How to Analyze a Literary Work
Preparing to Write the Academic Essay
Analyzing a literary work doesn’t always begin with a process of understanding the purpose of the author. As the student reader, sometimes you can’t always figure out what the main objective of the text is or for what reason the author has written the work. The author may have written the short story for pure enjoyment. Sometimes authors, in general, write for publication. Sometimes they write because it is therapeutic; for example, writing helps them to move past emotional pain. Although they may begin the process of writing with a multitude of aims, they don’t typically write to appeal to you as the reader. In other words, while they are in the process of writing, they don’t consider how a word or how a character description will impact you as the reader. Doing this will hinder the process. They just write and we, as students, take their work and discuss it.
Within the classroom, professors give (lecture) students information about the author’s name, a list of previous works, and the prevailing thought about the author and his/her influence on the literary canon. As part of the learning process, professors then instruct students to write papers in order to demonstrate their understanding of literary themes that permeate the author’s work. Where students run into problems is when it comes to writing and developing an analysis. Students don’t always know how to analyze. In other words, they don’t know how to take a chunk of material, break it into manageable parts, take one part at a time, and examine and evaluate each part. They let the task of coming up with an analysis intimidate them and they run to the first available resource they can find to fill up the essay. Developing an analysis takes time and patience. It is a skill that can’t be learned in one semester. Similarly, analyzing the literary text without any other secondary influence takes even more patience. You have to flex your own intellectual muscles in order to discover the hidden treasures of the text.
Therefore, when it comes to students analyzing the author’s work, they must learn how to address the content within the book that is lying on the desk, without the benefit of having access to extended research, to complete background information on the author, or to literary criticism. All of this information should come secondary to the student developing their own ability to analyze within an academic essay, but they can’t do this before they fully understand the text.
Pushing everything else aside, what can the student learn about a particular literary work? What steps are most beneficial to students who struggle with examining and evaluating the literary text? In answer to these questions, here are some steps to consider as you prepare to analyze the literary work:
Step 1: Study the introduction and conclusion paragraphs.
Examine wording in the text that indicates imagery. The word imagery refers to pictures and descriptions. Ask yourself questions about why you think the author places certain words within the paragraphs. Describe what they mean in terms of the context the author provides. Examine the text to determine also how the author introduces the main character in the first few paragraphs. If the main character is not present within these paragraphs of the story, then consider this in your analysis. Skip down to the end of the story. Search for the main character within the conclusion paragraph. If the main character is present within the conclusion paragraph, then determine the significance of how the author positions the main character within your papers.
Step 2: Learn as much as you can about the main character.
When professors give students an assignment to write about a particular literary work, students never focus on the main character. Instead they merely provide a summary of the main character and provide in-depth information about the themes and ideas expressed from the professor through classroom lecture. Keep in mind that professors don’t lecture so that their work can be included in your papers. Professors present a structure of ideas based upon the canon. Your job as the student is to apply some of those ideas to “your” analysis. To understand the text is to understand the main character. This may make it easier to discover the author’s purpose. Therefore, keep in mind the following:
- The main character is the anchor of the text. Wherever you see the main character, study his/her actions, statements, and activities within each paragraph and/or context. No one else in the story exists without the main character, so examine the actions of secondary characters in relation to the actions of the main character.
- Examine how the author presents the main character. Pay close attention to what the main character says about him/herself.
Treat the main character as if he or she is a person you are interested in getting to know better. Once you are able to do this you can better assess how the author uses the character in the work.
Step 3: Investigate relationships.
The main character is always in relationship with someone else in the story. The other person could be a husband, a child, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover, a boss, and/or a passerby. Classify relationships within the text. Draw a multiplications table in which you place the names of secondary characters in the first column and the types of relationship in the first row. Here is an example below:
Secondary Characters Mom Brother Friend
Once you are able to locate these relationships within the text, describe each action of the main character in relation to other characters.
Step 4: Evaluate how the author uses the antagonist.
