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How to Analyze Literature

The analysis of a piece of fiction or writing can seem daunting especially if after the first chapter you have absolutely no idea of what’s going on or you think to yourself “So what?”  Well rest assured.  If you read something and don’t understand it you are among the hundreds of thousands of students who also don’t’ get it.  However, one of the things your teacher or professor will explain to you is that the whole point of studying literature is to look beyond the print and find alternative methods for understanding it.  This whole process is called analyzing. 

In order to analyze literature you have to understand the various methods one can use to try to understand or present an argument about the piece of writing.  Sometimes it will be necessary to explore several methods before you finally find one that will work for the literature you are to analyze.  Other times a single method will hit you in the face as you are reading it and things will pull together rather quickly. 

When deciding to analyze a piece of literature, you should obviously follow the guidelines your instructor has given you and then proceed from there.  However, sometimes your instructor may not give specific guidelines.  Instead he or she rather might offer themes or characters to work around.  Depending on how much practice you have searching for a needle in a haystack, you might find either more challenging.  The best thing to do is to start with a particular method of analysis and then go from there.  Below are examples of methods used to analyze a work of literature:

1. Symbolism – This method involves searching for symbols that are either repeated again and again or represented in one particular part of the literature.  For example, is there an object, situation, or person that appears again and again?  Or even, is there an object that doesn’t appear that seems like it should?  If so, what does that mean?

2. Character Development – This method is usually the easiest and involves just choosing one character and looking at how they develop throughout the literature.  For example, is there a side-character who serves a particular role in the novel?  Why is that and what is his or her background story?

3. Plot – This method involves truly looking at the soul, shall we say, of the literature.  This is where you can analyze the entire piece of writing all the way from the introduction to the climax to the end.  Analyzing this way can sometime be overwhelming depending on the length of the writing and can often end up being a summary verses a real analysis.

4. Author Background – This method is extremely important for most college level coursework because often the literature you study will mean absolutely nothing to you if you have no idea what movement it comes from or what was the inspiration of the author who wrote it.  It might be beneficial to use this method of analysis if you are having difficulty understanding the work to begin with.

5. Location and Setting – This method is fairly simply and it entails simply looking at the location and setting of the characters in the literature and deciding what is unique about it.  For example, is there a change in setting that happens towards the end of the writing?  What does that mean?

6. Writing Style/Point of View – This method of writing is always fascinating to understand because it allows you to take the writing to another level that usually is not seen by most readers right away.  For example, does the author use the first person point of view or third person?  What did that present or exclude for the audience?  Does it mean anything?  Also, does the author use poetry or other breaks in the writing often?  Why do you think the author does this?  Another example would be to analyze the titles of each chapter (if there are any).

Now, once you have decided on one of the above methods of analysis, you can begin to find examples within the literature.  Some examples you find may be more useful than others depending on the direction or argument you take with the analysis.  For example, you might find that one character is more present throughout the novel with many examples of him talking or stating his opinion, however they may not be very interesting.  On the other hand, you might find one or two side characters who may not speak many words but represent a lot either through their action or inaction for example.  Either way, once you have found a good number of little examples OR a few big examples, you can develop your argument.

Your argument should be based on the examples you will provide using one of the methods above.  The argument should be simple and straightforward that way you can build on it more easily.  It will be easier to build an argument on a few good solid examples that strongly support your argument through the method you choose verses many little examples that could be interpreted in many different ways.

Once you have your method, examples, and argument, analyzing literature is really not that difficult.  The difficult part will be putting it all into your own words, which is another topic entirely.
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