THE ESSENTIALS (ELEMENTS) OF LITERATURE (OR THE ESSENTIALS OF LITERARY WORKS)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE

THE ESSENTIALS (ELEMENTS) OF LITERATURE (OR THE ESSENTIALS OF LITERARY WORKS)

The essential elements of literature or literary work (drama or fiction) are:

  1. Plot.
  2. Characterization.
  3. Theme.
  4. Point of view.
  5. Setting.
  6. Tone.
  7. Irony.
  8. Symbolism.

 

1) PLOT

Plot is a pattern of carefully selected, causally related events containing conflict. It may be linear or episodic but it must have unity, causality, and conflict. The forces of conflict are embodied in characters. Plot, therefore, consists of characters who perform interrelated conflict-motivated actions. The conflict, being a struggle between two opposing forces, may be internal (within the minds of the characters) or external (between different characters). Structural divisions in dramas and novels can suggest segments of the plot. The pattern of a linear plot may show clear beginning (exposition), middle (causally related rising action and climax), and end (falling action or denouement). The pattern of episodic plot lies in relationships among the episodes. Plot, therefore, is an intellectual formulation, describing how the incidents in a drama or novel are inter-relatedly arranged. For the author, plot is the basic principle for selection and arrangement of incidents; but for the reader, plot is the perceived pattern, structure and unity in literature.

In other words, Plot is the pattern of events in a narrative or a drama, either in prose or in verse. Plot or mythos according to Aristotle’s Poetics is “the first principle, and as it were, the soul of a tragedy ,… the imitation of the action …, the arrangement of the incidents”. Aristotle demands that the action imitated be “a whole; “that is, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. He asks that a plot should have unity; that is, that it should “imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed.” Well-knit plots are opposed to episodic plots “in which the acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.”

Just as emphasis on causality is central to the Aristotlean concepts, E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel page 87 defines plot as “a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” In order to find out what the plot of a literary work is, we have to know “the why?” of every action in that particular work. For instance, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart it is necessary to find out:

  • Why Okonkwo always struggles to excel?
  • Why he has to continue struggling very early in life?
  • Why he is always dominated by fears?
  • Why he does not give vent to any other emotion other than anger, violence, war?
  • Why he cuts off the head of the court messenger?
  • Why Okonkwo chooses to hang himself?

 

A summary of the answers elicited by the above questions will tell us actually what the plot of Things Fall Apart is all about. It is necessary to state that a plot is a sequence of events which has a logical development through cause and effect, leading from one state or condition which is accepted as an agreed starting point through complication to conflict, climax, and denouement (or resolution) where anew and final condition is accepted. A plot must make provision for these stages of development and furnish the vehicle by which they are created and resolved.

From the foregoing, it is clear that it is plot that is the basis of the novel or drama and not the story. A writer may have stories to tell but still fails to write what could rightly be called a novel or drama if it lacks plot.

 

 

2) CHARACTERIZATION

Characterization is the author’s presentation and development of characters. The characters may be animals, robots, or outer space creatures, if they are not outright human personalities. But whether they are human in outward form or not, the author gives them human abilities and psychological traits to show that they still represent human beings. In character development, two broad categories of characters are noteworthy: the flat (or the simple) and the round (or the complex). Flat characters have one or two personality traits and are easily recognisable as stereotypes – the wicked step mother or mother-in-law, the miser, the false prophet, the lazy husband, the absent-minded professor, etc. Round characters have many personality traits and therefore look like real human beings. Flat characters are said to be static characters when events in the story do not change their views or actions, but round characters are said to be dynamic characters when they are modified by the actions through which they pass in the story.

Fictive characters are revealed in two ways: directly (through what the author says about them) and indirectly (through what the characters say, do, or wear, or through what other characters say about them). A successful character embodies the concrete universal: a fusion of the particular (personal traits) and the universal (human tendencies).

 

3) THEME

Theme is the central idea in any fiction, drama, or poetry. It is what the work says about its subject. While the subject may be a single word or a phrase (e.g. love, death, sin, marriage), the theme is usually a sentence drawing a lesson from the subject (topic) treated. The subject (title) of two different works may be Death but the theme of one may be that Death is a universal phenomenon while the theme of the other may be that Death is no respecter of any person. If a work has more than one subject, it is bound to have more than one theme and if a work has no clear subject, it is bound to have no clear theme. It is, however, not easy to determine the subject and the theme of certain complex works, which may contain themes and sub-themes (motifs). Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has two important subjects – sacred versus profane love and social entrapment – and hence, two themes:

  • People should not abandon sacred commitments, like marriage and parenthood, for extramarital `love’, no matter how passionate and deeply felt they may be.
  • People, through little fault of their own, can become trapped in painful, long-lasting, and destructive relationships that they want desperately to escape.

