PART 4 LITERARY CRITICISM: FOCUSING ON THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE
What stand out as the elements of style from the preceding discussion would be: use of language---verbal and orthographic; use of figures and images; and use of symbols.
1. Language. As far as language is concerned, that of prose varies from that of poetry. What is common between them, however, is that both have particular rhythms and degrees of concentration.
Poetic language is concise and highly “charged” in that it aims to be hard in imagery. Prose tends to specify qualifications in terms of modifiers sometimes at the expense of conciseness. Poetic language is calculated to directly affect the emotion, while prose’s appeal is ultimately to the intellect. Of course, poetry’s ultimate appeal, too, is to the intellect.
Verbal energies of the language refer to the significance ordinarily attached to the sound of the letters as they become components of words. The phonemes in any language assume meaning from the manner they are inflected to the duration of their phonation. For instance, the short o (as in pop) is not half as successful in expressing a depressed as the long o sound in “moan”. It also refers to the language’s use of the organized sounds in the word components (e.g., alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, and consonance), rhyme, and rhythm. Rhyme is normally absent in prose but may be used as a sound device and as a unifying element in poetry. Rhythm in prose is most useful in the objectification of thought and feeling. For instance, short sentences that provide the staccato effect may exude the idea or mood of something businesslike, brisk, and uncaring. Hemingway is known to be fond of these bare, bald, fast rhythms which have a way of unmistakably expressing the “grace under pressure” of many of his alienated characters like those of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”
The orthographic energies of language extend from the significance achieved through the visual appearance of the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire sections of composition on the page to the use of mechanical language devices like the punctuations (See Sensory-Impressionistic Level of Analysis in previous discussion of the concept of analysis in literary appreciation.)
2. Figures (of language, speech, and thought) make up the images. They are largely responsible for concretizing an otherwise abstract experience. The more vivid these are, the easier for the appreciator to visualize and appreciate the experience being conveyed.
Symbols in terms of situations or ideas are also useful in the objectification of an experience. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the description of Montresor’s family seal is one such symbol. It shows a snake whose head is being crushed by a heel but, at the same time, the snake has succeeded in embedding its fangs into the heel. This is an eloquent expression of the Montresor motto: Nemo me impune lacessit. (No one hurts me with impunity. This helps characterize Montresor as one who would not take an insult lying down. This further explains Montresor’s motivation of murdering Fortunato at the catacombs.) 1
3. Vision of the Artist. As far as the other aspect of style is concerned, the selection of concretizing elements depends largely on the vision of the artist. One who has a narrow view of the human condition is ordinarily inferior to one whose vision is prodigious; one who has a meagre stock of experiences would find himself less successful than one who has a vast store of primary and/or vicarious experiences.
In poetry, these objectifying details are the images used. In fiction, these are: Subject Matter; Plot; Characters; and Setting. The experience with which the short story writer, dramatist, or novelist might want to convey normally begins in his mind as a “theme” or a germ of an idea, or a feeling, or an attitude. This theme determines the subject matter which may either be a universal human experience or a particular one. The human experiences may be something familiar or esoteric depending on the theme being objectified. The subject matter is the first device which the fictionist uses in order to concretize or objectify his otherwise abstract theme (the root of his aesthetic experience, a realization which he would like to convey to his audience).
The subject matter determines the plot or the series of action that would make the subject matter believable and virtually “real.” The plot may consist of an exposition (the history or background of the first action done in the present context of the story), the initial or inciting action (which causes the complication of the action in that it breeds a series of character interaction or what is also known as the rising of the action or complication or conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. animal, man vs. God, man vs. himself, etc.), the turning point (that action in the story which promises a change in the current of the plot or in a major character), the climax (the result of what was started, complicated, and promised in the turning point --- what is sometimes called the epiphany or the discovery. There is a definite conclusion which results in either the change of situation or character from the actions which have been coagulated), and finally, the resolution or denouement which shows the effect of the climax on the characters or on the action of the story. 2
The plot usually determines the types of characters who would act out the activities in the series of actions. These characters should be capable, by their nature, of accomplishing the actions assigned (by the author) to them in the plot. All their actions should thereafter be consistent to their natures in order to make them believable. The more believable the characters are, the more believable should the plot also be.
Since all these actions will have to take place somewhere --- they cannot happen in a vacuum --- they will have to take place in a definite locale described by the author. The setting must be such that the actions can happen there convincingly. It must also help advance the plot by making the occurrences happen believably in point of place and time.
In the selection of these details, the artist must be guided by the following rules so that these materials may achieve the purpose of fiction which is to create a verisimilitude or a believable reality out of the virtual reality reflected or objectified in the objective form (the short story, drama, or novel in this case);
In order to make the story convincing, the artist must make sure that:
A. The Subject Matter:
1. fulfills the demands of the theme for objectification;
2. is adequately familiar as an experience;
3. is convincing or believable;
4. is the principal device for creating the virtual reality into a verisimilitude.
B. The Plot:
1. fulfills the demands of the subject matter by putting a figure on the experience used;
2. consists of actions that flow naturally from the characters’ peculiar make-up, type, or personality;
3. is believable or convincing according to the logic of the experience in the subject matter;
4. contributes to the creation of a verisimilitude; and
5. contributes to the objectification of the theme.
C. The Characters:
1. All the above except No. 2;
2. must advance the actions by what they do. They are responsible for the flow of the action. It is their decision and efforts which cause the action. Actions must proceed out of their nature.
D. The Setting:
1. All the above.
2. must help advance the action; i.e., the actions can happen ordinarily in such a setting;
3. must be consistent to the demands of the subject matter, plot, and characters; i.e., they contribute to the occurrence of believable action.
Summarizing the elements of style, they may be restated in the following organization:
A. Diction: formal, informal, neutral; dialogue lines
B. Symbols: Images, Conventionalized symbols
C. Linguistic Devices: Literary (denotations, connotations, figures); Verbal (phonemes, organized sounds – alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance), Rhyme (couplet, tercet, quatrain, quintet or quintain, sestet, septet, octet or octave, etc., masculine, feminine, full or half rhyme) Rhythm (Foot: iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, phyrric, amphibrach; Metre: mono, di, tri, tetra,penta, hexa, hepta, octa, nona, deca metre)
D. Selected Details: (Fiction) subject matter, plot, characters, setting; (Poetry) Central image or primary structure, minor structures or images.
1 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado,” Introduction to Literature: Stories. Altenbernd & Lewis (Eds), MacMillan co., USA, 1969. Page 3.
2 Ibid. See Altenbernd & Lewis, Introduction to Literature: Stories for a discussion of the elements of fiction.
Next: Part 5 Literary Criticism: Criticizing Technique (What is Technique? Elements of Technique).
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