Notes for Literary Analysis Papers

Finished papers should amount to 1000-1200wds (4-5) pages following the general MLA format guidelines and include at least 5 outside sources (2 peer reviewed).


INTRODUCTION: The "use" of a literary analysis paper serves a variety of goals. Practicing how to focus and consider parts of a piece of writing is a crucial set of skills for weighing the qualities of virtually any writing. In the real world, these days, we are challenged to sift through enormous volumes of written material. Learning to find the key ideas, themes, understand the wording used, glean both surface and implied meaning, is even more important in this "information age." 

Because literature--stories in whatever form (essays, fiction, etc.)--is a primary way humans have used to make sense of the world since the earliest evidence of culture--and of course still do--it is a good way to enter the process of finding, making and communicating meaning. Virtually any profession or field of study is about some aspect of human aspiration and fulfillment. Even something so seemingly mundane as a discount store has been characterized by one corporate head as "the romance of the five and dime." Since romance is about idealism, heroic behavior and a code of high ethics/values, this person was talking about the virtue of making goods available and affordable to the average person and so improving their lives. Whether or not the reality of "affordable" goods is really a virtue is perhaps a debatable topic, but the vision of bettering the lives of people is a kind of romantic ideal....

Clearly, the fields of medicine, social service, engineering, the sciences--and business--all have a social ideal to work toward. Literature is the study and evidence of the ways people have told the experience of finding a place in the world. It is also an age-old way people try to understand and deal with their problems--personally and in their outer, "productive" lives. So, engaging in the thinking and writing about literature is both a valuable pursuit and can be one of the most enjoyable ways of learning to find the seeds of meaning and increased understanding anywhere we look.

Stories and essays contain many possible meanings and reader interpretations. Choosing one facet in any one of them and using it to examine the theme/meaning or "lesson" of the writing can be a useful way of understanding the writing, either through a "field of study" or just one element in the writing to use as a focus.

The over-riding goal of (any) analysis writing is to demonstrate some new or at least a personal understanding of the text.

Academic Disciplines and Fields of Study:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an academic discipline is “a branch of learning or scholarly instructions.”

1.Humanities. These disciplines study the human condition. The main methods they use are analytic and critical. Among humanities are: literature, ancient and modern languages, law, history, philosophy, religion, arts. “Humanists” are the scholars who study humanities. Those who want to study humanities should have the skill of creative and critical thinking. The circle of fields of knowledge is very wide. Humanities deal with different cultures, world of art and history. Today, the main direction of work is the exploration and understanding of human experience.

2.Social sciences. Social sciences include such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, linguistics, political science, psychology. Their task is to explore the aspects of human society, its development and all the processes that influence it.

3.Natural sciences. These sciences include such disciplines as Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth science and Physics. Their task is to explore natural phenomena and all processes that undergo our planet.

4.Formal sciences. This branch of knowledge deals with formal systems like logic, mathematics, systems theory, computer science, information theory, decision theory and statistics. These sciences use symbols and theoretical rules.

5.Professional and Applied sciences. Professional sciences connected with a certain profession. They are: Agriculture, Architecture and design, Business, Divinity, Education, Engineering, Environmental studies and Forestry, Health sciences and others. In their turn, these are divided into disciplines that are more specific in order to learn one’s profession. Academic disciplines define the framework for students’ program of college and university study.

                                                                 by Michael Cookson, Researcher with Odontology Forensic odontology, dental research and science article

For further (overwhelming...) information > list of disciplines/fields of study

The Thematic Interdisciplinary Approach to Literary Analysis: papers use one field of study or knowledge as a "lens" to understand some aspect of a particular essay, story, play, etc. For example, to better relate to and understand the play, Hamlet, we might think about the ways the issues Hamlet is faced with seem to imply what we now call family "dysfunction." Or we could examine how Hamlet's behavior, as the play presents it, might suggest something like bipolar disorder. Or from an historical perspective, how the personal lives of government leaders affect historical events. Or from a criminology approach, a writer might focus on how evidence in the play suggests what happened to Hamlet's father. A title for a psychological approach might be: Hamlet: Some Results of Family Dysfunction (uses psychology to understand this story). Or to understand an aspect of Native American culture, a title for a paper dealing with a certain traditional story could be: Pueblo Creation Myth: A Map for Human Social Organization (uses sociology to examine the meaning and "application" of this myth).  Such traditional accounts can also be seen as examples of philosophy, theology, or other fields of study.


