Literary Analysis Tips In a Glossary of Analytical Terms

Note: The astute reader will soon realize that these notes first were directed toward a class reading Hawthorne short stories. I have attempted to generalize their advice for use when analyzing a variety of authors in a variety of eras. This is intended to be no more than an introduction to the craft of literary analysis, but we’ve got to start somewhere. These tips presume from the outset that the reader is familiar with the "newswriting" test for what constitutes a genuine insight which could be the thesis of a paper: "Dog bites man…that’s not news; man bites dog…now that’s news!" Understanding what all experienced readers expect to find ("Dog bites man") allows one to detect what surprises them, what they don’t expect ("Man bites dog").

character construction:

        Unlike people, literary characters are constructed out of very brief bits of information which readers are expected to use, like detectives, to fill out the missing parts. It's much like meeting a stranger at a party and using the stranger's clothing, vocabulary, taste in music, and a few bits of information to imagine her/his whole personality. We usually do it unconsciously, but close reading asks exactly how the author uses those little scraps of text to "paint" the character. Figuring out how an easy-to-miss detail of character makes a big difference in the story, and if you tell us more than the narrator does, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        Novelist E.M. Forster suggested that we could distinguish between "round" and "flat" characters (Aspects of the Novel, 1927). Round characters are more fully represented, and seem as complex as real people, a mixture of good and bad traits. They can grow, learn, and even mature from children into adulthood during the plot, and they also can feel pain or joy which the audience tends to empathize with rather than feeling distanced from their emotions. Explaining how a character evolves, if you tell us more than the narrator does, can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        Flat characters usually are suggested to us with less information, often drawing upon common prejudices which many readers can be depended on to hold. Flat characters don't grow or learn more than simple bits of information, and they never mature. Cartoons like the "Roadrunner and Coyote" series are composed entirely of flat characters which never change their basic rules of behavior from work to work. Explaining why an author would use a flat character, often for comic effect, if you tell us more than the narrator does, can be a genuine insight because it's "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        Some kinds of famous, usually ancient "flat" characters are called "type" characters, in that they serve as enduring models for character construction. Adam and Eve, the trickster and the fool, the braggart soldier and the jealous old man, all have a long history of reappearing in the dress and customs of later eras. Literary uses of type characters sometimes involves "allusion" (q.v.), in which the reader is alerted to the "type" lurking in the background of the current character's makeup by a seemingly chance association of the character with a famous fable or published work of literature (e.g., a bank robber, overcome with pity, gives money to a starving neighbor who says he's "just like Robin Hood"). That leads us to look for further parallels between the type character's allusive double and other parts of the tale (is the robber pursued by a corrupt "Sheriff of Nottingham"? will the robber love a beautiful aristocratic lady? will the robber become involved in the return to power of a famous and good political leader?). The author's play with those other types may reverse some expectations (maybe the politician isn't so good and the robber has to become the leader) but we still can generate an insight from that difference because it's unexpected, i.e., "NEWS," "man bites dog."


        Plots are the sequence of events in the story, the who did and said what to whom. They might not be told in the order in which they happened (chronological order), but instead there might be "flashbacks" or "flashforwards" to introduce past memories or future predictions. It's extremely important to remember the facts of the plot accurately. Making a short plot outline can be a great aid to your analysis of any narrative. Plots inevitably leave out some of what happens in the pattern of a real, lived life, often ignoring things like breathing, scratching one's head, thinking about one's grandfather, etc. However, the pattern of events that remains, when the "non-essential" elements are left out, may contain important patterns of repetition, sometimes called "themes." For instance, the plot of a famous chivalric romance depends on a knight's repeated vision of a fantastic floating drinking vessel and his failure (at first) to ask an important question about it. (It turns out to be the Holy Grail.) Sometimes, authors reverse our expectations and make one of those apparently "non-essential" ordinary behaviors into the key to understanding the plot. Alfred Hitchcock's movies often make extraordinary use of ordinary acts, as in the champagne party in Notorious: the good guy is in the wine cellar looking for the Nazi host's secret, and the Nazi host is conferring with the bartender about the champagne supply, which is running low, when Hitchcock himself appears in the scene to snatch a glass of champagne from the passing waiter's tray.  At other times, authors play one repeated theme against another, letting one triumph at the end. If you can explain how this happens, if you tell us more than the narrator does, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

point of view:

