Literary Analysis

Close your eyes for a second and imagine unpacking a bag. As you take out each item, you see the inside of the bag more clearly. Eventually, when you have taken out and examined each item, the bag is crystal clear. Readers can unpack literature in a similar manner. Analyzing literature is the process of examining the text in detail to interpret it thoroughly. When readers examine various literary elements in a story, they reveal deep meaning in the text. 

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Table of contents

    Analysing Literature, Unpacking, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Analyzing literature is a lot like unpacking a bag.

    Literary Analysis Definition

    Literary analysis is the examination and evaluation of a literary work. When people analyze literature, they consider how the author used literary techniques to create meaning. Readers first critically read the text and examine elements like figurative language, syntax, diction, and structure. When looking at these elements, readers consider how the author used them to create meaning. They then make analytical claims about the text they can support by discussing specific evidence from the work.

    Literary analysis is the examination and evaluation of a literary work.

    Interpreting Literature

    Analyzing literature allows readers to articulate their interpretation of a text. To interpret literature, readers should consider elements like the following:

    Literary ElementsDefinition Sample Analytical Questions
    CharactersThe people in the story
    • How do the characters change throughout the story?
    • Do the characters represent universal ideas or qualities?
    DialogueThe conversations characters have in the story
    • How does the dialogue impact the reader's understanding of the characters?
    • How does the dialogue shape the plot?
    Figurative languageThe use of words beyond their literal definitions. Types include simile, metaphor, and personification.
    • How does figurative language impact the meaning of the text?
    • How are types of figurative language related to other literary elements?
    PlotThe events of the story
    • What is the main conflict?
    • How does the author build feelings like suspense and confusion through the plot?
    Point of viewThe perspective the story is told from
    • Is the story told from the first, second, or third point of view? How does that influence the reader's understanding of the story's events?
    ThemeThe universal idea the author explores in the story
    • What themes does the author explore in this text?
    • Why are these themes important?
    • How does the author use literary elements to explore the theme?
    ToneThe attitude the author expresses through writing
    • Does the tone change throughout the text?
    • How does the tone impact the message of the story?
    SettingWhere the story takes place
    • How does the setting relate to other elements like theme?
    • Does the setting impact the characters' feelings, actions, or conflicts?
    Structure The order the events of the story take place in
    • Is the narrative linear or non-linear?
    • How does the structure shape the meaning?

    Analyzing literature is a key task of literary criticism, which is the study and interpretation of literature. Literary critics conduct literary analyses that consider historical and sociocultural contexts and apply theoretical lenses to literary works. For example, critics in the field of feminist literary criticism analyze literary works through a feminist lens, meaning they investigate notions like gender inequality and the social construction of gender as they appear and operate in literature. Other famous types of literary criticism include Marxist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and deconstructionism.

    Analysing Literature, Reading, StudySmarterFig 2. - When analyzing a literary text, readers should pay close attention to the above literary elements.

    Literary Analysis Essay

    Students often have to write literary analysis essays. These are essays in which a writer evaluates a literary text. For example, the following prompt asks the writer to craft a literary analysis essay:

    In the second chapter of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), the protagonist Janie has a meaningful experience under a pear tree. Write an essay analyzing how Hurston uses literary elements and techniques in this scene to convey Janie's dreams for her future.

    The above prompt evaluates the writer's knowledge of literary devices and how authors use them. It also tests the writer's ability to analyze the passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God, so it partly depends on the writer's interpretation of the book.

    Writing a Literary Analysis Essay

    To write a literary analysis essay, readers should follow the following steps.

    Read and Understand the Prompt

    First, writers should read the prompt several times and ask themselves the following questions:

    • What is this prompt asking writers to write about?

    • Does the prompt specify any literary elements that should be considered?

    • Does the prompt articulate more than one task for writers?

    • Is this prompt asking about the text as a whole or a specific part of the text?

    Use a pen or pencil to highlight keywords in the prompt. This will help you remember the main objective of the literary analysis essay.

    Analysing Literature, Highlighter, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Writers should highlight the prompt and the text for important keywords.

    Critically Read the Text

    Once writers understand the task they must complete for the literary analysis essay, they should carefully read the text they must write about. If the prompt is on an exam, they might have to consult a short passage of text. If the prompt is for an English class, they might have to turn to a book they have already read and review relevant parts.

    While reading a text, make notes of essential literary elements. For instance, if you notice that an author consistently uses the same symbol, note all the places in the text where you see that symbol. This will make writing an analysis of the text easier because you will easily find evidence of how the author uses literary elements to create meaning.

    Craft a Thesis Statement

    Next, writers should construct a thesis statement that addresses all aspects of the prompt. A thesis statement is a defensible claim about the topic that can be supported with evidence. When writing a literary analysis essay, the thesis statement should be about the author's use of literary techniques in the text. You can find an example of a quality thesis statement related to the above prompt on Their Eyes Were Watching God further down.

