English 111

Three Levels of Reading

In this class, I talk about "levels" when discussing aspects of what we read. This document explains what I mean by "levels."

I use the “journalist’s questions” to define the three levels: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. I call the first four questions Level 1, the next question (Why) Level 2, and the last question (How) Level 3. I use the levels to describe the relative difficulty of understanding each. Most people can get Level 1 pretty easily, unless there is something unusual about the way the work is written. Most people get at least a little of Level 2, but often miss a lot. And most people do not give much thought at all to Level 3, except when it is very obvious. This is not to say that they are unaware of it. They are, but their awareness is often half-conscious at best and does not involve much careful attention. One of the main purposes of this class is to give you more understanding of Level 3, to help you enjoy what you read more deeply.

Level 1: Who, What, Where, When

Level 1 is the most basic level of reading—what we might call reading for content only. Here we are interested in what happened, who did it, and where and when they did it.

Each of these questions has a corresponding technical term in literary analysis:

  1. Who: Character
  2. What: Plot
  3. Where: Setting
  4. When: Setting
  5. (The questions “where” and “when” are both covered by the term setting.)

This is the level we mostly stay on when we're reading for entertainment, or watching Hollywood blockbusters. We don’t care too much about the deeper meaning; we’re just interested in the people and what they’re doing, whether it’s fighting bad guys or falling in love.

Example 1: Drama

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the most important characters are, of course, the title characters. Secondary characters include their parents and other family members, friends who help or hinder their affair, Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s love, and the priest who marries them.

The plot is complicated, but the main events can be summed up as follows (oversimplifying, of course): Romeo and Juliet, members of feuding families, fall in love and are secretly married, but when Juliet fakes death to avoid marrying the man her father has chosen for her, Romeo believes she is really dead and kills himself. She awakes, discovers his death, and kills herself.

The setting of the play is the Italian city-state of Verona, some time during the Middle Ages. (My edition says that “the Veronese give historical verity to this story … by fixing the date of the tragedy as 1303. …,” but Shakespeare is not so precise, and in any case the whole idea of a historically accurate setting was not really important during his time. He clearly mixed references to an earlier period with customs and manners of his own day, whether he was writing about Italy in the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, or the medieval kings of England. In this he was no different from other writers and painters of his day.)

Example 2: Fiction

In Moby Dick, the main character is the narrator, Ishmael, who tells the story of his time aboard the whaling ship, the Pequod. Other characters include Ahab, the crazed captain; Queequeg, the harpooner; and Starbuck, the first mate.

The plot of Moby Dick is quite simple: Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod and is caught up in Ahab’s mad quest to find and destroy the great white whale, Moby Dick, which bit off his leg in an earlier encounter. Eventually they find the whale, but it destroys the ship, killing everyone on board except Ishmael.

The setting is mostly the ship itself, including different parts (the main deck, the captain’s cabin, the forecastle where the sailors sleep), and the whaling boats that launch from the ship when a whale is cited. Earlier chapters are set in Nantucket, before Ishmael departs, but the main action takes place at sea. The time of the story is the early 1800s.

Example 3: Nonfiction

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass, the author and narrator, is the main character. Others include his grandmother, Colonel Lloyd (one of the slave owners), Covey, the "Negro breaker," Mrs. Auld, who teaches him to read, and many others involved in his life as a slave and after he escapes to freedom.

In nonfiction the plot is usually much looser than in drama or fiction, because it follows the events of real life, although those events are selected, edited, and presented in a particular way. In Douglass’s book the plot, is essentially, the story of his life,—his experience of slavery and his victorious struggle against it. It begins with his early childhood and progresses from there, highlighting important episodes in his growth, such as discovering what it meant to be a slave, learning to read, and his combat with the "Negro breaker" who tries, unsuccessfully, to subdue him.

The setting in nonfiction often plays a very important role, because the realistic depiction of the time and place are important elements in establishing the story's accuracy. In My Bondage and My Freedom, the setting is the places where Douglass lived, including a number of plantations in rural Maryland, the city of Baltimore, and New York, Massachusetts, and Great Britain, all places he visited after he escaped. The time is the mid-1800s. Another way of defining the time of the story is the author’s childhood and early adult life.

Example 4: Poetry Without a Plot or Characters

Unlike drama, fiction, and nonfiction, poetry can often get away without any definite characters or plot, and even with a minimal setting. A poem might consist of a simple description of an object or a scene, and nothing more. One might speak of the “plot” of how the image develops, but in that case we’re using the term “plot” metaphorically, not literally.

In that case, the what of the poem is simply what it describes, rather than a series of events. The who might be simply the idea of who is speaking—whose voice is the poem in, whether the poet or some imaginary person.

In William Carlos Williams’s famous short poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” nothing really happens, and there are no people involved. The only living things are the chickens, and they don’t do anything. The only “action” of any kind is mental action, defined entirely by the first line and taking place entirely “off-stage,” so to speak, in the mind of the speaker or reader. And even that is extremely vague; we are never told what, precisely, “depends” upon these things or in what way it does so. Certainly there is nothing like a series of events that you could call a plot.

