Analyzing Works of Literature


This brief introduction to literary analysis discusses the practice of  close reading and includes a brief glossary of major literary terms.


While they rarely ask the question out loud, students often wonder, “Why should we study literature?”  Many reasons have been given, but only recently have they involved scientific research. The following is from an article by Annie Murphy Paul published in Time magazine titled “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer”: Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. Paul goes on to say that This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.


To understand literature, you need to develop a critical vocabulary and set of skills to recognize the elements that distinguish individual works. This involves hard work, so it may at first be a lot less fun at first then picking up “escapist” works of the “you read it, you get it” kind that are great for killing time by amusing us or taking us for a while into a fantasy world. However, if you put the time and effort into it, the ability to read and really understand what the writers of serious literature are doing and what classifies their work as being of artistic value offers deep, long-lasting, profound pleasures of its own. It isn’t easy, and you are not going to become completely proficient in one semester, especially since in this class we focus on only one author.  However, if you commit yourself to the process this semester with the goal of actually learning something, you will have a good start at becoming a serious and critical reader of literature. 


Close Reading in Literature


To do a “close reading,” you choose a passage and analyze it in detail. Close reading is important because it is the building block for larger analysis. Your thoughts evolve not from someone else’s truth about the reading, but from your own observations. To begin your close reading, ask yourself several specific questions about the passage. The following questions are not a formula, but a starting point for your own thoughts. Also, when you develop theories about the meaning of objects and actions in stories and what they may mean in terms of themes, characterizations, and symbols, try to make sure that all the elements you theorize about fit together logically. Most people are more used to watching TV and seeing movies than they are to reading literature, and movies and TV shows tend to be formulaic, gimmicky, and melodramatic. Serious literature is not. Authors of literature are interested in seriously exploring the human condition.


The following questions are taken (with some minor modifications) from a handout by Dr. Katherine McKnight:


I. First Impressions


1.      What is the first thing you notice about the passage?

2.      What is the second thing?

3.      Do the two things you noticed complement each other? Or contradict each other?

4.      What mood does the passage create for you? Why?


II. Style, Diction, and Syntax


1.      Which words do you notice first? Why? Is there anything noteworthy about the writers or characters diction (word choice)?

2.      Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why?

3.      Do any words have double meanings? Do they have extra connotations?

4.      Are there words that you are unfamiliar with? (Be sure to look them up.)

5.      What is the syntax (sentence structure) like? 

6.      Look at the punctuation; is there anything unusual about it? What is the effect?


III. Identifying Patterns


1.      Does an image here remind you of an image elsewhere in the work? Where? Whats the connection?

2.      How might this image fit into the pattern of the work as a whole?

3.      Could this passage symbolize the entire work? Could this passage serve as a microcosm—a  little picture—of  whats taking place in the whole work?

4.      Is there any repetition within the passage? What is the effect of that repetition?

5.      How many types of writing are in the passage? (For example, narration, description, dialogue, etc.)

6.      What would you expect the author to talk about that is left out or avoided? Why do you think the author decided to avoid this?


IV. Point of View and Characterization


1.      How does the passage make us react or think about any characters or events within the narrative?

2.      Who speaks in the passage? To whom does he or she speak? Does the narrator have a limited or only partial point of view?


V. Imagery and Setting


1.      Are there colors, sounds, and other physical descriptions that appeal to the senses?

2.      Does this imagery form a pattern? (Why might the author have chosen that color, sound, or physical description?)

2.      What is the setting? How important is it to the story?
         (Sometimes the setting could be virtually anywhere, and it would not make a difference. It can also be vitally important.)


VI. Symbolism


1.      How might objects and events (sometimes even people) represent something else? 

2.      What meanings can we derive from these representations?

3.      How do these meanings support themes—the meanings found in a work?


VII. The Work as a Whole


Analyzing an entire short story involves both the close reading of passages but also thinking about the work as a whole. Authors make choices. An important way of getting meaning out of a work is to ask yourself about the impact made by an author’s choices.


1.      Do you notice anything unusual about the overall structure of the story?

2.      Is there exposition? Does it begin in media res (“in the midst of things”)?

3.  Is there a climax? Does it have a closed ending or an open ending?

4.  Are there extra spaces between any of the sections, diving the story into distinct parts? What is the impact of all of this?

5.     What is the point of view?  Is it in first person? Is it in third person? If so, is it objective, limited omniscient, omniscient or a mix?

5.     If it is in first person, what is the effect of having a character narrate the story instead of the author of the story?

6.      How would you describe the overall mood and atmosphere of the story?

7.      Does the author make use of ambiguity in the story? Irony?

8.      What conflicts are presented?

9.      Does the protagonist (or do the protagonists, if there are more than one) grow and change in the story?

10.    Does the protagonist (or protagonists, if more than one) have an epiphany?

11.    Or, if the author seems to be building up to the idea that a character should have an epiphany, does the character fail to do so?

