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.
Description:The purpose of a literary analysis essay is to very closely examine a work of literature. Your central idea in this essay will focus on the work of literature as a whole or focus on one particular element in a longer text. Some common types of literary analysis essay focus on analyzing a theme, a character or a symbol. You may analyze a poem, a short story or a novel.
Topic: The Symbolism of the Shell in Lord of the Flies.
Literary Analysis Example
For centuries, philosophers have grappled with the question of whether mankind is inherently good or evil. In his novel Lord of the Flies, William Golding examines this question through a story about what happens after a small plane carrying British schoolboys crashes on a desert island. Because no adults survived the crash, the boys were on their own to govern themselves and await a rescue. As the story unfolds, the boys are forced to organize themselves outside of civilized society. Throughout the story, Golding uses the symbol of the conch shell to represent civilization and democracy.
From the beginning, the conch shell functions as a tool for establishing a civil order. When Ralph, a character who would become a leader among the boys, first finds the conch shell, he blows it like a horn to gather all the boys together. Once the boys emerged from the tropical jungle to gather near Ralph, he ?smiled and held up the conch for silence." At that moment, the attempt at creating an orderly civilization begins. The conch shell is initially used as a tool for both gathering together and establishing leadership.
Another symbolic use for the conch shell occurs during the scenes involving the boys' assembly. The intention of the assembly is to form a governing body. Ralph is chosen as a leader in part because he found and used the conch shell first. When the boys vote for a leader, they exclaim ?Him with the shell. Ralph! Ralph! Let him be chief with the trumpet-thing." Here, the conch shell represents the power vested in ralph as the decision-maker among the boys. The shell is an image of the fair, democratic microcosm of civilization that the boys hoped to invoke.
Gradually, however, the boys lose their connection with the conch shell, signifying their momentum towards giving in to disorder and chaos. Both Piggy and Ralph use the conch shell as a horn any time they feel that their makeshift civilization is falling apart, in an effort to gather the boys. When some of the boys start a fire on the island and Piggy attempts to use the conch to stop them, he is rebuked by Jack who is beginning to express rebellion and evil. The conch doesn't count up on top of the mountain," said Jack. When such limitations are placed on the power of the conch, the boys begin to lose respect for the established civil order.
Further, as the island civilization degenerates, so does the conch shell itself. Jack diminishes the power of the conch when he proclaims that "we don't need the conch anymore." At this point, Jack's assertion links the demise of the conch's power with a dramatic shift in the civil order. Golding's descriptions of the conch shell also show that it has literally lost its color and luster over time, physically mirroring the eroding social situation. Additionally, the scene where Jack steals Piggy's glasses instead of stealing the conch shell shows how the shell was no longer valued.
Finally, the conch shell is literally crushed by a boulder. This occurs when Piggy was holding the shell and was intentionally murdered by the boys pushing rocks upon him. The complete destruction of the conch, a symbol of fair and just civilization, corresponds with this deliberately evil act. The conch shell was the ultimate civilizing influence on the island. With its destruction, the group was given license to slide into savagery, evil and disorder. Through the symbol of the conch shell, Golding communicated that evil is an inevitable aspect of man if the conditions arise for its expression.