The six categories discussed here should help you approach any literature -- whether it's poetry, drama, or fiction.
Most literature is set in a particular space (1) and time (2), explores the psychological state of a character (3) who has a conflict (4), and develops a theme (5) using a particular form or style (6). These are not discreet categories; they overlap. For example, just as you can't have time without space, so you can't have the chronology of a plot without a setting.
Short poems don't always contain all six categories, although even in a poem as short as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) we can see how all six might be relevant:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
Here we have 1. location—a station, 2. evidence of a technological age—a metro, 3. the psychological state of the poet (inferred), 4. a relationship between the poet and the people in the crowd (inferred), 5. several possible themes—technology vs. nature, alienation vs. togetherness, and 6. the use of a particular style—imagistic, ambiguous, similar to Japanese haiku.
One way to help visualize or understand the six categories—and to understand literature in general—is to think in terms of movies. For example, the 1995 animated Disney film Pocahontas is set (1) both on the ships of the English and in the woods of New England (the Europeans make the transition onto Native land using guns, a Native woman, and pick axes to dig up the soil…) during a time (2) of first contact between Native and English (how Disney arranges our perception of this has little to do with history…), and involves Pocahontas’ psychological struggle (3) between her own culture (focused on nature) and that of the arriving Europeans (focused on ownership and precious metals). The two cultures are in constant and often violent conflict (4) throughout the film, one side often as violent as the other. The film explores two related themes (5)—the Romeo and Juliet division of the lovers Pocahontas and John Smith, and the politics of historical encounter and cultural allegiance—which are conveyed in a Disney form, structure, and style (6) where the woman is feisty and beautiful, the lovers are star-crossed, the songs are catchy and melodic, and the historical sources are altered -- perhaps not so much beyond as into recognition.
1. Space or setting. Space can range from a crumb on a table to a window that stretches across a room -- to a building, neighbourhood, city, country, continent, the world, planets, stars, and even the theological spaces of Heaven and Hell. These last two often have more to do with time (2) in the future, the belief system of a character (3), or the theme (5) of religion, unless of course the actual spatial description of Heaven or Hell is central (as it is in Dante’s Divine Comedy). In analyzing literature, ask: why does the writer give the story a particular setting? How is the setting described so that we feel or think in a certain way? Does the setting reverberate with our feelings or with the feelings of the protagonist. Does the setting reflect or help to create a conflict?
Note that when people say, “the text is set in Victorian England,” they may be referring to setting (1) or time-period (2), or both. In developing your arguments, ask yourself what you are trying to focus on. In this case, is it what Victorian England looks like in terms of such things as décor and architecture (1) or is it the qualities of the historical moment, such as the rise of technology and voting (2)?
2. Time or chronology. This includes any type of time frame, from a momentary encounter to an hour, a day, a year, or any amount of time in the past or the future—from the Big Bang (or Creation) till the end of the universe (or Day of Judgment). Why does a writer set up a particular time frame, and how does it work? Remember not to simply give a summary, but rather to explore such things as how time affects mood or development of ideas or character. Let’s say a story or film starts with a Wall Street executive about to put a bullet through her head, and then goes back to one beautiful summer day when she was younger, happier, and lying on the university lawn with her boyfriend. The writer or director is urging you throughout the film to find reasons for her suicide—for example, in her character (3) or in her relations with others (4). In this way you are encouraged to engage in the mind and conflicts of the protagonist, and to feel what it might be like to be caught in her predicament. Other uses of time include flash-backs, historical references and settings, intense moments where time seems to expand or contract, biography which charts the course of a person’s life, etc. Time can be played with in order to comment on the present day—either by jumping back and forth from the present to the past to set up a parallel between the two, or by comparing aspects of the present to a future time which is perfect (a utopia) or imperfect (a dystopia).
Age and Period
Age is usually the same as period, yet not always. In the broadest terms, there are four historical Ages: 1. Ancient: 3000 BC – 1000 BC, 2. Classical: 1000 BC – 500 AD, 3. Medieval: 500 AD – 1500 AD, 4. Modern: 500 AD - present
In terms of English history and literature, the Modern Age is often differentiated from the Modern Period. Here are some time categories relevant to Europe and England in the Modern Age:
The Renaissance: c. 15th - 16th C. Characterized as breaking from the religious and feudal systems of the Middle Ages; rise of humanism, science, and global empires
The Age of Enlightenment / Age of Reason / Neoclassical Age: roughly the mid 17th C. to the late 18th C. Characterized by the exploration of science and rational thinking.
The Romantic Age: late 18th and early 19th C. Characterized by a re-integration of emotion into the rational frameworks explored in the Age of Reason.
The Victorian Age: 1832 (passage of the Great Reform Act) to 1901 (death of Queen Victoria)
The Modern Period: 1900-1950 or 1900 to the present.
The Post-modern Period: 1950 to the present.
