A literary analysis is a common academic assignment, usually given to students in both high school and college level English courses. The goal of a literary analysis assignment is to examine a particular piece of writing you’ve read, explore the author’s choices or particular method of writing, and draw a new and interesting conclusion from that examination. There is a typical formula for writing a literary analysis. Here are those steps, along with some examples from an American literary classic.
A Strong Introduction
A literary analysis is always based around a main idea called a thesis statement. Your thesis is the most important part of your entire analysis; it informs everything you’ll say about the particular piece of writing you’ve chosen to examine. Thesis formation is one of the most important writing strategies you can develop. A thesis is an arguable insight or observation about the specific work you’re looking at. A thesis statement presents that observation or idea to the reader, and the rest of the literary analysis works to persuade the reader of the truth of that idea. In its most basic form, a literary analysis follows this course: introduction, presentation of thesis, specific examples to prove the argument, conclusion.
The thesis statement will usually serve as the final sentence of your introductory paragraph. It is important to remember that a thesis must not be a matter of opinion. “In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Jay Gatsby turns out to be unrealistic and a bad person,” is not an appropriate thesis for a literary analysis, because the statement is a matter of opinion. You can’t prove that it’s true, and it’s essentially just what you personally think about the book. A thesis should be informed by close observation of a specific aspect of the writing, and you need to be able to back up your claim with direct evidence from the book. An appropriate thesis for The Great Gatsby would be, “In ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Jay Gatsby is characterized as a representation of the American dream, and his demise reminds the reader of the unattainable nature of that dream.” This thesis is arguable, can be backed up by quotes from the novel, and is not a matter of personal opinion.
Developing a thesis statement is usually the hardest part of analyzing a piece of literature. The first several times you try to form a thesis statement can be very frustrating, because it’s not easy to present an idea that isn’t simply your personal opinion. You’ll want to try to discover something about the literature that is original, maybe something about the book that hasn’t been explored before. A good place to start when thinking about a thesis is to decide which aspect of the literature you found most engaging, or what most captured your attention. It’s always a good idea to write about something that you found intriguing, so try to form your thesis around a part of the writing that really interests you.
Examples From the Text
The body of a literary analysis is formed by defending the claim you made in your thesis statement, through examination of specific examples from the literature. This is done not only by looking for quotes that relate to your thesis, but also by examining literary devices that the author uses throughout the novel. Examples of literary devices are: metaphor, characterization, allegory, foreshadowing, conflict, theme, and paradox. Authors of works of literature frequently use these and many more throughout their writing, to contribute to the story they want to tell. What you’re looking for in these examples is how the author uses that device to send a specific message, and how that relates to your thesis statement.
In the Gatsby example, a literary device to pay attention to might be characterization, or the way the author presents and describes a character to the reader. Since the thesis is talking about the American dream, you would look for examples in the book where Gatsby is characterized in a way reminiscent of the American dream. “When the narrator, Nick, describes the luxurious and rich nature of Gatsby’s weekend parties, the reader is made aware of his elaborate financial success, which is a main component of the proverbial American dream.” Another literary device to explore in Gatsby would be the overall theme of the book, as the American dream is a prominent feature of the story. “The overall emphasis on the importance of wealth and circumstance in the novel compels the reader to view the characters as little more than human manifestations of their particular social classes.”
A common mistake made when writing literary analyses is failing to directly relate quotes from the writing back to the original thesis statement. Even if a particular quote or example from the text is important to you, it should not be included in your literary analysis unless it is helping you prove the claim you made in your introductory paragraph. For this reason, it’s important to construct your thesis very carefully, being sure to come up with an argument for which there is plenty of evidence throughout the text. Often, it’s helpful to collect quotes first, and form your thesis around the textual examples you want to include in your analysis.
A Strong Conclusion
The conclusion of your literary analysis should reiterate the claim you’ve made throughout the body of the essay, and restate the most important developments you’ve made with your examination. Hopefully, you’ve discovered and presented to your reader something new and exciting about the piece literature you’ve read, and you can sum that up one final time in your concluding paragraph.
Though writing a literary analysis can be difficult on the first try, the ability to examine a piece of literature and draw your own conclusions from it is a great skill, both in an academic setting and in the professional world. Writing a literary analysis is great practice for anytime you need to interpret a piece of writing and present that information and your findings to other people. Being able to express your original ideas about a literary work will be an important and useful skill throughout your academic career, and onward.