The Literary Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide
When you read for pleasure, your only goal is enjoyment. You might find yourself reading to get caught up in an exciting story, to learn about an interesting time or place, or just to pass time. Maybe you’re looking for inspiration, guidance, or a reflection of your own life. There are as many different, valid ways of reading a book as there are books in the world.
When you read a work of literature in an English class, however, you’re being asked to read in a special way: you’re being asked to perform literary analysis. To analyze something means to break it down into smaller parts and then examine how those parts work, both individually and together. Literary analysis involves examining all the parts of a novel, play, short story, or poem—elements such as character, setting, tone, and imagery—and thinking about how the author uses those elements to create certain effects.
A literary essay isn’t a book review: you’re not being asked whether or not you liked a book or whether you’d recommend it to another reader. A literary essay also isn’t like the kind of book report you wrote when you were younger, where your teacher wanted you to summarize the book’s action. A high school- or college-level literary essay asks, “How does this piece of literature actually work?” “How does it do what it does?” and, “Why might the author have made the choices he or she did?”
The Seven Steps
No one is born knowing how to analyze literature; it’s a skill you learn and a process you can master. As you gain more practice with this kind of thinking and writing, you’ll be able to craft a method that works best for you. But until then, here are seven basic steps to writing a well-constructed literary essay:
- 1. Ask questions
- 2. Collect evidence
- 3. Construct a thesis
- 4. Develop and organize arguments
- 5. Write the introduction
- 6. Write the body paragraphs
- 7. Write the conclusion
1. Ask Questions
When you’re assigned a literary essay in class, your teacher will often provide you with a list of writing prompts. Lucky you! Now all you have to do is choose one. Do yourself a favor and pick a topic that interests you. You’ll have a much better (not to mention easier) time if you start off with something you enjoy thinking about. If you are asked to come up with a topic by yourself, though, you might start to feel a little panicked. Maybe you have too many ideas—or none at all. Don’t worry. Take a deep breath and start by asking yourself these questions:
What struck you? Did a particular image, line, or scene linger in your mind for a long time? If it fascinated you, chances are you can draw on it to write a fascinating essay.
What confused you? Maybe you were surprised to see a character act in a certain way, or maybe you didn’t understand why the book ended the way it did. Confusing moments in a work of literature are like a loose thread in a sweater: if you pull on it, you can unravel the entire thing. Ask yourself why the author chose to write about that character or scene the way he or she did and you might tap into some important insights about the work as a whole.
Did you notice any patterns? Is there a phrase that the main character uses constantly or an image that repeats throughout the book? If you can figure out how that pattern weaves through the work and what the significance of that pattern is, you’ve almost got your entire essay mapped out.
Did you notice any contradictions or ironies? Great works of literature are complex; great literary essays recognize and explain those complexities. Maybe the title Happy Days totally disagrees with the book’s subject matter (hungry orphans dying in the woods). Maybe the main character acts one way around his family and a completely different way around his friends and associates. If you can find a way to explain a work’s contradictory elements, you’ve got the seeds of a great essay.
At this point, you don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to say about your topic; you just need a place to begin your exploration. You can help direct your reading and brainstorming by formulating your topic as a question, which you’ll then try to answer in your essay. The best questions invite critical debates and discussions, not just a rehashing of the summary. Remember, you’re looking for something you can prove or argue based on evidence you find in the text. Finally, remember to keep the scope of your question in mind: is this a topic you can adequately address within the word or page limit you’ve been given? Conversely, is this a topic big enough to fill the required length?
“Are Romeo and Juliet’s parents responsible for the deaths of their children?”
“Why do pigs keep showing up in Lord of the Flies?”
“Are Dr. Frankenstein and his monster alike? How?”
“What happens to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?”
“What do the other characters in Julius Caesar think about Caesar?”
“How does Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter remind me of my sister?”
2. Collect Evidence
Once you know what question you want to answer, it’s time to scour the book for things that will help you answer the question. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to say yet—right now you’re just collecting ideas and material and letting it all percolate. Keep track of passages, symbols, images, or scenes that deal with your topic. Eventually, you’ll start making connections between these examples and your thesis will emerge.
Here’s a brief summary of the various parts that compose each and every work of literature. These are the elements that you will analyze in your essay, and which you will offer as evidence to support your arguments. For more on the parts of literary works, see the Glossary of Literary Terms at the end of this section.
Elements of Story
These are the whats of the work—what happens, where it happens, and to whom it happens.
- Plot: All of the events and actions of the work.
