English literature is a complex subject and many students end up studying it at some point. With so many things being tracked, it can be overwhelming to even decide where to start. Whether you're studying for an exam, an advanced placement exam, or a college course, there are steps you can take to help you achieve your goals.
Method 1 of 5: Lay the Foundation
Step 1. Get started early
Don't wait to study until the night before the big test! In particular with a course like English Literature, where you will likely be asked analytical questions as well as content questions, you should take time to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of your material. It's unlikely that all you have to do is summarize the plot or name a few characters.
Step 2. Examine what you already know
Write down all the details you can remember from your first reading of the text, as well as anything you remember from your course classes. Don't "cheat" when looking at your notes or your text, just write what you remember for sure. This will be your starting point and will show you the gaps in your knowledge.
Step 3. Consider whether there are literary terms that you are not familiar with
Many English Literature tests and exams seek to familiarize you with some key terms, such as stanza, irony, alliteration, speaker, and figurative language. While they are unlikely to expect you to have extensive knowledge of literary terminology, understanding some of these key concepts will be important to your success. There are many guides available that can help you find definitions of important literary concepts, but here are some key terms:
- A stanza is a poetic division of verses and is equivalent to a paragraph in prose. Generally, stanzas are at least three verses long, groups of two verses are generally called "couplet".
Irony at its basic level says one thing but means another, which is almost always the opposite of what it actually says. For example, a character who meets someone in a snowstorm might say, “We have lovely weather, don't we? This is ironic because the reader can clearly see that there is no lovable climate. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens are famous for their use of irony.
Don't confuse irony with misfortune, of which Alanis Morrissette's song Ironic is guilty: “A black fly in your Chardonnay” is certainly unfortunate, but it is not ironic.
- Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience knows important information that a character does not, such as the fact that Oedipus killed his father and will marry his mother.
- Alliteration is a technique used more frequently in poetry and theater, it is the repetition of the same initial consonants in several words within a short space. "Pablito nailed a little nail into a bald's bald head" is an example of alliteration.
- An issuer generally refers to the person from whom the point of view is given in the poem, although it can also be used to refer to the narrator of a novel. Keeping the sender separate from the author is important, especially in dramatic poetic monologues such as Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" in which a maniacal duke admits to murdering his first wife. Obviously, it is the sender, not Browning, who says these things.
- Figurative language is discussed more fully in the second part of this article, but it is the opposite of "literal" language. Figurative language uses techniques such as metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole to make the point more intense. For example, in William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra", Cleopatra describes Marcus Antony this way: “His legs straddled the ocean. His arm, raised, touched the forehead of the world”. This is hyperbolic language: evidently Antony's legs did not literally ride the ocean, but he forcefully communicates the very high opinion that Cleopatra had of him and his power.
Step 4. Look at the sample questions if you can
If you were given a study guide or sample questions, see how much of that material you are familiar with. This will help you identify what needs the most work and do your study plan.
Method 2 of 5: Reread your texts
Step 1. Reread your text
You should have already read the text for class, but if you study for a test, be sure to go back and reread it to pick up on the things you left out the first time.
Step 2. Look for figurative language
Many authors use techniques such as metaphors, similes, and personification to emphasize their points. These can be critical to understanding the literary work you read: for example, knowing that the white whale in Moby Dick represents (among other things) the arrogance of Captain Ahab is essential to understanding Melville's novel.
- Metaphors make direct comparisons between two apparently different things. These are stronger than similes. For example, the last line of the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous metaphor comparing human lives to boats trying to make progress in fighting a strong current: “So we row, boats against the current, dragged back incessantly to the past”.
- Similes also compare, but they do not express directly that "x" is "y". For example, Margaret Mitchell uses a simile to describe Scarlett O'Hara's interest in Ashley Wilkes with a simile in her novel Gone with the Wind: lock".
- Personification occurs when human characteristics are given to a non-human object or animal to express an idea more powerfully. For example, Emily Dickinson frequently uses personification in her poems, as in this poem about a snake: A narrow subject in the grass, walks sometimes, you could have met him, you have not, his warning is sudden. Here, the snake is a "narrow fellow" that "walks" in the grass, making it look almost like an elegant Victorian gentleman rather than a reptile.
Step 3. Consider the structure of your text
How an author expresses his ideas is often as important as the ideas themselves. In many cases, the form and structure of the text will have some influence on its topic.
