Introduction to the Six Categories
The six categories examined in the following three pages should help you approach any literature — poetry, drama, or fiction. I mostly use poems in the examples, as they're shorter and can be dealt with more easily.
This first page limits itself to the first category — space — since I also introduce concepts and since space is a foundational category: it creates the 'world' explored in a text, and it lies behind other categories — most obviously time and visual elements such as imagery and symbolism. Because the sixth category (form or style) contains many of the categories associated with literary analysis (such as metaphor or genre) it also requires a page to itself.
"Examples" aren't meant as model commentaries or essays (see Commentaries and Essays for this), but as illustrations of the categories, and as samples of how to analyze literature in general. "Concepts" are terms, definitions, and academic conventions — all of which should be helpful for for analyzing literature, for discussion in class, and for understanding academia.
Six Interrelated Categories
Most literary texts use all six categories at once, since almost all texts are set in a particular space (1) and time (2), explore the psychological state of a character (3) who has a relationship or conflict (4), and develop a theme (5) using a particular form or style (6).
In writing about literature, you can examine one category in relation to another — for example, the way symbolism (6) helps to define character (3) — or you can focus on one category and allow other categories to come in and out of your analysis.
Example: Ezra Pound
Short poems don't always contain all six categories, although even in a poem as short as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) we can get a sense of all six.
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
Here we have a general location (1) — a subway station in a city which uses the term metro rather than subway or underground. Within this general setting we have a fairly abstract spatial situation in which the persona sees faces in an industrial setting (the metro) and then compares them to a natural image (the "petals on a wet black bough") which is most likely not in the same setting. Because the poem refers to a metro, or subway, the poem implies a particular technological time period (2), which can't be any earlier than the late 19th Century. Like the location, the psychological state of the persona (3) is tricky: the persona appears to be observant, open to new ways of seeing the space around, yet the persona isn't described in any way. This follows the notion (shared by imagists and many Asian poets) of not putting emphasis on the individual or artist. Or perhaps Pound omits the persona’s particular identity so that the reader can take the persona’s place. There’s also a relationship (4) between the persona and the people in the crowd. While the persona is detached from the crowd — indeed, the persona almost becomes invisible, ghost-like, like the "apparition" of the other faces — the persona sees their faces in relation to the setting in a holistic or organic way, as petals on a bough.
Finally, we have several possible themes (5), such as technology vs. nature, alienation vs. connection, the dissolution of the self, and we have the use of a particular style (6) — imagistic, self-effacing, ambiguous, and reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese poetry.
For a sample commentary and a sample essay on Pound's poem, see Commentary Samples.
Terms: Writers, Narrators, Speakers, & Personas
Be careful not to automatically equate the writer of a text with the persona, speaker, or narrator. Writers create imaginary worlds, and often this includes the person who talks as the “I” or “me” in the text. Even when writers include aspects which connect to their real lives, readers can't assume they're writing about themselves — unless the text is overtly autobiographical, as for instance in Kanye West's "Saint Pablo."
In referring to the "I" in a text, use poet, persona, or speaker for poems, and narrator for short stories and novels. A narrator can be omniscient (all-seeing) or partially omniscient, and can also be a character in the story.
Use character, protagonist, or antagonist for characters in a short story, novel, longer poem (such as an epic), and dramatic performances. In plays, TV scripts, and film scripts that have narration or voice-over, use narrator. Make sure to keep clear in your head the distinction between an actor (a real-life person) and a character (the role the actor plays).
In analyzing poetry, there's a slight complication since you can use the poet to refer to the persona or to the real-life poet. For clarity, I suggest that in referring to a real-life poet make sure to include the real-life poet's name at the beginning of your analysis and at times throughout. This way, your reader will know that you don’t see the persona as fictional.