- Character: The people who act and are acted upon in a literary work. The main character of a work is known as the protagonist.
- Conflict: The central tension in the work. In most cases, the protagonist wants something, while opposing forces (antagonists) hinder the protagonist’s progress.
- Setting: When and where the work takes place. Elements of setting include location, time period, time of day, weather, social atmosphere, and economic conditions.
- Narrator: The person telling the story. The narrator may straightforwardly report what happens, convey the subjective opinions and perceptions of one or more characters, or provide commentary and opinion in his or her own voice.
- Themes: The main ideas or messages of the work—usually abstract ideas about people, society, or life in general. A work may have many themes, which may be in tension with one another.
Elements of Style
These are the hows—how the characters speak, how the story is constructed, and how language is used throughout the work.
- Structure and organization: How the parts of the work are assembled. Some novels are narrated in a linear, chronological fashion, while others skip around in time. Some plays follow a traditional three-or five-act structure, while others are a series of loosely connected scenes. Some authors deliberately leave gaps in their works, leaving readers to puzzle out the missing information. A work’s structure and organization can tell you a lot about the kind of message it wants to convey.
- Point of view: The perspective from which a story is told. In first-person point of view, the narrator involves him or herself in the story. (“I went to the store”; “We watched in horror as the bird slammed into the window.”) A first-person narrator is usually the protagonist of the work, but not always. In third-person point of view, the narrator does not participate in the story. A third-person narrator may closely follow a specific character, recounting that individual character’s thoughts or experiences, or it may be what we call an omniscient narrator. Omniscient narrators see and know all: they can witness any event in any time or place and are privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of all characters. Remember that the narrator and the author are not the same thing!
- Diction: Word choice. Whether a character uses dry, clinical language or flowery prose with lots of exclamation points can tell you a lot about his or her attitude and personality.
- Syntax: Word order and sentence construction. Syntax is a crucial part of establishing an author’s narrative voice. Ernest Hemingway, for example, is known for writing in very short, straightforward sentences, while James Joyce characteristically wrote in long, incredibly complicated lines.
- Tone: The mood or feeling of the text. Diction and syntax often contribute to the tone of a work. A novel written in short, clipped sentences that use small, simple words might feel brusque, cold, or matter-of-fact.
- Imagery: Language that appeals to the senses, representing things that can be seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched.
- Figurative language: Language that is not meant to be interpreted literally. The most common types of figurative language are metaphors and similes, which compare two unlike things in order to suggest a similarity between them— for example, “All the world’s a stage,” or “The moon is like a ball of green cheese.” (Metaphors say one thing is another thing; similes claim that one thing is like another thing.)
3. Construct a Thesis
When you’ve examined all the evidence you’ve collected and know how you want to answer the question, it’s time to write your thesis statement. A thesis is a claim about a work of literature that needs to be supported by evidence and arguments. The thesis statement is the heart of the literary essay, and the bulk of your paper will be spent trying to prove this claim. A good thesis will be:
- Arguable. “The Great Gatsby describes New York society in the 1920s” isn’t a thesis—it’s a fact.
- Provable through textual evidence. “Hamlet is a confusing but ultimately very well-written play” is a weak thesis because it offers the writer’s personal opinion about the book. Yes, it’s arguable, but it’s not a claim that can be proved or supported with examples taken from the play itself.
- Surprising. “Both George and Lenny change a great deal in Of Mice and Men” is a weak thesis because it’s obvious. A really strong thesis will argue for a reading of the text that is not immediately apparent.
- Specific. “Dr. Frankenstein’s monster tells us a lot about the human condition” is almost a really great thesis statement, but it’s still too vague. What does the writer mean by “a lot”? How does the monster tell us so much about the human condition?
Good Thesis Statements
Question: In Romeo and Juliet, which is more powerful in shaping the lovers’ story: fate or foolishness?
Thesis: “Though Shakespeare defines Romeo and Juliet as ‘star- crossed lovers’ and images of stars and planets appear throughout the play, a closer examination of that celestial imagery reveals that the stars are merely witnesses to the characters’ foolish activities and not the causes themselves.”
Question: How does the bell jar function as a symbol in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar?
Thesis: “A bell jar is a bell-shaped glass that has three basic uses: to hold a specimen for observation, to contain gases, and to maintain a vacuum. The bell jar appears in each of these capacities in The Bell Jar, Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, and each appearance marks a different stage in Esther’s mental breakdown.”
Question: Would Piggy in The Lord of the Flies make a good island leader if he were given the chance?
