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An Introduction to American Literature
(From Responding to Literature by Judith A. Stanford; Fields of Vision by Denis Delaney, Ciaran Ward, Carla Rho Fiorina)

What is literature?

 Since the dawn of civilisation many men and women have felt a vital need to communicate their thoughts and feelings beyond their immediate circle of family, friends and acquaintances to a wider world. Thanks to the invention of writing and printing they have been able to hand down to successive generations a priceless treasury of manuscripts and books.

Literature is generally taken to mean those pieces of writing which, despite the passing of the years and even of the centuries, still inspire admiration, reflection and emotion in readers.  Poems, plays, novels and short stories in a given language that have stood the test of time collectively make up a national literature.

This does not mean, however, that only older works can be called literature. Today, millions of books are produced every year but only some of them find their way into literary magazines or onto the  literary pages of newspapers. In these cases it is the critics and not time that decide what is and what is not to be regarded as literature. Whether their choices are appropriate or not will be a matter for future generations to decide.

           It is impossible to formulate a totally comprehensive and all-encompassing definition of literature because literature is never static. Writers, genres and styles of writing have fallen in and out of favour throughout history and even today arguments rage about whether more popular forms of fiction such as detective stories should be considered literature. These disputes can be left to the critics because, for the reader, literature is simply beautiful, meaningful writing.

         Literature was not born the day when a boy crying "wolf, wolf” came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying "wolf, wolf” and there was no wolf behind him. /Vladimir Nabokov/

Why read literature?

The most  obvious answer to this question is because it is enjoyable. Everybody loves a good story, and many great works of literature tell memorable stories. These stories provide an escape from our daily lives by transporting us to different times and places. We can travel back to the depression era in the United States with John Steinbeck, or we can journey through the African jungle with Joseph Conrad, or we can be projected into the future by science fiction writers like H.G.Wells.

Escapism is only one reason for reading literature. Literature can also be viewed as a source of knowledge and information. If we read one of Chaucer’s tales, a poem by Wilfred Owen and a novel by Chinua Achebe, we learn about a range of subjects from life in England in the Middle Ages, to conditions at the battle front in the first World War I, to the unresolved tensions in colonial Nigeria. Almost every poem, play or novel we read gives us more information about the world we live in.

Perhaps the most important reason for reading literature is because it breaks down our personal barriers. Literature invites us to share in a range of human experiences that we otherwise would be denied. It allows us to leave behind our age, sex, family background and economic condition so that we can see the world from the perspective of people who are completely different from us. Great writers make us understand how other people think and feel.

Literature stirs up our emotions. It amuses, frightens, intrigues, shocks, consoles, frustrates and challenges us. It helps us to understand ourselves and others. Literature widens our field of vision.

Speaking about literature we should define the Belles-Lettres Style:

a)      poetry;

b)      emotive prose (fiction);

c)       drama.


What is Poetry?

One modern poet, when asked the question "What is poetry?”, replied that poetry, unlike prose, is a form of writing in which few lines run to the edge of the page! The American poet Robert Frost contended that "poetry is the kind of thing poets write.” While these replies, at first, may not seem serious, they inadvertently reveal two important aspects of poetry: the first quotation  indicates the arrangement of the words on the page as an important element of poetry, while the second emphasises that there is a special ‘poetic’ way of using language. A working definition may, therefore, be that poetry emerges form interplay between the meaning of words and their arrangement on paper; or – as the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it – ‘poetry is the best words in their best order’.

Although poems come in all shapes and sizes, they share certain characteristics. Imagery, metaphors and symbols make poetry dense with meaning. Sound features, such as rhyme, rhythm and repetition, give the language a special musical quality. The standard rules of grammar and syntax are often ignored, so that the language may be used in a striking or original way.

Poetry, like all literature, is a writer’s attempt to communicate to others his emotional and intellectual response to his own experiences and to the world that surrounds him. The poet puts words together to make the reader feel what he has felt and experience what he has experienced.


What is Drama?

          The word ‘drama’ refers to any work that is intended for performance by actors on a stage. It is a type of writing or genre that is very different from poetry or fiction because the written text, what we call the play, is only one component of the work. Other elements are needed to bring a dramatic text to life:

·        the actors, the people who interpret the parts of the play;

·        the director, the person who decides how the play should be performed;

·        the audience, the people who watch the play.

When reading a play, we should always try to imagine how it could be presented on stage. It is always helps to see as many live or filmed versions of the play as possible.

