Prose Analysis

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Techniques for Prose Analysis
Assumptions of close-reading prose:
1. Writing style is itself an expression of philosophy; or, to put it another way, form contains ideas 2. The formal aspects of writing - diction, sentence structure etc. - may work against the literal sense of the writing - or enhance it. 3. The subtleties of connotation and diction form a layer of meaning which is additional to the surface meaning of the text. 4. Every prose text comes with a host of expections - of genre, writing conventions, and the relationship of speaker and reader. Most (literary) texts operate by defying these rules and expectations.


1. Diction: types of words.
a. Connotative words vs. denotative words: this is a simple distinction in theory; in practice, it requires some judgement to tell the difference between the two. Denotative words refer to a specific referent; connotative language has other associations in addition to its primary meaning. A general word (such as "home") is more likely to have connotative value than specific language (such as "house," which describes a type of building). Understanding connotation is not a science, because it depends on the cultural, conventional associations with the word. b. i. Genre of discourse: the words: "commit homicide," "blow away," and "murder" all mean to kill someone. They come, respectively, fromlegal discourse, vocal slang, and everyday (middle style) usage. "Blow away" and "murder" each carry a distinct connotative and emotive value.

Similarly, "happen," "occur," "manifest," and "go down" each have a distinct level of formality. They are similar in meaning but come from distinct genres of discourse: everyday usage (happen), formal usage (occur), philosophical discourse (manifest), and slang (go down). "Happen" and "go down" could be used in speech; "occur" and "manifest," being more formal, would not ordinarily be used in speech.

ii. Modes of discourse: vocal / written / horatory. Literary fiction changes modes frequently. Note the modes of address in this excerpt from Bellow's Ravelstein:

"Although I was Ravelstein's senior by a good many years, we were close friends. There were sophomoric elements in my character as there were in his, and these leveled the ground and evened things up. A man who knew me well said that I was more innocent than any adult had the right to be. As if I had chosen to be naïve. Besides, the fact is that even extremely naïve people know their own interests. Very simple women understand when it's time to draw the line with a difficult husband-when to siphon the money out of their joint back account. I paid no particular attention to self-preservation. You begin, in accordance with an unformulated agreement, to accept the terms, invariably falsified, on which others present themselves. You deaden your critical powers. You stifle your shrewdness. Before you know it you are paying a humongous divorce settlement to a woman who had more than once declared that she was an innocent who had no understanding of money matters."

Bellow begins with literary storytelling, specifying time and relationship. However, he incorporates idiomatic expressions -- "leveled the ground and evened things up" -- that do not belong to the formal mode. "Besides...": he moves into a vocal running style. He uses an embedded metaphor -- "siphon the money" -- and a rhetorical strategy of oppositions -- simplicity vs. sophistication. (See Notes on Composition, below). "I paid no particular attention to self-preservation." (Formal language.) More metaphors: "deaden... stifle." He uses legal/financial language: "unformulated agreement... falsified..." And hyperbole: "humongous divorce settlement..." Vocal, commonplace expression used by the woman he is discussing, not by him: "money matters."

c. Types of technical words. English is rich in technical vocabularies, which need not be technical in the sense of coming from science. Usages are specific to...
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