Thesis: “Though the intelligent, rational, and innovative Piggy has the mental characteristics of a good leader, he ultimately lacks the social skills necessary to be an effective one. Golding emphasizes this point by giving Piggy a foil in the charismatic Jack, whose magnetic personality allows him to capture and wield power effectively, if not always wisely.”
4. Develop and Organize Arguments
The reasons and examples that support your thesis will form the middle paragraphs of your essay. Since you can’t really write your thesis statement until you know how you’ll structure your argument, you’ll probably end up working on steps 3 and 4 at the same time.
There’s no single method of argumentation that will work in every context. One essay prompt might ask you to compare and contrast two characters, while another asks you to trace an image through a given work of literature. These questions require different kinds of answers and therefore different kinds of arguments. Below, we’ll discuss three common kinds of essay prompts and some strategies for constructing a solid, well-argued case.
Types of Literary Essays
Compare and contrast
Compare and contrast the characters of Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Chances are you’ve written this kind of essay before. In an academic literary context, you’ll organize your arguments the same way you would in any other class. You can either go subject by subject or point by point. In the former, you’ll discuss one character first and then the second. In the latter, you’ll choose several traits (attitude toward life, social status, images and metaphors associated with the character) and devote a paragraph to each. You may want to use a mix of these two approaches—for example, you may want to spend a paragraph apiece broadly sketching Huck’s and Jim’s personalities before transitioning into a paragraph or two that describes a few key points of comparison. This can be a highly effective strategy if you want to make a counterintuitive argument—that, despite seeming to be totally different, the two objects being compared are actually similar in a very important way (or vice versa). Remember that your essay should reveal something fresh or unexpected about the text, so think beyond the obvious parallels and differences.
Choose an image—for example, birds, knives, or eyes—and trace that image throughout Macbeth.
Sounds pretty easy, right? All you need to do is read the play, underline every appearance of a knife in Macbeth, and then list them in your essay in the order they appear, right? Well, not exactly. Your teacher doesn’t want a simple catalog of examples. He or she wants to see you make connections between those examples—that’s the difference between summarizing and analyzing. In the Macbeth example above, think about the different contexts in which knives appear in the play and to what effect. In Macbeth, there are real knives and imagined knives; knives that kill and knives that simply threaten. Categorize and classify your examples to give them some order. Finally, always keep the overall effect in mind. After you choose and analyze your examples, you should come to some greater understanding about the work, as well as your chosen image, symbol, or phrase’s role in developing the major themes and stylistic strategies of that work.
Is the society depicted in 1984 good for its citizens?
In this kind of essay, you’re being asked to debate a moral, ethical, or aesthetic issue regarding the work. You might be asked to judge a character or group of characters (Is Caesar responsible for his own demise?) or the work itself (IsJane Eyrea feminist novel?). For this kind of essay, there are two important points to keep in mind. First, don’t simply base your arguments on your personal feelings and reactions. Every literary essay expects you to read and analyze the work, so search for evidence in the text. What do characters in 1984 have to say about the government of Oceania? What images does Orwell use that might give you a hint about his attitude toward the government? As in any debate, you also need to make sure that you define all the necessary terms before you begin to argue your case. What does it mean to be a “good” society? What makes a novel “feminist”? You should define your terms right up front, in the first paragraph after your introduction.
Second, remember that strong literary essays make contrary and surprising arguments. Try to think outside the box. In the 1984 example above, it seems like the obvious answer would be no, the totalitarian society depicted in Orwell’s novel is not good for its citizens. But can you think of any arguments for the opposite side? Even if your final assertion is that the novel depicts a cruel, repressive, and therefore harmful society, acknowledging and responding to the counterargument will strengthen your overall case.
5. Write the Introduction
Your introduction sets up the entire essay. It’s where you present your topic and articulate the particular issues and questions you’ll be addressing. It’s also where you, as the writer, introduce yourself to your readers. A persuasive literary essay immediately establishes its writer as a knowledgeable, authoritative figure.
An introduction can vary in length depending on the overall length of the essay, but in a traditional five-paragraph essay it should be no longer than one paragraph. However long it is, your introduction needs to:
- Provide any necessary context. Your introduction should situate the reader and let him or her know what to expect. What book are you discussing? Which characters? What topic will you be addressing?
- Answer the “So what?” question. Why is this topic important, and why is your particular position on the topic noteworthy? Ideally, your introduction should pique the reader’s interest by suggesting how your argument is surprising or otherwise counterintuitive. Literary essays make unexpected connections and reveal less-than-obvious truths.
- Present your thesis. This usually happens at or very near the end of your introduction.
