How to Read Creative Nonfiction
As described in the introduction of this textbook, literature requires readers to closely examine a story for its artistic quality. Review this introductory chapter ("What is Literary Analysis?") to get an in-depth look into the ways in which one might approach any work of literature.
That being said, there are some critical thinking methods of analysis which will help students gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Creative Nonfiction stories. Remember that creative nonfiction stories are true. That means the authors have less wiggle room than, say, poets, dramatists or fiction writers because they cannot invent scenes. They have an obligation to portray the truth, to be factual. So instead, creative nonfiction authors get creative in how they tell the story.
Creative Nonfiction Basic Elements
When reading creative nonfiction, consider the following aspects of the text:
- Setting - where does the story takes place? What do we know about this location? How is it described, and to what effect?
- Plot - what happens in the story and in what order? How does the order of the events impact their meaning?
- Characters - who are the people (or sometimes animals or other entities) in the story? What kinds of characters are they? How are they characterized?
- Figurative Language - how does the author effectively use language as an artistic tool to render the story? What metaphors, similes, or descriptive imagery does the author use to make the story immersive, and why?
As you complete the assigned readings in this chapter, try to take notes on each of these aspects of the text.
Let's do a practice analysis together.
Case Study: "April 15th, 1802" by Dorothy Wordsworth
It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs. Clarkson went a short way with us, but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large boathouse, then under a furze bush opposite Mr. Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath. The lake was rough. There was a boat by itself floating in the middle of the bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish, but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working. A few primroses by the roadside—woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry, yellow flower which Mrs. C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the sea had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea.... All was cheerless and gloomy, so we faced the storm. At Dobson's I was very kindly treated by a young woman. The landlady looked sour, but it is her way.... William was sitting by a good fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the library, piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves, and wished for Mary. It rained and blew, when we went to bed.
The setting is established early on in the short story, as a "threatening, misty morning" in someplace called "Eusemere." The term "threatening" is interesting, as it sets the mood with a kind of conflict in terms of the weather. It appears this is a rural area, because there is a farmer with a "plough going in the field." Again we have some threatening imagery, as she states the "wind seized our breath," which again makes the weather seem like it is a kind of personified villain. This is clearly a very beautiful natural setting, full of various flowers like "primroses" and "woodsorrel," violets, and so forth. While the setting feels threatening and suffocating, the setting changes once the "gay" and dancing. The setting is then described again in a threatening way, as "stormy," "cheerless and gloomy." The story's setting at the end appears to be some kind of a hotel or business.
The plot of the story is kind of simple. It appears to be chronological: it starts with the narrator setting out on a walk from Eusemere. The conflict is that they want to go on a walk but the weather is "threatening." Despite this weather, they continue on their way until they found the daffodils. The climax of the story is when they have to fight their antagonist, the wind ("so we faced the storm"), and finally arrive at what seems to be a hotel called "Dobson's." Dorothy and William sit reading by the fire, missed someone named Mary, and then they went to bed.
- Dorothy Wordsworth is the narrator. We don't get a description of her, butt we can tell that she knows a lot about botany, as she seems to be able to identify lots of flowers. She seems to "rest" a lot on the walk. Probably the most developed of characters (round and dynamic) because she perseveres through the stormy weather and seems somewhat changed by the happy daffodils.
- Mrs. C. Flat and static character. We don't get a lot of information about this character except that she calls a certain plant "pile wort."
- Wind/stormy weather. Seems to be a personified antagonist, because it is described as "threatening" and that it "seized" their breath
- Daffodils. Personified as dancing, happy flower friends, who "rested their heads" on stones like "pillows" and dance in the stormy weather.
- Sour landlady. Flat & static character, not a lot of description except for being "sour."
- Young woman. Flat & static character. We just know she treated Dorothy "kindly."
- William. Reader. Someone close to narrator. Cozy by fire.
- Mary. Someone close to narrator that apparently they "miss."
It is interesting how the human characters receive barely any description, but the natural landscape is described in very specific detail. This emphasis bubbles up in the personification of the landscape. As described in the section on setting, it seems interesting how the weather and flowers are personified or anthropomorphized (that is, non human entities described with human characteristics). The weather is described as a kind of antagonist, "threatening," "cheerless and gloomy." It even seems violent, in the sense that it "seized" the breath of Dorothy and William. Then the flowers are described almost like friends, reeling and dancing, "resting their heads" from weariness that might mirror the resting that Dorothy and William take throughout the story. They "rested, again and again." It seems as if Dorothy is projecting her feelings onto the environment, and that the daffodils helped her get through whatever "weariness" she might be feeling.
Through its characterization of the wind as antagonist, and empathy with the personified daffodils, this short journal entry argues for the healing capacity of the natural world. When Dorothy and William first left their indoor environment -- "dinner from Eusemere" -- Dorothy seemed afraid and defeated by the weather. The anthropomorphized "threatening" weather and suffocating wind function as a kind of antagonist preventing Dorothy and her brother from reaching their destination. The visit with the similarly personified daffodils seemed to transform the narrator through their brightness, and their dancing in the wind. Instead of having their breath "seized" by the wind as Dorothy and William had experienced at the beginning of the story , the daffodils "verily laughed with the wind," dancing with it, using the bad weather to find joy.
So does this encounter with the dancing daffodils similarly empower Dorothy. While in the beginning of the story Dorothy appears to cower to the wind's dominance, in the end she takes a note from the daffodils to gain a kind of courage: "All was cheerless and gloomy, so we faced the storm." Directly after this, Dorothy is rewarded with a happy ending: a cozy evening by the fire reading with her brother. The journey has changed Dorothy's mood.
As the above analysis shows, even a relatively short work of literature has a lot to analyze. This is just one interpretation among many possible interpretations. The idea is to closely examine a story to determine how the way it is written (setting, plot, character, figurative language) influences its meaning to you (interpretation). There are not necessarily "right" or "wrong" answers. More so, there are answers supported by the text and those that are not. For now, keep in mind those questions about setting, plot, characters, and figurative language. Apply them to whatever stories you read. Take notes as you read. This material could form the basis of your first literary analysis essay!