How you write a literary analysis essay will differ depending on course requirements, but all essays should cover four key areas of literary analysis: theme, structure, plot and character. Every literary analysis essay should also include a motivating question or argument that drives the rest of the paper. Whether you want to provide a broad overview of a book or focus on a specific area, discussing the following five characteristics will result in a well-rounded literary analysis.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab recommends choosing a thesis, also called a motivating question or argument, before beginning your paper. An example of a thesis for an essay on Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" could be "What is the significance of the whale's white color?" State your thesis at the end of your first paragraph and use the remaining paragraphs of your paper to explore your question or support your argument.
Identify several important motifs and themes in the work and explain what purpose they serve. The Writing Center at University of Iowa cautions against selectively ignoring parts of a book that contradict your chosen theme; only write about a theme you are certain you can fully support. For example, L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" provides one example of a literary theme: The protagonist Dorothy meets characters such as the Tin Man who desire something they unknowingly already possess; this repeated theme sets up Dorothy's final realization that rather than wanting to live in a new place, "There's no place like home."
Consider the structure of the book in terms of the rhythm of sentences, pace and how the work is broken into smaller segments. What effect does the length of sentences, paragraphs and chapters have on the feel of the story? Does the work have more dialogue, interior monologue or description? Why do you think the author chose to structure his story this way? An example of a book where structure is important to the story is James Joyce's "Ulysses," a novel divided into 18 sections that mimic the aging process through changes in narrative style.
A book's plot is an analytic consideration related to its structure. Goshen College's English Department suggests exploring the sequence of major events in your work and understanding how they build to the book's climax. Why did the author choose to describe occurrences in a given order? For example, an analysis of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" could discuss how the order in which Ebeneezer Scrooge revisits past life events affects his final change of heart.
Consider the characterization choices your author made. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests discussing how the author's assignment of certain characteristics to each individual advances the story. How does the inclusion of different characters help the plot? Does the author seem to feel positively or negatively about his protagonist? Also consider how the book's point of view enhances the story. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," for example, it is important that the narrator, Nick, is a social outsider to the glamorous society he observes.
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