Analyzing Literary Genres and History World Literature II

After reading the Unit 2 content, respond to the following questions in two to three paragraphs.Discuss the ways in which a literary work you have read exemplifies a particular genre. What are the “rules” and expectation of this genre? How does your chosen work fulfill these expectations? In what ways is your chosen work different from others of its genre?Describe a time in which your knowledge of history helped you to better understand a work of literatureAdditional Sources:


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Introduction – Analyzing Literary Genres and History
In World Literature II, you join a community of thinkers that critically reads, interprets,
discusses, and writes about literature. The material provided here in Unit 2 will help you to
participate in these conversations and to succeed in this specific course.
As you work your way through the assigned readings in the following units, you will be asked
repeatedly to consider a) genre and b) historical and cultural context. In other words, the
assigned texts were written in different periods by authors from around the world, and so
knowing more about the times and places of their composition will enable us to have a more
complete and complex understanding of them. And the assigned texts will be read and discussed
alongside one another; an increasingly nuanced understanding of genre will help us to uncover
the ways in which they are like and unlike others of their type.
Literacy Genre
p>Genres in literature break down into several major areas and each of those then break down
into sub-genres. Generally, literature can be broken down into genres based on the form of the
literature: prose, poetry, and drama. Each of these three major genres has sub-genres that you
will encounter throughout the course. For example, prose can be broken down into fiction and
non-fiction, drama into tragedy and comedy, and poetry into epic and lyric (among others). Each
genre has its own forms, and includes basic tools to help in understanding the meanings and
themes in the work of literature. Overall, the basic purpose of literature is to convey an idea from
the writer to his or her audience. Genre is a tool that helps the writer to do that in particular ways
with varying methods of communication. That’s what this unit can help you better understand.
Historical and Cultural Context
When we refer to historical context, of course, we are talking about the “when” a work of
literature was written. However, the “when” has many things to consider. For example, in our
own time we realize that the ideas of the last few decades are heavily influenced by the rapid
increase in availability of information as a result of the internet and its world-wide
pervasiveness. Imagine how limited people were in terms of the information available to them
when they rarely traveled much more than about 30 miles from home. What a small “world” they
lived in! There was no near instantaneous access to information and news across the world. It
might take two months (or longer!) for a letter to cross one end of Europe to the other. The
governments and social values and practices might vary drastically across just a small region –
one area not knowing about or even understanding what was going on in a neighboring region.
The idea of cultural contexts is even more significant when we are talking about world literature.
When we stop to think about different cultures today, we can see some drastic differences , but
there are also some very significant similarities. The similarities are growing all the time as the
world becomes more connected through communications networks and information flow. We
can see people in Japan and Africa and all across Europe whop look exactly like us in terms of
how we dress, the music we listen to, the movies and television shows we watch. Of course,
there are some language differences, but the rest of modern culture is becoming more and more
homogeneous (blended).
There are also resources in this unit to help you as you shift from reading texts to writing about
them. As you have already learned in Unit 1, written assignments vary in length. The discussions
in each unit are the heart of this course, and provide you with regular opportunities to exchange
ideas with your classmates and professor. Longer papers provide space for you to develop your
readings with more detail and sophistication.
Literary Genres
Literary works are often categorized according to what they have in common. These categories,
or genres, can refer to either their formal structures (for example, epic poetry or drama) or their
treatment of subject matter (for example, romance or psychological horror) or both.
Literary genres based on formal structure include narrative (storytelling), lyric (poetry that is
often sung, and in ancient times, accompanied by a lyre), or drama (role playing). Other than the
purpose of entertaining to pass the time, works in each genre may intend to teach a lesson or
explain a truth about the world. These purposes are embodied in the goals of literature.
According to Horace (Ars Poetica) literature is both “utile and dulce” (useful and pleasant) in
that, to paraphrase the Renaissance poet Philip Sidney, it both teaches and delights us. Literature
delights, in part, because it uses language artfully, something that we can all appreciate and
enjoy, but it also delights us because it teaches and helps us make sense of and express our
feelings about the world. Literature is one of the ways we answer the questions that living in the
world poses to us. Storytelling is a way of testing every action to discover its consequences. The
production and scrutiny of counterfactuals (“what ifs”) is an optimal way to test and refine one’s
behavior. Savvy media moguls, teachers, and politicians know the indispensable potency of
story. Stories mesmerize.
