This page collects the principles for the study of fiction articulated in class throughout the semester. The principles are arranged conceptually, which means they do not always come in the order they have been given in class. The numbers are just meant to give a general sense of logical sequence.

This list is not exhaustive; it is a starting point. It does not explain all of the concepts for the literary analysis of prose fiction discussed in class. It is also by no means a comprehensive account of what literary studies is about, and some of what I have said could well be disputed.

This list is not for memorization. It is meant to remind you about the approach we are taking in the class and the skills we are practicing. The best use of these statements would be for you to connect them to specific examples of analysis carried out in class or in your own work. Learning to carry out analyses and to make interpretive arguments is the real work of the class; these “principles” are only a frame within which those analyses and arguments can happen. Without those specific arguments, supported by carefully analyzed evidence, these principles are just empty generalizations.

Last revised: April 23, 2018


0.1 Literature refers to some, but not all, cultural production in language. What counts as literature varies from time to time and place to place.

0.2 Here and now, fictional narrative in prose is the prototypical kind of literature. But this is not true everywhere, nor has it always been thus, and it may not be so in the future.

0.2.1 There is prose writing which is not literature. There is literary writing which is not prose.

0.2.2 There is prose literature which is not narrative. There is narrative literature which is not prose.

0.2.3 There is narrative prose which is not fiction. There is fictional narrative which is not prose.

Fundamentals of fictional narrative

1.1 A fiction is a made thing. It is produced, circulated, and used by people.

1.2 A fiction is always made out of one or more media and one or more genres.

1.2.1 The medium of fiction is prototypically language.

1.2.2 The language of fiction is realized in a physical medium. The choices of media vary from time to time and place to place. The bound and printed book (codex) is currently the prototypical physical medium for fiction in English, but it has not always been, and it may not be in the future.

1.2.3 The genres of fiction are many, and they vary from place to place and time to time. The prototypical fictional genres in literature in English in the last 200 years are prose narrative genres like novel and short story. Genre plays a role in every instance of the production and use of fictions. Genres always have formal, thematic, and rhetorical dimensions.

1.3 A narrative fiction is also made out of the components of narrative: modes of narration, plots, characters, narrators, narratees, chronologies, settings, points of view, and so on. These components are realized in, and constrained by, the characteristics of genre and medium.

1.4 A narrative’s materials exist in or across three layers: fabula, sjužet, and text.

1.5 A text (any text) may be meaningfully related to any other text in the cultural surround of writer or reader. In the case of narrative, the three layers configure this relation.

1.5.1 A text may relate to its intertexts through explicit citation, intentional allusion, echo, plagiarism, unintentional borrowing, other mediating texts—or through other means. Each intertextual relation implies some kind of interpretation of the intertext, but the nature of each intertextual relation is a matter for investigation.

1.6 Every text is in process: it is not a fixed thing once and for all but multiply realized in forms like manuscripts, editions, bootlegs, and remixes. The relation between realizations is a matter for investigation. Scholars do not agree on whether some realizations are more privileged than others, but such debates depend, in part, on controversies over authorship and authority.

1.7 A narrative can be an adaptation of an earlier one, if one or more of the three layers of the later narrative are derived from the earlier. In that case, the earlier narrative is the source. Adaptations may cross genres and media.

1.7.1 An adaptation both recirculates and interprets its source using the resources of its medium. For literary studies, an adaptation may provide evidence about meanings present (or missing) in the source, but only once the differences (similarities) between source and adaptation are accounted for.

1.7.2 As with textual revisions, so with adaptations: scholars do not agree on whether sources are more privileged than adaptations, on what constitutes “faithful” adaptation, or on whether “faithful” adaptations are more privileged than others, but such debates depend on controversies over where the meanings of texts are situated.

1.8 For literary studies, the style of a text is a crucial dimension of its meaning; style is not separable from “content.” The way a text uses the linguistic medium—the way words are arranged and convey meaning—bears both on its generic status and on its specific significance.

