Part 3: How to Analyse Prose Fiction

Struggling to get your head around novels and short stories? In this article, we give you a step by step guide for analysing prose fiction in Year 9.

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How to analyse prose fiction

In this article, we’re going to explain what prose is and then show you how to analyse prose fiction so you can ace your next Year 9 assessment!

 

In this article we discuss:

 

What is prose fiction?

Prose is a form of writing or speaking that follows natural flows of speech and grammar, that is, it is written ordinarily, without intended metrical structure.

We can see prose in action every day in conversations, textbooks and newspaper articles.

Prose is commonly used in fiction as well as it uses full sentences and takes on a natural narrative style. We encounter prose fiction in many forms, including novels, short fiction, novellas, prose poems, dramas and scripts.

 

Types of prose fiction

Prose fiction comes in a few different forms. Let’s take a look at what they are.

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What is fiction?

Fiction is literature that is created from one’s imagination.

In English, long-form fiction resembles novels, which you should already be reading at school and for leisure (if not, we recommend you get started!).

 

Short fiction

Short fiction usually refers to short stories. Short stories often posted in magazines or anthologies or submitted online to story sites as short, digestible narratives that can be read in one sitting.

Short stories tend to focus on one single event or character because they lack the word count to incorporate various subplots and setting changes that novels or novellas might have.

 

Novellas

Novellas are the middle ground between short stories and novels. Think of them as mini-novels – they still incorporate multiple characters and subplots like a novel would, but in a more nuanced way.

Novellas usually deal with a character’s personal development or change rather than detailing a large sequence of events with multiple setting changes like a novel would.

 

Prose poems

Prose poetry might seem like an oxymoron (contradiction) because we see poems as highly structured, metric or rhythmical pieces – but poetry can be written in prose!

In this way, prose poems use full sentences but still incorporate stanzas and poetic qualities such as metaphor, simile and symbol. Prose poems are usually very brief.

 

Drama and scripts

Dramas and scripts are plays written for theatre, film or television. So, fictional TV dramas and films come under prose fiction as they incorporate naturalistic styles of speech, namely dialogue.

 

Why do composers write fiction in prose?

Composers write in prose as it aims for a naturalistic or ordinary style of writing.

There are no set rules or structures unlike verse, and composers have the freedom to write and describe narratives as they please. It also makes it easier for us as readers and audiences to consume prose because it’s a form of writing that we encounter on a regular basis.

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Pros and cons of prose fiction

As we’ve seen, prose is a common way of writing because it allows for more freedom to describe and articulate fiction. So, from a writing perspective, composers have fewer rules to follow and more wiggle room to express their thoughts.

The naturalistic style of prose – in comparison to most poetry – also means that we usually understand prose pretty easily.

However, some prose can be difficult to follow as there is no set clear structure. Composers can experiment as they please and this requires us to understand and appreciate the broader meaning and purpose of the text overall.

Moreover, since there’s no one way of writing prose, prose can be hard to analyse because there are so many different types of fictional prose writing.

So, what features are unique to prose fiction, and how can we use these features to analyse prose fiction?

 

What happens when we read?

When we read prose fiction, the language a composer chooses creates images and sequences of events in our brain. This is a pretty cool skill when you think about it – it’s essentially mental telepathy!

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Authors paint pictures in our minds with their words!

When we read, we’re trusting composers of prose fiction to accurately portray their stories and to figuratively ‘paint a picture’ of the narrative in our minds so we can follow along and stay engaged.

But once a composer has chosen their words, it’s up to us to form the image in our heads in order to make sense of the text.

This process of sense-making and image construction means that each of us can have vastly different interpretations of prose fiction, depending on the ideas and images that our mind constructs. Because of this, your teachers and peers want to know what you perceived to be the meaning of a text, and to back up this interpretation with an explanation of evidence from the text.

Now we know what prose fiction is and how it works, let’s look at the features of prose fiction and show you how to analyse it.