Therefore, in this poem and others like it (though no two poems are really alike, if they’re any good), the what is simply what is being described: in this case, a wheelbarrow and some chickens.

There is, however, a setting: again, the wheelbarrow and the chickens. Indeed, the entire poem is nothing but setting.

Example 5: Poetry With a Plot and Characters

Many poems do use all these elements of story: plot, character, and setting. In Gwendolyn Brooks's “Riot,” for example, there is one very well defined character: John Cabot, the wealthy, white, oblivious young man, and a mass of undefined “Negroes” who overwhelm him.

The plot of “Riot” is also clearly defined: The wealthy, white young man, panic-stricken, is overtaken by a riot that kills him

The setting of the poem is both vague and clear. It is vague because it could be any city in America, and because the precise location of the action is never specified. It is clear because Brooks uses very specific markers of class status to describe the main character’s situation. The mention of his Jaguar, the prestigious restaurant Maxim's, and other emblems of affluence (some fictional, some real), create a scene of wealth and privilege which contrasts strongly with the riot that overtakes him.

Necessary But Not Enough

In studying literature, it is absolutely essential to understand Level 1, because if you do not, you will misunderstand everything else about the work. But it is not enough to stop at Level 1. In order to truly understand, you must go on to Level 2 and Level 3.

Level 2: Why

This question, too, has its corresponding technical term in literary analysis: theme. When we ask why a work was written we are, as often as not, asking what the “deeper meaning” is. Usually that deeper meaning cannot be spelled out in a single statement or idea; instead, it is a complex collection of ideas that the work explores from various angles.

A theme is a topic or idea that runs throughout a story or essay (e.g., "death" or "beauty"). Unlike a thesis, it is not a point to be proved but an idea that the author considers from various angles, or represents in various forms. Also unlike a thesis, a theme can be expressed in a single word or phrase or a question (a thesis can only be expressed as a complete, declarative sentence). In complex stories, essays, plays, or poems there are usually many themes. A theme is an idea that keeps coming up throughout the work, whether directly or indirectly (through images, references, hints and suggestions, etc.).

Example 1: Drama

In George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion (the basis for the musical My Fair Lady), the main characters are Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins. The plot is that Higgins, who studies language, bets that he can convert Dolittle from a lower-class flower seller into a duchess. He wins the bet but in the end Dolittle rebels against his thoughtlessness and control, asserting herself as an independent woman.

Themes in Pygmalion include the idea of hubris (pride or arrogance that brings down a hero), relations between men and women and especially women’s second-class status, social class, and the power of language.

Example 2: Fiction

In the classic short story “The Dead,” James Joyce tells a simple story about a couple that attends a Christmas party and then goes back to their hotel for the night. Very little happens: we meet some people at the party, the husband dances with a young woman who tries to get him to agree to go to West Ireland with a group of acquaintances, the couple goes home together, the wife remembers an early love affair, and the husband lies awake listening to the snow falling against the window (one of the most famous images in modern literature).

Among other things, Joyce’s story deals with themes of love, marriage, patriotism, the role of the artist in society, the relationship between art and politics, the relationship between the individual and society, and the question of what is truly important in life.

Example 3: Nonfiction

In her autobiographical essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” the writer Gloria Anzald˙a tells the story of growing up bilingual in a world where nearly everyone deeply mistrusted one or the other of her two languages. Her characters are herself and her family and acquaintances; her stories are stories of her relationship with language.

In this essay Anzaldua explores many themes, including the power of language; the importance of connection to one’s cultural heritage, especially when that heritage is devalued by the larger society; the relationship between the individual and the culture; family relationships; power and gender; sexuality; and more.

Example 4: Poetry

In what is perhaps her most famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the recently deceased poet Adrienne Rich describes a woman doing just what the title says: donning scuba gear, climbing down a ladder on the side of a boat, and plunging into the depths, where she explores a shipwreck.

The poem never says so directly, but it deals with multiple themes, including the relationship between men and women, women’s struggle to reclaim power that has been denied them, and the power of language and myth both to oppress and to liberate.

Half of the Heart of the Matter

The ability to explore or examine a complex set of ideas and values from multiple perspectives is one of the most important aspects of literature, a major part of the reason why it is worth studying and why people continue to read works written centuries ago, even when much about them—the customs, the values, the way people talk—seems totally foreign. Literature, whether written or spoken, has always been one of the high arts, one of the key ways that people make sense of their lives and express their deepest beliefs, values, feelings. When W. H. Auden described art as “clear thinking about mixed emotions,” he was discussing the importance of theme. When Ezra Pound called it “news that stays news” he was doing the same. And when Pablo Picasso called art “a lie that shows us the truth,” he could have been describing the thematic depth of great literature.

But that’s only half the story. The other half is how the work is written. The use of language in all its multi-faceted glory is what makes literature an art.