- If you read fiction, think about the order in which the events are related. Are they flashbacks or places in the narrative that go back in time? Sandra Cisneros Caramelo's novel begins near the end of the actual "story" and switches between various times and places to emphasize how complicated family stories are.
- If you read poetry, think about the form of the poetry. What kind of poem is it? Is it something formally structured like a sonnet or sestina? Is it free verse that uses elements like rhyme and alliteration but doesn't have a fixed rhyme scheme? The way the poem is written will often offer clues as to the mood the poet tried to convey.
Step 4. Think about the archetypes of the characters
In general, an archetype is a character, although it can also be an action or situation, it is believed that it represents something universally recognized as part of human nature. The prestigious psychologist Carl Jung argued that the archetypes are introduced into "the collective unconscious" of humanity, and that is why we recognize experiences that we have shared with others in the archetypes. Jung has influenced many types of literary analysis, so becoming familiar with some archetypes that may appear in your text will probably be helpful.
- The hero is a character who embodies the good and often fights evil in a contest that brings justice or restores order. Beowulf and Captain America are the perfect examples of a hero archetype.
- The innocent young man is a character who is generally inexperienced, but who is liked by others because of the faith he has in other people. For example, Pip in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations is an innocent young man, just like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Often these archetypes will experience some kind of "coming of age" in the later parts of the story.
- The mentor is in charge of caring for or protecting the main character through his help and wise advice. Gandalf in J. R. R Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of a mentor archetype, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars movies.
- The double is a character that doubles the main character to represent the "dark side" of the hero or heroine. Common examples of stuntmen include Frankenstein and his creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel of the same name.
- The villain is a character with sinister plans who is opposed by the hero. Usually the villain will do anything to defeat the hero and is often, but not always, smart. Some good examples include Shere Khan from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Smaug the Dragon from The Hobbit, and The Joker from the Batman comics and movies.
Step 5. Think about the situational archetypes
The other main type of archetype that you are likely to encounter is the situational; that is, a very familiar and predictable type of plot and progression. Some common situational archetypes include:
- The Journey - This is a very common archetype and is mentioned anywhere from the King Arthur story to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In this archetype, the main character goes on a journey, physical or emotional, literal or figurative, to understand something about himself or the world around him, or to achieve an important goal. Often the journey is very important to the plot, such as the fellowship's mission to destroy the unique ring in The Lord of the Rings.
- The initiation: this archetype has similarities with the journey, but it is oriented more in the development of the maturity of the hero or heroine through their experiences. This type of story could also be called an "initiation novel." Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is an excellent example of this, as well as the origins of most comic book heroes (eg Peter Parker's lessons on how to handle "great power and great responsibility" as he becomes Spider Man).
- The Fall - This is another very common archetype. In this archetype, the main character experiences a fall from grace as a result of his own action. Some examples of this archetype are all from classical literature, including King Lear from Shakespeare's King Lear, Ahab from Melville's novel Moby Dick, and Satan from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost.
Step 6. Consider how the action develops out of the conflict
For many texts, especially plays and fiction, there is a "generating incident" that sets the main action in the story in motion. This moment upsets the balance of the situation, poses a problem and triggers a series of events that will shape the rest of the story.
- For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth hears a prophecy from a trio of witches who say he will become King of Scotland. While he never wanted to be king until then, the prophecy guides him down the path of ambition and murder that ultimately leads to his downfall.
- As in another example, in Arthur Miller's The Witches of Salem, a group of young girls face a conflict: they have been caught doing disobedient things in the forest and face their punishment. To try to cover up their actions, they accuse the inhabitants of their village of witchcraft. This action sparks the rest of the play's story, which follows these accusations as they spiral out of control.
Method 3 of 5: Make Helpful Notes for Fiction and Drama
Step 1. Summarize each chapter or act in bullet points after reading the entire text a second time
This will make the next review easier, as you will have a short outline to work on.
Don't get so stuck in the summary. You don't have to summarize every little thing that happens in one chapter or act. Try to write down the main action of each one, as well as any important characters or thematic moments
Step 2. Write character profiles for each main character
Include anything important the character says or does, along with links to other characters in the text.
For plays, you could jot down any speech that seems particularly important, such as Hamlet's “To Be or Not To Be” speech or Arthur Miller's “Attention Must Be Heard” speech from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Step 3. Summarize any problems the characters face
This can often be even more helpful than chapter summaries. What challenges and conflicts do the main characters face? What are your goals?
