by Danielle M. Farrar, a PhD candidate in Literature and Coordinator of USF’s Writing Studio
So your teacher told you that you have to write a literary analysis paper.
Are you uncertain about what literary analysis is?
Are you feeling anxious because you don’t think you’ve ever done literary analysis before?
I’m here to tell you to relax.
The majority of students have done literary analysis and are usually unaware of this. If anyone has ever asked you to read a literary text and then write about it in ways that weren’t a summary of its plot, then its highly probable that you have done literary analysis.
As a life-long lover and long-time student of literature, I took the process of literary analysis for granted because it was what I was used to writing: why would I write any other way or about anything else? When I became an instructor of literature and the literary analysis genre, I was faced with a very different perspective of this genre: how do I teach literary analysis?
What IS literary analysis, and what is it that we’re actually doing when we DO literary analysis?
The short answer is we’re analyzing literary texts. But what does this mean?
Analysis is a cognitive practice whose task doesn’t change based on the medium being analyzed: dissecting something at the micro level as a means to discuss how it reflects, embodies, or suggests something about the macro level. Literary analysis is no different.
The etymology of analyze suggests an unfastening or loosening up (a relaxing of sorts), which essentially means we take something complex and break it down into parts. We then look at these smaller parts in order to say something about the whole. To help us know how to break the whole into pieces, we have literary tools (sometimes referred to as literary conventions or devices) to help us with this, such as metaphor, symbolism, allusions, flashbacks, and so on and so forth.
For example, if you are reading a literary text and notice that a similar metaphor is repeatedly used, you may want to take note of that. Why would the author repeat the metaphor? What does its repetition suggest? How does its repetition inform your interpretation and why? What does the repetition of THAT metaphor imply about the overall text? The genre? The historical context? The human condition? You can see here how an analysis of the micro (the repeated metaphor) assists in the interpretation/understanding of the macro (the human condition).
For additional how-tos with literary analysis, visit the WritingforCollege.org’s page about critical and interpretive analysis. This resource provides some constructive advice on how to execute this type of essay.
If you need additional help with understanding your literary analysis assignment or would like an extra set of eyes on your work, feel free to schedule an appointment with the Writing Studio.