12.    Are there elements of foreshadowing in the work?

13.    Ultimately, what do you think are the themes of the work?



Brief Glossary of Literary Terms


Allusion: An indirect reference to people, places, events, literary works, myths, works of art or other elements an author believes readers will recognize.  Many titles in literature come from allusions, such as Ray Bradburys short story I Sing the Body Electric, which is a line taken from Walt Whitmans collection of poems Leaves of Grass.


Ambiguity: Literary ambiguity refers to any wording, action, or symbol that can be read in different ways (have more than one possible meaning). A statement that can contain two or more possible meanings is another example of ambiguity. 

Antagonist: One who opposes a main character.  


Antecedent action: Events that happen before the ongoing events in a work. They are part of the past that happens to the characters before we meet them.


Atmosphere: The dominant feeling associated with a work or section of a work, created by diction, dialogue, setting, and description. Often the opening scene in a work establishes the atmosphere.  Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with mood, but many critics maintain that atmosphere is the emotional feeling produced by the settingphysical and sometimes emotional—of the work.


Characterization: The way an author presents the characters in a work. The author may tell us about a character or simply present his or her attributes through the character's thoughts and actions. 


Climax: The point of greatest tension in a plot; the moment in a literary work when the crisis—the  major turning point in the actionreaches its point of greatest emotional  intensity. (See conflict.)


Closed ending: An ending to a work where all of the details are wrapped up, leaving the reader knowing what happens to the characters and how conflicts are resolved.


Complication: A difficulty leading to the central actions in a narrative; an intensification of the conflict in a work. Complication builds up, accumulates, and develops the primary or central conflict in a literary work.


Conclusion: The ending of a literary work. A conclusion may have a closed or open ending. A closed ending ties up all the loose ends and provides a sense of resolution.  An open ending in a work involves the deliberate creation of suspense and uncertainty about important characters or events developed in the course of the work. 


Connotation: The emotional implications and associations that words may carry, as opposed to their literal (denotative) meanings.  Connotation depends on usage in a particular community or culture.  


Conflict: The opposition between two characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist), between two groups of people, or between the protagonist and a larger problem, such as forces of nature, traditions, prejudices, and so on. Conflict drives a plot. 


Denotation: The literal meaning of a word.


Dialogue: A conversation between two or more characters.


Diction: Vocabulary choice; the manner in which something is expressed in words.  (It contrasts with syntax, which is sentence structure.)  See the discussion of both diction and syntax and how they work together in the entry on syntax.


Dynamic character: A character who changes or evolves over the course of a narrative, in contrast with a static character. A dynamic character may experience an epiphany.


Epiphany: (Greek for “manifestation”). In modern fiction, drama, and poetry, this is the standard term for a sudden, usually profound, insight on the part of a character. An epiphany may be a revelation so powerful that it alters the world-view of the character who experiences it.


Explication: the process of analyzing a literary work in order to reveal its meaning.


Exposition: In literature, this is the introductory material that provides information about the situation, setting, characters, antecedent  action, and anything else necessary to further the audiences understanding.  It usually helps to set the tone of the work.  (This is in contrast with works that begin in media res, in the middle of things.)


First person: Point of view where a character in a work of fiction is narrating the events.


Flat character: A character without depth of personality and characterization. Flat characters are often stereotypical, as well. The term is used in contrast with a round character, who has psychological depth. A flat character is also very likely to be a static character.


Flashback: Scenes that occur before the ongoing action of a work.


Foreshadowing: Suggesting, hinting, indicating, or showing what will occur later in a narrative.


Imagery: The collection of images in a literary work—that is, anything that can be perceived by any of our senses, not just the visual.  Imagery is what we call the language used to describe what can be perceived by the senses. 


In media res: A term from the Roman poet Horace, literally meaning in the midst of things.  It is used when a work of literature begins in the middle of some action instead of beginning with exposition.


Irony: A term referring to how a person, situation, or statement, is not as it may seem; it may even be the opposite of what it initially appears to be. The three most common types of irony are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal irony occurs when the speaker means something different than what is said. Dramatic irony occurs when facts that are not known to characters are known by the audience, as when Othello refers to Iago, who hates him, as a good friend and really believes this to be true. Situational irony occurs when the final outcome of one or more actions is completely different from what was expected or intended, as when King Midas asks for—and gets—the power to turn anything he touches into gold. He expects to become even wealthier and happier than he already is, but he accidentally kills his beloved daughter and dies of thirst and starvation because everything he touches does, indeed, turn into solid gold.


Limited omniscient point of view: A type of third-person point of view where the author tells readers what one characters thinks or feels. The author may switch between different characters.  This is also known as selective omniscience.


Metaphor: A figure of speech (nonliteral language) in which two things are compared, usually by saying one thing is the other (love is a rose”) or by substituting one word or phrase for another (the President ran the ship of state right into an iceberg).


