A literary analysis could be as old as literature itself. They have become a very specific style of an essay in the academic world, and there is every reason for you to enjoy the process of constructing your own. They are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your comprehension of texts and your ability to effectively communicate your ideas about them to your graders. If you simply don’t have time to do this, or if it seems too difficult to complete the task before the due date, skip to the last paragraph.
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For a quick example, we could look at an analysis of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ in relation to social responses to transition in power. We could construct an argument that the old novel discusses helplessness in the face of ostensibly insurmountable odds versus empowerment through moral compromise and opportunism. We could use a theoretical lens such as Marxism, modernism or even post-colonialism to look at the relationships between the characters in the story. Alternatively, we could use our own perspective. Nonetheless, we need to support our ideas by examining the characters and groups in the book, such as Rebecca, the Jews of York, the Knights Templar, Robin Hood, the Saxons and the Normans. The writer would then show how the themes in the book highlight some common themes in human experience in as much as a transition in authority elicit various social responses. Pro academic writer could use a real, modern world event to compare and contrast the themes such as the fall of the Soviet Union or even the election of President Donald Trump.
A number of blogs and books which attempt to answer this question often miss something. I want to offer you something I hope will be encouraging, enlightening, and will give you a great starting point from which to approach your assessment. To offer what is the best definition of a literary analysis essay, I want to first write about truth; an idea at the very heart of our analysis. This is where our inspiration and where the meat of our analysis can come from. After dealing with what to write, writing your essay can be a practical task of organizing your ideas and writing them down.
Literary Analysis Essays and What to Write
Interestingly, the word ‘author’ comes from the same origin as ‘authority’. Many writers who give tips on how to write a literary analysis essay discuss understanding what the author intended. However, many years ago influential academics started reviewing the literary approach that ‘the author is dead’. This is linked to the postmodernist idea that objective truth does not exist and that there can only be subjective responses. I don’t agree with a purely postmodernist perspective since I am convinced that there is an objective truth in all things. Nonetheless, I love it. I believe that I can not know objective truth and can only attempt to understand it as well as possible. I can not even know if I have discovered truth since new information could emerge tomorrow. The postmodernists liberated us from the need to comply with an authoritative perspective on texts. We don’t have to be correct. A literary analysis essay should include arguments which support your analysis and show your reasons for making the arguments you offer. That is all. There are no wrong answers so long as you make rational points which you can support.
Read the Text
Don’t cheat yourself. There is just as much chance that some original, interesting, or even quirky interpretation could occur to you while reading, as to anyone else. Read the text. Don’t sell yourself short of a getting a high mark by basing your opinions on those you find on google. Compare your ideas with those of others, but read the text.
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Are You Answering the Question?
Despite the fact that it is deceptively simple, just answer the question. Stick to the question. Make sure everything you do is supporting your answer to the question. Sometimes you will be given an open-ended task, and in this case, you have the opportunity to explore your own question about the text. Still, decide on your question and stick to it. However, most of the time, students are given literary analysis essay prompts. A detailed discussion of the types of prompts assessors offer deserves it’s own blog entry. For now, let it be suffice to say that we need to carefully explore the meaning of the question offered by the prompt and focus our writing to respond to it in a meaningful way.
You can make your task a lot easier by writing an outline for your literary analysis essay. An outline, or written plan, is like a framework for a house. Instead of just putting our building materials into a pile on the ground and calling the resulting mess a house or, likewise, merely listing all our thoughts into paragraphs, we look at the ideas in point form and make decisions about how they flow. Which ideas build onto others? How do they look together? Are they all focused on building an answer to the essay question? More often than not, I get my best ideas while writing my outline. I can see, at a glance, how the golden thread of logic will weave through my essay and it inspires me. When you see your progression of logic you can find holes in your argument, get fresh ideas about strengthening your points and make decisions about the most effective path by which to lead your reader to your conclusion. This makes your end result a lot firmer and translates into marks.
The writer also needs to consider the essay rubric when formulating this plan. Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to know how your work will be judged. Rubrics can be a little different, and at times, a student will not have access to the rubric chart that pertains to their task specifically. However, no one is reinventing the wheel. See the image below for a very useful example that can guide your response. The rubric focuses the grader’s critique on the writer’s ability to deal with literary analysis topics succinctly. It asks the grader to consider whether the writer has supported their ideas and met the criteria.
Getting to the Business of Writing.
So, you have ideas about the text, have carefully examined the essay question, and written a plan. Now it is time to paint the house. Have a look at this article about how to make your essay writing more interesting. Also, you can benefit from reading some good literary analysis essay examples to explore samples of how top writers have fleshed out their plan into a compelling and well-articulated argument.
There are a number of important points to remember while you get busy tapping at keys on your computer:
- Keep your message succinct.
- Employ a rational progression of logic by which you build on your ideas in an effective way.
- Write as though you are interested in persuading the reader of your idea; sell your perspective.
- It is more interesting if you can vary your wording and sentence structures throughout your work.
Have another look at the sample of a literary analysis essay rubric above. When you have finished writing your argument, and you are ready to describe your work by writing the introduction and conclusion, test it against the rubric. How does your introduction explain how you will meet these criteria? Your introduction should tell the reader what you are about to explain to them and the conclusion should summarize how you have supported your idea. If you are going to achieve the goals in the rubric, think about the measure in relation to your first and last paragraphs.
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Literary analysis is a challenging essay to write as well as analytical essay. While writing an essay of this kind, it’s important to spend a lot of time drafting and outlining beforehand. When writing about literature, the most vital tip I can give you is to make sure to write your piece as if the reader of your writing has already read the work that you are discussing. Literary analysis is NOT a book report. Do not include plot summary in your essay. While writing, stick to exclusively analysis. Another handy shortcut to writing these essays is to focus on questions such as “What was the author’s intent” and “what effect does it have on the reader”. The article mentions the importance of an argument. An argument is the main claim of your essay. In literary analysis, it’s extremely important that you articulate your claim in your thesis and refer back to your thesis at the end of each paragraph/main point that you make. This will alleviate any confusion that the reader could have about your paper.
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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.