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Why is looking at characterisation so undermined in comparison to structure and form in English Literature? And what effects does this have?

I’m an English Literature student at university and throughout my time studying literature at school/ college, and even university, I’ve noticed a trend amongst teachers and markers, which is a reaction of almost scorn at analysis of character in fiction. To me this has always seemed the oddest phenomenon as character has always been the most interesting, and also sometimes most important and valid feature of a novel. Take ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for example. During and after my reading of the text, there was so much meaning hidden in Atwood’s characters that I felt was integral to the message of her novel. Thinking about what I might write about for my dissertation, I felt ready and inspired to delve into this topic until I remembered the impression teachers have had of characterisation in the past. An example of this, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this sentiment, my a-level eng lit teacher told me to focus more on structure as it was considered higher level than character. This has always enraged me a little as I think avoidance of analysing character in a novel is avoidance of a whole chunk of the message of a book. As for the effects this has, I think this leads to a connection between fiction and the real world being lost. Often times I have questioned the purpose of analysing books if we are not taking deeper meaning from them in regards to the worlds that they were written in. I think undermining the importance of character in a book is evidence that the real purpose of a book (if it is concerned with a wider message, which they almost always are) is being lost.

  • I think this is a really unique way to look at the topic. Very detailed! :) – Zohal99 2 years ago
  • This focus on structure over character stems from some English instructors trying to validate the importance of English. I would have to check, but in the early twentieth century, there was a push back against teaching English at the university level. Mainly due to most people believing it to be irrelevant as most schools of thought such as sciences, mathematics, history etc. already incorporated reading. This lead to people seeing the ability to read as the bare minimum for being at a university. Leading to literary intellectuals trying to come up with ways to make literature more like the sciences. This lead to instructors pulling away from anything that can be associated with feelings and speculative thought. Essentially they want to focus on absolutes. Which is why there is a heavy interest on the form. (It is also why sometimes you do not even need to read the text to pass an English test because what your teacher is going to discuss is easily predictable because they are going. Protip for my fellow English majors out there.") – Blackcat130 2 years ago