article is premised on the following guiding idea: Every sentence in every
novel does something.
In my opinion, this is one of the most important
foundational ideas for helping students understand literary elements and
their use in literary text.
With every sentence, the
author – through language – is doing something. The natural question that
follows is: What is the author (or language) doing? For purposes of
teaching literary analysis, there are five possible answers:
Developing the plot.
• Develop a conflict.
• Developing a theme.
• Developing the setting.
• Developing a character.
possible answer, or category of answers, may be:
• Generating a
The next question becomes, “How is the author doing
this?” Once students begin to answer this question, they are engaged in
literary analysis. The obvious first answer is: with language.
Going further, students can start learning about specific literary devices
or tools authors use to make language more effective as it achieves one of
the six answers above:
• The author may be using figurative
language in the passage to help develop a conflict.
• The author
may be using irony to develop the plot.
• The author may be using
allusion to develop a theme.
• The author may be using hyperbole to
generate a response.
Take any random sentence from any random novel
students might be reading in Humanities.
For example: Using the
sun and the fact that it rose in the east and set in the west, he decided
that the far side was the northern side of the ridge. (Hatchet, Gary
If we ask “What is the author doing?” in the sentence, we
quickly come to realize there are several possibilities:
Developing the setting of the story
2. Developing the main character,
3. Developing the plot.
If we then have students look
carefully at the words in the sentence and generate a list of key words,
we might get: sun, rose, east, west far side, northern side, ridge
Since setting is about location and time (environment and context), a
quick look at the key words in the sentence suggests setting as the main
element being developed by the author. Futhermore, since more than one
literary element can be seen in nearly any sentence, students are
encouraged to defend their choices. The very act of debating their choice
provides a learning experience in itself. If a student makes a strong case
for character development, for example, the teacher can recognize and
reward the student’s success while still taking time to show why setting
is likely the stronger choice.
For example, a student might say:
“I see how the words point to setting, but I also think it’s showing us
how Brian is learning to read the signs around him. This is character
As the teacher, I would not correct this student’s
observation because such observations are generally well received in
essays. There isn’t always a single right or wrong answer when it comes to
analyzing literature. There are, instead, stronger and weaker arguments.
Donohue teaches middle level Humanities at Park Place Middle
in Monroe, Washington. He has 19 years of teaching experience
serves on the adjunct staff of Seattle Pacific University.
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