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Analyzing Literature

How does a student learn to write with confidence about such things as theme and characterization in a novel or a work of short fiction; and how is a student to confidently state what a work "means"? There is usually not a place in a short story where the writer comes out and says, "And the point of all this is . . . " Figuring out how the story might be meaningful beyond itself, or beyond being simply a good or a bad story, is generally difficult for students. For example, most students think the novel The Scarlet Letter is a pretty boring book at first; one student, whose work is posted at a site for "free" essays says of The Scarlet Letter, “What’s the point of reading this book? No one understands it at all, we’re just all confused until my teacher explains it all out for us” (see the footnote below on "free essay" web sites). One of the lessons in an English class is in how to analyze and respond to literature in writing—how to see the truths about human experience explored in the work, and then show others how to see them, too.  The point of a literature analysis lesson is not, as the student above says, to have the book's meaning explained to students by the instructor.

This module will provide students with instruction and practice in analyzing literary fiction. Students will learn how to draw conclusions about the author's artistic judgement in the work, and to present those conclusions to a reader in writing.


By the end of this unit students should be able to do the following:

  • identify and discuss (in writing) elements of fiction in a novel or short story: plot structure, characterization, setting, point of view, and theme
  • write an essay which draws a conclusion about meaning in a short story or novel and back up that conclusion with quotations from the text and discussion of the significance of the quotatons.



Note on plagiarism and "free essay" web sites:

Though the getfreeessays.com web site warns students that "all papers are for research and reference purposes only," students all too frequently turn to these free essay web sites for essays to purchase and submit as their own work (as these companies fully realize and expect). Plagiarism is a serious offense. It can get you an immediate "F" in a course, and even expulsuion from school. Also, know that instructors are aware of these sources for essays and are adept at spotting work that is not the student's own.


The Pleasure of Reading

One learns to look behind the façade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the undercurrents, the antecedents of the visible. One learns to dig down, to uncover, to find the cause, to analyze.

Paul Klee (1879-1940)

What was the last good book you read? Was it a classic like Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, or perhaps a great fantasy, such as Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkein, an epic Western like Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, a good detective novel such as Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley, or a best-seller like The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold?

The pleasure of reading a good novel rivals the pleasure of watching a good movie or television program; and many would argue that reading a good book is the best of all forms of entertainment. Victor Null, author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, eloquently describes the rewards of reading:

Like dreaming, reading performs the prodigious task of carrying us off to other worlds. But reading is not dreaming because books, unlike dreams, are subject to our will: they envelop us in alternative realities only because we give them explicit permission to do so. Books are the dreams we would most like to have, and, like dreams, they have the power to change consciousness, turning sadness to laughter and anxious introspection to the relaxed contemplation of some other time and place. (Null 1988)

Perhaps a good film can "envelop us in alternative realities" just as books can, but the film gives us only a fleeting glimpse of that other reality—we will be there only a few short hours, while the dream world of the novel endures over days, weeks, or even months of reading.

Moreover, a good novel allows the reader to participate in the dream more fully than a film will, as George Kennan observes in his article "American Addictions,"

Reading, in contrast to sitting before the screen, is not a purely passive exercise. The child, particularly one who reads a book dealing with real life, has nothing before it but the hieroglyphics of the printed page. Imagination must do the rest; and imagination is called upon to do it. Not so the television screen. Here everything is spelled out for the viewer, visually, in motion, and in all three dimensions. No effort of imagination is called upon for its enjoyment. (Kennan 1993)



Kennan, George. "American Addictions," New Oxford Review (June 1993).

Null, Victor. "Introduction." Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. Yale University Press, 1988.

Literature in Educaton

When the novel is assigned reading, however, students may find themselves in an "alternate reality" they would rather not experience. And they may wonder why their instructor would choose a novel that in terms of entertainment seems to be pretty poor. But when the instructor chooses a novel for an academic course she chooses that novel for criteria other than (or in addition to) how gripping or absorbing the novel is.

