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Fundamentals of Literature: A Study Guide

Although there are many ways of studying literature in the homeschool, all of them should, to some extent, involve discussions of fundamental concepts such as conflict, character, theme, structure, point of view, and moral tone.  Whether one uses a textbook, reads novels, stories, and poems, or focuses on writing, understanding these fundamentals is essential to understanding literature.

The most thorough discussion of these topics that I have found for teens is in the Bob Jones University Press (BJUP)  literature texts, which we have used off and on throughout the years.  Currently one of my girls is using them and the other has just asked to switch to Omnibus, an excellent series of guides to world thought that assumes much of this basic knowledge.

To help us review the basics of Fundamentals of Literature* I prepared this study guide. Of course, it is possible to use the study guide either with or without this textIn either case, I hope it will help your teen study a wide range of literature, learn to read with discernment, and prepare for the SAT, college, or university.


There are three main types (although more than one can be occurring at a time)

  1. Man versus man
  2. Man versus himself
  3. Man versus a power greater than himself (nature, God)

The protagonist is the leading character in a story

The antagonist is the character, group of characters, or concept that opposes the protagonist

Literature can provide a resolution for man’s struggles, echoing the Bible, or not, echoing man’s despair without God.


Types of characters:

  1. Round, i.e. multifaceted
  2. Flat, i.e. one-dimensional
  3. Dynamic, i.e. changing throughout the story
  4. Static, i.e. unchanging

Character is revealed through

  1. what the person says,
  2. what others say about him/her, and
  3. what he/she does

This information can be presented either directly by exposition, description, or dialogue, or indirectly through action.


Understanding theme is the main goal of literary interpretation.

A moral is a simple statement that teaches a simple truth.

A theme is a recurring idea or central insight that is mirrored in the story’s conflict and characters, i.e. a one or two sentence summary supported by the conflict, characters, and resolution of the story.

A theme can be revealed

  1. explicitly by stating it outright,
  2. implicitly by subtly weaving it into the elements of the story, or
  3. by a combination of the two.


Careful structure allows the message to be communicated effectively, with clarity and intensity.

Structure of narratives

The plot is a series of events arranged to produce a sense of movement toward a specific goal and is often composed of the following elements.

  1. Exposition—introduces setting, characters, and situation
  2. Inciting moment—event that sets the conflict in motion
  3. Rising action—complications are introduced, events are foreshadowed, and suspense is built up
  4. Crisis—moment of greatest suspense, the turning point of the story
  5. Falling action—details of the story come together
  6. Final moment of suspense before the denouement when all the complications are unravelled (in a tragedy people often die, in a comedy misconceptions can be resolved, in a romance the couple gets together)

Structure of poetry (see also Matt Whitling’s Grammar of Poetry for grades 5 and up)

Meter—regular arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables

Verse forms

  1. Rhymed verse that has both rhyme and regular meter
  2. Blank verse—no rhyme, and each line has the same rhythm, usually iambic pentameter (five sets of unstressed, then stressed syllables)
  3. Free verse—neither regular rhythm nor rhyme

Stanza forms, a division of a poem based on thought, meter, or rhyme

  • Couplet (2 lines long)
  • Triplet (3 lines long)
  • Quatrain (4 lines long)
  • Quintet (5 lines long)
  • Sestet (6 lines long)
  • Septet (7 lines long)
  • Octave (8 lines long)

Heroic couplet—a rhyming couplet (2 lines) expressing a complete thought in iambic pentameter rhythm

Ballad—a narrative poem originally meant to be performed, often written in quatrains (4 line stanzas) with two sets of rhymes per stanza

Sonnet—a 14 line lyric (i.e. expressing personal emotions in first person form) poem

  • Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, composed of an octave (8 line) and a sestet (6 line) stanza
    • Octave is a distinct unit of thought with rhyme scheme, abbaabba
    • Sestet is another unit of thought with two possible rhyme schemes, cdecde or cdcdcd
  • English or Shakespearean sonnet, composed of one thought presented in three quatrains (4 lines stanzas) and a concluding couplet with rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg

