How to Analyze a Literary Passage- A Step-by-Step Guide
In this lesson, we will examine the steps involved in the basic analysis of literature. Then, using a well-known fable, we will go through each step of analysis- comprehension, interpreting and drawing conclusions.
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Analyzing literature . Kind of scary, right? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, you’re probably a pro at analysis already - you’re analyzing text all of the time: when you read a newspaper article, dissect a cooking recipe, and even when you follow driving directions.
In order to get from point A to point B in your car, for example, you need to understand the map, the written directions as a whole, as well as all of the individual parts or turns. It often helps you to figure out which areas might trip you up and from what direction of town you should approach your destination. That’s all analysis is.
Analyzing literature is much like reading directions. First, you tackle literature by reading it once for comprehension .
Does it make sense as a whole?
Do you understand the events that lead from the beginning to the middle to the end - the basic plot?
Are there important parts of the puzzle that you need to recognize?
Once you are steady on your feet with comprehension, you move on to interpretation , which really means filling in the pieces of the puzzle that are not explicitly stated. Look more closely at the details that fit the literary work together. Examine things like mood and tone of a scene or character motivation in a specific moment.
Finally, once you feel like you’ve painted a clear portrait in your head through story comprehension and personal interpretation, you pull all of this information together to create an analytical statement about the piece as a whole . This can include things like theme, author commentary or choices, overall character analysis, how literature reflects a time period, etc. - really, the list of possible topics for overall analysis is endless, and not everyone will interpret the same work in the same way. It is drawing conclusions about a work based upon the story’s elements, and while there’s no one right way to do it, following the steps in this video can help you get started until you develop a method that works for you.
Don’t feel intimidated. For the purposes of our work here, we will look more generally at what close reading, making connections, and drawing conclusions really means. You already do a lot of this without realizing it.
Diagram depicting the essential plot elements
You know what comprehension means. You read a literary work once to figure out how all of the basic parts fit together as a story. Essentially, it’s the basic understanding of:
Plot (to the extent that they are revealed)
You think you can do this? Let’s practice. For this exercise, we are going to keep things simple with a short version of everyone’s favorite, ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ :
The Tortoise and the Hare
The hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. ‘I have never yet been beaten,’ said he, ‘when I put forth my full speed. I challenge anyone here to race with me.’
The tortoise said quietly, ‘I accept your challenge.’
‘That is a good joke,’ said the hare. ‘I could dance around you all the way.’
‘Keep your boasting until you’ve beaten,’ answered the tortoise. ‘Shall we race?’
So a course was fixed and a start was made. The hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped, and, to show his contempt for the tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the hare awoke from his nap, he saw the tortoise nearing the finish line, and he could not catch up in time to save the race.
Plodding wins the race.
So, these initial steps should be somewhat familiar to you already.
Step One - Setting Comprehension Is the setting clear in this one? Hmm. It doesn’t give a specific location or a time period, so this isn’t initially clear. ‘No basic setting.’
Step Two - Character Comprehension That’s easy. ‘The Hare’ and ‘The Tortoise.’
Step Three - Plot Comprehension You can do this. Easy. ‘The fast hare challenges other animals to a race. The slow and steady tortoise accepts the challenge. The hare, who is confident in his abilities, decides to take a nap on the course. As a result, he loses.’
Nice work. Now, on to interpretation.
Close Reading and Interpretation
Interpreting a literary work is the point at which you begin to fill in the pieces of the story a bit more. You explore setting, characters, and plot more deeply while giving consideration to author’s style and language. Let’s start with setting again. Look back at the story again for a minute.
Step Four - Setting Analysis Okay, since nothing is explicitly stated, can we gather any more information about setting? Maybe information that is implied? The story does hint at a social context - ‘the animal world’ - which you could argue is a contributor to the setting here. Okay, that’s something we can gather that is implied.
Step Five - Character Analysis What more can we say about the tortoise and the hare? In what ways can we really bring them to life in our mind? Well, we know ‘the hare is a braggart with confidence in his abilities to move quickly.’ We know ‘the tortoise is quiet and predictably slower than the hare.’ Here, we basically fill in more details about the characters.