Features of prose fiction

Now that you know what classifies prose fiction, we will analyse the short story, ‘The chosen vessel‘ by Barbara Baynton together.

What are the main features of prose fiction? Let’s see.

Prose fiction usually employs:

  • Full sentences: Sentences don’t have line breaks like verse, so they run right to the margin and follow general grammatical rules including capitalisation of the first letter of each sentence and end with full stops.
  • Paragraphs: Prose fiction is usually organised into paragraphs of information
  • Character: Unlike traditional poetry like verse, characterisation is key to prose fiction and usually exist in the form of a protagonist or persona. Depending on the type of prose fiction, an antagonist, supporting characters, and minor characters may feature as well.
  • Plot: Plot or storyline is a fundamental part of prose fiction. Plots may follow the simple structure that is exposition, rising action, climax then resolution, but can also feature plot twists and red herrings to keep the reader engaged.
  • Setting: Setting is key to prose fiction and comprises of the location and time of a story. In prose fiction, the setting can greatly affect the mood of the narrative.

Okay, now we’re ready to look at how to analyse prose fiction.

 

How to analyse prose fiction – Step-by-step

When analysing any text you should follow a process.

Matrix students are taught to follow a process when analysing texts, understand the text then refine your knowledge before drafting and finalising your response.

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We’re going to look at the first three steps of this process by reading the text three times.

 

Step 1: The first reading | Comprehending the big picture

 

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The first reading is about appreciating and enjoying the text

 

Have a read of the whole of Baynton’s The Chosen vessel, first.

What are your initial impressions?

What do you think is happening in the story?

What is the tone or mood?

Which parts of the text were unclear?

If you want, you can discuss this story with a parent, mate, or teacher. Otherwise, you should write down your thoughts on this text.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel confident in your understanding of the story or if you only followed fragments of it! We’re going to help you develop that now!

From a first read, we know that Baynton begins by telling a story about a woman and her baby in the Australian bush.

The woman is met by a swagman (bushman) who asks her for food and money. Then it appears that he breaks into her home to attack the woman, so she runs to the creek to ask for help from a horseman in the distance but is met with a cruel fate, potentially her death.

After, the story jumps to the horseman finding what is described as a dead sheep and her lamb, who is still alive, but references that the dead sheep was still clutching onto the clothes of her lamb.

Then, the story jumps once more into a town election setting where a man who has visions of his mother praying for his safety. He then sees an apparition of The Blessed Virgin and Child (Mary and Jesus) who influences his vote in said election.

The story ends with a reference to a man washing the blood of the sheep from himself.

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Baynton’s narratives all take place in remote parts of Australia

 

Step 2: The second reading | Finding meaning by looking at chapters and scenes

 

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In the second reading, we identify the important parts and annotate them

Now you need to have another read of the story.

This will probably take much less time than the first reading because we are familiar with the story but this step is important because we can consolidate our understanding and revisit key moments.

As you are reading, note down any questions you have about certain parts.

If there are key plot changes in the story, take note of them too. And if you spot any literary techniques (you can find a comprehensive list of techniques in our English Literary Techniques Toolkit, jot them down!

This is all port of the process of active reading.

You’ll have noted that the story is broken up into three parts:

  • Firstly, the woman’s fate
  • Secondly, the boundary rider
  • Finally, the apparition.

Now, let’s unpack the boundary rider section together.

This means we can analyse these in isolation to understand their meaning better.

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Step 3: The third reading | unpacking details

 

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The third reading is when you do the close textual analysis

Now we want to do a deeper dive.

First, let’s read the extract of the boundary rider section:

“By God!” said the boundary rider, “it’s been a dingo right enough! Eight killed up here, and there’s more down in the creek – a ewe and a lamb, I’ll bet; and the lamb’s alive!” And he shut out the sky with his hand, and watched the crows that were circling round and round, nearing the earth one moment, and the next shooting skywards. By that he knew the lamb must be alive; even a dingo will spare a lamb sometimes.

