A Philo Culturo Guide to the Ins and Outs of Analyzing Literature
This page will link you to a small world of helpful strategies and information to show you how literary analysis works.
Literary Analysis: Getting Started
Literary interpretation is fundamentally interested in the question of what a text means. What is this text about? What ideas does this text communicate? To answer the fundamental questions, we pursue a diagnostic analysis of the text, assessing the structure of a work and its component parts. Then we step back and analyze the text from a conceptual standpoint.
Literary Studies consists of an ever-broadening array of approaches to literature. Schools of thought have developed around the social-political approaches to literature (feminist criticism, post-colonial criticism, cultural studies and the list goes on). Scholarship has explored the psychology of reading and meaning-making interpretation (narratology) and, prior to that, the practice of psychoanalysis has been applied to the study of texts, looking for Ids and Egos, Oedipal complexes and artifacts of the Collective Unconscious mind.
While these interpretive approaches have expanded our views on what counts as a text and have enriched our discourse on cultural products (artistic and commercial), the essential act of reading remains the same. Literary Studies, at one end of the spectrum, participates in discussions of the politics and science of reading, but at the other end of the spectrum literary studies is still about reading poetry and fiction and asking what it means.
Due to the breadth of approaches to literature, there are two semi-distinct vocabularies for the Literary Studies classroom. The first vocabulary is the traditional set of literature terms that a beginning college student is at least partly familiar with.
Symbolism – Metaphor – Personification – Motif – Exposition – Climax – Denouement – Character – Theme – Rhyme – Alliteration – Stanza – Pattern – Simile – Setting
We might call this the “Chapter and Verse” vocabulary of literature, if we wanted to make a play on words. (…because the phrase “chapter and verse” is shorthand for essential and literal core of any type of knowledge… You get it. Right?) But we can just call this the Basic Vocabulary of Literary Studies.
The second vocabulary is the one associated with the various schools of criticism mentioned above. These interpretive approaches are often referred to as critical schools or modes of critical theory, so the second vocabulary can be called Critical Theory Terms.
These vocabularies both serve the purpose of facilitating our conversations about literature. They both have a place in the college classroom. However, the foundation of any discussion of literature begins with the basics of interpretive practices (a.k.a. reading for meaning).