 

4) POINT OF VIEW

Point of view is the position from which the author views or tells his story. The four major/common positions which the author can adopt to tell the story are:

  • The Omniscient Point of View: In the omniscient position, the author assumes the position of an all-seeing, all-knowing, and omnipresent God, commenting freely on the characters motives and actions. He sees and knows the characters inside out. We see and know the characters through him and from his own biases and perspective.
  • The Limited Omniscient Point of View: In the limited omniscient position, the author still narrates the story but his freedom to reveal characters is limited to only one character, main or minor character, through whom the author can filter his own mind into the work.
  • First Person Point of View: In the first person position, one of the characters in the story becomes the narrator and apparently eliminates the author as narrator. The character-narrator may be any one of the fictive characters whose duty is not to participate but to observe the actions of other characters and tell us. Charles Dickens uses this first person point of view in his Great Expectations.
  • The Objective (dramatic) Point of View: In the objective position, the author is completely eliminated as narrator and the characters tell us themselves, their minds, and what they do. This point of view is mainly used in drama which gives us a good opportunity to learn about the characters from their words, actions, and appearance, and from what other characters say about them.

 

5) SETTING

Setting refers to the physical, and sometimes spiritual, background against which the events in a story take place. It is made up of four elements:

  • The actual geographical location, its topography, scenery, and such physical arrangements as the location of doors and windows in a room.
  • The occupations and daily manner of living of the characters.
  • The time or period in which the actions take place; e.g. the historical epoch or season of the year.
  • The general environment of the characters; e.g. religious, moral, social, emotional conditions through which the story moves.

 

When setting dominates a story, and a people’s local customs and manners appear overwhelmingly, we say that the story, play or narrative has local colour.

 

6) TONE

Tone refers to the author’s, narrator’s, or actor’s attitude towards the subject and the audience. It may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, sombre, playful, ironic, condescending, flippant, tyrannical, stoical, hardboiled, surprised, angry, enthusiastic, serious, distant, sincere, passionate, sympathetic, affectionate, boisterous, calm, excited, mocking, or reverent. There is no formula for recognising tone. Sometimes, the narrator/actor will state point-blank how he feels about a subject. But more often than not, tone emerges indirectly through the cumulative effect to word sounds and associations in the writing when we consider the emotional implications and impacts of all the literary devices employed in the work.

 

7) IRONY

Irony refers to the contrast or discrepancy between expectation and reality, between speech and action, between thought and execution, between goals and achievements, or between apparent and intended meanings of an utterance. It also consists in any other form of incongruity found in literature. Besides these, we have another kind of irony – Structural Irony, which runs through an entire fiction and helps to give the work an internal ideational framework. Structural irony may embrace or extend one or more of the other ironies through the story. In fact, every good literature exposes a streak of structural irony, especially through the overall visions, actions, or experiences of the protagonist.

 

8) SYMBOLISM

A symbol is a word, a sign, an action, a gesture, or an object that suggests some meaning other than itself. Symbolism, therefore, is the use of a word, an action, or an object to suggest an idea or emotion. It is basic to allegory, and its aim is to communicate an idea or emotion in a compact and concrete way.

There are two kinds of symbol – public and private. Public symbols (sometimes referred to as popular, universal, or conventional symbols) are easily recognisable and their meanings are fairly definite. They tend to have a one-to-one correspondence and many people can tell what they stand for. Some examples of public symbols are: Flag suggests country, crown suggests royalty, lion suggests courage, cross suggests Christianity or suffering, green colour suggests life or fertility, rose flower suggests love, sword suggests war or conflict, skull suggests death, and white suggests purity or holiness.

But symbols usually do not have such one-to-one correspondence because one symbol may evoke a whole constellation of associations, especially now that poets insist on creating their own personal symbols. Although personal or private symbols are often esoteric and difficult to interpret without close study of the author’s work(s), they enhance our appreciation of literature when correctly interpreted. They are unique to an individual or to a single work.

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