Literary Analysis Essay Elements



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SETTING: (skene, opsis)

Every work of literature has to create its own world. Every writer is singing a hymn of creation, light or dark. Whether or not the text contains the full account, it always implies one; and every reader has an alternative vision of the world to impose on the text. To read or write is therefore an act of creation of its own virtual reality.

The evidence of setting is the scenery and the props (properties), artificial or natural, as well as the time and light of day, the mood or atmosphere, the background music, the culture, and the people who are not characters (extras?). Setting is created largely by descriptions of places, objects, seasons, and sounds.

Hence, setting is related to tone and imagery. It also has a strong relationship to archetype and the psychological interpretation of character and action. In the age of the global village and ecology, setting is by definition an ecosystem or a habitat that embraces the whole community of earthkind, the substrate of natural and human history taken as one.



The words denoting a concrete, sensual experience of the world are called images; and in the minds of the imaginative writer or reader they often stand for something else (that is, by the kind of analogy we generally call metaphor). Hence, the violet by a mossy stone on the one level refers to a flower in the scene, but on an even more imaginative level refers to the girl the poet loves and all the feelings of tenderness or loss that surround his image of her.

The figures of speech which generate such associations and analogies include simile (comparisons using like or as) and metaphor in the specific sense (comparisons built into the basic sentence pattern, such as The shark reads the menu of the coral reef). Metaphor is world or scene mixing. Words denoting abstractions and emotions can also be used figuratively by an inversion of the process of imagery, so that a tiger might be described as baring teeth as sharp as hunger or as fierce as guilt.

Images accumulate into clusters and sometimes are reiterated enough to have a global effect on a literary composition. For example, the imagery of clothing that binds characters is prominent in one work while animals who are predatory keep cropping up in another. Usually, however, images are a part of the texture of the work and sift out into the expected or common frames inherent in the scene.



The symbol is a single prop or image which by reason of its position or treatment in the text must be taken as representative of the whole or perhaps elements greater than the whole work of art. A symbol is a single, inescapable image, like the pentangle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the lily in icons of St. Joseph, or the green lantern at the end of The Great Gatsby.

Literary symbols can be:

    • unique to a particular text = textual
    • common in two or more works of the same artist = personal
    • a part of a larger culture, religion, or tradition = cultural
    • an archetype inherent in all human cultures. = universal

When symbolism is transformed into a complex narrative or drama, we have personification allegory. Such characters as Everyman in the medieval morality play or Faith in Hawthorne's story of Young Goodman Brown are symbolic, to be sure, but in general symbols are things, not characters.




CHARACTER: (ethos)

Aristotle used the word ethos to describe the character of the subject or hero of a tragedy. He saw every human as governed by a set of behaviors, virtues and vices if you will, habits of action that made one tend toward certain choices. Behind those choices one could see a rationale, a set of values.

 The immediate evidence for character analysis includes:

o        physical attributes,

o        thoughts and statements,

o        choices and actions of the subject,

o        the manner of his or her performance,

o        the gestalt or relationship with all the other characters (see structure), and

o        their statements about and reactions to the character.



Whose eyes, whose voice, and what physical or emotional position control our reception of the text? Is it consistent or volatile? Is it subjective (first person), objective (third person reliable or all-knowing), or limited (usually focusing on a single persona)? As Chaucer showed us so well in The Canterbury Tales, the character of the narrator makes all the difference in the world. Every story, poem, or essay has the warp of its narrative voice or voices.

The evidence for point of view in narrative is especially available at the beginning or the end, in any parenthetical or tangential remarks, in all the arrangements and naming of events and characters of plots and subplots, indeed, in the whole rhetorical appeal of the work. The narrator holds the camera, chooses the lighting, arranges the scenes, in fact, directs the whole script for our imagination. Point of view is not simply the opinion of the author or the narrator, but all these elements of the text under the control of a character telling the story.



 TONE: (melos)

An actor, by changes in tone of voice, can make a hundred different plays out of the same crucial line. In literary analysis of tone we give the text a body, a voice to sound itself; we set the appropriate background music for the composition. Language is speech. The text has a sound system; and the great writers are always sensitive to the emotional effects of the sound stream as they create it.

The reader without ears will often miss one of the most crucial aspects of literary tone, irony. Irony occurs whenever there is a disparity of situation and tone (cosmic, verbal, or dramatic).



The music of literature, the combinations of patterns of sound and rhythm, is called prosody in poetry. The features of sound used frequently in poetry are alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhyme. The features of rhythm in poetry are metrical feet, caesurae, and cadence groups.

