I’ve read a decent number of novels. As a graduating English major, I’ve wrestled with texts and tried to strangle out meaning. At times it worked perfectly, but other times it left me hopeless. Generally speaking, there are some good, simple tips that have helped me understand any novel that I am reading. If you want to begin to understand a novel, then follow these tips:
1) Who is speaking?
You cannot assume that the narrator is the author. In a sense, the author is writing in a persona and thus it is not right for us as readers to diminish that by associating the narrator with the actual author of the book. Understanding who is speaking will help you come come to grips with many parts of the book. Does the narrator seem omniscient, meaning he seems to know everything about every single character? Or, is he limited in the knowledge that he is able to give? Is the narrator the main character, or is it someone watching the main character and or someone closer to the main character? At times, books can have multiple narrators, which means you will have to do more work in trying to decipher who is speaking and why that choice of narrator is significant.
2) What are the characters like?
Understanding characters can be fun and frustrating at the same time. Like people in the real world, characters in books often have competing and conflicting emotions, making it hard for readers to fully understand their motives and ambitions. However, you can ask yourself a general question: how do they usually act? For example, in Frankenstein Victor is ambitious, scientific, and passionate. Understanding how victor acts and behaves becomes important because it is this behavior that prompts him to seek knowledge and eventually create the Creature. Another way to ask this question is to inquire as to why the character(s) do what they do. Many times this will open you up to a psychoanalytic approach, but regardless about how you feel about psychoanalysis as a literary theory it does provide a good starting ground for comprehending a characters desires and motivations. In the case of Victor in Frankenstein, one can see how he is often reluctant to marry Elizabeth, possibly due to the loss of his mother. In fact, he even has a dream in which Elizabeth turns into his mother. Needless to say, understanding what the characters are like can help you put together a good analysis of a novel.
3) Are there common themes and allusions?
This one can be a bit harder to do if the author includes allusions that you are not familiar, but it’s still useful to try. Literature is never written in a vacuum; novels often are in a conversation with a host of other books that have already been written. In other words, a novel today will often include similar themes, and possible even allude it, works from hundreds of years ago. For example, a sacrificial character who dies in the place of someone else is often known as the “Christ-like figure.” This is a common allusion in literature and can be found in many different books. Additionally, themes like love, jealousy, greed, lust, etc. can all be found in a number of different works. Since novels are always about human experiences (yes, even if it is a book about aliens or puppies), they never really have something new to say; it can be a new way of saying it, but the message is generally the same. Once again, in Frankenstein you can see numerous allusions to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, both implicitly and explicitly.
Although this is not a comprehensive list, I believe asking yourself these three questions while reading a novel can give you a great starting point to understanding its meaning. Novels are fun to read, but when you can’t understand what’s going on or what it means, it can quickly become burdensome. So, do yourself a favor and act like a detective at the scene of a crime while you’re reading a book; What happened? Why did it happen? Has it happened before? Is there a pattern? Who could have done it? Interrogate the novel and you will eventually squeeze out some meaning.