Essay Analyzing Literature

Why does that word –analysis ­– strike fear into the hearts of so many college students, and just what the heck is a literary analysis, anyway?

Analysis is typically the last skill your brain learns, and most students don’t encounter this term until college. But never fear – I’m here to help you conquer your literary analysis essay in this blog post!

A smart literary analysis focuses on how a book or story’s plot, characters, settings, or themes are used by an author. Sometimes, you may want to explore how an author creates meaning through these elements; otherwise, you may want to criticize the author’s methods and their work’s message.

I’ll focus on both approaches in my handy list below, so read on!

Life After Book Reports

Before we dive right into analysis strategies, it’s important to note that analysis is not asummary.

You’ve probably written book reports before, and you know that these are pretty simple because you basically retell a book’s major events to prove you’ve read it.

But analysis requires more from you. Your professor can always read the book you’re analyzing, so you don’t have to recount the plot. Instead, your job in analyzing is to make aclaim or thesis about the text and to spend your essay supporting your ideas.

Analysis and argument actually have a lot in common, and if you’ve written argumentative essays, then you can probably write an analysis essay. I’ll break down the process into two phases to help you get started.

Phase One: Hunting and Gathering

In this phase, you should choose the work you want to analyze and then consider your approach. What are your initial ideas? What do you have to say about this book, and how do you plan to support your position? Brainstorm and outline during this phase.

You may be saying, “where do I start?” Glad you asked!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #1: Know the Elements

When analyzing literature, you’ll first want to consider the following elements from a different perspective than when you’re just reading a book. True analysis means approaching your text like a detective. Plot, characters, and setting all leave clues to deeper meaning, and your job is to discover them.

Plot

Plot is the pattern of events that make up a story. In your literary analysis, you’ll want to focus on whether or not these events are significant to your claim.

Conflict

Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces, typically the protagonist and antagonist. Conflicts often follow this traditional form, but sometimes characters experience internal conflict. Or the conflict comes in the form of a natural or supernatural force. The main conflict in a story can often reflect an author’s opinion about the world they live in or the issues of their day.

Characters

Characters are the people or “players” in a story. Characters are great for analysis because they are the ones causing and reacting to the events in a story. Their backgrounds, appearances, beliefs, actions, etc. can all be analyzed. You can often start with characters in an analysis because authors usually express opinions about race, culture, religion, gender, etc. through character representation, whether intentional or not.

Setting

Just like characters, setting can be easily analyzed. As an author may express certain opinions through their characters, what they have to say about places can also be provocative and revealing.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #2: Focus on Literary Devices

You can analyze a book’s themes by first brainstorming some ideas and thinking about the impression you get when reading it. Novels are full of symbols and allusions, and most authors have something to say about the world.

Symbol

In analyzing TheLord of the Rings, you could discuss how Tolkien uses light and dark imagery as symbols of good and evil. “Gandalf the White” is certainly a representation of good, while evil is implied by the “Black Gates of Mordor.” You could continue by focusing on Tolkien’s language used for good or evil characters and settings.

Allegory andMetaphor

While these terms have different meanings, you can approach them with the same strategy in your analysis essay. If a novel uses allegory or metaphor, then its story represents some real-world event(s) or criticism thereof.

A well-known Christian allegory is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. You could write an analysis essay that argues how Aslan’s journey represents Jesus’s story in the Bible. If you wanted to take this one step further, you could also explore whether or not Lewis’ interpretations could be seen as accurate and why.

Think about metaphor by analyzing how The Lord of the Rings’ plot is a metaphor for the events of World War II. You could also explore whether Tolkien opposes war or glorifies it, depending on how you interpret the novels.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #3: Take a Critical Approach

If you’re struggling to come up with your own ideas, then you can definitely fall back on critical approaches or “lenses” through which you can view and analyze your topic. There are quite a few of these, so I’ll just focus on one here as an introduction.

If writing about the first Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins, for example, you might apply the feminist critical approach.

That’s a big subject, so you have to start somewhere. The Purdue OWL suggests starting with a list of typical questions. Your answers will help you form your claims.

Here are some of the questions on the OWL’s feminist criticism page:

  • What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
  • How are male and female roles defined?
  • What constitutes masculinity and femininity?

Here is my answer to these questions that I could use to get started:

Traditional gender roles are rejected as Katniss Everdeen exhibits more fortitude, confidence, and intelligence than most of her male counterparts, Peeta, in particular. However, the novel still relies on traditional masculine and feminine characteristics as most of the female characters appear ethical, soft-spoken, and passive, whereas most of the male characters are aggressive and less ethical in their actions.

Now I have to start thinking about how to support this stance, just like an argument.

You can apply a similar approach to any of the critical lenses. The most common approaches that students use today are Feminist, Marxist, Post-modern, and Psychoanalytic.

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #4: Follow the 5 W’s

Who, what, where, when, why/how – think about these when writing your notes and outline:

Who is the author? Does his or her background have any impact on the writing? What links can you draw between the author’s life and those of the characters in the story?

