Monika Brown            GUIDE for INTERPRETING LITERATURE, FILM, and ART        UNC Pembroke  2007
Part I.  Questions for Interpreting a Work of Literature, Film, or Visual Art                    
Part II.  Critical Approaches to Literature and Film   
Part III.  Terms and Techniques for Studying Literature, Film, Narrative Art
Part IV.  Close Reading Steps, Terms, and Techniques

see also:          Film Literacy                 Comparing Literature and Film

Part I. Questions for Interpreting A Work of Literature, Film, or Visual Art         

A. Content and Form:  What is presented, how, and what does it mean? (mimetic, formalist)  
     Notice first what is this?  type of work, genre, medium, form; title; creators, contexts of creation 

1.  What is the main content:  what happens and why, or what is shown? 
      *narrative: tell what happens&why: key events, characters, settings;  poem or essay: speaker, situation, main ideas  
     *visual art or film scene: describe what you see–main visual content, such as figures, settings, objects, shapes 
2.  What are features of overall form or designplot, structure, and/or visual composition?
     *narrative: analyze plot or structure; sequence, cause/effect, gaps; pacing; opening, flashback, suspense, ending
       pyramid: exposition, conflict/rising action, climax, denouement
     *poem:  structure of ideas; use of form, stanzas, meter, rhyme;  essay: use of form, structure of ideas
     *visual: analyze composition/mis-en-scene: focal point, light, fore/backgrnd, frame, planes, shapes, emphasis

3. What are main characters, figures, actors like and why? what does each contribute?
    *describe & explain characters or figures:  looks, traits, social class, upbringing; stance, clothes, words, behavior;  
     desires, values; decisions, actions; interactions/conflicts; changes/growth; arrangement: position, grouping
   *analyze characterization: how well developed or flat; how lifelike, natural, or stylized, theatrical, or abstract
     how acted by actors; how experiences& inner life are presented/suggested; use of contrasts, foils, minor figures
   *analyze plot roles:  protagonist, antagonist, foil; hero, tragic hero, mythic hero, villain, helper, damsel in distress

4. What are settings or backgrounds like (physical, social, cultural, abstract), and why do they matter?
    *describe & interpret places, times, seasons, decor, objects, activities, minor characters, contrasts; visuals, sounds 
     *interpret effects of setting(s): realism, emotion, atmosphere; reveal/affect character; symbolism, irony, themes

5. What is the point of view, perspective, atmosphere: narrator, tone, cinematography; role of reader/viewer?
  *analyze point of view, narrator/speaker-impersonal, 1st person, omniscient, limited; tone, engagement, strategies
  *analyze visual perspective, cinematography, sounds:  perspective, planes, colors, lighting , brush strokes, music
  *analyze ways of involving/distancing reader/viewer: centering, light, lines, conceal/display art, gaze/being observed

6. What are other significant or surprising artistic features? Interpret details, motifs, patterns, contrasts, gaps.
  *analyze how conventions&technique of medium, genre, mode, period style are used;  intertextual comparisons
  *analyze significant language: quote, image, metaphor, allusion, rhyme; interpret symbolism, theme, irony, effects
  *analyze visual and/or sound techniques: color, size, light, lines, angle, focus; film shot, editing, sound, music

7. What overall themes, meanings, purposes are implied by interaction of scenes, characters, settings, perspective?
    Interpret themes, insights; symbolism & irony; unity/disunity, tensions, concealed contradictions-deconstruction

B.  Cultural Contexts, Functions, and Evaluation: Why is it this way, and So what?  ♬  ✌
8. How does the work depict & interpret social and cultural contexts? (Marxist, feminist, cultural, postcolonial)
   a. how it depicts, interprets, affirms, appeals to, questions its culture: realities, values, ideology, other works     
   b. how it depicts&interprets cultural issues: ideology, power relations, gaze, artifacts, race, class, gender,‘other’
   c. how it depicts & interprets women: women’s roles, relations of men & women, social restrictions
9. How does the work express biographical and psychological contexts (psychoanalytic, myth, gender&feminist)
   a. what the work reveals about its author’s or creator’s life, situation, and experiences
   b. how the work reveals psychology: desires, repression; family, experiences, initiation, archetypes & myth