For example, Shakespeare's Hamlet has many problems that he needs to solve: First, does the ghost of your father urge you to reliably seek revenge? Second, how can you get revenge on your uncle in a court full of people watching your every move? Third, how can you overcome your natural tendency to overthink things in order to have the courage to take the revenge you want?
Step 4. Determine if these issues are resolved
Sometimes problems are quite skillfully solved at the end of the story: the "Death Star" is destroyed in Star Wars, the single ring is destroyed, and Aragorn is reinstated as king in The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes problems are solved but not in the ideal way: for example, Hamlet does manage to consummate his revenge and fulfill the ghost's request, but he also kills several innocent people along the way and ends up committing suicide. Understanding whether the characters achieve their goals, or why they did not, will be helpful when discussing the plays on your exam.
Step 5. Remember some important statements they have made
While you don't necessarily have to memorize important statements or speeches, remembering what they're generally about can be very helpful when arguing a text.
For example, if you study Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, remembering that Mr. Darcy admits to meddling in Elizabeth's family affairs will be helpful in explaining why they are so angry with each other at the beginning of the book (i.e., he's too proud to admit that the meddling was really wrong, and she's too judgmental to admit that she might have had motives that made sense.)
Step 6. Take more detailed notes, including main themes in the text and how each character is important in it
Don't skimp on details at this point! Noting that "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein tone is very sinister" won't be very helpful on the test if you don't have a way to describe what makes her feel sinister.
- Write down especially intense moments in the text. These can not only help you remember what happened in a chapter, but they will also give you evidence to use when making assertions about the text on your test.
- For example, consider this quote from Herman Melville's chapter 41 of Moby Dick, when Ahab finally captures the white whale: “On the whale's white hump he heaped the universal sum of hatred and anger that had sat all his race since Adam. for here, and then, as if his chest were a mortar, he would shoot the fiery grenade of his heart at him”. This is much more suggestive than simply saying, "Ahab attacked the whale." This passage emphasizes that Ahab chases the whale not only for taking his leg, but also because he has come to confer all the horrible things that happened to mankind since the beginning of time on that whale, and he is ready to destroy himself, remember which is as if its chest were a cannon, with a cannonball exploding from it, to bring down the whale.
Step 7. Write down the symbols in the text and where they appear
Symbolism is a favorite tool of authors. If an item, such as a specific color or item, appears more than once or twice, it is likely a symbol that represents something important.
For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, the "A" that Hester Prynne must wear as punishment for her adultery is an obvious symbol, but her daughter Pearl also serves as a symbol. Like the "A", Pearl is a reminder of her adultery, a "display of her shame." Hester often dresses Pearl in beautiful gold and red gowns, physically linking her to Hester's handwriting and crime
Step 8. Look for contemporary connections
It is often very helpful to be able to reference in your exam or essay some important cultural or social issues that were relevant at the time the text was first written. Use whatever course material you have, along with introductions to critical editions of the text and reliable resources, such as those found through a library database, to do some research. Do not trust websites like Wikipedia or your own knowledge of a period, as both of these may be incomplete or inaccurate.
For example, if you study the story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it is important to be able to talk about the condition of women in the 19th century. Gilman was a very important feminist writer who wrote against the traditional social structure of her time, which insisted that the place of women was as wife and mother. Importantly, their arguments generally insisted that this structure harmed both men and women, something that is very useful to bring up in a discussion of their fiction, and something that you might not know if you only acted on the " common knowledge "of the era
Method 4 of 5: Make Helpful Notes for Poetry
Step 1. See what kind of poem you're dealing with
Sometimes knowing the type of poem you are studying, such as whether it is a sonnet, sestina, or haiku, can be very important in discussing its meaning. Sometimes you can determine the type of poetry you are dealing with by examining the rhyme scheme (the rhyme pattern at the end of each verse) and the meter (the number of poetic “meters” each verse has).
- For example, Edna St. Vincent Millay addresses how difficult it is to write poetry in her poem "I will create chaos in the fourteen lines." Knowing that this poem is a sonnet about writing sonnets helps explain part of the poem's goal: to generate a bit of modern "chaos" in an established and very old poetic form. Recognizing that Millay uses a classical Petrarchan rhyme scheme and that many of her verses are in iambic pentameter (meaning they sound like “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM”) will help you identify the poem as a sonnet.
