Guidelines for Reading and
Dr. Tina L. Hanlon
Associate Professor of English
STEP I: First Impression
STEP II: Types of Literature
STEP III: Literary Techniques
STEP IV: Themes
STEP V: Evaluation and Review
STEP I: WHAT IS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION OF THE
1. What expectations or
preconceptions do you have before you begin reading?
Do you have any prior
knowledge of the author or this work or similar
notes in textbooks or instructors' comments or study
questions influenced your initial expectations?
(Note: In many
editions of fiction or drama, if there is a long
introduction, it may "give away" the
outcome of the plot, so it is best not to read the
complete introduction until you have read the work
for the first time and are ready to analyze it as a
2. Do you enjoy reading this work?
Why or why not?
What motivates you to
read through to the end, or reread it (besides the
fact that it may be required for a class)?
3. What is your initial
impression of the work's purpose?
Is it entertaining,
informative, didactic (teaching a lesson),
philosophical, argumentative, or some combination of
Do the title, division
headings, and opening lines give precise indications
of the purpose or subtle or symbolic clues, or
misleading impressions of the whole work?
Try to begin reading
with an open mind and attempt to understand the work
on its own terms before judging its worth or quality.
4. Is this work
difficult to read?
If so, why?
Have you looked up
unfamiliar words in a dictionary?
Do foreign words or
archaic (outdated) words or unusual sentence patterns
make reading difficult?
Does the work violate
our expectations about ordinary ways of using the
Later decide whether
it is "easy" or difficult to read for a
good reason: does the simplicity or difficulty
of the language contribute to the author's message or
does it seem either boring or unnecessarily obscure
5. Do your first
impressions change between your reading of the beginning
If so, why?
In the following steps,
start to think more formally about why you have certain
expectations about this type of literature and how this
work uses literary techniques to create the impressions
or effects or messages you have noticed in reading it.
STEP II: WHAT TYPE OF LITERARY WORK IS IT?
Literature is classified
by genre (type or kind).
Although critics disagree
on how to define and label different genres, the three
basic forms of literature are prose, drama, and poetry.
Most works we read as literature are imaginative
(fictional), but some nonimaginative (nonfictional) works
are read as literature as well.
includes history, biography, autobiography, religious
and philosophical writing, literary criticism,
political tracts, travel literature, and essays on
many other subjects.
Prose fiction has been divided,
since the origins of the modern novel in the eighteenth century,
into the novel, the novella or novelette (a
story of intermediate length), and the short story. Predecessors
of these genres include fables, parables, and tales of various kinds
(including folk tales, fabliaux, and fairy tales).
Drama may be
written in prose or poetry. Most drama is meant to be
performed, but closet drama is designed to be
read rather than acted. When we read a play we
should take into consideration the differences
between watching a performance and reading the
script, with the background and stage directions that
are provided by some playwrights.
Poetry may be narrative
(telling a story, as in a ballad or a long epic
poem) or lyrical (shorter subjective or
reflective poems that include specific types such as
the sonnet, the ode, and the elegy).
Film, which combines techniques
of drama, poetry, visual arts, and music, has been included in literary
studies since the twentieth century, with movie scripts being studied
as works of art alongside the books and plays many films are based
on. Undoubtedly modern technology will continue to influence
the forms and genres of literature, through trends in film and television,
and the increasing use of computers for processing information,
writing, and reading.
Picture books sometimes have
no words, but usually they use words and pictures together to tell
a story, present a poem, or explore concepts (as in alphabet books,
counting books, and other concept books). Modern technology has
made possible the publication of mass market full-color reproductions
of all kinds of art in picture books for readers of all ages.
These broad genres are
classified in many different ways, according to their
form and content, into "modes" or
"kinds" or "subgenres."
Traditional categories such as tragedy, comedy,
realism, and romance, for example, have
been defined in different ways at different times.
Some subcategories of fiction, drama
and film include romantic comedy, satire, mystery, horror, fantasy,
science fiction, magical realism, bildungsroman (stories of
initiation into adult life), psychological novels or plays, domestic
romance or tragedy, historical fiction or drama. Nonfiction
novel is a contemporary term used by some for works that combine elements
of journalistic reporting or documentary and the devices of fiction.
Although these labels help us discuss trends and make comparisons
among different authors, many works of literature cannot be placed
into one neat category.
The greatest writers in
any period often combine traditional types, break the
"rules" or conventions of older literary
genres, and experiment with new forms.
III: WHAT LITERARY TECHNIQUES ARE USED IN THIS WORK?
The following is a list of
some of the major elements and techniques of literature.
