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Literature as a Topic of Study: Necessary Terminology

Terms to Learn



Christine de Pisan's Christine Writing 
at her Lectern
, 1404-05

One of the first things students in a literature class must do is understand that everyone can learn to dissect a work of writing but that it takes time, patience, and experience.  The more prolific a reader one is the better they will be at analyzing literature.  Even the idea of literature can be seen as a reading and thinking puzzle, in part because there are multiple definitions of the word literature.  Consider the following, from Word.Net 2.0, Princeton University's online dictionary (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=literature):

For our purposes, we will define literature as writing of high merit, whether imaginative or objective, or the performance of such writing, especially as the elements work together in the piece to achieve one unified point. It can come in many forms but the three biggies are usually, prose, poetry, and drama.  Prose is typically used when dealing with writing that parallels the way people speak; it uses no regular metrical patterns or verse, whereas poetry can be understood, at least in the Western world, to be language that is written using a specific metrical pattern, or verse.  There are certainly pieces of writing that straddle the line, especially as some poems can be written in blank verse (no rhymed lines but with a predictable rhyming pattern, usually iambic pentameter) or free verse (no rhymed lines and no predictable metrical pattern), and recently poets have been producing prose poems, poems that read like paragraphs but seem to have a more concentrated use of the devices that literary scholars typically group under style or figurative language. This concentrated use idea means that poems are thought to communicate their one main idea more artistically or more concisely using images, symbols, or metaphors than prose writers; this is a phenomenon some scholars defines as 'heightened language.' Drama is the word we use to indicate the written form of a work which is ideally intended to be heard or seen as a public performance, like a play or a screenplay. Examples of prose writings are lectures, newspaper articles, novels, and short stories. Poems can appear collected in anthologies, show up in prayers or greeting cards, or be listened to on radio stations in the form of song lyrics. 

While most people have been forced to endure years of high school English and may use writing everyday in personal communication (e-mails, the minutes from a meeting, or a grocery list) or for self-fulfillment (praying, watching TV, or singing along with a CD), few would define themselves as literary scholars.  Some people even believe that to analyze a work of literature corrupts it, making it less entertaining.  As Thomas C. Foster, an English professor at the University of Michigan at Flint, describes in his book, How to Read Like a Professor, there are often awkward moments in literature classrooms which leave students and teachers feeling uncomfortable and making the study of literature feel like grueling work rather than a fun game of wits:


A moment occurs in this exchange between professor and student when each of us adopts a look.  My look says, "What, you don't get it?" Theirs says, "We don't get it. And we think you're making it up." We're having a communication problem. Basically, we've all read the same story, but we haven't used the same analytical apparatus. If you've ever spent time in a literature classroom, you know this moment. It may seem at times as if the professor is either inventing interpretations out of thin air or else performing parlor tricks, a sort of analytical sleight of hand.

Actually, neither of these is the case; rather the professor, as the slightly more experienced reader, has acquired over the years the use of a certain "language of reading," something to which students are only being introduced.  What I'm talking about is a grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing."

Theme is one of these words and ideas that come from this code of rules.  A theme, for our purposes--as again, there are multiple definitions for this word, even within the literary profession--is the story or message the writer is using the piece of literature to convey, and it is a message that must be relevant to the reader's own life. I would further clarify this by saying it is a message that can be stated in a complete sentence.  So, once again, literary study, like gender studies, requires one to think critically about things that have always before seemed natural.

We will look more closely at how these themes are communicated during the course of the semester, specifically looking at fiction (literary works that rely on the imagination in their creation, at least in part) and poetry, their components, and the elements or devices that they use to create their themes.  Please note, also, as you read the selections in this course, the messages the historical writers are conveying and how well they are conveying them.  Aristotle, to whom modern literary critics are much in debt, might not have known much about science, according to our modern physicians' standards, anyway, but he surely knew how to write his scientific beliefs and findings persuasively. 

Finally, please take comfort in the knowledge that no reader can read everything that's ever been written, but if you can remember what you've already read as you read a new text, you will probably begin to see patterns repeating between them or within them, and you should be looking for other or multiple meanings in the texts you read.  Anyone who sees George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith will probably enjoy it on its surface level--unless the person has a weak stomach or an aversion to fire, of course--but for those viewers who have seen or read Shakespeare's Othello, the fictitious drama eerily reenacted by O. J. Simpson in real-life in 1994, there is a deeper meaning there to pull from the film.  The Anakin Skywalker character who becomes Darth Vader, the greatest symbol of  evil that twentieth-century pop culture has produced, gains a tragic and heroic status as his journey to the dark side originates in his intense, passionate love for his noble wife.  Although the power structure is reversed, the Emperor is no less evil or cunning than Iago, as he convinces Anakin that the only way to save Padm is to learn the dark side of the forces involved, and the intense love Anakin has for her elicits the intense jealousy with Obi-Wan (as Cassio) whose innocent contact with Padm inspires the husband to murder his beloved wife in a fit of rage. Even Darth Vader's black costume strikes us as more appropriate knowing the Shakespearian play, as black not only represents evil in our culture, but it also resonates with the racial ethnicities of the Shakespearian ancestors: Othello was a Moor married to the Venetian, Desdemona, a literal and symbolic marriage of the dark and the light

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This page was last updated on 21 April 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.