How to read texts critically

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WRITING LITERARY criticism involves reading texts with an eye toward evaluating them, as opposed to reading purely for pleasure or to learn facts (as with a

textbook). Reading critically involves not only pinpointing (exact, fact, true) the theme, or the message, of the book, but also appraising and evaluating the style of the author.

This is not easy; often you must reread a few times before you can make an effective judgment.

Fortunately, people have suggested ways to accomplish (reach, realize) this. In published guides to literary criticism (Barnet, 1985; Sullivan, 1983; Gordon, 1973), authors suggest focusing on some

elements that are common to literary analysis when starting your task. Read each of the topics

below for examples of how to examine texts critically:
Point of View

Point of view—also known as voice or perspective—refers to the way in which information is

presented in a literary text. Who is telling the story, and how does the author’s choice of narrator

effect the plot? In all works of fiction, authors must make choices about what information to

include and what information to leave out. The author often does not reveal everything that

occurs to every character. Instead, the reader knows only what the author chooses to reveal

through the voice of the narrator.

To consider how this process works, think of important episodes in your life and imagine how

external witnesses might describe them. Now, imagine how people who were not present but only

heard about the events might describe them. The stories will probably be very different, as they

came from people with dissimilar points of view. In a novel, the point of view functions in a

similar manner; the way in which information is presented varies depending on which character is


Literary Criticism

As you read the text, consider the following questions related to point of view:

Who is telling the story? How does this effect the story?

How is what we learn in the story limited by the choice of narrator? Does the narrator know everything that is going on, or only some things?

How would the story be different if the author presented another point of view?

How does the author’s choice of perspective contribute to the plot?

Are there multiple points of view? If so, what does each contribute?

Does the narrator provide a reliable account of events? Is he or she trustworthy?

Plot refers to the sequence of events in a story. In a well-written piece of fiction, events do not

occur randomly. They are arranged according to the author’s wishes. The typical plot structure

contains elements of the following sequence of events:

exposition, where the author provides needed context and background information

rising action, where the author develops a series of crises

climax of the story, where the crisis (a sudden change, for better or worse) is resolved in a certain way, followed by a period of falling action or denouement, where the final elements of the plot are untangled (free from confusion, conflict ), and the story is concluded

One way to analyze a work of fiction is to uncover the reasons the plot is constructed in a certain


As you read the text, consider the following questions related to plot:

! Why are the events of the story arranged the way they are?

! How does the plot structure relate to the overall theme of the story?

! What keeps the plot moving? How are the characters motivated or effected

by either internal (psychological, spiritual) or external (familial, societal,

natural) events?

! What is the climax of the story? When does the climax occur?

! What happens after the climax, and how is it significant?

! What are the crises encountered (meet) by the characters? How are they resolved?

! Does the plot make sense? Do events occur logically?
^ Literary Criticism

Characterization refers to the ways in which the author portrays the main participants. The world

the author has created could contain literally anyone, yet we encounter only those he or she has

chosen for us. The author makes a deliberate choice about whom to include in the story, and also

controls what we learn about these characters. Determining what characters are in a story, why

they are included, and how their characterization effects the meaning of the plot are other ways to

analyze a work of fiction.

As you read the text, consider the following questions related to characterization:

! What is the main character like? What are the virtues and vices of the

character, and how are they revealed?

! What is the most important element of the main character’s personality?

! What conflict does the main character confront? Is the conflict moral,

material, or of some other origin? Does the character have any strong

beliefs? How does this relate to the theme of the story?

! Why does the author choose to present the character in this fashion? How

might the story be different with another main character?

! What minor characters are included? What are their roles in advancing the


! Do any of the characters change during the story? How is this change

brought about?

All stories take place in a particular time and place. In many works, the setting is as important as

the characters themselves. In addition to the physical place, you should pay attention to the

atmosphere or feel of the setting.

Setting can evoke (call up) a particular mood, such as brightness and cheerless, or drabness (boring) and dreariness (dullness, colourness). The setting can also reveal information about the characters. Paying attention to the environment inhabited by the main characters can be important to understanding the story. The description of the house the character lives in, or the bar he or she hangs out (live, stay) at, can reveal a great deal about the person’s lifestyle, habits, and motives.

