Introduction: what is literature?

1.4 Critical writing

Most of us have feelings and opinions about the texts we read. Some leave us cold; others affect us so powerfully that we want to grab people by the lapels, thrust the book at them and say "You must read this!" Throughout this course you will be learning how to develop these responses from opinions into arguments. In order to do so, you need to learn to read critically as well as for pleasure. The two are not mutually incompatible!

As a critical reader you will be looking not only at the plot of a novel or play or the subject of a poem, but also at the text's form; not only what is said but also how it is said.

Have a look at the term 'structure' in the Glossary of the critical idiom.

There is some disagreement about the distinction between form and content. Many critics and theorists suggest that the two cannot be distinguished from each other. In writing about form we have to write about content. Nonetheless, we can, and shall during this course, think about the structure and form of literary texts. Critical readers don't just tell each other the plot of a novel, or discuss whether they like the characters as people. Nor do they simply describe what a poem or play is about. What use to you would be a piece of writing about Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights which gave a synopsis of the plot, or told you that the reader wouldn't like to be a neighbour of Heathcliff's? Would you be interested in a piece about Hamlet which simply said that it was about a prince who believed that his father had been murdered? Or that it was a play about (among other things) procrastination, disorder and responsibility?

When we write about a literary text is it possible to write about that text and nothing else? That is, can we put a kind of 'frame' around the text so that we pay attention only to the words on the page? Why might we want to do so? Why might we not want to do so?

Individual activity: 'Putting a frame around the text'

Make some notes about your ideas in response to the questions above. Then click on the link below to see an example answer. Don't worry if you disagree – your opinion is valid!

Can we put a 'frame' around the text?

Putting a 'frame' around the text involves attempting to look at the words on the page and nothing outside them. In theory it means judging the text objectively as a work of art without any bias or prejudice coming from our ideas about the artist or the artist's life and times. It also means that all of the reader's information needs to come from the text, since he or she won't be consulting outside references. In practice, we very often do know things about the author of the text we are reading and about his or her life and times. It's impossible to 'unknow' these things. Also, quite often we need external resources to help us to understand or to get the most out of a text. Although we know that in a sense this kind of reading is impossible, we can make the most of the principles behind it. Reading without a great deal of attention to the artist's life story, or other extraneous factors, can help us to concentrate on the form and structure of a piece.

Many books apparently about the fiction and poetry of the Brontë sisters are more concerned with gaining our sympathy for the poor girls who lived in an isolated parsonage and died young, and with finding autobiographical echoes in the literary works, than they are with the qualities of the texts. A close reading of, for example, Wuthering Heights, however, will reveal that its structure contributes a great deal to its status as a literary classic.

In Wuthering Heights, Lockwood finds names scribbled on Cathy's sleeping-place. These prefigure her fate and depict the structure of the story. At her christening she became Catherine Earnshaw, and she should have become, and symbolically 'is' Catherine Heathcliff, because she and Heathcliff are soulmates, but she chooses to become Catherine Linton. In the person of Cathy's daughter this process is reversed. Catherine Linton becomes Catherine Heathcliff when she is forced to marry Linton Heathcliff, but finally reverts to her mother's original name, Catherine Earnshaw, when she marries Hareton. When the first Cathy returns to the Heights as a ghost-child, the name Lockwood hears is the name she had as a young married woman, Catherine Linton. Perhaps this suggests that the 'ghost' is not Cathy number one, but a projection of her imprisoned and repressed daughter, the second Catherine. Or could their identities be blurred, as time and space are blurred in other of the novel's dreams and hallucinations? Or is the body of the ghost the age she was at a time when she was happy, but the memories those of the age at which she died? Similarly, the first owner of Wuthering Heights, back in 1501, was Hareton Earnshaw, and by the end of the novel a Hareton Earnshaw owns Wuthering Heights again. Hindley abuses and brutalises Heathcliff; Heathcliff abuses and brutalises Hareton. There are patterns throughout this complex novel.

Optional activity: Emily Brontë

To read more about the author of Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, and her writing, go to an overview on the Victorian Web.