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Literary Analysis 101

Literary Analysis 101
Literary Analysis 101

I have taught literary analysis and criticism for over twenty years at a university here in San Antonio. Literary analysis is not as difficult as it may sound. The pleasure we get from our books can be magnified with a few easy steps.

  1. Think about the book from a number of different perspectives. Common critical approaches to take include historical (what does this work have to say about this particular time in history?), philosophical (what set of beliefs does this book assume or uphold?), social (what does this book say about marriage, family, or the individual in society?) political (what does this book say about class, race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, politics, or government?), and psychological (what does this book say about the inner workings of a character's mind?).

  2. Look for symbols. Symbols are something concrete--like a rose--that represent something abstract--like love. By listing objects, people, and/or events that may represent an idea, we can peel back more layers of a story.

  3. Search for multiple themes. Try to articulate in a full sentence a few different central themes you discover in the book. This will be made easier by doing numbers one and two first. Remember that different readers will find different themes; there is no right or wrong answer. It's interesting to compare what different readers see in the same story.

You can also think about the point of view, the setting, the characters, and the conflict and analyze each of them in isolation from the rest of the book.

For example, consider William Golding's Lord of the Flies. I'll use this book, because most of us had to read it in middle school or high school.

Looking at the book from a historical perspective would involve figuring out when and where the story takes place. Hints, like the mention of the "atom bomb," the "Home Counties," and "evacuation," suggest the boys were being evacuated during World War II. Readers might go a step further to see if Golding uses the novel to say anything about the war.

A philosophical approach would look carefully at what value system the novel upholds, which in the case of Golding's novel, seems firmly to be Christianity, particularly a Protestant brand that focuses on original sin. We could see the island as a kind of paradise where the boys fall from grace into a state of sin until they are "saved" at the end.

Unlike the philosophical perspective, a social approach would investigate the relationships between the boys. Is each boy obligated to help and to support the group? Do they create families, or units that operate like families? Does Ralph emerge as a father figure, or is it Jack? And does Piggy seem to become a mother figure for the littluns? What does the attack on the sow suggest about motherhood?

A political perspective has some things in common with a social approach, as they overlap, because they both involve analyzing the distribution of power. A class system becomes apparent in the novel, based on size. The biguns have the most power and the littluns the least. And while Ralph and Piggy institute the use of the conch to maintain democracy and order, Jack uses spears, face paint, and fear to impose his will and take over the island.

Psychologically speaking, we might look at the devolution the boys undergo from the time they land on the island to their rescue. In the beginning, they are orderly as they come up with rules and responsibilites and focus on building shelters and keeping a signal fire going. Eventually, they become wild and fearful and allow Jack to control them, even when Jack wants to kill Ralph. The book shows that the longer the boys are away from the socializing and conditioning forces of British society, the more beastly they become, suggesting that humans are natural beasts that need to be tamed psychologically by the institutions of society.

You could also analyze one of the characters, such as Simon, who many readers see as a Christ-like character, or Piggy, who seems like the voice of reason that is eventually squashed by the wild boys.

As you can see in my examples above, my attempt to describe the book from each of the critical approaches often includes a mention of symbol and theme. The three steps above are entertwined, so the process is less of a linear one and more of a recursive one.

In addition to symbols I've already mentioned (the conch, face paint, and the sow), the signal fire, the beastie, the spears, and the island itself seem to carry symbolic significance. You can already see how a number of themes can be gleaned from Golding's story.

A book club discussion can benefit from using these three easy steps to discuss a novel. If you'd like tips on how to start your own online book club, check out this post. You can also join my Facebook group to discuss my books in The Pohler Bear Lounge.

So there you have it. I hope this information will enrich your reading experience!

Btw, if you don't already own The Bookworm Bible--my fifty-page comprehensive guide for book lovers compiled from articles I've written over the years on topics such as "How to Overcome a Reading Slump" and "How to Write Easy Peasy Book Reviews" with free resources such as a printable reading log, review templates, and an online reading journal--grab your free copy here.


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