- Indicate the shape of the essay to come. Your reader should finish reading your introduction with a good sense of the scope of your essay as well as the path you’ll take toward proving your thesis. You don’t need to spell out every step, but you do need to suggest the organizational pattern you’ll be using.
Your introduction should not:
- Be vague. Beware of the two killer words in literary analysis: interesting and important. Of course the work, question, or example is interesting and important—that’s why you’re writing about it!
- Open with any grandiose assertions. Many student readers think that beginning their essays with a flamboyant statement such as, “Since the dawn of time, writers have been fascinated with the topic of free will,” makes them sound important and commanding. You know what? It actually sounds pretty amateurish.
- Wildly praise the work. Another typical mistake student writers make is extolling the work or author. Your teacher doesn’t need to be told that “Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest writer in the English language.” You can mention a work’s reputation in passing—by referring to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “Mark Twain’s enduring classic,” for example—but don’t make a point of bringing it up unless that reputation is key to your argument.
- Go off-topic. Keep your introduction streamlined and to the point. Don’t feel the need to throw in all kinds of bells and whistles in order to impress your reader—just get to the point as quickly as you can, without skimping on any of the required steps.
6. Write the Body Paragraphs
Once you’ve written your introduction, you’ll take the arguments you developed in step 4 and turn them into your body paragraphs. The organization of this middle section of your essay will largely be determined by the argumentative strategy you use, but no matter how you arrange your thoughts, your body paragraphs need to do the following:
- Begin with a strong topic sentence. Topic sentences are like signs on a highway: they tell the reader where they are and where they’re going. A good topic sentence not only alerts readers to what issue will be discussed in the following paragraph but also gives them a sense of what argument will be made about that issue. “Rumor and gossip play an important role in The Crucible” isn’t a strong topic sentence because it doesn’t tell us very much. “The community’s constant gossiping creates an environment that allows false accusations to flourish” is a much stronger topic sentence— it not only tells us what the paragraph will discuss (gossip) but how the paragraph will discuss the topic (by showing how gossip creates a set of conditions that leads to the play’s climactic action).
- Fully and completely develop a single thought. Don’t skip around in your paragraph or try to stuff in too much material. Body paragraphs are like bricks: each individual one needs to be strong and sturdy or the entire structure will collapse. Make sure you have really proven your point before moving on to the next one.
- Use transitions effectively. Good literary essay writers know that each paragraph must be clearly and strongly linked to the material around it. Think of each paragraph as a response to the one that precedes it. Use transition words and phrases such as however, similarly, on the contrary, therefore, and furthermore to indicate what kind of response you’re making.
7. Write the Conclusion
Just as you used the introduction to ground your readers in the topic before providing your thesis, you’ll use the conclusion to quickly summarize the specifics learned thus far and then hint at the broader implications of your topic. A good conclusion will:
- Do more than simply restate the thesis. If your thesis argued that The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory, don’t simply end your essay by saying, “And that is why The Catcher in the Rye can be read as a Christian allegory.” If you’ve constructed your arguments well, this kind of statement will just be redundant.
- Synthesize the arguments, not summarize them. Similarly, don’t repeat the details of your body paragraphs in your conclusion. The reader has already read your essay, and chances are it’s not so long that they’ve forgotten all your points by now.
- Revisit the “So what?” question. In your introduction, you made a case for why your topic and position are important. You should close your essay with the same sort of gesture. What do your readers know now that they didn’t know before? How will that knowledge help them better appreciate or understand the work overall?
- Move from the specific to the general. Your essay has most likely treated a very specific element of the work—a single character, a small set of images, or a particular passage. In your conclusion, try to show how this narrow discussion has wider implications for the work overall. If your essay on To Kill a Mockingbird focused on the character of Boo Radley, for example, you might want to include a bit in your conclusion about how he fits into the novel’s larger message about childhood, innocence, or family life.
- Stay relevant. Your conclusion should suggest new directions of thought, but it shouldn’t be treated as an opportunity to pad your essay with all the extra, interesting ideas you came up with during your brainstorming sessions but couldn’t fit into the essay proper. Don’t attempt to stuff in unrelated queries or too many abstract thoughts.
- Avoid making overblown closing statements. A conclusion should open up your highly specific, focused discussion, but it should do so without drawing a sweeping lesson about life or human nature. Making such observations may be part of the point of reading, but it’s almost always a mistake in essays, where these observations tend to sound overly dramatic or simply silly.
