Posts Tagged ‘analysing a novel in class’

The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

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The staircase (continued): Plot

January 23, 2016

Plot is story. A series of events is introduced, developed and played out; there is often suspense and tension to keep the reader engaged and involved. There is a denouement – full or partial according to when the novel was written – Victorians liked to tidy everything up, modern writers are not so bothered, or are even deliberately bloody-minded, and go for open endings.

It’s useful to think about what drives our first reading, especially if you are one of those readers like me, who comes back again and again to his favourite books. First time round, plot draws us along: what happens next? How will it end? And such questions shape our initial response, at least. Was it a good story? Did we like the way it ended? Think about – as I suggested in the last post – the way we sometimes disagree with the way a writer ends her/his novel, based on our interpretation as we read, usually of characters. And if we feel the ending is wrong, surely the next thing we must ask ourselves is, OK, so why did the author choose to end it like that?

Re-readers will know what’s coming next. Usually we will retain at least an outline of the plot in our memories, and will be able to recall how the story ends. This means that we are not so plot-driven second, or nth time round, and can have a different focus to our reading, indeed we can deliberately choose a specific focus if we want to or need to (for study purposes perhaps). We will pay more attention to other details, perhaps notice many small things that we glossed over on that first, plot-driven reading.

The Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read them over the past fifty years. Usually, I don’t recall the ending until I’m well into a story, so that the pleasure is not ruined by knowing who did it straight away.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, when we consider a vast novel like War and Peace, of Vassily Grossman‘s twentieth century masterpiece, Life and Fate. Real and fictitious events interwoven unfold against a huge canvas; many different plot strands are interconnected, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the threads; sometimes we are given lists of characters in an appendix so we can refer to them when we get confused. Then we are glad when a particular, or a favourite strand re-emerges after having disappeared for some time, and continuity is re-established.

Teaching Literature: the staircase

January 20, 2016

I used to use a metaphor, the novel as a staircase, when I was teaching English Literature. It’s an idea I think students found helpful, and it works, with differing levels of sophistication, at all the stages of teaching. It’s a small staircase: it has only three stairs. The bottom step is labelled ‘plot‘, the second ‘character‘ and the top one ‘themes and ideas‘. If you’re an ex-student of mine, you can stop reading now and go get a cup of tea.

The staircase offers a sequence for exploring a novel (or indeed any work of literature that tells a story); it also offers a way of showing students how to develop their analytical skills and move from lower to higher marks and grades.

Plot is the bottom level; without it you can’t have a story. If you don’t know the plot, can’t understand it, sequence it and summarise it, you aren’t going to get very far in an examination. If you have plot secure in your mind, you will be able to write some sense and get some marks.

Character is the next step up: you need characters in a story, you need to know who they are and how they interact, and understand their personalities to an extent. Secure understanding here enables a student to access the next stages in a mark scheme, and consequently higher marks.

The top step is the themes and ideas: what the writer has to say and wants her/his readers to be thinking about, reflecting on as they are reading. As a reader, you can have an opinion about these ideas, and it doesn’t have to be the same as the writer’s. The more you can analyse at this level, the more chance you have of accessing the very highest grades on offer.

The idea isn’t rocket science, and I never claimed it was; it took a number of years to evolve into what I’ve presented above. It worked well with a lot of the texts I taught, particularly at GCSE, (although I introduced the concept in outline much earlier), such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Now I find myself unconsciously applying the model to other novels or plays I’m reading: it offers a useful scaffold or framework for exploring a text.

Lesson over. For those who would like more detail, I’ll write more fully in upcoming posts. Who knows, someone may find this stuff useful; in my retirement, I no longer use it.

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