How to Read a Novel: Week #2

Part two potted

What Belongs to YouI’ve completed the second week of my free online course, How to Read a Novel, with the University of Edinburgh, in which we examined characterisation. As with week one, we drew on a range of classics, but focused most intensely on a single contemporary novel.

This time we delved into What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell, as it offers good examples of how first appearances can influence our reading of a character and, how their behaviour and speech might alter or confirm that initial impression.

Here is a condensed record of my activities over the past week:

2.1 – 2.17 >> CHARACTERISATION >>

Introduction to character: There was an introductory video from Lead Educator, Dr Alex Lawrie, in which she outlined various ways of reading about and understanding character, such as first appearances, behavioural patterns and speech.

Who’s your favourite character?: The question was posed: what makes a fictional character memorable? We were asked to reveal our favourite characters and explain why. I chose the indomitable Jean Brodie from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Names and appearances: We looked closely at how we read a character and what makes an individual memorable on the page. Hard Times by Charles Dickens and Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence were both made available to download from Project Gutenberg.

Speech and Behaviour: We learned that judging a character on the way he or she behaves towards others is a reliable method of assessing their nature. In her video, Dr Lawrie offered examples from the fiction of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen to illustrate the point.

Omniscient narrators: We saw that gaining access to a character’s inner thoughts enabled us to learn more about them. We scrutinized the moment Will Ladislaw, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, called on his much older cousin Mr. Casaubon and new wife Dorothea Brooke during their honeymoon in Rome, but found only Dorothea at home.

First-person narratives: We considered novels narrated from the perspective of one person. Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby was held up as an example of a character relying on eye-witness accounts.

Stream of consciousness: We examined a technique that is used to give the impression we have direct access to a character’s thought stream, complete with its free associations and half-formed ideas. We read an excerpt from ‘Penelope’, the final chapter of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, in which we follow Molly Bloom’s thoughts for 40 or so pages divided into only eight unpunctuated and hypnotic sentences. This is as close as a reader is likely to get to a character.

How much have we learnt about characterisation? We had a little light relief with a quiz, which referred back to some of the ideas we looked at in previous steps.



Overview of What Belongs to You: We applied our knowledge about the ways in which character is revealed to Garth Greenwell’s 2016 novel What Belongs to You.

First appearances: We looked back at previous steps to see some of the ways in which a character can be presented – with particular emphasis on Mitko, a charismatic young hustler from Greenwell’s novel. We read an excerpt before considering some of the effects produced.

Searching for motives: Here we read another excerpt from the novel, examining Mitko’s behaviour for clues to his motives.

Patterns of behaviour: Once again, we looked closely at Mitko’s conduct towards the narrator, and after reading an extract, shared our views.

Responding to others: In order to provide a more multidimensional view of Mitko’s character, we looked at his behaviour towards people other than the narrator.

Are the characters a success?: We were given the opportunity to visit the discussion area and engage with others on characterisation in Greenwell’s novel.

Meet the author: We watched an interview with Garth Greenwell in which he reflected on his experience of writing What Belongs to You. Among several facets, he talked about how he viewed the relationship between the narrator and Mitko. After watching the video, we were asked if we could think of other novels where our view of the narrator (and of the trustworthiness of their point of view) changed as we learned more about them. I suggested Maurice Bendrix from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

Book club: In the discussion area, we were asked to share our reading experiences and pick our favourite parts of the novel. We were also given the opportunity to analyse the depiction of Mitko and other characters.


From characterisation to dialogue: We reflected on all we had learned about characterisation in week two of the course, looking back at some of the ways in which a character’s inner thoughts are communicated to the reader.


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10 replies

  1. Thanks for this detailed summary of your class. I am thinking about how to apply what your are learning to my class on Adultery in 19th Century Literature where we just finished discussing Madame Bovary.

  2. The class sounds excellent- thank you for sharing the information and links. Somebody once said that a book reads the individual reader, and I wondered if you agreed with this point at all. Taught reading or collaborative reading takes somebody down a particular channel which is not designed by themselves, and I thought about whether you may have felt resistance to looking at a text in way ‘x’ or way ‘y’. I think there may be tensions to be navigated, but you might feel that the process is a smooth one. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome, Cheep. I’m no academic, so dissecting a novel in this way has been a completely new experience. Perhaps because I’ve never before been instructed on reading I’m regarding it as something of an adventure, and I’ve enjoyed learning about the x and y ways of tackling a text. However, in the discussion area, I have noticed resistance from a couple of people taking part – maybe they consider it to be too simplistic, but for a four week course it covers a lot of ground. On the whole, people appear to be benefitting from the guidance, so it’s going quite smoothly at the moment.

  3. This looks like a wonderful Paula. It seems to cover the sorts of things I like to think about when I read but feel very rusty about. Voice, perspective, etc. That John Mullan article on Emma looks excellent. He’s good value in general I think.


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