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Some Literary Assumptions and Related Reading Strategies

We all bring assumptions into the way in which we receive literature. Becoming aware of the assumptions about literary meaning you bring to text and what others are available to you will make you a stronger, more active reader.

Index of Literary Terms

Literature is Referential and Associative

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it makes connections: how it arises out of, shapes and responds to a particular historical / philosophical / cultural landscape that includes other literary works, the author's personal history and philosophy, the history of the region in which the work was produced, and the philosophical, artistic, scientific, political, and spiritual ideas of its time and region

Reading Strategies

1) Read the text, looking for references to other literary works, philosophical constructs, historical events etc. and attempt to ascertain what this author is trying to say about them. If you're having trouble, make a referential diagram in which you place the work at the center. Then pinpoint specific elements of the text that refer to each of them. Draw lines connecting the point of reference to its origination
2) Read the text in an attempt to uncover how it reflects or challenges period ideas regarding the nature of the human being and his or her relationship to society, the state, God, nature, art, and himself.

Literature is Cultural (See Literature is Referential)

Literature is meaningful in how it reflects the culture in which it is written.

Reading Strategies

Read the text, looking for value systems, social codes, and belief systems that seem peculiar or particular to the culture in which the text was created. Pay attention to how those cultural elements are made evident. Then try to show how those elements work in the text to create conflict, or how the author challenges or affirms those cultural systems.

For Further Study

Cultural Studies

Literature is Philosophical (see Literature is Referential)

Literature is meaningful for how it probes the nature of humankind and its relationship to nature, god, society, and the cosmos.

Reading Strategies

Read the text, looking for evidence of a particular concept of how the world works (existentialism, nihilism, etc)--either from the perspective of the author or a character. Then try to show how this work either affirms or challenges this world-view.

For Further Study

Philosophy Web

Philosophy at About.com

Literature is Historical (see Literature is Referential)

Literature is meaningful in how it arises out of, comments upon and participates in particular historical events.

Reading Strategies

Read the text, looking for ways in which it might be related to an important event that occurs at the time of its production. Try to ascertain how the text participates in working though some of the philosophical, psychological, social and political conflicts that this event or a series of events may have generated. Warning: try to avoid making rigid assertions like, this poem is really about the lynching of .... Instead try to show how the text and the event(s)deal with similar issues.

For Further Study

New Historicism

Literature is Formally Constructed to Create Meaning

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it manipulates formal elements of the text such as image, symbol, characterization, point of view, tone, and narrative structure to create a particular effect and / or theme.

Reading Strategies

1) Read the text, looking at its formal stylistic elements and how they work individual and in concert with others to make a statement about the the nature of the human being and his or her relationship to society, the state, God, nature, art and himself .
2) Read the text in an attempt to uncover how it reflects or challenges the formal, stylistic, and thematic conventions of its period or literary movement.

For Further Study

New Criticism

How to Use Formalist Tools to Analyze Literature

All Literary Works are Part of and Respond to the Literary Tradition(See Literature is Referential)

Literature gains meaning from how it arises out of responds to and develops the literary tradition of which it is a part.

Reading Strategies

Read the text, looking for its relationship to the literary movement of which it is a part and the literary tradition out of which it arises. Look for intertextual references to the themes, ideas, philosophical constructs, and literary conventions of its forebears and contemporaries. Ask yourself--How does this text respond to previous literary ideas and values? How does this text's relationship to those which preceed or accompany it help me to understand what this author is attempting to accomplish? How does it help me to understand the value of his or her accomplishment?

For Further Study

"Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot

Excerpts From Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence

Literature is Reader-Oriented and Interactive

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it moves or affects the reader over the course of its reception.

Reading Strategies

1) Read the text, tracking your own responses to the actions of its characters, images, symbols and rhetorical devices throughout. Then try to ascertain how that response originated. What assumptions and expectations did you bring to the text? Where did they come from? What expectations were created by the author over the course of the text? How did he or she accomplish this? How were those expectations satisfied, challenged, changed, resolved? Why did an action surprise you ? move you? Anger you? What did the author do to elicit or intensify that response.

For Further Study

"The Active Reader," Daniel Chandler

Reader Response-Various Positions

Literature Reflects our Lives ("Literature is about the human heart Struggling"--Faulkner)

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it reveals the human struggle of becoming, of finding out who we are in relationship to our region, religion, nationality, family, love interests, experiences, etc. It shows us how we live our lives, how our identities are constructed. It reveals the way in which we struggle between our individual and communal longings in an effort to accept them, redefine them, escape them, and resolve them.

Reading Strategies

1) Read the text focing on the particular conflict of the main character of speaker. Try to ascertain how that character has been formed by experience, setting, family influence, etc. Then ask yourself, what does this character want? What or who is impeding this character from attaining that desire? Where does this desire orginate? How is this conflict resolved? What do I want from this character?