        Stories have tellers, and that teller sets up the readers' "point of view." If the teller is a character, telling the reader about something that happened to her/him, then the narrative is said to be "first person" ("I did this") and the reader must rely on the accuracy, insight, and truthfulness of the narrator. Unreliable narrators are common. They may be too young, too inexperienced, or even too malicious to make full sense of their experiences, but the talented author often gives the reader ample clues with which to construct what probably is going on. That, too, is an insight because it's unexpected, i.e., "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        The most common point of view is not first-person, but third person, usually "third person omniscient." That is, characters are referred to in "third person," as "he" and "she" by some unseen, usually anonymous narrator. If it's an "omniscient" narrator, s/he will be able to tell us things going on in characters' minds that the characters don't reveal by word or deed, and the narrator will be able to predict the future or reveal past events unknown to the characters. If the third-person narration comments on the narrative, encouraging us to judge characters or events, it can have a powerful effect on how we interpret them. Some narrators are extremely straight-forward, never revealing any emotional response or intellectual stance with respect to the events. More commonly, though, narrators will urge us to think or feel things. Some simply tell us (e.g., "and that was a nasty thing for Bob to have done...") but that's not considered good style in most modern literature. More commonly, the narrator influences us by the use of ambiguity or irony (q.v.). If you can reveal to us some pattern in the narrator's attempt to influence us, and if you tell us more than the narrator does, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        A less often used point of view is second-person, "you walk in the door and...," most recently used in a best-selling novel from 1984 called Bright Lights, Big City, by Bruce McInerny (816 M1522Jb).  The "you" address has many disadvantages, among them its rarity, which constantly draws attention to itself and away from the story.  However, it also puts the reader into a marvelously ambiguous relationship with the narrator's authority, compromised, as it were, by the intimate mood of the "you" address but continually surprised by what "you" have been up to.

setting and scene construction:

        Like character, setting can be evoked by relatively few details out of the whole that would be available in a comprehensive report by a geologist, an architect, a historian, etc. Writers select specific elements of the place for the associations they predict we will imagine when we see them on the page. These elements can include the landscape, plants and animals, buildings, and persons, but they also can include the time of day, year, or era. For instance, consider our associations with the following settings: a tiny, gleaming, pearl-handled automatic on a frilly bedside table in a darkened Manhattan penthouse apartment on the night World War II ended; a brown-feathered bird dropping suddenly from the blue sky over a thriving Roman city on the shores of the Mediterranean just below a volcano whose smoke plume has come to resemble a dark pine tree; four gift-wrapped boxes at the back of a closet filled with heavy coats and boots in a suburban American house on December 20, 1999. Setting establishes a range of possible events that we know might occur in such a place to a range of possible character types we know often are found in such a place: the beautiful wife of a stockbroker and the man in the elevator who expects to rob her; the Roman-era street kid. his loyal dog, and the other doomed citizens of Pompei; or maybe you and your sibling(s) about to discover where the presents were hidden. Sometimes the cumulative effects of setting details can be hard to remember, though they may have enormous effects on our expectations. If you can show how some pattern of things in the setting influences our interpretation of the work, and if you tell us more than the narrator does, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        Scenes are the events which occur in a setting, and they are the basic sub-units of the plot (q.v.). Often, changes of setting coincide with changes of scene, but if we follow a character from one setting to the next in one continuous action, it might be considered a single "scene." Scenes are constructed by the author's combination of characters, setting, action, and narration. At the level of scene, the author's manipulation of these four elements of the story can be extremely subtle and important to our interpretation of the work. Sometimes one scene may repeat details from another scene (two robberies, two weddings, two funerals), or two scenes may be opposites (a birth and a death, a fraud and an act of charity, a story being written and a reader reading it). If you can show a pattern in the scene construction that influences our interpretation of the work, and if you tell us more than the narrator does, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

ambiguity and irony:

        Ambiguity occurs whenever words (or events) are discovered to contain more than one meaning. Authors use ambiguity constructively (as opposed to accidental errors of ambiguity) when they cause interpretive tension in readers by allowing them to realize that either meaning of the word (or outcome of the event) might be meant. Usually, well-used ambiguity is resolved. That is, the true meaning (or outcome) is revealed by some means, often near the end of the narrative. Sometimes, however, a pattern of ambiguity can emerge (either in word usage or in events) which the author leaves unresolved as a kind of statement about the relations between the two (or three or more?) kinds of thing that might be meant. If you can demonstrate the existence of a pattern of ambiguity, explain how it affects the reader, and suggest a reason why the author might have done this, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