10. What are the work’s purposes, effects, and functions, in its culture and later/elsewhere? (historical, cultural)
    a. main purpose(s): teach, entertain, move emotionally, aesthetic pleasure, innovation; serve interests or empower
    b. role of original creators, public, patrons, context & critics in shaping the work, interpretations, and effects
    c. wider impact or legacy: adaptations into other art works and reception by other cultures, publics, & critics
    d. personal response: what the work means to you personally and why, what your response says about you

11.  What are the work’s significance, achievements, & defects? (evaluate by standards that reflect critical values)
     a. truth to life and morality: how truthful, morally responsible, complex, multi-layered, adaptable to context
         OR how simplistic, trite, sentimental, manipulative, superficial, narrow, or time-bound?
     b. aesthetic merit: how well are aims realized, media used, & content integrated with form, context, functions?
     c. sincere expression or authenticity by the creator(s), able to evoke a similar response in a reader or viewer
     d. cultural significance: originality, innovation, or contribution to or influence on arts, culture, society

Part II.  Critical Approaches to Literature and Film

Monika Brown, fr. Russ Murfin in Bedford; Kristi Siegel;,  Meyer, Bedford Intro to Lit

new criticism (aka liberal humanism) studies the literary text as autonomous, separate from the author’s biography and
intentions, the reader’s experience, or social/historical conditions.  New Critics do close reading, find patterns of repetition
and contrast that suggest themes, and seek reconciliation between conflicting aspects of character, plot, & style.   
    1. How do elements of a work–plot, character, point of view, setting, style, images, symbols–contribute to meaning?
    2. What is the unifying theme or meaning of the work?  How can its contradictions and ironies be explained?

structuralism and narratology (formalism) 
    1. How does a text use, vary, or extend conventions of a genre or recurring patterns?
    2. How does the text incorporate standard narrative patterns and/or illuminate narratives in general? 

myth criticism (Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell) asserts that the characters and plots of literary texts express archetypes
–recurring experiences (such as sacrificial death&rebirth and journeys) found in the myths, religions, & rituals of primitive
cultures and the “collective unconscious” of  the human race and dreams and fantasies of individuals.      
        1. Does a protagonist/hero go through mythic journeys or transformation (quest, initiation, rebirth, scapegoat)?  
        2. Do plot, character, setting, symbols suggests archetypes such as death/rebirth, quest, innocence to experience?

psychoanalytic criticism asserts with Sigmund Freud that most human motives are unconscious (from the id),
but our conscious ideas (ego) and cultural values (superego) represses them. 
The psychoanalytic critic interprets a literary text
like a dream, finding evidence of hidden traumas, fantasies, & desires, repressed by culture. Jacques Lacan says growing up
involves moving from an “imaginary order” of natural language, instincts, & identifying with the mother, thru a “mirror” stage
of recognizing separateness, into the “symbolic order”/”law of the father” of social institutions & symbolic language.
Erikson's stages: child (trust,autonomy, initiative, confidence), adolescent (identity), adult (intimacy, generativity, integrity).

1. What do characters’ emotions and behavior reveal about their psychological states, stages, experiences, problems?
    2. What insights into character from:  id, ego, desire, repression, sublimation, Lacan's imaginary v. symbolic order, Erikson stage? 

historical and biographical criticism (traditional)
       1. What historical and literary and cultural influences and values shaped the work? 
       2. How does the work reflect, interpret, defend, or question its historical period and values? 
       3. How does the work reflect its author’s experiences and values?

