Previously, I wrote a post on how to analyse unseen poetry, which is a mandatory component in almost all English Literature exams (so make sure you check that out if you haven’t already).
Likewise, prose analysis is often examined, and contrary to what a lot of students believe, the skills required for close reading prose aren’t all that different from those for analysing verse.
Of course, there are elements such as narrative, characterisation and dialogue which tend to be more prominent in prose than in verse, while devices like metre, rhyme and rhythm lend themselves more naturally to poetic expression.
Whereas most poems on exam papers don’t contain a strong narrative (they have to be short given time limitations), and ergo won’t allow for the full development of characters or plot, prose excerpts aren’t subject to the prosodic constraints of distilled language or prescribed structure, which means we get a much better range of insight into characters or environments through descriptions of their internal and external traits.
That’s not to say, of course, that we don’t ever find narrative, characterisation, or even dialogue in poems (think John Milton’s 12-book epic Paradise Lost), or metre, rhyme and rhythm in prose (try any Nabokov novel). But in most exam-based situations, we’re likely to be given more conventional prose or poetry excerpts, i.e. prose that looks like prose, or poetry that works like poetry.
When approaching prose, then, it’s certainly helpful to focus on those exclusively prose-like aspects of a text, i.e. point of view, narration, dialogue, characterisation, setting etc., but ultimately, the goal of any close reading exercise is to find and unpack tension in a passage, and to glean meaning from this tension, whether from language, narrative or structure.
In general, here are some useful guiding questions to consider when approaching a prose excerpt:
Point of view and focalisation
- Who is speaking, and is it in first-person (‘I’) or third-person (‘s/he’, ‘they’)?
- Is the narrator ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ the diegetic action? Is s/he omniscient, or just a third-party observer?
- What is the extent of the narrator’s knowledge about the characters and situation? Does s/he know the thoughts and feelings of only one character, or of all characters?
- Is the narrator reliable?
- How does the passage begin and end?
- Where is the point of tension in the passage?
- What sort of transformation (in character or theme) does the passage convey?
- Appearance – what does the character look like? Does the author draw our attention to any specific physical traits?
- Action – how does the character behave? Is s/he calm or rash, optimistic or pessimistic, doubtful or trusting – or simply, ambivalent?
- Speech – how does the character speak in terms of tone, style and manner?
- Thoughts – what does the character’s internal world look like? Do his/her thoughts match his/her actions?
Ultimately, characterisation is about understanding a character’s personality, and in many cases, his/her symbolic significance.
- What is the location in which the passage is set? Is it domestic or outdoors, rural or urban, local or exotic?
- What is the atmosphere conveyed?
- What is the weather like? (Weather is usually symbolic or foreboding)
- Does the setting ever change throughout the passage?
That said, a lot of elements we’d touch on in poetry analysis (style, language, mood etc) are also applicable to prose analysis, so ultimately it comes down to looking at which aspects best serve your argument about a given passage.
So, in this post, I’ll demonstrate how we can analyse prose by close reading the opening of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, with respective focus on the use of imagery and juxtaposition, as well as characterisation and setting in these excerpts.
(There are also videos of me analysing the passages below)
Analysing prose through imagery and juxtaposition – reading the opening of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: “an ash pile made by many fires”
The opening of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is quiet, but packed with symbolic foreshadowing that hints at many of the key themes in the novel.
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees— willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spreadpads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
We often speak of identifying tension in literary analysis, and at the start of this book, tension is relayed through the various layers of opposition between land and water, high and low, vibrance and dullness, animals and humans, tranquility and danger.
For its seeming lack of explicit action, this opening is bulging with symbolic energy.
Specifically, two sets of juxtaposing motifs stand out for comment:
- References to bodies of water (“the Salinas River”, “the water is warm…”, “the narrow pool”, “the deep pool… jungle-up near water”) are interwoven with references to trees – especially the sycamore (“but on the valley side the water is lined with trees – willows fresh and green with every spring… and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches…”)
- References to animal activity (“lizard makes a great skittering…”, “rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand…”, “…the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches,… deer that come to drink in the dark”) are followed by references to human activity (“… boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water”)
By giving us a macro landscape of water and land, animal and man, Steinbeck creates an atmospheric gestalt which, at first read, conveys the potential for harmony among disparate natural elements.
A closer look, however, reveals hints of threat, conflict and destruction. Despite the prominence of the idyllic ‘pool’, there’s mention of “the debris of the winter’s flooding”, which invites us to look beyond appearances and see that this isn’t really an Edenic, tranquil place removed from catastrophic reach.
The imagery of “mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool” also carries a whiff of morbidity, as if these tree parts were an implied metaphor for the limbs and torsos of dead bodies resulting from the flood. Death and the harsh reality of nature, then, are suggested to be motifs which will recur later on in the novel (especially as they relate to Lennie Small’s fate).
Another interesting point to note about this passage is the appearance of animals before that of man: we see the lizard, rabbits, racoons, dogs and deer going about comfortably in their habitat, even though a clear prey-versus-predator dynamic underlies the relationship among this select group of creatures.
Soon after, the narrator introduces the boys and tramps, who enter the animals’ orbit as inadvertent intruders in the natural order: swimming, traversing, making fire – attempting to carve out a place for themselves in a space where they aren’t natives.
And this notion of making something of oneself in a place away from home is, of course, the driving action of George and Lennie in the plot, as these itinerants drift from one ranch to another in search of a better life and of the proverbial ‘American Dream’ (note, too, that throughout the novel Lennie is obsessed with the idea of “tending to rabbits” on their dream ranch).
