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In your first reading, concentrate on getting your bearings in terms of the standard initial repertoire of questions:
(1) What is the setting of the action narrated?
(2) Who is the protagonist?
(3) What is the relation between the narrator and the protagonist?
(3) What is the situation the protagonist is in?
(4) What values seem to be pre-eminent with the main characters? What are their priorities?
(5) Does the protagonist change in important ways in the course of his/her experiences? (That is, is the protagonist static, or dynamic, in the special sense in which these terms are used in discussing literature and film?)
Use your follow-up readings to pursue questions raised by the specific answers you've gotten to the standard initial quesitons, and to explore the implications of additional structural details you'll have picked up on your first time through.
(1) How does the social and cultural setting of the story determine the assumptions of the characters as they consider the choices with with they are confronted?
Do they see their choices differently than we do? If so, how do we account for this?
What thematically important issues might this discrepancy be inviting readers to consider?
How might we most responsibly (fairly) assess the responsibility of the agents for their choices?
(2) What games does the author's choice of point of view allow him or her to invite the reader to play? That is: what are we made curious about that we are required to rely on inference, rather than narrative guarantee, to get answers to?
Why might the author be inviting us to engage our curiosities in precisely these ways? What does this way of setting up our "wish to know" eventually get us to notice that might be thematically important?
(3) (4) (5) To what degree are we invited to identify and sympathize with the protagonist, in dealing with the situation in which he or she is involved? To what degree are we invited to look at the protagonist with a critical or even disapproving eye? Are we invited to be torn in our sympathies? That is: is the story calculated to arouse a conflict of inclinations in us?
To what possibly thematically important issues is our reflective attention drawn to by engaging our feelings in these precise ways?
Of course we want to be honest and precise about our feelings.
We may be inclined at first to say we were "depressed" by (say) the ending. But is that all we felt? Are other feelings (more positive, perhaps) at work as well? Might these be worth exploring in more detail? Or we may be immediately drawn to a character for a variety of (good) reasons. But is that all we feel? Can we detect any misgivings at work, however slight? Might these be worth getting clearer about?
And we want to be open to the possibility that our feelings might undergo important changes as we get clearer about the fuller implications of the situation the story confronts us with.
What specific thematic issues does the plot type the story instantiates enable the author to get on the table?
(6) If we have noticed any motifs at work in the story during our initial reading, we'll want now to start exploring their possible connotations.
What issues do these motifs implicitly or explicitly draw our attention to? What might the author's point be in doing this?
(7) If we have tuned in to any foils at work in the story, we'll want in our subsequent readings to refine our sense of exactly what is at stake in these.
What categories do these systematic contrasts bring into relief? And how do these hook up, in their implications, with other issues and ideas we've detected at work in the story, and with the feelings the story arouses in us as we further reflect upon it?
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Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 28 March 1999.