feminist and gender criticism views the literary text as a reflection of issues relating to women, gender, and sexuality.
1. (American feminist-women's unique experiences and creativity): What makes the women characters admirable?
           How do they reflect common women’s experiences?  What difference does the gender of the author make?
        2. (British feminist-social) How are women characters defined or affected by oppression and identity issues? how do
            they respond to social conditions? Does the work affirm or challenge traditional views of women, relationships?
       3. (French feminist-language, Lacan): How is language used by men in the text to confine women or hold them back?
            Do the women resist men’s language, revise & use it, or develop their own language? With what effects?
       4. (gender, gay, lesbian) How are sexually unconventional characters affected by oppression and identity issues?
           Does the work affirm or challenge traditional views of men, women, relationships, same-sex relationships?
Marxist criticism views the literary text sociologically, as "a material product." A result of human labor, a text also "does
identifiable work of its own":  it reflects and supports its culture's ideology, a body of unquestioned values, rooted in
economics and social class,  that supports the power of the powerful.  Marxist critics explain how a text reflects and
contributes to and sometimes challenges established cultural values and social and economic relationships.
    1. How are socioeconomic class differences presented in the work and how do they affect the characters?
            Who has power ("capital") and who doesn’t, and why? Are characters aware of their situations in society, of the
            values of their society?  How do those with power express their insecurities and perceived threats from others?
            How do those with limited power respond to, resist, undermine those in power?
        2. How important is economics and class? Does the literary text affirm or challenge the social order it depicts?
cultural studies criticism and new historicism consider the literary text as part of a wider cultural network of high
and low culture and media, which is always changing.  The cultural critic may relate a text to its culture of origin
or to other/later cultures in which the text is studied or adapted into other media. As with Marxist criticism, the text
reflects and influences values and power relationships of economic and social class, but also of the media culture.  
     1. What does the work reveal about the culture of its time? does it reflect or challenge cultural values?
        2. What do cultural documents or conditions contemporary with the work help us understand about it?
        3. (New Historicism) How do literary and non-literary texts of a culture relate to each other and their culture?
     4. How do the cultural conditions of later times, or our time, affect responses to the work.

postcolonial criticism argues that Western literature is not “universal” and shows bias against “other” cultures.
Postcolonial criticism focuses on how literature incorporates experiences of countries after independence from
European empires, as they come to terms with the past and rebuild countries, culture, government, etc. 
More broadly, it criticizes dominant groups and their ideas about & treatment of the “other,” and it values marginality and otherness.
        1. How are the experiences, behavior, & identity of characters affected by cultural differences and biases.   
        2. How do Western and non-Western (or dominant & oppressed ) characters view and treat each other and why?
        3. How does the postcolonial writer attempt to resurrect his/her culture and/or combat preconceptions about it?


Part III.  Terms and Techniques for Studying Literature, Film, Narrative Art
      See also Michael Meyer's Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms

A. Themes, Meaning, and Ideas 
        theme   an insight or idea about life (like a thesis):  X is/was true, false, good, bad, a cause/effect; X should be/happens;
                      any universally human, or culture-specific, or unique insight into human behavior, society, nature, ethics, etc
         thesis  an obvious or explicitly stated insight or purpose, argument or moral (usually in nonfiction )
         symbol any character, event, setting, allusion, detail, pattern that suggests deeper (public or private) meaning(s)    
         motif: a recurring element or contrast with thematic significance                             
         irony:  what is real, true, present contrasts with what seems, is desired/expected, or ought to be; suggests themes
B. Genres of Literature and Film  analyze how used/varied; interpret effect on content, meaning, experience, function
     literature     fiction: novel, novella, short story; myth, legend, folk tale, parable, fable           
                         drama/plays: tragedy, comedy, history play, tragicomedy/realist, poetic, experimental, etc
                         poetry:  lyric (ode, elegy, carpe diem, hymn), narrative (epic, ballad), dramatic (monologue)
                          nonfiction: essay,  speech, history, biography,  science, journalism, manuals, propaganda, ads        

      film             types: drama, docudrama, art film, experimental film, genre film, animated
                         genre films & TV: comedy, drama, biography, western, mystery, sci fi, horror, noir, romance, musical...

