What does literature mean? What does literature do? How does literature function? What themes—what truths—might
literature confront us with? First and foremost, at the heart of literature is
friction; at the heart of darkness lies intense internal conflict. However,
the other elements of literature function to not only illustrate but also develop
those internal conflicts. A question about one element of literature will
overlap with another element and will always point to the core conflict that
the text issues. Use these strategies for reading, analyzing, and writing
about literature to help you analyze any literary text.
- Slow down and let the world of the text wash over you. Take the text in,
and allow it envelop your psyche. Turn off all of your distractions and engage
the work of literature on its own terms.
- If something strikes you as significant and meaningful, make a note of it.
Don't just highlight; actively take notes: pose questions, compose tentative
theories, offer preliminary interpretations in the margins. Your annotations,
if you're truly reading the work and reading it well, should enter into a
dialogue with the text, with the world view of the work of literature, if
not the mind of the author.
- Look for the formal elements of literature such as character, setting, point
of view, tone (see below), but don't get bogged down by technique and artifice.
Engage the primary conflicts, the meat of the content, to which the form points.
- Review and/or reread. Think about how you feel toward the work, about how
the work makes you feel. Be able to articulate your primary response, your
gut level reaction, to the work. Then, begin to transform that emotional response
into a position regarding the work's themes. Find important passages which
prove your position.
- What is the primary cause and motivation of the piece of literature?
What divisive tension must be traversed or transformed?
- What is the nature of the core conflict? Is the conflict internal or
- If it's internal, is the conflict of self vs self, the self divided,
the split subject, the psyche torn asunder?
- If it's external, is the conflict between two or more people; between
an individual and society; or between a human and nature, god, or
- In what ways might the external conflict mask or replicate the internal
conflict of the main character? Does the main character flee from,
cathart, or engage her core conflicts?
- How does the work of literature present its core conflict?
- Does the main character fly from her core conflict, escape it, deny
it, or cover it up?
- Does the main character resolve her core conflict and eventually
- Or, does the main character actively engage her core conflicts
in a self-critical process of continual and contingent working through?
- What do we learn about the character . . .
- from her inner thoughts?
- from what she says?
- from what she does?
- from the accord or discrepency among her thoughts, words, and deeds?
- from others' interaction with and reaction to her?
- from others' discussion of her . . .
- when she's present?
- when she's absent?
- from the author's comments about her?
- Does the character seem fleshed out, alive, and complexly human?
- Is the character round (fully developed, three-dimensional) or flat
- Is the character dynamic (does the character change, develop, grow)
or static (does the characer remain the same, unchanged)?
- What is her core conflict? What is the arc or throughline of the character's
development through the story?
- In what ways does she simply escape or repress them?
- In what ways does she resolve or transcend her core conflicts by the
- In what ways does she truly engage and work through her conflicts?
- How does the time period in which the work takes place affect the character's
psyche and structure her conflicts?
- What about the place?
- Or the social environment and the culture?
- What is the atmosphere of the story?
- More importantly, how does that mood affect your emotional response
to the characters' struggles?
- Does the story strive to create a sense of realism? To what purpose?
- Or is the story purposefully unreal, even surreal? What effect does
this have on your understanding of the characters' situation?
- In what ways does the work's setting make its conflicts and characters
specific and particular?
- Conversely, in what ways does the work's particular characters and conflicts
transcend time and place?
- Does the story broach universal issues, or can it be pigeonholed as
a mere period piece?
- What kind of sounds, objects, and language are used to convey the visual
picture of the work?
- How does the language move the work of literature from the literal plane
to the figurative and metaphorical?
- How does this visual language function to concretize abstract ideas?
- How does the imagery become symbolic of larger themes?
- What objects, actions, or images in the story suggest a meaning or multiplicity
of meanings beyond their simple referents? In other words, how do significant
objects and situations stand for ideas beyond themselves?
- Is the symbol public and conventional, i.e., does it work for
a broad culture?
- Or is the symbol private and individual, i.e., does it work only within
the context of a particular work or author?
plot and structure
- Chart the most significant events in the story. Does it conform to Freytag's
pyramid of rising and falling action?
- What is the unstable situation—internal and/or external conflicts—that
sets the plot in motion?
- How does the author's exposition and the main characters' internal
monologue and external dialogue explain the nature of that conflict?
