Elements Of A Good Literary Analysis Essay

Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature

Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written.  To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance. 

Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective.  Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.  You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.

Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.

  • William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
  • District 9- South African Apartheid
  • X Men- the evils of prejudice
  • Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”

Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character - A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.  

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.

  • confidence/ arrogance
  • mouse/ rat
  • cautious/ scared
  • curious/ nosey
  • frugal/ cheap

Denotation - dictionary definition of a word

Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition  

Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves

  • Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as  
    • You are the sunshine of my life.
  • Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as  
    • What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
  • Hyperbole - exaggeration
    • I have a million things to do today.
  • Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
    • America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.

Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem

  • Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
    • Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
      • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
  • Spondee - stressed stressed
    • Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
      • Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
  • Trochee - stressed unstressed
    • Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
      • While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
  • Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
    • Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
      • Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
  • Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
    • Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
      • Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
        With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.

Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.

Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem

Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.

Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.

  • Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)

Setting - the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.

Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems  are not necessarily formless.

Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.

  • Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
  • Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
  • Owl - wisdom or knowledge
  • Yellow - implies cowardice or rot

Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.



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SETTING: (skene, opsis)

Every work of literature has to create its own world. Every writer is singing a hymn of creation, light or dark. Whether or not the text contains the full account, it always implies one; and every reader has an alternative vision of the world to impose on the text. To read or write is therefore an act of creation of its own virtual reality.

The evidence of setting is the scenery and the props (properties), artificial or natural, as well as the time and light of day, the mood or atmosphere, the background music, the culture, and the people who are not characters (extras?). Setting is created largely by descriptions of places, objects, seasons, and sounds.

Hence, setting is related to tone and imagery. It also has a strong relationship to archetype and the psychological interpretation of character and action. In the age of the global village and ecology, setting is by definition an ecosystem or a habitat that embraces the whole community of earthkind, the substrate of natural and human history taken as one.



The words denoting a concrete, sensual experience of the world are called images; and in the minds of the imaginative writer or reader they often stand for something else (that is, by the kind of analogy we generally call metaphor). Hence, the violet by a mossy stone on the one level refers to a flower in the scene, but on an even more imaginative level refers to the girl the poet loves and all the feelings of tenderness or loss that surround his image of her.

The figures of speech which generate such associations and analogies include simile (comparisons using like or as) and metaphor in the specific sense (comparisons built into the basic sentence pattern, such as The shark reads the menu of the coral reef). Metaphor is world or scene mixing. Words denoting abstractions and emotions can also be used figuratively by an inversion of the process of imagery, so that a tiger might be described as baring teeth as sharp as hunger or as fierce as guilt.

Images accumulate into clusters and sometimes are reiterated enough to have a global effect on a literary composition. For example, the imagery of clothing that binds characters is prominent in one work while animals who are predatory keep cropping up in another. Usually, however, images are a part of the texture of the work and sift out into the expected or common frames inherent in the scene.



The symbol is a single prop or image which by reason of its position or treatment in the text must be taken as representative of the whole or perhaps elements greater than the whole work of art. A symbol is a single, inescapable image, like the pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lily in icons of St. Joseph, or the green lantern at the end of The Great Gatsby.

Literary symbols can be:

    • unique to a particular text = textual
    • common in two or more works of the same artist = personal
    • a part of a larger culture, religion, or tradition = cultural
    • an archetype inherent in all human cultures. = universal

When symbolism is transformed into a complex narrative or drama, we have personification allegory. Such characters as Everyman in the medieval morality play or Faith in Hawthorne's story of Young Goodman Brown are symbolic, to be sure, but in general symbols are things, not characters.




CHARACTER: (ethos)

Aristotle used the word ethos to describe the character of the subject or hero of a tragedy. He saw every human as governed by a set of behaviors, virtues and vices if you will, habits of action that made one tend toward certain choices. Behind those choices one could see a rationale, a set of values.

