Understanding Literature is a Process, Not Magic!

During my first year of teaching, I was struck by how few of the students could comprehend the literature (fiction) they were reading, let alone interpret it. They had been taught how to recognize the letters and words and sound them out (decoding), but that is as far as most of them went. In fact, even their vocabulary, the basic building block of reading comprehension, was extremely basic. If you asked them the meaning of the story, most of them truly had no idea. In fact, many of them had no idea of what I meant by the question. If I asked them "What is the story all about?", they would invariably summarize it. They were all fairly proficient at summary.

Then I started asking them what they thought the main theme was. Half of them did not recognize the term, although I am certain they had all been taught literary vocabulary. Almost none of them could actually explain the theme. I asked them what had happened when their previous teachers had asked them to find the theme. Most of them said they had never been asked that; the teacher either just asked them to write an essay on the story, which would usually be summary (a "book report"), or the teacher would actually tell them the theme, perhaps write it down on the board, and then ask them to write a literary response.

On the occasions that a teacher would try to make them interpret the theme for themselves, they would almost invariably fail. I asked them: "So what did the teacher tell you to do?" In almost every case, the answer was: "Read it again." To me, this is a little like the layman’s definition of insanity: Doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

In my second year, I transferred from a VERY low performing school to a merely low-performing school. The reading comprehension level was a little higher; at least half of the students knew the terminology, but the rest of it was virtually the same. Most students could not interpret the theme, and said they had been taught to read the story over and over until they understood it. I was in that district for three years, and the skill levels of the incoming students remained pretty constant.

For everything a human does more than once, there is a process. I wondered why we were not teaching our children the process of reading a story, and then being able to explain the message(s) of that story? Needless to say, I started to analyze my own process of interpreting a story. I think that’s something most English teachers never do: we do it intuitively, we are inherently good at it, so it’s not something we really break down and categorize as a specific process. We read the story, there is a gestation period and, if we think we may not have fully understood it, we actually do go back and read it again. Then we clarify the parts we did not understand and spit out a theme. For the most part, we are right.

Great. That works for us. But what about the student for whom it is not in the least intuitive, for whom it is all a great mystery even after we explain the theme to them? A math teacher would never tell a student: "Look at the problem carefully and tell me the answer." No, instead they explain the process of how to work such a problem. Why don’t we?

I have been trying to explain the process I use and put it onto paper for several years now. There is still a lot of work left, but I hope this is helpful. There is probably not much new or insightful in this lesson plan, as I basically stuck with recognized terms and a graphic similar to what I have seen in the past. The two main differences I perceive in what I have written are that I clearly distinguish between terms to avoid a student becoming confused, and I emphasize a somewhat mathematical approach to the process. I think both of these distinctions help many students who are not at all intuitive in reading literature, and assist advanced students in refining their own mental process.

Because most school districts in California use the Prentice Hall anthologies, most of the stories I refer to as examples are found in those books. I have given the link to find the Zen parables that are explained later in this section.

A. Basic Vocabulary for Understanding Literature

Conflict (topic) – a problem in a story.

Identify EACH conflict (internal and external) in a story. Internal is within the mind of a character, e.g., a decision they have to make, while external means anything between a character and another character or an object (e.g., a woman having to ford a stream to get home).

As the conflicts get larger in the story (rising action), subconsciously tally how many of them relate to the same topic (e.g., money, honor, prejudice, relationships, heroism, etc.). This will help you identify the main conflict in the story, which should be resolved in the climax.

Resolution (message) – how a problem is resolved; understand the message the author sends you about the character(s) and the topic by the way he or she chooses to resolve the conflict. Consciously evaluate how many of the resolutions are sending you positive or negative messages about the character(s) and the topic(s) by the way the author chooses to resolve the conflicts.

Character Motivation – Why does a character say or do what they say and do? Understanding their reasons, as well as how those are changing due to character development, will greatly aid in understanding the messages.

Character Development – How and why is the character changing during the story? Judge those changes in terms of good or bad, in your opinion, to help you determine the messages about how the author thinks a person should behave.

Interpretation – the way in which we understand and can explain something, whether that "something" is words (either narration or dialogue) or actions of the character(s). Many times the author’s message is clear as to what he or she wants us to think, but quite often it is left up to our interpretation, which is based on our own knowledge and experiences.

Plot – In the following diagram, we should understand that the key elements of understanding a fictional story involve conflicts, resolutions, and the character developments that occur because of those interactions. The conflicts usually start off fairly small, and then increase in severity (importance) as the story progresses (as represented by each "step" in the diagram). This is the "plot", which we also call the "rising action" because the conflicts and resolutions escalate towards the climax.

