When someone is investigating affect, they are studying the ways that a piece of writing appeals to and triggers a reader’s feelings. If a piece of writing is “affective,” the reader should feel something when reading through the lines. The word can be used to refer to all types of writing from poems to non-fiction. The latter has the capability to be affective in the way it tells a story, for example, a detailed account of someone’s personal loss or a devastating world tragedy.
Definition of Affective
When describing a piece of literature that makes the audience feel something, one might use the word “affective” to define it. The book, short story, play, or poem is “affective” if while reading or hearing it, the listener/audience member/reader experiences some kind of emotions in relation to the storyline. This could be anything from shock and horror, to feelings of love and contentment. Readers might find themselves feeling sorry for one character and horrified at the actions of another. Drawing emotions out of one’s audience is one of the most important ways a writer can ensure that their work is going to have an impact.
Example of Affective Literature
Night by Elie Wiesel
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Elie Wiesel tells the story of Eliezer, a young man who endures the Holocaust alongside his father. He based Eliezer’s experiences around his own, with a few changes. This allowed the writer to put himself at a slight distance from the story since it was so personal. The novel is incredibly affective in the way that it describes Eliezer’s suffering and the loss of almost his entire family.
Once removed from his home and taken to Auschwitz, he loses his mother and his sister. There, he sees an incredible amount of tragedy that should move the reader to feel for him and for all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. Here is a particularly moving part of the novel:
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.
And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Wiesel does not hold back while describing the horrors he witnessed. But, he also doesn’t revel in them. Events such as this were a part of his everyday experience.
In this incredible poem, Plath defines her relationship with her father. The poem was first published in 1960 in Plath’s collection Colossus and Other Poems. She depicts her father as a fallen statue and herself as the statue’s keeper. She spends her time around the statue, expressing her irritation at points and contentment and peace at others. The speaker sometimes enjoys her ties to this fallen colossus while other times she feels imprisoned by her connection. Here is the second stanza:
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
The speaker can’t stop trying to put her father back together again or reassemble something of their past relationship. She works on and on but still, nothing changes. The affective qualities of this piece of writing are clear from the beginning. The speaker is torn between her loyalty to her job/to her father and her desire to move on.
Read more Sylvia Plath poems.
‘Annabel Lee’ is one of Poe’s best-known poems. It’s perfectly rhymed with beautiful and affective images, making it easy to imagine and hard to forget. It starts with a fairy-tale-like tone but evolves into something darker as it becomes clear that Annabel Lee is dead and, in the speaker’s own words, in Heaven with the angels. They grew jealous of the relationship she had with the speaker and took her away. Here are a few lines:
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
At first, everything seems perfect. All the two wanted to do was love one another. Suddenly, “My beautiful Annabel Lee” was chilled by the wind. Eventually, the wind “came out of the cloud by night, / Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” Her death comes suddenly and seemingly, purposelessly. The poet’s use of language makes this poem quite emotional.
Discover more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
In this emotional poem, the poet remembers Adrian Henri, focusing on how his passing impacted those left behind. Duffy conveys a sense of loss within her poem, exploring how still the world has become. She knew Henri for decades since she was sixteen years old. She lived with him until 1982. Here are a few lines from the poem:
The moon is nearer than where death took you
at the end of the old year. Cold as cash
in the sky’s dark pocket, its hard old face
is gold as a mask tonight. […]
The poet uses images of stillness, like a frozen pond, in order to define how the world changed when he died. She’s describing her personal experience but in such a way that many readers are going to feel connected to her. It is easy enough to project one’s own experience with loss onto Duffy’s words.
Read more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
Why is the Affect Important in Literature?
When writers compose their work, it’s often at the forefront of their intentions they make the reader feel something. Depending on the work, whether it’s a short poem or a long novel, the number, and type of emotions are going to differ. Throughout Night, readers experience a wide range of emotions while in a short poem like ‘Annabel Lee,’ they are more specific. No matter how a writer goes about creating an emotional effect, readers who experience it are more likely to enjoy what they’re read and remember it for longer.
It is a term from literary criticism that’s used to refer to an error in judging a text. This error comes about due to the reader’s emotions. When a reader is moved by a piece of writing they might be distracted by their emotions and judge the work incorrectly, positively or negatively.
An intentional fallacy is a mistake in judging a piece of writing. It occurs when the reader is only considering the author’s intentions and not their own reaction. They become distracted by what they think the author is trying to do, and they let it overrule what the author actually accomplished.
The word “affective” refers to the emotional qualities of a work of literature. If a piece of writing is affective then it “affects” the reader. They’re moved by the content and experience some kind of emotions in relation to it. These might be feelings of sorrow, satisfaction, or even rage.
The word “affect” is used when describing the impact something has while “effect” is the result of being “affected.” For example, “Did that affect you? The end effect was that it made me cry.” “Affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun.
A piece of literature might make the reader feeling sorrowful and cry, feel joyful, filled with rage, jealousy, peace, or even fear. Writers are incredibly capable when it comes to triggering reader’s emotions and sometimes making them feel all of these emotions within the span of a few pages.
Related Literary Terms
- Abjection: a literary term that refers to subjective horror, or someone’s reaction to physically or emotionally disturbing subject matter.
- Attitude: refers to the tone a writer takes on whatever they are writing. It can come through in a character’s intentions, histories, emotions, and actions.
- Catharsis: occurs when pent-up emotions are released through an art form, whether that be visual arts or literary arts.
- Parrhesia: the use of direct, emotionally honest language in one’s discussion of a topic. It has its roots in Ancient Greece.
- Pathetic Fallacy: is used to describe the attribution of human emotions and actions onto non-human things found in nature.
- Pathos: an appeal made by the writer to the audience’s emotions in order to make them feel something.