The Structure of a Literary Work Shapes Its Meaning Expository Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 5th, 2019

Henry James in his work “The Art of Fiction” and Joseph Conrad in his “The Task of the Artist” touched upon the problem of measuring the aesthetic value of a work of fiction by certain criteria. The outstanding theoreticians of the English literature Henry James and Joseph Conrad concluded that a novelist is free to use unnumbered ways for showing the glimpses of truth to readers, but should comply with the fiction laws. The structure, sounding and any detail can have impact upon readers’ perception and shape the meaning conveyed in a novel.

The main characteristics of a good novel

Discussing the relationship between the morality of novelists and their artistic sense, Henry James and Joseph Conrad concluded that writers have certain moral obligations and need to take into account the possible readers’ reaction to the form and content of their works. James explains the excessive jocularity of certain novels with the negative consequences of an old superstition concerning the admissible wickedness of the literary works.

Though this outdated misconception has been left in the past, its spirit still lingers on and has impact upon stories which are perceived as only a joke (James 856). James disapproves the writers who do not attempt to enhance the gravity of their novels and do not consider the opportunities of competing with real life. Certainly, novelists cannot be compared to historians looking for the absolute truth, but they need to pay attention to collecting the evidence and presenting it to readers to appeal to their feelings, intelligence and common sense.

Writers can make readers to take their works seriously by speaking authoritatively to the minds and feelings of their potential readers. Comparing novelists to historians and other scientists, Conrad stated that writers look for the truth, but use it as a source of inspiration and interpret the facts of real life in their unique ways.

A novelist can manipulate the readers’ feelings, including those of their fears, ambitions and aspirations, but always counts upon their credulity and takes the advantages of it (Conrad 870). However, counting upon the credulity of readers can be rather hazardous because their individual reactions and prior experience are unpredictable.

For this reason, James distinguished between bad novels appealing to the credulity of generation and good ones which can be regarded as true works of art.

The main assessment criteria chosen by James for distinguishing between the two categories of novels include whether the novel is interesting and whether it produces a strong impression upon the audience (James 858). Thus, the main obligations of a good writer are to make his/her novel interesting and to impress readers.

Defining a novel as writer’s “personal impression of life” (James 858), the theoretician raises the question of the techniques which should be used for intensifying this impression. The quality of a particular novel can be measured only by readers’ perceptions and impressions from it.

A writer who tries to explain the methods of achieving success in literature faces serious difficulties because it is almost impossible to put into words the individual artistic sense and aesthetics. James claimed that the ways for improving the quality of fiction are innumerable because they depend upon the writer’s personal experience and talents.

Still, a novelist, who can also be referred to as an artist writing a book, should learn from the experience of other writers, analyzing the tones, plot lines and composition of their novels for complying with the main laws of fiction.

Defining the main laws of fiction

Though literature cannot be compared to exact sciences, fiction has its unique laws and novelists should comply with them. Literature is all about creativity and individual temperament, but novelists should pay proper attention to the structure and sounding of their works for improving the inner working of the text and hypothesizing the possible impression produced upon readers.

Conrad compared the process of creating a novel to the mechanism through which one individual temperament appeals to a great number of other temperaments (Conrad 872). The variety of possible interactions cannot be predicted. For this reason, in some cases readers can see the meanings which were not initially implied by the author in the text.

In other case, the symbols can be misinterpreted and the novelist’s moral messages misunderstood. Every text is viewed in the context of not only its epoch, literature genre and writer’s heritage and achievements, but also readers’ personal experience.

Therefore, the same text can create different associations in different readers and produce different impression upon them. However, by paying special attention to the composition of the novel and its inner working, a writer can enhance chances for achieving success with the audience.

The sincerity and gravity of a literary text are the main principles of making readers to feel, hear, see and believe a novelist. Conrad recommended other novelists to catch glimpses of truth and show them to readers with all their colors, sounds, movements, vibrations and ongoing modifications.

Simmons (2009) stated that Conrad was a proponent of an objective method of withdrawing a novelist from the world of fiction for overcoming the problem of a telling weakness (182). Therefore, the main task of a novelist is not to tell, but to show the plot lines in their development, not expressing the judgments directly, but providing readers with an opportunity to form their own opinions.

Revealing the substance of truth and competing with reality are the main laws of fiction according to the aesthetics of James and Conrad. Conrad criticized the principle of Art for Art and admitted that this sort of literature is deprived of its immortality.

Thus, analyzing the works of these theoreticians, it can be stated that the main laws of fiction are to make it believable and present the realistic picture of life in its dynamics for reaching the responsive emotions of readers.

The inner working and proportion of novels

Though exact data and formulas cannot be applied to writing novels, writers should pay attention to the inner working of their texts and intuitively feel the inner balance and proportion of their works for intensifying the impression produced upon readers. Every word and every line of a novel can be significant for the inner working of the novel and appealing to the readers’ feelings.

The inner balance of all the elements of the composition and plot of a work of literature is important, and a strong artistic feeling is required for feeling the entity of the novel and preserving it. Like an artist working on a painting can spoil it with only one unnecessary stroke, an artist working on a book can spoil it with only one unnecessary detail or character.

James emphasized the importance of the inner working of a novel and referred to every new character in a novel like to a new problem in proportion of the whole text (Berland 51). Therefore, a character should be shown in its development, but at the same time to be in the harmony of the rest of the novel.

The form of a literary work can have a significant impact upon the readers’ perception of the text and shape the meanings implied by the authors and created by readers on their own. Working on their books, novelists are free to use their creativity and unnumbered ways for expressing their ideas and appealing to the feelings of readers.

However, on the other hand, their freedom is limited by the laws of fiction. There are no exact formulas for evoking responsive emotions in readers, but novelists should pay special attention to the inner working and proportions of their literary texts if they want to intensify the effects produced upon readers.

Analyzing the theoretical recommendations of Conrad and James, it can be stated that the work of a novelist is full of challenges and riddles. Creating unique worlds in their works of fiction, novelists need to take into account not only the possible reactions and feelings of readers, but also the relationship between the elements of the text itself which can shape the meaning.


Analyzing literary theories of James and Conrad, it can be stated that a novelist should give serious consideration to every detail of a novel, including its structure, inner working and proportion because these aspects can influence the readers’ perception and shape the meaning of the whole text.

Works Cited

Berland, Alwyn, Culture and Conduct in the Novels of Henry James. Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. “The Task of the Artist”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Meyer Howard Abrams. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 870 – 876. Print.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Meyer Howard Abrams. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 856 – 859. Print.

Simmons, Allan. Joseph Conrad in Context. Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

This expository essay on The Structure of a Literary Work Shapes Its Meaning was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Read more