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Literary Analysis: Getting Started

What is an analysis essay?

Think about these questions, and use one or more of them to help you analyze the work. You have to come to some sort of conclusion about the content of the work, not just discuss the content itself.

When you are asked to write an essay about literature, it is not acceptable to just summarize the work. Instead, you should use quotations and insights to illustrate a certain point or answer a certain question about the work.

Read through the following questions and try to find one which might help you discuss something important about the work you are studying.

What is the theme of the work, or what is the author trying to say? How does the author communicate that theme to the reader?

Does the author use any special techniques, such as foreshadowing, flashback, or story-within-a-story? How do these techniques contribute to the work's message or effect?

Does the author use irony or satire? How and why? (Irony and satire have several very specific meanings. Look them up.)

What is the author's tone (style or manner of expression)? The tone might be sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, spiteful, pitying, amused, etc. How is this tone expressed, and why does the author use this tone?

Who is the narrator in the work? (The narrator is often not the same as the author.) Can you characterize the narrator? How does s/he fit into the work? What is the narrator's perspective, and how does that perspective contribute to the author's message? Why did the author choose this particular narrator?

What is the setting of the story? Does the setting contribute to the meaning? (For example, Stephen King's The Shining is about a man going insane, and part of the setting is a maze, representing his mind.) Or does the work teach us something about the setting? (For example, did The Great Gatsby teach you something, about women in 1920s America?)

Does the author use symbols (things, people, colors, names) to contribute to the meaning of the work? (For example, white often symbolizes purity, and night often indicates death. A caged bird is a common symbol of physical, mental, or emotional imprisonment, and an unnamed character shows a lack of identity.)

Does the work have a motif, or a reoccurring thematic element? In other words, does the same image (like water, coldness, music, birds) pop up again and again? What is the significance of the motif.) How does it contribute to the theme?

Is there a certain character who is particularly interesting to you? Can you do an in-depth study of that character? How does s/he develop or change? How does he/she fit into the work, or contribute to the theme?

Can you compare and contrast any two characters in the work, or can you compare and contrast one to a character in a different but somehow related work? (You can also compare/contrast settings, themes, characters or symbols.

Have you seen a movie or play version of the work you are writing about? Compare the book and the movie. How and why are they different?

Can you do feminist criticism of the work? How does the author portray women? (Or how does the author portray any particular social group: African Americans, Latin Americans, Jews, Muslims, Christians, homosexuals, businessmen, writers...)



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