Structural Analysis: Six Categories

3: Character

Portions for foxes - The other girl - The lady doth protest alot - Macbeth’s dagger

Character is a crucial category because as human beings we usually want to see whatever the writer is exploring from a human and personal point of view. How does the writer make a fictional character, narrator, or persona come alive to us? What do we find intriguing in the character? What is the character’s problem, and how does the character confront it? 

To start off with, try to determine if a character is flat (one dimensional, one-sided, like a caricature) or deep (three dimensional, with different sides or aspects, like a usual person); static (the same throughout the story) or dynamic (changes as a result of various forces — that you should then analyze). Ask yourself why the character is depicted this way: to move along the plot, to provoke the reader, or to make some sort of statment human nature, love, friendship, greed, society, etc.?

The close study of character is strongly linked to the modern novel and short story, which emphasize reality-based psychological depiction. In analyzing character, feel free to bring to your arguments any psychological approach or any insights you have about what makes people tick. Think for example about yourself and your identity, and how it is affected by romance, gender, sexuality, peers, family, money, class, religion, ethnicity, etc.

Detail from  A Bar at the Folies Bergère , Eduard Manet, 1881-2, in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (photo by RYC)

Detail from A Bar at the Folies Bergère, Eduard Manet, 1881-2, in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (photo by RYC)

Note that this category includes internal conflict, that is, tension within a character — between desire and loyalty, greed and morality, logic and emotion, etc. If you’re emphasizing the forces that create the internal conflict, you’re focusing on the next category (4. Relationship: Conflict, Bond, etc.), but if you’re emphasizing the way these external forces affect what’s going on in the thoughts and feelings of a character, you’re focusing on 3. Character. Remember that all the categories overlap. If you’re making an argument about character, don’t worry if you stray into another category. Simply take your point about the other category and apply it to the category you’re dealing with.

Portions for Foxes

In the song “Portions For Foxes,” Rilo Kiley suggests an internal conflict that follows from a sequence of events that repeats itself. The following five lines interconnect smoothly and end with a subtle half-rhyme:

There's blood in my mouth 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week / I keep on talkin' trash but I never say anything / And the talkin' leads to touchin' / and the touchin' leads to sex / and then there is no mystery left 

Her state of mind is depicted through the physical things she does: biting her lips, talking trash, touching, and having sex — all of which are linked to each other through the senses and through repetition. The final line “and then there is no mystery left” — is an exception to the rule. Why?

Sometimes you can come up with a good argument by trying to answer the most challenging question you can think of. The challenging question here isn’t “What does she mean?” but rather “How and why is the line different from the others?”


The Other Girl

In “The Girl You Were With,” Françoise Hardy uses very simple language to get at the deep emotions connected to past love and jealousy. What elements of her past are mingled into her feelings on the night she goes to their old hangout? How does the simplicity of the lyric — its minimal descriptions of setting and personal interactions — allow Hardy to get at elemental emotions?

Note that the translation isn’t literal and is only one possible translation. The first two lines, literally "One night that I was bothered / of too much to think of you,” might have been translated as “One night that I was bothered / by thinking too much about you.” As with most of my translations, I try to get at the basic meaning and then make sure that it sounds good in English. Translating from one language to another is almost always a tricky business!

la fille avec toi.png

The Lady Doth Protest Alot

Another way of making a good argument is to take a text that has an obvious meaning and then question whether or not that meaning is necessarily accurate. In “Non, I Regret Nothing,” Edith Piaf comes off very sure of herself, rejecting any regret about the past and devoting herself whole-heartedly to her present love. The timbre of her voice is so rich, the emotion is so vivid, and the music marches so upwardly and onwardly, that the listener is instinctively inclined to agree with her, to see her emotion and her statement as self-evident. Yet, on reflection, is it possible to discard memories, to sweep them away as if they never happened? If present love means so much, if it takes over life and overcomes the good and the bad, the sorrow and the pleasure, then surely it will also leave some deep impression, some deep memories. Will those memories just disappear once you’ve moved on? Can one ever really move on? Is it possible to start from zero, from scratch?

Toward the end of the poem Piaf says that she will repars or start again from zero. The key prefix, re, again, isn’t repeated at the end of the song, where she says commence, begin, rather than recommence, begin again. Yet the earlier start again makes it clear that she’s done this before. How can we be sure that she won’t do it again? Is she stating her case so strongly not because she believes it but because she wants to believe it? Is the song an overstatement that reveals the opposite of what it states? Is it, as Hamlet’s mother says, that the lady doth protest too much?

piaf regret 2.png

Macbeth’s Dagger

In the following excerpt (from Act 2, scene 1), Shakespeare’s Macbeth is on his way to kill the King of Scotland — a horrible act, since the King is his guest, the king is a good ruler, and regicide is particularly heinous in a monarchy. Macbeth’s psychological state is so darkly frenzied that he conjures a vision of his bloody knife before he even uses it, he peoples the air around him with evil spirits (Hecate, the wolf, the cruel Tarquin, the ghost), and he imagines that the earth is sentient and that if it hears his steps then the stones will give him away.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible*
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon* gouts* of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs*
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld*
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and withered Murder,
Alarmed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's* ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate* of my whereabouts,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.

sensible = able to be sensed dudgeon = handle gouts = drops informs = takes shape halfworld = our hemisphere Tarquin = cruel Roman tyrant prate = talk


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Structural Analysis: Preface - 1: Space2: Time3: Character4: Relationship5: Theme & Theme Take 2 6: Style & Style Exercises

English 1114: Introduction - Contents - Outline

Schedule: Week 1-7 - Week 8-14