Mood: A feeling, emotional state, or disposition of mind. Most works of literature have a prevailing mood, but shifts in this mood may function as a counterpoint, provide comic relief, or echo changing events in the plot. Mood is also sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere, but many critics maintain that atmosphere is the emotional feeling produced by the settingphysical and sometimes emotional—of the work.


Motif: A conspicuous recurring element, such as a type of incident, an object, a reference, or a verbal formula, which appears frequently in works of literature. Often, writers create motifs in individual works in order to call attention to images, ideas, symbols, or objects  that may be particularly important to a works themes.  The term motif is also used outside of literature, for example, in music and architecture.


Narrator: The voice that speaks or tells a story.  (See “point of view.”)

Objective point of view: A type of third-person point of view where the author doesn’t tell readers what characters think or feel, but simply describes what characters do or say.

Omniscient point of view: A type of third-person point of view where the author tells readers what characters think or feel and can also describe actions happening at other places or times (omniscient means all knowing.)


Open ending: The ending of a film, novel, play, or short story where not everything is neatly wrapped up; there may be ambiguity.


Plot: The sequence of events in a narrative; what happens.


Point of view: The perspective from which a work is told. Some works are written in a first-person point of view, in which the narrator is a character in the work.  In third-person narratives, it is the author, not a character, who tells the story.  A third-person narrative can be omniscient, with the author revealing what every character thinks and feels; limited omniscient, where only one character at a time is so revealed; or objective, with no character’s thoughts or feelings revealed (we are only told what they say and do).


Protagonist: The chief character in a work.  The main character in a work may or may not be a sympathetic or admirable character. 


Round character: A character who is depicted with psychological depth. A round character contrasts with a flat character. A round character may also be dynamic, but not necessarily so.  (It is possible to do a compelling portrait of a realistic character who is not able to change and grow.)


Setting: Time and place of a literary work. 


Static character: A character who does not change or alter his or her personality over the course of a narrative.  A static character is contrasted with a dynamic character.


Structure: Organization or overall design of a work of literature.


Style: In its strictest sense, the idiosyncratic way in which a writer handles language (primarily diction and syntax).  Some critics use the term much more broadly to describe all the techniques used by a particular writer, such as tone, symbolism, imagery, etc. In this class, we will focus on the more specific meaning, the handling of language, including paragraphing.  


Syntax: Sentence structure. Syntax enhances the meanings found in prose and contributes to its tone. Features like a sense of decisiveness and speed are added to a text by using short phrases, clauses, and sentences.  In contrast, lengthy sentences are used to slow down the pace of a text.  In combination, syntax and diction help writers develop tone, mood, and atmosphere in a work, along with other elements. Contrast the syntax and diction in the following two passages. The first is from “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” by Angela Carter; the second is from “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver.


Behind wrought iron gates, a short, snowy drive performed a reticent flourish before a miniature, perfect, Palladian house that seemed to hide itself shyly behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress. It was almost night; that house, with its sweet, retiring melancholy grace, would have seemed deserted but for a light that flickered in an upstairs window, so vague it might have been the reflection of a star, if any stars could have penetrated the snow that whirled yet more thickly. Chilled through, he pressed the latch of the gate and saw, with a pang, how, on the withered ghost of a tangle of thorns, there clung, still, the faded rag of a white rose.

                                                            —Angela Carter


This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew.


                                                            —Raymond Carver


The differences in vocabulary (diction) and sentence structure (syntax) are quite obvious, and, even though you do may know the characters or plots of the two stories, you can easily see a difference in approach, tone, mood, and atmosphere.


Symbol: A word, place, character, or object that means something beyond what it is on a literal level. In literature, an object, a setting, or even a character can represent another, more general, idea, and these symbols help to develop theme.


Theme: A central idea, an abstract concept that is developed and manifested in a work.  The theme can take the form of a brief and meaningful insight, a comprehensive vision of life; or a single idea.  A theme is the author's way of communicating and sharing ideas, perceptions, and feelings with readers, and it may be directly stated in the work, or it may be only implied. 


Third person: Point of view where the narrator is the author, not a character in a work of fiction.  An omniscient third-person narrator knows everything and can tell us the thoughts and feelings of all characters as well as any events transpiring anywhere. The limited, or selective, omniscient narrator focuses on one or only a few characters, though such a narrator may focus on different characters at different points in the text. An objective third-person narrator only describes what happens and what people say—the reader is not told what people think or feel.


Tone: The attitudes toward the subject and the audience implied by the writer in a literary work or film.  Tone may be melancholy, formal, intimate, angry, serious, ironic, outraged, optimistic, pessimistic, etc.  The tone can be at odds with the subject matter. For instance, Stanley Kubricks classic satirical film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is about nuclear proliferation and finishes with the entire world about to be destroyed, but the tone throughout is highly comic.