A friend recently asked me this question on behalf of her daughter, an Eng Lit A level student: “How do you analyse a novel?” And I tried to be helpful… but what strikes me most about literary criticism is that even though you may analyse a novel on many levels, according to the personal preference of the analyst, none of it may bear any resemblance to the author’s original intention.
I am taken back to my university days; and both Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad rise up before my mind’s eye. What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about? wrote Joseph Conrad to HG. Wells in 1902. (See Claire Harman’s website for more on this!)
I recall my first Eng Lit seminar at university. Before us was Jane Austen’s novel Emma which we’d all been asked to read during the vacation. Our tutor opened by asking, “Does anybody here actually like Jane Austen?” Silence met this question. Then I foolishly said, “Yes.” “Why?” he shot at me. “Her use of irony,” I said. “Read me a passage from the book which demonstrates her use of irony,” he said. The spotlight was on me. My mind blanked. I flipped through the book, totally unprepared, panicking. “All of it is ironic,” I said.
At that time I was naive and unprepared for the kind of critical thinking university study requires of you. I soon became more streetwise, but even so there was no way to avoid being caught out. Another tutor opened a seminar with the words: “Today we are going to look at Sylvia Plath as victim and product of society.” Later on in the discussion, he targeted me with the words, “And what about you, Sheila? Surely this relates to your earlier theme, doesn’t it?” And I couldn’t remember what my earlier theme was.
The final word goes to a third tutor (a world authority on Joseph Conrad with a long list of acclaimed publications behind him) who walked into a seminar room where we sat with Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent before us: “Now, come on; who’s going to step on my Joseph Conrad corns?” Later we considered Conrad’s motif of overweight villains. In The Secret Agent we read that Mr Verloc is: “… fat – the animal.” “What a horrifying vision of humanity,” mused our tutor. “I must slim.”