How to Study and Analyze Literature

How to Study and Analyze Literature thumbnail
A woman sitting on the floor drinking a hot beverage while reading a book.

Tried and true methods of literary analysis can get you through your first assignment in freshman English or your 10th or 20th college essay. The trick is to pick apart the pieces of a text or poem and to offer a unique perspective. Do it well and your professor will thank you for not putting her to sleep with an amateurish attempt at the class college English paper.

  1. Read the Book

    • Before you can analyze anything, you have to read the text. Online notes might help you wrap your head around a tough passage or two, but take the time to read the assigned novel, short story, anthology or poem. Better yet, read it twice. Carefully digesting a piece multiple times helps you to get to know the characters, structure and plot line well enough to analyze it. You might be able to skim a textbook, but fiction is an art form, and the real value is often hidden deep within a text, rather than highlighted in bold.

    Tear It Apart

    • The University of Montana says analysis starts with breaking a topic down into its individual parts. The literary analysis does this with a portion of a text and offers some interesting insight or meaning. This can be done with just one text on its own, by examining a central theme that exists in several specific passages. You can also compare one novel to another with a similar theme or from a similar time period, or multiple texts from the same author. Alternatively, you might examine the historical influences on the author and the novel, such as studying the impact of the industrial revolution in England on a specific work by Charles Dickens.

    Analytical Angle

    • Once you've chosen the context of your study -- a text on its own or compared with another -- you must choose the angle of your analysis. This can be done through the lens of certain literary devices, such as metaphor or conflict. For example, you might look at instances in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in which Hamlet experiences inner turmoil about the circumstances of his father's death. In this sense, he experiences a "man versus self" style of conflict. By analyzing specific passages in which Hamlet is faced with indecision, guilt or confusion, you can comment on how this tension affects the plot of the overall story and prompts action -- or inaction -- on Hamlet's part.

    Define Your Thesis

    • You can take numerous approaches beyond the classic literary devices. A good research question is one that is narrow enough to be answered. Avoid a topic that is too broad, such as the topic of guilt in Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart." Instead, argue, for example, that the ringing the narrator hears is the manifestation of his guilt. As you walk step by step through the gradual deterioration of the narrator's mental state, quote examples from the text and include your commentary, slowly building your case for the reader at every step. Think of each statement in your analysis like a building made of blocks, in which each row of bricks relies on the one below it to reach the final conclusion, much like putting the roof on a finished structure.

    Wrap It Up

    • Once you've chosen your text and decided on your method of analysis and have carefully and methodically answered your research question, conclude with a short, strong summary. Do not introduce new information into your analysis at this point, but rather sum up the argument that you've already created with plenty of textual evidence throughout the body of the paper. The conclusion is often a simple restating of the thesis statement with two or three of the most salient supporting details. Don't belabor the point here or make it too long. If you've analyzed things well, you can end succinctly and be satisfied with your work.

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