Studying for a test on literature must be approached in a different manner than studying for other types of exams. For one thing, you probably won’t have time to reread all the material you will be expected know. Furthermore, in most cases, you will have to avoid simply retelling the story. What your teacher or professor will be looking for in a literature examination is your grasp of various literary elements. The following tips are designed to help you prepare for this type of test and reduce your stress level!
1) Outline the structure of the work. You can do so quickly by determining the rising action, the climax, and the falling action of the story. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the rising action is the meeting of the young lovers, the climax is their mutual deaths, and the falling action is the realization by all involved that they too were responsible for the lovers’ tragedy.
2) Who are the protagonists and antagonists? And how do their characteristics come into conflict? In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the values of the Puritans come into conflict with those of the protagonist, Hester Prynne. The Puritans consider themselves morally superior to Hester, while she relies on her own internal moral compass and her personal relationship with God.
3) What action develops from the conflict? Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a good example of conflict that propels action. When a group of young girls is caught doing improper things in the woods, they try to cover their tracks by accusing people of witchcraft. Their conflict leads to the witch trials depicted in the play.
4) Outline the problems major characters face. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet must contend with the murder of his father, the betrayal of his mother and uncle, and the order to avenge their treachery by the ghost of his dead father. Hamlet must consider what the best course of action, or inaction, will be in dealing with his problems. Highlight or paraphrase quotes in your text and try to memorize a few of the most important ones so that you can support your answers in a more meaningful way.
5) Did the characters successfully achieve their major goals? That can be a tricky question. Hamlet, for example, does achieve the mission given to him by the ghost of his father, but determining his overall success is a more contentious matter. Yes, his mother and uncle pay with their lives, but so too do Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet himself.
6) Pay attention to chronology. Many works will purposely present events out of sequence or work backwards. One example of events taken out of sequence is William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily,” which begins with her funeral, jumps to her early life, her later life, and then the discovery of her deed and death. Sometimes you will need to consider why a story is told in this manner, rather than beginning in a straightforward chronological fashion.
7) Make note of any patterns. These patterns often lead to a critical climax or resolution of the text. Think about, for example, the character of Willy in Death of a Salesman. He constantly repeats that he wanted more than anything to be “well-liked.” This phrase gives us insight into Willy’s extreme lack of self-confidence.
8) Make special note of any symbols. Symbolism is, of course, indispensable to most writers, and a common way to express symbolism is through color. If a color is repeated or particularly associated with a character, think about what it might mean. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” yellow is symbolic of the narrator’s sickness, like jaundice. In Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Faith’s pink ribbon represents her innocence.
9) Consider the work’s historical and cultural context. If you are reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it would be helpful to know something about the realities of poverty in London in the 1800s. Along with understanding the historical content, determine if the author is criticizing society through the depiction of its values.
10) Review your notes.You may find it helpful to write each study point on a note card. Quiz yourself or have someone else quiz you. When you know a point well enough to feel confident addressing it on the test, put it aside or put a line through the card. This way, you won’t waste time reviewing material you already know and can concentrate on the stickier points.