Obviously, no one work of literature contains all of them
(e.g., only a narrative has a plot). Decide which
elements are used and which are given the most emphasis
(and why) in the particular work you are analyzing.
What are the actions or events of
the narrative and how are they presented? Are there major and
minor events in the story? How are they related?
How does the passage of time
function in the plot? Are the episodes in chronological
order? If not, why not?
Are any later incidents foreshadowed
early in the story? Are flashbacks used to fill in past
events? If so, why?
What elements create suspense
in the plot? Where is the climax (most intense action or
point of highest emotional interest)?
Does the plot depend on chance or
coincidence, or does it grow out of the personalities of the characters?
Do events seem realistic or unrealistic (romantic
What conflicts are dramatized? Are
they internal conflicts (within the minds of people)
or external conflicts (between individuals or between people
and the world)?
Are conflicts resolved at the end
of the story? Is there a surprise ending? Is the ending satisfying
to you as the reader?
Are the characters believable (round
and complex, like real people) or are they flat stereotypes?
(Remember that literary characters are always fictional creations;
they can never be as complex as real people.)
Is there one protagonist (main
character) or several? Does the story have traditional heroes
or heroines (protagonists) and villains (antagonists)?
How does the author reveal charactersthrough
direct description and authorial comment, through the comments
and thoughts of other characters, or through the characters' own
actions, words, and thoughts?
What are the most important traits
of the main characters? How do their judgments of themselves compare
with others' opinions of them? What is the author's attitude to
characters? Are we meant to sympathize with the characters or
How do the secondary and minor
characters function in the work? Do they provide parallels
or contrasts with traits of the main characters?
Do the main characters develop
(change or learn something) in the story, or do they remain static
(unchanging)? How? Why?
What is the setting of the work?
Is there more than one? (Consider historical period, season, time
of day, geographical place, exterior and interior, urban and rural
Why has the author chosen to emphasize
certain details of the setting? Does the setting simply provide
a realistic backdrop or does it contain symbolic details?
Are the social class and occupation
of the characters significant? Does the social, economic, political,
or religious environment affect the lives of characters and help
to shape the theme of the work?
What mood or atmosphere
is created by details of the setting? (gloomy, tense, cheerful,
|4. Point of View
- From what point of
view is the story or poem narrated? Does the
narrator speak in first person (using
"I") or in third person?
(a) If there is a first-person
narrator, is that person a major character or a
minor character observing the main action? What
are the limitations on what this person can show and
tell us? Is this narrator a reliable
one, or is he or she too naive, self-deluded, or
deceptive to be reliable?
(b) If the narration is in third person,
is the narrator omniscient (able to see anything and tell
us what is in the characters' minds), or is there limited omniscience
so that we see into the mind of only one character?
(c) Is the point of
view objective (dramatic), so that we see
characters only from the outside but do not see into
their minds? This is the point of view in drama but
it is rare in fiction. In a play characters'
thoughts are revealed only if they think out loud or
speak directly to the audience or confide in another
What is the prevailing tone
of the work? That is, what attitudes toward the subject are conveyed
by the narrator's choice of words? Is the subject presented in
a manner that is serious, satirical, playful, condescending, etc.?
Does the point of view change in
Notice how your perceptions are affected
if the narrator shifts the point of view from the actions or thoughts
of one character to those of another.
| 5. Images and Symbols
What images (any details that
appeal to the physical senses) are used in this work?
Are the images literal (e.g.,
a description of a real rose), or figurative (as in, e.g.,
the simile, "My love is like a rose,"
and the metaphor, "My love is a rose")?
Are there repeated images, or groups
of related images in the work (e.g., various kinds of light and
dark images)? If so, what is the significance of these patterns?
Does any image or action suggest
such complex abstract meanings beyond itself that it functions
as a symbol in this work?
Are the symbols conventional,
familiar ones (e.g., a rose symbolizing love, a cross representing
Christianity), or unusual, private symbols? (The white whale
in Moby Dick, e.g., has many possible symbolic meanings
suggested by Melville.)
How would you describe the choice
of words and their arrangement (the style) in this work?
Does the author call attention to the way he or she uses words,
or is the style inconspicuous?
What are the various connotations
(shades of meaning, or emotional suggestions) of key words in
If dialect or colloquial
speech is used, what is its effect? Is the level of language appropriate
for the speaker or characters in the work?
Are there statements or actions in
this work that are presented ironically (that is, there
is a discrepancy between appearance and reality, or between what
is said and what is intended)?
Is the style consistent throughout
the work or does it shift to a different style (more formal or
less formal, for example)?
