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?
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.
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.
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
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,
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
emotive prose (fiction);
What is Poetry?
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’.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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
How do other elements in the story support the
How are the theme and the
title of the story poem or play related?
Is there more than one theme
in the work?
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:
beginning of the plot;
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) …
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.
addition to conflicts inside the mind, literary works may also focus on
- 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
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.
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
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.
of situation: A discrepancy between what is said and what
is done or between what is expected and what actually happens.