3. Characterization or psychology. Try to determine if a character is flat (one dimensional, one-sided, like a caricature) or deep (three dimensional, with different sides or aspects, like a usual person), static (the same throughout the story) or dynamic (changes as a result of various forces—that you should then analyze). Character is usually the most important category because as human beings we need to see whatever the author is exploring from a human and personal point of view. How does the author make a fictional person, narrator, or persona come alive to us? What do we find intriguing in the character? What is the character’s problem, and how does the character confront it? The close study of character is strongly linked to the modern novel and short story, which emphasize reality-based psychological depiction. In analyzing character, feel free to bring to your arguments any psychological approach or any insights you have about what makes people tick. Think for example about yourself and your identity, how it is affected by romance, gender, sexuality, peers, family, money, class, religion, ethnicity, etc.
Note that this category includes internal conflict, that is, any tension within a character— between desire and loyalty, greed and morality, logic and emotion, etc.
4. Conflict, Bond or Relationship (between characters or groups). While conflict is crucial to literature, the forces that bond people also play a large role. Texts are often written around the dynamic between betrayal and trust, or between hatred and love. Note that # 4 is usually defined exclusively in terms of conflict. That term, however, only gets at part of the relationship dynamic. For example, the attraction or bond between Romeo and Juliet is as important—perhaps more important—than the forces which pull them apart. There are basically two types of conflict or bond:
A. between characters: character to character; often this takes the form of protagonist versus antagonist, yet there are usually a host of interpersonal conflicts and bonds (just as there are in any family or group of friends). One common complication is when the bond between two characters is disturbed by a third person, resulting in jealousies, love triangles, etc.
B. involving groups: individual to group or group to group; this can range from family or friend groups to regional or ethnic groups, and often includes the powerful forces of culture, language and religion. Culture is an amalgam of codes and practices that are instilled in us at a very young age. In general, it is very difficult for us to react in a way that goes against the paradigms of our own upbringing. Hence, when people of different cultures clash the result can be irresolvable. Language and religion also operate on very basic, deep levels, although it is sometimes easier to learn a new language than it is to adopt a new culture or religion (although in places like Canada and India we can see the power of language as both a unifying and dividing force). There are of course many other types of groups that can conflict: much of the 20th century was influenced by the split between working and privileged classes (hence the term class struggle); age or generation groups can create gaps between parents and their own children or between older and younger people in general; etc.
Note that when a conflict of ideas, ideology, emotions, etc. occurs chiefly in an individual, that is, when it is chiefly an internal conflict, it pertains to character or psychology (3); when it is treated in larger, speculative, or philosophical terms, it usually pertains to theme (5). Again, ask yourself what you are trying to focus on—the effect of conflict in and on the individual (3), the conflict as it is seen or dramatized in the interaction between characters (4), or the larger meaning of the conflict (5). Once you have your focus, don’t worry too much about the overlap in categories.
5. Theme. Your job is not to make an argument that the theme of a text is such and such, but that the writer develops the theme in this or that way. Try to start with a statement that doesn’t simply state the general subject of the text—love in Romeo and Juliet—but rather examines an interesting aspect of the subject—star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet. “Star-crossed” brings up the possibility of personal anguish in a character (3), struggle between greater forces in society (4), or the nature of free will and determinism, which is a more specific thematic topic (5). By making your statement specific you can see your focus more clearly. Another way to do this is to ask what point the author is making. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare isn’t just observing that love exists, but rather that a certain type of love exists. This love has certain causes and effects, is expressed in certain metaphors and tropes, which you of course can make arguments about.
6. Style, Form, Genre, Structure, Tropes, Devices, Structure, etc. This category includes a wide range of literary styles and forms, such as imagery, sound, symbolism, irony, metaphor, conceit, tragedy, comedy, poetry, prose, epic, sonnet, ode, novel, novella, short story, play, screenplay, quest, journey, dialogue, tone, internal monologue, dramatic monologue, parody, flashbacks, catalogues, and motifs.
This category is wide-ranging, but can be thought of as the form the text takes rather than the content it conveys. For example, a character may be noble, and you may examine her character development (3) from power to ruin, but if you were to see this same development in terms of form, you could see it in terms of tragedy, which is a pre-determined or conventional form. You may analyze her relation with her opponent in terms of conflict (4), but you can also focus on the way the author uses dialogue to get this conflict across. There is often overlap with setting (1) when a story is structured along the lines of a journey, or when a particular setting recurs. There is often overlap with time (2) when analyzing plot or when looking at such things as flashbacks or foreshadowings. Again, decide what your focus is and don’t worry if on occasion you overlap with another category.
Note that mood is difficult to tie down to only one of the six categories. For instance, if it is created by setting (let’s say a graveyard at midnight), it is a function of space (1) and time (2). If it is a function of the types of words and images used (gloom—gloooooom—crepuscule, cadaver, a tooth dripping with blood…) then it is a function of writing style (6)—in this case sound and imagery.
The following list starts with an image and proceeds to the various meanings an image can take (symbol and metaphor) and how it can be extended (in a conceit).