A novel is often chosen to supplement textbook readings, which tend to be "dry," reportorial presentations of information. In an American history course, for example, a textbook may offer an "objective" account of the way the invention of the assembly line changed labor in America; or in a psychology course, the textbook may discuss the brain chemistry and behavioral symptoms of depression; however, true objectivity is not really possible. The writers of textbooks, as well as the writers of original texts that are interpreted and summarized in the textbooks are all people who are shaped, or "positioned," by numerous factors—gender, cultural background, class, region, and the historical times they are live in, and this positioning shapes what the writer sees and does not see, values and does not value as worthy of documentation. And so, the textbook can approach objectivity and "truth," to a greater or lesser degree depending on the self-awareness and honesty of the writer, but never achieve it. The novel, on the other hand, does not attempt to remove the subjective, but instead embraces it and explores it. The novel provides insight into how historical events may have been experienced and interpreted by particular individuals. In his rich discussion of the rise of the novel for the Lectures on the Harvard Classics series, Professor W. A. Neilson agrees:

It is evident, then, that the recording of mere detached fact, untouched by the author’s personality, is not only impossible, but may, when attempted, lead to the violation of actual truth. The door is thus opened to the exercise of the artistic judgment, both in the selection of material and in its manipulation and presentation. (Neilson 1909-14)

A novel works well as curriculum because it adds this "artistic judgement" of the individual back into the representation of human experience—one can read what Theodore Drieser felt about the rise of the industrial city in America and the effect of late 19th century urban life on the individual in his novel Sister Carrie, or one can study The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in a Psychology course for a first-hand account of the life of a person suffering from severe depression. A novel allows readers get inside experiences they could not—or would not really wish to—experience for themselves, and to consider the insights of others about complex human experiences.



Neilson, William Allan "Prose Fiction: General Introduction." Lectures on the Harvard classics Ed. William Allan Neilson, et al. Vol. XLI. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.

How to Read Literary Fiction

Read the following short fable, then see if you can identify the point, or "moral" of the story:

A Crow, having stolen a bit of meat, perched in a tree and held it in her beak. A Fox, seeing this, longed to possess the meat himself, and by a wily stratagem succeeded. "How handsome is the Crow," he exclaimed, "in the beauty of her shape and in the fairness of her complexion! Oh, if her voice were only equal to her beauty, she would deservedly be considered the Queen of Birds!" This he said deceitfully; but the Crow, anxious to refute the reflection cast upon her voice, set up a loud caw and dropped the flesh. The Fox quickly picked it up, and thus addressed the Crow: "My good Crow, your voice is right enough, but your wit is wanting."

The moral of the story is . . .
Foxes are unkind.
The crow is foolish.
Vanity can get one into trouble.
Avoid foxes.

Finding the point of a fable is an exercise in finding underlying meaning. The process is fairly simple: look at the behavior of a character as the character responds to some event; then look at what happens to that character as a result of his behavior; next, ask yourself, "What is the lesson the character needs to learn to get a better outcome of events?" Finally, ask yourself, "How does that lesson apply to people who hope to become successful and ethical human beings?" In the fable above, the crow is vain about her voice; therefore, she suffers. Thus, we can conclude that we, too, will suffer if we are vain.

As in a fable, there is underlying meaning in literary fiction. However, finding a human truth in a novel or short story is a bit more difficult than figuring out the moral of a fable. In literary fiction, the author usually tells a far more complex story than that found in a fable. A novel can represent a lifetime of an individual; one who changes over time, learning from hard experiences to see the world in a new way. A novel may also represent many individuals having diverse, and competing perspectives. And the places described in the novel where events take place may be drawn with sensual and concrete detail to create mood and communicate information about the world. The story itself may take many twists and turns before settling itself out in a meaningful way. The manner of narration, or storytelling, might affect the meaning as well: if the narrator is a character in the story, for example, can one be sure he is trustworthy?  And though a short story is less complex than a novel, finding the underlying meaning is still difficult: because a short story is so brief, every word counts; and elements like setting and characterization become concentrated hot points that suggest theme.

In reading and drawing conclusions about meaning in literary fiction, therefore, one needs a strategy.



Seeing Connections

First Reading:

The first time through, the primary goal should be to absorb the story: get a feel for the author's style, follow the plot, get to know the characters, and think about what effect events have on the characters. One may also, even after a first reading, begin to have a feel for the larger issues in the work.