A play takes play on a stage. On the stage, a set representing the place where the action takes place is built. The set usually includes props, stage furniture, objects, coloured backcloths, etc. The set will immediately give us information about the play, for example, which historical period it is set in. It will also create expectations about what we are about to see. There are, of course, a great variety of set designs from complex multi-storey sets to simple bare stages. A set is described as naturalistic, when it represents real life, or symbolic, when it tries to convey ideas or meaning.

 Lighting plays an important role in conveying the meaning of a play. Its primary function is to illuminate the actors and the stage but it can also focus attention on a particular area of the stage while the rest is in darkness or semi-darkness. Lighting is used to show the time of day when the action takes place. It also creates atmosphere. Filters are used to produce coloured light which may create warm, cold or eerie atmospheres. Today it is possible to incorporate spectacular lighting effects into a performance by using strobe lighting, ultraviolet light, underfloor lighting and other special techniques.

Like lighting, sound effects may also play an important part in theatrical productions. Sounds that come from the stage or sounds made offstage can make the production more realistic and credible. Music is often used to create atmosphere or to underline particularly significant moment in the play.


What is Fiction?

 The term ‘fiction’ comes from the Latin word fingere and refers to any narrative in prose or verse that is entirely or partly the work of the imagination. Although in its broadest sense fiction includes plays and narrative poems, it is most commonly used when referring to the short story and the novel.

Storytelling has always been an essential part of man’s existence. From the earliest times, man has exchanged stories based on both his experience and imagination. Fiction, in the form of the novel and the short story, most directly fulfils our innate need for storytelling. It takes us to imaginary times and places, introduces us to new people and tells us about significant events in their lives. Fiction, since its emergence in the form of the novel in the eighteenth century, has been the most popular literary genre in Western culture.  


Early Forms of Fiction

Allegory Allegories are stories in which each character, action, and setting stands for one specific meaning. For example, in John Bunyan’s allegory "A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/1684), a character named Christian represents the virtues associated with the ideal member of that faith. In the allegory, Cristian passes through a landscape of temptations and dangers with areas symbolically named the "Slough of Despond”, the "City of Destruction”, and the "Valley of Humiliation” before he reaches the "Celestial City”. Allegories, which are intended to teach moral lessons, may also be written as poetry and drama.

Myth Myths often tell the stories of ancient deities, sometimes describing their exploits, sometimes explaining how a particular god or goddess came into being. Other myths address the mysteries of nature, including the creation of the universe and its diverse inhabitants. Ancient people probably invented myths as a way to make sense of the world in which they lived.  For instance, gods and goddesses were described as experiencing human emotions – hate, jealousy, love, passion, despair – and as facing the human conflicts these feelings create.

Legend Legends recount the amazing achievements of fictional characters or exaggerate the exploits of people who actually lived. For example, the story of Paul Bunyan is apparently based on a real man, but his size, his blue ox (Babe), and his astounding feats are inventions of those who told and retold tales of the resourceful lumberjack. Legends – which often include the entertaining tall tale – frequently praise and confirm traits that a society particularly values. For instance, Paul Bunyan works hard, never back down from a fight, and knows how to enjoy a party – all qualities that were greatly admired during the early years of the American westward expansion.

Fairy Tale Like myths, fairy tales focus on supernatural beings and events. They are not peopled by gods and goddesses, however, but by giants, trolls, fairy godmothers, and talking animals who happily coexist with humans – both royalty and common folk. Fairy tales do not attempt to explain the natural world or to affirm national values but instead focus on the struggle between clearly defined good and evil. In fairy tales, good always prevails over evil, although – in those that have not been censored to suit modern sensibilities – the "good” is often achieved by rather terrifying means. Figures of evil drop into pots of boiling oil, are flayed alive, or are cooked into (evidently tasty) pies.

 Fable The best-known fables are those that were told by the Greek slave Aesop. Fables usually feature animals who can talk and, in general, act just as rationally (and just as irrationally) as humans. Unlike myths, legends, and fairy tales – but like allegories – fables state an explicit lesson. For instance, nearly everyone knows the story of the race between the boastful Hare who runs quickly ahead of the plodding Tortoise, stops for a rest, and is beaten to the finish line by his slow yet determined rival. "Slow but steady wins the race,” Aesop told his listeners, stating specifically the moral he wished to tech.

