what, and why?
  4. Is the author trying to induce a particular experience in you? If so what? Why?
  5. Is the author trying to teach you something? If so, what, and why?
  6. Is the author trying to entertain you? If so, what experience is he attempting to produce?

After answering at least these questions, and any others like them that seem relevant, you should be able to build a pretty good profile of what the author seems to think of his work — a composite answer to the question, “What attitude are we expected to have toward it?” When you have done this, you can get down to the second part of the question of diction: namely, identifying the clues the author gives you to allow you to determine the answers to the foregoing questions. Some of these will fall into the category of well-known “tricks of the trade” (which doesn’t make them any the less effective in context); others will be unique effects that you had never seen or considered before.

  1. Does the author use particular words to produce a particular emotional reaction? How do these work?
  2. (Especially in poetry, but also in prose): Does the author use any particular sounds to achieve an emotional effect? How do these work?
  3. What other tonal/dictional elements are manifest when you consider the other questions on these sheets?


Structure is one of the most overworked, and least understood, terms in the literary arsenal. I intend to use it fairly narrowly, and would prefer that you do as well. It is easy to map large-scale “structures” of all sorts on a work of literature. It’s not clear what we mean, when we are talking about these things, though. What I mean by structure is something like an engineer’s analysis of a machine or a circuit. That is, what is its shape, how does it come apart, how does it go together, and how do the parts interact when it is operating properly? Specifically:

  1. Unity or cohesion in a work of art probably doesn’t need to be justified or defended: we all have a sense that one work ought to be, in some sense, about one thing. Anything else is detail. Does the work have such cohesion? Does it have anything you could characterize as a shape? If the answer is no, almost anything else you can ask is secondary, though you should probably start by asking yourself whether you have missed some important links. If the answer is yes, then of each other structural observation you must ask, how does this serve the whole?
  2. Does the work as a whole break down into obvious parts? Do they break down into parts in turn, and so on?
  3. If you have something with parts, are they arbitrary divisions of convenience (for example, chapters that are about the same length to make them easier to read), or do they serve some more fundamental purpose?
  4. Do the parts resemble each other in internal structure, or are they different? (An analysis of the choral songs found in Greek tragedy, for example, will reveal an amazing complex of echoes operating between the parts of parts.)
  5. The big question: so what? What does this structure reveal to you? How does it help you understand and/or manage the work, or integrate its contents into your own understanding?

Once you have sketched these, you need to ask yourself some other questions. The answers can be of very different kinds, ranging from rhyming words in a poem to changing use of pronouns. Anything that can be written and consistently observed is fair game for the analysis:

  1. What signs does the author leave to indicate that this part is connected to that one?
  2. What are the indications of a break between the parts?
  3. What purpose is served by such division into parts or such a unity?
  4. Is the evidence consistent? What happens if I pursue it further? Does the same evidence that I am using to suggest this structural division also, if followed regularly, destroy the argument I am trying to make?
  5. Are these signs you have noticed really part of the original work? This is a question we need to consider especially when dealing with old works, or with translations. Often a work will be divided up into sections by an editor who was working just a few years ago, and you will be deceived into thinking that these divisions have something to do with the author’s actual plan. At another level, two words in a translation that rhyme, or are otherwise suggestive of each others’ sound, will almost never reflect a similar phenomenon in the original work.


This is a rather vague term, and has mostly to do with how the author shows us the reality (or fantasy) he is trying to describe. Here the “how” and “what” questions become very close. Our generation may have seen too much television or too many movies: the camera is (or at least seems) rigidly objective most of the time in what it shows. A writer, however, makes a thousand subjective decisions with every sentence he produces: what do I talk about next? do I look inside the character’s mind or not? do I connect things philosophically? and so forth. For those at all interested in pursuing this topic, I recommend a reading of selected chapters of Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Those who have had English I here have already encountered this. So consider:

  1. What kinds of things get described?
  2. How is the author treating underlying questions, such as cause and effect? Do we see one thing happen after another, and form the implicit link ourselves, or are we told why everything happens?
  3. How do such things as sentence structure allow us to perceive (or prevent us from perceiving) certain things about the flow of events in a story?

