Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written. To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons. Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance.
Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective. Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below. You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.
Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.
- William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
- District 9- South African Apartheid
- X Men- the evils of prejudice
- Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”
Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction
- Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
- Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
- Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
- Static character - A character that remains the same.
- Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
- Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.
Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.
Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.
- confidence/ arrogance
- mouse/ rat
- cautious/ scared
- curious/ nosey
- frugal/ cheap
Denotation - dictionary definition of a word
Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition
Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves
- Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as
- You are the sunshine of my life.
- Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as
- What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
- Hyperbole - exaggeration
- I have a million things to do today.
- Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
- America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.
Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem
- Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
- Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
- How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
- Spondee - stressed stressed
- Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
- Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
- Trochee - stressed unstressed
- Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
- While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
- Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
- Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
- Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
- Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
- Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
- Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.
Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.
Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem
Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story
- Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
- Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
- Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
- Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
- Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
- Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
- Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.
Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.
- Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
- First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
- Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom. You see clutter everywhere and…”)
- Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
- Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story. This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.
Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)
Setting - the place or location of the action. The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.
Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.
Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.
Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems are not necessarily formless.
Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.
- Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
- Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
- Owl - wisdom or knowledge
- Yellow - implies cowardice or rot
Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.
Have you ever heard that immersion is the best way to learn a language? The same can be said of literature.
The more you read, the more you learn about how stories, poems, and plays are structured, what makes them so enthralling, and how to analyze them.
Just like with any language, there are certain words and phrases in the language of literary analysis that can get you pretty far. I’m here to explain a few of these literary terms and give you some examples of how they’re used in some of the stories you may already be familiar with.
After you have a grasp of these literary terms, you can identify them as you’re reading, which makes writing essays faster, easier, and more fun.
Literary Terms About Comparisons
An allegory is when an author uses characters or events that represent larger, more abstract ideas. Authors typically use allegory to teach a lesson of some sort.
Lord of the Flies, for example, is filled to the brim with allegory. Piggy’s glasses represent knowledge, the conch stands for order, and the “beast” represents evil. These objects can be seen as symbols. However, unlike simple symbolism, they appear throughout the entire novel.
An analogy is when the author compares two, often dissimilar, objects or ideas to help the reader or a character within the story grasp the meaning of the main thing or idea being described.
When done too often in a story, analogies can get old fast. However, when done well, they can describe a character’s smile or the emptiness of a room very well.
One of the most famous examples of analogy can be found in the now classic film Forrest Gump when Forrest states, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Life isn’t literally like a box of chocolates in most regards, but Forrest finds one similarity that makes the analogy work (and he conveniently explains the similarity in the next sentence).
A simile is an analogy that compares objects, people, characteristics, or events using words such as “like” or “as” (instead of the direct kind of comparison you would see in a metaphor).
A humorous example of a simile comes from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol when Dickens writes,“Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”
It’s especially funny because Dickens goes on to describe how it’s not really a great comparison since doornails aren’t exactly dead, but how “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile,” and therefore, he’ll use it.
A metaphor is a type of analogy where something is directly compared to something else. It differs from similes in that it actually claims a person or object is something else instead of saying it is like something else.
Shakespeare is the king of analogies—both similes and metaphors. One well-known example comes from Romeo & Juliet when Romeo says, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Juliet, of course, is not the sun, but Romeo’s world now revolves around her.
(Read 10 Heart-Stopping Topics for Your Romeo and Juliet Essay for additional ideas.)
Symbolism is a literary term that gets drilled into the brains of students because it occurs so frequently in every type of literature. Symbolism is when the author attributes a value or idea to an object that is different from its literal value or use.
Disney movies tend to have a lot of symbolism in them. Beauty and the Beast, for example, uses the west wing of the castle to symbolize the isolation the Beast feels from the rest of the world. He urges Belle to never go there because he doesn’t want her to feel that same isolation or to see how truly lonely he is.
(Read Lord of the Flies Symbolism: 3 Ideas for Your Essay for some additional examples.)
Literary Terms About Specific Words
Alliteration is one of the more fun literary terms. It’s used to describe instances where a string of words contains the same beginning sounds, usually consonants.
Students tend to focus more on alliteration in analyses of poetry over other types of literature because each word in poetry seems to be written with more intention. However, alliteration makes it into novels as well.
Consider the four founders of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. Each name is alliterative.
Authors often name characters this way to add a sense of whimsy, to make the characters easier to remember, or just because they like the way it sounds.
Literary Terms About the Classics
What goes on when you allude to something? You are referencing a different conversation, person, or event. Allusion in literature is similar, except it’s more specific than that.
Literary allusion is when authors references mythology, other (mostly classic) literature, or a historical event that they believe the reader has enough knowledge about to understand the allusion.