As you read the text, consider the following questions related to setting:

! Why did the author choose to set the story in a particular time and location?

! What are the unique characteristics of the setting? How might the story be

different if set in another location or time period?

! How does the setting contribute to the overall theme of the work?

! How does the setting impact the developments of the story?

! How do the characters react to the environment they are in? Are they happy

where they are? Do they seek to change the setting? Are they successful?

! Is the setting used as a metaphor or symbol for anything?


Ultimately, the theme of the story is the most significant aspect of a literary work. The theme is

what the work is about. What is the author trying to convey (inform, say) by writing the work? Fictional works are not random creations. The structure of the work, the characters, the plot, and the setting should all relate back to the central theme. The theme will not always be simple or obvious. In

some cases, the reader has to infer the author’s intentions by connecting various events and

statements together to form a unifying image.

As you read the text, consider these questions regarding theme.

! What is the theme of the work?

! Is the theme explicitly stated? If so, where does this occur? If not, what

events, actions, or statements reveal the theme?

! How do the various elements of the story (settings, plot, etc.) contribute to the


! Is there more than one theme of the work? If so, which is the main theme?
Literary Terms / Elements

^ Plot | Characterization | Point of View  | Conflict  | Foreshadowing | Irony  
Tone/Mood | Symbolism | Theme | Imagery | Figurative Language
List compiled Syzdykov Kanat SDU of Teacher


All fiction is based on conflict and this conflict is presented in a structured format called PLOT.

The introductory material which gives the setting, creates the tone, presents the characters, and presents other facts necessary to understanding the story.

The use of hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in the story.

The climax reaches a turning point/culmination. It is the high point of the story for the reader. Frequently, it is the moment of the highest interest and greatest emotion. The point at which the outcome of the conflict can be predicted.


Almost always round or three-dimensional characters. They have good and bad qualities. Their goals, ambitions and values change. A round character changes as a result of what happens to him or her. A character who changes inside as a result of what happens to him is referred to in literature as a DYNAMIC character. A dynamic character grows or progresses to a higher level of understanding in the course of the story.

The main character in the story

The character or force that opposes the protagonist.

A character who provides a contrast to the protagonist.

Almost always flat or two-dimensional characters. They have only one or two striking qualities. Their predominant quality is not balanced by an opposite quality. They are usually all good or all bad. Such characters can be interesting or amusing (entertain, deceive) in their own right, but they lack depth. Flat characters are sometimes referred to as STATIC characters because they do not change in the course of the story.


First Person
The narrator is a character in the story who can reveal only personal thoughts and feelings and what he or she sees and is told by other characters. He can’t tell us thoughts of other characters.

Third-Person Objective
The narrator is an outsider who can report only what he or she sees and hears. This narrator can tell us what is happening, but he can’t tell us the thoughts of the characters.

^ Third-Person Limited
The narrator is an outsider who sees into the mind of one of the characters.

The narrator is an all-knowing outsider who can enter the minds of more than one of the characters.


An author’s use of hints or clues to suggest events that will occur later in the story. Not all foreshadowing is obvious. Frequently, future events are merely hinted at through dialogue, description, or the attitudes and reactions of the characters.

Foreshadowing frequently serves two purposes. It builds suspense by raising questions that encourage the reader to go on and find out more about the event that is being foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is also a means of making a narrative more believable by partially preparing the reader for events which are to follow.


Irony is the contrast between what is expected or what appears to be and what actually is.

Verbal Irony
The contrast between what is said and what is actually meant.

Irony of Situation
This refers to a happening that is the opposite of what is expected or intended.

^ Dramatic Irony
This occurs when the audience or reader knows more than the characters know.


A person, place or object which has a meaning in itself but suggests other meanings as well. Things, characters and actions can be symbols. Anything that suggests a meaning beyond the obvious.
Some symbols are conventional, generally meaning the same thing to all readers. 
For example: bright sunshine symbolizes goodness and water is a symbolic cleanser.


