When reading, most of us just let a story wash over us, getting lost in the world of the book rather than paying attention to the individual elements of the plot or writing. However, in English class, our teachers ask us to look at the mechanics of the writing. We examine the particular words the author selected, the speed of their writing, and the little clues they sprinkle through the story. The purpose of a literary analysis essay is to explore your thesis using examples from the text. Whether you’re analyzing a short story, poetry, or a classic, follow the steps in this article to write a strong literary analysis essay that will earn top marks.
The purpose of writing a critical analysis is to interpret somebody's artwork in order to increase the reader's comprehension of it. A critique is subjective writing because it expresses the author's point of view or evaluation of a text. Analysis means to break down and analyse the parts. Writing a critical study fundamentally aims two steps: critical reading and critical writing.
How to prepare?
As you read the work, ask yourself questions, such as:
- Why did the author write this?
- What is the theme or themes?
- How is the style relevant to the content?
- How are the characters developed?
- What do the characters learn?
- How are the characters connected to the themes?
- What does the format and style suggest about the story?
How to Plan Your Literary Criticism?
Write a Thesis Statement
A thesis statement is basically a one-sentence summary of your essay’s argument. If you are writing to an essay question, it should address your stance on the question. For example, a thesis statement for Pride and Prejudice might be: The Gardiners are the symbolic middle ground between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
Another thesis statement could be: the four key marriages that happen in Pride and Prejudice symbolize the views on marriage during the Victorian era.
Your thesis statement is the point you will be arguing with your essay. Write it down in big letters in the center of your plan, everything that follows serves the purpose of reinforcing your argument.
Tip: Do not use vague or general words that may cause misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
Write Down Your Arguments
What parts in the story made you come to the conclusion you are arguing in your thesis statement? Jot down everything you can think of so you have a good selection of points to choose from when selecting your arguments. For the marriages thesis statement in the example above, you should write down the four marriages in question (Charlotte and Collins, Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, Elizabeth and Darcy.) Then elaborate which elements of each marriage support your point.
Find Specific Quotes to Support Your Thesis Statement
Before you start writing your essay, comb through the text and write down quotes which support your thesis statement. Write down the quote in full, and make a note of the page number in case you need to look it up. If the quote is dialogue, then write down which character is saying it and to whom. This step will save you time searching for quotes when you are writing your essay. When you write your essay, use these quotes as evidence for your thesis.
Do Background Research
A well-written literary analysis essay will corroborate its arguments with additional sources. Depending on your thesis, these could be writings from literary critics, or it could be historical sources. These additional sources will lend weight to your thesis and help you craft a considered argument. If your thesis focuses on the writing style, then it might be helpful to draw parallels with other texts. Use quotes from the other texts that reinforce your argument.
To sum up these sources may include:
- Opinions of other critics.
- Discussion of the text's historical and social context.
- Discussions in books or articles about your text.
- Discussions in books and articles about theories related to your argument.
How to Write Your Literary Analysis Essay
You’ve done your research, gathered your quotes, and planned out your arguments. Now it is time to write the essay. Everyone has their own method for which order they like to write each section of the essay, so write whichever way suits you best. The important thing is the content of each section. Here we will break down how to write each section.
- Remember this is an academic essay, write formally and avoid contractions.
- Run a quick spelling and grammar check to pick up any silly mistakes. Even a strong literary analysis essay will lose points if it is littered with spelling and grammatical errors.
- Write the essay for people who have read the book. There is no need to explain things as if the reader will be unfamiliar with the text. This will waste your valuable word count and dilute your arguments.
- Write your essay in third person. There should be no “I” or “You” in your essay. This is the academic standard, and high school and college teachers are likely to deduct marks if the essay is not written in third person.
- Do basic referencing as you go to make your life easier. Put your citation mark in and just make a note of the book and page number. You can go and fill in the complete details after you’ve written your essay, but in the meantime, these will be a good placeholder.