In referring to lyrics, you can use the name of the band or the singer, or you can the lyricist or the poet if you're focusing on the words rather than the singing. In very scholarly contexts, you should include the name of the lyricist, yet in first-year English papers this isn’t always necessary. Referring to the band or singer makes particular sense when you're considering the performance of the song in conjunction with the written text. The same goes for a video: you can refer to the band or singer, although in very scholarly contexts referring to the director may be appropriate.
Writer and author generally apply to prose writers, while poet and playwright apply specifically to writers of poetry and plays. There’s also another slight complication: writer and author can also be used as very general terms, and hence can also refer to poets and playwrights.
Another very general yet useful term is figure, which in literature can refer to a figure of speech (such as a metaphor), a type of person (for instance, a tragic or mythic figure), to the outline or shape of a person (as in “He cut a striking figure from across the bar”), and also, more generally, to a person or character, often striking in appearance or in renown — as in “She was a figure of note” or “He was an obscure figure in the field of chemistry.”
One way to help visualize or understand the six categories — and to understand literature in general — is to think in terms of movies. To take an example which is easy to see (yet not so easy to analyze), the animated film Pocahontas is set (1) on the ships of the English and in the woods of New England (the Europeans start to control the Native land using guns, a Native woman, and pick axes to dig up the soil…) during a time of first contact (2) between Native and English peoples, and involves Pocahontas’ psychological struggle (3) between her own culture (focused on nature) and that of the arriving Europeans (focused on ownership and precious metals). The two cultures are in constant and often violent conflict (4) throughout the film, one side often as violent as the other. The film explores two related themes (5) — the Romeo and Juliet division of the lovers Pocahontas and John Smith, and the politics of historical encounter and cultural allegiance — which are conveyed in a Disney film format (6), where the woman is feisty and beautiful, the lovers are star-crossed, the songs are catchy, and the historical sources are altered to suit the traditional structure of comedy, which requires a happy ending.
1. SPACE OR SETTING
The category of space is fundamental to artistic creation. One could argue that space is so crucial because it’s what we live in, and in order to represent our lives we must represent space. Realistic space can range from atoms to an arm’s reach, a room, a building, a neighbourhood, a lake, a mountain range, a continent, the world, and the stars.
Fantastic or mythic spaces can take many forms, from the quasi-scientific universes of Star Trek and the Marvel Universe to the fantastic realms of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Among the most famous of mythic spaces is Dante's Inferno and Paradise, here illustrated by Gustave Doré:
Heaven and Hell often have more to do with time in the future (2), the belief system of a character (3), or the theme of religion (5), unless the actual spatial description of Heaven and Hell is central, as it is in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the poet descends into the Underworld and then ascends to Heaven.
Geography lies behind language and culture, so where writers come from is often crucial. Writers living in China will most likely write in Chinese, and their influences and expressions will largely come from the Chinese world around them. Most Chinese poets will be more familiar with the Chinese poet Li Bai than with the French poet Charles Baudelaire. They’ll be intimately familiar with the tonality of language, whereas French poets will be intimately familiar with the many forms of the subjunctive verb tense. The great complement to geography (1) is history (2), which determines the nature of culture and language at any given moment. If Baudelaire and Li Bai wrote in 21st Century France and China, their writings would be different.
In analyzing space, you might ask the following questions: Why does the writer give the story a particular setting? What kinds of situations or reflections does this setting allow? How is the setting described so that we feel or think in a certain way? Does the setting reverberate with our feelings or with the feelings of the protagonist? Does the setting reflect or help to create a character, conflict, or theme?
When people say, “the text is set in Victorian England,” they may be referring to setting (1) or time-period (2), or both. In developing your arguments, keep your focus in mind. In this case, is it what Victorian England looks like in terms of such things as décor and architecture (1) or is it the qualities of the historical moment (2), such as the rise of technology and voting?
Example: Kanye West
Yeah, you're lookin' at the church in the night sky
Wonderin' whether God's gonna say hi.
