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Home       •        Curriculum Vitae       •        Term Paper Guide       •        Critical Reading       •        Analyzing Fiction       •        Writing Book Reviews

Analyzing Fiction

As a rule a work of fiction is a narrative, with characters, with a setting, with some claim to represent 'the world' in some fashion.

1. Title.
The first indication as to the meaning of a given work of fiction is located in its title. Titles may be direct and obvious, as in the cases of Fight Club or Babbitt, others are highly symbolic, as in the cases of Heart of a Dog, Looking Backward, or The Mouse that Roared. Still others are meant to suggest to the reader an emotive tone, as with A Farewell to Arms, Lost Horizon, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Consider carefully the symbolic or analogical intent of the author when interpreting the title of any fictional work.

2. Setting.
Narrative requires a setting; this may vary from the concrete to the general. Often setting will have particular culturally coded significance -- a sea-shore has a significance for us different from that of a dirty street corner, for instance, and different situations and significances can be constructed through its use. Settings, like characters, can be used in contrasting and comparative ways to add significance, can be repeated, repeated with variations, and so forth.

3. Character.
Characters in a work of fiction are generally designed to open up or explore certain aspects of human experience. Characters often depict particular traits of human nature; they may represent only one or two traits -- a greedy old man who has forgotten how to care about others, for instance, or they may represent very complex conflicts, values and emotions. Usually there will be contrasting or parallel characters, and usually there will be a significance to the selection of kinds of characters and to their relation to each other. As in the use of setting, in fact in almost any representation in art, the significance of a character can vary from the particular, the dramatization of a unique individual, to the most general and symbolic, for instance the representation of a 'Christ figure'.

4. Plot.
As a narrative a work of fiction has a certain arrangement of events which are taken to have a relation to one another. This arrangement of events to some end -- for instance to create significance, raise the level of generality, extend or complicate the meaning -- is known as 'plot'. Narrative is integral to human experience; we use it constantly to make sense out of our experience, to remember and relate events and significance, and to establish the basic patterns of behavior of our lives. If there is no apparent relation of events in a story our options are either to declare it to be poorly written or to assume that the lack of relation is thematic, mean to represent the chaotic nature of human experience, a failure in a character's experience or personality, or the lack of meaningful order in the universe.

In order to establish significance in narrative there will often be coincidence, parallel or contrasting episodes, repetitions of various sorts, including the repetition of challenges, crises, conciliations, episodes, symbols, motifs. The relationship of events in order to create significance is known as the plot.

5. Representation of Reality.
Fiction generally claims to represent 'reality' in some way; however, because any narrative is presented through the symbols and codes of human meaning and communication systems, fiction cannot represent reality directly, and different narratives and forms of narrative represent different aspects of reality, and represent reality in different ways. A narrative might be very concrete and adhere closely to time and place, representing every-day events; on the other hand it may for instance represent psychological or moral or spiritual aspects through symbols, characters used representatively or symbolically, improbable events, and other devices. In addition you should remember that all narrative requires selection, and therefore it requires exclusion as well, and it requires devices to put the selected elements of experience in meaningful relation to each other (and here we are back to key elements such as coincidence, parallels and opposites, repetitions).

6. Worldview.
As narrative represents experience in some way and as it uses cultural codes and language to do so, it inevitably must be read for its structure of values, for its understanding of the world, or world-view, and for its ideological assumptions, what is assumed to be natural and proper. Every narrative communication makes claims, often implicitly, about the nature of the world as the narrator and his or her cultural traditions understand it to be. The kind of writing we call "literature" tends to use cultural codes and to use the structuring devices of narrative with a high degree of intentionality in order to offer a complex understanding of the world. The astute reader of fiction will be aware of the shape of the world that the fiction projects, the structure of values that underlie the fiction (what the fiction explicitly claims and what it implicitly claims through its codes and its ideological understandings); will be aware of the distances and similarities between the world of the fiction and the world that the reader inhabits; and will be aware of the significances of the selections and exclusions of the narrative in representing human experience.

Writing an Analytical Essay
Your purpose in writing an analytical essay is to convey your sense of what the text is saying, and how the text creates its meaning -- the use of the various aspects and devices mentioned in the previous sections. The simplest way to open your essay is with a statement of what you have decided the meaning of the text, the most sufficient interpretation, is. The body of your essay is then a presentation or 'defense' of your interpretation: you demonstrate the ways in which the text makes the meaning you believe it to have. In the conclusion you sum up your findings or recapitulate your argument briefly, and extend the significance of your reading if you wish -- this is where you comment on the more general, cultural or moral or technical significances of the theme and techniques of the text. You may begin you essay in other ways -- by stating what the main barriers are to an interpretation of the book or what the main difficulties with arriving at an interpretation are, for instance, and how consequently you intend to deal with the text, or by stating what sorts of options you have in terms of emphases and why you have chosen the one(s) you have chosen. It is important to give the reader a sense of how you are proceeding in the essay and why.

There is no sure-fire formula for essay writing. The form your essay takes will likely vary with the nature of your evidence (quotations from the text, principally), with your sense of how the text is structured and shaped, with your interpretation, and with your sense of what issues are most relevant. Obviously, you will have to make some organizational decisions. In writing on a novel, for example, do you go through chapter by chapter showing how the meaning is developed? If this is your method, be sure you avoid the pitfalls: mere paraphrase, providing an unselective running commentary, and disorganization of kinds of evidence. An alternative approach might focus on the novel aspect by aspect (the characters, the setting). The pitfalls here are not being able show how the various aspects tie together to create meaning, and assuming that each aspect deserves equal and exhaustive treatment. Fiction is usually analyzed by considering one or more aspects of the work in the categories of theme (ideas, meanings), and/or of fictional techniques (plot, point of view, etc.).

Remember that there are different kinds of literature in each genre, and that different kinds may rely on different devices. A novel may be narrative; it may be a dramatic monologue; it may be a collection of images without human characters; it may develop a logical argument; it may work allusively, analogically, symbolically and so forth; it may have a careful chapter by chapter development, or it may depend on repetitions, images, and so forth. A work of fiction might be allegorical, it might use realism, it might concentrate on the effects of the environment, or it might attempt metaphorically to represent the interior lives of characters. Figure out what the main devices and strategies are, and concentrate on them, adding the lesser ones later and not necessarily in full. Try, if you are not sure of your interpretation, starting with the simplest, most obvious situation and add other possible points of meaning as they seem to extend or illuminate the dramatic situation. Always deal with the 'form' as well as the 'content', however, and with how the way something is said shapes what it means.

NOTE: This material was taken from several other sources and modified to suit my courses. Original source(s) unknown.

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