To keep track of these inklings about larger issues and meanings, some readers underline and/or take notes about suggestive passages of text. A particularly effective version of this record keeping is to enter a title for a recurring topic, such as "love" or "country vs. city" or "emptiness" in a reading notebook, and then jot down a reference for each interesting and relevant passage in a kind of shorthand underneath that topic heading; for example, under "Feelings of Emptiness," the following reference: "Mrs. Blodgett, staring out train window, sees nothing."


Re-reading, and particularly re-reading a nove,l may seem unecessary at first, but this second reading will reveal the author's careful use of language to comment on the world and say those things "that need to be said," as author Maxine Hong Kingston puts it. The second reading will also give the reader confidence, focus, and a sense of purpose for writing. Before beginning, however, take stock of your reactions to your first reading, and trust your feelings! Who did you like? What was tragic, comic, or beautiful in the story? What commentary about people and the world seemed important or even profound? Take a minute to reflect, and even to jot down your impressions in a reading notebook. Your re-reading will be most productive if you have an idea about what most interests you. If you have been given an essay assignment, or discussion topics, try to read with these topics in mind, seeking passages that will further your understanding of these topics.


Drawing Inferences

As mentioned above, writers of literary fiction are doing more than just telling a story with a moral; there is a world in literary fiction! So if one is to comment on the meanings in the story, it helps to break it down according to the elements used by the writer to create that world: plot, setting, characterization, point of view, and tone. Asking the following questions and taking good notes will help you deepen your response to the novel.

questons about plot:

  • What happened in the novel?
  • When did I first become aware of a tension in the novel, or form a question about what would happen to a particular character?
  • What events (external and internal) moved this plot along, increasing the tension?
  • When did the thing I was wondering about finally happen?
  • What was the outcome?

questions about setting:

  • What is the time and place for the story?
  • What does the landscape typically feel like? Does it change?
  • How does the landscape shape or reflect the behavior of the characters?
  • Are there elements in the landscape that are mentioned repeatedly? Do these elements represent something larger going on in the world of the novel?
  • Is there an acceleration or slowing down of time at any point? What does this change reveal about tensions in the novel?

questions about characterization:

  • Do characters in the novel represent particular types or characteristics? How do I react to these characters?
  • What do features of dress, and habits of speech or gesture reveal about character?
  • Are there characters who change over time? If so, what prompts them to change?
  • If characters do not change when faced with a choice, what does that reveal about character?
  • Whom do I identify with and why?
  • Is there a character who is the "moral center" of the story?
  • How might the choices of particular characters in the novel be like choices of people in the world?

questions about point of view:

  • Who is telling the story? Is the story told by an "omniscient" narrator; i.e., a narrator who is "all-knowing" (Mrs. Munt thought. . . Mr. Wilcox said. . . Mr. Wilcox thought. . Miss Schlegel believed. . .), or by a narrator who tells the story by describing the perspective of just one person (limited omniscience)? Or perhaps the story is told in first person, as though the person in the story were also telling the story (I couldn't take it . . . I threw the chair across the room . . .)?
  • How does the narrator's point of view affect the meanings in the story? Is the narrator reliable? Is he telling the truth? How do you know?

questions about theme:

  • Does there seem to be a recurring topic of discussion or thought?
  • Does a character you admire feel a certain way about the world? Does her way of seeing prevail, or is she forced to see differently?
  • Do the characters seem to have control over their situation, or is "fate," or some other force outside their control pushing them about?
  • Does the writer convey a particular mood in particular settings? What might these moods reveal about society?

You will have a productive second reading if you begin with an idea—even a vague one—about a theme in the novel. The goal of your reading should be to enlarge and deepen your understanding of the theme, and to move from a vague idea to a clear conclusion. Consider the following examples of evolving ideas between a first and a second reading:

In Sister Carrie, the city is portrayed as being overwhelming and depressing In Sister Carrie Dreiser suggests that urban life in the late 19th century destroys what is best in humanity.
In Huckleberry Finn the wilderness is a better place to be than the towns Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is about alienation: not feeling at home anywhere.
In Howards End, romantic love fails, and some other more subtle idea of love survives In Howards End, by E. M. Forster, love is strongest when it is based on a spiritual connection.



Writing about Literary Fiction

In preparing to write your literary analysis, one of the first things to think about is your thesis.  You may have a sense of the theme, but you need to take one more step to build a strong thesis: you need to think about how the writer communicates the theme.  Below, a discussion of topic, theme, and thesis should help you achieve a sense of clarity about your thesis, and about your goal in writing a literary analysis.