B. Diagram of Understanding Literature

(View Diagram)

Most stories begin by introducing the main character or the setting. Very quickly, a conflict occurs, either internal or external. Right away, try to put a label on that conflict; in one or two words, what was the conflict about? Honesty vs. dishonesty? Greed vs. generosity? Violence vs. non-violence? Optimism vs. Pessimism? Labeling the “topic” of the conflict is very important to finding the main message. The character then either thinks about how to handle the problem, or just reacts. In either case, we get to see something of their personality. When we see what the solution is (“fight or flee”, honesty vs. dishonesty, positive action vs. no action, etc.), we should make a judgment: do we like this character or not? What would we have done instead of what the character did?

If the character is well-constructed, they should then react to how they handled the conflict. “Gee, I should have behaved better,” or, “I’m proud of myself,” or even confusion, “Why did I do that?” This is the first step in character development: the character begins to change.

In a novel, there are other characters who go through similar actions. Usually, “bad” characters do not change; that is their flaw. “Good” characters ALWAYS change; even if they were good people at the beginning of the story, perhaps they grow wiser, perhaps they become more accepting of life in all its vagaries, perhaps they succeed at something they did not think they could do. As the diagram indicates, this cycle is repeated over and over again throughout the story, only the conflicts get bigger, the choices get harder, and the resolutions get more important. With each resolution and each character change, the author is sending you, the reader, a message about what he or she wants you to believe about how people behave and perhaps how they should behave.

When you finally reach the climax of the story—the main conflict and how it is resolved—think back over the novel and try to total up how many times this same topic occurred. Whether the previous resolutions gave you positive or negative examples of how to deal with that problem, you should have recognized the same topic over and over. How did the main character deal with their final solution to this recurring problem? That is the main message the author wants you to believe.

C. Four Questions of Comprehending and Responding to Literature

1. In one or two words, what was the story basically about?

This is the TOPIC of the story. While most stories deal with multiple topics at once, and novels may have more than a half dozen major topics, we can usually identify one or perhaps two main topics. For example, "The Cask of Amontillado" clearly deals with revenge. The story of Beowulf clearly deals with heroism. "The Gift of the Magi" primarily revolves around the topic of self-sacrifice (two words), although the character motivation is love. While Macbeth may most clearly deal with ambition, Oedipus the King may be more correctly assigned to the category of fate. While the topics of love, hate and fate are all strongly found in the story of Romeo and Juliet, we may actually sum all of those topics into one main topic of unbridled passion (two words). (Note that short stories are in parentheses, as are articles, rather than underlined, as are the titles of novels, plays, or other full-length works.)

It is critical that we find that main topic if we are to truly understand the story, and then be able to respond to it in the form of discussion or writing an essay. This is perhaps the greatest challenge we face as readers. When we finish a story, we can ask ourselves three questions that help test the strength of the topic we have chosen:

  1. Is it clearly shown in the climax?

  2. Can I find many examples of that topic in the rising action?

  3. Does the topic lend itself easily to a metaphysical* message?

(In the literary sense, metaphysical is defined as rising above the physical conflicts in the story to give us messages regarding the human condition in general. These include the emotional, spiritual and philosophical aspects of living. For the most part, you can just think of this as the author sending you a message about how he or she thinks people behave towards each other, and more importantly, how they should behave—hence the old saying, "What is the MORAL of the story?", i.e., the moral message.)

As a simple example, Poe clearly states in his first paragraph that revenge is the topic in "The Cask of Amontillado". Virtually each succeeding conflict and resolution sticks to that topic.

Let’s take the slightly more complicated "The Gift of the Magi". In the climax, the husband and wife give each other the gift they knew was most desired by their spouse. However, it is clear they had to sacrifice what object that they personally treasured most in order to be able to buy that gift. Therefore, self-sacrifice is clearly seen in the climax, both how the major conflict (being able to give the Christmas gifts they would like to give the other) and the resolution show each spouse’s sacrifice. This is also hinted at during the story, as each spouse thinks of what the other really wants for Christmas, and tries to figure out how they can afford such a gift. While we could opt for the rather obvious topic of love, all of the action (conflicts and resolutions) in this story lead to the more specific topic of self-sacrifice to show that love.

2. What message was the author sending me about that topic?

This is the THEME of the story. Again, most stories will have multiple themes (to go with each topic), but there is generally only one main theme; the rest are called minor themes. This is where you actually write a sentence you will use in a paper. NOTE THE DIFFERENCE between the Topic (only one or two words) and the Theme (a full sentence). Use the topic as the basis for your theme. Note that, in stating the theme, it is not appropriate to mention the name of any character or any specific action in the story because the theme should be more universal, or metaphysical.

