Endless books, papers and essays are written about the ‘meaning’ of various pieces of literature. But meaning is in fact a very subjective thing, and where the author is no longer alive, impossible to prove or clarify. I was convinced for years that The Merchant of Venice was primarily ‘about’ shipping insurance, until someone pointed out to me that it is full of homosexual undertones, and slightly lewd references. Did Shakespeare sit down intending to write a satire about insurance, or a bawdy play about an older man chasing attractive younger men? Who knows. Maybe I read it as a play about shipping insurance because I am curious about how the economy worked in those days. Shakespeare was obviously clever enough to combine several themes in one work, so there probably is no right answer.
What can we analyse in a piece of literature without straying off into pointless waffle? Quality and style of language can be a good start. Is the writing colloquial or formal? Is it in good English, bad English, or knowingly bad English? Shakespeare is often praised on the size of his vocabulary. And I have heard a fan of Weird Fiction describe how he prefers Arthur Machen over other writers of Weird Tales because his prose is “of a better quality”. A common mistake in a lot of fiction is to use longer or obscure words where a shorter ones will do. In English there are a lot of synonyms or near-synonyms which have subtly different tones. For example “amble” and “walk” have similar meanings, but the words suggest different things. I see many examples in novels of writers hashing up the meaning of a sentence by substituting an obscure word for a plain one. Sentence construction is another fairly concrete thing to comment on when analysing a piece of writing. Each sentence should have a purpose and logic to it, and fiction writers can be guilty of adding unnecessary adverbs, adjectives or stringing together tautological sentences. (I think this may come from an assumption that more complex prose is better prose.) Using a grammar textbook as a benchmark (The King’s English by Fowler & Fowler is a particular favourite) it is possible to comment on the correct or incorrect use of English in a piece. But it is important to remember that language changes over time, so this should never be regarded as an exact science!
The voice and tense within a piece is an interesting and concrete thing to comment on. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is written in the first person, and in the present tense. This make the story feel very intimate and real. It puts us inside the diseased mind of the central character. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is told through letters and is written in the past tense. Some stories are narrated by a central character, such as Not after Midnight by Daphne du Maurier, and some are narrated anonymously. It is also interesting to comment on how much direct speech is used in a story, and the use of letters, diaries, stories-within-stories and ‘flashbacks’.
Within fiction, we can pick up on direct references to people, events, places. Huxley’s Point Counter Point is based in several real places in London, so anyone who has ever lived or worked there will have been to many of the places mentioned. This places the story very firmly in the real world and we can almost imagine bumping into any of the characters in a shop or bar in the West End. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, takes a real historical figure as a starting point for the character of Count Dracula, but the story and character development is entirely fictional.
When reading a piece of fiction, it can be good to ask: What facts do we know about the writer’s life, and are there any allusions to these in the text? My edition of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair contains a brief biography, from which we learn that he was born in India, his father worked for the East India Company’s Civil Service, and that he worked briefly as an artist. All these scenarios appear in the story, so we can conclude that he uses real life experience as (loose) inspiration for his novel.
A related question is: Do we know anything about the commercial context of the play or book and who were the audience or readers? I heard an urban myth that parts of Philip K Dick’s work should never be seriously analysed, as he churned them out very quickly in order to get more money to buy drugs. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does illustrate the point that people write for different reasons, and if we have any biographical data, we should think about the practical and commercial context in which the piece was written. I sometimes wonder about Shakespeare’s writing process; while his work is very beautiful and creative, he also had the very real challenge of entertaining an Elizabethan audience in order to earn his living.
Within mythology and folk tales there are many archetypal characters. These are basic or stock characters, such as a child, a king, a grandmother, a sage. Homer uses a Soothsayer named Theoclymenus in book 17 of The Odyssey. This archetype appears again in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Philip K Dick’s character Hawthorne Abendsen in The Man in the High Castle is a modern soothsayer. The soothsayer is a stock character used to reveal truth or prophesy to the other characters. The archetypal characters can appear in any genre and in books of any age.
When writing about stories we can also comment on the plot structure and time sequence. Some narratives are very simple, while some are more complex and not necessarily told in chronological order. Related to the idea of archetypal charters, is the idea of classic plots which are used again and again. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber uses the legend of bluebeard as a plot. Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are very different books, but use the same plot structure; a scientist interferes with nature, and disastrous consequences follow. When analysing a piece of fiction, we can sometimes spot plot devices from myths, older novels, biblical stories or real events.
Some stories are rooted firmly in the real world, while others contain all sorts of supernatural creatures. I read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger several years ago. It’s a great book, but I was expecting something supernatural to happen (it didn’t) because many of her other books were about wizards and monsters. If the author has used supernatural creatures, do they have roots in mythology, are they borrowed from other books, or are they totally made up? (My post on The Masque of the Red Death explores in more detail the use of the supernatural in fiction.)
If you do know anything about the writer’s life, it can be interesting to look at their philosophical and religious views. Is the writer openly or covertly involved in any political or philosophical school of thought, and do these ideas filter through into their work? Ayn Rand very openly used her novels to demonstrate her philosophical beliefs; while Matthew Lewis is reported to have revised his novel The Monk to avoid charges of blasphemy. It can also be interesting to look at the political climate in which the story was written, and whether the writer was accepted or persecuted for producing that piece of writing.
Within an informal essay or article it can be relevant to write (cautiously) about our own feelings and responses to a text. There is absolutely nothing wrong with recording your own personal feelings about a novel or story, but they should never be phrased in such as way as to look like fact. I enjoyed reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and it stirred up some very strong emotions in me to do with my professional life and the politics within a workplace. But I must always remember that these happened inside my own head, and another reader may respond very differently to the text.
I enjoyed the philosophical poem Children of Time, by Loren Cano, it contains some really thoughtful observations on the nature of time, destiny, choice and free will. It made me think about the infinite possibilities of what might happen, and the path we choose or are forced down.
More and more people are joining book clubs on-line. This can be a really great way to get ideas for what to read next. There are always a few people on-line hawking their own books, which may or may not be any good, but they are easy to spot! Book reviews in the press can be problematic as they tend not to be very objective. And most papers and magazines only review the most mainstream books, not helpful if you are trying to expand your reading and learn more about literature. On-line book groups are great for getting objective and very frank reviews of new and old books. The Frog in the Pond Reading Group on Facebook is one of my favourites.