 Parable Like fables,  parables teach a lesson or explain a complex spiritual concept. Unlike a fable, which tells a story that demonstrates the stated moral, a parable is a narrative that serves as an analogy for the principle being taught. For example, the New Testament contains many parables that suggest the relationship between Good and humans. In one parable, God is depicted as a Good Shepherd who looks for one lot sheep in a flock of one hundred. In another parable, God is compared to a father who rejoices at the return of a son who has strayed.


Modern Short Fiction

           All of these early forms of  short fiction still exist today. In the nineteenth century, however, new forms evolved. It was exemplified by the work of writers such as Guy De Maupassant in France; Anton Chekhov in Russia; George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in Great Britain; and Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett in the United States.

          The Realistic Short Story The nineteenth-century realistic short story different from early forms of fiction in many ways. Nineteenth-century realistic short stories focused on scenes and events of everyday life. Ordinary men, women, and children – not fabulous gods, powerful giants, and talking animals – inhabited these stories. Characters were developed more fully; rather than representing one primary trait, the central figures of short stories exhibited the complexities and contradictions of real people. Plots became more intricate to suggest the workings of character’s souls and minds and to depict their external actions. Settings became more than briefly sketched backdrops; times and places were described in vivid detail. Most importantly, realistic short stories moved away from teaching one particular moral or lesson. Although the theme of a short story often suggested certain values, readers were expected to find meaning for themselves. The author no longer served up a moral or a lesson in a direct and obvious way.

The realistic short story, as it evolved from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, usually focuses on a conflict experienced by a character or group of character. Often, by facing that conflict, the characters come to know themselves (and other people) more fully. A short story that shows a young person moving from innocence to experience is called a story of initiation. A related form is the story of epiphany, in which a character experiences a conflict that leads to a sudden insight or profound understanding (The word "epiphany” comes from the name of the Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of the infant Jesus to the Magi. These wise men, who had travelled from the East, returned to their own countries deeply moved and changed by what they had seen in Bethlehem.)

The Nonrealistic Short Story The nineteenth century also saw the development of the nonrealistic short story. For example, many of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories introduced supernatural beings, strange settings, or plot events that could not be explained by the traditional law of nature. (See, for example, "Young Goodman Brown”). Although these nonrealistic stories often incorporated elements of earlier forms of short fiction (for instance, characters – human or animal – with unusual powers), they shared certain qualities with the realistic short story. Their characters were more fully developed and had spiritual and psychological depth; their plots were more complex; and their settings were more fully described. Most importantly, their themes often led the reader to speculate, wonder, and question rather than to accept a directly stated moral or lesson.

In the twentieth century, writers such as Maria Luisa Bombal ("New Islands”) continue the tradition of the nonrealistic short story. Unbound by realistic dimensions of time and space, unfettered by the laws of physics or even by the conventions of human psychology, these writers push their own imaginations – and the imaginations of their readers – in new, and sometimes unsettling, directions. Reading nonrealistic fiction requires what the nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief” – the willingness to read, enjoy, and ponder settings, plots, and characters that seem strange and unconventional. Even more so than realistic fiction, nonrealistic stories lead in many diverse directions rather than toward a single theme.  


Actions and events

When readers react to literature,  among the first aspects they notice are actions and events. You can see how natural this response is when you think about talking to a friend who recommends a new film. You’d almost certainly ask some versions of this question: "What ‘s it about?” And your friend would almost certainly respond by giving you a brief summary of what happens in the film or perhaps by singling out particular actions that seemed especially interesting, entertaining, moving, frightening, or significant in some way.


When you tell what happens in a film or in a work of literature, you are describing the plot – the sequence of events that take place. In some stories the main plot is accompanied by a subplot – a second story that is complete in its own right. The subplot is usually linked in some way to events in the main plot and generally helps to deepen our understanding of it.  Most readers begin by describing external actions, those that, through the writer’s description, we can see and hear.

But a character can ask questions that indicate her interest in internal actions, those events that take place inside the mind and heart.


Theme is the central idea that directs and shapes the subject matter of a story, play or poem. It is the view of life or the insights into human experiences that the author wishes to communicate to his readers. In certain types of literature (fables, parables and propaganda pieces) the theme emerges forcefully as a moral or a lesson that the author wishes to teach, while in others the theme is embedded in the story. In the past, writers openly stated the theme of their work. They usually put the words into the mouth of a character or used an omniscient narrator to voice their opinions. If the theme of a work is clearly stated in the text, we refer to it as an overt theme. Most modern writers are reluctant to state the themes of their work openly. They prefer to encourage the readers to think and draw their own conclusions. When the theme is hidden in the action, characters, setting and language of a story, we refer to it as an implied theme.

