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Evaluating Structure, Aesthetics & Significance of Texts

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Three important elements in evaluating literary texts are structure, aesthetics, and significance. This lesson will use two classic texts to show you how to evaluate these elements.

Understanding the Task

Perhaps you have been assigned to evaluate a novel for a school assignment. You're told to evaluate the text in three distinct ways, but you're not certain how. This lesson will use two novels, A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, to help you understand those methods of evaluation: structure, aesthetics, and significance.

The Terms

You have an idea of what structure means in everyday conversation: the way something is put together or built, like a house, a bookcase, or a car engine. This is basically how the term is used in literature, too. How is the story put together? In what order does the reader find out about the characters and events? Perhaps the story is told straight through in chronological order. Or there might be flashbacks (or even flash forwards) that complicate the structure. A novel could be told in two or more parts, or divided into chapters. All of this is important to note in evaluating structure.

Next, we look at aesthetics. This word may be new to you, but it is easy to explain. Aesthetics refers to the way a work of art expresses beauty or pleasure. In other words, what makes it enjoyable to look at or to read? In literature, the answer to this question usually has something to do with style, or how the author uses words, phrases, and sentences to tell the story and speak to the reader.

Finally, we will look at the significance of each text. What makes this story or novel particularly useful, important, or outstanding? It might be something about the author, or the time period and place of the setting, or some other element that makes this book worth talking about and remembering.

Brief Plot Summaries

You do not need to read both the novels we are discussing in order to use this lesson to help you understand the three terms in question. A Study in Scarlet is a novel that follows the famous detective character Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson as they solve a crime committed in London. In order to solve the crime, the two men accumulate many clues and a wealth of background information, including events that happened surrounding the Mormon community long before the actual murder took place.

A Study in Scarlet
Sherlock Holmes

Mrs. Dalloway is the story of two characters who never actually meet: Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. The story takes place in a single day in June just after World War One. Clarissa is planning a party for that evening, and Septimus is spending the day with his young wife. Both protagonists interact with other characters during the course of their day and share their thoughts with the reader. Septimus, suffering from shell shock (what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), has hallucinations and other problems after serving in the war.

For Clarissa, her evening party brings up nostalgic memories. She learns of the suicide of a former soldier (Septimus) during the party, but instead of dampening the mood, this news makes her feel more alive and connected than before.

Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway

Examples of How Terms Apply

Structure

The detective novel is structured in two parts. Both sections are told chronologically, but the second part is an extended flashback to two decades before. In the first part, the reader follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to solve a local London murder without revealing anything about the previous events in America that actually lead up to the crime. This deliberate structuring on the part of the author forces the reader to try to solve the crime with limited information until the back story becomes available later.

Mrs. Dalloway has a completely different type of structure. The narrative moves from character to character throughout a single day, detailing thoughts and events from that character's point of view. There are flashbacks to the pasts of both protagonists, so that the reader has more understanding of events happening on that single day in June.

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