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Everything You Need to Know about Literary Analysis Essays

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

So, you’ve been doing well in your freshman-level English class at college. Your paper writing skills have earned you consistent “A’s,” but now you’ve been assigned a literary analysis paper. This is new territory for you because before this point, you’ve only written book reports and even a couple of book reviews, but your professor was very adamant that this assignment is very different. Before you get too worried, sit back, relax, and read this blog to learn what a literary analysis essay is and how to write one that will keep your good grades flowing!

Let’s start by defining what a good literary analysis essay is. You’ve no doubt written a book report or review in high school or college, and although that experience will help you here, a literary analysis essay is a different type of paper. In a literary analysis essay, you break down a specific component of a fictional book, short story, or poem to uncover its symbolism or meaning. It can be a character, event, or even an entire arc in the book, but the commonality is that you are required to search for a deeper meaning. Your professor will usually narrow things down a bit for you with a specific topic. For example, “This book focuses on political change. How does character X embody this change?” Or perhaps: “Although this book is sci-fi, it is an allegory of World War II: describe two examples of this.” Your assignment may be a bit more open-ended, with your professor allowing you to choose from a variety of fictional books and to create your own topic(s) on which to base your analysis. But chances are, if you’re reading this, it is your first literary analysis essay, so the book and question will be very specific. Before we look at the process of writing a good literary analysis essay, it’s essential to consider why this is important.

Fictional literature was first written in ancient times. One of the oldest known fictional stories is the Eloquent Peasant, which was written by an anonymous Egyptian author nearly 4,000 years ago. The story tells how a well-spoken peasant was wronged, but due to his eloquent speaking skills, he impressed the pharaoh so much that he was able to achieve satisfaction. The point is that all well-written, meaningful fictional prose, regardless of era or culture, usually imparts ideals, feelings, and thinking that transcends time, culture, religion, etc. Understanding this and developing the ability to see those transcendent themes in literature will help you appreciate literature more generally, improve your critical thinking skills, and, yes, improve your grade in English class! With all of that in mind, let’s journey through the process of writing a literary analysis essay.

Getting Started

  1. The first step is simply reading the source material. If the professor assigned a single book and topic or direction for your literary analysis paper, then this is pretty straightforward. If you have more latitude, though, in terms of the material and topic, then you have a little more work to do. First, start with a book, short story, or poem you like and understand. Read the text thoroughly and take notes as you write it. If the professor has already assigned a topic, focus your thoughts on that as you read. If you have leeway to think of a topic, you’ll have to brainstorm.
  2. As you read the text, it’s important to ask yourself questions and write them down. Remember, in literary analysis, you break down everything from the plot to the characters for wider or deeper meanings. So, as you read your text, here are some good questions to ask. What does the protagonist symbolize? What does the antagonist symbolize? Does the plot reflect a political or social statement? Is the setting actually symbolic of another setting in time or place? What are the basic themes of the story? There are many more questions you can ask, and you’ll likely think of more as you begin your research.
  3. Once you compile a good list of questions, you should focus on one and then develop your thesis statement from it. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start writing your essay!

Literary Analysis Essay Structure

The basic structure of a literary analysis essay generally follows the same format as other types of essays, but there are a few notable differences. The first paragraph is your introduction, which is much like an intro paragraph for other categories of essays. An important difference here, though, is that a good literary analysis essay has a “hook.” A hook is a catchy sentence, usually the first one, that catches the writer’s attention and entices her to keep reading. A good hook for a literary analysis is often a quote from the book in question that relates to your thesis. After the hook, you should have a sentence or two where you relate basic information about the book and author before stating your thesis.

The following two to three paragraphs – the length depends on the word count your professor assigns – should each be a point that supports your thesis. As with other essays, each supporting paragraph in a literary analysis essay should have a topic sentence. Each of your supporting points should be taken from the text in question, and include plenty of thoughtful analysis before transitioning to the next supporting paragraph.