Then the narrower implicit questions:

  1. Why has the author chosen to take the approach he has taken?
  2. How does the flow of time and events in the narrative (assuming a narrative piece) correspond with the way we perceive events in the real world?
  3. Would you (or could you) have done it otherwise?


This is surely one of the most complex and difficult things to accomplish as a writer, and one of the most interesting to discuss as a student. In a way, it is a kind of special case of representation: namely the representation of a person or character. It will, of course, become a central issue in certain kinds of narrative, and not in other less narrative works. Many short poems seem to have little by way of characterization. Ask yourself:

  1. Is this person interesting? Why, or why not? Are you induced to sympathize with the character or not? If so, how; if not, how not and why not?
  2. Does the person behave consistently (at least according to an internal logic — not necessarily as you would)?
  3. Does the way this person speaks and acts ring true to my experience of other persons?
  4. What are the motivations for this person’s actions?
  5. Does the character change during the course of the work? Why? Is it important for the plot? How does the plot affect the character?
  6. Does the author adopt a subjective or an objective point of view? That is, are you seeing events through a character’s eyes, or from some other “omniscient” (all-knowing) point of view?

There are a thousand questions more that one could ask of characterization, since it is an attempt to show us (usually) believable characters, and people are, as a rule, very complicated indeed.

And again, the how-do-you-know questions arise:

  1. What specifically does the author show you that makes you conclude what you do about the person?
  2. Dialogue is one of the principal modes of characterization (drama uses little else, and most other forms of fiction use at least some of it). How does the author use direct (or reported) speech to give you an impression of the character? All the questions enumerated above in respect to diction can be applied on a smaller scale to the speeches of different characters. Can you believe what the character is saying? Is there a discrepancy between what different characters say (there usually is, at some level), or between what the character says and what the author tells or shows you?
  3. Are there points when you must reassess a character because you have learned some new fact about his motivations?
  4. What clues does the author give you regarding changes in a character? Are they sufficient? Confusing? Ambiguous?

It is not considered a work in the high tradition of literary scholarship, but a working-day manual for working writers, but one of the best things I have ever seen on this subject is a book by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, entitled Character and Viewpoint. If you are interested in this, check it out.


This is one of the vaguer terms, and may be difficult mostly on that account. In general, there are two overall literary things that fall into closely related bins, but are still oddly distinct: overall theme proper, and what we might call topics (or, if you want to sound highly learned) topoi (singular topos). Broadly, the former might be classed as the “subject” — what a work is about. Some kinds of narrative are clearly about nothing more or less than the course of the action. The average adventure is entertainment rooted in its action, without necessarily expressing any overarching ideas. This is not bad, please understand: it is merely the case that some other works do have ideas that are being examined and studied through the medium of the poetry or prose. The degree to which a theme controls the flow of a plot is of course going to vary from work to work. Sometimes it will be more important than at others.

  1. What is the nature of decisions characters must make? Is there any comparison between those of one or more characters?
  2. Does the author address you or supply you with opinions, perspectives, or background that he seems to want you to consider? Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, have whole chapters devoted to the author’s opinions of what is going on. As a technique this has largely fallen out of favor in modern writing, but, as we are making an historical survey, you should be prepared to encounter it. If the author tells you what he is writing about, you can bet that at least he thinks that that’s what he’s doing. Vergil begins the Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man, who...” This begins to define his main theme. It is certainly not the only theme in the Aeneid, which is roomy enough for several good ones — fate and destiny, the responsibility of the individual to the community, the relation between a person’s feelings and his actions, and so forth.
  3. Are there several themes or one? Is there a metaphorical or symbolic presence in the story pointing out the theme or its significance?
  4. Topics, on the other hand, may be (though they need not be) more or less incidental to the main business at hand, and merely arise through circumstance, or be some “extra” that the author wants you to think of for a while. Often they are “typical” figures, which pop up through a sequence of works by different authors. This is one of the features of a work that an historical approach is best at catching. It’s worth remembering that literature is not created or read in a vacuum, but it takes part in an ongoing “conversation” of writers that has been going on for many generations, and will probably continue going on for some time. Noticing such things may help you to see the connections between different works of literature; recognizing a conventional topic may help you focus on the unique aspects of a work of literature, since you can see how this author is dealing with the material as opposed to how the previous authors did so.

