“Oh no! Not another
If you’ve ever been in a class where
It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that you have to pick a literary device—such as characterization, plot, irony, symbolism, imagery, tone, conflict, denouement, or one of fifty other alien concepts—to write about, would it? Thought so.
And whenever these assignments come up, you probably don’t even bother to figure out just why those zillion literary devices ruin a good story, right? You simply can’t see the forest for the trees.
Let me explain—All those literary devices are “the trees,” and “the forest” is the whole of the interesting story. Simply put, then: When you have to focus on the details of the structural pieces and forms in a story, you lose the interesting entertainment of a story because all those pieces and details make it impossible to keep track of the story as a whole.
You see, this focus on pieces and parts all began around the 1930s, when a movement called The New Criticism started up in America. The New Critics had the quaint idea that you should understand a story on its own terms, without referring to outside sources such as the author’s life and thought, the genre, or the current literary trends. They believed that all you need is what’s in the story.
Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea—that is, until they ignored their own main principle and brought in all those alien literary devices from the outside that related mainly to just the pieces of a story.
What those New Critics missed was something that every lover of stories knows, but just about never is able to put into words, and it has to do with the wholeness (“the forest”) of a story, not its pieces (“the trees”), which is this: By the end of a story, something important has to change—or there’s no newness and no story! (You knew that, right?)
Here’s how it works: In absolutely every published story, what changes at the end always relates to something important said early on in the story, either by or about the main character. And that early statement is always a strong evaluation or description concerning a trait, characteristic, goal, problem, or desire related to the main character. That’s what I call the OldView. The change at the end I call the NewView, which is always a Reverse of the OldView.
With that one principle—the change between the important OldView at the beginning and the NewView Reverse at the end—as your tool for understanding a story, you can make sense of every literary device in every story ever written and published. Why? Because authors always use the parts (literary devices) in their stories to support the OldView-NewView change that provides the wholeness that makes a story a story. And that goes for both short stories and novels, any kind of story.
For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, The Cask of Amontillado, at the end of the fourth paragraph, Montresor (the main character) says, “I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.” This OldView value statement is the strongest evaluation of Montresor’s feelings up to that point in the story.
True, most everything said before that was about Montresor discussing the revenge he would take on Fortunato. But it is all said matter-of-factly, businesslike, with little warmth or energy. Most professional commentary on the story indicates that Montresor being pleased and “wringing his hand” is just part of his deceiving Fortunato about his hidden desires for revenge. But the story reveals that it is more than just that. “How’s that?” you ask.
Well, at the end of the story, the following statement by Montresor provides a NewView Reversal to the important OldView strong value statement we just looked at: “My heart grew sick — on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour.”
The dash-dash ( — ) indicates Montresor is adding an afterthought, one in which he tries to turn around the truth of what he has just said—that his heart really was sick at what he had done in killing his friend, Fortunato. Physically speaking, the dampness would make only his lungs sick, not his heart, as any doctor will tell you.
In the OldView at the beginning, Montresor said, “My smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation [sacrificial killing].” So why isn’t he smiling and happy at the end, when he is completing his great revenge on Fortunato? Why is it that his “heart grew sick,” and why is he in haste “to make an end of” his labor?
Why not drag out the final acts of his revenge, enjoying his triumph, as he had been doing at the beginning, as well as during the middle of the story—“I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand”? His statement, “My heart grew sick” really is a NewView Reversal of what we expected of Montresor all along, since he was smiling outwardly and inwardly from the start of the story at the prospect of avenging himself on his friend.
Montresor truly was sick at heart, not of body, as he realized he no longer would have his friend to tease and to torment at his fanciful whim and idle leisure. Yes, Montresor was sick at heart, but it wasn’t because of the dampness of the catacombs. Once he noted his own unhappiness, as soon as he realized his friend was finally dead, even before the walling up was completed, he used only four brisk and businesslike sentences to wrap up the story, with no sense of triumph or glee at having accomplished his revenge.
As a last touch, Montresor wistfully pronounces that Latin phrase which for centuries has been used to say goodbye to our respected friends and loved ones, “In pace requiescat,” which translates as, “In peace may he rest.” Not exactly what you’d say of an enemy you hated, now, is it?
