Literary Representation

Lots of things can be represented in literature, such as characters, ideas, an event in history, and much more. The representation of each of these is what comprises the meaning of the text and shapes our response to it.

Literary Representation Literary Representation

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Table of contents

    Representation in literature

    Literary representation is the way ideas are 're-presented' to readers. It refers to how meaning is constructed through linguistic techniques, influencing the reader's perception of the subject matter and the text. It can also refer to the representation of a group of people and their ideologies.

    Why representation matters in literature

    • Representation filters our understanding of literature - The representation of different characters, events, and ideas work together to create a narrative. Without representation, the core ideologies and meanings of the text would be less clear.

    • Representations are not neutral - It is important to consider why an author represents things in certain ways. Authors make a conscious choice to represent things to reveal their viewpoint on the subject matter.

    For example, in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Boo Radley is a symbol of kindness when he saves the children from Bob Ewell.

    The way an author represents certain ideals can also reveal much about their past and upbringing, contextualising their writing and deepening your understanding of their intentions as a writer.

    An example of this is Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was very similar to the protagonist's in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985). As readers learn about the character's life, Winterson represents the struggles of her past through the main character.

    Literary representation Image of an orange StudySmarterIn Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Wintersons represents aspects of her own life through the main character. - pixabay

    How does literary representation construct our view of the text?

    Next, let's examine how literary representation functions in literature.

    Literary representations can be abstract or plain - Representations can be straightforward, but not always. Often the author will represent a character or an object in an abstract way. This means it is not obvious what the item or character, etc., represents, but as you progress through the novel it becomes clearer. Once you understand what the character, item, or event symbolizes, the rest of the narrative can be explored in greater depth.

    For example, in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson, the orange seems to be an enigmatic symbol at the start of the text. It becomes a symbol of normality and continuity in Jeanette's life, but what the orange really represents is heterosexuality. Winterson uses the repeated symbol of the orange to represent the way heterosexuality was pushed onto the protagonist by her religious community.

    Through this example, it is clear how subtle symbols throughout literature represent a larger idea the author wishes to convey.

    Literary representation frames our view of the text - the context the author chooses to represent in the novel dictates what the rest of the text will explore.

    For Example, in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970), the black community is desolate and struggling, a contrast to the civilized and racist white society. Through the contrast in her representation of the black and white communities, she frames the narrative in terms of racial inequality.

    What are some methods of literary representation?

    Here are some examples of different ways authors represent their ideas:

    Language and dialect

    Individual dialects represent geographical locations and cultures. For example, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) is written in a southern black dialect. When reading the text many readers have to make more of an effort to understand the dialect as it is different from what they may be used to reading.

    • Hurston's choice to write the text in this style is a vital part of the novel, as the dialect represents a community and its struggles.
    • The heavy use of dialect excludes the white reader and is imperative for understanding the novel, which aims to represent how black people feel, being on the outskirts of white communities (to a much smaller extent).

    Poetic structure/form

    The structure and form of a poem often represent the wider message behind the piece. For example, sonnets are widely recognised as love poems. Some poets subvert the traditional connotations of a sonnet and use the form ironically as they take on a more bitter subject matter.

    Literary representation Writing desk StudySmarterThe structure of a poem can represent the message. For example, the structure of a sonnet represents it as being a love poem.- pixabay

    An example of this is Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed for Youth' (1920). He employs the sonnet form but contrasts the traditional subject matter of love and writes about the unjust death of young men in the war. His use of the sonnet represents his loss of faith that love and joy exist in the world after what he has seen in battle.


    An object or place can represent the author's ideas. For example, the streetcar in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams has often been interpreted as a representation of the monotonous nature of life. The way the streetcar moves through the town mirrors how we continue living mundane life every day, on a track to our deaths.

    When the streetcar stops in Elysian Fields it is a representation of Blanche's inevitable death, as Elysian Fields means the land of the dead in Greek Mythology.

    Through these subtle symbols throughout the play, Williams represents his larger ideas about life and society.


    The setting of a novel, poem, or play can also represent the wider themes or message of the piece. For example, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' is set in New Orleans, the cultural melting pot of America. This location represents the clash between Stanley and Blanche's outlook on life, as they are from two very different backgrounds.

    How does representation influence our perception of the text?

    Considering how the different types of representation help construct and frame the reader's understanding and perception of literature.

    • Establishing themes - By representing larger ideas through characters, symbols, poetic/novelistic structure, and language and dialect, the core themes of the text are foregrounded early on and maintained throughout the novel.
    • Framing the reader's interpretation of the text - By establishing the themes of the Literature early on, the reader cannot help but interpret the text through the lens of the represented context.

    Returning to the previous example of The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison, it is difficult for the reader to read the text without considering the racial inequality that Morrison represents in the setting and dialect of the characters.

    Literary Representation - Key Takeaways

    • Literary representation frames our understanding of Literature. The representation of events, characters, communities, etc., foregrounds the reader's understanding of what themes the text will explore.
    • Literary representations are not neutral. The abstract ideas behind the representation of certain symbols and characters is a choice made by the author to encourage readers to perceive the text in a particular way.
    • The methods of representation include language and dialect, setting, symbolism, characters, and form and structure.
    • Literary representation can tell us about the life of the author. The events in the author's life have caused them to represent things in a certain way. Due to what they have experienced they have been led to view life in a particular way, which leads to their chosen representations in their text.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Representation

     How does representation influence our perception of the text?

    The reader's perception of the text is dictated by the representations of characters, events, etc as the author offers a perspective.

    What is representation in literature and entertainment?

    Representation is the way ideas are 're-presented' to readers. It refers to how meaning is constructed through linguistic techniques, influencing the reader's perception of the subject matter and the text.

    What is the importance of representation in literature?

    Representation is important because the representation of characters, events, themes, ideas, objects, etc, is what comprises the meaning of the text and shapes our response to the literature.

    How does literature represent reality?

    Literary representation can be used to present the author or narrator's views, influence the audience's views, or to present aspects of reality. This is done by using linguistic techniques such as using a specific form or structure in poetry.

    What are the literary devices used in representation?

    Methods of representation include language and dialect, setting, symbolism, characters, and form and structure.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false?A representation is neutral.

     True or false?Representation does not frame the reader's perception of the text.

    True or false: Authors decide how to represent different topics.


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