Studying any novel is a significant undertaking and any in-depth study of a novel for examination will require a considerable amount of study in addition to that which one might undertake in a half-term’s work in school. As a starting point, however, there are three key elements on which you should focus your attention.
- Narrative Structure
When we discuss the narrative structure of a novel, we are basically considering the story and the plot. Story refers to the content of the dramatic action. Plot refers to sequencing of those dramatic actions – how, and at what stages, the key conflicts are set up and resolved. There are two main types of narrative structure that you are likely to encounter: linear (events being told in chronological order) and non-linear (events portrayed in a disjointed, non-chronological order). Recognising and understanding the sequencing of the events in a novel is important because this impacts on the way we react to the text and should influence the way we interpret the purpose and effect of its structure.
Understanding the structure of a text is a specific question on some exam papers so having a clear appreciation of the way the plot moves from event to event and the effect of these movements on a reader is vitally important. Even the most complicated of plots can usually be broken down into simpler steps. One strategy for gaining a clear sense of plot is to write each step of the plot on a separate postcard, listing the key events and characters involved in those events. In this way you can begin to see how different events, actions and characters are positioned within the overall narrative to create effects on you as the reader.
Many genres, especially adventure stories, follow a clear plot or narrative structure. This can be seen in such varied adventure stories as Homer’s Odyssey, Lucas’ Star Wars, Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Collins’ Hunger Games. Indeed, Joseph Campbell, one of the foremost theorists in comparative mythology, suggested in his study The Hero with a Thousand Faces that all stories contain essential narrative elements. These are:
- Stasis – the presentation of the Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
Try mapping this structure onto a book that you are currently studying or even onto a simple fairy tale. It does work. Some of the elements may be more prominent than others but through observing those shifts in emphasis you will gain a better understanding of the way the author has tried to position these elements for effect. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, a careful consideration of the way Stevenson structures the narrative is essential since the success of the detective genre element of the novel is, in part, due to the way in which Stevenson creates and sustains mystery and tension concerning the relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Obviously, all novels have characters, usually including a protagonist (leading character) and an antagonist (adversary). The characters are usually human, but non-human characters might include animals, robots, gods, and mythical creatures.
To analyse characters critically, you need to assess characterisation – that’s to say, how has the author designed the character? One of the biggest mistakes that some students make is to think that characters in novels are real people rather than imaginative constructions designed for specific roles, purposes and effects.
Authors have several methods of telling us about the characters they have constructed:
- Dialogue – What the characters say to one another
- Internal monologue – What the characters think to themselves
- Action – What the characters do
- Appearance – How the characters look
- What the narrator has to say about them
Whilst it’s important to understand what roles, relationships, attitudes, ideas and emotions various characters possess, it is also essential to observe and assess the ways in which a writer constructs details of character dialogue, internal thoughts, actions and appearance through language. It is also valuable to note how characters’ moods, motivations and relationships develop and change within the narrative, how they develop the various elements of the narrative and contribute to the themes of the novel? If you are studying Dickens’ Great Expectations, it is essential that you recognise that the story is told entirely from the first person viewpoint of Pip and that his experiences, attitudes, emotions and dialogue are constructed by Dickens in order to guide our sympathies.
It is crucial to have a very clear appreciation of the settings involved in a novel. I have used the plural ‘settings’ because the action in a novel can, of course, take place in many different geographical locations. In addition, however, setting also refers to the historical period in which the action takes place, the social, economic and political features of the society in which the action takes place, and the philosophical and ideological principles which may have been prevalent at the time the novel is set and the time in which it was written. For example, if you are studying George Orwell’s Animal Farm, whilst you may enjoy it asa moral fable about animals taking over control of a farm from their human master, your ability to fully interpret and understand the novel would be seriously impaired if you hadn’t researched Marxism, The Russian Revolution and Communism. Therefore, when you analyse a novel, understanding the settings and how these relate to the genre or the themes of the novel is a crucial element of critical analysis.
In summary, in order to successfully begin to appreciate a novel, as a starting point, you need to ensure that you have a thorough knowledge of its plot or narrative structure, its characters and its settings.