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The Formal Features of Literature

Joel Peckham


Whenever you are reading or re-reading, it is good idea to find a point of focus for critical response. Sometimes you will find yourself liking a piece, or hating it, or being indifferent to it and not knowing what to say. But if you break the piece down to its component formal elements and then use one or two of those elements to open up the text, you will find your level of understanding and pleasure increasing exponentially. Below, you will find several of these elements explained in detail. I have also provided examples of visual art which reflect the usage of these elements. This will provide you with a visual representation of these abstract concepts. To view a larger image of the painting, just click on the image.

Formal Features Index:


FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
SYMBOL
IMAGE
METAPHOR
SIMILE
ANALOGY

CONTEXT
DICTION
TONE
NARRATION
THEME
CHARACTERIZATION


FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE


Figurative Language would include symbols, images, metaphors, similes, analogies etc.


Ancient of Days, Blakethe word SYMBOL means literally something that means something else. A dove, for example is a symbol of peace. Authors use symbols as intensely compressed units of meaning and rely on the reader's understanding of what a certain object, color, person or even symbolic action represents. This understanding may be developed through culture or through the writer's personal symbolism established over time in his or her own work. In Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" for example, one could argue from its context and placement within the poem that the golden bird is a symbol for art and its potential to defy death.

an IMAGE is a visual representation. In literature images are often used together to create a pattern which can give a reader a sense of tone or can establish a theme. The bird imagery and other images of life (and of the life cycle) at the beginning of "Sailing to Byzantium" helps to establish the character of Ireland--"that country"-- and the author's point of view regarding it. Tracking how an image changes in visual representation, context, and meaning as it progresses through a piece can help a reader to understand the piece more fully. In contemporary poetry, many writers use what are called deep images. A DEEP IMAGE is very similar to a symbol--the main difference being that its meaning is even less specified. For example, a mud puddle in a poem by James Wright or a root cellar in a poem by Theodore Roethke could represent the collective unconscious.




The Persistance of Memory, Dalia METAPHOR is a direct comparison. When Robert Bly says "This solitude is deep mud!" he is making a direct comparison as is Pablo Neruda when he says "I am the Pablo Bird, / bird of a single feather, / a flier in the clear shadow / and obscure clarity, . . . " Metaphors place incongruent ideas objects and concepts in close proximity to each other and make the reader attempt to see their similarities, to see something in a different way.

a SIMILE is a comparison qualified with the word like or as. They also serve to make the reader consider the relationships of things to each other--just not quite so radically. When Felicia Hemans writes that "No other smile to thee could bring / A gladdening, like the breath of spring" she is comparing the qualities of a spring breeze to a mother's smile.

an ANALOGY is an extended comparision--usually of one setting or psychological situation to another. Often an author will develop such a comparison by using the words associated with one place or set of circumstances and comparing them to another. When Emily Dickinson writes "I never heard of prisons broad / By soldiers battered down, / But I tug childish at my bars, / Only to fail again!" she is making an extended comparison between her own feelings of entrapment with those of a prisoner.

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CONTEXT


Gin Lane, HogarthThe context of a piece is more than its physical location--its SETTING. It is also its TIME PERIOD, and CULTURE. Context helps to establish tone and theme through placing an observation or event within a specific framework. The setting of Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon"--the cramped confines of a Swiss dungeon--sets up the theme of confinement and its effect on the human psyche. The fact that this character's confinement occurs at the hands of his own people creates a sense of irony and injustice, perhaps even absurdity, creating a larger philosophical and social framework for the poem. Often an author will attempt to embed references between the culture or setting within the piece and the culture it was written in. Ursela LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" derives much of its power, for example, from the similarities between the culture she describes and our own.
The Fall of Icarus, Breugel
















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DICTION

Diction means, quite literally, "word choice"--specifically, the way in which an author uses specific words to create a particular literary effect through analogy, tone, or theme.



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TONE

Woman I, DeKooningOriginally a musical term, literary tone is generally taken to mean that element of a piece--established through figurative language, word, choice, and rhythm--that establishes the emotional and ambient quality of a literary work--its mood. The tone of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," for example, is rousing to the point of desperation and hysteria. And this tone is established immediately through word choice--"rage" "rage" "burn" and "rave." Often the way in which the tone mediates throughout a piece can indicate its meaning in ways that the statements of its narrator or even its author may not intend. One could argue for example that "even though Tennyson said "Ulysses" gave his feeling about" his friends "death and ‘the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life,' his account of the poem's meaning is inconsistent with the desolate melancholy music of the words themselves" (Landow http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/tennyson/
ulysses.html). Scholars often refer to such an effect as TONAL IRONY.






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NARRATION

The Blinding of Sampson, RembrandtThe study of Narration or of Narrative Structure involves an exploration of why a piece has been put together in such a way--why it begins in-media-res, why it starts with dialogue or a description of setting. It assumes that the formal placement of narrative elements--such backstory, setting, characterization, dialogue etc.--contribute to the meaning of a literary work. For more information on narration, visit "Reading Narrative".narration











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CHARACTERIZATION

The Old Guitarist, PicassoCharacterization involves how a character is developed--why she is the way she is-- and how that character changes throughout the course of the plot--how and why that character becomes what she becomes. Our understanding of who a character is in a literary work is developed though that character's physical description, dialogue, personal history, representative actions, family relationships, possessions, religion etc. Often critics will refer to a character as "flat" or "round" based that character's potential for growth. A "flat character" is simply evil, or stupid, or good throughout the text. A "round character" changes in response to stimuli provided as he or she progresses through the narrative. In an "epiphany story," for example, a character will come to a drastic realization that will fundamentally change the way he or she looks at the world. We often judge whether or not a character has changed by comparing how the author presents that character in terms of physical description, association, dialogue, representative actions, etc. in comparison to how the character was presented earlier in the story.









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THEME

A theme is what a literary work is "about"--one of many points made in a text regarding how we live our lives. A theme of a work is not the same as its subject. Rather, it is that element of a work--usually referred to throughout the piece--that seeks to comment on larger issues such as value of family relationships, the value of community, the nature of love, the nature of death, etc. etc. And most literary works make numerous arguments regarding these issue--few of them explicitly stated. The ambiguous nature of artistic "argument" is part of its mystery, power, and interest. And that ambiguity is what makes discussion about literature lively and engaging. One might argue, for example, basing one's arguments of Ulysses final declarations at the end his monologue, that Tennyson's poem is about "the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life" but one could also point to the melancholic tone of the piece to argue that the poem is really about the impossibility of doing so in the face of such loss. Neither of these statements are directly contradictory and both are supportable--but they emphasize different elements of the text and come to different but equally valid conclusions. Still some assertions of theme are more supportable than other's. The trick is to amass as much evidence as possible.
Cow's Skull on Red White and Blue, O'Keefe Cow's Skull With Calico Roses, O'Keefe Horse's Skull with White Rose, O'Keefe

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