Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: close reading (page 1 of 2)

Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

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Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.

In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.

As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.

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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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How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

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20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

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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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Appreciate Plot Structure: How to Read Fiction Step 3

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A very tall first hill of a red roller coaster reflects the structure of a fictional plot. Enjoy the ride, but also appreciate the plot structure.

Following a good plot can be as thrilling as riding this roller coaster. Go ahead and enjoy the ride, but also learn to appreciate the plot structure!

At least since Scheherazade wove 1,001 tales for King Shahryar, readers have fallen under the spell of master story-tellers. Though authors think a lot about how to craft their plots, readers don’t often give much thought to how a plot is built, beyond consuming it. We just love being on the roller coaster ride: What happens next? And next? How will the characters ever get out of that mess? And the next, even harder one? How will things turn out for the characters we come to care for?

What most readers want in plot is a fast-paced but also logical chain of events, including some twists and surprises. At story’s finish, everything should just feel right, as if events led to the place they naturally would. Enjoying and critiquing a plot of this familiar type feels easy and natural.

What happens, though, when a work we are reading doesn’t follow the typical plot conventions? Great literature often does not.

Roller coaster riders on this yellow coaster are enjoying the ride just as readers enjoy riding the structure of a good plot. But readers can appreciate plots on a deeper level too.

Riding the plot roller coaster is fun! But there are more ways to enjoy plot than just to consume it.

For one thing, some great works were written before plot as we know it was fully developed. Later writers of great fiction may experiment with plot structures or focus more on other elements of fiction like character or narrator perspectives. Some important works may even avoid bringing the plot to a firm finish or resolution, to make a point or for some other artistic purpose.

Such departures from convention may frustrate some readers who don’t expect them, making it hard for some who don’t find a fast-paced plot full of events, their favorite entry into a story. But unexpected or highly artistic uses of plot can be the very element that lifts readers to a more extraordinary aesthetic experience.

If you want the meaning and power of great literature to open up for you, it helps to consider and appreciate how a plot in fiction is built, not just read to find out what happens next.

The best plots don’t just grow; they are carefully built. Knowing the parts of a typical plot can help you see and enjoy when authors structure them well, or poorly, and also notice when they purposely avoid following conventional plot shapes.

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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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All Kinds of Poems About Love

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Close-up of spray of brilliant pink bleeding heart flowers (shaped like hearts with white drop coming out of the bottom of bloom)

The blooms called “Bleeding Hearts.” Apt image for Love?

Wrestling with love–the falling, the feeling, and the losing–has probably sent more pens to paper than any other topic.  With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, It’s the perfect time to spend half an hour of shivers, sighs, and tears to savor some of our great poems about Love. In this post I’ll share some of my favorites from different poets and eras that offer multiple perspectives on “la grande passion.” If, however, no lucky star presides over your love life right now, and Valentine’s Day finds you in no mood to celebrate, despair not. A couple of selections here may just suit your mood.

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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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Happy Christ-tide: Milton’s Nativity Ode

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Painting showing Nativity of Christ. Baby in manger center bottom, Mary and Joseph with folded hands behind and to left and right of baby. Small angels kneeling in foreground.

The Nativity of Christ by Francesco Francia. c. 1490.

By Guest Writer David E. Miller

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” affectionately called The Nativity Ode, is John Milton’s first great poem. The Nativity Ode is an elaborate carol1  that describes how the world, sinful and ashamed, became the reluctant site of Christ’s birth.  The poem begins and ends peacefully but contains a surprising, violent commotion in the middle, when all the shrines to pagan gods are paradoxically destroyed by the mere presence of a defenseless baby—Jesus. Such a startling combination of sensuous and shocking images could drown out more lightweight songs like “Frosty the Snowman” that radio stations play on a loop this time of year.

These days, not many people know much of, let alone have read Milton, the poet who wrote the famous work Paradise Lost. Some background: Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Following the generation of great writers led by Shakespeare, he would have only been 7 years old when Shakespeare died in 1616. Milton was only 21 when he wrote The Nativity Ode.

Let’s take a closer look at this important writer’s first great poem.  You can read The Nativity Ode here. 

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David Elias Miller graduated from Miami University (Oxford, OH) with an M.A. in English Literature. A “cultural conservative” who sees great literature as an inheritance, not a problem to be deconstructed by cultural, gender, or other theoretical studies, David is setting a career path outside the university in the non-profit sector while continuing to learn and enjoy literature as a personal passion.

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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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Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: All of America in a Blade of Grass

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Little girl wearing white lacy summer dress lying on green grass with long red hair spread out.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*

In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself,  first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.

However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher.  For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”

I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.

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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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Blown About by Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

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B & W Still Photo of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.*

Note: A few Plot Spoilers!

Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?

Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.

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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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Just Fall In: How to Read Poems Step 10, Step 1, and Every Step!

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Two skydivers falling through the air.

Just Fall In!

With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!

Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.

It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.

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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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