Why does that word –analysis – strike fear into the hearts of so many college students, and just what the heck is a literary analysis, anyway?
Analysis is typically the last skill your brain learns, and most students don’t encounter this term until college. But never fear – I’m here to help you conquer your literary analysis essay in this blog post!
A smart literary analysis focuses on how a book or story’s plot, characters, settings, or themes are used by an author. Sometimes, you may want to explore how an author creates meaning through these elements; otherwise, you may want to criticize the author’s methods and their work’s message.
I’ll focus on both approaches in my handy list below, so read on!
Life After Book Reports
Before we dive right into analysis strategies, it’s important to note that analysis is not asummary.
You’ve probably written book reports before, and you know that these are pretty simple because you basically retell a book’s major events to prove you’ve read it.
But analysis requires more from you. Your professor can always read the book you’re analyzing, so you don’t have to recount the plot. Instead, your job in analyzing is to make aclaim or thesis about the text and to spend your essay supporting your ideas.
Analysis and argument actually have a lot in common, and if you’ve written argumentative essays, then you can probably write an analysis essay. I’ll break down the process into two phases to help you get started.
Phase One: Hunting and Gathering
In this phase, you should choose the work you want to analyze and then consider your approach. What are your initial ideas? What do you have to say about this book, and how do you plan to support your position? Brainstorm and outline during this phase.
You may be saying, “where do I start?” Glad you asked!
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #1: Know the Elements
When analyzing literature, you’ll first want to consider the following elements from a different perspective than when you’re just reading a book. True analysis means approaching your text like a detective. Plot, characters, and setting all leave clues to deeper meaning, and your job is to discover them.
Plot is the pattern of events that make up a story. In your literary analysis, you’ll want to focus on whether or not these events are significant to your claim.
Conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces, typically the protagonist and antagonist. Conflicts often follow this traditional form, but sometimes characters experience internal conflict. Or the conflict comes in the form of a natural or supernatural force. The main conflict in a story can often reflect an author’s opinion about the world they live in or the issues of their day.
Characters are the people or “players” in a story. Characters are great for analysis because they are the ones causing and reacting to the events in a story. Their backgrounds, appearances, beliefs, actions, etc. can all be analyzed. You can often start with characters in an analysis because authors usually express opinions about race, culture, religion, gender, etc. through character representation, whether intentional or not.
Just like characters, setting can be easily analyzed. As an author may express certain opinions through their characters, what they have to say about places can also be provocative and revealing.
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #2: Focus on Literary Devices
You can analyze a book’s themes by first brainstorming some ideas and thinking about the impression you get when reading it. Novels are full of symbols and allusions, and most authors have something to say about the world.
In analyzing TheLord of the Rings, you could discuss how Tolkien uses light and dark imagery as symbols of good and evil. “Gandalf the White” is certainly a representation of good, while evil is implied by the “Black Gates of Mordor.” You could continue by focusing on Tolkien’s language used for good or evil characters and settings.
While these terms have different meanings, you can approach them with the same strategy in your analysis essay. If a novel uses allegory or metaphor, then its story represents some real-world event(s) or criticism thereof.
A well-known Christian allegory is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. You could write an analysis essay that argues how Aslan’s journey represents Jesus’s story in the Bible. If you wanted to take this one step further, you could also explore whether or not Lewis’ interpretations could be seen as accurate and why.
Think about metaphor by analyzing how The Lord of the Rings’ plot is a metaphor for the events of World War II. You could also explore whether Tolkien opposes war or glorifies it, depending on how you interpret the novels.
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #3: Take a Critical Approach
If you’re struggling to come up with your own ideas, then you can definitely fall back on critical approaches or “lenses” through which you can view and analyze your topic. There are quite a few of these, so I’ll just focus on one here as an introduction.
If writing about the first Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins, for example, you might apply the feminist critical approach.
That’s a big subject, so you have to start somewhere. The Purdue OWL suggests starting with a list of typical questions. Your answers will help you form your claims.
Here are some of the questions on the OWL’s feminist criticism page:
- What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
- How are male and female roles defined?