Yet as early on as this moment, Steinbeck expresses a deterministic pessimism towards George and Lennie’s fruitless pursuit. We can infer this from two points: first, there’s the spatial division of the ‘high’ of the Gabilan Mountains” versus the ‘low’ of “the valley side… lined with trees”; second, there’s the symbolism of “an ash pile made by many fires”.
The implication, then, is that just as there are those in life endowed with the potential and opportunities to scale great heights and gain success, so there are always the less fortunate ones who must watch from below regardless of their efforts, circumstanced to camouflage themselves on the sidelines as one of the nondescript many, like a leaf in a numberless line of trees.
Finally, the juxtaposition of the sycamore and ash pile in the description “in front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires” undercuts the prospect of hope and protection (as symbolised by the sycamore) with the connotation of toil and tribulation, of hope exhausted and bodies sacrificed (as implied by the ash and fire imagery).
These elements combined foreshadow a hard, unforgiving fate that awaits the protagonists, which, of course, reaches its dramatic apex at the end of the novel when George is forced by the knowledge of a cold, harsh existence to shoot Lennie – ironically, as the most merciful way of delivering his best friend and companion from constant suffering and misery.
Analysing prose through characterisation and setting – reading the opening of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: “all round him the long scar smashed into the jungle”
Here are the opening lines from Lord of the Flies:
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.
“Hi!” it said. “Wait a minute!” The undergrowth at the side of the scar was shaken and a multitude of raindrops fell pattering.
“Wait a minute,” the voice said. “I got caught up.”
The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.
The voice spoke again.
“I can’t hardly move with all these creeper things.”
The owner of the voice came backing out of the undergrowth so that twigs scratched on a greasy wind-breaker. The naked crooks of his knees were plump, caught and scratched by thorns. He bent down, removed the thorns carefully, and turned around. He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgments for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles.
Unlike Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies begins with a sharp focus on its main characters.
Its first words are “The boy with fair hair”, which we’ll go on to know as Ralph, the legitimate leader of the island. We know, then, that characterisation is going to be central to our interpretation of the passage or novel.
What’s striking, though, is Golding’s decision to temporarily withhold information about the characters’ names at the start. The two boys portrayed here are referred to respectively as “the boy with fair hair”, and “it” or “the owner of the voice”. This strategy forces us to develop an organic impression of these characters based on clues about their appearances and actions.
In the chaos and confusion of what seems like a castaway scenario, the boys lose their momentary identity (via the absence of names) as unique individuals. Hence the abundance of kinaesthetic imagery here (the boy with fair hair: “lowered himself down”, “pick his way toward the lagoon”, “had taken off his school sweater”, “clambering heavily”; “the owner of the voice”: “came backing out of the undergrowth”, “bent down, removed the thorns… turned around”, “came forward, searching out safe lodgments… looked up…”), as the emphasis on movement mirrors the boys’ struggle to make sense of their surroundings through active navigation, and to reestablish an awareness of existence after a traumatic event.
Worth noting, too, is the first reference to the “shorter”, “very fat” boy as “it”, then “the voice” and “the owner of the voice”. While the “it” pronoun – normally reserved for animals or objects – dehumanises the fat boy, the possessive case in “the owner of the voice” and the oracle-esque moniker of “the voice” ascribe a level of authority to this otherwise seemingly inferior character.
Immediately, we see the implied hierarchy and synergy between these two characters – the fair-haired boy is clearly the physically fit, self-assured leader, while the fat boy is compelled to play catch up as the awkward, bumbling follower, but is also someone who possesses an advanced faculty (speech, and thus intelligence) which will prove valuable as the plot unfolds.
Another important aspect to comment on in this passage is how Golding creates atmosphere.
From the descriptions of the fair-haired boy’s “grey shirt [being] stuck to him and his hair… plastered to his forehead”, we can infer that they are marooned in a hot, tropical environment. This knowledge is then confirmed by the reference to “All around him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat”.
The presence of a vibrant-coloured bird – “a vision of red and yellow” – also implies that the boys are nowhere near home, which would of course be Great Britain, where the climate is considerably colder and the ornithological species are much less exotic.
But beyond the heat, which in itself carries suggestions of discomfort, pain or in more extreme cases – hellishness, there are other ominous signs that deserve attention.
Why, for instance, is there a “long scar”?
Apart from this being a remnant of the plane crash (which has resulted in the boys’ strandedness), the symbolic associations of a scar serve to mind flawedness, imperfection, violence etc., all of which are harbingers of the evil and brutality in human nature that will be unleashed on this island.
This sense of something being amiss is also reinforced by the “shaken… undergrowth at the side of the scar”, as if there’s a subterranean domain rattling beneath (and the most familiar example of such a realm would be hell).
Adding to this unsettling impression are descriptions of “creepers”, “broken trunks” and the bird’s “witch-like cry… echoed by another”: “creepers” are a kiddy way of describing intricate branches, but the fact that they are ‘creepy’ certainly contributes to the eeriness of the setting.
The “broken trunks” hint at the macabre possibility of what could have happened to the boys had they not survived the crash (as broken trunks could be understood as a euphemism for decapitated bodies), while the “witch-like” nature of the birds’ cry complete the characterisation of this island as a haunting, disturbing environment.
Not even the wry humour in the allusion to “the Home Counties” (a loose term for counties bordering London) in “The fair boy… jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties” can diminish this overcast sense of doom – or in fact, it compounds the nostalgia and longing for civilisation that the fair-haired boy will soon feel, as barbarism eventually reigns supreme on the island.