What is happening in the story? What events are significant and why?

Where does the story take place, and why is this important to your analysis?

When is the story set? How does this time period affect your interpretation? Think about historical context as this can be very important.

Why/how do you justify your claims? What evidence from the text will you use?

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #5: Making an Assertion vs. Using an Argument and Evidence

An assertion makes a claim and can work as a topic sentence, but an argument is more complex and complete. An argument provides your claim but also supports it.

Assertion:

Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort.

Argument:

Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a hero’s badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort as well as his fame and status in the Wizarding world. Ron Weasley confirms this notion early in Sorcerer’s Stone when treating the scar with reverence on the Hogwarts Express. In the same scene, Hermione Granger immediately recognizes Harry because of his scar and only remarks about a smudge on Ron’s face, revealing the disparity between supposedly “normal” characters and how Harry’s scar and its history define him as the special hero character.

See the difference? In an argumentative paragraph, you offer a specific assertion/claim, evidence to support it, and commentary to show how that evidence is relevant.

Other Evidence

Double-check with your professor about her expectations. Typically, you’ll use summary, paraphrasing, and direct quotes from the literature you’re analyzing as evidence. Often, you’ll only have to focus on your own ideas and simply support your claims with logic and evidence from your text. However, you may be expected to use other sources, such as scholarly publications, to support your analysis. If so, visit your university library or its website to start researching your topic.

Phase Two: Writing

Okay – now that you’ve collected information about your topic and brainstormed some ideas for your approach, let’s move on to actually writing the literary analysis!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #6: MLA Format

Most literary analysis essays will typically appear in MLA format, so you’ll want to make sure you get this step right. Here is a great link to a sample MLA paper that shows you the ropes.

You may also be expected to cite the book or story you’re analyzing in MLA. You can use an online tool, such as Easybib, to create your citations, but be sure to double-check these for accuracy!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #7: Academic Voice

Walk like me; talk like me. To write academically, train your “voice” to be:

  •         Skeptical, not cynical
  •         Confident, not cocky
  •         Logical, not biased
  •         Critical, but fair
  •         Concise, not wordy

I can’t stress this last one enough. You are smart, so don’t try too hard to sound smart. Students often make this mistake and end up with bloated and pompous prose, which is when professors like to unload a lot of ink from their grading pens!

You’ll also want to avoid the dreaded “I factor” of first-person writing. For a successful literary analysis essay, third-person writing is the way to go!

Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #8: Essay Organization

Writing your rough draft:

Intro and Body and Conclusion and Bears, oh my!

Okay, so there are no bears, but all good essays are well organized, and a literary analysis is no exception! You may already know the basics, but let’s cover the specifics:

Introduction

The introduction needs three things to be successful: an interesting hook, background on your topic, and a strong thesis that makes a clear analytical claim.

Body

This section will make up the bulk of your paper. Each body paragraph will work to support your thesis. Recall the assertion vs. argument section from above – an analytical paragraph should include the following:

  • Your assertion or “sub-claim” that is relevant to your thesis.
  • Evidence from the text that can support the assertion.
  • A logical evaluation of that evidence – show the reader how the evidence supports your assertion.

Conclusion

The conclusion is your final paragraph. Its job is to recap the main ideas in your essay and reassert your thesis. No new information should appear in your conclusion, so make sure you’ve wrapped up your analysis before you get to this point!

Putting Theory Into Practice

There are many ways to approach a literary analysis, and I hope this post gives you a “leg-up” in starting your own. Whether you’re coming up with your own theme-based approach or you decide to use a critical approach, so long as you take your time and brainstorm, take notes, and outline effectively, you should be off to a good start!

Let’s review. When writing a smart literary analysis, you should focus on:

  •         Starting with a thesis or claim
  •         The 5 W’s
  •         Argumentative paragraphs
  •         Using evidence to support your assertions
  •         Using MLA format
  •         Practicing academic voice
  •         Strong organization – Intro, Body, and Conclusion

And when you’ve done all that, Kibin will be standing by to proofread your work!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature

Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written.  To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance. 

Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective.  Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.  You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.

Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.

  • William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
  • District 9- South African Apartheid
  • X Men- the evils of prejudice
  • Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”

Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character - A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.  

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.

  • confidence/ arrogance
  • mouse/ rat
  • cautious/ scared
  • curious/ nosey
  • frugal/ cheap

Denotation - dictionary definition of a word

Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition  

Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves

  • Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as  
    • You are the sunshine of my life.
  • Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as  
    • What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
  • Hyperbole - exaggeration
    • I have a million things to do today.
  • Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
    • America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.

Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem

  • Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
    • Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
      • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
  • Spondee - stressed stressed
    • Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
      • Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
  • Trochee - stressed unstressed
    • Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
      • While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
  • Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
    • Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
      • Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
  • Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
    • Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
      • Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
        With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.

Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.

Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem

Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.

Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.

  • Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)

Setting - the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.

Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems  are not necessarily formless.

Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.

  • Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
  • Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
  • Owl - wisdom or knowledge
  • Yellow - implies cowardice or rot

Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.

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