Literary Analysis: the Text Behind the Text

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Ahhh, the Spring: a time for new beginnings,  new life, and, for many first year writers, an introduction to writing about literature on the college level.  Literary analysis is an important concept to learn. Most literary texts have meaning beyond their surface- level meaning, and not being able to puzzle it out is kind of like not understanding the punch line of a joke in a room full of people who do. It can be frustrating, embarrassing, and even dangerous; think of someone reading and taking at face value Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Terrifying. Truly terrifying. So whether you are an English major or not, literary analysis is a good skill to learn and be able to practice…

However, for many writers, including myself back when I started college, it can also seem like a form of torture specifically designed to drive us insane. I can actively remember wishing that authors should just say what they meant and publish it in an appendix at the end of their text. How much easier would that make writing about Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“? My point exactly, but I digress.

Here at the CWE, I often encounter students in a similar position, questioning both what literary analysis is and how to do it. Most often they are confused by the difference between literary analysis and summary. When students who are confused about this distinction come in, I reassure them that they are not far off because summary and literary analysis are, in fact, related processes. Summary is telling your reader, on a basic level, what happens in the text.  I usually say that as a writer, you often have to do a bit of summary to ground your reader in the text. Once you summarize, you move on to your analysis. In other words, in your paper, summary sets the scene and analysis is the main event. Analysis is telling your reader the significance of the action, characters, and other elements of the text. My go-to example is: Summary would be telling me something like there is a heart-shaped tree described in the story; analysis is telling me that the heart-shaped tree symbolizes the protagonist love for each other and supporting that reading with the text.

Next, we get into the fun part: textual support. Literary analysis isn’t just throwing out suppositions about the text left and right, it has to be supported by the text itself. Writers sometimes think that they can claim almost anything about a text, cherry-pick some quotes that seem to go along with their argument and use these quotes as “support.” They just kind of “feel” that the text means what they want it means, so they manipulate the text in their argument. Usually, their rationale is that in literature analysis, there isn’t one right answer. This is partially true. You can read a text through multiple different lenses and get different interpretations of the same text. However, I tend to think that in literary analysis, while there isn’t right and wrong analysis, there is valid and wrong analysis. To help writers differentiate, I ask these writers a series of questions: Where do you see this idea in the text? Can I, as a reader, see evidence of your claim beyond the quotes you used? Are you discussing a theme or idea that is the majority of the text?  A valid argument addresses all of these issues. Finding evidence that supports your claim is like constructing a puzzle: you can’t force pieces to fit into each other just because you don’t like the picture that’s coming together. Likewise, your argument has to be supported by the text to be valid.

Explaining literary analysis is often a difficult task for me as a consultant. It is also one of the most rewarding. Seeing writers have that “Aha!” moment, where they are finally able to see the text behind the text is a wonderful experience. I take pride in knowing that it will not only help them pass their first-year writing courses, but also be a useful skill they can use in life.

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