The theme of a literary work should not be confused with the subject or the story. To say that a work is about ‘love’ is not identifying the theme; it is merely stating the subject matter. Saying what happens in a story is also not a way of identifying the theme;  it is simply summarising the plot. The theme is the abstract, generalised comment or statement the author makes about the subject of the story. It is the answer to the question ‘What does the story mean?’, not ‘What is the story about?’

When formulating the theme of a literary work, hasty generalisations and clichés should be avoided. Sweeping statements about life are rarely enlightening, so writers tend to avoid them. They are more inclined to explore complex issues and propose tentative answers.

The theme of a poem, play or story should emerge from and be confirmed by the analysis of plot, characters, setting, imagery, sound features and style. If the theme that is proposed leaves certain elements unexplained, or if there are aspects of the story that do not support the theme, then it is probably incomplete or incorrect.

The title the author gives the work should always be taken into careful consideration when trying to identify the theme. The title often suggests the focus of the work and may provide clues about its meaning.

A single work may contain several themes and readers may identify different, even opposing themes in the same work. Any theme that is supported by the other elements of the work should be considered valid.  


Questions to ask when analysing theme

·        What is the subject of the story, play or poem? What general comment is the writer making about the subject?

·         How do other elements in the story support the theme?

·        How are the theme and the title of the story poem or play related?

·        Is there more than one theme in the work?


            The sequence of external and internal actions and events in a literary work creates its structure, the pattern the plot follows.  In most traditional plays and works of fiction, the plot structure is something like this:

 -         exposition;

-         beginning of the plot;

-         plot complications;

-         climax (culmination);

-         denouement;

-         concluding part (ending).

The work usually opens with an introduction that lets us know whom the action will concern and where the action will take place. Next, we are given a complication or a series of complications (small or large problems, sometimes comic, sometimes serious) …



As you read a literary work and think about the structure of the plot – and  particularly as you focus on the complications and climax – keep in mind that nearly all fiction and drama, and many poems, focus on a conflict, a struggle between opposing forces. The conflict or conflicts in a literary work are usually reflected or accompanied by the external and internal action.

          The external actions suggest the internal action. The conflict here takes place within the speaker’s mind. The speaker wonders what he can write that will fulfil the assignment, that his instructor will understand, and that will still remain true to himself.

            In addition to conflicts inside the mind, literary works may also focus on conflicts between:

- individuals;

- an individual and a social force (a community, school, church, workplace);

- an individual and a natural force (disease, fire, flood, cold, famine).

It is important to note that conflicts do not necessary belong in just one category.

 Whatever the nature of conflict, it often forces characters to make a decision: to act or not to act, to behave according to a personal moral code or an external moral code, to compromise or to refuse to compromise, to grow and change or to remain more or less the same. The point at which characters make these choices is usually the climactic moment of the story, poem, or play. The effects or implications of this choice usually represent the conclusion of the literary work.


Irony of Situation

            The actions and events in a work may generate a sense of irony. Irony of situation is a difference between what a character says and what a character does. Sometimes irony might well shock or sadden readers rather than amuse them.

            Irony of situation also occurs when a character expects one thing to happen and instead something else happens. For instance, in "Butterflies”, the granddaughter expected that her story of the butterflies would please her teacher. The teacher’s reaction, however, was very different from the one the child expected. The grandfather’s final comment, "Because, you see, your teacher, she buy all her cabbages from the supermarket and that’s why,” underlines the irony. To the child, the butterflies are pests whose eggs will hatch into worms that destroy the cabbage crop. When she kills butterflies in her grandfather’s garden, she is acting practically and usefully. To the teacher, who does not have to grow her own food, the butterflies are simply beautiful creatures of nature.


Terms Related to Actions and Events

Plot: The sequence of events and actions in a literary work.

Structure: The pattern formed by the event and actions in a literary work. Traditional elements of structure are introduction, complications, climax, and conclusion.

Introduction: The beginning of a work, which usually suggests the setting (time and place) and shows one or more of the main characters.

Complications: Events or actions that establish the conflict in a literary work.

Climax: The turning point, often signified by a character’s making a significant decision or taking action to resolve a conflict.

Conflict: A struggle between internal and external forces in a literary work.

Conclusion: The ending of a work, which often shows the effects of the climactic action or decision.

Irony of situation: A discrepancy between what is said and what is done or between what is expected and what actually happens.



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