Literary Analysis: Rules, Tips, and Tricks

  • When referring to plot, dialogue, exposition, etc. from a text, make sure to talk about it in the present tense. Describe the work of the literary text as if it were happening in front of you, and you had to describe it to your friend on a phone.
    • Ex: In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe speaks at length about his trip to visit Kurtz’s wife.
  • Titles of poems, songs, short stories, articles, and chapters are put into quotations.
    • Ex: In “Mortal Man,” Kendrick Lamar plays with the listener’s understanding of what truly makes a social leader and asks the listener to stick with him through the good and the bad.
  • Titles of novels, films, magazines, newspapers, plays, and albums are put in italics. If you are handwriting an essay, these must be underlined.
    • Ex: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is centered on respectability and how the morality must shift during times of war and peace.
  • Unless asked otherwise by your professor’s prompt, never use “I” in a literary analysis. The major forms of literary analysis require a formal style and should be written in the third person.
    • Ex: Before:  Through this irony, I see Orsino as still in darkness.

After:  Through this irony, the audience sees Orsino as still in darkness.

  • Whenever you use a quotation, try to answer these three questions when analyzing that quote:
    • What does it mean?
    • How do you know?
    • Why does it matter?
  • When addressing these questions, make sure that your analysis is in proportion to your quotation. Which means you should not have four sentences of quotations that are followed by only one sentence of analysis.
    • EX: Orsino says to Olivia, “Be not amazed; right noble is his blood. / If this be so, as yet the glass seems true, / I shall have share in this most happy wrack” (1247).  Through this gracious luck of Viola and Sebastian’s survival, Orsino can find himself happy at the end of the situation.  All the ironic moments now dawn on him that he has found a woman who can love him as strongly and deeply as he felt that he loved Olivia.  He has found a love in Viola that transcends the pure desire and feelings of being in love for love’s sake at the beginning of the play.  He finds love that bridges into philia, or brotherly love.
  • If you use a quotation that is longer than four lines, you should block the quotation in the middle of the page, have it double-spaced, include the citation, and remove the quotation marks.
    • EX: Just like the nations of Europe, Utopia also begins to embark into the world of empire.  When describing population growth, Hythloday says:

They enroll citizens out of every city and plant a colony under their own laws on the mainland near them, wherever the natives have plenty of unoccupied and uncultivated land.  Those natives who want to live with the Utopian settlers are taken in…But if the natives will not join in living under their laws, the Utopians drive them out of the land they claim for themselves. (606-607)

What this section of text does is highlight that the Utopians still have problems they have yet to solve

  • Utilizing brackets in order to make your quotations fit into the structure of your own sentence is very helpful when analyzing any text:
    • EX: According to Herbers, “[e]xcept for clusters of a middle-aged marchers and a few in their latter years” (Herbers 3), the crowd seemed to be predominantly youths.
  • If you are attempting to keep your quotes under four lines, ellipses can be used whenever you wish to omit something from a source:
    • EX: Silko describes how the “sound of the rain got louder, pounding on the leavesIt streamed down his face and neck like jungle flies with crawling feet” (Silko 11) which leaves the reader with an image that is far more reminiscent of the media portrayed landscape of Vietnamese jungles than the battles of World War II.
  • When creating a title for your paper, you want something that clearly relates to the content of the paper. This is one of the most creative parts of a literary analysis, so try to make your paper really stand out.
    • EX: Before:  Hemingway Paper English 200

After:  Meditation on Miscommunication: A Look at Relationships in “Hills like White Elephants”