Types of Prose

Unlike poetry, prose does not fall into neatly defined forms such as sonnets, blank verse, etc. We must therefore look at the 'type' of prose and consider its function or objective — i.e. to inform, to describe, to change, etc. Assessing the type of prose serves a limited, yet useful purpose; limited because many passages will combine different 'types' of prose writing simultaneously, yet useful in providing a starting-point that will direct the more detailed analysis to follow. The different types of prose fall into the following broad categories.

This is the most common type of prose found in novels and stories. Basically it relates to any sort of writing that tells a story, or develops a plot. If a given extract deals with events or situations, they are likely to be those of a particularly telling or significant nature (for the characters or the author); if it deals with a character, it will illuminate something important about that character in action. In narrative prose, the writer is concerned with two basic objectives:

1. to give the reader all the necessary and relevant information so that characters and events in his narrative are explained, or make sense;
2. to promote and sustain the reader's interest and curiosity, offering the interesting, the unusual, or the intriguing in character and situation.

The second aspect will be in particular evidence at the beginning of a work, while in the same way a sense of drama or suspense often accompanies passages that close a chapter or section. Narrative prose will be either first or third person narrative. The first person, or 'I' narrative generally produces a more personal, intimate form of communication. The reader is drawn in to share the writer's experience and a sense of sympathy or understanding is frequently developed, even when the narrator is seen to transgress moral or legal norms. The third person narrative is more 'detached', yet its scope is wider. The writer (and the reader following him) assumes a 'godlike' perspective above the action, showing us all things at all times and leading us into the minds and hearts and motives of all his main characters.

There is also a type of narrative prose known as 'stream of consciousness'. This is a modern development that seeks to take the first person narrative even deeper. The aim is to reproduce the random flow of frequently unassociated ideas that race through the human mind at any given moment. The objective, external world is diminished and everything is seen exclusively through the perceptions of one mind, which is analysed in all its ramifications, with the trivial and the significant side by side. It is an attempt to be more accurate and honest in the portrayal of human psychology. In the hands of a Joyce or a Woolf, it has proved an extremely effective form of narration.

Here the main function, obviously, is to describe, to give as accurately, or intriguingly, or powerfully as possible a deep impression of a character, place, or situation. The reader should 'feel' the scene and be able to see it or hear it as vividly as possible. Such prose is usually strong on atmosphere and the atmosphere of the description will say much about how the writer, or the characters involved, feel about what is being described. Such writing is usually the sort of prose that assumes a 'poetic' quality and will employ images and figurative language to colour the descriptions and involve the reader's emotions. Novels and stories will generally combine narrative and descriptive prose in the flow of the writing, even within short extracts. An event may be narrated, followed by a description of the mood or feeling it produces in the characters.

The effective use of detail is crucial to good descriptive writing. A writer cannot include everything about a person or an event, so he will seek the most telling and significant details, those that give us the very essence of the person, place, or event as he sees them. The type of detail chosen and the sort of associations aroused will say much about how the writer feels towards his subject; we always, for instance, know exactly how Dickens feels (and wants the reader to feel) about all his characters from his initial descriptions.

The student should consider the use of detail carefully. Does the writer have a real 'eye' for telling detail? Do the details combine to produce a uniform atmosphere? Are they surprising, unexpected, memorable? Do the details come alive for the reader and allow him to visualize or understand more vividly? Or are the details perhaps contrived or stale or insignificant?

Discursive writing offers the writer's thoughts on a particular topic such as 'the delights of living in the country', or 'the tribulations of urban life', providing general observations from his own and perhaps humorous or unusual, perspective. There is usually a sense of a mind enjoying its own intellectual activity and creative expression. The basic intention will vary somewhat, as the word 'discourse' can mean a lecture or sermon, whereas 'discursive' has connotations of random observations and light conversation. A novelist may well employ discursive sections to reveal the thoughts and values of his characters — a more subtle means of 'characterization' than simply telling us how characters think and feel, as the reader shares the actual thoughts.

Such writing attempts to influence the reader's thinking or behaviour in a specific manner, as the writer seeks to persuade, or cajole, or coerce the reader into thinking in a certain way. Generally, such writing deals with moral or political issues and is most commonly found in the sermon, treatise, journalism, or, at its lowest form, propaganda. The writer is usually passionately involved with his subject, seeing wrongs and evils that must be corrected. At its best, such writing can be powerful, moving and persuasive. At its worst, it usually reeks of fanaticism and, though its social consequences may be dangerous, it is usually poor writing.

A differentiation may be made between 'didactic' and 'directive'. At a simple level, it lies in the difference between the impassioned prose of a sermon and the detached prose of instruction (which 'directs' the reader as to what to do). Didactic is, in fact, best reserved for purely moral issues, while directive adequately covers the rest.