In prose, style refers to the consistent pattern of an author's language choices reflected in sounds, words, phrases, sentences, and larger discourse units.



 STRUCTURE: (mythos)

Structure is the sum of the relationships among the parts of a literary work. Hence, structural analysis takes into consideration chronology, cause and effect, association, symmetry, balance, and proportion in the larger textual divisions and units of composition. A novel often has a set of chapters, a poem a group of stanzas, and a play a series of Acts or scenes or both.

All the elements of literary analysis admit of description in terms of their distribution throughout the divisions of the text. Hence, plot structure represents the arrangement of incidents/actions in a narrative, character structure the constellation of dramatic personae, etc.



In speaking of narrative literature, we distinguish between the surface structure (the actual sequence of events within the textual divisions) and the deep structure (the underlying story which governs that structure). Take the story of the Iliad. We all know the underlying myth. It resides in our minds as story until one of us makes a novel about Helen's abduction, another writes an opera about the Trojan Horse, and a third choreographs a ballet about Achilles and Patroclus. All three "texts" or versions adapt the same story (mythos) about the war, but each represents a different kind of discourse. The surface structure varies from author to author and art form to art form. Plot is a feature of the surface structure or discourse unit of the narrative in whatever form.

Most plots start at an exciting midpoint, and then fill us in later about other parts of the story (exposition). Then complications, conflicts, and crises arise, build to a climax, and finally reach a point of resolution or exhaustion called the denouement. Often plot structures deliberately suppress elements of the story to create mystery, suspense, and a dramatic climax.

The evidence for plot is an outline of the major actions in the syntax or arrangement provided by the text. Often a play is thus structured into a number of Acts, but every story admits of analysis in terms of a set of actions. Another way to identify the plot is to block a story off into scenes. The actions or scenes, their clustering or arrangement when compared to the textual divisions of the manuscript or text, make up the evidence for interpretation of structure or form in a narrative.



An important part of mythos is the dynamics of conflict or opposition. Just as we can see a linear structure or timeline in the syntax of actions, we can also find patterns in the spatial structure of the text. These would be more or less constant and global forces working usually in all the parts of the text and responsible for the complications of the plot. As the anthropologist Levi-Strauss has shown, many of these opposing forces in a work of art or mythology are inherent throughout the culture. For example, in epical stories of culture heroes one often finds an inherent conflict between nature and civilization, the raw and the cooked, as Levi-Strauss first put it.

Again, every element of literary analysis can display opposition or conflict in the text. Symbols may represent war and peace, characters contain opposing forces in their own stormy psyches, etc. Actions, too, admit of opposition and reversal. For example, in Beowulf we see fighting and feasting oscillating in almost electrical currents.




THEME: (dianoia and lexis)

A theme can be expressed as a word, a phrase, a proposition, or a whole text. The educated person tunes into the history of ideas which human genius generates in every age or culture. In literature, the ideas of philosophers are embodied and disguised and sometimes personified overtly in allegory.

It is best to express an author's themes in his or her own words (lexis), but often a principal theme receives no explicit representation in the vocabulary of the text or the author; then the critic must invent terms to describe the themes in contemporary language.  

Strictly speaking, all forms of literary analysis can be evidence for theme. When we ask, what does this symbol, image, feature of plot structure, or rhyme mean, we are accumulating evidence of thematic interest. To study theme, therefore, is to reach back into the whole of the text from the vocabulary of ideas and feelings it presents. One of the best ways to get hold of any theme is to draw a concept map of its relations to other major themes of the text.  

Most authors and major texts are available in concordance form, an alphabetical listing of all the content words in their vocabulary. A thesaurus proprius is such a concordance arranged in major subject headings or themes. It expresses therefore the whole network of themes in a single text or author. When we pull a theme out of a work that we think is central, it is best to place it in the context of the other key concepts of the text.



Frequently when we first look at a painting or walk out of the theater we have a question to ask the artist. We understand most of the composition in certain terms, but something sticks out as inconsistent, some item in the composition or some annoying repetition bothers us. We leave the theater but we can't stop going over the film. In literature it is the same, and the history of the reception of the text often reveals its principal problems and the source of its mystery or intriguing qualities. The notion of solving a puzzle in a work of literary art is inherent in our language. Often the business of resolving our initial misgivings will lead to rereading and research that will reveal a better understanding of the artistic, conceptual, or historical dimensions of the text.







The facts surrounding the publication of a text can have an important bearing upon our reading and interpretation of it. Hence, we can consider the historical, cultural, and biographical contexts of the author and the audience at the time of its publication. In some cases it is important to consider the pragmatic context, the actual occasion for the writing or presenting of the text, e.g. a coronation event, a Christmas celebration, an imminent death in the author's life. 

