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Writing a Literary Analysis: Contexts

Reading and writing about literature may seem like an activity reserved for your English classes; however, analysis and the interpretation which is at the heart of a good literary essay are important life skills. These skills broaden our minds and deepen our experience of the familiar world.

Professor Neilson even argues that in literature, we may find ourselves in more meaningful contact with people and experiences than we can in reality:

The amount and range of experience that comes to the ordinary man is of necessity limited. Most of us are tied to a particular locality, move in a society representing only a few of the myriad human types that exist, spend the majority of our waking hours attending to a more or less monotonous series of duties or enjoying a small variety of recreations. In such a life there is often no great range of opportunity; and the most adventurous career touches, after all, but a few points in the infinite complex of existence. But we have our imaginations, and it is to these that the artist appeals. The discriminating reader of fiction can enormously enlarge his experience of life through his acquaintance with the new tracts brought within his vision by the novelist, at second hand, it is true, but the vivid writer can often bring before our mental eyes scenes and persons whom we can realize and understand with a greater thoroughness than those we perceive directly through our senses. The materials for the understanding of men and life are thus greatly increased, and at the same time the data for the forming of those generalizations which collectively make up our philosophy. (Neilson 1909-14)

Consider the way the following critical analyses of literature are actually explorations of human experience—what it is to be human, shaped by society, with varying degrees of control over one's circumstances; and shaped by longing and aspiration, intellect and emotion:

from "House and Home in Howard's End by E.M. Forster," by J. Royal:

So while Forster shows the joy of having a place to call home by giving his novel a happy ending (though, as I will argue a bit later, the ending is actually not entirely confident about the durability of this happiness), Howards End is actually a novel that is about the longing for home and the past.  In her essay on setting in fiction, Eudora Welty says, “Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course.” Howards End becomes Forster’s conductor.

To better understand the way home and place can become a path to the past, try for a minute to remember happy events from childhood connected with particular places—playing hide-and-seek in the neighborhood cul-de-sac until it got dark; watching Sesame Street (or Captain Kangaroo, in my case) on the living room floor at Grandma’s house; trick-or-treating; creating paper-mache masks at school; celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa at home with all the relatives around, watching Chinese New Year parades in San Francisco or Fourth of July fireworks at the local park.  Recalling these experiences to mind is sweet; we look into the past as into a pool and see ourselves in the reflection, and we are the woman or man in the pool.  We look in and say “I once was that,” and then “I am still that,” and also, “the world was once that,” and then “it is still that,” and so make the present familiar.  The moments out of the past are transformed into signs that our lives endure beyond the present moment, and that culture endures with us.


from "Elephants in Coketown: Second Nature in Dicken's Hard Times" by J. Royal:

Dickens recognizes something very powerful and important about a world which is brought into being by man: in this new industrial world, we learn to repress our own complex and organic nature, which defies categorization and abstraction, in favor of an image of ourselves as rational beings, and we organize our built environment to bolster this repression. Everything in Coketown is designed to be severely rational and workful; the world of Coketown should not be able to evoke a gasp of surprise:  it should be transparent and scientific and under the control of man. However, Dickens gives us, over and over images which are unscientific, images which have a dream-like, if not nightmare-like quality:  the lights of factories make the factories seem like fantastic fairy palaces; in the moonlight the steam-engines cast shadows on the walls which seem like the shadows of the Titans, mythological giants; the looms in the factories seem a forest, and the smoke from the chimneys is like coiled serpents; and the steam engines themselves, lumbering up and down, are mad, melancholy elephants. . . . and consider Dickens' description of a stiflingly hot day in Coketown:

The whole town seemed to be frying in oil.  There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere.  The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the [workers] were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled it.  The atmosphere of those fairy places was like the breath of the simoom: and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert. But no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane.  Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul.  The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the night of Saturday, the whirr of shafts and wheels. (86)

The scene is eerie:  First the oil. It is as if the town is cooking in its own juice.  Everything is slimed over in oil, oozing and trickling. The image is elemental, primitive, as if industry causes the whole of Coketown to revert to some primitive state.  A "simoom" is an intense hot, sand-laden wind of the Sahara and Arabian deserts—which overwhelms workers in the factories (though not the insane bobbing elephants).  In Arabic, simoom is “samum,” which means "poisonous." In Coketown, the people succumb, becoming languid and stoned, in a nature scene of odd proportions:  the steam engines cast shadows on the walls which substitute for the rustling woods, and the whirr of shafts and wheels on the looms replace the summer hum of insects.  This is Enlightenment’s hell:  The “transcendence of the unknown in relation to the known,” and thus, the feeling of drugged, altered consciousness in the face of it: one feels awe where one should not.

The writer of these passages is concerned with exploring Forster's and Dicken's insights about human experience.  In the first analysis of the novel Howard's End, the insight is about our longing for a return to childhood—the ways we pursue the past, and what this longing says about us.  In the second analysis of Hard Times, the insight is about the damage done to our humanity by industrialization and Enlightenment thought.

Note: The first set of paragraphs on Forster are from the conclusion of the essay, and so the assertions not backed up by literary analysis.  The second set of paragraphs on Dickens are from the body of the essay, and so argument is followed by examples and analysis of those examples, according to the process described in "writing a literary analysis."




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