I thought it might be fun (at least for me) to lay out, in a series of short blog posts, some of the basic terms and ideas that I present to my students when talking about the “close reading” of literary texts. Maybe there will be others who also find these brief outlines valuable. I have found, over the years, that close reading of literature is akin to the practice of Buddhist vipassana meditation. Close reading teaches you to slow down, actually notice what it is that you’re looking at and experiencing, and see changes. Anyway, below are some basic literary terms and ideas that I share with my students surrounding narration. . . .
Unlike with nature, nothing in a story happens by accident. Behind each and every word is a conscious human author with some sort of artistic, rhetorical, or stylistic purpose. Purposiveness even extends to the naming of characters, as when Charles Dickens, in his novel Hard Times, gives the book’s harsh schoolmaster the name “Mr. Gradgrind”. A name that blatantly reflects a character, or foreshadows a character’s destiny, is called a characternym.
A story usually has a single author depicting a single narrator writing from a very particular point of view. The chief narrator of a story is sometimes called the story’s central intelligence. If there is only one narrator, and the story is told only from that narrator’s vantage (or from the vantage of one character), we call the story monologic, but if a story has two or more independent voices expressing distinct vantage points, we call the story dialogic. The narrator may engage in inner dialogue, monologue, or stream of consciousness writing, and may be a reliable or unreliable narrator. There are a variety of ways that narrative point of view can be depicted in a story:
- Narration may be in the first person (“I”), as in this opening sentence from TC Boyle’s short story, “Carnal Knowledge” (1994): “I never really thought much about meat.”
- Narration may be in the second person (“you”), drawing the reader into the story as a character (“You are on the beach throwing a frisbee with Melissa . . .”).
- Narration may be in the third person (he, she, we, they), as in this sentence from Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (1899): “Already he was tormented by a strong desire to share his memories with someone.”
- Narration may occur in the third person omnicient voice, in which the narrator is godlike, seeing and hearing all and knowing all, even what is in people’s heads, as in this sentence (again from Chekhov): “Looking at her, Gurov thought: ‘What encounters life offers!'”
- Limited omniscience is where a third person narrator sees and knows all that is taking place, but only with regard to, say, one character in a story, not all.
- Narration from the dramatic point of view is where the narrator has no access to inner thoughts at all, but tells the story as an audience member to a play might tell stage events—narrating actions, verbal exchanges, and verbal soliloquies.
- Related to the dramatic point of view is the issue of objective v. subjective narration. In the dramatic point of view, for example, the story is told completely from outside of the heads of the characters—or objectively. By contrast, in the first person point of view, a story might be told entirely from inside the head of a character—or subjectively.
- Narration may be done in “skaz“; that is, in the intimate familiar voice of the ironic teen or young adult dialect (as in the Catcher in the Rye ).
- Style indirect libre, otherwise known as “free indirect style”, is a third person form of narration that nevertheless might avoid (at least in some instances) third person conventions (such as always saying, “he saw” or “he thought”). Even as these explicit phrases are not used in style indirect libre, we nevertheless perceive that a story’s sensibilities, scenes, and moods are being set from the vantage of a very particular character, as in this example from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835): “He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.” This sentence reflects Goodman Brown’s state of mind without explicitly saying, “Goodman Brown experienced the road as dreary and frightening.”
In short, one aspect to the close reading of a literary text is to give attention to the role that narration plays in a story.
For a “Close Literary Reading 101” discussion on the role of style in the writing of stories, click here.