Genre: A Defitinion
The term genre came into the English language from Latin (genus) by way of French. In both
Latin and French, the word simply means “kind” or “type.” You may recognize the Latin form of
the word (genus) from its use in biology, where it refers to a taxonomic category ranking below
the family and above the species. In literary studies, we use the term in a similar way; that is, a
genre is a classification that includes kinds or types of literary composition. Like its biological
analogs, literary genres have specific distinguishing characteristics, including such things as
form, content, or technique.
Genres might be arranged in a sort of family tree that shows their resemblances to one another.
Because a literary genre, like a member of a human family, may resemble more than one
member of the family, literary genres may from time to time overlap one another. The following
paragraphs discuss some of the major literary genres and suggest ways that they overlap. As you
move through the course, you will encounter other genres, but they will generally be
subcategories or descendants of the kinds discussed here.
Prose and Poetry
The most obvious distinction that can be made among literary compositions is the contrast
between prose and poetry (or verse). Prose, which comes from the Latin word meaning
“straightforward,” refers to ordinary spoken or written expression. In literary usage, this term
applies specifically to non-poetic forms. At its most basic level, poetry is a rhythmical or
metrical composition. On the written page, the formal distinction between prose and poetry is
readily apparent from representational conventions. Prose typically extends from the left hand to
the right hand margin of a page,
While poetry may not
Begin from the left margin
And will not often
Extend to the right.
Of course, you may recognize that while the lines above may look like poetry, on grounds of
content or metrical technique, they cannot be called poetry. Even if one could show that the lines
have a metrical logic, they are probably too prosaic, (or straightforward) to be considered
poetry. It is usually easy enough to make a distinction between metrical and non-metrical literary
compositions, between poetry and prose.
The Value of Genre
The study of genres may be of value in three ways.
1. First, grouping similar works together offers us a method for organizing and arranging
literary texts. The advantages of an organizational system are readily apparent. For
example, if libraries were not arranged so carefully, and if the materials were not so
meticulously maintained, we would be lost and bewildered, unable to locate anything at
2. Second, the genre of a text often provides information about its intended overall structure
and/or subject. For example, we expect the crime to be solved at the end in detective
3. Finally, a genre approach can deepen our sense of the value of any single text, by
allowing us to compare it to others of its type. An analysis of three of Shakespeare’s
tragedies – Hamlet and Macbeth and Othello, for example – may draw our attention to
aspects of the plays we may have overlooked.
Three Principle Genres
Before proceeding, let us briefly review the three principal genres of literature: narrative, lyric,
and dramatic.
1. Narrative literature tells of a story, recounting a sequence of events by a single speaker
called a narrator. The existence of narrators betrays the oral origin of narrative, because
the bard or poet originally told the story aloud to an audience. When this kind of
literature was recorded in writing, the storyteller remained one of the conventions of the
2. Lyric refers to relatively short poems characterized by the structured expression of
thoughts or emotions by a single speaker. This genre betrays its oral origin in its name,
which indicates that much early poetry of this type was composed to be sung to the
accompaniment of a musical instrument.
3. Drama tells a story like narrative, but it is different from the other two genres in that it is
intended to be performed by more than one speaker. Through a drama, the audience is
presented the story directly by the characters rather than being told the story by a
As suggested earlier, each of these three kinds or categories contains other kinds. For instance,
the narrative genre contains epic poetry and the novel, the lyric genre contains the sonnet and the
ode, and drama contains tragedy and the comedy. As you proceed through the course, you will
be provided with information about other kinds of literature, but each new kind will be related to
one of these three genres.
Modern Genres
Modern literature includes various kinds of narratives, in the form of prose literary compositions,
such as novels, short stories, and autobiographies. Modern poetry is most often lyric, since most
modern poems are relatively brief and melodic account of a sequence of events. In this sense,
most modern poetry is unlike the long narrative poems of the past. Modern works can also be
classified as fiction or non-fiction, both of which overlap other categories. Thus, modern poetry
and prose can be either fictional or, as is the case with autobiography, non-fictional.