Step Six - Plot Analysis What more can we say about the plot? Well, we can figure out what the essential elements of the plot of this story are (the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). The exposition here? ‘The initial invitation to race by the hare.’ The rising action? ‘After the tortoise accepts the challenge, it is the hare’s boastful comments, the initial running of the race, and the hare’s choice to take a nap.’ The climax here comes ‘after the tortoise passes the hare and wins the race.’ The resolution? Not much of a resolution aside from the lesson learned at the end - ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ The quiet, slow, and steady tortoise won.
Step Seven - Author Style and Language Analysis Well, this is a bit tougher. It’s an examination of point-of-view, imagery, symbolism, other literary devices, the use of repetition, and any other choices the author makes that create a unique piece. This particular step in the process can be one that takes quite a while. Not only are you examining the presence of these aspects of the writing, but you will also have to consider why they are there at all and what purpose might they serve. Examine the work under the assumption that the authors make deliberate choices, and their choices support the overall goal of delivering a specific message.
What about our beloved story here? Well, let’s go through these one by one.
Point-of-view What is the point of view here? From what we can tell, it’s ‘third person.’ Third person omniscient means that the narrator sees the thoughts and feelings of all characters. Third person limited is when the thoughts and feelings of only one character are revealed. Tough to tell here. The hare took a nap to show contempt for the tortoise , so we know that we are, at least, in the mind of the hare. That much (‘third person limited’) could be argued.
Imagery This is the use of language to create vivid images or pictures in the reader’s mind. Do we find this in ‘the Tortoise and the Hare?’ Nope. This story is rather short and gets to the point. Not many vivid images.
Symbolism and other literary devices Here’s where you have to be familiar with the rest of your literary devices. One that immediately jumps out at the reader involves the animals talking to each other - ‘personification.’ That’s a start. You could argue that there are innumerable literary devices at play here as well (the use of ‘character foil,’ maybe a bit of ‘suspense,’ the creation of ‘hubris’ in a character).
What’s the point of examining all this? It creates a more vivid picture for the reader while taking a close look at language and author choice. These are important steps that lead to final analysis.
In the final analysis stage, you, the reader, must consider all of the elements previously examined in order to draw conclusions. The most common conclusion you can draw from a piece of literature is ‘theme,’ or the overall ideas that govern the piece. Here, you could say that the themes of ‘modesty,’ ‘hubris,’ and ‘perseverance’ exist. Right? Are there others? Sure. You can add to the list.
Because theme has more recently been defined as a kind of high-level topic, we must also take a look at what it communicates about life on a general level. This really means that you need to think about the message or moral. Our beloved story made this easy - a moral was given to us. ‘Plodding wins the race,’ or ‘slow and steady will always prevail.’
Can you find other messages by examining plot, characters, setting, literary devices, author style, and choices? Sure. Our friend the hare shows us that ‘boasting will never make you a winner,’ while the quiet old tortoise demonstrates that ‘anything is possible if you try.’ Do you see how it works? Ultimately, the last step in this process is to answer these questions: What themes govern the piece? What does the piece communicate to the reader about life?
Analyzing literature can be very broad and general or very complex and narrow in scope, depending upon the purpose of the examination. But for us, using this general model will not only give you a solid understanding of a piece, but it will help you move into interpreting and, ultimately, analysis. To review:
The first element of analysis is comprehension, or basic understanding of:
The next element of analysis is interpretation, or a further exploration of the stated and implied aspects of:
Author Style and Language Analysis (Remember those literary devices!)
The last element of analysis is drawing conclusions, or bringing everything together to support a greater theme, message, or moral about life.
Make sense? It should. Think about it this way - you’re breaking a story into parts in order to gain a better understanding of each part as well as the greater whole. Like anything, literature will feel less daunting and foreign when you examine it this way.
This lesson will help you to:
Identify the steps to analyzing literature
Understand how to read for comprehension
Apply the the steps of close reading to intepret a literary work
Consider imagery and symbolism
Understand how to draw conclusions from your analysis
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