We can also "approach" the understanding of a text (story, book, play, essay, etc.) by analyzing some internal artistic, stylistic, literary or symbolic aspects of the piece itself which is called the "intrinsic" approach. Choosing to analyze a character, a controlling image ("lenses" in the Dillard essay), setting, etc. and how the writing treats or reveals it, is one way to understand a text.

Some other approaches, or "lenses" might be: biographical, how the author's own life is reflected in the work, archetypal how certain "universal" symbols (the Father, the Healer, etc.) guide the work, the feminist, how the role of women affects the work, and virtually any topic or field of study that a student feels is central to the work, can be used. 

Here is a short sample story--"The Story of an Hour" and an approach analysis peer reviewed article about it that illustrates this kind of paper. Though it is a bit longer than a paper for this class, it clearly shows how to view the key ideas and events in this story from a specific perspective, or "lens," in that case the psychological quality of "emotion."  

Possible stages of the writing:

  1. Choose a piece of writing to use as the focus work from the choices posted.\

    How to analyze a text -- make notes to record your responses:

    1. Read or reread the text until you have an understanding of it.
    2. Think through and make notes about your personal reaction to the piece: how you relate to it, enjoy it, any new or interesting ideas, information, etc. that it presents to you.
    3. Identify and consider most important ideas.
    4. Return to the text to locate specific evidence and passages related to the major ideas.
  2. The "theme/meaning" may be the most obvious element of a story or essay. A theme will usually fall under one (or more) of the  fields of study above. So, a theme of "honesty" might be explored through the study/field of philosophy and what it "says" about being honest. A theme of "loss/grief" might be explored through psychology; "revenge" through theology, philosophy, etc., self-knowledge through psychology, stealing/murder >criminology, a child's behavior>child development, etc.  For steps in finding "Theme/meaning," see this guide: Finding Theme
  3. Some basic steps for analyzing a piece of literary writing--each point needs to have an example from the text:

    1. Summarize the plot 
    2. Identify the central conflict
    3. Identify the theme(s)
    4. Identify the important people or figures
    5. Identify the objects and places that influence the writing
    6. Identify the style (matter of fact, lots of feeling, lots of five-sense detail, action or mostly thoughtful...
    7. Identify the "field of study" that might be most interested in this writing 

    Another sample analysis:

    from James McBride’s The Color of Water (brief summary of the book)

    An important difference between James and his mother is their method of dealing with the pain they experience. While James turns inward, his mother Ruth turns outward, starting a new relationship, moving to a different place, keeping herself busy. Ruth herself describes that, even as a young girl, she had an urge to run, to feel the freedom and the movement of her legs pumping as fast as they can (42). As an adult, Ruth still feels the urge to run. Following her second husband’s death, James points out that, “while she weebled and wobbled and leaned, she did not fall. She responded with speed and motion. She would not stop moving” (163). As she biked, walked, rode the bus all over the city, “she kept moving as if her life depended on it, which in some ways it did. She ran, as she had done most of her life, but this time she was running for her own sanity” (164). Ruth’s motion is a pattern of responding to the tragedy in her life. As a girl, she did not sit and think about her abusive father and her trapped life in the Suffolk store. Instead she just left home, moved on, tried something different. She did not analyze the connections between pain and understanding, between action and response, even though she seems to understand them. As an adult, she continues this pattern, although her running is modified by her responsibilities to her children and home.

    The image of running that McBride uses here and elsewhere supports his understanding of his mother as someone who does not stop and consider what is happening in her life yet is able to move ahead. Movement provides the solution, although a temporary one, and preserves her sanity. Discrete moments of action preserve her sense of her own strength and offer her new alternatives for the future. Even McBride’s sentence structure in the paragraph about his mother’s running supports the effectiveness of her spurts of action without reflection. Although varying in length, each of the last seven sentences of the paragraph begins with the subject “She” and an active verb such as “rode,” “walked,” “took,” “grasp” and “ran.” The section is choppy, repetitive and yet clear, as if to reinforce Ruth’s unconscious insistence on movement as a means of coping with the difficulties of her life.

