Elements of literature consist of the things that make up the work of literature. Literature comes in many different types and forms. The different types of literature are seen in works such as novels, biographies, poems, dramas, non-fictional and short stories. All the different types of literature mentioned are made up of certain elements like theme, plot, character, setting, conflicts, etc. However, elements existing in each type of work may differ from each other. For example, the elements in a fiction, drama, or short story may consist of a plot, character, theme, structure, setting, conflict, and a point of view whereas some of the elements of poetry consist of rhythm, rhyme, theme, simile, metaphor, and symbolism (DiYanni, 2007). In this paper, the element of literature that I will highlight, using two short stories and a poem is theme. Theme is the element of literature that describes the main idea in a literary work.
In the short story, "The Lesson", written by Toni Cade Bambara, symbolism and theme were used to add to the depth and comprehension of the reader. "The Lesson" is a beautiful work of fiction because of its use of symbolism, language, and humanistic theme. The story takes place in the inner city of New York and begins with a group of underprivileged, uneducated, poor kids. Mrs. Moore, the educator, feels like it is her duty to teach these children because she is the only one in her area with a degree. Sylvia, an African American girl, is the main character and tells the story in 1st person narrative. Sylvia, at a young age of fourteen, has already become exceedingly opinionate and judgmental about the world around her. By the language Bambara uses, the reader is made aware of the unfriendly and tough personality in Sylvia, who resents being taught anything from Mrs. Moore. This is clearly
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illustrated when she states, "And we kind of hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our hand ball walls" (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 427). On one particular summer day, Mrs. Moore could not resist the temptation to use an upper class, very expensive toy story, call FAO Schwartz, to teach a valuable lesson to the children. This is not your typical toy store and Bambara uses a paperweight to symbolize importance. As the children glare through the window, in utter amazement, at the expensive toys, a paperweight was brought to their attention. "This here cost four hundred eighty dollars/"my eyes tell me it's a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color ink dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into an oven or something. But for $480.00, it don't make sense" (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 429). The children cannot fathom the use or the price of the paperweight. In the real world, a paperweight is used to hold something together you do not want to lose and that is valuable. Bambara, uses a paperweight to symbolize how living a life in the slums often modes ones thinking to cause them to never reach out for something better thus holding them down. The lesson that Mrs. Moore wanted to teach the children was that they are more valuable that a paperweight and to have a better life often comes with a pretty price, one that they were not used to. To have a better future requires one to think differently than what he/she is used to. The sailboat in the store window is also used as symbolism, in that it represented a sense of freedom as well as the journey that one will embark on when change is needed. If any of the inner city children wished to have a new life apart from the poverty they are used to, they need to understand it is not an easy journey, and education is a necessity.
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Another important element used in "The Lesson" is theme. The theme that Bambara wants to convey is that life is not always fair and for some a bad hand has been dealt. She wants the reader to understand that in order to have change, one must work hard for it.
Bambara uses symbolism in her theme when she decides to create a difference between ethnic and social classes. When Sylvia makes a suggestion to "go to the Sunset and terrorize the West Indian Kids and take their hair ribbons and their money too" (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 428), stealing is no big thing to them. This statement also portrays a strong message that possessions are acquired by the strongest person, in other words the survival of the fittest. Later, the inner city children arrive back in Manhattan, and see all rich white people and state, "white folks crazy" (DiYanny, 2007, pg. 501), possibly to bring race and culture to the readers conscious. This statement could also suggest that the children viewed the white people as superior to them and they could not measure up. The wisdom gleaned from "The Lesson" is that no matter what hand a person is dealt in life, he/she does not have to remain that way. It will take a change of heart and attitude as well as hard work to have a different life but it will be well worth it in the end.