- What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
Here is my answer to these questions that I could use to get started:
Traditional gender roles are rejected as Katniss Everdeen exhibits more fortitude, confidence, and intelligence than most of her male counterparts, Peeta, in particular. However, the novel still relies on traditional masculine and feminine characteristics as most of the female characters appear ethical, soft-spoken, and passive, whereas most of the male characters are aggressive and less ethical in their actions.
Now I have to start thinking about how to support this stance, just like an argument.
You can apply a similar approach to any of the critical lenses. The most common approaches that students use today are Feminist, Marxist, Post-modern, and Psychoanalytic.
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #4: Follow the 5 W’s
Who, what, where, when, why/how – think about these when writing your notes and outline:
Who is the author? Does his or her background have any impact on the writing? What links can you draw between the author’s life and those of the characters in the story?
What is happening in the story? What events are significant and why?
Where does the story take place, and why is this important to your analysis?
When is the story set? How does this time period affect your interpretation? Think about historical context as this can be very important.
Why/how do you justify your claims? What evidence from the text will you use?
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #5: Making an Assertion vs. Using an Argument and Evidence
An assertion makes a claim and can work as a topic sentence, but an argument is more complex and complete. An argument provides your claim but also supports it.
Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort.
Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped forehead scar represents a hero’s badge of achievement for thwarting Voldemort as well as his fame and status in the Wizarding world. Ron Weasley confirms this notion early in Sorcerer’s Stone when treating the scar with reverence on the Hogwarts Express. In the same scene, Hermione Granger immediately recognizes Harry because of his scar and only remarks about a smudge on Ron’s face, revealing the disparity between supposedly “normal” characters and how Harry’s scar and its history define him as the special hero character.
See the difference? In an argumentative paragraph, you offer a specific assertion/claim, evidence to support it, and commentary to show how that evidence is relevant.
Double-check with your professor about her expectations. Typically, you’ll use summary, paraphrasing, and direct quotes from the literature you’re analyzing as evidence. Often, you’ll only have to focus on your own ideas and simply support your claims with logic and evidence from your text. However, you may be expected to use other sources, such as scholarly publications, to support your analysis. If so, visit your university library or its website to start researching your topic.
Phase Two: Writing
Okay – now that you’ve collected information about your topic and brainstormed some ideas for your approach, let’s move on to actually writing the literary analysis!
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #6: MLA Format
Most literary analysis essays will typically appear in MLA format, so you’ll want to make sure you get this step right. Here is a great link to a sample MLA paper that shows you the ropes.
You may also be expected to cite the book or story you’re analyzing in MLA. You can use an online tool, such as Easybib, to create your citations, but be sure to double-check these for accuracy!
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #7: Academic Voice
Walk like me; talk like me. To write academically, train your “voice” to be:
- Skeptical, not cynical
- Confident, not cocky
- Logical, not biased
- Critical, but fair
- Concise, not wordy
I can’t stress this last one enough. You are smart, so don’t try too hard to sound smart. Students often make this mistake and end up with bloated and pompous prose, which is when professors like to unload a lot of ink from their grading pens!
You’ll also want to avoid the dreaded “I factor” of first-person writing. For a successful literary analysis essay, third-person writing is the way to go!
Components of a Smart Literary Analysis #8: Essay Organization
Writing your rough draft:
Intro and Body and Conclusion and Bears, oh my!
Okay, so there are no bears, but all good essays are well organized, and a literary analysis is no exception! You may already know the basics, but let’s cover the specifics:
The introduction needs three things to be successful: an interesting hook, background on your topic, and a strong thesis that makes a clear analytical claim.
This section will make up the bulk of your paper. Each body paragraph will work to support your thesis. Recall the assertion vs. argument section from above – an analytical paragraph should include the following:
- Your assertion or “sub-claim” that is relevant to your thesis.
- Evidence from the text that can support the assertion.
- A logical evaluation of that evidence – show the reader how the evidence supports your assertion.
The conclusion is your final paragraph. Its job is to recap the main ideas in your essay and reassert your thesis. No new information should appear in your conclusion, so make sure you’ve wrapped up your analysis before you get to this point!
Putting Theory Into Practice
There are many ways to approach a literary analysis, and I hope this post gives you a “leg-up” in starting your own. Whether you’re coming up with your own theme-based approach or you decide to use a critical approach, so long as you take your time and brainstorm, take notes, and outline effectively, you should be off to a good start!