Limerick—strictly structured form used for humorous poetry

  • five lines (quintet)
    • Lines 1, 2, 5 have 3 feet
    • Lines 3, 4 have 2 feet
  • anapestic meter (i.e. each foot includes 2 unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one)

Haiku—Japanese form of poetry used to present a vivid picture for heart or mind, usually serious or solemn

  • Three lines (triplet)
    • Lines 1, 3 have 5 syllables
    • Line 2 has 7 syllables

In shape poetry the words are arranged on the page to form a specific picture related to the meaning of the poem

Point of View

—viewpoint from which the author tells his story

  1. Omniscient—the story is told in the third person (he, she), and the narrator knows all about everything in the story, including each character’s thoughts.
  2. Limited omniscient—the story is told in the third person (he, she), but the narrator knows the thoughts of only one character.
  3. First person—the story is told in the first person (I, me) and the narrator speaks as one of the characters, without any knowledge of what others think.

Moral Tone

—the overriding philosophy of a work, involving all its elements, that makes it an influence for good or evil in our lives.  Without a positive moral tone, a work can be harmful even if it has literary merit.

Note that a work can present evil without being evil, and a work can present good while still being evil.  In fact, G. K. Chesterton believed that if a book does not have a wicked character in it, then it is a wicked book (Omnibus 1, ix).

Positive moral tone involves evil being presented as evil and good as good, wisdom as wisdom and foolishness as foolishness, virtue as virtue and vice as vice.  To determine moral tone it is helpful to answer these questions:

  1. Are the characters that we sympathize with noble? Conversely, are we led to dislike the evil characters or to admire them?
  2. Does the story cause us to desire virtue and reject vice?
  3. Does the story’s resolution reward goodness or wisdom and punish evil or foolishness?
  4. Does the theme or message agree or conflict with God’s truth? If it conflicts, how does it, and where is its flaw?

Identifying the moral tone protects us from absorbing harmful ideas, which is a significant danger when people read the brilliant but ungodly thinkers of the world.   This also points to a duty and opportunity for parents, especially homeschooling parents, and I have found Nancy Wilson’s Reading with Purpose to be helpful.

T.S. Eliot sums it all up in these words, “It is our business as readers of literature to know what we like.  It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like.” from “Religion and Literature” in Essays Ancient and Modern.

*This study guide is based on BJUP’s Fundamentals of Literature, 2002 edition, nominally a grade 9 text, though similar concepts are taught in most other basic literature texts.  To understand the concepts thoroughly from the point of view of the text, I recommend you read the introduction to each chapter.  If you are looking for direct applications of these concepts, Fundamentals of Literature applies them carefully, from a Christian point of view, to a wide range of interesting works of literature. Of course, our study guide can be useful whether or not you use BJUP’s Fundamentals of Literature; you can find explanations and applications of these concepts in any other literature text or online.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook, Finishing Strong ,Raising Homemakers.

Review: Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins

I wrote and scheduled this review a while ago.  Since then another one of my children has moved out.  Growing up and becoming independent are good and necessary things, but even under the most ideal circumstances they cause turmoil for us mothers.  And when are circumstances ever ideal in this broken world?  So I reread this review with deep sadness, but I am encouraged by it as well.  May it bless and encourage you, too, wherever you are in your mothering journey.

It is rare that a wise older woman lets you into her life, but in Mere Motherhood Cindy Rollins, a mother of nine who started homeschooling thirty years ago, shares essential wisdom with us.  At first her writing seems very low key, with bits of humor slipped in here and there, and then suddenly there is a golden page that puts my vague thoughts into words.  And then another, and another, until I am near tears.  “So, you too?” I ask the book, in C.S. Lewis’s definition of friendship.

Stating unequivocally that motherhood is sanctification, Cindy shows what that means in her own life, through good times and very difficult ones—but, no, there are no awkward confessions here;   we do not need to know any details, because we can fill them in from our own lives.