When you have identified the topics, also ask yourself,

  1. Why does the author introduce this here?
  2. Does the author seem to have a particular attitude he wants to convey to you about such a theme?
  3. Related to #2 is another: Is the idea presented fairly, or does the author have a particular slant to which he is adjusting the facts of the story?
  4. Sometimes an author may be limited by his time or cultural context in curious ways: he may introduce a theme or topic naively. Instead of merely dismissing what he has to say as worthless (which is a relatively trivial response), you can still ask yourself whether there is something useful to be gathered here.

And finally one special matter that has become popular in recent years, as a way of looking at literary products (but not a bad one, if you don’t get too carried away with it). A common theme throughout all periods of literature has been the production of literature itself. What does the writer say about writing (or any other artistic/creative endeavor)? You can uncover important matters about things from Homer on by looking at this question. It may involve you in a degree of tail-chasing, since anything the author says about The Author must, in some sense, be re-applied to itself (thus creating a potential logical paradox of self-reference) but it is still worthwhile.


Probably nothing in literature is regarded with more discomfort than symbolism. It is associated with all that is highbrow, remote, inaccessible, cryptic, and (maybe) pointless about literature, which has made the discussion of symbolism almost as popular as the book report in some schools.

This is unfortunate, because at bottom all literature — at least all fictional literature — is symbol. The act of writing is the expression of something other than writing in a symbolic medium — words on the page. The pieces of the story represent things, sometimes rather abstractly, and sometimes quite concretely. The issue is a problem, perhaps, but it is such an important one that there is no appreciation of literature that can fail to take it into account at some level or other.

A symbol is, at its simplest, merely using something to represent something else to some degree. This can range from a small, almost incidental symbol which you could miss without damaging the story, to a “key” to the whole work. The biblical book of Revelation has symbols of the latter sort — many-headed beasts, etc. are supposed to stand for something else — political entities, Satan, and so forth. Symbols that are less essential (but nevertheless add to the richness of a story) include things like the statue of the angel in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg; if you read this carefully you can see how, as Claudia discovers things about the angel, and learns to value it for itself, she is discovering the same things quietly about herself. Between these relative extremes is a very wide range, and you can find examples along the whole way. Any metaphor or simile (“The tower stood, a finger pointing to heaven,” or “He looked like a prophet of old”) involves some degree of symbolism: for at least as long as the simile or metaphor is operating, the author wants you to think of the thing being used for comparisons, and it is likely he wants you to think of it for at least a while afterward, too. Repeated or extended metaphors are often quite important, for they suggest a way of viewing the material of a story by analogy (an important term: if you don’t know it, look it up!)

Ask yourself, therefore:

  1. Are there things here that are being used to represent something other than themselves?
  2. Is the author (apparently) using them consciously? That is, does he seem to have put them there as symbols, or do they merely seem to grow out of the fabric of the story or poem?
  3. Does one need to appreciate their symbolic significance in order to understand the work, or are they mere “extras”?
  4. One especially murky case arises when two (or more) things in a story are apparently being used as points of comparison for each other. At this point we have to question the obvious understanding of the relationship of symbol to the thing symbolized (sometimes called the “referent” of the symbol). But instead of letting this frustrate you, accept it: try to find out what the author is doing, and what he is showing you with the comparisons.