 The immediate evidence for character analysis includes:

o        physical attributes,

o        thoughts and statements,

o        choices and actions of the subject,

o        the manner of his or her performance,

o        the gestalt or relationship with all the other characters (see structure), and

o        their statements about and reactions to the character.



Whose eyes, whose voice, and what physical or emotional position control our reception of the text? Is it consistent or volatile? Is it subjective (first person), objective (third person reliable or all-knowing), or limited (usually focusing on a single persona)? As Chaucer showed us so well in The Canterbury Tales, the character of the narrator makes all the difference in the world. Every story, poem, or essay has the warp of its narrative voice or voices.

The evidence for point of view in narrative is especially available at the beginning or the end, in any parenthetical or tangential remarks, in all the arrangements and naming of events and characters of plots and subplots, indeed, in the whole rhetorical appeal of the work. The narrator holds the camera, chooses the lighting, arranges the scenes, in fact, directs the whole script for our imagination. Point of view is not simply the opinion of the author or the narrator, but all these elements of the text under the control of a character telling the story.



 TONE: (melos)

An actor, by changes in tone of voice, can make a hundred different plays out of the same crucial line. In literary analysis of tone we give the text a body, a voice to sound itself; we set the appropriate background music for the composition. Language is speech. The text has a sound system; and the great writers are always sensitive to the emotional effects of the sound stream as they create it.

The reader without ears will often miss one of the most crucial aspects of literary tone, irony. Irony occurs whenever there is a disparity of situation and tone (cosmic, verbal, or dramatic).



The music of literature, the combinations of patterns of sound and rhythm, is called prosody in poetry. The features of sound used frequently in poetry are alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhyme. The features of rhythm in poetry are metrical feet, caesurae, and cadence groups.

In prose, style refers to the consistent pattern of an author's language choices reflected in sounds, words, phrases, sentences, and larger discourse units.



 STRUCTURE: (mythos)

Structure is the sum of the relationships among the parts of a literary work. Hence, structural analysis takes into consideration chronology, cause and effect, association, symmetry, balance, and proportion in the larger textual divisions and units of composition. A novel often has a set of chapters, a poem a group of stanzas, and a play a series of Acts or scenes or both.

All the elements of literary analysis admit of description in terms of their distribution throughout the divisions of the text. Hence, plot structure represents the arrangement of incidents/actions in a narrative, character structure the constellation of dramatic personae, etc.



In speaking of narrative literature, we distinguish between the surface structure (the actual sequence of events within the textual divisions) and the deep structure (the underlying story which governs that structure). Take the story of the Iliad. We all know the underlying myth. It resides in our minds as story until one of us makes a novel about Helen's abduction, another writes an opera about the Trojan Horse, and a third choreographs a ballet about Achilles and Patroclus. All three "texts" or versions adapt the same story (mythos) about the war, but each represents a different kind of discourse. The surface structure varies from author to author and art form to art form. Plot is a feature of the surface structure or discourse unit of the narrative in whatever form.

Most plots start at an exciting midpoint, and then fill us in later about other parts of the story (exposition). Then complications, conflicts, and crises arise, build to a climax, and finally reach a point of resolution or exhaustion called the denouement. Often plot structures deliberately suppress elements of the story to create mystery, suspense, and a dramatic climax.

The evidence for plot is an outline of the major actions in the syntax or arrangement provided by the text. Often a play is thus structured into a number of Acts, but every story admits of analysis in terms of a set of actions. Another way to identify the plot is to block a story off into scenes. The actions or scenes, their clustering or arrangement when compared to the textual divisions of the manuscript or text, make up the evidence for interpretation of structure or form in a narrative.



An important part of mythos is the dynamics of conflict or opposition. Just as we can see a linear structure or timeline in the syntax of actions, we can also find patterns in the spatial structure of the text. These would be more or less constant and global forces working usually in all the parts of the text and responsible for the complications of the plot. As the anthropologist Levi-Strauss has shown, many of these opposing forces in a work of art or mythology are inherent throughout the culture. For example, in epical stories of culture heroes one often finds an inherent conflict between nature and civilization, the raw and the cooked, as Levi-Strauss first put it.

