Formal Analysis (HUM303/415/455/470)

When many people watch a film they focus almost entirely on the story told rather than the way that the film is constructed. Their appreciation of the film is based on their experience of it at the level of content. Did the film frighten me? Make me laugh? Provoke me to thought? Was the narrative compelling? The issue that formal analysis seeks to address is the WAY that a given text (film, novel, etc.) produces these effects. Paying attention to form enables a reader or viewer to explain HOW the text tells its story or advances its ideological project.

Novels are pieced together from various elements such as plot, character, and setting. Realist novels in particular seek to render their stories and the worlds they describe as transparent. Yet ultimately when we read a novel we are translating markings on a page (words, sentences, paragraphs) into a (fictional) “reality.” Both the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms and Marina Mackay’s glossary in the reader provide us with the basis of a critical language that can be used to engage in the formal analysis of a novel.

Who narrates the novel? Is it told in the first or third person? Are events or ideas in the novel filtered through the subjectivity of someone other than the narrator? What is the “shape” of the novel’s plot? Is the novel episodic? Does the novel achieve closure? How? How do specific descriptions– particular uses of imagery– establish the novel’s tones? What generic conventions does the novel deploy? Does it violate its apparent genre identity?

There is a tension in the study of literature between poetics and hermeneutics. Broadly speaking, poetics seek to establish HOW a text means while hermeneutics are concerned with providing new interpretations. As Jonathan Culler writes:

Poetics “takes meanings as what have to be accounted for and tries to work out how they are possible [while hermeneutics] starts with forms and seeks to interpret them, to tell us what they really mean… Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with a particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations… [W]orks of literary criticism often combine poetics and hermeneutics, asking how a particular effect is achieved or why an ending seems right (both matters of poetics), but also asking what a particular line means and what a poem tells us about the human condition (hermeneutics) (Literary Theory 61).


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