Yes, the lamb was alive, and after the manner of lambs of its kind did not know its mother when the light came. It had sucked the still warm breasts, and laid its little head on her bosom, and slept till the morn. Then, when it looked at the swollen disfigured face, it wept and would have crept away, but for the hand that still clutched its little gown. Sleep was nodding its golden head and swaying its small body, and the crows were close, so close, to the mother’s wide-open eyes, when the boundary rider galloped down.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, covering his eyes. He told afterwards how the little child held out its arms to him, and how he was forced to cut its gown that the dead hand held.

As you can see, there’s a lot to read and digest, here. Let’s get stuck in.

The paragraph before this section ended with ‘…the cry of “Murder” came from her lips. And when she ceased, the startled curlews [Australian birds] took up the awful sound, and flew shrieking over the horseman’s head.’

From this, we can understand that the woman cries out “Murder” before she is killed by the swagman and is surrounded by the ‘awful sound’ of shrieking birds flying past them.

So, we know that the woman was killed by the swagman while she was still holding her baby down by the creek.

 

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Baynton uses sheep and lambs as metaphors, but for what?

The story then transitions to a description of the horseman who discovers ‘a ewe and a lamb’ – a female sheep and her baby. The sheep is dead but the lamb is alive, and crows are circling the area to feast on their carcasses.

The boundary rider believes that a ‘dingo’ has killed the sheep, and the story describes how the lamb

‘sucked the still warm breasts [of the sheep], and laid its little head on her bosom, and slept till the morn. Then, when it looked at the swollen disfigured face, it wept and would have crept away, but for the hand that still clutched its little gown.’

Suddenly, we see that the sheep has been personified as having a hand and the lamb is wearing a gown.

From our reading of the first section where the woman clutched her baby in its gown, it becomes clear that the ewe and the lamb are a METAPHOR for the mother and child respectively.

Why do we think Baynton chose this metaphor?

Is it a EUPHEMISM or a way of softening the blow of the woman’s fate? What do sheep and lambs REPRESENT? And what image does this create for us as readers?

Let’s see.

We know that sheep are seen as followers, vulnerable and helpless, and lambs are perceived as pure, innocent and unknowing.

This metaphor CHARACTERISES the woman her child as helpless in the setting of the Australian bush as they are susceptible to danger in the vast, isolated, and unforgiving bushland.

 

Taking step 3 further: Considering texts as a sustained whole

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As we undertake multiple readings we want to develop our knowledge. We must think about the text as a whole, not just an isolated moment.

 

Now that we’ve analysed one section of the story together, it’s time for you to see if you can do the same with the other two.

We can see the application of the sheep metaphor in the last line of the short story, so Baynton must have wanted that metaphor to remain in our minds.

To help you with your analysis you may need to define some of the words or research the author and her CONTEXT.

Once you have this new found knowledge, you can piece together the text as a whole and understand what message Baynton was trying to convey, and what message we have understood as readers in a 21st century context.

It’s okay if your understanding differs from another student’s!

That’s the reason we continue to study texts, years after they’ve been published: we want to analyse what new lessons or meaning we can derive from the text and to support this perspective with evidence from the text.

 

Developing your skills?

Congratulations! You’ve successfully read a sample of prose fiction, re-read the text for deeper meaning and analysed the text both in isolation and as a whole.

To better your skills, you can repeat this process with other prose fiction texts, whether they are prose poems you’re studying in class, novels you’re reading for leisure or dramas you’re watching on TV.

Students that succeed in English read widely for pleasure and take the time to understand and analyse parts of the texts they read outside of school as well as for it.

 

Get ahead of your peers in the holidays!

In our 2-Day Year 9 English Holiday Course, you will learn the essential English skills, practice them, receive feedback and ultimately gain confidence in English!

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© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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