The Importance of Content & Form in Literature
The form of literature is its genre: short story, poem, novel, play or fable. The content of the piece is its story, what it's about. The enjoyment found in reading and studying literature comes when students consider the importance of these two elements, with each clarifying the other.
Form Organizes Content
Harold Bloom notes in his discussion of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" that the play's five-act form precisely mirrors the evolution of Hamlet's philosophical outlook, with Act V being the character's final statement of his existentialism. He progresses from being a doubtful instrument of revenge in Act I to a man who achieves apotheosis, rising above his own death, at the play's end. Thus Shakespeare presents the content of a mind expanding to include all reality, in the form of a five-act play that step by step leads the audience through the prince's mental processess.
Form Enhances Content
Content and form are vitally linked in poetic works such as Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The poem tells of a knight distraught for love of a "faery's child." Students analyzing the poem beyond its simplest level discover the offhand remark "in language strange she said 'I love thee.'" The knight and faery do not speak the same language; the love he feels, which destroys him, may be entirely misinterpreted. This is brilliantly reflected in the poem's form, in which each stanza's end line is incomplete, like the lover's miscommunication.
Form and Content Joined
Form and content are almost inseparable in William Faulkner's novel "As I Lay Dying," a magnificently twisting narrative where numerous characters take turns telling of the death of Addie, their viciously unstable mother, and the agonizing struggles of her family to get her buried. Readers are never sure of the content: who did what and when doesn't seem clear. Faulkner wants it that way, leading readers through a circuitous maze of conjecture to what might or might not be the real truth of Addie. His multiple narrative form ensures that his content's truth is unknowable.
Form Serves Content
Milton's "Paradise Lost" is unthinkable in any form except an epic poem, since its convoluted content requires cosmic imagery and themes. Emily Dickinson's pieces would not read well as short narratives, since her diction and syntax are idiosyncratic, exactly reflecting her rebellious ideas. In most works, form serves content, but readers can delight in a work whose form completes, augments or resolves its content.
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human; Harold Bloom
- The Riverside Shakespeare: Hamlet
- Bartleby.com: La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- As I Lay Dying; William Faulkner
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.