C. Modes and Styles
  analyze how used/varied; interpret effects; choices reflect cultures, social values

realism (tragicomedy, drama) evokes real experience in society: ordinary people/lives taken seriously; presentation is
faithful, consistent, believable with logical cause/effect &connections with social settings. Symbols&irony lend depth.
        domestic realism (family and community life), epistolary (in letters)
        social realism (individual in relation to social/history conditions)
        Bildungsroman (coming-of-age, myth/ initation)
        historical (set in past, based on real events); 
panorama (wide scope in settings and classes)
        naturalism (scientific approach, determinism, lower class)
        psychological realism (individual psychology)
        realism plus imagination:  gothic, horror, sublime, magical realism (folk-tale like)
        realist formulas/genre films: picaresque, romance, pastoral, melodrama, mystery, detective, film noir
epic, myth, the sacred (may be historical, biographical): an epic subject is heroic, important, on a grand scale, and
often of national significance in plot, characters, settings, themes:
         folk epic for culture’s oral tradition: invocation, repetition, epithets, similes; art epic is crafted, learned    
         myth/sacred/archetypes: hero,goddess, scapegoat, exile; orphan, bad parent/witch, guide, beast/prince/savior
         plots: death/rebirth, quest/initiation (insight,experience), rescue, generation conflict, passion/death 
         images/symbols:day/night, cycle of seasons,water (purification), sun (energy), circle (whole), colors 
         epic formula/genre film (standard plot, etc): action, western, science fiction, history 

tragedy "presents courageous individuals who.confront[struggle with] powerful forces within or outside themselves
with a dignity that reveals the breadth & depth of the human spirit in the face of  failure, defeat, even death"(Meyer).
      Tragedies often use situational irony, dramatic irony, and archetypes
      Aristotle - tragic plot is unified, has morally significant struggle, brings reversal/fall from high to low  (peripiteia)
            -a tragic hero is admirable, undergoes reversal, maintains dignity amid struggle/reversal, exhibits a
              tragic flaw
(hamartia, hubris)--an error of judgment or frailty, and may experience recognition
            -catharsis: the audience feels pity & fear for characters/selves; the ending gives us catharsis, purges these emotions
comedy is "intended to interest, involve and amuse the reader or audience.”  Characters' actions, experiences, and
dialogue surprise in funny ways (exaggeration, repetition, contradiction).  Plot involves problems but ends happily. 
Comedy may use satire and irony to ridicule and expose (usually public) folly or vice. 
      -high comedy: drama, novel, genre film--comedy of manners, romantic comedy, domestic comedy, sitcom:
              realistic and stock characters, wrong behavior for roles; sophisticated word play, repartee
      -low comedy: drama, novel, genre film--farce, comedia del arte: stock plot/characters (old man, girl, trickster, dupe), slapstick
irony, satire, allegory, parody, self-reflexive art
    irony  makes visible a contrast between appearance and reality, between what is & what seems to be, what ought
         to be, what one wishes to be, or what one expects to be; irony may help overturn a genre/mode convention
    satire uses irony and comedy to ridicule or express outrage at foolish or immoral behavior, usually in public life
    parody and burlesque satirize by imitating features of a text or style
    allegory, fable, and iconography use plot and characters (etc) to stand for abstract ideas and messages
self- reflexive art calls attention to itself as fiction or art  (not "reality") , sometimes in a playful way

period styles: folk, non-western, Classical, medieval, Renaissance, baroque, romantic, realist, modernist, postmodern
experimental, modernist, postmodern, ironic modes: avant garde, violate mode & narrative conventions
    modernist: serious, elitist, art genius; innovative, complex symbols, allusions: expressionism, cubism, spacial form
    postmodernist: value process, performance, production, intertextuality, surfaces, images, play; hi/lo&mixed media 

personal style: qualities associated with an individual artist, writer, film director, actor

