A literary analysis paper discusses the meaning of a work of literature. Writing a literary analysis paper must be approached in several stages. The analysis must always include a well-developed thesis, usually one that is arguable and supported with adequate evidence from the primary text -- the work you are writing about. Check your assignment for the kind of thesis required.
Close Reading to Find Meaning
Begin with a close reading of the work you intend to write about. A close reading might involve annotating the text-- underlining, highlighting and making marginal notes. Keep a reading journal to identify key passages or phrases, to write summaries of parts of the text, to record significant quotes and your responses as you read. Reread the text and make notes about the literary elements of the kind of work you are analyzing: poetry, fiction, nonfiction or drama. Formulate questions about those elements and free write your responses as you read.
Characters can experience internal conflicts with the traditions of society, as in Shirley Jackson’s story "The Lottery," or external conflicts with the environment, as in Jack London’s "To Build a Fire." Write about the external and internal conflicts, if those conflicts are resolved or left unresolved, and why. Formulate several versions of a possible “working” thesis based on what these conflicts reveal about the human condition or what you learned from the text.
Theme vs. Subject
A literary text can have more than one meaning or message or theme. Do not mistake the subject of a work for the theme. If you are reading a text about death or love, that is the subject. Theme is also not a clichéd moral, such as “Love conquers all,” according to the authors of “Literature and the Writing Process.” The theme is what the text is trying to say about death or love. You need to infer what the elements in the text, such as tone, characterization or motifs mean, and make conclusions through analysis.
Debatable Thesis and Evidence
Finalize a thesis that is not obvious or one that is debatable. Have discussions with others who have read the same work, who may have different interpretations about the meaning, message or theme. Reread the text to make sure there is no evidence to contradict your thesis before you begin to research and write the paper. Find specific quotes from the primary text to support your thesis.
Sources and Synthesis
If your assignment requires secondary literary sources, use the Modern Language Association database, usually available online for students at university websites. Find articles that support your interpretation, or ones that have a different interpretation that you acknowledge but argue against. Write a draft that is a synthesis of your ideas, the primary text and secondary sources. Meet with a group of other students and read your drafts aloud to each other to refine and add content and to catch mistakes before the final draft. Proofread the final draft by reading it backward before submitting for a grade.
- North Carolina University Libraries: Never Written a Literary Essay Before?: Literary Criticism Research Guide
- OWL Purdue: What Makes a Good Literature Paper?
- OWL Purdue: Close Reading a Text and Avoiding Pitfalls
- Literary Terms to Know: Cyber English 9; Hogue
- Literature and the Writing Process; Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day and Robert Funk
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