Cindy’s theme is something that will cause many mothers to slow down and ponder:

One of the biggest dangers homeschooling moms face is letting their relationships become idols of the heart.  It is easy for this idolatry to lay dormant and festering for years and years, undiscovered, causing damage.  In fact, we often misdiagnose it as righteousness. (p 3)

She discusses marriage, children growing up, and helpful books.  She states something my husband puts into different words: to fight the culture is to lose hearts.  It is not that we cannot or should not have a Christian culture, but we should not plant our flag on issues that are not fundamental.  We need to tether our children to the past so they are not adrift in the universe—their own past, our family’s past, and our culture’s past.  Of course, Christianity undergirds everything, and Cindy naturally assumes that the Bible is included in this.

As befits a veteran homeschooler, she talks about reading, narration, memorization, and more.  Especially narration, instead of all the other things that schools spend time on.  ‘What we don’t do may be the real key to success,’ she points out, explaining how powerful this simple technique is.

Mere Motherhood ranges from discussions of poetry readings and sentence diagramming to Cindy’s explanation of daily nature study at her house and how one child produced a ‘daily drawing of a snake wrapped around a pole’.

Full of the wisdom of experience, her stories ring true.  So does her advice.  And so does her wry comment about discouraged homeschooling mothers, ‘Traditional school sometimes looks like the place where everything is not her fault.’

Even so, she reminds us, ‘Your success or failure doesn’t rest on your perfection, just your faithfulness. Your family is going to be a mess sometimes….  You could cure this, of course, by not having a family at all, which is the modern choice.’

But how does the everyday life of a homeschooling mother lead to sanctification?  In many ways, of course, but also in this, ‘learning to trust God with our children’.

God has entrusted us with a great treasure.  It is our life lesson to hand it back. To let it go.  Our children must not become ‘Our Precious’.  In the end, we are merely mothers.  Mothers who are also children of our Father.  Let us run into His arms with great joy, knowing that when we see Him face to face, we will not be standing alone. (p 161)

Finally, one last word from the very beginning of the book, where Cindy sums up her conclusions so we do not think, while reading, that her life is a fairy tale:  Seek your validation in Christ; no one and nothing else will satisfy.  This, in different words, is what my father tried to explain to me when I was a teen.   I had not lived enough, then, to understand, but now I am beginning to see, and Mere Motherhood has helped.

This is a complex book, full of ideas, wisdom, and deep humor, of opinions and faith.  It is a book to read and reread, to argue with and to learn from.  And then, recognizing our thoughts in Cindy’s words, we can link arms with other Christian moms and move forward, together.

Mere Motherhood is important reading for all Christian mothers, and essential for homeschoolers.  I highly recommend it.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

This is yet another book in the in the 2017 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and may also be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook, Finishing Strong ,Raising Homemakers.

DisclosureI borrowed this book from our public library.

September and October at our House

Our lives are filled with miracles, the ones that recur every day and seem almost normal, like sunrise, electricity, digestion, relationships, and forgiveness, and the ones we pray and give special thanks for like impossible cures, unexpected successes, and mind-blowing coincidences.  When these happen, we need to be grateful, not proud; we need to see our hard work as a blessing from God, not a sole cause of the result.

This is a good reminder for us homeschooling moms.  I learned similar things from Mere Motherhood (to be reviewed early next week).  Yet, because it can be such a temptation to take credit, here it is again, “When things go well, we need to give thanks instead of becoming proud.”  The converse, of course, is that when things go poorly, we need to pray instead of becoming discouraged.

Yes, we had a successful beginning to the year’s schoolwork.  The girls learned a lot and did a lot, and progress is steady, though slow.  I am so grateful for progress!

We are working on Bible reports, Apologia’s Biology, math review in preparation for switching to Saxon (something I would never have imagined!), BJUP literature, Canadian history, Dutch and French, grammar (Rod and Staff as well as Jensen),  logic (James Madison) and accounting (Professor in a Box).  As well, we have catechism, work, animals, and volunteering.  For various reasons our homeschool focus on the Reformation in church history had to be postponed.  We also are reviewing a decade of poetry reading and learning before we move into this year’s poetry—what a trip down memory lane that is!