Having identified the symbols and categorized or characterized them somewhat, you should go on to ask:

  1. What is the scope of this symbol? That is, are we meant to bear it in mind throughout, or is it merely to help us through a particular passage? Obviously in something like a short poem — say a sonnet by Shakespeare or Sidney — there is hardly time to have forgotten the first line by the time the poem ends. In a long book, a symbol that was used effectively in chapter three is no longer of any interest in chapter 52. This is partly important because sometimes working remote symbols against each other is an important part of what the author is up to: other times, it just creates an interference that spoils both of them. It’s up to you to decide.
  2. Is the author’s use of symbolism rigorous and disciplined, or diffuse and indirect? This is not a value judgment: there are some fine examples of literature using symbols of both kinds. But seeing how the author approaches the symbolic task helps us know how rigorously to apply them. In a very rigorous approach, virtually everything that is said about a symbol has a direct application to the thing that it refers to. When a system of symbols of this sort is worked out, we have a kind of literary approach called allegory (from the Greek, meaning something like “otherspeak”). An example would be Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In other forms of symbolism you are not meant to force the issue. The latter is far more common in most works, and especially in modern works.
  3. Do these symbols form part of a larger conventional pattern? That is, are they “standard” symbols, or are they of the author’s own invention? Is he relying on the audience to know something? For example, in Elizabethan England, strawberries had apparently acquired a meaning as a symbol for unfaithfulness — with the result that the strawberry handkerchief in Othello was, for contemporary audiences, more or less “labeled” as having to do with this topic. W. B. Yeats’ complex symbolism of the “gyre” that appears in some of his later poetry, on the other hand, was meaningless even to contemporary audiences without his own elaboration and explanation of its significance.
  4. The question that is perhaps the implicit end of all these threads, “So what?” That is, how does identifying and exploring this symbol help understand the work and its points better? (Sometimes, esp. in the case of accidental or trivial symbols, the answer may be, “It doesn’t.” We can live with that too, but don’t resort to it too often: there usually is something to be gathered from a symbol.)


The question of imagery intersects with any general discussion of theme, metaphor, or symbol. In general it refers to the “picture-making” capacity of an author. Suppose two authors are writing about a king’s court. One may show you the trappings of power: armed men, strong walls, things with hard edges and stern appearance; another view of the same thing might show you the things associated with wealth: rich fabrics and tapestries, jewels, etc.; still another (with something subtler in mind) might show you small signs of weakness or decay: crumbling walls, incompetent soldiers, the feeble person of the old king himself. All of these could be drawn from the same scene, but represent the author’s deliberate choice to concentrate on one or another set of images. Their use may merely constitute color or “decoration,” so to speak; or else they may rise to the level of symbols.

Imagery can be used for a variety of reasons, then, and it has a tendency to vary according to the use the author means to make of it. An image may be very graphic and sensory. An example: I don’t know that it’s a very important image in the overall work, but the hot drink that the dwarf gives Edmund in the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has always struck me as particularly appealing from its description (even though it was certainly bad for him in the long run). Lewis uses this to show us how Edmund is drawn in by his senses (rather than relying on his good sense!) On the other hand, an image may be minimal — only what we need to establish something for the plot, or for characterization, or to make a point. We are barely shown (really just told about) Odysseus’ boar-hunting scar in the Odyssey only when it becomes important to the plot that it be there. The physical description is relatively unimaginative (though Homer gives us a long account of its origins), because, though the scar is crucial to the plot (his old nurse will recognize it), it is mostly important to know that it is there, not what it looks or feels like, or even whether the old wound still causes him any pain. To know how it is would distract from the essential fact that it is.

Images are constructed of language. They can be powerful jolts to the imagination, or utterly vacant. Few of us are likely to sit up and take notice when some weary author tells us, “The herd of buffalo went by like a thunderstorm.” Thundering herds are so common that it’s nigh to impossible to find one that isn’t thundering. These are what we call clichés. They have been used so often that they have no power over us any more. It is sometimes possible to reawaken a cliché by giving it a peculiar twist, though, so not every cliché should be written off. And, as we read the great works of the past, it is worth remembering, too, that some of these phrases that seem so tired now were fresh and vital the first time they were used. Shakespeare is full of quotations that people have beaten to death. It takes a special effort to put the zip back into these things (“to be or not to be,” “one fell swoop,” “salad days,” etc.) but it is worth the effort, because the work itself deserves to be seen, as much as possible, in the terms in which it was written. Other images are so shockingly odd that they stop you in your tracks. People have long debated over T. S. Eliot’s rather bizarre phrase, “...when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table...” Some of us think this is brilliant; C. S. Lewis thought it was stupid. Who is right? You are, as far as your own reading is concerned. It’s mostly a matter of what it does for you.

