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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

English Writing Projects

Page address: http://english.mnsu.edu/vwp/studentresources/writing/english/literaryanalysis.htm

English Writing Projects: The Literary Analysis Paper

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Literary analysis is a very common writing assignment in English classes. In a literary analysis the writer analyzes the literary work, the poem, story or novel, in order to explain and interpret. A literary analysis is an argument; it is a paper about what a work means and how its parts work together to produce that meaning or that effect on the reader. A plot summary is not an analysis; it is a description of what happens in the work. A response is not an analysis; it is a description of one reader's reaction without talking in an systematic way about what in the work evoked that reaction. Both the plot summary and the reader's response can help the writer get started on an analysis. But the analysis paper itself tries to convince a reader that it presents a plausible interpretation of the work and shows how the elements of the text work together to produce it. An analysis doesn't have to be the only reasonable reading of a work or the only explanation of how it works, but it needs to be a plausible one—one that other readers can agree is supported by the text itself and seems to include the major components of the text.

Some expectations for the analysis paper

  • Focus—For an analysis paper, you need to carefully read the text and pay attention to its various elements. Usually you need to read the text several times. Usually you have to define the focus of your analysis, including which element (or combination of elements) you will use to show how the author creates a meaning or effect; you will also usually have to articulate what you think that meaning and/or effect is. The author will probably rely more on some elements than others, which will help direct your attention. If you notice, for instance, that characters don't seem to change much in a story, the author's attention is probably elsewhere—maybe on the plot or the theme. If you notice, on the other hand, that the story is really focused on a character and she changes a great deal, then you might focus on such questions as how the character changes, why she changes, and how the author shows us that she changes. What thought or feeling or understanding do you think the author is trying to draw out of the reader? Your teacher will no doubt discuss the elements of the kinds of works you are reading. Here are some elements to get you started:
    Prose Elements
    Poetry Elements
    Plot
    Character
    Setting
    Theme
    Point of View
    Symbol
    Style
    Situation (Speaker, Listener Occasion)
    Theme
    Word Choice
    Images and Symbols
    Figures of Speech
    Rhythm and Rhyme
    Form
  • Length—the finished form of the analysis paper will vary—sometimes the papers are short (maybe 2 or 3 pages), but sometimes your analysis will take the form of a research paper.

The thesis statement and organization

Eventually you will need to come up with a thesis that clearly states your focus. A thesis should be a statement that

  • takes a position about a meaning or effect of the work that your paper will focus on.
  • predicts or gives a sense of what kinds of elements or points your paper will examine to support your position.

Usually in papers for classes, writers try to write a clear thesis in a single sentence, but sometimes it takes a paragraph or so to establish the context before you state your focus.

Let's look at some sample sentences:

  • Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" is about soldiers in combat.
    This thesis simply announces a topic. It takes no position and makes no prediction.
  • Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" is mainly a boring list of ammunitions and military gear that soldiers carry, with some dope and love letters thrown in to keep us interested.
    This thesis takes a position of sorts, but it's mainly a response which doesn't focus on a meaning or feeling or effect that O'Brien would be trying to get across. It could be revised into a workable thesis (If you think O'Brien tried to bore the reader, why would he? What would be his point? Why would he add the non-military items to his list?). The revised thesis should also predict how the paper will proceed.
  • There are many ways to understand Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
    This thesis focuses on an element—the character, Jimmy Cross—but is too vague about how the discussion will proceed. "There are many…." is almost never a good start to a paper. You can start this way, but come back after you've written the paper and make the thesis more specific, so that it will guide your reader.
  • In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," Jimmy Cross takes on added weight at the end of the story. Although he drops his earlier fantasies with his mementos from Martha and more realistically faces his job as a lieutenant, this change is not one for the better.
    This thesis certainly is arguable. It also focuses on characterization and plot to support an assertion about theme and tone. The form of the sentence, "Although… in reality…"is often used in thesis statements because it inherently focuses on a contradiction or contrast, which can form the core of the paper.

Organization—Once you have written an introduction and a working thesis statement, you have often already indicated what the subsections of your paper will be. As you move from sub-section to sub-section, make sure to use transitions that indicate how this next subsection relates to the ones that came before it and to the thesis. For instance, in the paper using the last thesis statement above, your sub-sections might be

  • What Jimmy Cross carries at first (and what the things show about him).
  • How Jimmy Cross is like and unlike the other soldiers.
  • How Jimmy Cross changes after Lavender is killed, what he resolves to do.
  • How we are to understand this change.

Methods of using evidence from the text

As you make your argument, it is extremely important to support your assertions with quotations from the work itself. Your reader should not have to take your word for it. You should show your reader why you think or react as you do. In the paper above, this would involve selecting quotes that really describe Jimmy's thoughts; they might be thoughts from Jimmy's point of view or from the narrator's description. It isn't enough just to select the quotes and drop them into your paper. You need to show how they support your point. You have been thinking about this story, so what makes sense to you will not necessarily be self-evident to your reader. Effective support usually includes three parts:

  1. Introduce: Introduce the quote and make sure that the reader knows who is speaking and the context in which the quote is given. This frees your reader to concentrate on the quote and not be distracted by wondering where it comes from.
  2. Quote: The quote itself. If you are just using part of it, make sure it is a complete thought. Make sure to cite it in parantheses (Use the page number for prose or the line numbers if it's a poem).
  3. Use: After the quotation, take some time to explain its significance. You may need to talk about what the quote means literally, or you may need to restate it in your terms so that its relation to the point it is supporting is clear. Pretend you are talking to a friend who has misunderstood someone she is arguing with; she quotes her and you say, "No, when she said that she meant…." This is the same kind of thing; you are putting the quotation into the context of your argument, showing what its implications are, and explaining that to your reader.

If your instructor wants you to use outside sources—sources from library databases or the internet—as well to support your argument the same rules apply. Find quotations or paraphrase sections of secondary sources that support your point and go through the same three steps above as you integrate them into your paper. Refer to Using Your Evidence and Citing Your Sources subsections in the Response Paper section for further information.

What's Valued in Analysis Papers...

  • A paper that takes a position—you've got something to say about what the work means and how the author conveys that meaning. You're showing us how it's put together and why.
  • Interaction with what you're responding to—your analysis is strongly supported by details and examples in the text. It's especially interesting when writers pick up details that might go unnoticed and show how they contribute to the meaning or effect.
  • Direction—you're using an introduction that clearly paves the way to the major parts of the paper, and transitions that guide us through your discussion. We can follow your argument and see that it's plausible (even if we disagree) by the time we get to the end.

...and What is NOT?

  • A plot summary
  • An analysis with no quotes supporting your points
  • Vagueness; generalizations
  • A paper that stays on one level of generality—that is, a paper that contains general assertion after general assertion, without adding specific examples that are then explained. A paper should move smoothly among levels of abstraction.

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