WRITING AN ANALYSIS OF LITERATURE

[Adapted from Student's Book of College English, David Skwire and Frances Chitwood, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1981.]

1. Read the material slowly. When you need to wade through a pile of junk, fast reading is fine. When you are reading good or great literature, much of which treats complex ideas and emotions, often with complex means of expression, the intelligent approach is to read slowly. Moreover, any analysis involves the close examination of details. Fast reading can give you a general sense of the main points, but it can't prepare you to deal competently with all the concerns of a full-fledged analysis.

2. Reread. When you read a story or poem for the first time, you're unlikely to have any valid notion of what the author is up to. The author knows how the story is going to end, but you don't. That's why you're reading it -- to find out. And since the author does know in advance what is going to happen on that last page, he or she has been making all sorts of crucial preparations earlier in the story to lead into the ending. On a first reading, those earlier pages cannot mean much to you. They can create interest or suspense, but that's about all, since you don't yet know anything of the author's purpose. Once you do understand what the author has been trying to do, and then read the story again, all the ingredients will begin to register in a different way, a way that is emotionally and intellectually impossible to achieve in a first reading. The seemingly separate parts of the story can now come through to you as pieces within a logical pattern. Without a sense of that logical pattern and of how all elements are related to it, your analysis will be weak and incomplete.

3. Assume everything is significant. In good literature, nothing should be an accident. Each word, each character, each thought, each incident should make a contribution to the total effect the author is trying for. The contribution is sometimes obvious and direct: the author casually mentions that a car is nine years old because later on the car will break down. At other times, the contribution is indirect: the author spends a paragraph describing a glowing fireplace in order to establish a homey mood that fits in with the story's central idea -- the joys of family life. As you think about the material you are going to analyze, as you brood about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, keep in mind that nothing is beneath your notice. Assume that everything serves a purpose and that you have not reached a full understanding of the story, poem, or play until you clearly see the purpose that everything serves. When you come up against elements that serve no purpose, you can safely conclude that the work is imperfect. Read closely, and give serious attention to details. When you get to the writing stage, make liberal use of the details to support your comments. No matter how much actual work you have done, if you do not rely heavily on references to details, your analysis will seem to be based on vague impressions and snap judgments.

4. Do not study details out of context. Your response to the details of a work -- a word, a phrase, a character, an incident -- depends upon the work as a whole. A sentence like "Mrs. Smythe spent twenty minutes arranging the flowers in the vase" could appear in a satire of a fussy little old lady or a moving sketch of a mother preparing the house for her son's return from the army. A diploma may appear in one place as a symbol of hope and in another as a symbol of despair. Your analysis or interpretation of the flower arranging or the diploma must obviously be in harmony with the rest of the work. Keep the intentions of the whole work in mind as you consider the proper approach toward one of its parts.
One more observation: try not to let your purely personal tastes or prejudices interfere with your responses. If a writer in the context of a short story has a character light a cigarette to show nervousness, fight off any temptation to analyze the character as a stupid person who doesn't know that cigarettes are hazardous to health. If another writer presents a sympathetic and approving study of a couple who decide to stay married for the sake of the children, don't analyze the couple as victims of outmoded bourgeois morality and a repressive society. An analysis explains what is going on in a piece of literature, not what your own philosophy of life may happen to be.