So ask yourself:

  1. What am I being shown, and how?
  2. What kind of vocabulary — figurative vocabulary, emotionally loaded words, etc. — contribute to the description?
  3. What kind of a sensory impression does it create? Do the descriptions seem tangible or abstract? Can you almost taste that soup, or feel the cloth?
  4. Does the author use conventional language to describe things, or does he use the unusual term?

Then ask yourself:

  1. Why am I being shown this set of things? Do I need to know them for the plot? For the mood? For the characterizaton? To establish a symbol? Or for something else?
  2. Does this set of images predispose me to like or dislike something or someone being depicted? Secondarily, does that reflect my own personal taste, or is it likely to be a universal like or dislike? The author might be trying to tell you about a wonderful meal of roast lamb with mint sauce, but if you hate roast lamb with mint sauce, it’s not going to have the intended effect on you. On the other hand, I have never run into anyone who didn’t find some of Homer’s graphic depictions of battle rather repellent.
  3. Does the language of description successfully depict the thing itself? Is it meant to draw an accurate picture, or to draw attention to some important fact about the thing for other purposes?
  4. Are the images novel ones, or are they clichés? If clichés, have they lost all their power, or are they still forceful? If novel, does their novelty result in a striking and memorable experience for you, or does it derail your thinking?


This is surely one of the most obvious elements of any kind of story-telling, but it remains every bit as important as it seems. There are kinds of literature that don’t have much plot at all — many poems, essays, etc. — but many other kinds do. In a sense, plot is a kind of structure, which I talked about above, but it is a peculiar kind with its own requirements, and, since it is the structure nearest the surface of a narrative work, it is bound to get some special attention from both the writer and the reader. Some circles of literary thought seem to downplay any consideration of plot as lowbrow, or, at the very least, secondary. I think this is about as clever as ignoring the engine of a car, but spending all your time on the upholstery. The plot is what makes it go — and its reason for existing. The mere fact that it is a plot does not mean it has to lack subtlety or wisdom.

Like any other kind of structural element in a story, a plot has a shape: and, of all the structural devices known, we probably have more specific expectations about how a plot is shaped than about any other literary element. Typically a plot falls into this pattern:

  1. Introduction and presentation of a problem;
  2. Rising action, in which the problem is complicated;
  3. Crisis (or climax); and
  4. Falling action.

Sounds simple. Yet within this overall pattern are a thousand possible twists and turns, and each stage of the game may have its little sub-plots. Some novels have several virtually distinct plots running simultaneously, with complex patterns and possibilities for interaction among themselves.

The bulk of most books is taken up with the rising action phase of things, though you can find exceptions to the rule; here in particular it is possible to have a series of local rises and falls, each punctuated by a separate crisis.

Most plots are composed by a sequence of events linked by causation. Causation is complicated — it’s a complicated philosophical idea, and a complicated scientific one. It doesn’t get any easier in literature. If something happens, we want to know why. Now obviously we can’t explain the cause of everything in a narrative, or the narrative will continue to grow forever, as we probe further and further back. But the rule is that the more central something is to the resolution of the crisis, the more necessary it is that it be explained. The occasional situation typical of some Greek and Roman dramas, in which a god emerged from a mechanical “cloud” or “chariot” on stage and proceeded to resolve a problem that otherwise couldn’t be resolved, was known to the Romans as deus ex machina: “a god from a machine.” The term is more widely used to describe a situation where the author (usually in desperation) brings in some extraneous element at the last minute to fix the mess he has made. It is not considered to be a virtue in modern writing, and even some of the contemporary Greeks and Romans had harsh words for it.