The following example thesis statements demonstrate how knowing the changing OldView-NewView relationship in Poe’s short story makes it easier to write about the literary devices in the story:
- In The Cask of Amontillado, every teasing thing Montresor says to Fortunato on their walk through the wine cellar has a triple meaning—considering Montresor’s hidden intent of killing Fortunato while still being his friend and enjoying his teasing of his friend-and so is highly ironic.
- In Poe’s story, The Cask of Amontillado, the most important conflict is the one Montresor has with himself at the end over whether to complete the dastardly deed of killing a man for whom he still has feelings of friendship.
- In the short story, The Cask of Amontillado, the trowel Montresor shows to Fortunato is not only an image of the literal means of his death, but it is also an image of the huge joke he is building for his cherished friend.
- The walling up of Fortunato in Poe’s story The Cask of Amontillado is symbolic not only of Montresor walling up his hatred for Fortunato, but, sadly, also of walling up and hiding his tender feelings of friendship for Fortunato.
- The theme in Poe’s story, The Cask of Amontillado, could be, ‘Never let friendship, a few bones, salt peter (nitre), excessive dampness, or the truth get in the way of a little friendly revenge.’
This pattern of OldView strong value statement up front changing to a NewView Reverse at the end works not only in every published short story, but also in every published long story, which we call novels.
Take, for instance, Jane Austen’s brilliant novel, Pride and Prejudice, well-known to and beloved by both the American and English cultures. In the beginning of the story, Mr. Darcy is not only disliked by Elizabeth and her mother, Mrs. Bennett, but also by the entire town of Meryton: “He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.”
At the end of the story, when Elizabeth discovers that Darcy has rescued Lydia and the reputation of the entire Bennett family, she reverses her prejudiced opinion of him and falls in love with him. And Elizabeth expresses her reversed feelings for Darcy almost at the very end of the story. Then, with Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, her family also reverses their feelings about him—the town, too, probably, though we are not told so—a perfect OldView-to-NewView pattern of change by reversal, a romantic’s pure NewView Reverse delight!
Another English novel very familiar to the American public is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which as a movie became a box office hit in America and around the world. The written story was even better because it shows the changing OldView-NewView relationship so very clearly. And the written story has a bonus—three major NewView Reverses.
The first OldView takes place at Bilbo and Frodo’s big birthday party at the beginning of the story, where Bilbo is the star and Frodo is treated as unimportant, hardly noticed. At the end of the story, the NewView Reverse is that Frodo is honored after the last battle at the Great Feast of the West, where Bilbo is not even present. So Frodo has gone from being ignored as a Zero at the beginning to being praised, toasted, and lauded as a great Hero at the end—quite a drastic NewView Reversal!
The second OldView occurs near the beginning when Gandalf finally tells Frodo all about the powerful and dangerous Ring he inherited from Bilbo. In that conversation, Frodo has no pity for Gollum, and he feelingly says Gollum “deserves death.” The NewView Reverse of this actually occurs throughout the story as Frodo consistently prevents Sam or anyone else, such as Prince Faramir (Boromir’s brother), from hurting Gollum.
The third and probably most important OldView also occurs during that conversation with Gandalf, when Frodo states how badly he wants the Ring destroyed, passionately bemoaning the fact that he has been given the dangerous Ring.
The NewView Reverse at the end couldn’t be more complete—At the very Crack of Doom within Mount Doom in Mordor, where Frodo has come to destroy the Ring, he surprisingly declares, “I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”-and he puts the Ring on his finger. Fortunately, Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger with the Ring on it and steals the Ring from Frodo. But Gollum falls into the fatal fires of Mount Doom with the Ring, thus completing for Frodo his failed mission of destroying the Ring.
As I’ve demonstrated, the changing OldView-NewView pattern naturally occurs in all stories, short or long. When you learn to recognize that pattern in stories, you can then much more easily see how all the literary devices (“the trees”) are used by the author to support the overall wholeness (“the forest”) of changing OldView-NewView that is always there, in every story.
With this new tool in hand, you’ll be analyzing literature and