Again, every element of literary analysis can display opposition or conflict in the text. Symbols may represent war and peace, characters contain opposing forces in their own stormy psyches, etc. Actions, too, admit of opposition and reversal. For example, in Beowulf we see fighting and feasting oscillating in almost electrical currents.




THEME: (dianoia and lexis)

A theme can be expressed as a word, a phrase, a proposition, or a whole text. The educated person tunes into the history of ideas which human genius generates in every age or culture. In literature, the ideas of philosophers are embodied and disguised and sometimes personified overtly in allegory.

It is best to express an author's themes in his or her own words (lexis), but often a principal theme receives no explicit representation in the vocabulary of the text or the author; then the critic must invent terms to describe the themes in contemporary language.  

Strictly speaking, all forms of literary analysis can be evidence for theme. When we ask, what does this symbol, image, feature of plot structure, or rhyme mean, we are accumulating evidence of thematic interest. To study theme, therefore, is to reach back into the whole of the text from the vocabulary of ideas and feelings it presents. One of the best ways to get hold of any theme is to draw a concept map of its relations to other major themes of the text.  

Most authors and major texts are available in concordance form, an alphabetical listing of all the content words in their vocabulary. A thesaurus proprius is such a concordance arranged in major subject headings or themes. It expresses therefore the whole network of themes in a single text or author. When we pull a theme out of a work that we think is central, it is best to place it in the context of the other key concepts of the text.



Frequently when we first look at a painting or walk out of the theater we have a question to ask the artist. We understand most of the composition in certain terms, but something sticks out as inconsistent, some item in the composition or some annoying repetition bothers us. We leave the theater but we can't stop going over the film. In literature it is the same, and the history of the reception of the text often reveals its principal problems and the source of its mystery or intriguing qualities. The notion of solving a puzzle in a work of literary art is inherent in our language. Often the business of resolving our initial misgivings will lead to rereading and research that will reveal a better understanding of the artistic, conceptual, or historical dimensions of the text.







The facts surrounding the publication of a text can have an important bearing upon our reading and interpretation of it. Hence, we can consider the historical, cultural, and biographical contexts of the author and the audience at the time of its publication. In some cases it is important to consider the pragmatic context, the actual occasion for the writing or presenting of the text, e.g. a coronation event, a Christmas celebration, an imminent death in the author's life. 

In a narrower sense, the context can be taken as a purely literary factor in terms of tradition, that is, as one in a set of texts by the same author, in the same genre, or belonging to the same period of literary or oral history. Of special interest, therefore, are any texts which the author may have used as sources, directly or indirectly, as well as any analogues of the text which may have derived from the same or similar sources and thus bear a strong association with the text, regardless of its date.



The theories of literature often have a bearing on the text because the author becomes concerned about presenting an artistic reaction to the abstractions which concern the discipline of literary art. In a very general sense, these theories can be divided into mimetic (those that value the poem or text as an imitation) and formalist (those whose value lies in the forms they achieve). 

A useful larger categorization uses the components of the communication model and distinguishes four theoretical approaches:

    • Expressionistic = expressing the artist's view
    • Pragmatic = pragmatically reaching an audience
    • Mimetic = imitating a world, or
    • Objective = simply existing as a work of art on its own.

Thus, the text can be considered in terms of the encoder, the decoder, the world at large, or the pure signal or message.



Each age and culture gives birth to new forms of literature which sometimes perdure and sometimes fade away. Authors invent variations and try mixtures of genre, but in general it is useful to understand what the distinctive features of each "kind" of writing might be, to pay attention to the conventions and the breaches of convention in any given work.

There are four major genres: prose (the essay), poetry (lyrics), drama (plays), and fiction (short stories and the novel). Each of these has a variety of historical and cultural variations.

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