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.
The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
Literary devices like metaphor, simile, and repetition are used in literature to convey a special meaning to the reader. Often these devices are used to make an idea clearer, emphasize a point, or relate an insight to the reader. In his famous oration The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson uses literary devices to communicate the theme and purpose of his speech. Ever since Emerson gave this now-infamous speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837, it has been a cornerstone of American literature, defining the scholar’s role in American society. In fact, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a famous 19th century American poet, called The American Scholar an “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” for America. Certainly, Emerson’s promotion of a uniquely American scholarship influenced a generation of American scholars—and continues to influence scholars until this day.
Emerson’s main theme, or purpose, in The American Scholar is to call on American scholars to create their own independent American literature and academia—separate from old European ties of the past. His speech served as the inspiration for many future American writers, artists, and philosophers to create their own ideas, without regard to Europe and its antiquated traditions. To this end, Emerson uses literary devices to make various points in support of his overall theme.
Emerson makes frequent use of metaphor throughout his oration. One of the most powerful metaphors he used was the description of American society in 1837. According to Emerson, society used to be united and whole but it became divided and “compartmentalized” as men began to serve narrower and more specific purposes in their work lives. The farmer farms. The salesman sells. The preacher preaches. And so on.
"But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power [which is society], has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man." (Paragraph 4)
Emerson paints a powerful image in this passage, with the use of multiple metaphors. First, he compares society to a fountain of power which has become nothing more than spilt drops of water—making clear his views on the negative effects of job specialization on society. Second, he compares the members in society to “walking monsters”—individual body parts trying to function on their own, but never succeeding.
By demonstrating the fragmentation of society, Emerson draws attention to American scholars’ own place within this fragmented society. Like everyone else, scholars have also become too narrowly specialized. Scholars who were once thinking men (what Emerson likes to call the “Man Thinking”) have become “mere thinkers,” lacking the ability to act upon their thoughts. In making clear the scholars’ current status in society, Emerson hopes to influence them to act upon their duties as scholars. Through these metaphors, Emerson is telling all people who call themselves scholars that in order to become real men—real human beings—they need to confirm their existence through action. In other words, they need to take an idea from its initial form as a mere abstraction and turn it into something real and concrete. In doing so, these scholars have proven themselves to be complete men, adept at investigating, understanding, studying, and acting.
Another example of an essential comparison in Emerson’s speech is the simile which compares the future of poetry to a burning star in the sky. Emerson wishes to eradicate the notion that only antiquated literature from Europe has literary merit. “Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?” (Paragraph 1). In this passage, Emerson uses simile to demonstrate his firm believe in the positive future of intellectualism (more specifically, poetry) in American life. Emerson believes that despite the public’s frequent talk about the reduced quality of the contemporary poetry, the poetry will be brought back to life when American scholars realize the power of their words to effect change in society. Emerson wanted American authors to feel empowered by his speech, like the power and energy of the star, lightyears away.
Emerson also uses repetition to emphasize his belief that truly complete men are not tied to any one job or profession. Rather, enlightened men are every profession at the same time. “[A complete] Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier” (Paragraph 4). The parallel structure of the last sentence in the quote conveys a sense of importance about the content of the quote. Emerson uses repetition to draw attention to the fact that a man is capable of being every profession at once—and it is only when he pursues an understanding in a multiplicity of fields that he can call himself a man.
Emerson’s final message to his listeners was that the literature of the past is not worthy of worship and reverence in today’s world. According to Emerson, every generation must write its own literature, because older literature from previous will never have the same powerful effect on today’s audience that it had on its original audience. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this” (Paragraph 12). Emerson uses a metaphor to make this point even clearer. Literature only suits the era in which it was written. “As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age” (Paragraph 12). Emerson compares artists to air pumps in order to prove his point that all artists will include some “perishable” elements in their books that will cause their books to be less valuable to the next generation, just as all vacuums will leave some air in a container. According to Emerson, this is a reason to rejoice! He seeks to encourage the current generation of scholars to write their own great literature and forget about the old European classics.
Using literary devices like metaphor, simile, and repetition, Emerson conveys special meaning to the reader on numerous occasions throughout his oration. His skilled use of these devises emphasizes his main points and often creates vivid imagery in the reader’s mind. No doubt, The American Scholar is a powerful piece of literature with an essential message. It calls out to American scholars to change their current lifestyles and create lives of worth and matter. Emerson’s arguments against the idolization of classic literature help to spark a revolution in American literature that had a profound effect on American culture and academia for hundreds of years.
Cheevers, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau; Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Detroit: Thorndike Press, 2006. 80.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Addresses.” Nature; Addresses and Lectures. The American Scholar. 30 Mar. 2008. 30 Apr. 2008 <http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm>.
Mignon, Charles W. “The American Scholar: Introduction to the Essay.” CliffsNotes.30 Apr. 2008 <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/Emerson-s-Essays-The-American-Scholar-Introduction-to-the-Essay.id-95,pageNum-14.html>.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Literary Devices Essay - "American Scholar"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/literary-devices-american-scholar/>.