How to interpret...
Click here to leave

The „How to interpret a ...“ series

Hans-Dieter Gelfert: Wie interpretiert man ein Gedicht? (How to Interpret a Poem) Stuttgart: Reclam 1990, 192 pp. Wie interpretiert man ein Drama?(How to Interpret a Drama) Stuttgart: Reclam 1992, 191 pp. Wie interpretiert man einen Roman?(How to Interpret a Novel) Stuttgart: Reclam 1993, 199 pp. Wie interpretiert man eine Novelle und eine Kurzgeschichte? (How to Interpret a Novelle and a Short Story) Stuttgart: Reclam 1993, 195 pp.(All four in the series Arbeitstexte für den Unterricht)
Einführung in die Verslehre
(Introduction to the Theory of Verse)Stuttgart: Reclam 1998, 192 pp.

The five books were written chiefly for use in secondary schools, but since they have found their way into undergraduate classes of German and English departments at universities, they should, perhaps, be introduced to the more scholarly public, too. Each book consists of two parts, the first dealing with the poetics of the literary form under discussion, the second giving practical examples of how to analyse individual works, each from a particular angle.

gedichtHow to Interpret a Poem begins by distinguishing techniques of verbal formalisation from means of expression, the latter being classed (according to Ezra Pound) in three groups: melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. The next chapter is dedicated to traditional forms such as the ode, the sonnet, and the short lyric. Then follow chapters on comic poetry, on methodological issues and on the problem of critical evaluation with a special chapter on 'Kitsch'.
The second part of the book shows how the theoretical and methodological tools of the first part can be applied to individual poems. Of these, only four are from English literature. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Art" was chosen to illustrate how a subtly hidden crack in the formal structure can serve as a signal of irony. Shelley's"Ode to the West Wind" is discussed as a poem elaborately structured towards a final keystone. Donne's sonnet "Death, be not proud" is contrasted with Gryphius' "Es ist alles eitel" in order to show how two different national traditions result in different degrees of complexity; and Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 ("Like as the waves") is produced as evidence for the capabilities of the pre-romantic conceit in contrast to the romantic symbol. The final chapter "On the cause of pleasure in reading poetry" returns to general issues and proposes a theoretical approach towards literary evaluation on the basis of information theory.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from


dramaHow to Interpret a Drama follows the same principle. It begins by separating drama first as a mimetic mode from the expressive mode of lyrical poetry, and then as a simulative form of mimesis from its fictional counterpart in narrative literature. The next chapters discuss character, plot, setting and stage properties in detail. Then follow chapters on comedy, commedia dell'arte, and tragedy with a concluding summary of the author's theory of tragedy (see Die Tragödie. Theorie und Geschichte [Tragedy. Its Theory and History], Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1995).
The larger part of the book is dedicated to the discussion of sixteen plays from Sophocles to Beckett, with only Shakespeare's Hamlet , Tennessee Williams' AStreetcar Named Desire and Beckett's Waiting For Godot from English and American literature. The chapter on Hamlet discusses the play as the only one of Shakespeare's tragedies where the conflict of passion vs. reason is developed in reverse. Whereas all the other tragic heroes fall victim to an overwhelming passion right at the beginning, Hamlet's problem is that he abides by his reason which makes him incapable of resolute action until at last, in Ophelia's grave, he himself is blinded by passion and now must suffer his tragic fate.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from


