Literary Analysis 101: Know the story’s protagonist. Find the protagonist’s goal. Discern who/what is standing in the way of the goal, and how/why they are preventing the protagonist’s success. Everything else follows those details.
(I can see your eyes glazing over. Stick with me; I’m going somewhere with this.)
Sometimes, the protagonist is painfully clear. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte — Yeah, the protagonist is Jane Eyre.
Sometimes, the writer is a little tricky with the protagonist. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is really about Brutus, not Caesar.
Sometimes, the story has more than one protagonist. The Great Gatsby is as much about Nick’s transformation as it is Gatsby’s failure.
How do you discern the protagonist?
- Look at who the story devotes most of its time to.
- Look at who begins and ends the story.
- Look at who you learn the most about.
- Look at who the narrator sympathizes.
- Look at who is presented with the power to change the direction of the story (whether or not they make the right choice).
These observations will lead you to the protagonist. Everything about the story hinges on the protagonist. We understand purpose, conflict, theme, and ending based on the protagonist.
Consider the short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. On first glance, the protagonist seems pretty straight-forward. There’s only one man. Other people are mentioned, but as memories of the one man. Simple. Except when you consider that as much space is given to the dog, the dog’s personality is not only developed, but it is dynamic, the reader sympathizes with the dog, and the dog is our final image. Two protagonists, both given power to make choices, both with established goals, and both in conflict with the other.
(Are you still with me? I’m getting to the good part.)
Literary Analysis 102: Good literature is complex. Because good literature imitates life. And life is COMPLEX.
Thinking of my life as a story, I saw myself as the protagonist. Obviously (said with sass and a hair flip). Even more, I saw myself in a great love story; I had found my knight in shining armor and we were going to ride off into the sunset together. Sure, we would have conflict. But our goals in life would be aligned, and therefore we would face antagonists together. Unified. Forever. Um, can you say plot twist?
As the dust settled on my devastated life, I had to take a hard look at my story. My urge was to find a new white knight ASAP. If I switched him out quickly enough, maybe no one would notice. (Like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies or the first mom in The Fresh Prince). That plan has a few problems though. First, everyone notices those changes! Second, what if I never find a new knight? What does that mean for me? What does that mean ABOUT me? What if my life turns out to be a tragedy instead of a romance?
The danger of misunderstanding the protagonist is that we misinterpret everything else, and sometimes even miss the whole point of the story.
Chapters 1 and 2 of Ephesians paint the picture of the TRUE protagonist. I invite you to read and study it for yourself, and when you do pay careful attention to those small prepositions “to,” “for,” and “in.” So much meaning is wrapped up in such short words!
Here’s the gist, though: God does ________ for me, through Christ, in LOVE. Repeat.
- God blesses me with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. Because He loves me.
- God adopted me as His child, through Christ. Because He loves me.
- God set apart an inheritance for me, through Christ. Because He loves me.
- God shows the immeasurable greatness of His power, working for me, through Christ. Because He loves me.
- God makes me alive and free, through Christ. Because He loves me.
I am overwhelmed – How can my life be anything BUT a love story!
When I recognize who the REAL protagonist is, everything changes. Conflict will still come, internal and external, but I have a clear perspective of the purpose and goal. I know the ending. And it’s really good! It’s the same purpose and goal He has for each one of us, when we acknowledge Him as the protagonist of our stories.
I do pray that one day I will have a true partner, united in a common goal with me for the rest of my life. But, when I look at my story, it is not a love story between me and any other person.
My story is a love story between God and myself.
HE is the protagonist, and knowing HIM and HIS goals makes all the difference.