("Saint Pablo," 2016, Kanye West)
Here the poet's on the Earth looking into the sky, which has been the location of gods and mythic figures since the beginning of civilization. Since the sky is often seen as the location of God, and since a church is where people worship God, then the church in the night sky may simply be reinforcing the notion that God's up there. Yet the song is called “Saint Pablo,” the Spanish name for Saint Paul. In the New Testament (Acts 9) Paul is on his way to Damascus when “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” After this experience, Paul changes his direction in life: he goes from arguing against Christianity to being its greatest known author. Perhaps by alluding (6) to Saint Paul in this way West is suggesting that he’s like Saint Paul: he’s lost his way and is looking for a flash or sign from Heaven. This might fit with his grandiose claims of being “the most influential” and “wakin’ the spirit of millions” with his “truth” in the first half of the song, and with his humbling himself before the court, standing under oath, and crying at the bar in the second half.
Note that in writing about literature, always use the writer’s last name. Here, use “West” rather than the more familiar “Kanye.”
Terms: Myth & Religion
Religion is important in literature, because 1) much of the most famous literature in history has been full of religion — The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Vedas, The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, Paradise Lost, etc., and 2) religion is still important in most people's lives. Yet because religion can be divisive, some feel that it, like politics, should be avoided in the classroom, just as religion and politics should be avoided at the dinner table. Yet the classroom isn't the dinner table. It's a much more formal environment, one in which any relevant and thoughtful idea is permissible — as long as people remain diplomatic.
Please note that I use the word mythic in the widest and most neutral sense, in order to avoid the problem of treating one belief system as religion and another as mythology. More specifically, I use mythic for ideas, events, and figures that aren't substantiated historically or scientifically and that aren't about statements of belief, rites, or institutional structures. It would be odd, for instance, to call belief in Christ or Krishna a myth, to call mass or puja a myth, or to call a minister or rishi a myth. In your writing, feel free to use mythic or religious. For instance, you could use mythic or religious to refer to Satan or Ravanna, the Trinity or the Trimurti, Moses' parting the Red Sea or Shiva and Parvati having sex on Mount Kailasa.
If you're referring to actual people's experience of religion, you might want to use the terms mystical or religious. For more abstract and complex discussions of religious belief, you may want to use theological. Finally, supernatural and metaphysical are terms that often apply to both myth and religion.
Concept: Secular Discourse
In general, public universities and colleges in Canada are secular — that is, they aren’t controlled or restricted by religion. Yet they shouldn't control or restrict religion either. In discussing religious ideas, proceed as you would with most other ideas: don’t assume that your reader either agrees or disagrees with your views. Rather, state the terms of your argument and then make your argument, giving the particulars as you would in any other case. For instance, if you want to argue something involving reincarnation, avoid starting with, “Since each soul will be reborn according to... .” Instead, start with something like, “According to Hindus [or Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains], each person has a soul, and each soul will be reborn according to... .”
Instructors may not agree with a specific religious or political argument, yet they should mark the argument based on its clarity, level of expression, organization, logic, insight, depth, rigour, and textual substantiation.
Ambiguity is the quality of being open to two or more interpretations. It's a wonderful thing in literature (especially in poetry) but a terrible thing in academic essays, medical diagnoses, or legal contracts!
In literature, ambiguity allows different readers to find different meanings, and it allows an individual reader to weigh different possibilities.
Some students find this difficult to deal with, especially if they want clear-cut answers or meanings. These students might remember, however, that life in general has a great deal of ambiguity – from the nature of things like light or gravity to the right or correct way to think, act, or believe. If you have difficulty with ambiguity, you might try deciding on one meaning and then showing why it's the most probable. You can make one particular meaning clear by showing how it makes more sense than other meanings.
Example: The Eagles
In "Life in the Fast Lane" (1976), the poet makes extensive use of ambiguous and metaphoric spaces to explore the dangers of a reckless and hedonistic lifestyle:
There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face.
She pretended not to notice, she was caught up in the race.
