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ENGL 201: Literary Analysis

This guide provides resources for writing literary analysis.

What's a good 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. 

What's a good thesis?

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. 

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. This kind of research is addressed on another page of this guide. 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.