In the guise of fiction, books offer opportunities, choices and plausible models. They light up the whole range of human character and emotion. Each, in its own way, tells the truth and prepares its eager readers for the unknown and unpredictable events of their own lives.
(Loudon Wainwright, "A Little Banning is a Dangerous Thing," Life 1982, 491)
Introduction and Preview UnitsThe primary aim of this course is to introduce you to a variety of literary works and to help you learn to read them closely, looking at both their form and content (and perhaps their historical, cultural or social contexts). I suspect some of you will feel that studying a work closely "ruins" your enjoyment of it (especially poetry). Nevertheless, that is what we will be doing in this course--examining pieces of literature to see how they work, which often means taking them apart to see what devices the author has used and how all the pieces fit together. And in the end, I hope you will have learned that such close reading in fact enhances your enjoyment, as you discover the subtle artistry that good writers employ in their craft.
The focus will be on the literary elements which are at work in a story, poem or play. How do setting, characters, point-of-view, and other elements work to create the overall effect of a piece? What clues to the overall meaning or to key aspects do they contain? How can you, as reader, learn to recognize these elements and these clues? And what what can we learn about ourselves, others, and life in general--being "human"-- through reading literature?
The works that we will read are chosen on the basis of how they address what it means to be "human." Therefore, we also will be paying attention to how race, gender, class, and/or sexuality are represented in these works. We will look at how some perspectives have changed over the years and how others have remained relatively the same, and how literature can help us to understand contemporary society. (You might want to look again at the Course Goals and Objectives to review all of the course purposes.) To meet these various aims, you must learn and practice techniques for interpreting literary works and understanding their use of literary devices. This involves reading works closely and becoming familiar with those literary techniques. The course is designed to help you do this, but also requires that you work hard at reading and thinking.
Procedure:For each assignment I expect you to read carefully, meaning that you read the selections more than once and take notes on them, since this will also better prepare you for posting to the discussion forums. We will be concerned not only with what a writer says, but how he or she says it. A general overview of the work's plot is not enough; you should prepare for discussion by thinking about the internal structure of the work, how it is put together, and how the work relates to other readings in the course and to your own experience. In the first week or so I will demonstrate most of these tasks by annotating one of the stories you read to help you understand what I expect you to do throughout the semester.
In the "preview" unit of the course, you first will learn about some helpful guidelines for reading literature effectively and decide which of these guidelines you may already follow (and, therefore, which ones you need to practice more). You also will get an overview of the fictional elements a writer uses to create a story and read samples focused on each element. You will learn that in reading literature, we always read a piece at least twice--once just to learn what the story is about and what is happening; then again (and perhaps again and again) to analyze its elements and discover how these elements contribute to the story's effects and to our responses.
You will also practice sending me e-mail messages, learn how to use the World Wide Web, move around the various course pages to explore what is here to help you in the course, and use the discussion forums to communicate with each other.
UNIT 1: FICTION LECTURESLiterature, as suggested in the quotation by Loudon Wainwright at the top of this Lectures page, helps us understand ourselves, life, and the human condition. (If you want to read the quote again, click on Wainwright and then return here by clicking on your browser's BACK button.) We often take pleasure in reading about the imaginary adventures and experiences of imaginary characters. But we study fiction because it does more than give us pleasure, it expands our minds and quickens our understanding of life. Through the imagined experiences of believable characters we can gain authentic insights into ourselves and others; our awareness of life can be broadened and deepened and sharpened, enabling us to understand our troubles or to realize the enduring truths of living. Certain experiences and motifs are common to all peoples at all times in all places, and it is these commonalities which literature can show us, helping us to realize that we are all, no matter what our apparent differences, a part of one human kind.
We will be looking at stories, poems, and drama which, in one way or another, "light up ... human character and emotion." We will also be looking at how writers do this by making use of the variety of literary techniques and elements available to them. On-line "lectures" such as this one will give you information that supplements the textbook and the works you will be reading and may refer you to other on-line resources. The lectures will also highlight a single literary element associated with fiction, poetry and drama in order to help you understand it more fully.
If you wish to look at brief definitions of plot,setting, and other literary elements or terms, go to my Glossary of Literary Terms. Highlighted text in each lecture will also take you to specific glossary definitions. Return to this page from the Glossary with the browser's BACK button.
Lectures: Table of Contents
- Lecture on Plot
- Lecture on Setting
- Lecture on Characterization:
- Lecture on Theme
- Lecture on Point of View
- Lecture on Symbolism
- Lecture on Style
- Lecture on Special Perspectives
Lecture on PlotStories recount incidents and events, telling us what happens to a character or characters. Plot refers to the sequence of events which give focus to a story and which shape the action. It is a plan which gives direction to the story. Plot is sometimes referred to as the story line or the plotline or the narrative structure. (See the definition in the Literary Glossary for more about plot.)
The plotline in a story can take a number of forms ranging from the traditional straightline plot which moves chronologically from beginning to end as things happen one after another (i.e., in a straight line), all to way to modern plot techniques which may move forward and back through the storyline as the story progresses instead of strictly from beginning to end. The straightline plot, with its structure of beginning |