- Have the text you are analyzing and any additional texts close by so you can quickly look things up. Marking important pages or sections with sticky notes will make any breaks to refer to the text more efficient.
- Keep your writing succinct, don’t go off on a tangent; everything you write should strengthen your thesis statement.
- Stick to the word count; your teachers will not appreciate a literary analysis essay which is too long or too short. Most teachers operate with a 10% leeway either side, so stick within those limits.
- Each section may be multiple paragraphs, depending on the word limit for your essay. If a section does have multiple paragraphs, you need to make it clear which section the paragraph belongs to. The best way to do this is to make sure each paragraph is clearly “signposted” with topic sentences and clearly tied into the section’s argument and the overall essay’s argument. A topic sentence is a summary sentence which tells the reader what the paragraph is about. This is at the first sentence of the paragraph and helps keep your essay on track.
The title of a literary analysis essay is just as important as the thesis statement. Your title needs to hint at your thesis and capture the reader’s interest. It could be as simple as “Four perspectives of marriage in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” Or “The Gardiners: Bridging the Gap Between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy.” It is preferable to mention the author or the title of the text in your essay’s title, but for the purpose of a school paper with a set text, it is not necessary.
Tip: Sometimes, a quotation from the artwork can provide inspiration for your title. Try adding a brief, snappy portion of this citation to your title's focus statement.
The introduction needs to introduce your thesis statement and summarize your key arguments. A literary analysis essay’s introduction is usually only one paragraph long; it doesn’t need to go into too much information, as long as it introduces the thesis statement and your arguments. You may include information that provides context, but minimize this to a couple of sentences at most. For example, your thesis may present your take on a literary critic’s opinion of the text. Mention what the critic suggested and then present your thesis statement and the arguments you will be presenting.
Some people prefer to write their introduction first so their thesis statement and arguments are clear in their mind while they write. Others like to write their introduction last so they can ensure it fits nicely with the conclusion and account for any changes to their essay direction.
The body is made up of all the paragraphs which present your arguments and the quotes and references which support your thesis statement. Traditionally, you should keep it to three arguments, but in the Pride and Prejudice marriage thesis statement above, it would be acceptable to have four sections to the body because you are examining four different marriages.
In a simple high school literary analysis essay, one paragraph per argument is perfectly acceptable. For a more advanced essay or a college essay, then you can write multiple paragraphs per argument. Ensure it is clear which argument each paragraph relates to by using topic sentences to signpost. A paragraph should discuss one point of the argument, and a new paragraph should be used for your next point. Ensure they flow well together and your argument is strengthened by the order in which your paragraphs appear. Consider reordering the paragraphs during the editing process to create a better flow.
Your body paragraphs should be rich with examples, quotes, and analyses of the themes and plot of the text. Do not just dump quotes and examples into your essay, explain how the quote you selected relates to and proves your argument. It is your responsibility to put the pieces together for your reader.
Tip: Things like colors, rivers, and seasons may not seem significant, but together if they appear more than once, they can have a significant message.
The conclusion is where all the points in your essay are tied neatly together with your thesis statement. Use this section of your literary analysis essay to discuss how your thesis impacts the overall interpretation of the book or what it says about the author’s experience of society and human nature.
Remember, the purpose of a literary analysis is to introduce new interpretations of the text. It is meant to be thought-provoking, not argumentative. Avoid using sweeping statements or dramatics to make a final impact. Also, resist the temptation to simply restate your arguments, the reader has just finished reading them; they don’t need a refresher.