Most readers want their plots to be plausible and possible. Sometimes we are willing to suspend one of these expectations, for one reason or another. Plausibility often goes out the window in something like slapstick comedy, for instance, where the source of the humor is the absurdity of the situation. If you were reading a mystery novel, though, which took itself seriously all the way through, but suddenly turned into slapstick and threw away all the expectations in the end, you would feel cheated. What is possible, on the other hand, is redefined (at least) for fantasy and some kinds of science fiction: here the author gives you a new set of rules, and agrees to abide by those. In this world, for example, certain kinds of magic work; in that one, space travel is commercially available, etc. Because science has discovered certain things over the years, we now have a different set of things we think possible than some earlier generations did. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, for example, a child of one black and one white parent came out looking spotted. Most of us in the United States know that this is not the way it typically works, but Wolfram was writing in mediaeval Germany, and had probably not seen many black people, and certainly very few if any children of mixed-race couples. In order to appreciate Parzival fairly, therefore, one needs to “suspend disbelief” on this particular detail. If, however, Wolfram had shown his hero cut in half with a sword and then going on to do a dance, we would have a right to cry foul.

Aristotle’s rule (from his Poetics) is that a plausible impossibility is always preferable to an implausible possibility. And he is right, because literature is almost a kind of engineering — but its material is not wood or steel, but the imagination. If it seems possible, even though we may know better, the imagination can remain intact. If it breaks the imagination — that is, so that you can no longer picture it, or understand how it fits with what surrounds it — it has failed. This is one of the reasons that a good deal of science fiction dealing with space travel ignores the effects of relativity: they are just too strange, and too far outside our perceived experience, for us to be able to imagine them. Of course what different people can and cannot imagine is going to be different — so their experience of this kind of thing will be different too.


  1. Is the pattern of causation rational? That is, does one event follow upon another in a meaningful sequence, or is it chaotic? Are there points that are raised, and then ignored because it is convenient for the writer to ignore them? If it is irrational, is that for a purpose, or not?
  2. How is the plot shaped? Is the bulk taken up with rising action, followed by a climax and then a fairly short ending? Or is the climax somewhere near the middle, with a long tapering conclusion? There are a lot of options, and we have a lot of expectations in this regard.
  3. Is it satisfying to you? Do you feel that the conclusion is somehow “fitting”? (You can describe this in a lot of ways.)
  4. Do the characters’ fates result from decisions they have made, or from external circumstances? If the former, do those consequences seem to fit the decisions well, or do they seem wrong to you?
  5. Are there extra “rules” brought into play that allow you to appreciate even an implausible solution — such as the Sherlock Holmes “convention” that says that Mr. Holmes will have noticed something and will certainly be able to figure the problem out?

Then consider:

  1. How does the plot express the theme of the book or story? Does it present a solution, or a model for a wider human problem that the story is trying to examine?
  2. Does the plot (or do the plots) have different endings for different characters that are somehow illustrative of their different decisions? What is the author claiming about the possibility of decisions? Are there other philosophical ideas expressed in the execution of the action?


This is surely one of the most complex and difficult things to investigate responsibly, since, while it is easy to say, “This is like that,” — itself a useful exercise — doing this is a long way from demonstrating influence. It is also a matter that cannot be discussed very usefully until you have a certain amount of reading under your belt already. It is a product of a long historical view of literature, and it hides itself largely in the cracks between works, though it may be reflected in the work itself by the use of certain signs and references. Sometimes this is very important: Vergil’s Aeneid, I submit, cannot be understood well at all by someone who has not read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: Vergil is engaging in a complicated investigation — perhaps a refutation, perhaps not — of some of Homer’s ideas and ideals, and in every way depends upon the two Greek poems as its backdrop. I will not encourage you to start looking for influences right away. Later, as patterns develop, we will have a look at influence.