D. Formal Features: techniques, arrangement, pacing, emphasis, perspective, patterns, contrast

plot structure beginning, middle, ending; sections, sequence (film segmentation); unified or disjointed 
     -plot units:   literature:  word, sentence, scene/stanza, chapter/act        film: frame, shot, scene, sequence
     -character functions in the plot: protagonist(s) & antagonist(s), their conflicts, and how they are resolved
     -Freytag's pyramid plot:  inciting action, exposition, rising action, climax (reversal), denouement/falling action
      -time order&sequence: linear, in medias res, flashback, flash forward, place shift, montage, association
      -the ending: happy, poetic justice, ironic/twist, surprise, deus ex machina, recognition, epiphany, open

plot pacing and plot effects (for film, see also film terms list--editing, cinematography)     
       pacing:  fast (short scenes, sketchy details, montage), normal, slow (long scenes, descr., long takes)  
       plot effects:  unified, disjointed; suspense, surprise, foreshadowing; flashback, catharsis 
                           situational irony (real vs.expected/should be)  dramatic irony (viewer knows,character doesn’t)

characterization  types: round or flat or stock; static or dynamic; foil character; hero: tragic,epic,mythic,etc 
         literary   -external: tell: description(appearance, gestures), placement in scene, analysis; show: dialogue, actions
                        -internal/inner life: diary, letter; direct, indirect, free indirect discourse; stream of consciousness, monologue
         film&drama    -external: by actor, costume, dialogue, gestures, visual symbols, camera angle, setting, mis en scene                        
                        -internal/inner life: voiceover, visual memory/thought, diary or letter, POV and reaction shots

point of view and  narrator (fiction, film, documentary, etc) or speaker or persona (poem)
    objective narration (like reporter): events/characters speak for selves or “voice of god”-documentary-like
    omniscient narrator: moves among people and places; may conceal information
    limited omniscient (central consciousness) from the perspective of one character (or several, separately)
    first person: participant or involved observer; reveals inner life and information kept from others
    narrator/speaker may be: intrusive, subjective,detached,voyeur, self-conscious,unreliable, multiple, frame       
    tone may be detached or involved; objective, sympathetic or judging; humorous, satiric, ironic; consistent or not so
narrative strategies
     literature: summary, description, analysis, scenes (actions, dialogue &/or indirect discourse, thoughts)
     film  scene: distance of shot; mis-en-scene/arrangement, actors in roles, action,dialogue,lighting, angles  
                     sound effects, music; transitions/editing: smooth or abrupt;cuts or special effects, montage or long takes

Part IV.  Close Reading Strategies and Terms

A.  Close Reading Questions for Interpreting a Poem, Passage, or Scene
First notice author, title, genre, form, subject matter; read 2-3 times (once aloud) & mark interesting phrases, details, patterns.

     1.  Explain the title, subject, speaker/narrator, and situation.

     2.  Read aloud or view for literal meaning and main sections; then reread carefully to summarize by sections;
          follow structure of ideas: narrative, climax, repetition, contrast, question/answer, stream of consciousness, argument
    3.   Identify a few significant details, patterns, contrasts, images, and figures of speech such as
             metaphor compares directly: life is a journey  (metaphor may be implied, or expressed as simile, personification)
             simile compares:  life is like, as, more than a journey
             personification humanizes or animates objects or abstractions:  flowers smile, hope springs eternal
            allusion refers to a nameor object from literature, myth, art:  a new Camelot, a Faustian bargain
             sound effects: rhythm, rhyme scheme, musicality, alliteration (lay low), assonance (see me), onomatopoiea (buzz)
             tone (humorous, ironic, etc) style: level, diction, connotation, word choice, sentence types
             rhetorical figures(serious/comic):  understatement, repetition, pun (word play), sarcasm, euphemism, verbal irony
             paradox     contradiction that has truth: one God in 3 persons  
             verbal irony says opposite of meaning:  thanks a lot; sure I’ll help you    
             oxymoron   self-contradiction: darkness visible, pleasing pain   
             hyperbole  exaggerates for effect:  I’ll never learn; understatement does the opposite: we have a small problem         