Level 3: How

Unlike the other levels, Level 3 has no corresponding term with a precise technical meaning. There is, however, a generic term that is often used: form. Form refers to every aspect of the way the work is written, and is usually opposed to content, which describes Levels 1 and 2.

This is both one of the most complex aspects of literature and one of the least understood. It includes everything from the use of rhyme in a children’s poem to the multiple plot lines in a four-hundred-page novel. Since it is a major focus of this class, and the subject of a whole separate handout, I will only say a little bit about it here.

Basically, the reasons for looking at form are to appreciate the craft, and to understand how it creates meaning. Usually when we ask what a poem or story “means” we are asking something about Level 2, possibly Level 1. But in fact the way it is written also contributes to the meaning. The more we understand the form of the work the more we can grasp its meanings, particularly those deeper meanings I have grouped under Level 2.

Example 1: Drama: Narrative Structure

In the 2000 movie Memento, the story is told backwards as the main character, who has amnesia, tries to figure out what happens to him. This example brings out the aspect of form called narrative structure: the order in which events are told, and the amount of attention or emphasis given to each one. In telling the story backwards, the movie asks us to ponder the nature of memory, the importance of storytelling, and the way we make sense of our experience.

Example 2: Fiction: Narrative Structure

The Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s first novel, Ceremony, uses a complex narrative structure to tell the story of a Pueblo man, a veteran of World War II, struggling with PTSD and cultural dislocation. She, too, jumbles the order of events, to depict Tayo’s disorientation. She also weaves in excerpts of Pueblo religious songs and ceremonial chants. This technique (another term for formal property) adds a dimension of the supernatural to the story, showing us the spiritual or metaphysical aspect of Tayo’s experience, and creating a kind of parallel plot that takes place outside of time.

Example 3: Fiction: Sentence Structure

In the novel I Get on the Bus, the African American writer Reginald McKnight uses very clipped, short sentences to create a kind of dry, staccato feeling to the story he tells. Here is the opening paragraph of the novel:

The bus stops. I get on. It is crowded and hot. There is no air and the skin feels like chicken fat. I try to push my way toward the front in search of more air, but there are too many people so I remain in the middle. No one will make way for me. It is well past midday and everyone is tired and irritable; I cannot blame them. It is always hot here. The Senegalese sun has no mercy. It is colorless, cruel. I have been here only three months; a desert of twenty-one months stretches before me. Sometimes I get very tired. I think I am coming down with something.

Even the long sentences are really just short, clipped sentences, often nothing but a noun and a verb, strung together with the simplest conjunctions (and, so, but), or none at all—just punctuation. Part of the effect of these short, simple sentences is to create a relentless forward momentum, making us feel as if we cannot stop. It also creates the impression that the narrator is desperately trying to keep his grip, and so can only record the bare facts; if he stops to reflect, or linger over his descriptions, he will fall apart. Both of these feelings relate directly to the larger story that the novel tells, in which the narrator, an African American man in Senegal struggling with fever from malaria, is caught up in what might or might not be a battle of sorcery with a woman and her father, a local priest.

Example 4: Nonfiction

In his lyrical autobiographical essay “The Barn and the Bees,” the poet and essayist Kim Stafford describes his experience taking apart an old, half-demolished barn in order to salvage the materials for a new barn he wants to build. His essay is carefully structured to appear as if the main action all takes place in a single day, even though it spans a few weeks (an example of narrative structure). Furthermore, his deep, rich descriptions of the barn and the natural world surrounding it are examples of the use of imagery to convey themes of rebirth, appreciation of the overlooked, community and the importance of work.

Example 5: Poetry

There is far more to be said about form in poetry than I can possibly do justice to here, so I will just try to hint at some of it. Poetry is, arguably, the literary art form that most thoroughly exploits the formal features of language to create meaning. Poetry uses all the formal features available to drama and prose (fiction and nonfiction), but it also uses a whole other dimension of language that the other genres rarely do: sound.

Here is a brief list of some of the features of the sound of words that poetry makes use of:

In William Blake’s poem “London” he uses rhyme, a regular rhythm (meter), alliteration (“mind-forg’d manacles,” “Soldier’s sigh”), and assonance (“blackning” and “hapless,” “runs in blood”). These formal properties, or aspects of the way the poem is written, contribute to the meaning of the poem by giving it a solemn, dirge-like or chant-like quality, as of some prophet or priest intoning a lament or calling down God’s judgment on the city.

The Heart of the Heart of the Matter

I stole that last title from William Gass’s short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (it’s a great one, by the way). It is a fitting choice, because Gass is extremely conscious, as a writer and a critic, of the importance of form in literature. What I mean by it is that looking at form takes us to the very heart—the heart of the heart—of literature, by showing us how it works. If a poem moves us, if a story makes us laugh, if a play or movie keeps us on the edge of our seat, it’s because of the writer’s technique: she or he has shaped the form of the piece to reflect, reinforce, and even produce the content—both the surface events and the deeper meanings that the work touches on.