Glossary of Literary Terms
The entity that acts to frustrate the goals of the protagonist. The antagonist is usually another character but may also be a non-human force.
antihero / antiheroine
A protagonist who is not admirable or who challenges notions of what should be considered admirable.
A person, animal, or any other thing with a personality that appears in a narrative.
The moment of greatest intensity in a text or the major turning point in the plot.
The central struggle that moves the plot forward. The con ict can be the protagonist’s struggle against fate, nature, society, or another person.
first-person point of view
A literary style in which the narrator tells the story from his or her own point of view and refers to himself or herself as “I.” The narrator may be an active participant in the story or just an observer.
hero / heroine
The principal character in a literary work or narrative.
Language that brings to mind sense-impressions, representing things that can be seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched.
A recurring idea, structure, contrast, or device that develops or informs the major themes of a work of literature.
The person (sometimes a character) who tells a story; the voice assumed by the writer. The narrator and the author of the work of literature are not the same person.
The arrangement of the events in a story, including the sequence in which they are told, the relative emphasis they are given, and the causal connections between events.
point of view
The perspective that a narrative takes toward the events it describes.
The main character around whom the story revolves.
The location of a narrative in time and space. Setting creates mood or atmosphere.
A secondary plot that is of less importance to the overall story but may serve as a point of contrast or comparison to the main plot.
An object, character, figure, or color that is used to represent an abstract idea or concept. Unlike an emblem, a symbol may have different meanings in different contexts.
The way the words in a piece of writing are put together to form lines, phrases, or clauses; the basic structure of a piece of writing.
A fundamental and universal idea explored in a literary work.
The author’s attitude toward the subject or characters of a story or poem or toward the reader.
An author’s individual way of using language to re ect his or her own personality and attitudes. An author communicates voice through tone, diction, and syntax.
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Lord of the Flies Centenary Edition
Lord of the Flies (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)
Unlike many dystopian novels, which are set in distant and unfamiliar futures, 1984 is convincing in part because its dystopian elements are almost entirely things that have already happened, as Orwell drew from first-hand experience in creating the world of Oceania. For example, “2 + 2 = 5” was a real political slogan from the Soviet Union, a promise to complete the industrializing Five-Year Plan in four years. Orwell satirizes the slogan here to demonstrate the authoritarian tendency to suspending reality. Prior to writing the novel, Orwell had watched the communist revolution in Russia and volunteered to fight against the Fascist government in the Spanish Civil War. At first supportive of the Russian Revolution, Orwell changed his opinions after realizing that behind the veneer of justice and equality lurked widespread famines, forced labor, internal power struggles, and political repression. While fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell became disillusioned with elements within the resistance forces that he felt wanted to replace the Fascist government with an authoritarian regime of its own. These experiences provide much of the political satire of 1984.
The Spanish Civil War catalyzed Orwell and made him highly critical of authoritarian tendencies on the left. Much of the Party’s brutality, paranoia, and betrayals are drawn from the Great Purges of 1936–1938 in the Soviet Union. Over 600,000 people died in an official purge of the Communist Party, in an era that also included widespread repression of the public, police surveillance and execution without trial, and an atmosphere of fear. In 1984, Goldstein is the stand-in for Leon Trotsky, the revolutionary figurehead who Stalin cast out of the party and denounced as a traitor to the cause. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford symbolize people who were executed or sent to forced-labor camps. Trotsky’s manifesto, The Revolution Betrayed, has much in common with Goldstein’s book, from the tone of writing to the subjects discussed. The rise of Hitler and the scapegoating of Jews and other “undesirables” also had a profound effect on Orwell. He realized that mass media was a key factor in Hitler’s rise, enabling prominent figures and organizations to shape public opinion on a broad scale. The intrusive telescreens and the Party’s frequent parades and events are drawn from Nazi Party public propaganda and its marches and rallies.
When 1984 was written, World War II had ended only a few years prior, and many people believed a World War III was inevitable, making the wars of the novel feel not just realistic but unavoidable. Additionally, 1984 was written three years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Orwell references nuclear-powered wars happening in different parts of the world. The idea of three superstates came from the 1943 Tehran Conference, where Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed global “areas of influence” and how they should exercise their influence on the rest of the world. Orwell also included everyday life experiences from World War II London. The unappetizing food, inconsistent electricity, and scarcity of basic household goods in 1984 come from Orwell’s experiences with wartime rationing. Frequent bombing raids on London appear in 1984 as well, an echo of the Blitz campaign carried out by Germany on London and the surrounding areas, in which 40,000 people died and almost a million buildings were destroyed.
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1984 (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)