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.
"To explicate" something is, in the most general sense of the term, to spell out its implications. Thus the noun "explication," in the corresponding sense, is, in the first instance, the process of spelling out the implications of something. And derived from this, in turn, is the sense of "explication" that refers to the product of this process: some account of what the implications of something are. Explication, in other words, is a kind of explanation (note 1). But usually the thing whose implications are being explicated is a text, or something that is being treated as a text. Thus we say that a lawyer tries to persuade a judge that his opponent's explication of some previous decision is mistaken -- the implications of the previous case, for the case the judge must decide today, are different from what opposing counsel represents them to be. Or we might note that theologians, historically, have disagreed on how to explicate this or that passage of the Bible. But in ordinary usage we probably would say, of a doctor who manages to diagnose a patient's symptoms, that he has explained them, rather than that he has "explicated" them (though we could sensically stretch the term "explicate" to cover this if we wanted to and there was some special reason for doing so).
"Explication" in a literary critical sense often refers to nothing more than this: spelling out the implications of the text -- this bit, or that bit, on whatever occasion may arise. In this sense, any time one draws an inference from any explicit detail of the work, one is "doing explication." From a gesture or remark, in some social context, one "sees" this or that motive at work. From the phrasing of a narrator's or character's remarks, one understands that the speaker is being ironic. From the realization that two characters (or two settings or whatever) stand in the relation of foil, or of equivalent ("double") to one another, one notices something unstated about the one on the basis of what has noticed (stated or unstated) about the other. It may be that this interpretive activity is embedded in an essay whose overall organization is some form of logical hierarchy of claims; but whenever one is drawing out implications, one is doing explication in this broad, general sense.
But there is another sense of the term that has arisen in literary critical discourse, that is much more specific, and that takes into account the organization of the interpretive activity, or at least of its presentation. In this more specific sense of the term, "explication" involves going through the explicit text, from beginning to end (as a whole, or within a section), and systematically spelling out what the given string of explicit details, or events, or episodes, or scenes, or stanzas, brings to mind to an appropriately engaged reader's mind. When this is done, the resulting interpretation, the interpretive discourse (whether oral or written) will be organized chronologically rather than logically. That is, the organization of an explication, considered as a particular type of critical discourse, is taken over from the work under discussion. And if we are dealing with fiction, plays, films, and most poems, the order of explicit details, events, episodes, that constitutes them is typically going to be temporal. The reason for this is that time is the mode of experience, and works of literature are generally designed, first and foremost, to convey some experience. If we then undertake to unpack "on the fly" the unfolding of the implicit dimensions of that unfolding experience, the order of our own observations will be dictated by the order of the facts as presented in the work that is seeking to sponsor or convey that experience.
This is something that we do lots in class, though our doing of it is typically confined to a passage, rather than carried through over the entire text. But it is not what will be asked for in most of the writing you will be called upon to do in our course. Here, the job will be something that, for lack of a better term, we will call "analysis." If the fiction writer's task (or the dramatist's or film-maker's or poet's) is to afford us some clarifiable, intelligible experience, our task (unless you are definitely told otherwise) will be to clarify some particular aspect of the significance of that experience. The internal grammatical structure of these phrases is instructive.
In the first, the direct object of the verb is "experience," and the concepts "clarifiable" and "intelligible" are adjectives that modify (are subordinate to) that notion.
Writers select and arrange the details that, together, constitute the experience they want to convey in such a manner as to suggest what the significance of it is, or may be supposed to be. But because they are interested in getting us vicariously to undergo that experience, the overall organizational framework within which these details will be presented will be chronological (even if interrupted by flashbacks, flashforwards, or commentary), because the mode of experience is temporal. That is, what we call experience is something that by its very nature flows from moment to moment.
We might say that, here, the order of events is the dog, and the implications / inferences / ideas to which they logically give rise are the tail. Except in very special circumstances (note 2), for a fiction writer to organize the text as an argument or exposition, rather than as a narrative, is to be at cross-purposes with himself. Like a carpenter trying to drive nails with a saw, this would be to pick the wrong tool for the job. Or (to return to the metaphor we began with): it is to make the tail wag the dog.
In the second, the verbal concept "clarify" governs the direct object, "some particular aspect of the significance of that experience." And within that phrase, in turn, the concept "experience" appears as part of the adjectival prepositional phrase that is subordinate to "significance."
Between "significance" and "experience" here, in other words, it is "significance" that is the dog, and "experience" that is the tail. Now significance is constituted by a network of implications. And if we want systematically to clarify some particular aspect of that significance, what will concern us will be some discernable hierarchy of implications that fall under that aspect. And since the relationships that constitute a hierarchy of implications will be logical, the organizational strategy appropriate to clarifying them will be expository-argumentative rather than narrative. Of course, we will constantly need to be referring to the explicit facts of the story, but when we do, we will be taking them up as evidence for our interpretive claims. And it is the logical relationships among these interpretive inferences, and between them and the evidence for them -- not the original order of the events referred to as evidence for them -- that governs our moving from one to the other. So: if we are trying to clarify some particular aspect of the significance of a literary work, we will be working at cross-purposes with ourselves if we organize the body of our essay around the plot or story-sequence of the work we are analyzing. Like a carpenter trying to cut a board with a claw hammer, we are taking up the wrong tool for the job. If we are doing analysis, for us to adopt the organizational framework of the work we are analyzing is to let what is for us the tail wag what is for us the dog.