- Many modern poets write in free verse, but this does not mean that they do not pay much attention to the form of their poetry either. Look for elements such as alliteration, assonance, repetition, overlapping (the breaking of poetic lines), and rhythm in free verse poetry just as you would in more formally structured poetry.
Step 2. Identify the speaker and audience of the poem when possible
This is particularly important for poems, such as dramatic monologues, where the speaker is certainly not supposed to be the poet. Felicia Hemans, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson all wrote dramatic monologues from the point of view of characters who differ greatly from them.
Identifying the sender can be more difficult in lyrical poetry, such as the type written by poets like Wordsworth or John Keats, because these poems are often written in the first person, but they do not make a clear distinction between the sender and the poet. However, even in poems that are written with first-person pronouns such as "I", the speaker is always referred to as the speaker and not the poet
Step 3. Write down any symbols in the poem and where they appear
As with prose, symbolism appears all the time in poetry. Pay attention to repeating elements, especially things like natural colors or images.
- For example, in William Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey," the eye is an important symbol that represents many things, including the poet's imagination. Wordsworth often plays on the similarity of sound between I and eye, further linking the two concepts.
- Symbolism is everywhere in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. A key symbol is the Hall of Heorot, King Hrothgar's great golden mead hall. Heorot symbolizes community, bravery, warmth, security, wealth, and civilization, so when Grendel invades Heorot and slays the warriors while they sleep there, he violates everything about the life of the Scyldings.
Step 4. Remember that you don't have to memorize the poems you study
Just make sure you know the basics like the poem's structure, themes, and the dominant story or idea.
Sometimes it can be helpful to memorize a key verse or two from a poem so that you can use it as proof. For example, if you study the great poem Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, you may need to memorize the short phrase "cast aside whatever is an insult to your own soul and your very flesh will be a great poem." This short quote encapsulates much of the meaning of the larger text, and placing it on a test will help support your claims
Step 5. Find a context for your poems
Context is as important to poetry as it is to fiction or drama. Knowing what kinds of issues the poet may have faced can help you understand the purpose of the poetry.
Contextual information can also be helpful in preventing you from making the wrong claims about poems. For example, it is important to know that Shakespeare's sonnets are not written for female lovers, even though it was the standard for sonnets at the time. In fact, most of them are written to "Fair Youth", a rich young man towards whom the poet has a kind of deep and possibly romantic attraction
Method 5 of 5: Handle Difficult Texts
Step 1. Reread passages you don't understand
Especially in poetry, authors can use unconventional language in order to generate a more powerful impact on the reader. This can be confusing at first, but rereading the passage slowly and carefully will be worth it.
Look for footnotes and other aids. Often in books edited for a student audience, editors will include explanatory notes, word definitions, and other aids that can help you understand what's going on. Don't ignore them! They can really help clear up confusing passages
Step 2. Avoid edited material
Especially if you read poetry or plays, reading everything is very important. Omitting things like stage directions in a Shakespearean play can mean missing crucial information. The language in poems is precisely chosen and structured to have a particular effect, so missing even a word or two could damage your understanding of the entire text.
Step 3. Read the passages out loud
This technique works very well with poetry and plays, but it can also work for long, dense passages of prose in a novel, especially if it is something like a Charles Dickens novel where sentences can be extended to a full paragraph. Reading the language aloud will help you identify elements such as rhythm, alliteration, and repetition, which are all things your test may ask you to speak.
Step 4. Make flashcards
If you have trouble remembering things, make some flashcards. Sometimes transferring material from one medium to another (for example, from written notes to flashcards) will help you learn them more effectively.
Flashcards are very useful for memorizing things like literary terms and character names. They may not be as helpful in remembering more complex information
- Use a highlighter to highlight key parts so they stand out when you read them.
- Read the text as many times as possible.
- Organize your notes in the form of flow charts or mind maps, as they can help you remember essential notes much more easily.
- You can use guides like SparkNotes, York Notes, Shmoop, etc., but don't rely on them as your only source of analysis. Teachers are often very familiar with these same guides, and they may not be impressed if your discussion does not go beyond them.
- Don't just read a summary of the book or the advertisement on the cover. Read the full text.
- Don't just learn the story by heart. You have to be able to analyze history.