The school holidays have ended, and much to the chagrin of many of you, the government has decided that you shall all continue with your regular school hours sans CCA. Let’s look on the bright side: things are very much under control here, and you don’t have to live in fear of the next day!
With that, let’s learn a new skill: analysing a literature text, be it a play, a poem, a short passage, or a piece of prose.
First things first: why do we have to analyse a literature text? Why can’t we just read it, like a comprehension passage, and start answering the questions?
It is so very confusing, especially if you don’t see the difference between the subjects Literature and English. There is one though, and for your sake, I’ve simplified it as follows:
- English is the tool with which you understand Literature. This is because, in Singapore and at the secondary level, Literature lessons are conducted in English, and the Literature texts that you have to study are in English. This is why we spend six years in primary school learning the English language first, to build up a foundation.
- Through the study of Literature, we learn how to read a text for both its obvious and subtle meanings. We do this through the understanding of Literary devices that are commonly used to bring across, or to even hide, certain messages.
It is this second point that most students struggle with.
“Why can’t the writer just say what he means to say instead of hiding the meanings and making life difficult for the rest of us?”
The answer to this is quite simple: not everything can be just described as it is. Sometimes, we use literary devices because it makes the message more obvious or clear. Sometimes, we use literary devices because it makes the message more memorable. Sometimes, we use literary devices because it makes the message flow and sound better, which further supports understanding.
Let’s take a look at an example:
My Heart Leaps UpMy heart leaps up when I behold
by William Wordsworth
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my day to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Let’s look at the above poem, by William Wordsworth. He begins with a simple but clear bit of imagery, which is a commonly used literary device.
If we analysed the first two lines as we would a comprehension, i.e. superficially, all we’d understand is this:
- When he sees a rainbow, it makes him happy.
- We don’t understand the extent of his happiness.
- We don’t understand how we looks at a rainbow, whether with a passing glance, or with a proper pause to look and enjoy.
However, if we look at it with the intention to analyse a piece of literature, this is what we’ll find:
- The imagery used states that when he sees a rainbow, his heart leaps.
Now, we know this is a biological impossibility. If your heart can do this, you need to see a doctor. Nevertheless, this figurative description helps us to imagine his heart actually leaping with joy, and we can actually feel what he feels. It makes him so happy, that his heart cannot stay in one position and needs to leap about in its expression of joy. What or who else leaps about when happy? Children. Imagine toddlers running with excitement across a field, leaping and skipping as they go along. That is the extent of happiness he experiences when he sees a rainbow. It makes him extremely happy.
- The choice of word used also helps us to imagine the joy, because he uses the word “leaps” instead of “jumps”. This literary device is also known as Diction. “Leaps” is often used in association with lightness, achieving a greater distance, which again helps us to picture how light-heartedly happy the view of a rainbow makes him feel. Jumping brings to mind heavier landings, or shorter distances. As such, the fact that he chose to use the word “leaps” instead of “jumps” gives us a better idea of what he was trying to mean.
- Another instance in which the choice of words makes a big difference in meaning is when he uses the word “behold” instead of “see” or “look” or “glance”. To behold is to gaze for an extended period of time, and to observe in the process. This tells us that he doesn’t just take a look. He spends time observing the rainbow, appreciating its beauty. The time spent is also a representation of the enjoyment he has looking at a rainbow. For example, the time we spent on computers, or on our phones, is an indicator of how much we enjoy using our computers and phones. That is why many of us spend a lot of time on our phones, and very little time on studying. So, just from a single word, we have a better understanding of how he looks at rainbows, and how much time he spends observing and appreciating rainbows.
Just from analysing the first two lines, we have understood so much about the persona’s appreciation and love of rainbows.
If the poet had written everything literally, to encompass as much of the above information, it might look something like this:
It makes me very happy when I see
A rainbow in the sky.
A lot of the meaning is lost. We don’t know how long he spends looking at the rainbow, and in turn, that diminishes our understanding of how much he appreciates it. We know it makes him happy, but happy is such a generic word that it doesn’t give us an understanding of how it really makes him feel, or to what extent of happiness he feels, which in turn, diminishes our understand of how much joy and appreciation he has for rainbows.
