When asked to write a literary analysis, you will do more than simply summarize the piece of literature or text for your reader. This approach works for book reports, but when writing about literature, you are expected to establish an argument, which you will support with a series of claims (or mini-arguments) while persuading readers to agree with your overall analysis.  As you may notice, writing about literature uses similar techniques as an argumentative or persuasive paper.

In the introductory paragraph of your literary analysis, it’s important for you to introduce your reader to the story you are analyzing and give a brief statement or two about the central theme of the story. End that introduction paragraph with a statement or two that tells your reader what you have specifically analyzed within that story and what your conclusion of that analysis is. This final sentence or two is your thesis statement, and it should tell your reader the purpose and overall argument of your paper.

In your body paragraphs, you will support your claims about the significance of the story through your analysis of the literary elements in that story. In general, you can follow these steps for writing your body paragraphs:

1. Identifying the Conflict

When writing about literature, your readers want to understand what you think about the story and not a retelling of the plot. So, a good place to start is to ask yourself, “What do I think of this story?” In other words, identify the conflict in the story. 

For example, after one student read Proulx’s (1997) short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” she thought Ennis struggled with his identity as a gay man in a predominantly straight world.

Once the student understands her thoughts about the story and/or the main character(s), she can proceed with establishing a central argument that she will support with claims (or mini-arguments). This will be written in the third person voice, even though the ideas are generated by your own thinking and perspectives.

2. Drafting a Claim

To summarize is to take someone’s ideas and present them again in a more concise way. But to analyze means to reach your own conclusions about how the pieces of the text fit together to create something that may not be evident at first glance. For example, the student begins the following paragraph by asserting a claim that identifies the meaning of the conflict:

For Example

The character Ennis experiences an internal conflict that illustrates the shame he feels for living a life that is condemned by society. As a homosexual character during a time when homosexuality is seen as “unnatural” by the majority of society, Ennis has internalized this feeling of being unnatural and feels a conflict within himself of shame and unworthiness. 

3. Textual Support

In a literary analysis, once a writer establishes a claim about the work, the claim must be supported with evidence from the text. This is known as textual support. As a critical reader, it is important to identify excerpts that are effective as support for your claims.  In other words, find “scenes” or moments in the story that directly support your claim.

Here is an example of the student’s claim supported by paraphrased scenes from the text. This is also the place where, if required, you may incorporate evidence from outside research that also supports your claim.

For Example

The character Ennis experiences an internal conflict that illustrates the shame he feels for living a life that is condemned by society. As a homosexual character during a time when homosexuality is seen as “unnatural” by the majority of society, Ennis has internalized this feeling of being unnatural and feels a conflict within himself of shame and unworthiness. Even though Ennis loves his daughters very much, he pushes them away when he chooses not to see them for a long time after the Thanksgiving dinner with his ex-wife Alma and her new husband (Proulx, 1997). In another scene, his daughter Alma Jr. asks her father if she and her sister can come live with him, but Ennis tells her no, claiming that he is not home enough to take care of them, although this is not true (Proulx, 1997).

4.  The “So What?” Factor

The final step in developing a literary analysis is where you will show off your critical thinking skills by answering a simple but important question:  “So what?”  By revising your claim, read it aloud and ask yourself, “So what? Why is this claim important to our understanding of the human experience?”  At this point, you should be ready to discuss the significance of the piece of literature and how it relates to or illustrates life and the human experience. For example, notice how the writer answers the “So what?” factor and brings closure to the paragraph.

For Example

The character Ennis experiences an internal conflict that illustrates the shame he feels for living a life that is condemned by society. As a homosexual character during a time when homosexuality is seen as “unnatural” by the majority of society, Ennis has internalized this feeling of being unnatural and feels a conflict within himself of shame and unworthiness.  Even though Ennis loves his daughters very much, he pushes them away when he chooses not to see them for a long time after the Thanksgiving dinner with his ex-wife Alma and her new husband (Proulx, 1997). In another scene, his daughter Alma Jr. asks her father if she and her sister can come live with him, but Ennis tells her no, claiming that he is not home enough to take care of them, although this is not true (Proulx, 1997). From these two events in the story, it might seem as though Ennis is escaping the responsibilities of being a father. However, he does pay child support and he does want to keep up with their lives. While Ennis will take responsibility for being a father, he feels that he has to distance them from his own life. Ennis feels shame for loving the wrong person—a man. And because he continues to be part of something that is seen as “unnatural” by society, he does not feel that he deserves his daughters in his life or that he should be a role model for his daughters. It is his internal conflict of shame brought on by societal ideals that causes him to be so distant from his daughters.

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