From Image to Conceit
Image and imagery. An image is a visual impression—as in E.J. Pratt’s seagull “etched upon the horizon” (from his poem, “Seagulls”). Here we see the seagull against the sky in our mind. The image is one of a bird in flight, a small and sharp living thing against a wide open space.
Symbol and symbolism. An image can remain a simple description, or it can be developed into a symbol. For example, a dove could simply be a bird a character sees on a path, next to a blue jay, and this may interest the character because he is an ornithologist. Or, the dove could be seen next to a hawk, and come to represent peace (as opposed to aggression), as in ‘hawks and doves.’ Generally, symbols have either a personal meaning (the seagull may symbolize freedom and beauty to E.J. Pratt) or a public meaning (the dove symbolizes peace to most people). In general, a symbol is an object, not a person. Avoid treating characters as symbols; rather, treat them as embodiments or representatives of certain types, classes, or ideas.
Metaphor. While a simile compares two things explicitly (“She's like a cat”), a metaphor compares them implicitly (“She's a fox”). Here's another way to think about the difference: similes are honest because they admit that a comparison's occurring, while a metaphor's a type of lie because it doesn't admit to a being a comparison; rather, it equates two things that aren't the same.
Conceit. A conceit extends or continues a metaphor, taking elements of it and exploring them in new ways. A metaphysical conceit links two vastly different things in extended and unexpected ways. The term often refers to the poetry of early 17th C. poets such as John Donne.
In the following scene from Friends -- from “The One with the Sonogram at the End,” S1 E2, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qexA_iXD3f0 -- the metaphor of the opening act is extended far beyond its original comparison. Try to identify where the simile turns into a metaphor, and the metaphor into a conceit.
Monica: What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important as any part of it.
Joey: Yeah, right!.......Y’serious?
Phoebe: Oh, yeah!
Rachel: Everything you need to know is in that first kiss.
Chandler: Yeah, I think for us, kissing is pretty much like an opening act, y’know? I mean it’s like the stand-up comedian you have to sit through before Pink Floyd comes out.
Ross: Yeah, and-and it’s not that we don’t like the comedian, it’s that-that... that’s not why we bought the ticket.
Chandler: The problem is, though, after the concert’s over, no matter how great the show was, you girls are always looking for the comedian again, y’know? I mean, we’re in the car, we’re fighting traffic... basically just trying to stay awake.
Rachel: Yeah, well, word of advice: Bring back the comedian. Otherwise next time you’re gonna find yourself sitting at home, listening to that album alone.
Joey: (pause)....Are we still talking about sex?
Other Literary Terms
Alliteration refers to repetition of consonants, as in purple prose. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, as in ingenuous indecision.
Allusion is a reference or quote that a writer assumes readers will recognize if they know the context behind the reference. This is similar to a reference, although a reference tends to be more explicit. For instance, He worried about his friend's admiration of swastikas is an allusion because it assumes the reader will connect swastika to Nazism. On the other hand, He worried about his friend's admiration of Nazism is a reference because it more directly refers to the thing in question.
Epic: can refer generally or popularly to grand or elevated actions, events, or plots. Many early works of literature -- such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost -- are epic poems which feature heroism, battle, a dangerous journey, and/or a quest.
First person narration refers to a work in which the reader sees everything through the eyes of one person, which could be the author, the narrator, or a character. In omniscient narration we see through many perspectives, with a sort of god-like omniscience (or ability to know everything).
Frame: An element which occurs at the start and end of a text or performance. Structurally, this element 'frames' the text like a frame surrounds a work of graphic art.
Hyperbole is exaggeration or overstatement.
Genre refers to the type of work—such as play, film, novel, poem, short story, epic, lyric, sonnet, ode, elegy, satire, narrative, comedy, tragedy, farce, etc.
Irony occurs when words and meaning are at odds, or when expectations are contradicted. For instance, if we expect the psychopathic serial killer to be punished, yet she is rewarded, then the situation is ironic. Dramatic irony occurs when the expectation or understanding of a character (or group of characters) is contradicted by the expectation or understanding of the reader or audience.
Imitative or onomatopoeic words sound like the thing described -- as in eerie, buzzing, or mooing.
Paradox is an idea that is true but seems to contain a contradiction.
Personification ascribes human characteristics to non-human things or ideas. Anthropomorphism ascribes human characteristics to objects, animals, and gods.
Protagonist refers to the main character; antagonist to the main character's opponent or opposite; secondary characters are other well-developed characters, while tertiary characters (or third-level characters) are not well developed; they are more important to the plot than in themselves.
Refrain: repeated word or group of words; similar to a chorus in a song.
Sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. The Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg (three quatrains followed by a couplet), whereas the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet has a unified octave -- most commonly abba abba -- followed by one of many possible sestets, such as cde cde.
Stanza form is determined by the number of lines that are grouped together within a larger poem. A couplet has two lines grouped together, a tercet has three, a quatrain has four.