Analyzing Literature

female doctor using ophthalmic magnifier with four lenses/ Analyzing Literature

Close reading analysis

There are aspects of Analyzing Literature that you can dissect without going too much into the complexities of literary criticism. Unless you’re studying literature at university. Lit students colloquially call zooming into the text and its basic characteristics close reading.

To write a good literature essay, you can also follow a simple structure:

  • Summarize the plot briefly.
  • Analyze characters – both how they behave and how they speak.
  • Identify literary elements (themes, specific symbols connecting themes and characters).
  • Analyze prose and literary techniques (Writing style, pov and tone)

The second part of the analysis is literary criticism:

  • Add a cultural context to your work (how did the public react to this body of work when it was published?)

Analyzing Characters in Literature

Let’s start with characters. Every book has them (and if not, there’s probably a reason for that, although these books are extremely rare and experimental), they make decisions, they cause chaos – what do we make of that?

Ask these questions for character analysis:

  • What’s their personality like?
  • How does the author and other characters describe them? – what do these descriptions tell us about the character in question and those describing them?
  • How do their surroundings affect them?
  • How are they similar or different from other characters, and what does this difference mean?
  • What are their main character traits, and when do we see them best?
  • How do their decisions impact the course of action/plot?
  • What development can you follow through the book?
  • What lessons has the character learned, and what can readers take from that?

When analyzing characters, don’t just describe – interpret! What does it mean that greed motivates the character? Is it social critique? Is it related to a particular time? What caused this, and what are the results of their actions?

Example: Let’s take Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice. She is curious, loves to read, definitely doesn’t have a problem with speaking her mind? Why? Well, she is the reflection and criticism of the society she grew up in – the one where women are meant to be seen, not heard. When she makes herself heard, she changes the world around her. Her youngest sisters, on the other hand, are rather shallow not just because it makes you cringe to read about them, but because Jane Austen is writing in mocking disapproval about the expectations society had of women – and the consequences thereof. (PS, this is where a bit of that new historicism approach comes in handy.)

Analyzing Theme in Literature

Each piece of work is centered on specific themes – there’s hardly a book that can cover everything ever invented. Although, if James Joyce had lived longer, there would probably be one. How do you analyze themes?

  • Consider the whole book. To locate specific themes, you have to read the book first – unlike characters where each situation brings something new, themes are only fully visible after reading the whole thing. Write down pivotal situations, dialogues, discussions to see what connects them.
  • Call back on character analysis. What do main characters have in common? Are they worried about relationships, work, the world at large? You’ll find lots of themes in the characters’ minds, often relating to love, success, morals, ideals, and envisioning of a better life for them.
  • What is the author obsessed with? Every author has a theme they like to go back to, either through key events and descriptions or separate discussions.

Example: The Handmaid’s Tale is a criticism of a totalitarian regime. Atwood tells us the torture handmaids go through and the flashback scenes of how the Gilead government was created. When June (let’s call her that after the show) describes the pictures on shop doors, it’s a reflection of the fact that women are not allowed to read in Gilead.

Control of knowledge in Atwood’s dystopia equals loss of freedoms and human rights, as well as the indoctrination women are subjected to especially since they have no access to ways of fighting oppression and totalitarianism. As you can see, this analysis, again, uses feminist theory to tie it together.

Analyzing Language in Literature

“It Speaks! What does it say?” Language analysis helps us determine what a writer is trying to convey, paying particular attention to word choice, tone, figurative language, and any linguistic devices.

Language can influence your analysis, especially in situations where you feel like something is off. The off sensation is called estrangement, and it’s meant to make you feel displaced in your reading experience in order to pay more attention to these specific instances.

A popular literary technique is Juxtaposition: the placement of two things side-by-side in order to reveal a contrast. Often times this contrast causes a physical, visceral reaction to the words further engaging the reader.

Example: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens,
“For some people, it’s the age of light, while for others, it’s the age of darkness.” This passage is perhaps the most famous example of juxtaposition in literature along with its opening line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Taylor Swift pays homage to Dickens in her lyric “It was the best of times, the worst of crimes” (Getaway Car from Reputation).

While talking about language, the way characters speak is also an interesting aspect to look at. Do they enrich their dialogue with flourishes, hedges, and epithets, or are they more likely to speak in curt, straightforward fashion? How about their grammar? Does this relate to their character?

Related: Animal Farm

Heteroglossia refers to a multiplicity of voices in literature. In other words, characters have their own ways of speaking, frequent clutch words, phrases, etc. Not only is this a quality of great literature, but it’s also revealing about characters themselves.

Example: Huckleberry Finn is basically illiterate, which is obvious from the moment he opens his mouth. However, when he saves a Black man from certain slavery and even death, Huck starts to wonder where racism comes from and whether it’s right to hate people based on their skin color (mind you, he lives in the pro-slavery South). What’s interesting is that a good deal of racism towards Black people is based on the outrageous presumption they are inferior to whites, and yet, Huck is the one who cannot read, let alone something else. Still, despite his lack of knowledge, he possesses the quality of spirit and the strong sense of justice that guides his actions. You go Huck!

