Writing a Literary Analysis Paper

Thesis

A thesis statement is a sentence (or sentences) that expresses the main ideas of your paper and answers the question or questions posed by your paper.  It is the place where you are the most specific about what you will discuss in the paper, how you will organize the paper, and what significance your topic has (your argument).  You must have a specific, detailed thesis statementthat reveals your perspective, and, like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable.

Generally, a thesis statement appears at the end of the first paragraph of an essay, so that readers will have a clear idea of what to expect as they read.  As you write and revise your paper, it's okay to change your thesis statement -- sometimes you don't discover what you really want to say about a topic until you've started (or finished) writing! Just make sure that your "final" thesis statement accurately shows what will happen in your paper.

Some questions to help you formulate your thesis in a literary analysis paper:

  • What is my claim or assertion?

  • What are the reasons I have to support my claim or assertion?

  • In what order should I present my reasons?

Introduction

The introduction is where your reader will formulate their first impression of your paper.  The introduction should be interesting, provide enough information to tantalize your reader, luring them into reading further.  It is not always best to write the introduction first.  After you have composed your paper, you will be more apt to write an introduction that is interesting and focused. 

A few ways to begin your paper:

  • Begin with a quotation. Just make sure you explain its relevance

  • Begin with a question

  • Begin with an acknowledgment of an opinion opposite to the one you plan to take

  • Begin with a very short narrative or anecdote that has a direct bearing on your paper

  • Begin with an interesting fact

  • Begin with a definition or explanation of a term relevant to your paper

  • Begin with irony or paradox

  • Begin with an analogy. Make sure it's original but not too far-fetched

  • Begin with a scene or lines from the text you are analyzing.

Body Paragraphs

The body of your essay will be where you present most of your analysis.  Traditionally, this section consists of a form of analysis of the text called close reading.  We close read a text in order to prove that it means what we say it does.  An analysis might also use secondary research to situate the text within a historical or cultural context location.

Close Reading

Close reading carefully considers the elements of a text that make the text literary.  In a close reading, you are primarily concerned with how the author uses literary devices (word choice, structure, irony, rhyme, etc.) to convey meaning.

Consider the Langston Hughes poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

                        Does it dry up

                        like a raisin in the sun?

                        Or fester like a sore—

                        And then run?

                        Does it stink like rotten meat?

                        Or crust and sugar over—

                        like a syrupy sweet?

                        Maybe it just sags

                        like a heavy load.

                        Or does it explode?

A close reading would ask several questions of this poem.  What dream is the poem talking about?  Why does Hughes choose words that are repulsive to the sense of taste and smell?  Why is the first line set off from the rest of the lines?  Why is the last line italicized?  Why does Hughes choose to rhyme the particular words that he does?  Who do we imagine Hughes speaking to?

In answering these questions, you always want to consider how a particular answer may relate to the overall themes of the text and what evidence is available to support your assumption.  So for example, a close reading of this passage might claim that Hughes chooses a raisin (and not a plum or an apple) in line three because he wants to compare the dream deferred to a fruit that has already been dried and is now on the verge of losing all moisture.  For evidence of this claim, you would note how a raisin is a grape that has already been partially dried.  The dream deferred is like the raisin because it has been put off for a long time now.  If things do not change soon and if the dream does not come true, it may dry up completely like the “raisin in the sun”. 

Close readings fail when students read selectively and neglect elements of the text that do not support their view.  A failed close reading of Harlem might assert that Hughes is saying that dreams are pleasant because he compares it in line 8 to “a syrupy sweet.”  Such a statement contradicts many of the themes in the rest of the poem and fails to consider the context in which that statement occurs.

Readings that consider historical or cultural context of a work

In addition to your close reading, you may also choose to bring into your argument the cultural or historical context in which a work was written.  Langston Hughes poem Harlem was written in 1951.  At this time, America was segregated into black and white communities.  In the 1920’s, Harlem was in the center of a literary movement Harlem Renaissance.  African-American artists, writers, and musicians were beginning to gain recognition across the nation, and Harlem was a lively cultural center.  But by 1951, the gains that African-Americans had made in the first half of the century were stunted, and Harlem, which only thirty years before was a viable part of New York City, was suffering from urban decline.

If we place the poem Harlem into the context of the historical and cultural knowledge above, we see that it is highly likely that the dream which Hughes refers to in line one is related to the feelings of frustration that African-Americans felt in the period just after the promise of the Harlem Renaissance failed to produce any major gains.  The following lines speculate on how those who have had their dream deferred may react.  The uncertainty in the poem mirrors the uncertain future for African-Americans in the United States during the 1950’s

Conclusion

The conclusion is a good place to not only sum up the points made in the paper but to suggest the further implications of your argument.  You do not want to simply reiterate the points you have made in your introduction, thesis, or body paragraphs.  Instead, use the analyses that you have already presented to ask questions, or suggest the possible next logical step in the argument.  You can use the conclusion to draw connections between your chosen text and its genre and historical or cultural contexts.  You want to make sure that the claims you make in the conclusion are not too far-fetched or wildly out of step with the rest of your paper.  The conclusion should be the final step in the progression of your argument.

See the section on "Literary Analysis and Criticism" at Purdue's Online Writing Lab at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/ for further information on this topic.

--The Writing Center thanks Holly Savage for contributing this handout.