Let’s review. When writing a smart literary analysis, you should focus on:
- Starting with a thesis or claim
- The 5 W’s
- Argumentative paragraphs
- Using evidence to support your assertions
- Using MLA format
- Practicing academic voice
- Strong organization – Intro, Body, and Conclusion
And when you’ve done all that, Kibin will be standing by to proofread your work!
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
What is a literary analysis, and what is it good for?
Please don’t reply, “Absolutely nothing, say it again y’all!”
You might think that a literary analysis isn’t good for anything, but it actually helps sharpen your writing skills and your critical thinking abilities.
If you can write a stunning literary analysis, you have a pretty good chance of doing well in your literature course, too, so that’s definitely a bonus!
This all sounds great, right, but what do you do if you’re not quite sure how to even start? If you’re in need of a little help, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to explain how to write a literary analysis that works.
What Is a Literary Analysis?
A literary analysis is quite simply an analysis of a piece of literature. Makes sense, right?
Your goal is to carefully examine a piece of literature. To do this, you need to break it into smaller pieces. This will help you understand the writing as a whole.
As you read, pay close attention to what characters say and do. Even a small action or comment can be significant. For example, consider how the simple phrase, “Out, damned spot; out, I say” reveals Lady Macbeth’s guilt and descent into madness.
Also pay attention to (and actively look for) the literary terms you’ve learned about in class. You know, terms like plot, character, foreshadowing, symbolism, and theme.
Remember: even though plot can be an important component of a literary analysis, a literary analysis is not a plot summary.
Let me say that again for emphasis: A literary analysis is not a plot summary.
Don’t write a paper that explains every single plot point of the story. While it may be appropriate to include a brief summary of the literature, the summary shouldn’t be the focus of your essay.
Remember, you’re analyzing a key element of the literature. You’re not telling your friend what happens in the story.
Here’s a mini literary analysis example to help explain what I mean.
Let’s look at Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery”.
Need inspiration? Check out these example essays on “The Lottery.”
Here’s a plot summary. It tells you what happens in the story. This is not a literary analysis.
In “The Lottery,” villagers gather to draw the name of the person who will win the lottery. Here’s the kicker though, the person doesn’t win a million dollars, as might be the case with a modern story of this title. Instead, the person who wins the lottery is stoned to death by the rest of the villagers to ensure a good harvest. This isn’t a lottery that anyone would want to win.
Here’s the start to a good literary analysis. This example chooses a small element of the story (the black box) and explains its importance (what the box symbolizes).
While a simple box may not seem to matter, when you look at it in the larger context of the story, you’ll see that the shabby black box, which holds the slips of paper with each villager’s name, is actually an important symbol.
Notice that the box is black. Black symbolizes death. The box is old and worn out, yet the villagers won’t replace it. This symbolizes the tradition of the lottery. It, too, is old and dated, yet villagers cling to the tradition.
See the difference? A summary simply retells the plot, while an analysis explains and analyzes an important element of the story.
Read: How to Write a Good Essay: Stop Summarizing, Start Commentating
Ready to move on to a more detailed, step-by-step explanation? Great! Let’s get to work!
How to Write a Literary Analysis That Works
1. Read the literature carefully
I know this is a basic step, but my point here is that you should actually read the material. Don’t rely on Spark Notes or Shmoop. These sites can be helpful in understanding material, but they’re no substitute for actually reading the original text (even if you do have to read all 500 pages of The Lord of the Rings).
2. Review literary terms, and take notes as you read
It can be hard to remember every detail of a story or find a specific quote in a 500 page novel. Save yourself time and the frustration of pouring through each page again by writing down your thoughts, asking questions, and highlighting important information.
Remember when I mentioned literary terms? Here’s where you’ll take notes about those, too.
If the book is titled The Lord of the Rings and you notice that the ring plays an important role in the novel, chances are that ring is a symbol of something. Take notes about the ring as you read (noting page numbers!), so you’ll be able to use the ideas to support your analysis.
Read: 10 Note Taking Strategies to Write a Better Essay
3. Understand your assignment
In some cases, writing a literary analysis means you’re writing your own original analysis and won’t need any additional sources to support your claims.
Some assignments will require you to complete research and use outside expert analysis to support your ideas.