romanHow to Interpret a Novel, like the previous book, begins by separating fictional mimesis from the simulative mode in drama. It then moves on to the distinction between reporting narrative, narrator-narrative, first-person narrative and 'narratorless narrative' (commonly known as 'the self-effacing author'). The next chapter discusses narrative in terms of fictional representation with a variable lens, with the narrator as the person behind the camera. Then follow chapters on character, plot, setting, leitmotif, pattern and rhythm, and the techniques of representing the inner life of characters. A special chapter is dedicated to the distinction of "Longitudinalspannung" and "Transversalspannung", which in English are better called suspense and tension, respectively. Another chapter distinguishes "Six ways of beginning a novel": by prologue, prehistory, overture, the zooming-in technique, a character portrait, or by a scenic opening.
The theoretical part concludes with a discussion of the four possible modes of fiction: the presentation of reality as it is, as it is not, as it ought to be, and as it ought not to be. In other words: the realistic, the fantastic, the utopian, and the satiric mode. The transitional chapter, leading on to the practical part, gives instances and textual analyses of the five most frequent types of 'Kitsch' in fiction. Then follow individual discussions of nine novel, which, of course, could not be given complete interpretations, but are looked at under particular heads. Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften is discussed as a narrative elaborately structured by the non-realistic principles of poetry. In Dickens' Great Expectations the same poetic technique can be observed within a basically realistic framework. Joyce'sUlysses is contrasted with Proust's A la recherche du temps perdue and Kafka's Das Schloß in order to show how Proust achieves the consummation of realism, while Joyce destroys it and Kafka creates a new non-realistic mode of narrative. A chapter on Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles raises the question whether tragedy is possible in a novel. The rest is about German literature.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from


novkugeHow to Interpret a Novella and a Short Story first raises the question "What is a story?". It then moves on to the problem of how to achieve unity in a minimal narrative unit. Six types of centring a story are suggested: centring around a thing, a place, a person, a case, an event, and a situation. In each case the minimal structure will result in what the author calls the "three-step-scheme". The next issue is the problem of creating tension. Here the two options are either leading a plot towards a climax or intensifying a situation towards a focus. A separate chapter discusses the four main techniques of focussing: by deflation, crisis, epiphany, or initiation. The most difficult task of the book was the distinction between the German 'Novelle' and the short story. The author hopes to have given sufficient evidence for arguing the difference to be that the Novelle aims at the "real truth" whereas the short story is in search of "true reality". A special chapter on "The revealing first sentence" shows how the first sentence of a short narrative almost invariably tells the reader whether he can expect a Novelle, a short story or a short tale.
In the practical part of the book the four instances of a Novelle are naturally all German, but in the chapter on Grillparzer's Der arme Spielmann Melville's Bartleby is referred to by way of comparison in order to show that the former develops into a Novelle, while the latter turns into a short story. In similar manner, the chapter on Poe's The Gold-Bug shows how the story at first seems to develop into a romantic Novelle, until all of a sudden it is resolved into a 'story of ratiocination', i. e. a casecentred short story. In another way, Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is discussed as a combination of two typical American forms, the tall tale and the yarn. Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp is studied as a realistic story, while Joyce's Araby serves as a typical example of a modern short story centred around a situation and focussed on an epiphany. In Katherine Mansfield's Bliss the epiphany turns into a crisis whereas in Hemingway's The Killers the expected climax of a plot story is suddenly replaced by the initiation focus of a situation-centred story. The last four chapters discuss modern German short stories, showing how German writers had their difficulties in struggling free from the native tradition of the Novelle and how they tended towards parabolic forms that still retain a good deal of that tradition.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from


In all four books, literary theory has been worked into the poetological as well as the practical parts, though not in its most "advanced" post-structuralist form. But in view of the fact that these books are designed for use in secondary schools the author has refrained from direct references to secondary literature. An extensive bibliography, however, should, at least in part, make up for this deficiency so that even undergraduate students in English and American departments might find them useful in getting over the first hurdles towards a more scholarly approach to literature.

verslehreIntroduction to the Theory of Verse. The book is designed for advanced students at secondary school and for beginners at university. It gives a complete survey of the formal elements of poetry such as metre, rhythm, sound patterns, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, stanza forms, structural patterns and traditional forms of poems. Most of the examples are from German literature, but the book also includes a few English poems.

deusmlClick here for price and availability information from

[Home] [Personal]

(c) 2004 by Axel Gelfert
Impressum & Haftungsausschluss
: siehe Hinweis auf Homepage
Legal Disclaimer
: visit link on our homepage

This website is (c) 2002 by Axel Gelfert