Authorial Intent

One question is going to come up pretty soon — I don’t know where or when, but it will — is this: is this “literary” behavior I am observing really a behavior of a text or of the author? As I said above, this is the insoluble quagmire. If I had an answer for that that everyone would accept, I’d be widely recognized as the world’s foremost critical genius: and I’m not. I’m not sure I can usually answer that, so as a rule I am going to try to avoid doing so. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of the question — merely to emphasize that no observing tool we have can clearly separate intention from its effect. Only God, I submit, has that particular scalpel in his bag. So if I avoid answering it, it is mostly out of modesty. Out of honest deference to the fact that we are not God, we will talk about what’s there, on the page, as if there were a mind informing it, but not try to split hairs too finely about where authorial intention starts and stops. In this regard, I am in fact following the general conventions observed in wider circles of literary criticism: the question is ruled out of bounds at least partly because it so often leads nowhere.

They have also largely reached this conclusion (so far as coining the term “intentional fallacy” for arguments that try to pry authorial intent out of a text) because, on one level at least, it is unimportant. Saying this often gets people needlessly riled up, and I don’t mean to offend anyone. But what I am saying here is that the literature itself — the created product, which the author made and published for people to see, is a thing on its own. It stands on its own, and must do so. If it requires someone scurrying along behind, explaining that this or that was not really what the author meant, it is not doing its own job.

Perhaps an extreme case will illustrate the point: if your mother wants you to clean your room, but actually says, “Have an ice cream cone,” then you are probably justified in going ahead and having the ice cream cone. If she later reproaches you and says, “But I meant that you should clean your room, not that you should have ice cream,” you can (politely) point out that maybe she should have used words to express something more like that idea instead: you were acting reasonably, even obediently, in going for the ice cream.

Like most “rules,” though, this has its logical limits. Let’s not become too dogmatic about this one. There are certain things about which we can be pretty confident — in general terms, at least. We can be fairly sure that Shakespeare did not mean to echo Milton in any of his works, because he was dead before Milton wrote. There are also cultural norms that we can use to adjust how we think about things. Anyone reading the Iliad with modern sensibilities, for example, will probably find Achilles a real egotistical pain in the neck, needing to be set down a few notches at least. At some level we are justified in thinking so; but we will also miss most of what Homer was doing if we leave it at that. For Homer, Achilles was not a spoiled brat but nearly the perfect human being. To appreciate what he is doing in the Iliad, you need to see how and why this is so. If you want to experience the Iliad the way his first audience would have, then, while you are reading Homer at least, you need to adopt his assumptions provisionally, even if you still wouldn’t want to meet Achilles or have him as a friend (I sure wouldn’t). Otherwise, the vast and profound chronicle of his fall from grace and redemption (not on a Christian model, of course) is pointless, and seems directionless.

Most cases where authorial intent is queried are themselves difficult middle-ground cases: “Did Shakespeare know he was rhyming these two words?” or, “This character’s reaction reminds me of that one’s. Was that what the author had in mind?” These are questions for which the only evidence — and the only valid material — is the text itself. “If you see it,” said one of my very best professors, “it’s there.”


At the end of this process, you may wish to consider whether there is a moral component in the work — that is, whether it is a “good” work or a “bad” one. Obviously a work cannot be itself good or bad in the same way a person can, but it is worth considering whether it is calculated or likely to have a good effect on those who read it, etc.

It is not popular even to ask such questions in the academic world today, but it is not entirely unheard-of, either. In other periods of history, to ascertain this was considered a leading goal of literary criticism. Personally, I think both positions are extreme; and in particular the rush to moral judgment about a work of literature has resulted in many good works being suppressed, while many worse ones became popular, because their pernicious qualities were more obscure. I would suggest that this is essentially an extra-literary question: that is, we may need to build protections around certain works from time to time to protect society (and especially our children) from their bad effects, but they do not reflect directly on the quality of the literature itself. It may govern whether one wants to read it or recommend it, though. But I would suggest invoking it only in fairly extreme cases is it really relevant, and that enjoying literature is not primarily a matter of assimilating its spiritually nutritious components and spitting out the shell.

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