I’ve been asked by our Facebook followers to write an article on how to analyse a novel. This is a big topic, as for GCSE, IGCSE, and especially for A level or IB, students will need a range of analytical and critical skills to get a high grade. Therefore, I am going to address this in stages. This article, Part 1, addresses three key elements of a novel.
First of all, a novel with have a plot. Essentially, the plot is the main events of the book presented by the writer as a sequence. The sequence of events is important, as it defines the way we read the book and it relates to the structure of the novel.
On some of the GCSE boards, for English Language as well as English Literature, structure is a specific question on the exam paper e.g. AQA GCSE English Paper 1. In the A level AQA A level English Paper 2 and for other boards, demonstrating an understanding of structure can earn AO2 marks in both English Language and Literature.
Even the most complicated plot is usually broken down into simpler steps by the author, so the reader can follow what is happening. Some genres, such as adventure stories, usually follow a clear plot. For example, whilst there are variations, the basic plot line of an adventure story is:
- The hero of the story gets a call to adventure
- The hero sets off on the adventure
- They face a series of trials which they must overcome
- They face the biggest challenge (the climax)
- They get a reward and they return home
Examples of heroes who follow this plot line are Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Rowling’s, Harry Potter, and Fleming’s James Bond
Understanding the plot and structure of the novel is a good start to critical analysis.
Secondly, a novel will have characters, usually including a protagonist (leading character) and an antagonist (adversary). Usually the characters are human, but they do not have to be. Examples of non-human characters include animals, robots, or cars.
To analyse critically, students need to look at characterisation. How has the writer designed the character?
It is clear that writers have several ways of telling us about a character:
- What the character says (dialogue)
- What the character thinks (internal thoughts)
- What the character does (actions)
- How the character looks (appearance)
Appearance is hard for a writer to describe when they are using a first-person narrative (point of view). This is because the story is being told by one character who speaks about themselves as ‘I’ and ‘We’. So how can a writer tell us about the appearance of such a character? One popular device is to use reflection. The writer can make the character glance at themselves in a mirror, a shop window or water. They can then say something like ‘I couldn’t believe how tired and drawn I looked. My long, dark hair was full of tangles and there were shadows under my blue eyes.’ In this way the writer is describing the appearance of the character even though they are writing in first-person point of view.
Thirdly, the novel will have a setting. The setting is the main backdrop and can help set the mood of a story. Therefore, when you analyse a novel, understanding the setting and how this relates to the genre or the themes is a crucial element of critical analysis. The setting comprises the geographical location of the story (place), the time, and the social environment.
A good example is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the location of East Egg/West Egg, the time of 1920s America and the social environment in which Nick, Gatsby, Daisy and Tom live are all absolutely crucial to understanding the novel.
Some novels have more than one setting, and a student needs to be able to recognize and respond to that too. A good example is Faulks’ Birdsong, where he contrasts the romance of France as the relationship develops between Stephen and Isabelle, to the horror of the battlefield, the claustrophobia of the underground tunnels, and the different time and place where Elizabeth lives, in England.
If you can can identify and discuss plot, characters and settings, you will be able to analyse a novel critically.
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