Symbols in Literature

The problem with symbols is that they can be anything, and they can mean a ton of different things. Anna Karenina’s dress at the ball may mean one thing in that novel, but some other character wearing it in another book will mean a totally different thing. There are no shortcuts to analyzing symbols except for knowing that they never mean what they represent on the surface level.

Analyzing Literature. little red riding hood film
Amanda Seyfried as little red riding hood.

To make your quest easier, you can look out for surprisingly long descriptions of certain items, characters’ favorite accessories or toys, or simply repetitive things. All of them can carry a meaning you can only interpret within a given context.

Example: The green light in The Great Gatsby is an odd thing to be staring at every night. Due to its repetition, it’s clear that it’s a symbol, and once you’ve read the novel, you’ll be able to gauge the relation between the green light and Gatsby’s desire for what he cannot have. Always distant, always glowing – kinda like the grass, which is always greener on the other side.

The red color is, of course, the color of life and blood and “violent emotions”.

literary criticisms

Many scholars who all assumed they had the right idea about how to analyze literature gave rise to a series of “methods” or what we call “literary criticisms” (or even schools of thought).

Biographical Criticism

Biographical details can help us understand the broader context from which the author writes, even if it’s not that helpful in the analysis. For example, you won’t find the reason for Bukowski’s misogyny in his writings but in the fact that he grew up in an environment that perpetuates negative attitudes towards women.

Broad historical context is also related to authors’ biographies. For example, when Salman Rushdie writes about Saleem Sinai’s influence on the future of India, it bears knowing that he is referring to Indian independence and the following political turmoil that Saleem Sinai appropriates in his narrative.

The problem with this approach is that people assume that what authors write is a reflection of their personality, psyche, troubles, and doubts. Personal experiences can play a role in a writer’s work but it is not always a given. As a writer myself I can say with a certain level of authority that we often take inspiration from those around us. And even that is not a rule! Sometimes we simply make them up.

Genre and Period Approaches

Literary genres are even more numerous with realism, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, action and adventure, etc. Historical periods sometimes coincide with their genres – for example, romanticism refers both to a specific time when relevant works were written and the features of those works.


As its name suggests, post-structuralism rejects the notion that literature can be understood via a strict set of structures and rules. God bless post-structuralists, they had a good idea. However, this approach can only be successfully used on literature written from the twentieth century onward because writers tended to steal certain leitmotifs from one another before that.

Firstly, post-structuralist analysis denies the replicability of symbolisms – if the curtain is blue in Tolstoy’s novels, it may well mean something different in Adichie’s. It’s the context that decides the meaning rather than the other way around.

Another key aspect of post-structuralism is that language is not transparent in its relations to concepts, and it can be used to hide, deceive, and mislead, which is what these fine people very often did. Theirs is the view that what the author had wanted to say is not particularly important as the linguistic filtering may change the meaning – which is why we care more about what the author said to us specifically. Each reader brings their own experience of the world, previous readings, and personal bias into a text, reading it in a personal way.

Feminist and Queer Criticism

The twentieth century caused literary criticism to branch out into various social, political, and cultural directions. Feminist readings (and queer criticism that came out of them) focus on women’s writing, representation of women in literature, and the overall relation to cultural dominance of (white) male writing, patriarchy, and similar systems of oppression.

Examples of Literary Analysis

  • Pride and Prejudice

    Pride and Prejudice

    “Pride and Prejudice” is a classic novel written by Jane Austen, first published in 1813. The story is set in the early 19th century in the fictional town of Meryton, England. And it revolves around the Bennet family. The novel primarily follows the second eldest daughter, Elizabeth Bennet, as she navigates the complex world of…

  • And Then There Were None

    And Then There Were None

    And Then There Were None Agatha Christie first published her mystery novel, “And Then There Were None” in 1939. The novel inspired a mini-series and has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. It is Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel and also the world’s best-selling mystery. Summary The story begins with ten strangers who receive invitations…

  • The Catcher in the Rye

    The Catcher in the Rye

    The Catcher in the Rye “The Catcher in the Rye,” written by J.D. Salinger and published in 1951, follows the journey of Holden Caulfield. Holden is a troubled and disenchanted sixteen-year-old boy who has recently been expelled from his boarding school. And he is struggling to find his place in the world and is grappling…

  • Wuthering Heights

    Wuthering Heights

    Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë first published “Wuthering Heights”, her romance novel in 1847. The story unfolds in the wild and desolate moors of Yorkshire, England, where the Brontë sisters are from. And centers around the passionate and tumultuous love story of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. The romance is a literary classic for several reasons. First…

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