The first line here most likely refers to lines of cocaine, and links these to the lines on a woman's face, yet there is also an oblique reference to lines of sight. The second line picks up on the idea of sight lines, suggesting that while the woman may see her own reflection in the mirror, she doesn't mentally reflect on the damage this could cause. Her recklessness connects directly to the title of the song, which is repeated in the chorus: "Life in the Fast Lane" and in the metaphor (6) of driving recklessly:
They had one thing in common, they were good in bed.
She said, "Faster, faster, the light's are turning red."
Here the setting (1) is used to comment on a sexual encounter (4), yet also on where their relationship is going (4). Both figures are “caught up in the race," that is, both need to look out for warnings of danger — seen metaphorically (6) in terms of a driving a car on a road, being so blasted (perhaps on the previously suggested cocaine) that they don’t see the stop sign, and having an accident (with a pun on the phrase turn for the worse):
Blowin' and burnin,' blinded by thirst
They didn't see the stop sign, took a turn for the worse
'Driving in the fast lane' is thus a spatial (1) analogy (6) which starts off as a metaphor and ends up as an extended metaphor, otherwise known as a conceit (6).
Example: Jia Dao
In the following poem by the Buddhist Jia Dao (779–843), the spatial focus (1) shifts from close to distant, from specific to vague, and from human-centred to nature-centred:
Under a pine I asked the pupil
who said, “The Master is gone to gather balm
somewhere in the mountains,
but the cloud is so thick that I cannot say where."
The initial setting is specific and clear, yet by the end of the poem we realize there's more to this setting than first appeared. The pupil is alone, when presumably the Master should be present to teach the pupil. The poet here uses a paradox (6): while the teacher isn't there to teach, his absence teaches students to learn for themselves. The Master also gives a subtle hint at how students might learn: by looking into nature. This theme or instructional direction (5) is implied in the physical direction (1) he's taken: into the depth of the mountains.
The location (1) of the poem (China) and the (2) time period (9th Century) encourage a traditional philosophical reading, rather than a contemporary existential or political one. Given that both Buddhism and Daoism urge letting go of the self and contemplating vast stretches of space and time, it's not surprising that the teacher doesn't feel the need to be present or to assert his name or importance in any concrete way. Nor does he feel the need to insist on his version of the truth — a situation which might be different if the teacher was following a Confucian model, which tends to be more explicit in its pedagogical aim and structure.
Jia Dao sets up a spatial situation where the poet is set apart from the student, who then tells the poet where the teacher has gone. The simplicity of this triangular situation allows the reader to move on from the poet and the student to what the student says about the teacher, most of which has a strong spatial element. If one were to see the situation geometrically, the poet and the student would form the narrow base of an isosceles triangle, out from which two long lines stretch outward and upward to the location of the Master. Since the Master's location isn't known, the triangle has no apex. Just as there's no practical or mathematical way to see the Master — or to make final sense of the triangle — so there's no philosophical way to understand the meaning of life. Exploration is everything.
Each spatial detail becomes important at this point: that the Master has gone into nature “to gather balm" suggests that the Master's aim is to heal or soothe; that the Master's "somewhere" in the mountains suggests that most people can't understand exactly where a Master goes mentally or spiritually; that the Master's in "the mountains" suggests that nature is a deep yet lofty source of wisdom or spirituality; that the pupil says the "cloud is [...] thick" suggests that the mysteries penetrated by the Master aren't easily penetrated by most people; that the student "cannot say where" the Master has gone suggests that he can't understand the Master, or perhaps that the Master's experience is ineffable, beyond explanation.
The theme (5) of the poem is difficult to pin down, yet it appears to be the difference between common perception and mystical perception. Or perhaps it's the manner in which mystics might pass on their understanding or experience. The style or structure is metaphoric and allusive (6): concrete aspects of the setting (1) take on vague philosophical meanings (5), and allusions to nature (6) are more easily appreciated if we know something about the philosophies of Buddhism and Daoism, especially in contrast with the more down-to-earth, practical, scholastic tradition of Confucianism.