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Junior Research: Analytical

Literary Analysis

Literary Analysis is "the mainly interpretive (versus evaluative) work written by readers of literary texts, especially professional ones (who are thus known as literary critics).

It is "criticism" not because it is negative or corrective but rather because those who write criticism ask probing, analytical, "critical" questions about the works they read". (ipl2)

For more information see: LitWeb: The Norton Introduction to Literature: Writing About Literature.

More on Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism  
Literary criticism is the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of literary works. It is usually in the form of a critical essay or book chapter about the significance of themes, characters, imagery, style, or other elements found in a writer's work.
Criticism may examine a particular literary work, or may look at an author's writings as a whole. 

Why study literary criticism? 
Authors present us with work that can have multiple meanings, expecting us to consider thoughtfully - to interpret. Writers and critics build on each others' understanding of a work of literature in a kind of dialog. Good criticism can help us develop a better understanding of a work. In addition, it can help us develop a point of view about a work, whether or not we agree with the opinions of the critic.

When looking at criticism, check for:

  • Credentials of the writer
  • Quality of the sources--journals, books, Websites

Opinions supported by evidence, relating to:

  • Characterization
  • Voice
  • Style
  • Theme
  • Setting
  • Technical qualities of the writing (artistry, style, use of language)
  • Interpretation
  • Complex ideas and problems
  • Relationship of work to the time, or social, historical, or political trends

When looking for criticism, AVOID:

  • Plot summaries, SparkNotes, Cliff's Notes, etc.
  • Casual posts on discussion groups
  • The works of other students


An example of Literary Criticism:

"Oxymoron in the Great Gatsby" by Peter L. Hayes (Academic Search Complete)  (click on PDF full text to view article)

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a topic can be one of the hardest parts of writing a paper. And writing literary analysis is different from writing many other kinds of papers. In literary analysis, your job is to determine what you think the book is about, and show your reader how you know that that's what the book is about. 

The bulk of your paper will be made up of your analysis of the text: the use of language, imagery, rhythm and repetition, word choice, the structure of the plot, or the representations of characters, emotions, events, or places. Your job is to analyze these elements of the text and through your analysis to assert an idea, or a claim, about the text, the author, or the context in which the text was written.

So what makes a good topic? Your paper topic should reflect what you think the book is about. 

For every book, there is "what the book is about," and then there is "what the book is ABOUT." This is the difference between plot and theme. Usually, if someone asks you, "What is that book about?" you might relate the plot: "It's about a man and a woman who meet, fall in love, and get married. But then the woman has an affair, and they get a divorce." This is plot.

But to write a good paper about the book, or to have a good conversation about the book, you need to move beyond the plot to talk about what the book is really about. What you want to uncover is what you believe the author thinks about the plot. The plot exists to further a bigger idea about people, culture, society, politics, art, history...a great novel is always more than a plot. 

Think about the book or poem or play that you're analyzing and consider: What do you think the book is about? Is it about growing up? About family secrets? About nature? Once you've decided what you think the book is about, you're halfway to having a solid thesis for your paper. 

Sonoma State University

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

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Developing Your Research Question

Find a unique approach to your literary topic.

     Decide on an particular angle before starting the research process. Some ideas to consider:

literary theories or schools 






characteristics of a philosophy (of literature)

historical events

the author’s life

medical diagnoses


critical orientations


genre conventions 



point of view





historical context

social, political, economic contexts


Western Michigan University 


Once you recognize a theme in a text, your next step is to determine what you think the author is saying about that theme. Read the text again, paying particular attention to your theme. What does your interpretation lead you think about the theme or idea? What you're asking right now is "What is the author saying and how is s/he saying it?" 

If you've already determined that you think the book is about the idea of home, for example, you need to identify what you think the author is saying about the idea of home. The author has a point of view, and s/he uses literary elements, as well as the plot, to get that point of view across. 

If the author thinks home is a dangerous place, s/he will use language, imagery, characters, and plot to convey that idea. Likewise, if s/he considers home a respite from a dangerous world, that will come across through these same elements of the story. 

Your thesis will be what you think the author is saying about the theme you've identified. 

Database Searches for Criticism

Find criticism in academic journals such as Academic Search Complete and ProQuest Learning: Literature and other suggested databases posted on this guide. Below is an example of an Advanced Search.

Do searches with Author's name, Title of work, or literary themes, to see if you get different results.

This technique also works when searching the library catalog for books and also searching GVRL.

Gale Literary Topic Finder

Gale Literary Sources has a Topic Finder that lets you browse your topic visually. It then displays related articles to the right when you click on a segment.

example search: Tolstoy

Gale Literary Sources  (Public Library database - Use your Student ID#)

Background and Context

One key practice in reading literature involves understanding and clarifying the historical context of a piece of literature. Reading about the political and social context at the time a piece was written can help you to understand allusions within the text in new ways.

Literary biography can be an important first step in researching a particular text. Literary biography explores not only the lives of authors, but how their lives might be reflected in their works, and commentary and criticism of their works, both during their lives and after. 

Another key to analyzing and interpreting a piece of literature is to look closely at the word and language choice in the piece. Literary dictionaries can give you excellent information about certain techniques and stylistic choices made by the author. Knowing these terms will help you discuss a text and learn why the author makes the choices she or he does in writing.

Primary sources are original documents and objects, providing first-hand information about a time period, topic, or text. They include things like letters, diaries, photographs, original manuscripts of texts, newspapers and pamphlets, and more. 

Primary source materials can give unique insight into a work of literature by revealing what was going on in an author's life when the piece was being written, what was happening socially and politically in the world around him/her, and sometimes even revealing the author's thoughts about the piece itself. 

Sonoma State University

Analyzing the Text and Using Sources

Once you've determined what you think the author is saying about your theme, you need to demonstrate how you know. The bulk of your paper will consist of evidence presented that you believe demonstrates what the author thinks. For the most part, the only source you need is the text itself. 

However, there are some ways that you may want to consult and reference other sources in your paper. First, if there are points of the plot that you don't know much about, you should use other sources to learn more. Second, you might want to find out what other people think the book is about. You may find that others agree with you. What is more interesting, however, is when you find that other people don't agree with you. 

If you read other scholars' writing about a particular text and find that their interpretation is very different from yours, that doesn't mean that you're wrong! The beauty of literary analysis is that if you're thoughtful and attentive to the text, there are many different ways to interpret any given literary work. If you find another scholar's analysis that is different from yours, consider it carefully. If you choose, you can respond to it in your own paper. 

Remember that when you're writing, you're engaging in a conversation. Respond to other people's ideas, and share your own. Use sources if they enhance the conversation. But don't parrot someone else's ideas about a text as your own. Your analysis should reveal your own ability to critically read a piece of literature. 

Sonoma State University