This literature lesson will teach you the difference between prose and other writing. You'll also learn how to analyze characters and foreshadowing to better understand the author's intentions, theme, and underlying meanings.
When first graders finish reading a story, their teacher asks them to name the basic story elements: setting, characters, conflict, and resolution. As readers grow more sophisticated, they are asked to assign meaning to these elements to gain a deeper understanding of the author's intentions or the underlying messages that are being conveyed.
From the first baby steps into reading to getting lost in a novel on a beach, we interpret what we read by thinking about its themes and what the characters represent. When we describe a book to a friend, we don't just say what happens, but what it's about: 'It's a love story,' we say. Or, 'It's about dealing with death.' This is what analyzing and interpreting prose is all about.
What Is Prose?
Officially, prose encompasses any writing without a metered structure, but we often think of prose as writing that mirrors common speech, from novels to biographies to newspapers and blogs.
It used to be that poems followed specific rules for where the poet could place stressed and unstressed syllables, making the language of poetry very different from the language of novels. Today, however, poems can be written in a more conversational tone without a metered structure.
So, to account for all the blurring of lines, we formally categorize literature into poetry, plays or prose. Famous examples of prose include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are many ways we delve deeper into prose to take away more than just surface details. As readers, we interpret the author's use of characters and events and think about how they convey the book's themes and messages.
One way to interpret meaning when reading prose is to look at the text for foreshadowing, or little clues the author leaves behind to hint at what is to come later in the story.
The novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens tells the story of an orphan boy born into poverty in the English countryside and how, through a string of seemingly random events, his fortunes are changed and he is able to move up in society. Even the title, Great Expectations tells the reader that this is a book about the hopes and dreams of a young person.
At the very beginning of the novel, Pip visits his parents' graves in the dark marshes near where he lives with his brother and his brother's wife. Suddenly, he is confronted by an escaped convict. Pip is obviously terrified, especially when the convict takes ahold of him:
'The man, after looking at me for a moment, turned me upside down, and emptied my pockets. There was nothing in them but a piece of bread.'
This doesn't sound like much, but if you've read all of Great Expectations, then you know that as a young man Pip is eventually able to move away from gloomy marshes and childhood poverty because of a generous benefactor. Much later, we learn the benefactor is the very same man who threatens him in the marshes, Magwitch.
The details that Magwitch turned him upside down and that Pip's pockets carry nothing but bread take on new meaning when we later learn that this same man changes Pip's life dramatically by filling his empty pockets with money. Again, these hints can be subtle, and often it is upon a second reading that foreshadowing becomes more apparent and small details take on new meaning.
We can also find meaning in the characters that populate literature. As the young boy Pip comes of age in Great Expectations, he stands in for other boys coming of age. In fact, Great Expectations is often described as a coming-of-age novel.
Pip finds his life changed when he is requested to serve as a playmate to the wealthy Miss Havisham's cold but beautiful adopted daughter, Estella. We can interpret the character of Estella, and her withheld affections, in a few ways. She's beautiful and wealthy and will have nothing to do with poor Pip of the marshes. Estella represents what Pip cannot have: beauty, wealth, social mobility. She reminds him that his 'great expectations' aren't looking so great.
The character of Miss Havisham was stood-up at the altar a long, long time ago, but instead of moving on, she's still wearing her wedding gown several decades later. She keeps her house as it was the day of the wedding, with the cake rotting and the white decorations yellowed and falling apart.
Even the clock in her house is stopped at 8:40, the exact moment when Miss Havisham finds out she's not getting married. In light of the book's themes, Miss Havisham's character represents what happens when you don't move on from dashed expectations, rotting cake and all.
As we grow as readers, we learn to go beyond surface details. We analyze setting, word choice and other details for foreshadowing, looking for clues both big and small about what is going to happen later in a story. Finally, characters can be interpreted as being more than just characters, but represent the themes and lessons in a story.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define prose and give some famous examples of prose
- Explain how meaning can be found through foreshadowing and characters