Authors make allusion statements all the time. Comparing a place to the Garden of Eden is a form of allusion because it draws a comparison based on the Bible.
A great example in popular culture is found in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. The second sentence of the speech is, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Not only did King speak about Abraham Lincoln, but he also alluded to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which began with “Four score and seven years ago…”
Archetypes are themes, characters, or situations that authors have used throughout the history of storytelling. They tend to represent universal truths about human nature, such as the struggle of good vs. evil, or a classic hero or villain.
Archetypes are apparent in any genre and perhaps nearly any story if you look hard enough. One classic example is the good vs. evil archetype found in Star Wars. Luke, representing the light (good) side of the force, goes against Darth Vader, the dark (evil) side of the force.
Literary Terms About the Overall Story
Conflict is typically what makes a novel or other type of story worth reading. There are usually several conflicts within a story—some are internal and some are external.
External conflicts involve characters’ struggles with outside forces—in many instances, another character. However, the external forces could also be an event like a war.
Internal conflicts are when characters have two internal opposing forces. Sometimes it’s when protagonists have to decide to go against their own morals to protect someone. Other times, it’s when antagonists choose between their pride and getting the results they have been working toward the whole story.
Going back to Harry Potter, the main conflict was Harry’s (and the wizarding world’s) fight against Voldemort. But Harry also had other conflicts, such as getting respect from his biological family, performing in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and being constantly antagonized by Malfoy.
Foreshadowing is when the author drops hints about major events or plot points that will happen later in the story. When such events or plot points happen, authors want readers to have that aha! moment or to think, “Why didn’t I see that coming? The clues were all there!”
One somewhat obvious example is in the movie adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Mrs. Gulch is seen riding a bike and later, during the tornado, is transformed briefly into a witch. This foreshadows Dorothy’s eventual run-in with the Wicked Witch of the West.
If you’ve written several literary analysis essays, there’s a good chance you’ve written about themes. And if you haven’t yet, you will probably do so soon. The theme of a novel, play, or poem is its underlying message or main idea.
It’s important to note that the theme is typically the author’s reaction to or opinion of a topic, not the topic itself.
For example, The Hunger Game’s theme was not simply about reality television, but how reality television often hurts the people it stars. (The series has several other themes, of course, including how friendship can help people survive and how the materialism/excess of the wealthy leads to the exploitation of the poor.)
Want some additional theme examples? Read these posts:
Have you ever heard the phrase, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”? That’s the idea behind tone. The tone of a literary work is when authors use specific words or phrases to express their attitude about a subject or about their audiences.
The Diary of Anne Frank, which in reality ended in tragedy, takes on a tone of hope. The young girl, despite living in a small attic and under the constant terror of Nazis on her doorstep, seems generally optimistic throughout the book. She even describes her plans to go back to school with her sister.
Literary Terms Involving Non-Comparative Descriptions
Hyperbole is basically just exaggeration. It’s usually done to either be humorous or to really emphasize something.
Advertising makes great use of hyperbole. For example, Red Bull’s tagline is, “It gives you wings!” Red Bull doesn’t actually give people wings, but presumably makes them feel so energetic that they feel like they could fly.
Imagery is one of those literary terms that can often be misunderstood. Sometimes imagery is described as using descriptive language that allows readers to see the scene in their minds.
But it’s so much more than that!
In reality, imagery is descriptive language that appeals to all the senses. It can describe how rancid something smells or how rich and sweet something tastes. And of course, it can describe how vibrant and green a forest looks.
Children’s books and full-length novels alike are packed with imagery. Just take a look at this excerpt from Charlotte’s Web:
“In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.”
Personification is when an object or other non-human thing is given human characteristics. This makes it more relatable and impactful for the reader.
Personification can be seen anywhere, but it’s most obvious in poetry.
Take the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle, Diddle. The lines, “The little dog laughed to see such a sport / and the dish ran away with the spoon,” contain two examples of personification. Dogs don’t laugh, and dishes and spoons don’t run. But in the context of the poem, it makes sense.
(Want some additional examples? Read How to Spot Personification in Romeo and Juliet.)
There are a lot of other examples of terms used in literary analysis that may pop up in your essay assignments, but this should give you a solid start. If you need some examples of how others have written about these literary terms, check out the following essays:
Need some additional guidance on how to tackle your literary analysis essay? Try these posts:
And finally, depending on what literary work you’re analyzing, you might find these posts helpful:
And as always, if you need help making your essay stronger, the Kibin editors are here to assist. With their help and lots of practice, you can become fluent in literary terms.
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