The main idea or underlying meaning of a literary work. A theme may be stated or implied (mean, hint). Theme differs from the subject or topic of a literary work in that it involves a statement or opinion about the topic. Not every literary work has a theme. Themes may be major or minor. A major theme is an idea the author returns to time and again. It becomes one of the most important ideas in the story. Minor themes are ideas that may appear from time to time.

It is important to recognize the difference between the theme of a literary work and the subject of a literary work. The subject is the topic on which an author has chosen to write. The theme, however, makes some statement about or expresses some opinion on that topic. For example, the subject of a story might be war while the theme might be the idea that war is useless.

Four ways in which an author can express themes are as follows:

1. Themes are expressed and emphasized by the way the author makes us feel. By sharing feelings of the main character you also share the ideas that go through his mind.

2. Themes are presented in thoughts and conversations. Authors put words in their character’s mouths only for good reasons. One of these is to develop a story’s themes. The things a person says are much on their mind. Look for thoughts that are repeated throughout the story.

3. Themes are suggested through the characters. The main character usually illustrates the most important theme of the story. A good way to get at this theme is to ask yourself the question, what does the main character learn in the course of the story?

4. The actions or events in the story are used to suggest theme. People naturally express ideas and feelings through their actions. One thing authors think about is what an action will "say". In other words, how will the action express an idea or theme?

IMAGERY: Language that appeals (request, attract) to the senses. Descriptions of people or objects stated in terms of our senses.


Whenever you describe something by comparing it with something else, you are using figurative language. Any language that goes beyond the literal meaning of words in order to furnish new effects or fresh insights into an idea or a subject. The most common figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and alliteration.

A figure of speech which involves a direct comparison between two unlike things, usually with the words like or as. Example: The muscles on his brawny arms are strong as iron bands.

A figure of speech which involves (draw in or take sb attention) an implied comparison between two relatively unlike things using a form of be. The comparison is not announced by like or as. Example: The road was a ribbon (sign) of moonlight.

Repeated consonant sounds occurring at the beginning of words or within words. Alliteration is used to create melody, establish mood, call attention to important words, and point out similarities and contrasts. Example: wide-eyed and wondering while we wait for others to waken.

A figure of speech which gives the qualities of a person to an animal, an object, or an idea. It is a comparison which the author uses to show something in an entirely new light, to communicate a certain feeling or attitude towards it and to control the way a reader perceives it. Example: a brave handsome brute (wild animal) fell with (fight) a creaking (scratch) rending cry--the author is giving a tree human qualities.

The use of words that mimic sounds. They appeal to our sense of hearing and they help bring a description to life. A string of syllables the author has made up to represent the way a sound really sounds. Example: Caarackle!

An exaggerated statement used to heighten effect. It is not used to mislead the reader, but to emphasize a point. Example: She’s said so on several million occasions

Allusion- indirect reference to a person, event or piece of literature

the Scrooge Syndrome (allusion on the rich, grieve and mean Ebeneezer Scrooge from Charles Dicken’s “Christmas Carol”)

^ The software included a Trojan Horse. (allusion on the Trojan horse from Greek mythology)

to meet ones Waterloo (allusion on Napoleons defeat in the Battle of Waterloo)

to wash ones hands of it. (allusion on Pontius Pilatus, who sentenced Jesus to death, but washed his hands afterwards to demonstrate that he was not to blame for it.)

Anaphora-The same word or phrase is used to begin successive clauses or sentence

Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome

A man without ambition is dead. A man with ambition but no love is dead. A man with ambition and love for his blessings here on earth is ever so alive

Metonymy-figurative expression, closely associated with the subject

The White House declared … (White House = US government / President)

The land belongs to the crown. (crown = king / queen / royal family / monarchy)

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

(empty pockets = poverty; empty heads = ignorance / dullness / density; empty hearts = unkindness / coldness)

Litotes- is a form of understatement which uses the denied opposite of a word to weaken or soften a message

That's not bad. (instead of: That's good/great.)

Boats aren't easy to find in the dark. (4) (instead of: Boats are hard/difficult to find in the dark.)


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