What are the elements of English literature and what are their effects?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The elements of English literature are the same as the elements of literature in any language.  Their effect upon literature is to create it. Without these, literature cannot exist.  Generally, these are plot, characters, characterization, setting, theme, point of view, and symbolism. 

There is no story without a plot. And there is no plot without a conflict.  A conflict in the plot might be man versus nature or man versus man, for example.  The conflict is dealt with in one way or another in a story, and we call this resolution.  Generally, a plot has what we call rising action, in which the conflict is introduced and developed, a climax, during which the conflict is resolved, and falling action, which takes us gradually out of the story and ties up any loose ends in the plot.

Literature needs characters who can interact with one another, or if the plot is man versus nature, sometimes just one character, who interacts with natural elements, such as weather or terrain. It is generally within this interaction that the conflict lies.

How do we get to know the characters? This is what we call characterization. We may get to know them through a narrator who reports what they say. We might get to know them through a report on their appearances, for example, whether they are tall or short, thin or fat, dressed well or dressed poorly.  We might get a sense of the characters by a narrative of their actions, violent or peaceful, loving or hateful. Sometimes we get to know their inner thoughts, if a narrator reports these, or if a character is narrating him or herself.

Where and when a story takes place is its setting. A story might take place 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt or take place in the present day in New York City or take place 100 years into the future on another planet. 

A theme is an important idea or message that the reader takes away after reading. This is often a universal idea or message, one that many readers can identify with. A theme may allow the reader to realize that freedom is more important than security, that love conquers all, or that the American dream cannot be realized.  

Point of view is about how the story is narrated. Is one of the characters narrating the story?  That is called first person point of view.  Does the narrator address the reader, using pronouns such as "you" and "your"? That is second person point of view.  This is rare in literature, but it is used occasionally, for example, in what is called an epistolary novel, which is written as series of letters. The third point of view is used when someone outside the story is narrating the events of the story, referring to the characters as "he" and "she." This person can be all-knowing, able to relate everything in the story as though he or she is present in every scene and has access to the characters' thoughts. This is called the omniscient narrator.  Sometimes the narrator does not have access to complete knowledge; this narrator is called a limited narrator.

Symbols are elements of the plot that represent something else, for example, a concept or a person.  Water often represents purification or a journey, while a tree might represent life or growth.  A star might represent hope or outer space.  A diamond necklace might represent one's aspirations to wealth. 

How all of these elements interact with one another is complex, and they are usually inextricably intertwined.  Characters taken from a setting of 5,000 years ago and set down in the present century are going to create a very different kind of story (which is what makes time travel novels so interesting.) A plot created to carry out one theme is not likely to be able to create some other theme in the mind of the reader.  Symbols are always highly individual elements, which will work well in one story with one set of characters and fail abysmally in another.  It is impossible to generalize about this, and the best one can do is take one particular literary work and try to assess how the elements work together successfully, or not.

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