How the author uses the antagonist in the story is very important. This gives the reader insight into the author’s mind and some insight into the author’s purpose for writing the story. As you continue to analyze the literary work, study the relationships the antagonist has with the main character and then with other secondary characters. Examine the author’s choice of dialogue. Underline the specific words the author uses with each character. Study the sentence structure of the dialogue to determine if words represent sarcasm, criticism, or cynicism. In addition, evaluate the author’s position of the antagonist within the story and how this relates to the position of the protagonist.
Step 5: Highlight repetitions.
It is human nature for us to repeat ourselves. We always like to make sure that the other person has heard us. We want people to understand us and to believe in what we say. We repeat phrases, tones, examples, and specific statements. Therefore, as you read your text, highlight those areas within the work where there are repetitions in phrases, statements, words, and examples. Does the author use a certain word more than once? If so, study each word within their respective contexts. Each word means something differently in a different context.
Step 6: Classify dialogue.
Conversations between characters often reveal secrets, opinions, and information about other characters, so what each character says within a story means something. Study the dialogue to understand the author’s use of language. Note characters who speak English grammatically. These are characters that care about how they use the language. Note also those characters who speak conversationally. Most of their speech represents everyday, informal talk. These are also characters that care about how they use the language. Analyze each character’s views in the story and how each uses language to convey their beliefs.
Step 7: Outline the plot.
Each step in life is important. It was important to learn how to walk. This was our first step. Then we learned our ABCs. This was the second step. After this we learned how to get along with other kids at school. We followed this up with standing up for ourselves on the playground, learning how to drive, and finally getting married and having kids of our own. If we had never taken the first step, then we couldn’t have ever gotten to the last one. The author often presents the literary work in some kind of logical fashion whether it is in the conventional 1, 2, and 3 . . . step-by-step technique or in a reverse order for dramatic effect. Sometimes the author begins with the end of the story at the beginning, takes the reader on some journey in the middle, and brings the reader back to the official end of the story. No matter what technique the author uses, there are still areas that are chronologically structured. This is sometimes present within the body paragraphs of the story where the author presents what happens first, second, and third. For wherever the author places time, if the author doesn’t do this, then the reader would have no way of understanding the story sequentially.
Therefore, before beginning to write an essay take out a sheet of paper and write down how the story logically unfolds. Without doing this you run the risk of presenting ideas in your paper that are not related and have no logical relation to the rest of the parts of your essay. Know the story.
Step 8: Draw a big circle around the climax.
The climax usually comes at the end of the story. The most exciting event for a marathon runner is reaching the finish line. For all of the hard work and training that runners commit to it is the finish line that they care more about than anything else. That’s the goal: to finish. Likewise, the author also commits to finish the work. Authors start with a main character that is immature at the beginning. They chart the main character’s progression through adding other characters and situations and problems. Through these circumstances and relationships, authors push the character forward until he or she reaches the finish line. It is in reaching that last (story) event that makes it worthwhile for the character and also for the reader. As you locate the climax, reexamine all of the actions before it. What would happen if the story didn’t have a finish?
Make sure that as you analyze the literary work that you also don’t project onto the text your opinions. Always remember that the author didn’t write the story with you in mind. Only literary critics consider the influence of the literary text onto the reader. Therefore, in your writing, don’t project anything onto the text that is not already there.
Tips to Remember
- Analyzing a literary text takes time. Allow one to two days for evaluating and highlighting story structure and key words.
- Spend as much time with the text before you begin to write the paper. If you don’t know the text, then you won’t know how to structure your analysis.
- Don’t forget to eat. Rest and go to sleep. Get back up again and confront the task. You can do it. Finish it.
About the Author
Regina Y. Favors is a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in English from San Diego State University. In her spare time, she teaches freshmen composition and English as a Second Language at a local community college in Dallas. She is currently developing a writing textbook for college students who struggle with understanding the margin comments professors write on student papers.
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