Before moving on to the next page, please review the following chart of genre
characteristics –
In addition to analyzing literary genres, we can also analyze the historical context of a literary
text. Placing a literary text in its historical context enables us to trace the influences a historical
period had on an author, on the creation of his or her work, or both. Considering historical
context when analyzing a piece of literature enables us to obtain a more complete and nuanced
understanding of that work on multiple levels, from larger social issues to deeply individual and
personal struggles. As Janet E. Gardner explains in Writing about Literature:
We may be able to learn from parish burial records, for example, how common childhood
mortality was at a particular time in English history, but only when we read Ben Johnson’s poem
“On My First Son” do we begin to understand how this mortality may have affected the parents
who lost their children. Likewise, the few pages of James Joyce’s story “Araby” may tell us more
about how adolescent boys lived and thought in turn-of-the-century Dublin than several volumes
of social history (147-8).
Each of the units you will explore in this course contain contextual materials. These materials
will not only help you better understand the assigned readings, but they will also help you to
write about these readings more thoughtfully.
Literary Devices
Finally, in addition to literary genres and history, the following literary devices will help you
further understand the readings assigned throughout this course. See below for a brief list of
these devices and reference W.W. Norton’s Glossary of Literary Terms for a more
comprehensive list.
Literary Devices
Allusion: An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, place, event, or artistic work.
Allusions assume a level of familiarity on the part of the reader with the work, person, or
event referenced.
Character: A character is a representation of an individual presented in a dramatic or
narrative work through extended dramatic or verbal representation. The reader can
interpret characters as expressing personal qualities through what they say (dialogue) and
what they do (action). Characters can be discussed in a number of ways. Characters may
be classified as round (three-dimensional, fully developed) or as flat (having only a few
traits or only enough traits to fulfill their function in the work); as developing (dynamic,
changing) characters or as static (unchanging) characters.
Dramatic structure: Dramatic structure is the organization of conflict between
characters and their world. Gustav Freytag famously argued in 1863 that a 5-act play
typically follows an establish sequence: exposition, rising action, climax or turning point,
falling action, and denouement or catastrophe.
Flashback: In a flashback, the reader is brought to an earlier point in time within the
chronology of a text for the purpose of making the present of the text clearer.
Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing provides a hint of what is to come in a literary work.
Genre: A genre is the type or category to which a literary work belongs.
Hyperbole: A hyperbole is a figure of speech in which ideas are exaggerated for the sake
of emphasis.
Meter: Meter is the rhythm established by a poem, and it is usually dependent not only
on the number of syllables in a line but also on the way those syllables are accented. This
rhythm is often described as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythmic
unit is often described as a foot; patterns of feet can be identified and labeled. Stressed
syllables are conventionally labeled with a “/” mark and unstressed syllables with a “U”
Plot: The plot refers to the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised
and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
Situation: Situation is the basic circumstances depicted in a literary work, especially
when the story, play, or poem begins or at a specific later moment in the action.
Soliloquy: A soliloquy is a device in which a character in a dramatic work is alone and
speaks his or her thoughts aloud.
Style: The style is how a writer says what he or she says; the manner of expression.
Symbol: In general terms, a symbol is anything that stands for something else. Obvious
examples are flags, which symbolize a nation; the cross is a symbol for Christianity;
Uncle Sam a symbol for the United States. In literature, a symbol is expected to have
significance. Keats starts his ode with a real nightingale, but quickly it becomes a
symbol, standing for a life of pure, unmixed joy; then before the end of the poem it
becomes only a bird again.
Tone: Tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward the material and/or the readers. The tone
may be playful, formal, intimate, angry, serious, ironic, outraged, baffled, tender, serene,
depressed, etc.
Theme: The theme is defined as a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work
that may be stated directly or indirectly. Themes in Hamlet include the nature of filial
duty and the dilemma of the idealist in a non-ideal situation.
Verse form: Something written in verse form uses metrical feet forming rhythmical
lines. Most often this phrase describes a poem.

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