Summary of the Introduction to Literature
Why do we read literature? We read it for entertainment. We read it to learn things about the world and the people in it. We read it to obtain insight and empathy into the experiences and emotional states of others. We read it for excitement and fun. We read it to scare ourselves or calm ourselves down. Some of us read out of compulsion – and will read the back of the milk carton at breakfast if there is nothing else at hand.
We read for all kinds of reasons, but when it comes to literature we need to look at how the manner in which literature tells us things or entertains us is different from mere train tables, text messages and milk cartons.
There are all kinds of reasons for studying the nuts and bolts of literature – for obtaining a meta-perspective, and one of the most important reasons is this: while it has been touched upon before in this module, it is worth repeating that good literature enables us to see the world afresh. When we experience the same things over and over again, it takes a new perspective to wake us up and truly think about the stuff and the people with which we surround ourselves. The Russian Formalists called this effect ostranenje. The playwright Berthold Brecht called it verfremdung. In English it is often called alienation, that is, to make a familiar object or experience seem unfamiliar and new. We need, in other words, to understand why the sentence ‘Romeo and Juliet die in the end’ does not provoke much emotion while the play Romeo and Juliet is so heartbreaking to many people.
The module you have just studied has attempted to introduce to you a number of concepts, terms and theories that might help you to begin to understand these mechanisms. In what follows, we will provide some advice about how to turn these insights into practical approaches to reading and writing about literature. Finally, this page will contain some links to exercises you can try out to test your skills.
We established early on that language is central to literature, and while that might sound like stating the obvious, there is something to be said for being familiar with how language works. The most important insight to bring with you from this part of the module is that the meaning of words is arbitrary, by which we mean that the connections between words and their meaning is not determined by a force of nature, but is rather a human invention. On the negative side this creates the potential for misunderstandings, communication breakdown, speaking at cross purposes and ceasing to be understood completely. On the positive side, it makes language – and therefore literature – an endlessly flexible creative endeavour.
We tried to deepen your insight into the workings of language by introducing you to a light version of the science of semiotics. This is where we have to warn you that the purpose of this section was precisely to increase your insight, but semiotics is a very basic tool of analysing human communication – and an extremely involved special branch of study. Only on very rare occasions will it make sense to use terms from semiotics in the close reading of a poem or an essay about a short story. The exception is when you address multi-modal works of art, that is, works where more than one type of sign is in operation at the same time. This could include films and theatre plays, where costumes, colours and body language come into play, or comic books and graphic novels, where drawings and words appear at the same time.
Our next topics were syntax and diction, and these are much more immediately practical for the interpretation and description of literary works. And while it isn’t necessary to use terms such as ‘word order,’ ‘connotations,’ ‘syntax,’ ‘denotations’ and ‘diction’ in every other sentence when you write about literature, they remain very useful weapons in your arsenal. The challenge with this particular approach to literature is that there is no shortcut to doing it well. As with most other things, it takes practice, and the only way to become good at it is to read and write, and read and write again.
Next, we delved into tropes and verbal imagery. Again, there are many fine distinctions between, say, metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche. But it is not vital that you identify that item X is a metaphor because the vehicle is Y and the tenor is Z, or whatever. What matters when it comes to verbal images and figures of thought and speech is that A) you are able to see that they are there, and B) you are able to understand what they are doing and what kind of effect(s) they produce. If you can name them too, that’s nice bonus.
About themes and motifs, we established that the former is general and abstract, while the latter is concrete, but charged with symbolic or metaphorical senses that contribute to establishing a theme or several themes. These are terms which can be used to make general statements about a work of literature – for example in the introduction to an essay. A theme can be very broadly construed to the extent that there is not much to be gained from talking about it; and motifs aren’t the be-all and end-all of literary analysis either. Use both terms lightly and sparingly.
Finally, we took a quick glance at intertextuality – the way in which the meaning of a literary work is shaped by the reference to or inclusion of another work of literature (or some other form of art). In many ways, the effect is similar to that of a simile or a metaphor: by joining together two things you begin to create meanings and ideas that are greater or different from the sum of the parts. There are many scholars who have devoted whole careers to discovering the source of every allusion in Shakespeare or Milton, and it is of course useful to possess such knowledge, but it is much more useful to see what happens as a result of this allusion being present – as we tried to show in our examples.
We keep talking of how literature is doing things, but it is important to keep in mind that literature resides in books, usually (or traditionally) as ink printed on paper. Works of literature are inanimate and static, that is, until a reader picks up a book and reads it. Literature only does something when something is done to it, and the better your brain becomes at doing things with literature, the more it will enable literature to do things with you.
The remaining modules on Narrative (the telling of stories), Drama (literature written to be performed) and Poetry (verse, rhythm, song) will provide much more detailed information about the exact way these genres act upon you and vice-versa. Before you begin to look at one or more of them, you could take the time to look at the exercises below, so that you are as prepared as can be before you delve even deeper into the world of letters.
Tropes and Mimesis. How literary tropes can be used to imitate ‘nature’.
(More exercises to come)
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