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About this book

How to Begin Studying English Literature has established itself as one of the most successful and popular introductory student guides in the field. This fourth edition has been fully revised and expanded throughout, and now includes more examples and commentary on texts as well as a third essay-writing chapter, tackling critics and context.

This book shows the reader how to approach novels, plays and poems, featuring chapters on themes, characters, structure, style, irony and analysis. In addition, sections on revision, exams and further development of study skills make this book an invaluable companion for anyone beginning to study English literature.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Finding a theme

Abstract
THE first problem every student of literature faces is a feeling of blankness. I have read the text, now I am supposed to study it: how do I start? Teachers and critics sometimes make this stage more difficult by pretending that literature is a special subject which only experts can understand. Nothing could be more misleading. Great writers and poets write because they want to communicate with ordinary readers like you and me: they do not write for experts. They are not writing on a specialised subject, either. Literature is about the same things you and I are concerned with: life and living. Be confident, therefore. Every student finds the first step in studying literature difficult, but there is nothing mysterious or specialised about it. The difficulty you face at the beginning is simply one of choosing what to focus on out of the rich mass of details, characters, events and so on, which you have met in reading the text. You are faced with the intricate complexity of a literary work: as soon as you can decide what to study first, and where to start, you can make a start.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 2. Looking at characters

Abstract
WHEN you read a novel or play for the first time, you are likely to be struck by the story, and also by the characters. The characters are the people in a text; they are part of the ordinary life that you meet as you read. You might dislike, admire or sympathise with them, but whatever they do or say or feel, they account for a large part of your first unstudied response. I shall therefore use characters as our next starting point in studying literature.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 3. Structure and setting

Abstract
STRUCTURE is shape. Writers give shape to the texts they produce by fitting characters, places and events into a story which is satisfying and complete. Life itself has no shape: it does not focus on important subjects, but is bitty, cluttered and messy. We could not read about real life because it is so cluttered up and never gets anywhere definite. A literary text, on the other hand, has to be satisfying, complete in itself, and have a clear strong shape. So the author creates an imagined world which has a beginning and an end; important crises bring about important changes, making people and ideas develop. In literature, problems are resolved and a conclusion, an ‘end’, is reached.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 4. Style and imagery

Abstract
THE style of a text is the way it is written, the language it uses. Studying style enriches your understanding of the text because the style creates the meaning. A short example will show what I mean. Here are two passages which tell the same story:
1.
Henderson came in and looked eagerly at his plate. He breathed in a great draught of air. ‘Ah, fried egg again! How attractive it looks on a dull morning!’
 
2.
Henderson came in and looked at the plate. The egg looked up at him like a malignant, bloodshot eye. He sighed. ‘Ah, fried egg again,’ he said flatly. ‘How attractive it looks on a dull morning!’
 
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 5. Irony

Abstract
LITERATURE is complex. This means that you cannot take a single view of it. In literature as in real life there are always two or more sides to a question because the complexity of different elements makes up reality. When you read factual writing you expect it to tell you one kind of truth or to express one point of view. Literature is different: it presents the complex nature of reality. So, for example, you cannot say that the painful side of love in Wuthering Heights (see Chapter 1) is ‘wrong’ because it is a real part of the world of the text, just as real as the affection and attraction which are also part of love in the text. When you study literature, then, you have to accept the complex nature of reality and understand two or more sides to every experience. The earlier chapters of this book have shown how to find and define the complexity of a text; this chapter is about the effect of this complexity, which is called irony.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 6. Writing an essay I: Answering the question

Abstract
THE aim of studying literature is to gain an understanding of your texts, of how and why they were written, but the practical question of how to write in the examination so that you do justice to your understanding and pass with a good grade is an important problem for most students. Although several different forms of examination are set for literature, your main task in any of them will be writing essays, so these three chapters focus on how to write essays about the texts you have studied. You will probably be asked to write essays both as part of your course and in the examination at the end. I will be discussing what to do in the examination, but the essays you write at home are much the same, you just have more time to write them. The advice I give, though based on examinations, applies to all the essays you write.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 7. Writing an essay II: How to write paragraphs

Abstract
THIS chapter is about how to write the main part of your essay, that is, the paragraphs which are about the text and which come in between the introductory paragraph and the conclusion. When you study literature you develop a complex response to the complex world of the text. Your feelings are enlisted as you read, so you have a personal relationship with the text. A personal relationship is not a matter of ‘facts’, because feelings and experiences cannot be measured or counted. It follows that there is no single ‘right’ answer to a literature question. Your views on the text are not ticked and crossed like your answers in mathematics. Instead of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, different adjectives describe good and bad literature essays: they are ‘reasonable’, ‘convincing’ and ‘persuasive’, or they are ‘ridiculous’, ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unsupported’. Your task when you write an essay is to be reasonable, convincing and persuasive in explaining your point of view. You hope the examiner will be convinced that your views are reasonable, so your ideas have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 8. Writing an essay III: The critics and the context

Abstract
IN this chapter we will look at how to incorporate different critical interpretations, and the historical and cultural context, into your essays.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 9. Exam revision and practice

Abstract
THERE are many different sorts of examinations in Literature, but they have a great deal in common. Whichever particular kind you have to face, the advice in this short chapter should help you. The first part focuses on revision: the kind of knowledge to take with you into a literature examination, and the best way of putting it into your head. The second part concentrates on the writing you do in the examination. As in the previous two chapters, I assume that the most common form of examination writing is the essay, and suggest planned ways of practising so you are ready for the examination.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle

Chapter 10. Taking study further

Abstract
THIS book has given you a method to rely on when you start to study a literary text. I began at the point where every student faces a feeling of blankness: ‘I have read the text, now I am supposed to study it: how do I start?’ (see p. 1), and the book sets out to answer that question. The method I have explained takes you far beyond the initial feeling of blankness, but literature study is never ‘finished’, so there will always be more to discover, and new ways of looking at the text. As you study, the initial approach will become quick and easy, and your mind will naturally seek to explore further. The following discussions indicate three ways in which growing experience and your own mind will push you to take your study further.
Nicholas Marsh, John Peck, Martin Coyle
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