For useful pointers on devising an essay organized around a logically integrated hierarchy of claims, see Craig Waddell's "Threads of Thought: Thesis Development in Analytical Writing." This memo discusses how to define, focus, and develop a thesis, and explains the important difference between a tentative (provisional) and definitive (final) thesis. (This is one of a number of helpful handouts on-line at the Rensselaer Writing Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.) Or consult Chuck Guilford's Paradigm Online Writing Assistant on "Writing Thesis/Support Essays" and "Writing Argumentative Essays" (which are a special subcategory of thesis/support essays).
On the minimal requirements for a logical framework of organization in an analytical paper, see "Developing an Outline," which is one of over a hundred handouts -- Resources for Writers -- made available at the Purdue University On-Line Writing Lab. There is also good advice on "Organizing Your Writing" on the Paradigm Online Writing Assistant.
For an excellent set of pointers by an obviously experienced reader of undergraduate papers, see the memo "Writing Pages of Literary Analysis" by Seamus Cooney at the University of Northern Michigan. (Unfortunately, you may have to content yourself with reading this on line: I have not had success in getting it to print out.)
If you would like to consult a "handbook" on points of grammar and style, check out the one provided by Jack Lynch of the University of Pennsylvania.
(For a rich page of links to various kinds of writing resources all over the Web, you might want to bookmark Jack Lynch's "Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors." This is worth exploring someday when you have a little time on your hands. [Hm.])
Finally, on our own site there is a checklist of criteria for evaluating exams, which applies both to out-of-class essays and to shorter essay-type answers on in-class exams.
Why our assignments call for analysis rather than explication.
In our assignments, youll want to move beyond the "parasitic narrative structure" characteristic of explication. There is a powerful reason for this.
If you will insist on coming up with an appropriate expository/argumentative strategy, you will force yourself to discover insights that will elude you if you confine yourself to more passive description. This is because the organizational framework of an expository/argumentative essay will be based on logical and causal relationships implicit in the material under discussion, rather than a chronologytaken over from the story. It is these logical and causal relationships that should govern the order in which you present the successive points that, together, make up your analysis as a whole. And it is these that show up in the transitions that you craft to point to the rationale for taking the turns that constitute the "trip" on which you are conducting the reader. But before you can build an edifice on the basis of such implicit logical and causal relationships, you have to arrive at a clear awareness of them yourself. In other words, going beyond retelling the story pushes you into a deeper understanding of the significance of the story.
See also Critical Concepts: Criticism and Critical Analysis
See also An explication of a sample student essay in critical analysis
Note 1. The etymology of "explicit" and "implicit" is worth noting. In contemporary English, these convey abstract concepts. Both come from Latin, where they originated in quite vivid concrete metaphors. The root plic- means "bend" or "fold," and by extension "layer." (In fact the English word fold like the modern German word Falten ("wrinkles") are Germanic cousins to this Latin morpheme.) One or another of these notions is at work, under different spellings, in a number of words with which you are quite familiar: complex, comply, complicit; ply wood, plexiglass; multiplication, multiply, multiple; duplex, double, duple, simple ("one-fold"); replication, reply; supplication, supply; etc..
Something that is implicit, then, is something "folded up inside" something (often, inside "itself"). Though present, it is not "out in plain view." Something that is explicit is something that is "folded out," so that (for example) it is disclosed, visible, evident. To explicate something (something already explicit) is to lay out what is folded up in (or layered behind) it. We begin with what is already explicit, exposed to view, openly said and bring to that condition what, in the text, is conveyed only indirectly, by means of the explicit. If we want a more specific concrete image still to remind us of all this, we can think of a bud on a stem as an example of something that is mostly "implicit": only the outer leaf is "explicit." When the bud blossoms, it performs a kind of "self-explication." If we want to see what's inside before this comes about, our "explication" of it would have to take the form of dissection. Return.
Note 2. An example of a fiction that is organized as exposition is Stanislaw Lem's "De Impossibilitate Vitae and De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi," which is a pretended review of two (non-existent) philosophical treatises. An example of a fiction that is organized as an argument is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which is a pretended pamphlet putting forward a solution to a pressing social problem. One approach open to us in analyzing these works as fiction is to treat them as dramatic monologues. As it happens, this will turn out to be more profitable with "A Modest Proposal" than with Lem's "story." One approach that promises to be worthwhile with Lem's piece is to consider it in the light of the author's own "review" of the collection of works (all of them reviews of non-existent books) within which it was published. Another is to consider the implications of the theories "under review" for the sensicality of traditional narrative practices.
In either case, though, the basic point about the difference between explication and analysis, as genres of discourse, remains valid. If we explicate these, we follow the order of details (sentences, rhetorical gestures, arguments) in the work under discussion. If we analyze them, we develop an expository-argumentative structure appropriate to the insights to which we are devoting our essay. In this case, the organization of the original will be argumentative (in Swift's work) or expository (in Lem's), and the organization of an analysis of either will be argumentative or expository or both -- some hierarchy of claims. But the heirarchy of claims that constitues the analysis will not be the same as the hierarchy of claims that constitutes the original. Why? Because the two essays (original and analysis of the original) will not be devoted to developing the same thesis. Return.
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