Like certain other literary terms — i.e. 'pathetic' — the modern usage of this word does not fully indicate the original meaning. Nowadays, we tend to use the word 'satiric' for anything that ridicules the excesses or pretensions of certain types of people (politicians being an ever-popular target, especially for cartoonists). Traditionally, however, a 'satire' was more seriously intended and conceived. It highlightted folly, immorality or excess by exaggeration thereby deflating it and making it appear ludicrous and ridiculous. Yet such satires had the genuinely didactic purpose of correcting such weaknesses, or at least preventing those possessed of them from gaining power and influence. The hope was that the reader would note the ludicrous, despicable and contemptible nature of such behaviour and avoid it himself — if only for fear of appearing equally ridiculous.

The elements of satire tend to be exaggeration, disproportion, ridicule and sarcasm. The reader must catch the right tone to avoid a reading that is too literal and taken at face value — the type of reading that might dismiss Animal Farm as a harmless fantasy of 'talking' animals. Modern satire has tended to be less moral than traditional satire, highlighting folly, etc. in an anarchic or destructive manner without offering or implying an alternative — as in the 'Absurd' dramatists.

Read the two passages below.
In order to write a text analysis, the first thing you'll have to deal with basic comprehension, i.e. you need no more than give the broadest summary.
Do this, please, in no more than 50 to 60 words.

Passage A
I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that, though at intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading — no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall; I was quite sure he never visited any refectory (= Mensa, Speisesaal) or eating house; that he never went out for a walk; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. And more than all, I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid — how shall I call it? — of pallid haughtiness (= bleiche Überheblichkeit), say, or rather an austere reserve (= genügsame Zurückhaltung/Berührngsangst) about him, which had positively awed (= Furcht einflößen) me into my tame compliance (= Überein-/Zustimmung) with his eccentricities.

As the forlornness (= Verlorenheit/Verzweiflung) of Bartleby (“Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street“ is a long short story, more commonly known as a novella, by the American novelist Herman Melville (1819–1891) grew and grew to my imagination, so did melancholy merge into fear, pity into repulsion (= Abneigung). Up to a certain point misery enlists (= hervorrufen/ansprechen) our best affections, but in certain special cases beyond that point it does not. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succour (= Beistand/Hilfe), common sense bids the soul be rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me the scrivener (= type of clerk) was the victim of an innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms (= Almosen/milde Gaben) to his body, but it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.

Passage B
We came at dusk from the high shallows and saw on a low crest (= Bergrücken/Kamm) the points of Indian tents, the tepees, and smoke, and silhouettes of tethered (=angebunden) horses and blanketed figures moving. In the shadow a rider was following a flock of white goats that flowed like water. The car ran to the top of the crest, and there was a hollow basin with a lake in the distance, pale in the dying light. And this shallow upland basin, dotted with Indian tents, and the fires flickering in front, and crouching blanketed figures, and horsemen crossing the dusk from tent to tent, horsemen in big steeple hats sitting glued on their ponies, and bells tinkling, and dogs yapping, and tilted wagons trailing in on the trail below, and a smell of wood-smoke and of cooking, and wagons coming in from far off, and tents pricking =hervorstechen) on the ridge of the round vallum (= lat. Wall), and horsemen dipping down and emerging again, and more red sparks of fires glittering, and crouching bundles of women's figures squatting at a fire before a little tent made of boughs, and little girls in full petticoats hovering, and wild barefoot boys throwing bones at thin-tailed dogs, and tents away in the distance, in the growing dark, on the slopes, and the trail crossing the floor of the hollows (= Vertiefungen) in the low dusk.

There you had it all, as in the hollow of your hand. And to my heart, born in England and kindled (= angeregt/angefacht) with Fenimore Cooper, it wasn't the wild and woolly West, it was the nomad nations gathering still in the continent of hemlock (= Art von Tanne) trees and prairies. The Apaches came and talked to us, in their steeple black hats and plaits wrapped with beaver fur, and their silver beads and turquoise. Some talked strong American, and some talked only Spanish. And they had strange lines in their faces.

Assignment concerning the prose types:
Referring to passages A and B, what prose types are these? Substantiate your decisions.

The Language in Prose:

Figurative Language, Metaphor, Imagery
All forms of language communication make frequent use of figurative language. ("He's a tough nut to crack", "the mouth of a river", "a thorny issue", "the foot of the stairs", "on top of the world" are all common examples of 'everyday' figurative language). Prose writers will frequently employ figurative devices — and for the same reason we all do — to make our expression more lively and vivid, more easy for our reader or listener to appreciate and comprehend in a full sense. A prose writer may even avail himself of the full range of poetic devices — such as imagery, metaphor, simile — even alliteration (Dickens' 'bat in blisters, ball scorched brown"). Descriptive prose will depend heavily upon such devices for its atmospheric effect — and there is a fine example of this in Reference Passage B. Images may also be used to increase the emotional content of a passage, as in this example by F Scott Fitzgerald: "her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world!".

Characters in a narrative can be fixed forcefully in the mind's eye by a striking image, metaphor or simile. Charles Dickens is a master of just such effects ("If the conventional Cherub could ever grow up and be clothed, he might be photographed as a portrait of Wilfer", "Wegg was a knotty man ... with a face carved out of very hard material ... he was so wooden that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally").

Elaborate on Language and Style in the Reference Passages A and B (see above):


amazon.de Prose Appreciation for A-Level
John Cadden

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