Sometimes, you’ll want to read a book just for the pleasure of being entertained and taken to a different time or place, and see the world through the eyes of another.
Other times, however, like when you’re in your English Literature class or reading a classic, you’ll have to dig past the surface and look beyond the words on the page to understand the author’s message.
To do this, you can conduct your own literary analysis, and examine how the author uses various literary devices and techniques to artfully tell their story while delivering a larger message.
What Is a Literary Analysis?
The purpose of a literary analysis is to examine and deconstruct a work of literature to evaluate how the writer uses literary components to convey ideas.
A literary analysis is not a summary; it reaches past basic comprehension and facts. Often, this type of analysis will argue the theme, message, or purpose of a work by analyzing the writer’s use of literary devices and narrative techniques.
How to Write a Literary Analysis
These 4 steps will help prepare you to write an in-depth literary analysis that offers new insight to both old and modern classics.
1. Read the text and identify literary devices.
As you conduct your literary analysis, you should first read through the text, keeping an eye on key elements that could serve as clues to larger, underlying themes.
The following is a checklist of the literary and narrative devices you should take note of while reading. (If possible, marking the text with a pencil can be very helpful.)
- Point of view: First, examine the point of view from which the story is told. Who is the narrator? Is it a character from the story, or an unknown, all-knowing figure? Do they have something at stake? Do you find them to be a reliable narrator? The answers to these questions can help shape your argument.
- Recurring symbols: Things like colors, rivers, and seasons may not seem significant at first glance, but together, and especially if they appear more than once, they can signify a deeper message. (Just look at this analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as an example.) Our guide to symbolism explains some of the most common symbols in literature. If you come across these in a text, highlight or circle them. These symbols can also be part of an extended metaphors, so it’s helpful to keep track of them and look for any possible connections.
- Character motivation: The main character’s motivation is extremely important when it comes to advancing the plot. Ask yourself what the character wants, and what’s keeping them from getting it. Why is that thing important to them? Could it carry any deeper significance that its face value?
- Tone: Evaluate the writer’s tone. Do the words convey an anxious, ominous, or hopeful tone? Is it sad, witty, or whimsical? There are lots of ways to describe tone, and your assessment of this literary device can add important insight to your overall analysis.
- Diction: The author’s word choice, or diction, can also influence the piece’s tone. Do any words seem peculiar? Do you think the author chose that word over other synonyms for a reason? When a word stands out to you, ask yourself why it matters that this particular word was chosen over others.
- Imagery: What types of images does the author paint? This can be done explicitly through vivid descriptions, or implicitly through sensory details, or words that evoke the feelings of a place, emotion, or idea.
- Story structure: How is the story structured, and what impact does this have on the story? Is it told in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? What about the characters, setting, and their relation to the narrative?
- Themes: As you’re taking note of the literary elements outlined above, you’ll likely see certain patterns start to emerge. These patterns represent underlying themes. For example, in The Great Gatsby, recurring images, symbols, and even character motivations point to themes of excess, material wealth, and lost values.
- Characters: Your entire essay might actually be a character analysis, depending on your topic. However, you can also cite characterization as a supporting element to your main argument. For example, a specific character, major or minor, might embody an ideal, which contributes to a larger theme.
2. Develop your thesis.
If you’re writing an essay for your literature class, you’ll likely be given a prompt or question to answer with your essay.
If you’re not assigned a topic, you’ll have to think of one yourself. You may find it helpful to develop questions in order to get started.
The answer to this question is known as your thesis. In order to serve as the foundation for your analysis, your thesis needs to meet several conditions. It must be:
- Arguable: Your thesis should reflect your opinion or interpretation, not a fact. For example, “The Grapes of Wrath is about a family’s migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California” is not a good thesis, because that’s a simple fact. However, “Frankenstein is actually a feminist novel that rejects patriarchy” is an arguable interpretation, and we can argue for or against that statement with supporting evidence.
- Supported through textual evidence: While your thesis shouldn’t be an objective fact, you should still be able to support it with textual evidence and details.
3. Create an outline.
Once you have your thesis, it’s time to make a plan for how you’ll prove your argument. Look back at your notes about the literary and narrative devices above. These will serve as your supporting evidence.
Which elements will help you make the most compelling argument for your thesis? You might choose, for example, to build your argument around imagery, symbolism, and diction.
You can dedicate a section to each of these elements and cite evidence directly from the text to explain why and how they support your thesis.
Create an outline to organize your thoughts, so when it’s time to start writing, you won’t forget where you were going with those points.
4. Cite the evidence.
When you’re making your argument, it’s important that you have concrete evidence from the text to support your claims.
When you can, provide direct quotes and other concrete details. For example, if you’re using symbolism as supporting evidence for why Frankenstein is a feminist text, you should be able to cite passages that illustrate the claim.
5. Write your body paragraphs.
Using your outline and notes from the text, you can now start writing your literary analysis. However, may find it helpful to leave room for your introduction and start by writing the body paragraphs, which contain your main arguments.
You’ll already have all the points and supporting details you need in your outline, so you can jump right in, rather than trying to think of the perfect opening line to your essay.
This strategy can also be beneficial because as you develop your arguments, you may generate new ideas or slightly adjust your thesis.
6. Write your introduction and conclusion.
Once you’ve fleshed out your body paragraphs and written a compelling argument, you can write your introductory paragraph (using the thesis statement you developed earlier), as well as your conclusion, which should neatly tie up your argument and leave your readers with some final insights.
Types of Literary Criticism
When you’re analyzing literature, there are numerous lenses through which you can examine the work. For example, common types of literary criticism include ethical, feminist, historic, and social criticism.
This means that your analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of the work will be through one of those lenses.
The best works of literature are filled with hints that will lead you to a bigger picture, and discovering those clues and how they fit together is what makes reading so fun.
Whether you want to ace your next English essay or refine your critical thinking skills, understanding how to analyze literature will lead you to a more fulfilling reading experience.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Symbolism: Common Examples in Life and Literature
- The Last Line of The Great Gatsby, Explained
- Extended Metaphors Explained: Definition, Purpose, and Examples from Literature
- 17 of the Most Common Literary Devices Every Reader and Writer Should Know
As a blog writer for TCK Publishing, Kaelyn loves crafting fun and helpful content for writers, readers, and creative minds alike. She has a degree in International Affairs with a minor in Italian Studies, but her true passion has always been writing. Working from home allows her to do even more of the things she loves, like traveling, cooking, and spending time with her family.