  4. Do a Topic Exp/Loop  to find a variety of material, views, personal thinking and ideas about the possible focus writing to be able to draw from.
  5. Based on 7 steps for analyzing above, find a "lens" or guiding idea to use as a structure for analyzing a meaning of the writing: 1) a field of study, academic discipline, like history, sociology, environmental science, philosophy, etc. or 2) some intrinsic/internal element of the account like a character study (psychological profile), or biographical data of a person that figures in the account (or the author) or some artistic feature--e.g. use of "glass" as symbol, or how the setting [time/era, place] repeated images, theme, etc. might affect the account. The name of the essay/story and ONE lens (discipline or literary feature) must be clearly identified in a sentence somewhere in the first paragraph. Here are some two-part title suggestions:
    • Dillard's "Lenses": How Physical Properties of a Lens Can Alter Perception and Memory  (psychology, physics, literary imagery)
    • Listening: One Kind of Paying Attention (psychology, literacy/writing)
    • Perception and Imagination: How Dillard Demonstrates the Developmental Stage of Individuation  ("night-fright" Chapter) (psychology, child development, sensory imagery)
    • World War II in a Car: Atwood's Account of Family Life on the Road (history, family dynamics, child development, sensory imagery
    • The Fruit Falls Close to the Tree: Dysfunction and Alcohol Addiction In the Lives of Two Raymond Carvers  (substance abuse, family dynamics/anthropology/sociology)
    • Gretel Ehrlich's "Island": A Contained Landscape of Solace (psychology, healing)
    • Closer to Heaven: Spiritual Grounding of Daily Life in the Alps (psychology, mystic theology, geography, sociology)
    • Death in Two Worlds: Respect and Tolerance in Silko's "The Man to Send Rain Clouds" (sociology or theology)
    • "The Story of an Hour": Gender Roles in the Victorian Age (Gender Studies, sociology, history, psychology)
  6. Lens exploration: Do a brief investigation of what the discipline (see above) is concerned with--i.e. find out what addiction studies or history, or psychology in general actually studies, or in a writing about a "thing" (as in Dillard's "Lenses") what the definition and functions of a "symbol" might actually be and the qualities of that "thing."

  7. Complete a STORY CHART 

  8. (optional) Using all the pre-writing material, notes, etc. make a 2-4 level outline [OUTLINE GUIDE | HOW TO WRITE AN OUTLINE ] that sketches out a general layout of the paper.

  9. Write a first draft in paragraph format that: 1) explains the part of the focus writing that will be examined (like emotions, or historical time frame) and the lens (biography of author, discipline, etc.) and how they inter-relate and 2) define key terms and expand into the body of paper: observations, reasons and evidence that support the thesis. Using subheadings to guide the reader is fine.

  • These finished papers should amount to 1000-1200wds (4-5) pages following the general MLA format guidelines.
  • Papers must include a 2-part title (topic and position using a colon to join the parts), a 3-part thesis sentence and use standard (parenthetical) MLA documentation style. The name of the essay/story (and the author) AND the name of ONE lens (discipline or literary feature) must be clearly identified in a sentence somewhere in the first paragraph.
  • Each paper should credit (cite) information from the focus writing under consideration for evidence, from at least 2-3 separate PEER REVIEWED (or instructor approved web site) sources (and any other definitions or outside material) and have a balance of summary, paraphrase and personal comment. Direct quotations should not constitute more than 10-15% of the total word count.
  • Again, source material should include the writing being studied AND peer reviewed articles from online data bases, print publications, and/or OK'd web sites.

Please use clear, accurate, semi-formal diction, define terms and key ideas (--in the sample writing above, "emotion" should be (but isn't...) defined denotatively, connotatively including its use in this paper and its origin) and briefly demonstrate understanding of whatever literary or "interdisciplinary" concepts that are very important to the paper,  i.e. in the sample paper, psychology. Introducing the field of study can be done in this way, EXAMPLE WORDING: The field of psychology defines "abuse" as, "       " (cite). The internet site,, in entry number  ____ , defines "abuse" as it relates to this analysis as________ (cite).-- It is important to explain early in the essay how you, the writer, see how the field of study relates to and helps readers understand the text being considered. NOTE: Authors should always be referred to by last name or full name only. 

Again, the idea of these approach/analysis essays is to focus on one feature of the essay or story that seems key, and investigate it and the ways it occurs in the text to gain insight/understanding of the writing, and possibly of some aspect of the field of study. 

NOTE: For an intrinsic/artistic analysis, some pattern of language, image, idea, etc. can be the "lens." EXAMPLE: The function of light  as metaphor for understanding in _________, etc., etc. Obviously, in Annie Dillard's "Lenses" many, many things in that essay function as lens to expand the ideas in her reflective/thoughtful, descriptive, autobiographical, narrative account. Other possibilities of a focus in a text might be, landscape, overcoming adversity, animals, music (even repeated sounds in the writing...), climate, a cultural value, etc. 

The possibilities are really endless; the task is to get into--engage--the text in thoughtful, critical investigation. This is a process of discovery, so being open to how your thinking develops is very important.

 © copyright 2011 : Jane Thielsen : all rights reserved