    A strong thesis stands alone as a summary of the whole argument. Readers should be able to read the thesis statement by itself and understand the main point of the essay. The above thesis statement is effective because the writer mentions the title and author of the text, the literary elements they will analyze in the essay, and a claim about the impact of those literary elements on the author's message.

    Outline the Essay

    Once writers establish their main claim, they can begin outlining how they will support their argument. If they are writing a five-paragraph essay, they should strive to find three distinct supporting points for their thesis and devote body paragraphs to each point. They should then try to find at least two pieces of evidence from the text to support each point.

    Choosing short, significant pieces of evidence allows for more in-depth analysis than including long quotes. If you are running low on time when writing a literary analysis essay for an exam, skip the second piece of evidence in a body paragraph and move on to the next paragraph. That way, you at least have at least three supporting points.

    Analysing Literature, Outline, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Using an outline is a great way to keep your writing organized.

    Write the Essay

    Writers can then begin writing their analytical essays. They should use a formal academic tone and avoid slang, conjunctions, and colloquialisms. The focus should be on their unique analysis of the evidence they include.

    If you are writing a literary analysis essay for a timed exam, you likely won't have time to create a detailed outline. Instead, once you have your thesis, quickly identify three supporting points. Jot them down on scratch paper, followed by page numbers or some keywords from relevant evidence. This will give you a loose idea of the flow of the essay without wasting too much time.

    Literary Analysis Example

    Imagine you are writing a literary analysis essay on the prompt about Their Eyes Were Watching God.

    In the second chapter of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), the protagonist Janie has a meaningful experience under a pear tree. Write an essay analyzing how Hurston uses literary elements and techniques in this scene to convey Janie's dreams for her future.

    First, you should identify what this prompt is asking. The prompt asks writers to focus on a specific scene in the second chapter. You should underline that part of the prompt to remember the focus. The prompt also asks the writer to focus on the use of literary elements to comment on the protagonist's dreams. This tells you that your thesis should make a statement about specific literary elements and make a claim about Janie's dreams.

    Next, you should turn to the text and identify the scene the prompt is referring to. You should closely read the text to unpack the meaning of individual literary elements. To do this, annotate the text, underlining key terms and literary techniques. Also, jot down notes about what you think the literary elements mean and how the scene connects to larger ideas in the text, such as Janie's character development or the themes of love and identity.

    Analysing Literature, Pear Tree, StudySmarterFig. 5 - To address this sample prompt, the writer should closely read and annotate the scene with the pear tree.

    Consult your notes from the previous step to construct your thesis. What literary elements stuck out to you when you read the text? What do they seem to be suggesting about Janie's dreams? For instance, a strong thesis statement that addresses this prompt would look something like this:

    In Chapter 2 of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses vivid imagery, symbolism, and personification to portray Janie's idealistic dreams of a loving marriage.

    Why is this a strong thesis? What does the writer do to make it stand alone as a summary of the argument and outline distinct supporting points?

    Once you have your thesis statement, you can quickly arrange an outline to follow when writing. For instance, an outline based on the above would include a body paragraph for imagery, one for symbolism, and one for personification.

    Finally, you can start writing. Select small pieces of relevant evidence and extract as much meaning as possible from each piece. For example, an excerpt would look like this:

    In Chapter 2, the narrator explains that Janie spends all her time under the pear tree. She felt "called" to watch it turn "from barren brown stems to glistening leaf buds; from lead-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously" (42). The imagery of the tree turning from barren to in bloom connects the pear tree to Janie's emerging sexuality. Hurston's choice to use words associated with sex in her description, like "virginity" and "stirred," reinforces that the tree symbolizes Janie's womanhood and reminds the reader of Janie's naivete and inexperience at this point in the novel. The way the tree and the intimate bees under it captivate Janie also suggests that at this point in her life, she has an optimistic viewpoint that marriage guarantees a tender, genuine connection.

    Note how the above writer used short quotes and focused on the meaning surrounding specific words. This allows them to connect various literary elements and unpack how these literary choices create a specific meaning.

    Literary Analysis - Key Takeaways

    • Literary analysis is the examination and evaluation of a literary work.
    • When analyzing literature, readers should note how different literary elements create meaning.
    • Writers should consider elements like theme, structure, tone, and figurative language when analyzing literature.
    • When writing a literary analysis essay, writers should read the prompt, critically read the text, craft a thesis, draft an outline, and then write the essay.
    • Readers should extract meaning from short but significant pieces of evidence when analyzing literature.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Analysis

    What does a literary analysis look like?

    Literary analysis involves critically reading and annotating a text and reflecting on how authors used literary elements to create meaning. 

    What is good literary analysis?

    Good literary analysis involves interpreting the meaning of short, significant pieces of evidence from a literary text. 

    How do you write a literary analysis example?

    To write a literary analysis, critically read the text and examine the meaning of literary elements setting, structure, and figurative language. 

    How do you start a literary analysis essay?

    To start a literary analysis essay, critically read the text and note the potential meaning of literary elements. Then construct a defensible claim that addresses the prompt.  

    How do you start an analysis?

    To start an analysis, identify literary elements like setting, text structure, and imagery. 

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