How to Study and Analyze Literature

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A quality work of literature lingers with a reader long after the book is closed.

Readers can get the most out of literature -- novels, poems, plays and non-fiction -- by carefully studying and analyzing texts. Learning the tools of literary analysis makes previously inaccessible texts interesting and meaningful. Different schools of thought throughout the centuries from Plato to Derrida have promoted different methods of studying literature, which can make knowing where to turn for instruction daunting. Consider a literary text on a series of levels, beginning with plot as the most basic level, then elements such as narration and character next, and finally taking into account how all of these levels of complexity work to create a whole text.

Instructions

    • 1

      Identify the plot of the novel, story or poem. Plot denotes an event or series of events. Traditionally, the events in a story follow a particular pattern: introduction, conflict, rising action, climax and falling action. This formula makes a story riveting as tension increases until a final explosive finale from which the reader cannot turn away. Note if the story departs from plot conventions, such as in the case of a cliff-hanger ending or a plot that jumps around in time. Consider the effect of such a structural decision on the reading experience.

    • 2

      Determine the identity of the narrator. Every story and poem has a narrator. A narrator is the person telling the story, giving the reader the information about the events, characters and settings in a story. Literary scholars categorize narrators by the amount of insight they possess. A third-person omniscient narrator can see into every character's thoughts and knows everything about the world presented in the story. A third-person limited narrator knows some characters' thoughts while a first-person narrator knows only her own thoughts. A first-person narrator is usually the main character of the story.

    • 3

      Study the characters. The main character of a story is the protagonist; the person who creates problems for him is called the antagonist. Jot down notes about the features and personalities of major and minor characters. Note if their characters develop throughout the story or if they remain the same.

    • 4

      Examine the setting of the novel. The setting is the place and time in which a story occurs. The setting gives the reader information about the events that occur and the worldviews the characters espouse. An otherworldly setting indicates that the text belongs to the fantasy or science-fiction genre.

    • 5

      Identify symbolic language and images in the novel, short story, play or poem. Authors do not convey all of their ideas literally. By using such figurative devices as metaphor or hyperbole, authors can express a more nuanced perspective of a thing or idea. Symbols require readers to use their imagination to see a thing or idea the way the author wants her to.

    • 6

      Figure out what the text is about, beyond the level of plot. Themes are the abstract topics a book or poem deals with. For example, on the level of plot, "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee tells the story of a black man wrongly convicted of a crime. On a thematic level, the story tackles issues of racism, gender, small-town life, family, prejudice and childhood.

    • 7

      Piece together all the elements of a story or poem you have examined into a meaningful whole. A symbol or character is not the point of a story; they are components that work together to present a unified whole. Effective literary study picks out the particulars of a work of literature and then steps back and looks at the text more broadly, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then stepping back to admire it.

Tips & Warnings

  • You can also consider a work of literature in light of its author's life and background. Alternatively, you can consider any possible social, political, religious or ideological factors that might have influenced the text, considering its place in time (history) and space (location).

  • Literary scholars also analyze literature through the lens of a particular philosophy of thought, such as Marxism, feminism and colonialism, for example, to see how a text reflects or challenges systems of power within a society.

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References

  • "The Norton Introduction to Literature: Eighth Edition;" Jerome Beaty et al.; 2002.
  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images

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