In the case of "The Cask of Amontillado", with revenge as the obvious topic, we could form several messages based on our interpretation of the story. The most obvious is that: "An intense desire for revenge can lead a person to do bizarre, even insane things to achieve that satisfaction." Another interpretation might be: "People should be very aware of the consequences of their actions, both in doing great harm to others, as well as in seeking revenge for real or perceived injuries."

If we can accept self-sacrifice as the topic of "The Gift of the Magi", then we ask ourselves what we think O. Henry was telling us about that topic? Remember, we must look for a metaphysical meaning, that is, one that goes outside the story to talk about human behavior in general. Thus, we might state the theme as "If we truly value another person more than our own self, we will be willing to sacrifice our own desires or pleasures to please that other person." Another similar theme might be: "Self-sacrifice for the people we love brings us a greater reward than any selfish action."

Just a few more quick examples. If the topic of Beowulf is heroism, then we might state that: "True heroism may bring great personal rewards, but it may also demand great personal sacrifices". For Macbeth, we might say that "Ambition that is not satisfied by hard work and true worthiness will only bring unhappiness and possibly destruction to the recipient." In Oedipus the King, we might say that "No person can escape from their fate, no matter how hard they try". If we finally accept the topic of Romeo and Juliet to be unbridled passion, then we might say that: "Passions that cannot be controlled, whether those are of hate or love, inevitably lead to some form of self-destruction".

3. Do I agree or disagree with that message?

Finally, an easy task! Try to avoid saying "I" in a formal essay, but definitely state an opinion of the message. Extreme examples include: "We can easily see that this is a true statement", or "The author was totally off-base in his conclusion". This is your THESIS, the argument that you will try to prove or disprove in you essay. There are three basic approaches: you can agree with the author’s message (the easiest approach), you can disagree with the theme (the second easiest approach), or you can choose to both agree and disagree on certain points, which is the most difficult approach.

4. Using at least three examples from the story, why do I agree or disagree?

When you have decided on your thesis, select three specific incidents (a conflict and a resolution) from the story that you believe prove your thesis. Obviously, this is where your interpretation of the conflicts and resolutions (the specific messages from each action or character motivation) come into play. This is where your earlier judgment of each action and character motivation becomes critical. Do you think the situation in the story supports the author’s final message (usually based on the so-called "happy" or "sad" ending scenario), or do you see what happened in a totally different light? Your interpretation of each conflict you choose is the key element of supporting your thesis, i.e., your agreement or disagreement with the theme of the story.

D. Writing a Formal, 5-Paragraph Essay

If you have successfully done all of the above, you are now ready to respond with a formal essay. The most important paragraph is the thesis paragraph, which sets up the rest of the essay. The essential ingredients to this paragraph are:

  1. Hook – this captures the reader’s attention and introduces the topic (you may have to explain your hook, but this should be done creatively as a part of the paragraph)

  2. Source – generally the title and author of the text you will be analyzing in your essay

  3. Theme – the main message of the author

  4. Thesis – your opinion of the author’s message (your argument)

  5. Evidence – at least three examples from the story that you will interpret in a way that supports your thesis

Because the process of writing formal essays is described in many other documents, a more complete discussion of this will be included in another lesson.

Persuasive Essay Format and Examples

Thesis Paragraph

Because of "first impressions," this is the most important paragraph in your essay. It will set the stage for everything else you write. The introductory paragraph should contain three essential elements when writing a persuasive essay on another text (e.g., a poem, a story or a novel):

1. The main idea you gained from what the writer was telling you (the audience) in his or her story. Your interpretation of the story is critical both to the success of your essay (i.e., your grade!) and to how easy you will find writing the essay. The more in depth your interpretation of the story, the easier it will be to find examples from the story to support that thesis, and the easier it will be to find a philosophical message – or "universal truth" – that will add weight to the persuasiveness of your paper.

As an example of success, a modest paper discussing "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant will express the moral: "Don’t tell lies." While this is certainly an important message from the story, it does not allow for a good exploration of some of the deeper meanings, and will only allow for a few examples in the story to support the thesis.

A stronger paper will find the surface interpretation that: "A person should be true to themselves, not pretend to be something they are not." This not only incorporates the pitfalls of lying, it allows the writer to expand on the character development of Madame Loisel throughout the story. Further, it allows for a few examples of interpersonal relationships, such as between Madame Loisel and her husband as well as between Madame Loisel and Madame Forestier, and the contrast of the behavior and values of those three.