    4. Describe use of formal features/choices and logical structure and relate to content, meaning, function
      poem genre: lyric (ode, elegy, song, love, carpe diem), narrative (ballad, epic), dramatic (monologue)
            form: plot, idea structure; stanza (e.g. quatrain), English /Italian sonnet, blank verse, free verse, rhyme scheme
       prose  passage  plot effects: exposition, conflict, suspense, surprise, foreshadowing, climax, etc
            perspective: point of view; type of narrator, tone, and why effective; characterization techniques
            sections: description, summary, analysis, scene(actions, dialogue, indirect spch, thoughts, arrangemt)
       scene from play or film  plot effects: exposition, conflict, suspense, surprise, foreshadowing, climax, etc
            shots: establishing,medium,closeup; mis-en-scene;action, dialogue, visual image, lighting, angle, sound, music    
             scene transitions/editing:  smooth or abrupt; simple cuts or special effects, montage or long takes (realism)    

  5: Interpret overall themes, symbols, ironies, effects, relations of whole&details, significance in a longer work or section.

  6.  Relate
text to contexts, functions, and value--social, cultural, biographical, psychological; see Guide Part I. # 8-11

B.  Close Reading Concepts and Terms for Analyzing Fiction and Film

description (see Bland in Stevick Theory of the Novel): 
Novels used more localization of the characters than older literary forms,  . . . by setting them in a soldly constructed
environment.  But soon description is being used more widely, to reveal particular moods.   In drama, participation in
 the moods of  characters is achieved through direct contact between actor and audience.   In the novel, a connection
can be made through the evocative power of descriptive passages.  Here the novelist learned from  landscape painting. 
Next, description can rise to the level of symbol, and so stand for more than the writer expresses directly.   The primary
requirement is relevance: then descriptive passages take their place in the texture of the novel, and cannot be detached
and enjoyed for their own sake, nor wished away from the novel without damaging its fabric.

narrative scene and summary (Phyllis Bentley in Stevick, Theory of the Novel): 
The scene gives the reader a feeling of participating in the action intensely, for he is hearing about it . . . exactly as it
occurs and in the moment it has occurred. . . . The scene is therefore used for intense moments.  The crisis, the climax,
of a sequence of actions is  always . . . narrated in scene.   Summary occurs when the novelist requires to traverse
rapidly large tracts of the work of the novel that are necessary to the story, but not worth dwelling long upon.

characterization: presenting a character’s words and ideas in fiction or poem (Lochte, Narrative in Fiction & Film):
        direct discourse quotes dialogue:    She said, “I really like you.”
        indirect discourse  tells (past) without regard to speaker’s style:  She said that she liked him very much.
        free indirect discourse, in between, tells in 3rd person and the character’s style:  She really liked him!
        stream of consciousness relates thoughts as interior monologue, by free association & irregular syntax:
                    wow, she really liked him . . . if only I had the evening free . . . yes she would go 

irony (adapted fr. Kelley Griffith in Writing Essays About Literature):
Irony makes visible a contrast between appearance and reality, between what is and what seems to be, what ought to be,
what one wishes to be, or what one expects to be.   Incongruity is the method of irony, opposites come suddenly together so
that the disparity is obvious.  In verbal irony,  a narrator or characters obviously say the opposite of what they mean,
or distort meaning by hyperbole or understatement.   Attitudinal irony occurs when a narrator or character
(Candide, Don Quixote)  consistently thinks everything is fine and everyone is upright, when it is obvious to readers or
viewers that all is not well.  In situational irony the situation is different from what common sense dictates it is,
will be, or ought to be.   It is ironic if someone we expect to be upright--a minister in The Scarlet Letter--should be
a scoundrel.  Dramatic irony occurs when a character states or acts on something he believes to be true while the audience
or reader, aware of the future or other information, knows it to be false. (classic is the case of Oedipus).