Yesterday, I talked about the distinction between 'Reading' and 'Studying' literature.

I said unless students and teachers become serious readers, they can not hope to become good students of literature. No great artist ever wrote anything for 'studying' it, that is as a potential matter for exams. We use literature for exams for our own reasons. And we shall see very soon what those reasons are. But first let us deal with the questions that a student of literature has to ask.

'What has the writer said?' This is a very primary kind of question about a literary text. Students need to know what the poem is about, what the story is about, what the play is about and so on. In other words, what is the subject matter, what is the central theme/or topic of the literary text being studied. For example, the central theme of most of the novels of Dickens is child suffering.

'How has the writer said it?' This refers to the literary techniques,literary devices that the writer has used to communicate the theme. When students start working on this, they begin to realise that literary texts differ from non-literary texts mainly because of the use of literary techniques. There are obvious limitations on finding new themes and topics. May be that is why it has been said that human life is all about 'birth','life' and 'death'. And yet we find writers writing stories, poets writing poems and so on. It has been rightly said that creativity lies not in finding new themes, but in finding new ways of dealing with it. We are all familiar with examples of different writers writing on the same themes. I am sure all of you know about Becket and Murder in the Cathedral. What was common in them? And yet, what was distinctive about them?

'Why has the writer said it?' This takes the students further in his pursuit of understanding the literary text. In case of writers like Dickens, the answer appears to be obvious. Most of his writing is autobiographical. Same is true about most other writers. But this is just the beginning of our enquiry. Students have to look into the social, historical background of the writer. Students have to make efforts to understand the psychological background, the cultural background, the religious background and so on. It is only after this enquiry that the student can hope to understand a bit about the writer's motive.

When the student has asked all these questions to himself and has made his or her own efforts to find answers to these questions, that he/she can hope to make a beginning to his/her study of literature. It is only at this stage that the students need to be introduced to the basic concepts of literary theory and literary criticism. The reasons are obvious. Did the theory come first or the literary text? Was Shakespeare ( or for that matter any other great writer) given any training in writing poems and plays in a workshop?

Most of you may feel that all this is too simplistic and obvious and, therefore, not necessary. And yet I am writing on this for obvious reasons. May be it will make  some teachers and students aware of the issues involved and they may become serious students of literature. Don't you think we all need to look at the study of literature afresh?  

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