Is the style suitable for the subject
and theme of the work? Does it contribute to the meaning
of the whole or hinder the reader's understanding?
If you are reading a translation
of a foreign work of literature or a modern translation of an
older English work, what limitations or difficulties are created
by your lack of contact with the author's original language?
THE THEMES OF THE LITERARY WORK?
Theme may be thought of as the
central ideas, values, thesis, message, or meaning presented in a
work of literature. The theme reveals the connection between
the literary work (the world created by the author's imagination)
and the outside world. Thus literature can be both fictional and "true"
when it expresses real human emotions or makes valid comments on human
experience, even if on the surface the characters, plots, and settings
are not realistic ones.
Analyzing theme always involves generalizations
and abstractions. There are universal themes that can be found in
countless works of literature, such as love and hate, good and evil,
innocence and experience, communication and isolation, life and death,
society and the individual. A story or poem may be about
a specific love affair, for example; it is easy to say the general
subject is love, but interpreting the theme involves explaining what
the work says about love.
Great, complex works of literature have
more than one theme and we can never pin down their meanings with
absolute certainty. Some works are deliberately vague or ambiguous
(suggesting more than one alternate meaning). Our interpretations
of theme must always be supported by evidence from the text. Themes
may be revealed in a number of ways:
Does the title indicate theme?
- Are themes revealed in direct statements
by the author?
Nonfiction usually states its ideas
and arguments explicitly. In
the Declaration of Independence, for example, Jefferson asserts
the beliefs and intentions of the American colonies directly.
Most imaginative literature presents
theme indirectly and dramatically, although in some works the
theme is quite obvious and in others it is more difficult to
Are themes revealed in direct statements
by a narrator in the work?
Remember that the speaker's voice (or persona) in a story or poem
usually should not be equated with the author's voice. The narrator
may be unreliable or may express ideas quite different from the
author's own values.
Are themes revealed through actions,
dramatic statements or personalities of characters?
If characters convey conflicting values, which values does the
whole work seem to be defending?
Sometimes a character's main function is to symbolize an abstract
quality, such as greed or honesty or laziness. Remember that names
are sometimes symbolic, in obvious or subtle ways.
Are there other symbols, images,
and descriptive details in the work that suggest themes? Look
for repeated words and images as clues to theme.
Are there characters or events or
other details that seem to have no importance in the plot of a
story? In good literature, these details are there for a reason;
they probably have a special thematic significance.
What ideas are implied by the total
impression of the whole work?
Sometimes theme is revealed only when the work is viewed as a
V: EVALUATION AND REVIEW
A. Personal Reactions
Has your reading of this work been
enhanced in any way by your personal experience, other readings
and studies, or plays and movies you have seen? (What have you
learned from this work that could enhance your own life and work?)
Have you made notes (including underlining
and marking in your own text) to help you remember and review
important features of this work?
Are you judging the work solely on
its own merits, unswayed by personal judgments about the author's
life and reputation or private prejudices about the content of
the work (including prejudices against required reading or long,
Do you agree or disagree with evaluations
made by other readers of this work (students, professors, critics)?
Do you agree or disagree with the
ideas or values presented in the work? Why?
Has your enjoyment and appreciation
of the work increased or decreased after analyzing it carefully
on your own or in class?
If you were writing a review of this
work for a newspaper, what would you say to encourage others to
read it or not read it?
B. Author's Accomplishment
Do the imaginative world and ideas
of the work seem vivid and alive? Does it present a mature
and meaningful vision of reality that deserves serious reflection?
Is the language of the work appealing?
Are the form and content consistent with each other? What
are the strengths and weaknesses in the literary techniques used?
Has the reputation of this work and
its author changed since it was written? Does knowledge
of the author's life enhance your understanding of the work? (Avoid
simplistic assumptions about the connections between authors'
personal lives and characters or events in their writings.)
How does this work compare to other
works by the same author, and to works by other authors? (This
is especially important in a survey course.)
How is this work representative of
literary trends of its nation and period? Does it reflect
concerns related to the history, sociology, religion, etc. of
its period? Does learning more about the history and culture
of the work's origin enhance your understanding of the literature
or does the work have a universal message that is clear to any
Great works of literature
should both enrich your appreciation of the past (the
times in which they were written) and give you new
insights into common human experiences regardless of time
These guidelines are recommended in "Helping Gifted Students Analyze Literature
" by Carol Fertig, Prufrock's Gifted Information Blog, Prufrock Press Inc., a resource for gifted and advanced learners (Friday, September 25, 2009).