        Irony is intended when characters say less than they mean (also called "understatement") or say something other than they mean (in extreme cases, called "sarcasm"), while indicating by word choice or the context that something else is true. The context includes the setting, action, characters, and point of view. For instance, if a police officer asks a captured bank robber if he was "making a little withdrawal," he understates the significance of the way the thief took money from a bank. If he asks the thief if he'd like a receipt for the recovered money, the officer is headed over the line from irony into sarcasm, mainly because the intention is to insult the character who hears it. Sarcasm also tends to exaggerate irony's shift of intended meaning, as when your parents ask you if, by leaving the door open too long, if you "intend to heat the whole state of Maryland." An ironic parent might have asked if you were feeling feverish.

        "Dramatic irony" occurs when authors construct scenes in which characters do things which mean things the characters cannot anticipate, but which the audience can understand because of clues in the work's context, or by allusion to other works. For instance, if one of the children who discovers the presents in the closet is named Pandora, and if she opens a present that appears beautiful, we might suspect the present will be dangerous to all the children forever because of the irony of her name's allusion to the Greek myth. If you can detect ambiguity or irony where the typical reader might miss it, perhaps because they don’t detect the context that renders it ambiguous or ironic, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."


        An author alludes when the text refers to another text (literary allusion) or to some other famous event, person, etc. Allusion may appear to be playing a game of cultural awareness with its readers, quizzing the reader on obscure topics. However, this strategy actually is an ancient mnemonic (remembering) device which is used to bring to mind very complex relationships between the tale being told and previous tales (or events, etc.). Authors can allude overtly (by naming the author or work or event to which they refer) or covertly (by giving only clues without naming the target). Allusion benefits the more experienced and careful reader at the expense of the novice, so many student readers are suspicious of it as a "trick" or something the author really didn't intend (esp. covert or "tacit" allusion). Only experience and practice can tune the reader's ability to respond to allusion with an appropriate association. Some authors provide a "ladder" of allusion, beginning with covert clues for experienced readers (e.g., the Garden setting of "Rappaccini's Daughter" or the Dante references) and leading to overt allusion that explains the relationship for all (i.e., it's an "Eden," however Rappaccini is not the Adam, but the ruined "Creator," and the girl is indeed Beatrice, but her death will not "lead" this "Dante" to any "Paradise"). If you can detect an allusion and explain how it might function to produce a new interpretive context that makes meaning from the story, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

images and symbols:

        Images are (strictly speaking) visual descriptions that may be used to construct character or setting, but which also may be repeated in "themes," or repeated sequences, often associated with the same person, place, action, or idea. The word "image" also is used figuratively for any sensory detail (e.g., sound, taste, touch, smell) and those details also may occur in "image patterns" or "themes."

        Literary symbols are like allusions concentrated in a single image, action, thing, or person. Like allusions, symbols are hard for beginning readers to discover and to use in analysis, but with practice it becomes easier to spot them and to argue for their existence. For instance, we might see many crossed lines in a movie, as in two streets or an intersection of telephone wires, but if the "X" form is properly oriented and strikingly (or repeatedly) emphasized by its position in a shot (e.g., a shadow projected upon the hero's body) it might be a symbol of The Cross and the director might mean character involved to be interpreted as a Jesus-like figure. However, readers would have to be persuaded of this by some crucial support from the plot (e.g., characters discussing the figure's "sacrifice" or "betrayal," etc.). A mere visual similarity is not sufficient to establish the likelihood of an extremely unlikely "symbol."

        Some famous, often-used European mythic symbols include the wheel spun by the Roman goddess Fortuna (blind chance, Fate), the spider's web (cunning, traps, offensive strategy), the Cretan labyrinth (human ingenuity, defensive strategy, containment of animal nature), the world-tree (holding heaven and earth together), the river (time, change, death), the mountain (challenge, excellence, isolation). [Many of these images are given their most common symbolic context in the Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet, Ovid.] All cultures have their own symbol systems, however, and readers always have to consider the cultural setting of the tale, the author's culture, and the implied reader's culture. If you can detect a thematic image system or symbol that is used consistently by the author to make a link between the story and some important idea, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

binary oppositions:

