How to Write a Literary Analysis

When you are assigning a literary analysis, you need to make sure that your students know several things. Writing a literary analysis will be difficult for the students if they don’t know these.

First of all, students need to know what a literary analysis is.

Definition

A literary analysis essay is an attempt to evaluate and understand the work of an author, either a single work or an entire body of work. Literary criticism is a description, analysis, evaluation, or interpretation of a particular literary work or an author’s writings as a whole.

Second, they need to know what types of literary analysis there are.

Types of literary analysis

Character Analysis defines characters’ qualities to explore how they react to various conditions or attempt to shape their environment. In other words, the reader/writer seeks to explain why characters behave/think/act in the manners they do. Sometimes, comparing/contrasting two characters is helpful, although a concentration on one character often offers the more complete analysis for short essays (and is what I recommend).

I have a more developed discussion of how to write a character analysis.

Point of View (POV) Analysis explores why the author chose a particular pov, and how this viewpoint affects the reader-writer’s perception of the work.

Analysis of Setting explores how and why a work’s time and place affects the events and/or the characters of the work. Often the reader-writer will want to consider setting as part of another form of literary analysis (extending the analysis of a character, for example).

Analysis of Theme involves working the concept, thought, opinion or belief that the author expresses. It is very common (and helpful) to consider theme when analyzing another aspect of literature rather than on its own. The theme of a work is the main message, insight, or observation the writer offers.

The importance of theme in literature can be overestimated; the work of fiction is more than just the theme. However, the theme allows the author to control or give order to his perceptions about life.

See a discussion of how to write a theme analysis, including how to find the theme, recognizing major and minor themes, and an example of a theme analysis.

Analysis of Structure demonstrates how a work’s organization influences (or is influenced by) the plot and theme of the work.

Analysis of Symbolism (and Imagery) involves demonstrating why an author chooses to use one or more dominant, recurring symbols or images.

Analysis of Style is an attempt to show how and why the author employs word choice, sound or rhythm to convey ideas. In prose, the reader-writer may look at a key passage and consider diction, grammar, sentence length, and rhythm and sound.

An advanced analysis of a literary work could discuss:
· How the various components of an individual work relate to each other
· How two separate literary works deal with similar concepts or forms
· How concepts and forms in literary works relate to larger aesthetic, political, social, economic, or religious concepts.
· What is the literary tradition of the story and how well does the work fit within it?
Examples: romantic, realistic, naturalist, existential, transcendentalist, neo-classical, etc.
· Is there a sub-tradition and how well does the work fit this sub-tradition?
Example: In romanticism, there are sub-traditions of gothic, exoticism, nationalism, etc.
· Are there multiple competing genres which fit the work? Which one best describes it?

Third, they need to know that literary criticism is a more focused kind of literary analysis.

Approaches to literary criticism:

Professionals write literary analyses which are known as literary criticism. The approaches these people take depend on their theoretical orientation. If a student reads the criticism without an understanding of the theoretical orientations possible, the student will be very confused. They will ask questions like, “How can Frankenstein be about motherhood?”

For an excellent short overview and history of these see this page at Southern Oregon University. For a more in-depth examination, go to
this University of South Dakota page.
Basically, though, some of the major forms (with brief notes) include:
• Formalist (looks at work as a whole- chapters, books, volumes, editions)
• Biographical (looks at author’s life through the work)
• Historical (both Old [focuses on work as an artifact; how was it written or printed? How many copies were made? How it was received…] and New [contextualizes it by looking at the culture, the times, the social context the work was written in])
• Gender (primarily looks at the work through a feminist lens: how are women treated? What is feminine in the work?)
• Psychological (Freudian, hidden desires–What is the main character really wanting?)
• Sociological (conscious political ax, for example, Marxist. Is the good guy rich and the bad guy poor? Do the rich win? How is this work portraying different classes?)
• Mythic/Archetypal (Jung, archetypes appeal to collective unconscious–What are the main symbols in the work and what do they stand for? This could also include characters.)
• Reader-Response (ideal reader)
• Impressionistic (gut level- This tends to be what students go for. Discuss it as a critical analysis to be avoided unless they are able to explain why they do or don’t like a work.)
• Deconstructionist (decentering dominant stances by examining opposites–What two things are compared/contrasted and which has the dominance in the work?)

4 thoughts on “How to Write a Literary Analysis”

  1. my students are able to identify features in the work but they do not know how to have an indepth discussion of their purpose and effect.
    Do you have any tips on ways to teach that?

  2. I think this information is really useful! I am using it to teach my college students. Thanks for a great blog!

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