For Further Study

Depending on what you see as the main conflict, see Literature Reflects Human Psychology, Literature is Cultural, Literature is Political, or Literature is Philosophical.

Literature is Value Driven

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it establishes, affirms, or contradicts certain societal values and it presents an ethical and moral struggle between competing value systems.

Reading Strategies

Read the text for how it represents or presents a particular value system. Ask yourself, what actions, world-views, beliefs, etc. are considered valuable by this author or character? What is not? How do you know? Pay attention to how a character with a particular value system is presented. Look for editorial comments by the author. Look for tonal shadings and nuances that reveal the author's attitude toward a certain character, belief sytem, setting, etc. Track what you might call the "moral" development of a character through a particular event or setting. At which points would you consider the character "moral," "immoral," or "amoral"? Why? How does this characterization reveal the value system of the text? Also pay attention to what desires, emotions, ethical inclinations you experience as you are actually reading. Ask yourself: are those the sorts of desires, emotions, and ethical inclinations that I want to have or own? In other words, what sort of person do I become when I am reading this book? Is that the sort of person that I want to be?

For Further Study

Ethical Criticism in the 20th Century

Wayne Booth

Martha Nussbaum

Literature Opens Up Windows of Experience and Perception

Literature is Meaningful in the way in which it introduces us to new realms of experience, how it changes our perception of the world by re-creating the world in a new or strange manner, or by creating worlds that are not our own but, perhaps, comment on them.

Reading Strategies

1)Read the text for its difference and similarities to the world in which you live. Pay attention to unusual, even grotesque descriptions, odd points of view, strange behavior, inappropriate language, anti-social behaviors or ideas. Also, pay attention to those elements of the text which you would consider normal. Ask yourself, why did the author create this world, this character? How does this world and/or character comment on the one to which you are accustomed? How does the re-creation of the world in this way change your view of it? What is the author's attitude to the world he or she has described? How do you know? Why is this character's perspective unique, strange, common? What is the author's attitude toward that perspective? How do you know?

For Further Study

See Literature Reflects Human Psychology, Literature is Cultural, Literature is Political, or Literature is Philosophical.

Literature is Political

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it reflects, challenges or re-affirms power relationships.

Reading Strategies

1)Read the text in terms of power relationships. Who has power? Who does not? Why? How do you know? How do these characters or forces struggle to attain or maintain power. How does the text affirm or undermine this power structure? Are there any symbols or representativesof power or impotence in the text? How does the author manipulate those symbols? Does this author see power dynamics as flexible or immutable? Does the author or an author's character make any direct statements to affirm or attack the power structure?

For Further Study

Karl Marx

Michel Foucault

Feminism

Julia Kristeva

Literature Reflects Human Psychology

Literature is meaningful in the way in which it reflects and satisfies our deepest psychological and libidinal urges.

Reading Strategies

1)Read the text for what it tells us of the working of the human mind. Look for inexplicable or seemingly unmotivated behavior, behaviors that are unexplained or socially unacceptable, behavior or thoughts that seem beyond the control of the character. Ask yourself, how is this action, reaction explained by a fundamental human need? Why is this action or reaction unreasonable, illogical? From where does this action originate psychologically? Are there any textual clues? It would help to have some knowledge here of psychological concepts or paradigms.

For Further Study

Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud

"Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,"from Frieda Fordham's Indroduction to C.G. Jung

Jung, Freud, and Psychoanalysis

Jacques Lacan

Julia Kristeva

Literature Is Transcultural

Literature is meaningful because of what cannot be lost in translation--those thematic, formal and structural elements that have meaning regardless of the time place and audience of their origination.

Reading Strategies

Option #1, Literary Structures:

Read the text focusing on basic dramatic roles: force character (the character whos actions, desires and wishes give direction to the story), object (the character, thing, or event that the force character wants), the rival (the character who opposes the force-character and impedes the fulfillment of his or her desire), the helper the character who recieves the object or benifits from the force characters actions), and the judge (the character who decides whether the force-character may have the object). Try to decide how, and why the force-character succeeds or fails in his or her endeavor. Ask what the character wants, why?

Option #2, Archetypal Narratives.

If you have read Joseph Campbell, you will be ready for this type of approach. Read the text, focusing on how it fulfills the expectations of a major mythological or folk structure, like the quest story (in which a character goes through a series of trials in order to reach a desired object and through those trials becomes worthy of the object), or the resurrections story (in which a character literally or figuratively "dies" to his or her old self and is re-born into a new life or new awareness). While reading, ask yourself how is this similar to this folk tale or myth? How is it different? Why are those similarities or differences important to my understanding the text? Also, look for Archetypes and Archetypal symbols such as shadow characters, an anima, or animus. Try to ascertain what the presence of those images or characters can tell you about how the story itself reflects and serves universal, psychological needs.

For Further Study

"Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,"from Frieda Fordham's Indroduction to C.G. Jung

"Once Upon a Time . . ." Jonathon Young

"Joseph Campbell's Mythic Journey," Jonathon Young
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