Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: classic fiction

How Ideas and Themes Shape Fiction: Reading Fiction Step 2

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Young woman in white top leaning toward shelves of books in a library, gazing at a shelf and smiling.

One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.

Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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Style, the Writer’s Unique Music: Reading Fiction Step 1

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His own style: Man wearing casual jacket and turtleneck playing violin outdoors in front of stone wall, with Vermeer print on wall behind him.

Style is the distinctive music created by an author’s words. Can you hear it?

Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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William Faulkner’s Literary Acrobatics: A Look at “A Rose for Emily”

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Photo of William Faulkner posing against a brick wall, by Carl Van Vechten

William Faulkner. By Carl Van Vechten*

In his famous piece of short fiction “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner writes under seven pages to cover over 50 years of an unusual woman’s life, along with the mystery of a strange crime, and what her fellow townspeople thought about it all. Even more amazing, this small gem of a story asks important philosophical questions about how much we can really know about other people, and why we invent stories about folks to fill in the blanks, usually without realizing we are making things up. All this in under seven pages? How does Faulkner do it?

“A Rose for Emily” is intriguing not only for its characters, its grisly plotline, and its themes; it is a showcase for Faulkner’s consummate literary acrobatics. Let’s take a closer look.

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already.

You may have read “A Rose for Emily” in high school. A lot of my students had. Nobody forgets the end of the story, the big revelation that Miss Emily had murdered her Yankee lover (who was about to leave her) and spent years sleeping next to his rotting corpse. Creep factor is definitely high enough to merit the oft-awarded descriptor “Southern Gothic.” However, this isn’t the part that stuns me the most. What amazes me is how complex, interesting, and thoughtfully composed this little tale is.

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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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