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Reading Literature

Fiction enables us to explore the recesses of man’s head and heart with a torch; history allows us only the natural light of day, which does not usually shine into such places. Literature is man’s exploration of man by artificial light, which is better than natural light because we can direct it where we want.[i] 


It is through literature that a student learns to examine thought and action compassionately. When a reader is able to identify with a character and his conflict or problem in a story and see life through the eyes of this character, that reader has begun to share an author’s insight and has thus begun to read with appreciation. Reading in this way is to respond both emotionally and intellectually. As you read this powerfully-written novel by Paule Marshall, we hope that it delights, enlightens, humanizes, and sensitizes you as members of our uniquely diverse community here in Prince George’s County. 

The way you approach reading a novel is very important. While reading you must be able to see relationships, perceive the development of character, theme, symbols, and be able to detect multiple meanings. You can reject or accept, like or dislike the literary work, depending on the effect it has on you. It is okay to do so. You shouldn’t jump to a final judgment too soon, whether it is about the character, the theme, or other elements. Remember: People and situations are not always as they appear at first. Be objective because your emotional reaction can sometimes cause unsound perception and interpretation. Keep this question in mind — “Can I justify my judgments based on evidence from the work itself?” 

To get the most out of literature, you must be aware of several elements in fiction and know how to make inferences. Below are a few guidelines to help you understand.. 

Characters — people and animals in a story. Examine each character for his or her own unique qualities, behavior, needs, and values. 

Setting — the time and place of a story. What impact does it have on the plot of the story? 

Plot — the series of events that happen in the story. Make sure you understand the most important events. 

Theme — the idea or point of view expressed throughout. It unifies the work. 

Conflict — the main struggle between opposing forces. The conflict can be (1) internal, i.e. within a character; (2) between two or more characters, or (3) between one or more characters and some force in the environment. 

Climax — the final turning point in the story when the action changes course and begins to resolve itself. Sometimes the character may solve the problem in his or her mind. 

Narrator — the person telling the story. Be alert to the tone of the narrator and how it influences your perception of the story.

Figures of Speech — expressions in which words are used to mean something other than what they usually do. For example, “Life is like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” This is a line from the Langston Hughes poem entitled “Dreams.” What is he trying to say about life?

Inferences — to read “between the lines.” An inference is a message that comes across but is not directly stated by the author. You must draw conclusions based on the information given. Writers of fiction often show what they mean while writers of non-fiction directly state what they mean. 

As you read the novel and ultimately complete it, go back and review the elements listed. See if you can identify each element by citing specifics from the novel. Write down that information. 

Sit back and relax in a comfortable reading chair and have adequate lighting nearby. Make sure you are in a room without distractions for at least 30 minutes. Then allow yourself to fly to Bourne Island and enter the complex and intriguing world of the men and women in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. 

[1]David Daisches, A Study of Literature for Reading and Critics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948)24. 

Prepared by: Beverly Reed

Introduction | How to Read Literature | Current Book | Programs | Previous Books | PGCC Homepage