Topic || Theme || Thesis


A topic in a work of literary fiction is what the author is saying something about through the actions of characters, elements of the setting, and the plot. A topic could be "romantic love," or "alienation."

Theme is what the author is saying about the topic—for example, "romantic love eventually fades," or "technology is destroying what is best in humanity." The author's theme is an idea about human eperience that extends beyond the story itself.

A thesis typically appears in the introduction of a literary analysis essay.  In the thesis, the writer focuses on elements of the text that the author uses to communicate the theme.  A strong thesis in a literary analysis essay focuses on writing as writing.  In other words, don't immerse yourself in the story in the essay, but stand back to talk about how the story makes meaning. Take a look at the following thesis statements to better see the difference between these approaches:

weak thesis:

The story "Miss Brill," by Katherine Mansfield tells the story of a middle-aged woman who lives alone. She goes to the park for companionship among the strangers there, but learns that strangers cannot really be her companions. Tragically, she ends up feeling even more alone and isolated at the end of the story than she did at the beginning. 

strong thesis:

"Miss Brill" does not have much plot; it is the story of Miss Brill's afternoon in the park, one overheard, unkind comment, and Miss Brill's return home to her apartment.  However, through Mansfield's characterization of Miss Brill, mostly by way of Miss Brill's conversation with herself, Mansfield displays a deep understanding of the suffering caused by loneliness and isolation.

The writer of the first argument may be discussing the same theme as the writer of the second argument, but in developing her thesis, the first writer only discusses the theme in terms of the story itself and not in terms of how that theme expresses an idea about humanity that extends beyond the story.  The writer of the second thesis focuses on the author of the story, Katherine Mansfield, and how Mansfield communicates an idea about loneliness in general, as a human experience, not just Miss Brill's experience, through her crafting of Miss Brill's character and way of being in the world.



Developing Your Thesis

You may have a great thesis, but if you don't have adequate, well-organized support for that thesis, your essay will be weak and unconvincing.  After reading your thesis, your reader will be thinking, "Ok, sounds interesting, but prove it!"  Your job, in the body of your essay is to prove it. 

To make this simple, support in an analytical essay should be analysis—an examination of elements of the story and a discussion how those elements offer insight into the author's larger purpose.  So before developing your essay, you will need to decide which passages of text will best support your argument.  In making this decision, it is useful to think like your reader about what the thesis actually says. Consider again the second thesis above:

Through her characterization of Miss Brill, mostly by way of Miss Brill's conversation with herself, Mansfield displays a deep understanding of the suffering caused by loneliness and isolation.

This thesis implies that the writer will do a couple of things: talk about the things Miss Brill says to herself; explain how this monologue reveals something about Miss Brill's loneliness; and show how, through these details, Mansfield says something about the problem of loneliness and isolation as a real human concern.

The next step is to locate passages that will best accomplish the goals above.  The writer will need passages that demonstrate Miss Brill's isolation and, by extension, which explain the effect of loneliness and isolation on real people.  Below is just one possible development plan and passages of text to support each step in the plan:

Overall Development Plan:

(1) Describe how and why Mansfield makes the reader think that Miss Brill is happy at the beginning of the story (—to the reader inside Miss Brill's version of things; her point of view and better accentuate the collapse of this version of things), (2) and then reveals slowly but surely through a description of Mis Brill's thoughts that the protagonist is creating a fiction in order to make herself happy. Through small details of Miss Brill's monologue, seen more objectively, Mansfield shows that in fact her life is quite lonely. (3) Then discuss the climax of the story in the overheard comment and the way Miss Brill's behavior after this scene reveals the depth of her loneliness, (4) and tragedy of isolation generally.

Text Selections to Support Argument:

(point 1) First goal is to show that Miss Brill creates a story of her life: Mansfield accentuates this by at first making the reader believe the story: passage suggests light-heartedness, an easy mind:

Although it was so brilliantly fine--the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques-- Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting--from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again.

(point 2) Next point: show that Mansfield then causes the reader to see the story is slightly suspicious: Mansfield hints at unhappiness, isolation in this passage:

Only two people shared her "special" seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron.

