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I. CRITICAL READING.
II. INTERPRETING SHORT FICTION.
III. CRITICAL APPROACHES TO SHORT FICTION.
Setting and Mood.
Character and Psychology.
Style and Theme.
Plot and Narrative Structure.
Point of View.
Irony and Tone.
How the Elements Work Together.
Resources for Reading Chekhov.
Resources for Reading Welty.
IV. INTERPRETING POETRY.
V. CRITICAL APPROACHES TO POETRY.
Rhythm and Rhyme.
Metaphor and Figurative Language.
Symbol and Allegory.
The Verse Epistle.
The Prose Poem.
Free Verse. 11. Style and Theme.
Resources for Reading Keats.
Resources for Reading Frost.
Resources for Reading Plath.
VI. INTERPRETING DRAMA.
VII. CRITICAL APPROACHES TO DRAMA.
Commentary on Ibsen.
VIII. WRITING ABOUT LITERATURE.
IX. INTERPRETIVE STRATEGIES.
The primary strategy used in this book is traditional close reading. Close reading begins the process of interpretation and criticism of literature. In this sense, the book encourages us to consider what is truly important in any given work of literature, regardless of its genre. Most of the works that appear in these pages have a strong impact on the reader and all of them benefit from a careful reading and interpretation. In each of the genres of fiction, poetry, and drama, I have spent time detailing a close examination of the primary elements, such as style, theme, plot and narrative structure, point of view, tone, form, imagery, symbol arid allegory, figurative language, setting, character, as well as the elements of tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy. I have chosen works that excite ideas by virtue of their treatment of the elements of literature. I emphasize elements because it is important to see how they intersect, complement each other, and ultimately serve a higher literary purpose: to make a lasting literary statement.
The first chapters of the book explorethe importance of critical reading and offer a close examination of Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice." The process of interpretation by means of a sample reading and its resultant notes, outlines, drafts, and final essay completes the first part of the book. The essay on Frost's poem demonstrates one way in which close reading begins the process of interpreting a piece of literature while at the same time pointing to a number of ways in which a critical examination of the poem might be carried out. Naturally, critical reading will differ from reader to reader and the process of interpretation depends in some measure not only on close reading of a text, but on the preparation and background of the reader.
Each part of the book dealing with a specific genre begins with the title Interpreting Short Fiction, Interpreting Poetry, or Interpreting Drama. Each of these emphasizes the process of close reading and demonstrates a wide variety of ways in which close reading moves us toward an interpretation of the piece of literature. Interpretation implies a coherent reading that clarifies the work's significance. The examples offered in the book point to a range of interpretations, which reflects the fact that different readers will produce different interpretations depending on their critical approach, whether it is the method of formalist new criticism, historicism, feminism, or any one of a number of cultural criticisms. Making good sense of complex works of art takes time and practice as well as the opportunity to examine useful models of criticism. Each of the parts of the book offers such opportunities and such practice. In short fiction, the close reading and interpretation is developed around William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." In poetry several poems are discussed in detail, but the close reading and interpretation is reserved for Robert Frost's "Birches." Susan Glaspell's amusing comedy, Suppressed Desires, provides the opportunity for close reading. In each of these cases, short essays illustrate useful interpretations and critical strategies.
Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading, Compact Edition, gives more emphasis to the elements of each genre than does the fuller edition. For example, three short stories illustrate style and theme, plot and narrative structure, as well as each of the other basic elements of fiction. These stories use their respective elements to wonderful effect and help the reader see how powerful the given elements can be. Poetry and Drama are illustrated in similar fashion, tailored to each genre. For poetry, a group of five to ten poems illustrates their respective elements, such as language, imagery, tone, rhythm, rhyme, figurative language, and form. In the section on drama, a group of plays offers the opportunity to see all the elements at work together.
In this new compact edition, several authors are represented in depth with a number of their works as well as commentaries either from the authors themselves or from their critics. Anton Chekhov and Eudora Welty each have three stories in this collection and also a number of commentaries that will help students interpret the stories in relation to one another. This strategy helps readers see how individual writers rework similar ideas and use the elements in a way that determines their individual style. In poetry, generous selections from the works of John Keats, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath offer opportunities to see how poetic styles develop and how poets establish their own attitudes toward language and style. Henrik Ibsen is represented by A Doll House as well as by his notes on the play. Janet Achurch, the first actress to play Nora, comments on the role while Joan Templeton examines the way critics have treated the play. These critical opportunities offer a model of how outside commentary can shed light on a whole body of writing in addition to the individual piece of writing.
Each section of the book ends with a representative album of important and exciting stories, poems, and plays. In these albums, students can approach a given work from any angle they choose. Armed with an understanding of how the elements function in short fiction, they may begin with Sarah Orne Jewett, James Joyce, David Wong Louie, or a number of other ranking authors. Each of the nine stories in the album will reward close reading and critical interpretation. In the album of poems, more than two hundred examples, including eight by Emily Dickinson, five by Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker, and eleven of Shakespeare's sonnets, offer a wide range of style, thought, and technique. The album of plays includes six major dramas: Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Maria Irene Fornes's The Conduct of Life, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Tennessee Williams's <>The Glass Menagerie, and August Wilson's Fences.
Supplementing the examples of writing in each of the sections on literary genre, Chapter 21, The Importance of Writing about Literature, details all the steps involved in writing an interpretive essay on a piece of literature. The chapter takes Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" as its example, then offers an illustration of the process of developing material to support a thorough essay on the poem. Exercises follow in prewriting, freewriting, outlining, drafting and 'revising, editing, and the use of outside sources. In addition, the chapter describes the mechanics of citation and MLA style. Two essays end the chapter, taking two different critical approaches. The first is a formalist/historicist interpretation, while the second is essentially a reader response interpretation.
The final chapter of the book details some of the most important contemporary approaches to critical examination of texts. The formalist new criticism approach is followed by considerations of psychoanalytic criticism, reader response criticism, feminist criticism, political-economic criticism, historicist criticism, and a note on how to combine these methods for best effect. A careful reading of Nikki Giovanni's "Master Charge Blues" shows how a single poem can yield very different interpretations depending on how one approaches it.
An extensive Instructor's Manual of more than 450 pages offers a range of important resources, such as sample syllabi, video and audio recordings of writers in the collection, and detailed treatments of stories, poems, and plays in the text. Almost every work in the book has questions for close reading appropriate for in-class discussion. A second set of questions for critical interpretation helps engage the student in interpretive consideration of the work. These questions can be used by directing class discussion or for assignments in writing. They are open-ended questions designed to stimulate discussion, not close it down.
I was assisted in the preparation of the first edition of the manual by four doctoral students at the University of Connecticut: Catherine Nevil Parker, Julie Pfeiffer, Marianne Sadowski, and Mary Ann Reimann. My own contributions to the manual are in every section. They are based on my more than 40 years of teaching, much of that time teaching Introduction to Literature classes at several universities.