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How to analyse prose:

A guide for students of A or AS English Literature (Cambridge International Exams)

Aspects of the Novel:

When studying a novel, we need to dissect the literary text and take a close look at each of its elements, as if we were scientists observing a piece of tissue through a microscope. Therefore,

it is essential that we know exactly what the main elements of the novel are, so that we know what to look for when performing this `dissection´ of the text.

Before you continue reading, take two minutes to answer the following question:

What are the main elements of the novel?

By now, you must have come up with at least four key words related to literary analysis:

setting, characters, themes, plot. These are indispensable elements: without them, a novel could not be a novel.

Of course, the above-mentioned elements are quite easy to identify when we look at the novel through the lens of our `microscope´. But, can you think of other elements which are not so easy to identify when dealing with the novel’s `tissue´?

Here are other elements that add to the overall texture of the novel. When studying a novel at

A or AS level, you should be able to identify the following:

1) Structure: while the plot is the series of events in the novel, the structure is how these events are arranged and communicated. Therefore, the structure is very important to the effect of the novel on the reader.

There are different types of structure:

Chronological arrangement: events are told from beginning to end. This can be equated with the chronological order in which events take place in history, following an `a, b, c, d, etc.´ pattern. If events go from A to Z without deviation, then this may create an atmosphere of regularity and completeness.

Non-chronological arrangement:

Order. Putting Z first: the reader is told the ending of the story at the beginning. Then, the narrative starts unfolding the events that lead to that last event (i.e. `Z´). The typical example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the audience is told that the lovers will die at the beginning of the play. What do you think is the effect of this arrangement? Does it arouse curiosity in the reader/audience? Or does it spoil suspense?

Changing the order completely: events are arranged in a random order, therefore creating many deviations from linear development. For example, the order of events could be: e, b, c, f, a, d. This is typical of post-modernist novels. Can you

think of the effect of arranging events in this order? Does it create a state of confusion?

Other elements which are part of the structure:

Duration of events: some events tend to be narrated in more detail, while others are summarised in one or two sentences in the novel. This is related to the pace of the narrative. For example, when you are reading Jane Eyre, you sometimes get the impression that the novel has slowed down; at other times everything seems to speed up.

The connections in a complex narrative: novelists sometimes create structural links between seemingly disconnected elements. For example, a coincidence that has to do with the forces of fate could be considered a structural link. In Jane Eyre, there is an outstanding coincidence of this kind when Jane meets the inmates of The Moor House. Can you think of another coincidence in this type in the novel? Victorian novelists would create this kind of coincidences to suggest `the complex networks of social connections that people often ignore`. Other examples of structural links could be the repetition of an image or symbol (motifs), or the creation of characters who, placed next to one another, bring out the same idea clearly by contrast. In Jane Eyre, there is a structural link between the two men who propose marriage to Jane; Rochester and St. John are strikingly different. What do you think the author’s purpose is in creating such opposing personalities? Could we say that this is structurally related to the theme of love?

Novel of development: this is a structure where the main character is shown developing through the novel, making mistakes and learning until s/he is educated. Characters are introduced at just the right moments for advancing the protagonist’s progress. Here is an open question for you to reflect upon:

Could we say that Jane Eyre has the structure of a novel of development?

2) Language Features: although these elements are the most visible in the text as language is the stuff the novel is made of after all -- it is not so easy for the reader to be able to identify the type of language the author has chosen in order to shape the meaning of his/her novel. So, let us think of language in the following way:


So, let us think of language in the following way: Language Vocabulary (individual words, phrases, figures

Vocabulary (individual words, phrases, figures of speech)

Shape and Design (structure: punctuation and grammar). The elements of language are the words actually used by the writer. These elements are put together to create the shape and design desired by the writer, and this is called the structure of the writing

How can we indentify language features in a passage?


Read the short extract below and try to identify the writer’s purpose by focusing on his/her choice of individual words or phrases to shape meaning. Below the extract, there is a sample response to this task.

Some of the little beaches I have loved are so obscure they have no name. I think of a quiet cove on the coast of Scotland where otters play in the tidal pools. And a tiny bay on the Galapagos island of Santiago where a very sociable sea lion prodded the sole of my foot with his wet muzzle, beckoning me to come in for a swim. And of course there are the windswept wintry walks along the endless seaboard of the Netherlands, guaranteed to clear your head and get your life into perspective.

Sample response:

The writer’s purpose is to persuade the reader of the attraction of quiet, deserted beaches, which, it is implied, can be found all over the world and are generally unknown.

The effect is achieved with the words `obscure´, ´quiet´ and ´tiny´. The writer creates the attractiveness by reference to friendly, non-threatening animals such as the sea-lion, described as ´sociable´, and the otter, described at ´play´. Such references make these animals sound as if they have almost human qualities of enjoying company and are like innocent children playing. The social and harmless nature of the sea lion is underpinned by the gentle movements ´prodded´ and ´beckoning´. A further attraction of such beaches is created by ´clear your head and get your life into perspective´. This suggests the psychologically calming effect of these places where even the most stressed of individuals can find comfort.


Punctuation: believe it or not, writers also make choices when using punctuation marks. Each comma, colon, dash, etc the writer uses in the text has a particular effect on the reader. Therefore punctuation becomes a meaningful element in the novel you are studying.

Read the extract below and think about how the use of punctuation contributes to the overall meaning of the text. There is a sample response below that might help you to shape your answer to this task.

But I slept little that night: I was attacked by wild dogs or they may have been Galician wolves.

Sample Response

The colon sets up an expectation in the sentence that the writer will explain why he was unable to sleep. He then goes on to give the expected explanation. The dash leads us to expect additional information, which here adds to the impression that the boy is in danger, wolves being an even more frightening prospect than wild dogs.

Grammar: As learners of a foreign language, we have been taught the rules of grammar. But, how can we detect grammar features in a novel? To answer this, we should think of grammar as the way in which the parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction) are put together in a sentence. This is called sentence structure (mind you, this is different from the structure of the novel).

Read the following extract and reflect on how the writer uses parts of speech and sentence structure to show that the character is glad to wake up:

Then I was falling backwards


her dark face blurry with sleep and anxiety. ¨Mummy, what is it?¨ her arms are warm around

my neck. She smells of chocolate and vanilla and peaceful untroubled sleep.

with the cards spraying out in all directions



I held my hands out protectively. I awoke screaming with Anouk standing above me,

Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Sample response

The writer uses two verb tenses: the past tense is used when the character is dreaming; the tense changes to the present when she has woken up. The present tense stresses the idea that the character is glad to hang on to the present, and to leave the past of her nightmare behind. The writer uses a build-up of the conjunction ´and´ in the last sentence to focus attention on ´chocolate´, ´vanilla´ and ´peaceful untroubled sleep´. These are all items associated with well-being and pleasure and so are in contrast to the nightmare. The character is pulling herself into the present by focusing on these pleasant things.

The extracts and sample responses can be found in: Toner, H. & Whittome, E. (2003.) AS level English Language and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.