Also, notice where a strong foundation in English comes in? We wouldn’t realise the significance of the word “behold” if we do not know what it means. Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll eternally do badly in Literature tests and exams because your grasp of the English language is poor. It just means during the year, every time you come across a new word, check the dictionary for its meaning. You can continually pick up new vocabulary through the year, the same way you can continually work on your grammar with grammar assessment books. (If you need help choosing one, feel free to contact me or connect with me via Facebook.)
In my last post, I talked about messages we can pick up from analysing such texts too. My question to you is this: when was the last time you made it a point to stop whatever you are doing to look out the window and appreciate a rainbow or a sunset? When was the last time you made it a point to put down your phone, or stop looking at a screen, to appreciate nature and everything you have around you? Does the realisation of how free these naturally-occuring bursts of beauty make you feel blessed?
How human do the above questions make you feel?
Reading this poem made me realised that I’ve been running around and working so much, that I have failed to appreciate nature on my own. I’m hardly different from a robot. I have a mini vegetable garden, right outside my HDB unit, but that’s about all the nature I appreciate, when I water them. It is my husband who actually reminds me everyday. With the Covid-19 situation, he has to work from home. Every evening, when the sun sets, he calls me over to the balcony, and we spend a few minutes just watching the colours change. It is very stress-relieving, and in time time of anxiety, it helps me to remember that not everything has gone to chaos, and that there is still a lot for us to appreciate.
The skill of analysing texts for hidden meanings can be used for more than just literature texts. We can use it as well when studying history. For example: Source-Based Questions (SBQ).
If we want to analyse what someone is saying to determine bias, we can pay attention to what is said, how it is said, and what information is deliberately left out. Let’s look at the following source as an example:
Under the Japanese, Singapore is enjoying peace and prosperity. No one has gone hungry ever since we chased the British away. Unlike the past when only the rich could go to school, now children from all social backgrounds can go to school. This is what we mean by Asia for the Asians.A Japanese officer talking to a newspaper reporter from Japan in 1943.
In analysing the source, using literary devices, we realise the following:
- “No one has gone hungry ever since we chased the British away.” This is a very bold claim that no country can lay claim to. Not even the richest. The choice of words, “No one” and “ever”, are very extreme in their meanings. Exaggeration is used to portray an ideal situation that makes the conqueror, Japan, look good. It helps them to support their “Asia for Asians” campaign. However, because it is used, it tells us that this source cannot be fully trusted, and should be taken with a pinch of salt.
- Diction: the choice of word “chased” implies that the British left with their tails between their legs i.e. frightened off. This is used likely to make the Japanese look good, having chased away the rodents or the bad guys. It makes them look like heroes. We can thus assume that this interview was for the purposes of propaganda, to get the citizens of their newly conquered territories to appreciate and support them.
- The use of juxtaposition to compare past and present is another method used to make themselves look like the heroes that the Asians needed. “Unlike the past when only the rich could go to school, now children from all social backgrounds can go to school.” The officer is juxtaposing the past with the present, showing the stark difference in quality of life and benefits of being under Japanese rule.
- Form: the entire source is crafted in a listing format. The Japanese officer is listing down every single change that has happened and the benefits enjoyed once Singapore became a truly Asian country, under Japanese rule. In doing so, he is putting across the idea that the Japanese have done so much for the people of Singapore, in order to create an Asia for Asians. It also becomes a list of praises, because the Japanese promised an Asia for Asians, and have clearly delivered on their promise.
What is the purpose of my analysing this history source using literary tools?
In doing so, I am showing you how the skills you learn for literature can be applied across the board, be it history, news reports, or even speeches made by public figures. In other words, you are not just learning skills to pass the next literature test or exam, you are learning skills that will be useful to you when studying history, as well as skills to recognise and keep fake news at bay. You aren’t just learning for the sake of one subject that you can forget about once you get to secondary 3. (if you don’t choose Literature as an ‘O’ level subject).
I hope this article, with its elaborations and examples, help you get a better understanding of what the difference between Literature and English is, what your goal is when analysing a literature text, and how you can analyse a text through the use of literary devices.
If you are unfamiliar with literary devices, do check out my post on literary devices. It comes with a downloadable PDF document with all the literary devices you should know. You can print it out, and have it by your side every time you have to analyse your literature text at home.