The strongest paper will describe the metaphysical aspects of human values de Maupassant demonstrates in his story. Insisting that she needed the display of expensive dresses and jewelry to enjoy the party instead of relying on her innate beauty and charms, pretending to be wealthy, and lying to hide the loss of the necklace, are all petty values of a silly young woman. However, ignoring the sacrifices that her husband makes for her sake and then refusing to swallow her pride and confess to Madame Forestier lead to terrible consequences as the couple goes in debt to pay for her mistakes. However, de Maupassant shows that Madame Loisel’s character changes, accepting responsibility for repaying the debt by accepting menial work, sacrificing her youth and beauty for the sake of honor instead of vanity. In a final irony, de Maupassant tells us the necklace was actually worth very little, meaning that the "valuables" the Loisel’s sacrificed their lives for actually had very little value compared with simple human virtues, or moral values. Therefore, a strong theme might be, “The inherent values of a good, honest human nature are more to be treasured than all of the fine jewels in the land.”

In a good story, the author will have given you a main theme that will have meaning to a lot of people – maybe even you! The good thing about a broad theme from your stand point is that it should be easy to find many examples you can cite from the story to support your thesis.

2. Your opinion of what you have stated as the main idea. This is either agreement or disagreement with what you have interpreted as the main message of the story. While it is all right to say "I think…" when stating your opinion, a well-stated thesis will make it obvious that you are interpreting the author’s message, and that interpretation is inherently your opinion. As an example, you may interpret de Maupassant’s story as saying that physical possessions are not nearly as important as human values. If you agree, you might state that:

"Possessions are nice, but they may come and go from our lives. They may be an accident of birth into a wealthy family, or possibly gained from illegal or immoral activities. However, personal values will remain with us until the day we die, and must always be earned by constant attention to how we behave both towards other people as well as when we have no one to observer our actions except ourselves."

On the other hand, an example of a statement of disagreement might be:

"De Maupassant’s message is highly idealistic, but not very realistic. We all need possessions, from housing to clothing, and what is wrong with wanting those possessions to be as nice as possible? Morals cannot feed our children, and wrapping ourselves in our "honor" will not keep us warm or dry in the winter. Those are wonderful words for wealthy writers to fling around, but are not very helpful to average families struggling to get by on modest incomes."

3. A connection between the main idea, your opinion, and the story itself. This is the simplest part of the thesis paragraph, but essential to let us know what text you are going to use to prove your opinion. You should either begin or end your opening paragraph with the name of the story and its author. Note that when you do this you are following a basic rule of going from the specific to the general (as shown in the first example just below) or from the general to the specific (as in the second example just below). In this way, you show that the main idea you have gained from the story has implications for many of us in our lives rather than just the characters in the story, or what is called a "universal truth."

An example of opening your paragraph with the story, you might write:

"In his short story "The Necklace", Guy de Maupassant makes it very clear that he feels human values, or good moral characteristics, are far more important in our lives than expensive and beautiful physical possessions." As this sentence connects the story to what you are proposing as its main message, you now only need to state your opinion on that theme, as above.

If you have already stated the main idea, as in the examples in point 2 above, you simply need to tie it in to the story. A simple way is to write:

"This concept is clearly shown in Guy de Maupassant’s short story, "The Necklace."

Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs support your opinion of the main idea. Each paragraph should cite a quote, a bit of information, or paraphrase a scene from the text that serve as an example of what you have stated as the main idea from the story. In a longer essay, you may quote an outside source that helps illustrate your viewpoint. After the first sentence, which cites the evidence, the rest of the paragraph should be your interpretation of the citation, especially as it demonstrates (proves) your thesis.

At no point in the essay should you give a lengthy summary of the plot or a scene. Let us know briefly and simply what part of the story you are using as an example, and then get to your explanation of that point and tell us how that point supports your opinion.

Concluding Paragraph

This is the second most important paragraph in any essay, because that is what the reader will remember. A good concluding paragraph should have two critical elements:

1. A reference back to the main thesis of your paper. Note that a "reference" means you should paraphrase the basic idea of your paper, NOT say the same exact thing again. Although one purpose of paraphrasing your main thesis is to demonstrate that you have proven your point without saying, "I think I have proven my point that…", another good purpose is to set up going from the specific (from the plot of the story) to the general (the "universal truth" you are about to state).

Example: "As we have seen from the sacrifices of both Mssr. and Madame Loisel, and most especially from the fact that the necklace turned out to be of no value at the end of the story, human values are indeed more important that material possessions."

2. A philosophical statement, or a "universal truth." This is a difficult term, but one that can turn a good paper into a great one. It means taking the lesson (main idea) we learned from the story and showing how it could relate to many people, perhaps even the main theme of the story has some meaning to life in general, not just to the lives of the people in this story.

Example: "Therefore, we should all strive to be as good and honest as we can be in our lives, and not worry so much about gaining wealth and fine possessions."

Make a Free Website with Yola.