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How to analyse the language features of poems and novels

General rule: Think like a writer, as well as a reader, when analysing literary sources: a good poet or novelist will not only convey the story/idea/sentiment through what (s)he says – in other words, the content – but also through the way (s)he says it – in other words, the language features.

Things to think about and look for:

1. Lexicon/vocabulary: are there recurring words or types of words? Are there any reasons why an author might choose some words instead of others?

  • A poet might choose words for the way they sound (assonance), words with ‘s’, ‘f’, ‘r’ combinations for a smooth, calm sound or words with ‘k’, ‘t’, ‘q’, ‘x’ to create a harsh, jarring effect.
  • Writers often use lots of verbs of motion, when they want to create an effect of urgency or hurriedness
  • Character and place names are often symbolic: Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (John Updike); the Aurelianos and José Arcadios (García Márquez); Blanca, Alba, Nivea (Allende)

2. Syntax: pay attention to how authors use punctuation and sentence structure. They may be entirely regular, which helps to give the reader an easy reading experience, or they may be more unusual or complex in order to create some effect at different points in the poem or novel. Ask yourself why an author would do this?

  • absence of punctuation, especially regarding dialogue: Cormac McCarthy
  • Short, heavily punctuated sentences: Rabbit, Run
  • Long, flowing, often unpunctuated lines of free verse: Whitman
  • Very verbose passages alternating with simple, folk tale narration: García Márquez

3. Grammar: are sentences deliberately written with incorrect grammar? Remember these are accomplished writers! Also consider the effect of

  • Tenses: past, present, future, imperfect? Rabbit, Run, for instance, is almost entirely written in the present tense – what effect does this produce for the reader?
  • Poets often change rapidly and repeatedly between multiple tenses for rhetorical effect or to compliment the multiple perspectives they might take within a poem.

4. Perspective: Omniscient narrator in the third person? First person narrative? Multiple perspectives? Whose point of view does the writer present or make accessible to the reader at any one time?

5. Imagery: what associations does the writer make between events, people, things in the narrative or poem? Do any of these recur? Are strange comparisons made between things that one wouldn’t expect? Are there detailed or sparse descriptions of places, characters, objects?

  • colours are often symbolic: black/dark Vs white/light contrasts are frequently used. Hint: watch out for yellow and red things in One Hundred Years of Solitude (the colours need not be symbolic of something in and of themselves but can be used to connect together other images that are significant)
  • nature/landscape/geography: how is location – both small, like neighbourhoods, streets or houses, and large, like a nation or the world – described? What feelings does the writer make it inspire in the characters, in the readers?
  • Example: García Márquez and Updike both make very unusual, lengthy descriptions of ice in their novels. See if you can identify these passages about ice as you read the novels and notice the different techniques the authors use to describe something as everyday as ice in different and unusual ways. Think about the effects the authors are trying to create in the reader and why they might do this.