We also harvested our garden, travelled an enormous distance through snow north of Lake Superior to visit family (beautiful but nerve-wracking), started all our fall activities, and planted hundreds of crocus bulbs.  Miss 15’s fluffy chicks have grown up enough to lay eggs, which is always a miracle.  We have eaten so much delicious food from our garden!  The best crop this year was undoubtedly the orange cherry tomatoes, hundreds of mouthfuls of tangy sweetness, but the leeks were also amazing and the rutabagas are unusually tender and sweet.

I finished a surprising number of books these months, and dipped into a few others.

Embodied Hope by Kelly Kapic, a theological meditation on physical pain.  Insightful and helpful.

Selections from various books of nature poetry by Mary Oliver—beautiful, beautiful!

I was a Spy by Marthe McKenna, Exciting, startling, true, and recommended by Winston Churchill, this World War 1 tale is one of the best.

All Saints by Spurlock and Windle, Modern church history miracles.

Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins wisdom, humility and humor from a mom who’s been there.

Luther by Those who Knew Him by Charles, a delightful devotional look at Luther in novel form.

Katharina, Katharina by Christine Farenhorst, a peak into Luther’s days through a fictionalized account of the girl who married Strasbourg’s first reformer.

No Christian Silence on Science by Margaret Helder, a splendid little book about science and Christianity (to be reviewed on the Curriculum Choice in a few months).

I skimmed through many of the wonderful church history books I’d read years ago, while compiling a resource list about Luther and the Reformation.     That was my big project this fall, and I encourage you to see if any of these books might be helpful for your family.

I also skimmed through Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me by Tavris and Aronson, a book about the psychology and practice of self-justification.  I think this book’s concepts will prove invaluable in apologetics, conflict resolution, and marriage counselling.  There is a good reason, besides simple kindness, not to back others into a corner in arguments or to discuss conflict unnecessarily:  once something has been said—and especially defended— we tend to want to justify it.

We’ve also read the Bible regularly, as usual; with the girls I just started Jeremiah, on days when one of them is away we go through Psalms, when my husband is home we are reading in Genesis again, and on my own I’m continuing to meander through the epistles and Psalms, repeating sections over and over and pondering.

In my blogging life I have done something almost crazy.  I bought the Genius Blogger’s Toolkit.  After blogging for almost 10 years and as my teens near the end of high school, I’m exploring the idea of maybe, perhaps, becoming a serious blogger.  No commitment yet—there are many other options—but blogging combines writing, being at home, part-time work, and flexibility, all of which are important to me.  One side effect of all this is that I’m thinking of setting up a Facebook page for my blog.  Although I’ve muddled around a bit with Facebook in everyday life, it’s not really how most of my family and friends connect so there’s a steep learning curve.

As for my resolutions for 2017,

  • I am not at all walking 10,000 steps a day but have added some other simple exercises to my life. Once the garden is completely harvested and I’m no longer coping with the energy management that requires, I plan to increase my daily steps in a systematic way.
  • I am keeping up with most of the notes I write but my desk is a disaster anyhow because so much else ends up on it. This is not good.
  • I took some time off in the summer but am again working on memorizing Romans, although I spend a lot of time on other parts of the Bible as well. There’s something very powerful about trying to memorize Bible passages, and I think it’s related to what is discussed in this article about biblical meditation from the Puritans.  (Mind you, I cannot recommend this article whole-heartedly—it really seems to over-emphasize spirituality and downplay the everyday world that God has placed us in, following the age-old problem of separating the physical from the spiritual, described carefully by Nancy Pearcey and her mentor Francis Schaeffer.)

Now winter is on its way and our fire is roaring.  This is a good time for the girls to focus on schoolwork before the holidays arrive.  I’m having to work hard, too, since we are switching a few aspects of our curriculum.  Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, things change.

How was fall at your house?  Are you pleased with your homeschooling progress so far this year?

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read.

Review: I Was a Spy! by Marthe McKenna

Unable to resist the book list at the back of the excellent World War 1 novel High as the Heavens, I requested I Was a Spy! by Marthe McKenna via interlibrary loan.  When it arrived I took the afternoon off, and I’m in good company; Sir Winston Churchill stayed up until 4 AM to finish it.  He had a personal interest in the story, though, for in 1919, as Secretary of State for War, he had formally conveyed ‘the appreciation of his Majesty’ to Marthe Cnockaert McKenna.