1.8.1 The sources of style are many and layered: style may be analyzed as characteristic of a single speaker within a text, of a single text as a whole, of an author (who may have a signature style), of a genre (the formal characteristics of a genre may include a certain kind of style, in which case we speak of linguistic register), of a literary movement, of a social group, or of a historical era.

1.8.2 An analysis of style requires careful attention, at a minimum, to syntax and to diction, sentence by sentence: literary studies considers grammar and lexicon as resources used by texts.

1.8.3 Style also encompasses patterns in the pragmatic effects by which a text conveys meanings not explicitly stated at sentence level. Some of these effects are described as rhetorical figures (metaphor, irony, understatement, hyperbole); others have no widely used names but may be analyzed in context as a relationship between sentence meaning and discourse meaning.

Arguments in literary studies

2.1 To be convincing in literary studies, interpretations and explanations of cultural texts must be in terms of the components the texts are made out of.

2.1.1 An argument about meaning or significance in a narrative fiction is founded on an account of the way that fiction is made out of media, genres, and narrative components.

2.2 In literary studies, discussions of fictions are obliged to recognize their fictionality.

2.2.1 The mode of referentiality of fiction, as well as the truth of fiction, is a matter for investigation.

2.2.2 As a convention for marking fictionality, story events are referred to in the present tense, not the past.

2.3 In literary studies, claims about texts are subject to verification at the source.

2.3.1 To lay claim to verifiability, you must cite accurately and responsibly, and you must explain how the cited evidence supports your claims.

2.4 The language of written argument is a Standard dialect (American or British). Violations are possible, but they are violations.

2.5 Literary studies makes use of theories that attempt to explain the foundations of the interpretive arguments about texts that constitute the bulk of literary scholarship.

2.5.1 Theories are not so much applied as they are appropriated: their terms are put to work in new contexts, or their claims are used to raise new problems or questions. In literary studies, texts talk back to theories.

2.6 Literary studies pays attention to the way scholars analyze their material (“the way they read”).

2.7 Secondary sources often serve to point out cruxes in primary sources: problematic moments in or aspects of texts for interpretation.

2.8 Secondary sources are most often directly discussed in terms of the generalizing arguments they make.

2.9 In literary studies, an argument relates to other arguments as contributions to a scholarly conversation.

2.9.1 The scholarly conversation, like ordinary conversation, is regulated by a norm of relevance. Because it is a slow-motion, written conversation, scholarly arguments normally make their relevance to the conversation explicit by indicating agreements, disagreements, debts, allies, and adversaries.

Components of narration

3.1 The text of a fictional narrative is understood to be uttered by a narrator. The narrator is not identical with the author.

3.2 In fiction, discourse may reflect the perceptions or the idioms of one or more characters, persons, or groups.

3.3 Any speaker or narrator may embed representations of the discourse of others.

3.4 It is the task of the hearer or reader to infer the attitudes and implications conveyed by a speaker’s representations, making use of internal and contextual cues.

3.5 In narrative, the possibility of irony is ever-present, and detecting it depends on interpreting not just individual sentences but whole discursive contexts.

3.6 When an embedded text is a narrative, it is to be analyzed both in its own terms and in relation to the primary narrative. This relation depends on, among other things, the relation between the primary fabula and the embedded fabula.

3.7 In a narrative, who narrates and who perceives may be distinct. In fiction, the independent choice of narrator and focalizer is one of the basic materials.

3.7.1 Just as a narrator may be external or internal to the fabula, so too may the focalizer be external (EF) or character-bound (CF).

3.8 Fiction’s linguistic resources for representing thought are, for the most part, the same as those for representing discourse.

3.8.1 Fiction cannot transcribe thought; it can only adopt conventions for representing or imitating it. The interpreter must then ask how those conventions work.

