Interpretation of literatureReading novels [Archives:2005/856/Education]

July 4 2005

Dr. P.A.Abraham
Professor of English
Faculty of Education
Sana'a University
[email protected]

A novel is defined as an extended fictional prose narrative, and the word is derived from the Italian 'novella', and the Spanish 'novela'. In most European countries, the word for 'novel' is 'roman', short form of 'romance', which was applied to longer verse narratives, which were later written in prose. Early romances were associated with “legendary, imaginative, and poetic material”- tales “of the long ago or the far away or the imaginatively improbable”; novels, on the other hand, were felt to be “bound by the facts of the actual world and the laws of probability” (A Handbook to Literature, C. Hugh Holman, p.34).

The novel has, over some 600 years, developed into many special forms which are classified by subject matter: detective novel, gothic novel, stream-of-consciousness novel, epistolary novel, historical novel, regional novel, picaresque novel, and so on. These terms, of course, are not exhaustive or mutually exclusive. Furthermore, depending on the conventions of the author's time period, his style, and his outlook on life, his mode may be termed 'realism', 'romanticism', impressionism', 'expressionism', 'naturalism', or 'neo-classicism' (Holman, p.359).

Analyzing a novel

Analyzing novels is probably like asking questions like what? who? where? and how? The 'what' is the story, the narrative, the plot and subplots. Most students are familiar with Freytag's Pyramid, originally designed to describe the structure of a five-act drama but now widely used to analyze fiction also. The stages generally specified are 'introduction' or' exposition', 'complication', 'rising action, 'climax', 'falling action', and 'denouement' or 'conclusion'. As the novel's events are chartered, the “change, which structures the story” should emerge. There are many events in a long narrative; but generally only one set of events comprises the “real” or “significant” story.

However, subplots often parallel or serve as counterpoints to the main plot line, serving to enhance the central story. Minor characters sometimes have essentially the same conflicts and goals as the major characters, but the consequences of the outcome seem less important. Sometimes the parallels involve reversals of characters and situations, creating similar yet distinct differences in the outcome. Nevertheless, seeing the parallels makes understanding the major plot line less difficult.

Sometimes, an author divides the novel into chapters- named or unnamed, perhaps just numbered. Or he might divide the novel into “books” or “parts”, with chapters as subsections. Readers should take their cue from these divisions; the author must have had some reason for them. Take note of what happens in each larger section, as well as within the smaller chapters. Whose progress is being followed? What event or occurrence is being foreshadowed or prepared for? What causal or other relationships are there between sections and events? Some writers, such as Stein beck in The Grapes of Wrath, write chapters, alternating between the “real” story (the Joads) and peripheral or parallel stories (the Okies and migrants in general). Look for the pattern of such organization; try to see the interrelationships of these alternating chapters.

Of course, plots cannot happen in isolation from characters, the 'who'? element of a story. Not only are there major and minor characters to consider; we need to note whether the various characters are 'static' or 'dynamic'. Static characters do not change in a significant way- that is, in ways which relate to the story which is structuring the novel. A character may die, i.e., change from alive to dead, and still be static, unless his death is central to the narrative. For example, in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the boy with the mulberry birthmark apparently dies in a fire early in the novel. Momentous as any person's death is, this boy's death is not what the novel is about. However, when Simon is killed, and later Piggy, the narrative becomes directly effective as the reason for their death is central to the novel's theme regarding man's essential nature of evil. A dynamic character may change only slightly in his attitudes, but those changes may be the very ones upon which the narrative rests. For instance, Siddhartha begins as a very pure and devout Hindu but is unfulfilled spiritually. He eventually does achieve spiritual contentment, but his change is more a matter of degree than of substance. He is not an evil man who attains salvation, nor a pious man who becomes corrupt. It is the process of his search, the stages in his pilgrimage, which structure the novel Siddhartha.

Characters in a Novel

We call major characters in a novel as 'protagonists' or 'antagonists'. Built into those terms is the Greek word 'agon', meaning “struggle”. The 'protagonist' struggles toward or for something; the 'ant(i)agonist' struggles against someone or something. The possible conflicts are usually cited as man against himself, man against man, man against society, or man against nature. Sometimes more than one of these conflicts appears in as story, but usually one is dominant and is the structuring device.

A character can be referred to as 'stock', meaning that he exists because the plot demands it. A character can also be a stereotype, without any specific individuality of his own. Characters can also serve as foils for other characters, enabling the readers to see one or more of them better. A good example is Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, the romantic foil for Huck Finn's Realism. Or, in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout as the naive observer of events which her brother Jem, four years older, comes to understand from the perspective of the adult world. Sometimes characters are allegorical, standing for qualities or concepts rather than for actual personages. For example, Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath is often regarded as a Christ figure, pure and self-sacrificing in his aims for the migrant workers. Or Kamala, Siddhartha's teacher in the art of love, whose name comes from the tree whose bark is used as a purgative; she purges him of his ascetic ways on his road to self-hood and spiritual fulfillment.

The interplay of plot and character determines in large part the theme of a novel, the 'why'? of the story. First of all students should distinguish between a mere topic and a genuine theme or thesis; and then between a theme and contributing 'motifs'. A topic is a phrase, such as “man's inhumanity to man” or “the fickle nature of fate”. A theme, however, turns a phrase into a statement: ” Man's inhumanity to man is barely concealed by 'civilization'” or “Man is a helpless being at the mercy of fate”. Many writers may deal with the same topic, such as the complex nature of true love; but their themes may vary widely, from “True love will always win out in the end,” to “The course of true love is never smooth”.


Skilled writers often employ 'motifs' to help unify their work. A motif is a detail or element of the story which is repeated throughout, and which may become symbolic. Motifs in the hands of a skilled writer are valuable devices. And in isolation, and often magnified, a single motif can become a controlling image with great significance. For example, in Lord of the Flies when wise Piggy is reduced to one lens in his specs, and finally to no specs at all, we see the loss of insight and wisdom on the island, and chaos follows.


Setting is the “where”? element of the story. But setting is also the “when” element: time of day, time of year, time period or year; it is the dramatic moment, the precise intersection of time and space when the story is being told. Setting is also the atmosphere: positive or negative ambiance, calm, chaotic, Gothic, romantic. The question for the reader to answer is whether the setting is ultimately essential to the plot/theme, or whether it is incidental: i.e., could this story/theme have been told successfully in another time and/or place? For instance, could the theme in Lord of the Flies be made manifest if the boys were not on an island? Could they have been isolated in some other place? Does it matter whether the “war” which they are fleeing is WWII or WWIII or some other conflict, in terms of the theme? It is important to note that the four elements of plot, character, theme, and setting are intertwined and largely interdependent. Any literary work must be red as a whole, rather than dissected and analyzed in discrete segments.

The final question, “how”? , relates to an author's style. Style involves language (word choice), syntax (word order, sentence type, and length), the balance between narration and dialogue, the choice of narrative voice (first person participant, third person with limited omniscience), use of descriptive passages, and other aspects of the actual words on the page, which are basically irrelevant to the first four elements (plot, character, theme, and setting). Stylistic differences are fairly easy to spot among such diverse writers as Jane Austin, whose style is -to today's reader-very formal and mannered; Mark Twain, whose style is very casual and colloquial; William Faulkner, whose prose often spins on without punctuation or paragraphs far longer than the reader can hold either the thought or his breath; and Hemingway, whose dense but spare, pared-down style has earned the epithet, “Less is more.”