In a narrower sense, the context can be taken as a purely literary factor in terms of tradition, that is, as one in a set of texts by the same author, in the same genre, or belonging to the same period of literary or oral history. Of special interest, therefore, are any texts which the author may have used as sources, directly or indirectly, as well as any analogues of the text which may have derived from the same or similar sources and thus bear a strong association with the text, regardless of its date.



The theories of literature often have a bearing on the text because the author becomes concerned about presenting an artistic reaction to the abstractions which concern the discipline of literary art. In a very general sense, these theories can be divided into mimetic (those that value the poem or text as an imitation) and formalist (those whose value lies in the forms they achieve). 

A useful larger categorization uses the components of the communication model and distinguishes four theoretical approaches:

    • Expressionistic = expressing the artist's view
    • Pragmatic = pragmatically reaching an audience
    • Mimetic = imitating a world, or
    • Objective = simply existing as a work of art on its own.

Thus, the text can be considered in terms of the encoder, the decoder, the world at large, or the pure signal or message.



Each age and culture gives birth to new forms of literature which sometimes perdure and sometimes fade away. Authors invent variations and try mixtures of genre, but in general it is useful to understand what the distinctive features of each "kind" of writing might be, to pay attention to the conventions and the breaches of convention in any given work.

There are four major genres: prose (the essay), poetry (lyrics), drama (plays), and fiction (short stories and the novel). Each of these has a variety of historical and cultural variations.

Analysis of Literary Elements

We often tend to look at literary elements separately: structure (plot), symbolism, point-of-view, setting, theme, etc.In general, though, it’s often wise to combine these elements in an analytical essay. You may also write about character as long as you are combining it with an analysis of one or more of the above elements. Therefore, you can choose to focus on one of these elements, or you can write an essay which considers two or more of these elements. For example, if you were writing on "Miss Brill," you could show how the central symbol of her fur reveals the theme (it is unwise to venture forth if you’re not prepared to deal with reality); you could even go a step further and show how it is crucial to understand the setting (a time when a fur would have been seen as old-fashioned and out of style) to be able to interpret the symbols. Which element(s) you choose to write on is entirely up to you, as is the choice of story, but if you choose to combine elements, you must show how these elements are related (for example, how setting helps us to understand how a character acts).

As before, you probably want to begin by formulating a question, then answering that question in your thesis. Your question can involve any element of fiction: you can analyze how the story’s setting impacts the plot; the effect of a certain point of view upon the narrative; whether the first-person narrator is reliable, unreliable or naive; how a central symbol functions in the story; why the story is structured oddly or non-chronologically; and so on.

Also as before, all of the normal rules for literary analysis apply for this essay: no plot summary allowed; thesis and topic sentences must all be related analytical assertions; all assertions must be supported with textual evidence.

General Questions to Consider

Below are some general questions that you can apply to any work of fiction, although you can come up with your own questions or approach.

I. Analysis of Structure tells us how a work’s organization influences (or is influenced by) the plot and theme or the work. Structural analysis usually involves one or more of the following considerations:

A. Why is chronological order adhered to or violated?
B. How is the central conflict presented and resolved?
C. How does the author use structure to evoke an emotional response?

II. Analysis of Imagery and Symbolism involves telling us why an author chooses to use one or more dominant, recurring images or symbols. Consider if these symbols help to

A. Evoke emotions
B. Establish mood
C. Reinforce characterization
D. Help convey the theme

III. Point-of-View Analysis attempts to explain why the author chose a particular narrative perspective, and how this viewpoint affects the reader’s perception of the work. Here are some things to consider:

A. Is the narrator a character in the story (first person) or not (third person)?
B. How objective is the narrator?
C. How limited are his/her perceptions?
D. Why does the narrator choose certain language, report the details that he/she does, reveal the characters in the manner that he/she does, offer or not offer interpretive comments, and/or tell the story in a certain order?

IV. Analysis of Setting and Atmosphere attempts to explain how and why a work’s time and place affects the events and/or the characters of the work. Often you will want to consider setting as part of another form of literary analysis. Here are some things to consider:

A. Why is the work set during a certain era, season or time of day?
B. Is any part of the setting symbolic?
C. How well does a character "fit in" with the setting?
D. Does the setting establish atmosphere or mood?

V. Analysis of Theme involves determining the concept, thought, opinion or belief that the author is expressing. Again, it is very common (and helpful) to consider theme when analyzing another aspect of literature. Two main questions to consider are:

A. Does it seem like the author is making a value judgment?
B. How does the author convey his/her ideas? Is it through:

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