They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn't listen, at sitting in other people's lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

In comment: the fact that Miss Brill listens in on others' conversations says she is often alone, with no one to talk to.  focus on "she had become really quite expert. . . "

Further evidence . . . In another passage, Mansfield starts out having Miss Brill notice happy people in the park: a woman and child, groups of happy people, couples buying flowers, but then her thoughts turn dark:

Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and--Miss Brill had often noticed--there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even--even cupboards!

In comment:  emphasize the fact that she does not seem to notice that she, too is silent, staring out into the crowd. Mansfield creates a clue to her situation, and foreshadows the ending of the story in this scene.

Further evidence (and advancement of our understanding of Miss Brill's character) . . . This passage reveals Miss Brill's unconscious identification with a forlorn woman, and the identification says something about Miss Brill's own situation:

And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him--delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. She described where she'd been--everywhere, here, there, along by the sea. The day was so charming--didn't he agree? And wouldn't he, perhaps?...But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, "The Brute! The Brute!" over and over. What would she do?

comment:  What really happened here? Did this woman even know this man? The key image is of her smiling "more brightly than ever" after her rejection by the man.  She passes over the pain, pretends to be fine, just like Miss Brill; and like Miss Brill, this is a faded woman, with a shabby ermine and yellowed gloves.  In the end of the passage, the question, "What would she do?" applies to the woman, but also to Miss Brill herself: how does a woman deal with rejection and loneliness?

(point 3) After overhearing the comment "Why does she come here at all--who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?" Miss Brill's actions reveal how much she needed that fiction, and how loneliness can destroy her life.

But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room--her room like a cupboard--and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

comment: the quote shows Miss Brill's realization that she is like the odd, silent, staring old people in the park. Putting the fur back in the box is a symbol for the end of her fantasy.  The something crying could be her. 

(point 4) Conclusion: explain the significance of the conclusion in a larger context.  Explain that Mansfield, through the story of Miss Brill, telling a story to herself, if talking about how we cope with loneliness.  Also explain what Mansfield shows us about needing the company of others, even if the others are strangers, but in the end, how poor a substitute the company of strangers is for actual companionship.


Quick Tips:

It is very important to plan out your essay before you write.  Choose your examples, and know why you are choosing them—how they will actually support your argument.  The essay plan above is effective in that it keeps the emphasis on the student's ideas rather than the story, and on what the student's interpretation of what the author does to create her story and communicate something about human loneliness.

Avoid beginning paragraphs with quotes or elements of the plot.  Such paragraphs are typically unfocused adn leave the reader wondering how the paragraph will support your argument.  In a strong analytical essay, paragraphs are based on ideas rather than information.



The conclusion to an analysis of literary fiction should focus on the broader signficance of the story: how the author is saying something about human experience through the story. You should also synthesize your key assertions about the story in a meaningful sentence or two. Take a look at the following examples:

And so Dickens tells us something rather remarkable about industrialization, capitalism, and identity at the beginning of the industrial revolution. His perceptions, unfortunately, are relevant today. Specifically, he shows us that the desire for transparency can only lead to disaster in our psyche because nature is complex: as Adorno says, “what can be penetrated by science is not being."  And, thus, if we substitute abstract space for complex nature, we are in trouble.

. . . . . . . . . .

Margaret finds herself and saves everyone else by being the one to connect them all.  Forster even suggests that England’s working class might be cared for if these connections can be made: Helen’s baby with Leonard Bast is at Howards End, too, and the house will someday go to him. 

So is there a happy ending?  Yes, but it will be short-lived unless the balance of power shifts.  London, and all that it represents—a nomadic world, spiritual despair—is getting closer: rust from her factories can be seen on the distant hills.

Just look around at your own life: how often do you feel that you are in the present; that the world is saying “now,” and “now,” and not “more,” “more,” and “more.”  Is a happy ending realistic?  It could be, but especially in this country, where the past gets erased as a matter of course, we will need to work very hard to hear the voices of the past that will help us find an alternative to the modern selves we have become.





Video Lesson
analytical essays video lesson


1. The pleasure of reading

2. Literature in education

3. Reading literary fiction

4. Seeing connections

5. Drawing inferences

6. Writing about literary fiction: topic, theme, thesis

7. Developing a thesis

8. Conclusions


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