analyse a novel

Analyse a novel: Part 2

Following on from last week’s article Analyse a novel: part 1 here is the second part of the series.  In this article we will look at 3 more ways to analyse a novel.  All of these are important elements in understanding the novel you are studying for IGCSE, GCSE, A level or IB.

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Analyse a novel using genre

Genre is the category, or style, of the novel and books that you study on your course.  Popular genres at this level of study are tragedy e.g. The Great Gatsby, gothic e.g. Frankenstein, and dystopia/science fiction e.g. Never Let Me Go.  However, there are many other genres available on the syllabuses.

Some novels may be a combination of genres.  For example, on the A-level syllabus, Wuthering Heights is understood to be a combination of gothic, romance and Victorian literature, whilst Rebecca can be understood as romance, murder mystery and gothic.

Why is understanding genre important?

Identifying the genre of a novel is important because it helps to frame our understanding of how it has been written and gives us a deeper understanding of the writer’s craft.  If you can understand this and use it in your essays, you should get higher marks.  Each genre has certain characteristics, which help to define the story.   For example, gothic novels have a range of characteristics but almost always include a gloomy setting, the supernatural and intense emotions.  A tragedy will have a disastrous ending and human flaws will usually bring down the main character.  Dystopian novels will be set in a future, nightmarish world and will explore social and political issues.

Analyse a novel using themes

The themes are the underlying messages in a novel.  Ask yourself what the writer is trying to covey to the reader?  In the literature you will study for GCSE, IGCSE, A level or IB, there will be a major theme, or a number of themes, underpinning the text.

Potential themes for a novel form a huge list, but popular themes include love, death, betrayal, power corrupts, coming of age, war, heroism, good/evil and prejudice.   A novel may have a combination of these themes.  For example, The Great Gatsby has love, betrayal, power corrupts, prejudice and more.  Probably the biggest message in Gatsby though, is that the American Dream is unattainable for most people.

Identifying and understanding the themes in a novel will give you a deeper understanding of the writer’s aims.  Demonstrating that you understand the writer’s aims will earn you higher marks when you analyse a novel.


great gatsby

  The Great Gatsby movie advert


How to Study Gothic Literature: Setting and Themes

Narrative Voice or Point of View

Narrative voice is the perspective from which the story is told. Point of view affects the whole way we engage with a story, so it is an important choice for a writer.

There are different types of narrative voice.  They are:

First person A character within the story is telling the story. Some of the main personal pronouns used are I, my, me, we. I watched as the boat sank. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. I turned to take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawled like ants into my mind.
Second person Not commonly used by writers. It uses the personal pronouns you and your. You watch as the boat slowly sinks. You feel relief mixed with guilt. You turn and take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawl like ants into your mind.
Third person The story is being told by the voice of someone who is not a character in the story. The main personal pronouns used are shehe and they. George watched as the boat slowly sank. He felt relief mixed with guilt. He turned to take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawled like ants into his mind.
Third person omniscient The story is being told by a voice who shows they know more than the characters in the story – the narrator is all knowing. The main personal pronouns used are shehe and they. George watched as the boat sank. He felt relief mixed with guilt. Six miles away a group of fishermen watched the horizon, looking for signs of the storm they could feel in the air.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/ztdmtyc/revision/4


Why is narrative voice important?

First of all, this is a clear choice made by the writer so you need to understand the choice they have made. The first person narrator will be filtering the story through their own perspective, which has consequences for your understanding of the events.

The Great Gatsby is a good example of a first person narrative voice, because Nick’s perspective drives the story.  As readers, we only know what Nick knows. If Nick doesn’t witness an event, we don’t witness the event.  We can read Nick’s thoughts, but we can’t see the thoughts of the other characters.  We get to know Nick intimately as we progress through the novel.  This type of narrative voice can also deliver a powerful emotional impact.  For example,  in Never Let Me Go the first person point of view delivers its biggest emotional impact at the end of the novel, when even the toughest of us are usually crying into our hankies.

In contrast, a third person omniscient narrator gives us a wide perspective where we can see the actions of characters, and events, regardless of the experiences of the main character.  The advantage of this is that we are not stuck with the narrator and it is usually easier to follow the story. This means it is straightforward for us to understand the motives and desires of multiple characters in the book.  A good example of a third person omniscient point of view is Lord of the Flies.   Whilst it is difficult to achieve the same emotional impact as with a first person narrator, the author doesn’t seem to be trying to achieve that in Lord of the Flies.  As the cruelty and violence develops, the use of the third person omniscient distances us from any particular character and allows us to form our own judgements about what happens and about the characters themselves.


Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies book cover

Multiple points of view

A novel does not have to have just one narrative voice throughout.   A great example of a creative use of narrative voice is Gone Girl where the narrative voice switches between two characters.  This creates a complex structure that works with the plot and mystery/crime/thriller genre to create tension and suspense in the novel.  The writer keeps us guessing and doesn’t allow us to get too comfortable with the narrative, because she switches between two narrative voices.

This article on how to analyse a novel, used in conjunction with how to analyse a novel: part 1, will give you a head start in literary analysis for GCSE, IGCSE, A level and IB.

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