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1.3: What is Literary Analysis?

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  • What is Literary Analysis?

    magnifying glass zoomed in on dictionary definitions with a blurred background

    "Magnifier 1"by Dave Edens is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In the first chapter of the introduction, we defined Literature as "written work valued for superior or lasting artistic merit" ("literature 3b"). As an adjective, then, literary is defined as "[o]f or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature" ("literary A1"). Finally, analysis is essentially the breaking apart of anything into its composite parts for close-examination. Literary analysis, then, is the deep examination of a work of literature. When you think of literary analysis, think of holding up a magnifying glass to the details of language in a work of literature.

    Literary Analysis = Close Reading

    Students may have encountered previous teachers using the term "close reading." When teachers use this term, it usually means engaging with a text on a deeper level than when reading for entertainment or information: that is, looking not just at what is written (the message, also known as content), but how it is said (the language used to send the message, also known as form). Literary Analysis and Close Reading are two words with, for all intents and purposes, the same meaning. The major difference is that, while close reading techniques can be used on any form of writing, literary analysis is more specific to the field of literature.

    When performing literary analysis, some questions literary critics, or scholars of literature, might ask themselves include:

    • What is the theme or motif of this text?
    • What patterns can I detect across this text, or what patterns can I detect across this genre of literature which are also present in this text? And what might these patterns indicate about the meaning or significance of this text?
    • What literary devices are featured in this text? How might an analysis of these formal features deepen understandings of the text?
    • What kinds of characters are featured in this text?
    • What qualities make literature "good" or of "lasting artistic merit" ("literature 3b")?
    • How might the language or diction of the text reflect cultural or historical meanings most common readers miss? How might such meanings deepen or illuminate our understanding of the text?
    • What have previous scholars misinterpreted or missed about this work, and how can I bring neglected aspects of this text to light?
    • In what ways does this text engage with or elucidate other works of literature, philosophical theories, historical events, or social movements?
    • What might this text reveal about what it means to be human? How might it deepen my understanding of my place in the world?

    How to Perform Literary Analysis

    The previous questions might seem amorphous or overwhelming in their implications. So how can we practice close-reading in a practical way?

    1. Read the text 3 times: once, to get the gist. Once, for deep understanding. And, lastly, once for deep analysis. Literary critics often read the same texts many more times! Don't be afraid to read as many times as you need.
    2. Engage with the text. Highlight, annotate, mark pages with sticky notes or flags, and take notes as you read. Look for anything weird, surprising, confusing, or exciting that jumps out at you. Why do you think this feature exists in the text? Don't be afraid to write down any questions which bubble up as you read: it is likely other scholars/students have questions too, and sharing your questions with classmates or your professor might prompt a fascinating discussion! For example, an observant student once asked (his question is paraphrased here): "In Hamlet by William Shakespeare, I noticed Hamlet and Horatio seem to think the ghost of Old Hamlet is actually a demon. But later Hamlet seems to think the ghost is an actual ghost. Gertrude does not see the ghost, making it seem like it is a figment of Hamlet's troubled mind. What are we as readers meant to believe?" This question prompted other students to share their cultural heritage's perspective on demons, the afterlife, and even to share ghost stories. Eventually, this discussion led students to research Elizabethan perspectives on ghosts and demons. This made for a lively class discussion and several strong essays all because one student dared to engage with the text by asking a question!
    3. Keep track of any patterns. Does a certain image keep popping up, like a heart, a rose, or a color? This might be a symbol: a physical object signifying an abstract meaning. What might this repeated image mean in the context of the rest of the story? For example, in Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the color gray repeats many, many times. Why? What might this indicate about the color gray? What might the color gray have symbolized to Bierce, or to readers alive during the Civil War?
    4. Deeply examine and question literary features such as titles, characters, settings, figurative language, and dialogue. Constantly ask yourself: why is this here? As readers, we should usually assume authors, as masters of their craft, make choices intentionally. And even if unintentional, what might subconscious slips indicate about meaning? In short, how does the form or structure of this writing influence my understanding of its message?

      Other literary features you might examine include: pronouns, active vs. passive voice, verbs (what tense is being used? any tense shifts?), nouns, word order or syntax, rhyme, paragraphing, italics, space on the page, text space (how much space or description or lines does a given character receive?), proximity (do similar words, phrases, characters, or ideas often occur in close proximity?). All of these seemingly small details can hold big implications!

    Works Cited

    "literature, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, Accessed 28 August 2019.

    "literary, adj. and n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019, Accessed 28 August 2019.