Your conclusion paragraph or paragraphs should discuss how the arguments fit together to create the overall picture of your thesis statement. You can mention literary critics who may have agreed or disagreed with your thesis statement. You might even pose a question about how this perspective on the text may affect the reader’s interpretation of another aspect of the plot. To use the example of the marriages in Pride and Prejudice again, you might question if Jane Austen’s view of marriage, she was never married, colored the depictions of marriage in the book. You might question how Mr and Mrs Bennett’s marriage impacted their daughters’ views on marriage and how three women raised in the same household could have very different ideas about marriage. On the other hand, you might question the significance of Lydia’s marriage to Wickham and if its only purpose is to create a complication that brings Elizabeth and Mr Darcy together. Do not go into too much detail about these things; the aim is just to explain how your thesis interacts with the theme or text.
How to Edit Your Literary Analysis Essay
Editing is an important step that you cannot skip. It is an opportunity to read through your essay to spot any weak points and strengthen them. Here are our top tips for editing a literary criticism.
Let your essay sit and read it again with fresh eyes. If you edit immediately after writing, your brain will remember the material and fill in its image of the essay rather than reading the actual essay. If possible, leave a few days or a week between writing the essay and editing it. However, if you’re up against the deadline, give yourself at least two hours before you edit.
Save a copy of the draft so you can compare or revert back to the first draft if things go wrong. If you cut things you didn’t mean to or mix up your citations, then you can grab them from the first draft.
Focus on the literary analysis essay as a whole first and the strength of your arguments. Do not spellcheck until the very end; otherwise, you’ll end up rewriting sections and need to spellcheck again anyway. Identify any waffle which dilutes your arguments and check whether the quotes you selected were the best options to illustrate your point. At this stage, you should also be looking at the flow of your essay and seeing if reordering your arguments or paragraphs would strengthen your thesis.
Once you’ve examined the overall strength of your essay and have made any necessary changes, it is time to examine your wording. This step involves reading through your essay slowly and deciding if you have expressed yourself in the best possible way. This involves checking the clarity of your sentences, the sophistication of your word choice, and look for any repetitive word use.
Your final readthrough should look out for any spelling and grammatical errors. Sometimes a word autocorrects without you noticing, or you typed a contraction without realizing. Use this final check to clean up those mistakes and then run a quick spellcheck. Use Microsoft Word or look for the best free grammar checker online tools on the internet.
If you know someone who is good at writing essays, you can ask them to read your essay for any glaring errors. If they have read the book, they can give their opinion on your arguments, however, it is not necessary for them to have read the book to evaluate your essay.
Some questions to consider as you review your paper:
- Do you get the reader's attention in the introductory paragraph?
- Do you vary the sentence structure?
- Do your paragraphs transition well?
- Do your quotes and research clearly support your thesis?
- Does your conclusion tie up all the loose ends?
Tip: One of the major mistakes inexperienced writers make is falling in love with their phrasing and word choices. Do not structure whole sections in the interest of train of thought.
- Does the name have any symbolic, hidden or esoteric meaning?
- Does the character have more than one name and is this important?
- Does the character have a title? Does it tie into the cultural context of the character?
2.) Physical appearance
- How does the character look like?
- Is the character beautiful, average or ugly?
- Does the character have a physical abnormality?
- What sort of personality does the character have?
- Is the character logical or emotional?
- Is the character introverted or extroverted?
- Is the character friendly or unfriendly?
- Is the character reliable or unreliable?
- Does the character have a normal or abnormal personality?
4.) Character’s role
- What is the character’s role?
- Some of the most common roles are: antagonist, antihero, archenemy, comic relief, deuteragonist, false protagonist, focal character, foil, furniture (often an attractive female for decoration only), etc..
5.) Character’s problems/challenges
- What problems or challenges does the character face in the story?
6.) Major accomplishments
- What goals or objectives does the character accomplish during the story? (for example winning the heart of a damsel)
7.) Cultural context
- Is the narrative trying to teach a cultural lesson?
8.) World view
- The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. In literary analysis, the way the character views the problem of evil is probably the most relevant aspect of the character’s world view.
Tip: Character's typical goals are conquering the world, winning the heart of somebody, saving a maiden, gaining power, gaining acceptance, bringing justice or saving the world.