3.8.2 Stream of consciousness is free indirect discourse on steroids.

Fictional character

4.1 The status of characters as types, symbols, individuals, group representatives, minds, or textual effects, is a matter for investigation.

4.2 Our cognitive capacity to mentally represent the beliefs, intentions, and feelings of others (called theory of mind or metarepresentation by cognitive scientists) is the stuff of character.

4.3 To understand how character works in a fiction, one must analyze how the character is produced by specific aspects of the materials of the fiction (medium, genre, discourse, sjužet, fabula).

4.4 In the shaping of a narrative fiction, not all characters are equal. The character-system, or distribution of narrative attention, makes some characters major and some minor. The character-system is also part of fiction’s materials.

Fiction and society

5.1 Fictions are also made out of social conventions: they both use and represent them. More generally, the meanings of fictions are social through and through.

5.2 The most surprising and meaningful engagements with social convention often happen when those conventions are just made visible but do not rise to narrative centrality.

5.2.1 One way (not the only way) to discover the social bearings of a text is to read for the traces of what has been excluded.

5.3 Oppositions in fiction, which may occur at many levels of theme and form, may often be related to social oppositions.

5.3.1 The relation between fictional oppositions and social ones is a matter for investigation. Social contradictions, as with other materials of fiction, are transformed: they may be revealed, distorted, simplified, complicated, resolved, or otherwise remade by the devices of narrative.

5.3.2 Endings are to be interpreted in the context of an expectation that they will resolve fundamental oppositions, though they often don’t, or do so misleadingly. Endings, like beginnings, are important but not determinative.

5.4 In fiction, realism is a literary mode, used in a variegated family of fictional (especially novelistic) genres. It has been the novelistic norm since about 1750.

5.4.1 Realism’s conventions include: few or no improbable events, no supernatural interventions, “ordinary” (prototypically, middle-class) rather than heroic or noble protagonists, the possibility of seriousness alongside comedy, and denotative reference to particularized details of everyday life rather than allegorical reference.

5.4.2 None of these characteristics are necessary or sufficient conditions for realism, which is a loose, historical category.

When the bar on the supernatural is lifted but the other principal features of realism are conserved, especially in relation to postcolonial literatures incorporating indigenous or folk traditions, we speak of the marvelous real or magical realism.

Fiction and history

6.1 Fiction’s relationship to time, and hence to history, is mediated through the three layers of narrative.

6.1.1 Fiction redistributes readers’ experience of time. One important device for redistribution is the manipulation of rhythm, the relation between story-time and fabula-time.

6.1.2 Fabula events may be narrated more than once. The frequency results from the configuration of the sjužet.

6.2 Fiction participates in the construction of history—with its own conventions.

6.2.1 Whether and how fictions can be said to tell historical truths is a matter for investigation into every component, and every convention, of each fiction.

6.2.2 Fictions transform historical source texts according to implicit interpretations.

6.3 Narrative fiction has a distinctive history of its own, part of the history of literature, of the arts, or of culture.

6.3.1 The history of artistic forms and styles is part (not all) of this history.

6.3.2 Literary history is in the shadow of social and political history. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century set the terms of these problems for us, because the idea of art’s autonomy became a central preoccupation of writers and artists seeking to make a mark.

6.4 In literary studies, the central historiographical concept is that of the period: debates about the relations between literature and history are shaped by period designations, and periods are major subjects of interpretation.

6.5 The historical horizons of any text include the time of composition, the time of setting, and all the times of circulation and reception.

6.6 Within and across periods, literary history compares texts, tracing affinities and divergences. Such comparisons are where arguments begin, not where they end.

6.6.1 Resemblances between texts may be explained as arising from influence of the earlier on the later (conscious or not), or from homology (shared causes), or by coincidence; evidence for these explanations can be both internal to texts and external to them.

6.6.2 Divergences from texts may also be evidence of influence, homology, or coincidence: affiliation can result in differentiation, not only resemblance. Thus, all comparison must be comparison with a context.