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1.6 The basics of literary analysis

6 min readjanuary 25, 2023

ChristineLing

ChristineLing


AP English Literature 📚

145 resources
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Introduction

Today, we’ll be looking at literary analysis. Now that you’ve learned “how to read” (see guide 1.5 if you haven’t already), you can learn how to write analytically about what you’ve read. You’ve most likely done this already in English classes of the past, so feel free to view this guide as a refresher on literary analysis writing. If the idea of literary analysis is new to you though, then this is a great time to learn!

What is Literary Analysis?

Literary analysis is a method of close reading that involves identifying and interpreting various elements of a text in order to better understand and evaluate the work as a whole. This includes analyzing the text's themes, characters, symbols, and structure, as well as the author's use of language and literary devices. 
In literary analysis, the goal is to identify details that, when put together, support a claim about an aspect of the text, and then to use this evidence to defend that claim in an argument. This process allows readers to gain a deeper understanding of the text and to make connections between the work and the broader literary tradition or cultural context in which it was written.

Why do it?

In addition to having to do it in English classes for assignments and essays, literary analysis helps in developing critical thinking skills. By analyzing and interpreting a text, readers learn to evaluate arguments, identify biases, and understand different perspectives. You don’t have to limit it to classroom use; you can analyze books you read for leisure too! It can help you develop a personal interpretation of the text and appreciate the beauty of literature.

How to Write Literary Analysis Arguments

Now, let’s look at what makes up a literary analysis. We’ll break it down into two main parts: claim and evidence.

Part 1: Claim

A claim is a defensible/arguable* statement. It asserts something to be true or false about a text. A claim should be specific, clear, and supported by evidence from the text.
In literary analysis, a claim can be made about any aspect of the text. Here’s a list of potential aspects:
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Symbols
  • Structure
  • Style
  • Historical context
  • Author's purpose
After identifying the aspect of the text that you want to focus on, you should state your position on that aspect in a clear and specific statement. For example, "The main character in the novel is struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness," or "The author uses the structure of the novel to convey the theme of the fragility of memory."
It's important to note that a claim should not be a summary of the text or a general observation, but rather a specific, arguable statement that can be supported by evidence. Additionally, a claim should be written in a way that is open to discussion and debate, not as a statement of fact or truth.
Here are some more examples of claims:
  • The main character's internal conflict in the novel is a representation of the societal pressure to conform.
  • The use of imagery in the poem is used to convey the theme of death and loss.
  • The symbolism of the river in the novel represents the passage of time and the inevitability of change.
  • The novel's structure is used to convey the theme of the complexity of human relationships.
The Additional Notes section of the AP Lit Exam scoring guidelines provides a solid checklist for you to think about as you craft a claim. See below.
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*Note: defensible means it does not describe the obvious (“The sky is blue”) nor does it describe the impossible (“Everyone’s favorite color is red”). Stating something that is obvious/too general or impossible to defend will not earn you the thesis point on the AP exam. In addition, it will be difficult to earn Evidence and Commentary points. How would you provide sound evidence and rationale for an obvious/impossible statement?

Part 2: Evidence

Textual evidence refers to specific details from the text that are used to support a claim made in literary analysis. It is the evidence or proof that supports the claim and helps to make it convincing. To present textual evidence, it is important to quote or paraphrase the relevant passage from the text and to provide context for the quote, explaining how it supports the claim.
For example, if a claim is made that the main character in a novel is struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness, textual evidence to support this claim might include a passage in which the character says, "I've never felt so alone in my life." This quote provides concrete evidence that the character is experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, one could also provide the context of the quote, explaining how it relates to the claim, such as "The character's statement highlights their feelings of isolation and loneliness, which is a central theme throughout the novel."
Another example, if the claim is that the novel's structure is used to convey the theme of the fragility of memory, the evidence could be a passage that describes the use of non-linear narrative, such as "The novel jumps between different time periods, highlighting how memories can be fragmented and unreliable." The evidence supports the claim, because the non-linear narrative structure emphasizes the theme of memory's fragility.
Lastly, if the claim is that the symbolism in the novel represents the struggle between tradition and modernity, evidence could be a passage that describes the use of a traditional house as a symbol, such as "The old house in the novel symbolizes the protagonist's struggle to hold on to tradition while facing the pressures of modernity." This passage provides evidence that the house is being used as a symbol to represent the struggle between tradition and modernity.
It's important to note that textual evidence should be carefully selected and used to support the claim, rather than being used to impose an interpretation on the text. Also, it is important to provide more than one piece of textual evidencen (if possible) to strengthen the claim and to avoid overgeneralization.

Tips on Writing Them

To see examples of good claims, I encourage you to look at the scoring guidelines of past AP Lit exams. See all past exam questions here. In the published scoring guidelines, there are a few example theses provided that can give an idea of what is expected. For example, here’s a thesis that earned the thesis point on the 2021 AP Lit Exam
"Winston uses first-person narration, vivid descriptions, and humor to convey the narrator’s greater sense of connection to his friend Loon and his embarrassment on behalf of the woman who feels powerless in the situation.”
Notice the level of detail in the claim. It’s not just “Winston conveys the narrator’s greater sense of connection.” The student provided three reasons right off the bat (“first-person narration, vivid descriptions, and humor”), giving the grader a good idea of where the essay is going.
Here’s a list of some other tips to keep in mind:
  • Read the text closely and critically: Before writing a literary analysis, it is important to read the text multiple times, paying close attention to the author's use of literary devices and techniques, as well as the text's themes, characters, symbols, and structure. Of course, on an exam with limited time, you have to be aware of how much time you spend reading. Make sure you read just enough to get an idea of what your claim will be. You can return to specific parts of the text later to look for textual evidence
  • Consider the literary and cultural context: The text should be analyzed in the context of the literary tradition and cultural context in which it was written. This will help to deepen the understanding and appreciation of the text, and it will help the writer to make connections between the text and the broader literary and cultural context.
  • Analyze the text, not the author: A literary analysis should focus on the text itself, rather than on the author's personal life or beliefs. Avoid making assumptions about the author's intentions or beliefs, and instead focus on the text's themes, characters, symbols, and structure.

Conclusion

Literary analysis is a way of closely reading a text to understand and evaluate it. It involves identifying and interpreting elements of the text like themes, characters, symbols, and structure, as well as the author's use of language and literary devices. Your eventual goal is to make a claim about an aspect of the text and use evidence from the text to support that claim. To write a good literary analysis, you should read the text closely, consider the literary and cultural context, and focus on the text, not the author.
That’s everything I’ve got for you for Unit 1! Hope you’ve learned a lot, and I wish you luck on your next Fiveable study guide adventure.
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