These are two different assignments, so before you begin, make sure you’re writing the right type of paper!
4. Introduction and Thesis Statement
Reach out and grab your readers! Not literally, of course. But an introduction should grab readers’ attention and make them want to keep reading.
If you’re writing a literary analysis without the help of sources, try opening with a question that you’ll answer in your paper.
Here’s an example: The symbols of light and dark are prominent throughout literature, but what unique role do these seemingly common symbols play in The Lord of the Rings?
If you’re using outside research, try opening with an interesting or shocking quote from a source.
Here’s what an opening line of a literary analysis of The Lord of the Rings might look like if you’re using sources.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-1955 and “…has been hailed by many literary critics as a classic work of literature, one of the best—or the best—of the twentieth century” (McPartland 1).
After you introduce your topic in the introductory paragraph(s), you’ll wrap up the introduction with a clear and specific thesis statement.
The thesis statement functions like a mini road map of your paper and tells your readers the subject and focus of your paper. (To learn more about thesis statements, read How to Write a Thesis Statement in 5 Simple Steps.)
Check out these thesis statement examples you might use for a literary analysis of The Lord of the Rings.
Sample Thesis Statement #1: The key symbol in The Lord of the Rings is the ring itself, as it symbolizes power.
Sample Thesis Statement #2: Upon close reading, a number of themes emerge from The Lord of the Rings; however, one of the primary themes is good versus evil.
These sample thesis statements provide readers with a specific focus, with the first example clearly focusing on symbolism and the second clearly focusing on theme.
Once you have written an appropriate thesis statement, you have a direction for your paper and are ready to begin the actual analysis.
5. Analyze Literary Devices
Now’s the time to take a look at your notes again and review the observations you made about literary devices, such as theme, symbol, and character.
Break down the literature by examining each of these literary elements to see what role they play.
It’s a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You need to examine each piece individually to see how it forms the larger picture.
Let’s look at an example.
Here’s a working thesis statement: The key symbol in The Lord of the Rings is the ring itself, as it symbolizes power.
In this paper, you’ll focus on symbolism.Your literary analysis needs to create an argument and explain to readers how the ring symbolizes power. To do this, you’ll of course need specific examples from the novel.
Because the ring is a changing symbol throughout the story, you can provide a number of examples. For instance, the ring is a symbol of evil power. The ring also symbolizes a desire for power.
Here’s another working thesis statement: Upon close reading, a number of themes emerge from The Lord of the Rings; however, one of the primary themes is good versus evil.
In this paper, your focus is theme. Your literary analysis, will provide readers with examples to help explain the importance of the theme good vs. evil in the novel.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, characters are in a constant battle of good and evil. The ring was created by evil and continually tempts even the most good and honest characters. Your analysis will include specific examples of characters being tempted, their struggles with good and evil, and their ultimate end of succumbing to the darkness of evil.
Every good essay ends with a good conclusion.
Wrap up your literary analysis by summing up your main ideas and restating your thesis (using different wording than your original thesis statement, of course).
If you’re writing about the symbolism of the ring in The Lord of the Rings your conclusion will restate the importance of the ring as a symbol of power and how that symbol is carried throughout the entire novel.
Include a few key points of your analysis, such as how the ring symbolizes evil power as well as a desire for power.
Your final lines will bring the essay to closure. As a concluding strategy, you might connect your opening and closing lines of your essay.
For instance, in the example above, I quoted a source that mentions the quality of the novel and its importance in literary history. Your concluding lines might restate this idea to emphasize the point.
Check out these example essays on The Lord of the Rings!
Final Thoughts on How to Write a Literary Analysis
Learning how to write a literary analysis takes practice–and revision. Don’t expect to quickly read a story and whip up your paper during Mad Men commercial breaks.
Budget your time wisely. Allow time for yourself to read (and possibly reread) the literature. Take notes as you read. And make sure to organize and draft your ideas carefully.
If you want to learn even more about literary analysis before you start your paper, read 8 Components of a Smart Literary Analysis.
If you’re having trouble deciding which literary device to focus on, I recommend taking a look at this detailed list of literary devices, which includes definitions and plenty of examples.
Ready to have someone else review your analysis? Kibin editors are always ready to help!
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