Six Categories

2. Time - 3. Character - 4. Relationship - 5. Theme

2. TIME OR CHRONOLOGY

This includes any type of real or theoretical time frame: a momentary encounter, an hour, a day, a year, or any amount of time in the past or the future — from the Big Bang (or Creation) till the end of the universe (or Day of Judgment). This includes manipulations of linear time.

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). [...] Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy ... from https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1829.html

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). [...] Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy ... from https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1829.html

Salvador Dali,  The Persistence of Memory , 1931, Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from Michelangelo Buonarroti's  Last Judgment , 1537-41, Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from Michelangelo Buonarroti's Last Judgment, 1537-41, Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikimedia Commons)

Ask yourself why a writer sets up a particular time frame, and how this time frame affects character, conflict, theme, etc. For instance, imagine a film starting with a Wall Street executive about to put a bullet through her head. The director then takes the viewer back to a beautiful summer day when the character was younger, happier, and lying on the university lawn with her boyfriend. By manipulating linear time in this way the director is urging the viewer to examine the intervening time-frame with a clear purpose: to detect the causes which lead her to suicide. If she was once so happy, what made her want to kill herself? The director’s use of time might lead the viewer to examine her character (3), her relations with others (4), and her struggle with a particular problem or issue (5).

Other uses of time include flash-backs, historical references, moments where time seems to expand or contract, biography charting the course of a person’s life, jumping back and forth from the present to the past to set up a parallel between the two, comparing aspects of the present to a future time which is perfect (a utopia) or imperfect (a dystopia).

Terms: Historical Ages and Periods

Age is often used synonymously with Period, yet not always. In the broadest terms, there are four historical Ages: 1. Ancient 3000 BC – 1000 BC, 2. Classical 1000 BC – 500 AD, 3. Medieval 500 AD – 1500 AD, 4. Modern 500 AD - present.

In terms of English history and literature, Classical and Medieval often come up, and the Modern Age is often differentiated from The Modern Period. Here are some time categories relevant to Europe and England: 

Renaissance: c. 15th - 16th C. — characterized as breaking from the religious and feudal systems of the Middle Ages; rise of humanism, science, and global European empires.

Enlightenment or Age of Reason: roughly the mid 17th C. to the late 18th C. — characterized by the exploration of science and rational thinking.

Romantic: late 18th and early 19th C. — characterized by a re-integration of emotion into the rational frameworks explored in the Age of Reason.

The two images below suggest the 18th C. spirit of rationalism and the emotional spirit of Romanticism which followed:

Above:  A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun  or  The Orrery,  1766, Joseph Wright of Derby (Wikimedia Commons)  Right:  Wanderer above the Sea of Fog , 1818, Caspar Friedrich. "The hiker stands as a black figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown." (Wikimedia Commons)

Above: A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun or The Orrery, 1766, Joseph Wright of Derby (Wikimedia Commons)

Right: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Caspar Friedrich. "The hiker stands as a black figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown." (Wikimedia Commons)

1920px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog.jpg

Victorian: 1832 (passage of the Great Reform Act) to 1901 (death of Queen Victoria) — characterized by democratic reform (abolition of slavery, voting rights), scientific advances and discoveries (especially of evolution, but also electricity, photography, telegraphy, decipherment of hieroglyphs and cuneiform, etc.).

Modern Period: 1900-1950 or 1900 to the present.

Post-modern Period: 1950 to the present.

3. CHARACTER OR PSYCHOLOGY

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).

Character is a crucial category because as human beings we usually want to see whatever the author is exploring from a human and personal point of view. How does the author 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? 

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 the point about the other category and apply it to the category you’re dealing with.

4. RELATIONSHIP: CONFLICT, BOND, ETC.

Note that category # 4 is often defined exclusively in terms of conflict. That term, however, only gets at part of the relationship dynamic. For example, the attraction or bond between Romeo and Juliet is perhaps more important than the forces which pull the lovers apart. Texts are often written around the dynamic between betrayal and trust, or between hatred and love. There are basically two types of conflict or bond:

— conflict or bond between two characters: often this takes the form of a friendship, a romance, or a struggle between a protagonist and an antagonist.  

— conflict or bond between an individual and a group or between a group and another group: this can range from family or friend groups to regional or ethnic groups, and often includes the powerful forces of culture, language and religion. One common dynamic is when the bond between two characters is disturbed by a third person, resulting in jealousies, love triangles, etc.

Example: Dorothy Parker

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman's moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?

(Dorothy Parker, 1937)

Culture is an amalgam of codes and practices instilled at a very young age. In general, it’s difficult for us to react in a way that goes against our own upbringing. As a result, when people of different cultures clash the result can be irresolvable. Language and religion also operate on very basic, deep levels, although it's generally easier to learn a new language than to adopt a new culture or religion. In places like Canada and India we can see language as both a unifying and dividing force.

manet detail from server .jpg

There are of course many other types of groups that can conflict: much of the 20th century was influenced by the split between working and privileged classes (hence the term class struggle); age or generation groups can create gaps between parents and their own children or between older and younger people in general; etc.

Note that when a conflict of ideas, ideology, emotions, etc. occurs chiefly in an individual, that is, when it is chiefly an internal conflict, it pertains to character or psychology (3); when it is treated in larger, speculative, or philosophical terms, it usually pertains to theme (5). Again, ask yourself what you are trying to focus on — the effect of conflict in and on the individual (3), the conflict as it is seen or dramatized in the interaction between characters (4), or the larger meaning of the conflict (5). Once you have your focus, don’t worry about the overlap in categories.

Example: Bhartrhari

The following two-line poem by the 5th-century poet Bhartrhari celebrates (4) physical attraction by using contrasting metaphors (6) involving light and dark:

The clear light of man's discernment dies

When a woman clouds it with her lamp-black eyes.

The poem might also be seen in light of the three gunas, the three basic qualities or properties of Hinduism. The poet playfully suggests that "discernment" is connected to sattva — light, clarity, purity, intelligence, and non-attachment — and that this perfect state is threatened by the passion of rajas and the lust of tamas.

As I was saying in the section on space, geography plays a large role in determining culture and the way people understand and express ideas. In Europe, dangerous attraction might be seen in terms of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions in which women tempt men — from the sirens and Circe to Eve and Jezebel. In the song, “One of These Nights,” the Eagles use this tradition when they sing, “I’m looking for the daughter of the Devil himself, I’m looking for an angel in white.” In Hindu India, a poet might see the temptation of a beautiful woman in terms of an apsara, and the threat involved in terms of basic properties of dark matter and light spirit. In the West, on the other hand, a poet might see this in terms of bright angels and dark devils. One thing that remains constant here, however, is the use of colour to explore the nature of relationships.

5. THEME

Your job isn’t to make an argument that the theme of a text is such and such, but that the writer develops the theme in this or that way. Try to start with a statement that doesn’t simply state the general subject of the text — love in Romeo and Juliet — but rather examines an interesting aspect of the subject — star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet. “Star-crossed” brings up the possibility of personal anguish in a character (3), struggle between greater forces in society (4), or the theme of free will and determinism (5). By making your statement specific you can see your focus more clearly.

Another way to do this is to ask what point the author is making. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare isn’t just observing that love exists, but rather that a certain type of love exists. This love has certain causes and effects, is expressed in certain metaphors and tropes, which you of course can make arguments about. 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Juliet.jpg
Juliet , 1898 (John William Waterhouse),  Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed , 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons

Juliet, 1898 (John William Waterhouse), Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed, 1809 (Johann Heinrich Füssli); both from Wikimedia Commons