- What are the most important events that inform, alter, and intensify
- What is the most intense event—climax or turning point—of
- What are the less intense events—falling action—that lead
- What is the stable situation—denouement—at the end of the
- If the the story does not conform to the conventional structure
of rising and falling action, of conflict exacerbation and resolution,
then how is the story structured?
- If the story varies from convention, to what meaningful, thematic effect
does it subvert such a structure?
- Who is the story's protagonist? the antagonist? Explain their conflict.
- How does what takes place in the narrative effect, test, or change
the main character's world view, her core conflicts?
point of view
- Who's telling the story?
- a first-person narrator ("I")?
- a second-person narrator ("you")?
- a third-person narrator?
- Note: The narrator of a poem is called the speaker
- Is the narrator omniscient (all-knowing) or limited?
- What does the narrator know, and how does she know it?
- What does she tell the reader? How does she tell it? Why does she
- What might she be holding back, denying, or repressing? Why?
- What's the narrator's tone? her agenda? Is she reliable?
- How does the point of view of the narrator affect how we view the
characters? their struggles?
- Why is the story told from a particular point of view?
- How does the point of view affect the meaning and theme of the story?
- How does it affect our interpretation of the story?
- How does one determine the point of view in drama which is told
completely from the multiple points of view of its characters?
- Where do the distinct and most powerful points
of view come into conflict?
- Who is the main or central character and what is her point
- How is her world view valorized and challenged by the
is she transformed (or not) over the course of
- How does the author feel about the subject matter and events of her work
- How does the author feel about her characters and their world views
- How does the author's presence and consciousness (for example, moral sensibility)
affect or even color her presentation of the story?
- What is the attitude of the frame narrator, if distinct from the real
author, toward the story she's telling?
- Within the story itself, in what ways do characters intonate their feelings
and attitudes toward other characters?
- Toward their own experiences and actions?
- How does the work of literature deal with the core conflicts that it
- What is the main idea of the work of literature? What values is the work
trying to convey?
- What does the story suggest or say about—argue about—the
nature of the individual whose conflict was represented?
- of society?
- of humanity's relationship with the world?
- of humanity's ethics and morality?
fiction and/as film
- In what ways is film like fiction? How does film differ from fiction?
- >What elements of fiction can be read in film?
- How must elements of textual fiction be analyzed differently in film?
- What realities can film portray and what can it not portray?
- How does film portray point of view? How does it portray interior monologue?
- How do we know and judge a character's inner thoughts in a film?
- Summarize, Analyze, Criticize: Argue the text's main theme or set
of interrelated themes as you interpret them through critical thought and
sound analysis. Make sure your interpretation, however particular and local
in the text, correlates with and suggests the overarching meaning of the text.
- Appreciate and Interrogate: Get into the author's psyche, her world
view, and present her themes on life and the world of ideas. However, don't
simply accept the author's mind set at face value; pose questions to her world
view. Strong reading and strong writing not only comprehend where the poet
and poem are coming from, they also engage the poems with their own understanding
of the world.
- Close Reading and Quoting: Go through the most significant section
or sections of the poem line by line, but only insofar as it helps to prove
your point. If, for instance, you're writing about a particular symbol or
image, you don't need to do a close reading of every single instance; instead,
just tease out and quote the most appropriate sections to prove your point.
Conversely, if you're writing about shift in tone or irony, you may want to
do a close reading of an entire passage in order to tease out the nuances
of the meanings.
- Applying the Elements: Know how to formally analyze a work of fiction,
but always use formal critique as a means to the end of thematic investigation.
Don't analyze the elements of fiction in and of themselves; show how they
function to create meaning.
- Practice: Write questions and interpretations in the margins of your
text. Keep a reading journal in which you try to articulate the world views
of the authors you read. For class, send web-based discussion or listservice
posts that at once summarize the main themes of the poem or poet, engage in
selected close readings, and pose questions for class discussion.
- Essay Exams: To write an effective essay exam, first anticipate what
questions you'll be asked as you read and review your notes and the works
of fiction. Practice composing your response beforehand, for instance by preparing
and memorizing an outline of each author's/story's main points. When writing
the actual exam, note that instructors don't expect in-class essays to be
polished; however, they do want you to hit the primary themes of the poems
as they relate to the essay questions. Show what you know, how you think:
present as many critical and analytical ideas as possible in the time allowed.
Dr. Alex E. Blazer
Grand Valley State University