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.
Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University