        The school of analysis called "Structuralism" (1930s-1950s) sought to identify "deep structures" in cultural artifacts, enormous but subtle relationships that organized their operation by allowing the human players to make choices between mutually exclusive alternatives. That is, a thing must be either one or another without ambiguity. For instance, in most religions there is a tradition of the sacred and the profane or the clean and the polluted. Science/Nature, Earthly/Heavenly, Earthly/Intellectual, Legal/Criminal and Masculine/Feminine are some other typical binary oppositions found in Western European literature. Since culture establishes and defines the meaning of such oppositions, you must be careful to establish what culture governs in the story. Often authors achieve complications or surprises by intentionally setting up collisions between cultures with differing notions of how to establish or define the meaning of such binary oppositions (see "dramatic structure and the sense of an ending" below). If you can demonstrate that the tale works as it does because of its use of (or subversion of) such a binary opposition, and if you can say what the author intends to tell us about that cultural construction, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

dramatic structure and the sense of an ending:

        Any plot can be subdivided into scenes or sequences of action, much like the functional parts of a paper, but custom-made to suit the purposes of the fiction rather than the more traditional steps in persuasive non-fiction. Characters must be introduced, problems must be invented for the characters to solve, complications must develop, surprises may appear, and some kind of resolution usually occurs. Inventive authors often play with readers' expectations that these typical elements of the dramatic structure will occur in predictable ways, and the authors try to trick readers by foiling one or more of those expectations. For instance, a character may be introduced in an ambiguous way which we may not be aware of until we are surprised by the revelation at the end. Italo Calvino's short story, "Meiosis," for instance, is narrated by a passionate lover who describes his beloved for several pages until we suddenly are told he's a camel. Some plots are intentionally left unresolved with the intention of provoking a debate about the issues involved, and some problems may turn out to be falsely represented. For instance, Huck Finn has a famous debate with himself about the ethics of lying to slave hunters to protect Jim, a lie which he fears will damn him to Hell and which he enthusiastically apologizes for telling, much to the post-slavery-readers' moral discomfort. Endings may be comic (surprise results in restoration of order and/or salvation of endangered characters), tragic (surprise results in disorder and/or destruction of characters with which readers sympathize), satiric (apparent results are praised or condemned though readers know they should be judged otherwise). If your careful analysis of the dramatic structure and/or the author’s management of the tale’s ending reveals a strategy at work that is not immediately apparent to the reader and that affects what the author intends the tale to mean, it can be a genuine insight because it's unexpected, "NEWS," "man bites dog."

validity in interpretation:

        The most difficult thing for beginning literature analysts to determine is how to distinguish a good interpretation from a bad one, and an excellent one from a merely good one. This task is made easier if you understand why we analyze literature instead of merely reading it for pleasure or information like the typical non-specialist reader. Generally speaking, most literature papers attempt to describe how the text works for the reader and/or why the author intended it to work that way. An interpretive literature paper persuades best when it accounts for more major elements of a text working like they do, and when it requires the least number of exceptions. Literature analysis theses also are more persuasive if they resemble what the author does in other works.

        When an author produces more than one work, the author's personal style tends to shape what s/he would or would not do when making the many choices faced by a writer. If you think you have found in "My Kinsman..." clues to Hawthorne's personal style, the rules he used to guide his creative process, you can test them by looking for similar strategies in "Rappaccinni's Daughter" or "Young Goodman Brown." The analytical principle you are following is that an analysis or interpretation of a work of literature which also makes sense of other works by the same author is more likely to be true (and therefore more persuasive) than one which works only for that one work. The converse of that principle also is valuable to keep in mind. If interpretations require premises or lead to conclusions which would be impossible when applied to the author's other works--those analyses/interpretations are extremely unlikely (and therefore unpersuasive).

        These two principles also can be applied to circumstances in other disciplines which closely resemble artistic creation: a single agent intentionally creates a series of things according to rules (vs. pure chance). For instance, a political leader's solutions to a series of crises might reveal a pattern which indicates a personal style (e.g., Saddam Hussein's use of "probing" to dissolve the U.N. coalition against Iraq). These principles also can guide research into living things which can be considered "creations" (whether of a deity or natural selection). A micro-organism which reproduces in one circumstance but not in anther probably has genetic relatives which also follow that rule. Applying the "creator's style" principles becomes more difficult when the decisions are not rational or are made by entities which deliberately break rules. The television viewing habits of American males between 18 and 29 may predict their buying habits, but they also may be irrational. Of course, authors, too, may be irrational and may delight in breaking rules, so be careful!

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        For a glossary including more specific critical terms related to the study of medieval, renaissance and early modern English literature (i.e., English 211), click here.  Any of the terms in that list might be used to describe an unexpected insight about a work that becomes "NEWS" you can deliver to your reader.