Questions to Ask of a Literary Text
Question what you are reading so that you can better understand what it is:
- Who is writing or speaking? Is the author writing in his or her own person, or playing a particular role, or presenting us with one or more characters who are writing or represented as speaking? Is the narrative perspective singular or plural? Does the point of view shift? If so, where does this happen, and why?
- What is the writer writing about? Why? What is the purpose of the author or the character(s) in writing or speaking?
- To whom is the writer writing, or the speaker speaking? Directly to you, or are you overhearing the author speaking to someone else? How is the audience defined or indicated by the text?
- What action is involved, explicitly or implicitly? Is there a sequence of events–a beginning, middle, and end? What causes the action to progress? How are the different stages or events related to one another? Is the order of events as they happened the same as the order of events as they are told? Does the beginning anticipate the ending? Does the ending alter, expand, or change the outlook of its beginning?
- When does the action take place? How long does it take? How is time reflected? How is the time of composition related to the time being represented?
- Where does the action take place? How well defined is the setting? If there is more than one setting, how are the different settings related?
- What kind of language is used? Is there anything distinctive about the diction or forms of sentences? Do the words come from a particular area, trade, or profession? Is the language formal, informal, or slang? What kind of figurative language is used (such as metaphor or symbol) and with what effect? Is the syntax simple or complex? balanced or rambling? How is the writing organized?
- In what literary form does the text appear–narrative, dramatic, or lyric (or some combination of these)? Can you readily identify the genre or category in which the piece falls, such as tragedy or comedy, epic or pastoral, sonnet or ballad, romance or satire? Do the conventions of that genre help you better understand the piece?
- Is the sound of the language an effective feature? While this question applies especially to poetry, prose also makes use of the rhythms of language and the balance of syntax. If the text appears as poetry, what meter, line length, rhyme, and stanzaic form are used? With what effect? Does the sound suggest a pace of rapid or slow? Are the rhyming sounds linked to the theme? or to the point of view? Do repeated words or lines say the same thing each time they are repeated in a new context?
- Can you characterize the tone of the writing? For example is it serious or flippant, sad or happy, confident or questioning, naive or ironic? How is that tone established?
- How can you relate these different questions to one another? For example, how does the tone of speaking tell you something about the character of the speaker? How does the kind of language suit the action? Which of the various features are more prominent? most effective? most relevant to the meaning of the piece?
- What impression are you left with? What elements in the text helped create that impression?
All these questions, you can see, derive from the six basic question words (interrogative pronouns):
What is it? (Genre) What happens? (Action or narrative form) What does it mean? (Interpretation)
Who is writing? (Author or Narrator) or speaking? (Character) To whom? (Audience)
Where and when does it take place? (Setting, Atmosphere)
Why does the author write? (Purpose) Why does the character do what he or she does? (Motivation)
How is the work constructed? (Organization, Style)
Expand these questions and adjust them to fit the text and topic that you are examining. Some of the questions you will have already answered automatically in the course of reading–they seem too obvious, but sometimes what seems obvious may have layers of complexity that are worth exploring. Some of the questions will seem irrelevant, unnecessary to consider because they are outside the purpose of the literary work. And other questions will have no answers because the text does not present sufficient information. In that case, is the question irrelevant, or does it remain consequential in the context of the work? Does the text itself raise questions? Are there inconsistencies, irregularities, unusual features that call attention to themselves, or contradictions, resolvable or not? How do you account for these features?
Determine which questions are important for your understanding of the text, and then reread it to examine it more carefully and see how well you can answer your questions. When you think a question is important but you cannot find an answer, ask it in class discussion. The questions you ask will also help you prepare for writing an essay.
The questions presented here are directed only toward the literary text itself to produce what is usually referred to as a close reading. Going beyond the text expands the possibilities of study in important ways–looking behind, beside, or in front of the text. Behind the text–where it came from–involves the author and the historical context, the culture and ideology out of which the text arose. How are they evident in the work? Looking beside the text engages in comparisons with other works–by the same author, by contemporary authors, works in the same genre, etc. And in front of the text is the reader: how is the work constructed so as to have a particular effect upon you?
Understanding a work of literature is always a relative matter: you understand it in relation to something else. How well you understand it is a matter of how far you pursue questions such as the ones given here.
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2: Keeping a Reading Journal