Marthe, a Belgian nurse, was on her second vacation from medical school when war broke out.  Her village of Westroosebeke was devastated and full of wounded so she volunteered to help some nuns, refugees from Passchendaele, with their emergency hospital. Within half a year the town became too dangerous, all the women were sent to Roulers where Marthe joined the hospital, and Marthe accepted an invitation from an old family friend, presumed missing, to ‘serve her country’.

‘Laura’ as she was known to British Secret Intelligence Commission, passed on messages to #63.  At the hospital and her parents’ café she gathered her own intelligence, and passed that on, too.  She also worked tirelessly at the hospital, sometimes even caring for individuals her information had wounded.

In the Foreword, Sir Winston Churchill puts it best:

She reported the movement of troops; she destroyed, or endeavoured to destroy, ammunition dumps; she assisted the escape of British prisoners; she directed the British aeroplanes where to strike at the billets, camps, and assemblies of the German troops, and thus brought death upon hundreds of the enemies and oppressors of her country.

In the meanwhile she worked in the German hospitals rendering the merciful and tender service of a nurse to those upon whom, in another capacity, she sought to bring death and ruin, and for that service she was actually awarded the German Iron Cross in the early days of the War.

Thrilling in an understated way, I Was a Spy took me to Belgium during World War 1, into situations and concerns I could never imagine, into the life of a heroine who just did the next right thing, over and over and over, until she slipped….

Spying can be a sordid business but Marthe’s spying was, fortunately, not.  War is a sordid business, too, but sometimes wars need to be fought.  This book shows how Marthe chose to fight for her country, at the risk of her life, with all her intelligence, indeed all her heart, soul, mind, and strength, all the while loving her neighbor—and her enemy—as herself while she worked at the hospital.

We, too, are part of a war in which we fight the enemy yet are commanded to show love as well.  Our armour is detailed in Ephesians 6:10-20; our approach is given in Mark 12:29-31.

May God bless us all in our fight for him and give us wisdom, strength, and love. May God especially bless those whose service includes grave danger in military zones and give them safety, physically and spiritually.

I highly recommend this sobering and inspiring book to older teens and adults.  For homeschools, it would make an excellent supplement to a high school history course.  Do note that it contains violence.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

This is yet another book in the in the 2017 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library and am not compensated for this review.

Planting in Hope:  1480 Crocus Bulbs

For years, decades even, I’ve dreamed of a lawn covered with crocuses in the spring. It’s like painting with flowers, God’s colors and textures.

This spring I mentioned my dream several times and my dear children caught the dream, too.  Together they gave me 1000 crocus bulbs.  Now that we are planting them, it turns out that there are actually 1480 little brown bulbs, tiny promises.

So, in the damp chilliness of the wettest fall in years, we are sectioning off the yard, mixing bulb colors, and planting them, one bulb at a time, filling section after section of leaf-covered grass.  It’s a lot of bulbs to plant, and we get cold, tired, and sore, but we dream of the coming miracle.

“And is it really true that they come back year after year, and that there are more each year!?” one asked.

They, too, now wait with eager longing for the revealing of God’s crocus artistry next spring.

And, as so often with gardening, I have come to a deeper realization of Jesus’ words:  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).  Now that we are investing such extravagant time and effort into the coming of spring I am full of anticipation and, like a child, hardly able, at times, to sit still.

If we lay up treasure in heaven with the same extravagance, loving God and our neighbors with our whole being (Matt 22:37-38), working diligently in and with the world he has given us (Gen 1:28), and eagerly pointing people to Jesus (Matt 28:18-20), then God’s future kingdom will seem more and more delightful to us, too.

Then we will see that kingdom not merely as an escape, as those who struggle with despair and the difficulties of life see it, but as a great good to be anticipated with eager longing.  Yes, it will be an escape, where all our tears will be dried and all pain will disappear, but it will be so much, much more:  we will be with God.

So here’s to painting with God’s colors in our children’s hearts and in our world, to filling our lives with his goals, and to a future that will be more amazing than we could ever imagine.

May God bless each one of us, and each of our children.  Amen.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+ where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

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