In the story, "Metamorphosis", by Franz Kafka, the reader is immediately thrown in an imaginary world when a mistreated man is turned into an insect. It soon became evident that the story was not about an insect but rather it was about a deeper look into the man's (Gregor Samsa) inner soul. Gregor's situation is no different than any other person suffering from a disability in that they are usually considered different and often mistreated. The author uses an insect to symbolize the man's alienation and speechless desires. The transformation into a
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roach symbolized a change in him where he became imprisoned by social and economic demands and unable to care for himself much less his family. He often sacrificed his own needs to provide better life for his parents and sister. In the statement, "Oh well, I shouldn't give up hope altogether: once I have the money to pay off my parent's debt-it should be only
a matter of five or six years-I'll definitely do it- then I will make my break" (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 613), it becomes evident that he has the role caregiver. The author uses symbolism in the theme when Gregor spoke in a slow hard manner, "I'm up", "I'll be out of bed soon" (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 613). He realized he had trouble making his voice come out the way he anticipated it to come out. Not being able to have one's voice heard is much like being caught in a world of social repression and not able to be your own individual. The theme to this story is that economics can affect relationships. In "Metamorphosis", Gregor has become a slave to bad economic times. He is the only source of income for his family and they begin to treat him not as a human but rather as money making source. After Gregor's metamorphosis, he becomes unable to work and his family begins neglecting him. The amount of ungratefulness that his family showed him was evident when he comes near death and his family pretty much disowned him because he became worthless to them (DiYanni, 2007). When a person is valued only as a source of income, exhaustion sets in and it keeps one from establishing meaningful relationships. This is actually seen in Gregor's life as he began to feel trapped in his job in order to pay for his family's debt. He desires freedom but fails to acquire it because not only has he been enslaved by his job, but when he became unable to work, he found himself imprisoned by his family. Often times when people become enslaved to their jobs and family, depression hits and they begin to believe the only way out
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is death. The metamorphosis made Gregor unable to work which in turn produced a great amount of guilt in his life. The guilt that he felt when he could no longer support his family engulfed him. In the end the powerful emotion, "guilt" took his life. Gregor never allowed himself to live his life the way he desired because he lived his life for his family out of guilt
and he dies for his family from guilt. The lesson I took from this story is that when people lack personal identity it can constrain them of their uniqueness and somewhat forces them to be slaves to others. Like in the story, Metamorphosis, this lacking of true self, or identity, causes problems in families as well as with all relationships. Trying to be perfect and live up to others expectations can not only cause depression and guilt but can be rather quite exhausting. As seen with the character, Gregor, when one lacks love and attention, this causes him/her to be reduced to nothingness, as in a hollow shell. There is a soft center that really never gets a chance to express itself.
The poem that I chose to highlight the element of theme in is, "I Died for Beauty-but was Scarce", by Emily Dickerson. A common theme seen in Dickerson's writings is death and for her, the ultimate experience is death. In the poem, "I died for Beauty-but was scarce", the theme here is one of death. It is about two people who have already died and they are having a conversation about their past lives. One speaker died for "beauty" and the other died for "truth". I believe the final line describing how moss had reached their lips and covered up their names (DiYanni, 2007 pg. 926, Dickerson is trying to suggest the powerlessness of the human condition and that all are created equal because in the end all return to dust. This poem hit a legitimate point about death and how people are forgotten
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after they are gone. I do believe Dickerson, in this poem, is trying to leave a message that people should not be treated unequal or be forgotten once they die. Death is something everyone must come to terms with because it is inevitable. In this poem, "I Died for Beauty", I believe Dickerson wants to help everyone understand that truth and beauty are one. People should choose to live their life by being true to themselves and upholding their core values until death takes them away. Doing so will allow one to live life to the fullest while maintaining a peace that passes all understanding. "Moss had reached our lips-and covered up-our names", (DiYanni, 2007, pg. 126), refers to people who live life not being true to themselves, die and are remembered no more.
Literature is a great tool to reveal different ideas about life. Themes are fundamental components of literature that can teach the reader lessons on life. A theme of a short story or poem has a unique ability to help readers grasps what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes for a moment in time. Through an author's personal life experiences, readers are invited to experience another's life whose circumstances are adversely different from their own. It often gives us new insight to help us understand and relate to others who are uniquely different. It can touch our hearts in a way that forever changes the way the world and people are viewed and accepted.
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