The last paragraph is your conclusion. A good conclusion paragraph should mirror your intro paragraph in many ways. You can refer back to your hook in the intro, although it isn’t required. The most important part is restating your thesis and briefly mentioning each of your supporting points. All of this may seem a bit overwhelming, so I’ll go through three examples with you, but before that, here’s what a working outline of a literary analysis essay should look like

Literary Analysis Outline

  1. Introduction Paragraph
    • Hook Sentence
    • Basic Information Sentence(s)
    • Thesis Statement
  2. Supporting Paragraph 1
    • Topic sentence
    • Supporting Evidence from the Source Material
    • Try to use at least one direct quote
    • Transition Sentence
  3. Supporting Paragraph 2
    • Topic sentence
    • Supporting Evidence from the Source Material
    • Try to use at least one direct quote
    • Transition Sentence
  4. Repeat The Process If the Essay Needs to Be Longer
  5. Conclusion Paragraph
    • Restate the Hook or Add a New Hook
    • Restate Thesis
    • Mention each supporting evidence as proof of your thesis

When you use this outline, simply add your hook, thesis, and supporting points into the relevant locations. As you develop your paper, you’ll likely want to add some more subpoints, so definitely do what works best for you.

Literary Analysis Essay Examples

Now that you have the background information to write a good literary analysis essay let’s take a look at three specific examples to help clarify things a bit more. In our first example, suppose that your English professor has assigned you to write a literary analysis essay analyzing a specific allegorical element of George Orwell’s 1945 book Animal Farm. You are free to choose whatever allegory you want. So, this can be a character analysis essay , where you examine each of the main characters and what they symbolize, or you can focus on the plot and themes of the book. Let’s pick the latter. After reading Animal Farm, you realize it is an allegory of the early Soviet Union. That’s good, but let’s go a little deeper with this. The story is an allegory of the corruption and abuse in the Soviet system and argues that it was just as bad, if not worse, than any other system. So, let’s start writing!

For our hook, let’s start with something that calls attention to the somewhat sci-fi and humorous nature of this book. “Imagine a world where talking animals take over a farm and establish their own utopia. This was the world George Orwell envisioned for his 1945 allegory of the Soviet system, Animal Farm.” Then, after a couple more sentences of background, we state our thesis. “Animal Farm is an allegory of the corruption and abuse in the Soviet system and a strong statement that the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.”

So, the following two to three paragraphs will be points of support for our thesis. For the first supporting paragraph, we will note how the animals originally got along, shared equally, and all learned how to read after they forcefully threw the farmer out. The more intelligent pigs even developed a set of laws whereby they declared all animals are equal. After citing some quotes from the book to support this, we will write a transition that states something like the following: “But as utopian as the situation was for many of the animals, some of the pigs began letting the power get to their heads.

The next two paragraphs will focus on how the pigs became progressively more corrupt and even violent. The second supporting paragraph can focus on how the pigs raised the dogs to be their unquestioning thugs, turning Animal Farm into a police state. A transition sentence can then state something such as: “And as the pigs became more repressive, they also became hypocrites.”

The third supporting paragraph should then focus on how the pigs changed the laws to favor themselves, eventually began hoarding wealth, and even made deals with human outsiders to the detriment of the other animals. The final transition sentence can state something like the following: “In the end, the political system on Animal Farm was even more corrupt than it was under the humans.”

For the conclusion paragraph, we’ll restate the thesis and add a little analysis of about two sentences. For example, “Through his colorful use of anthropomorphic animal characters, Orwell argued that the Soviet system may have originally intended to address inequalities, but it was ultimately worse than the system it replaced.”

This example demonstrates the proper format of a standard literary analysis essay in a coherent manner. The book you write about and the topic you write on will be different, but you can just substitute any book and topic with the ones I used. Keep reading for two subtypes of literary analysis essays.

Literary Analysis of a Poem

If you’re assigned to write a literary analysis of a poem, you’ll follow the same format, although the topic and content may differ. There’s a good chance that the topic will focus more on the images or how the structure affects the content or message. So, let’s consider the Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. For this hypothetical topic, you’re tasked with analyzing a critical element of the structure. After reading the poem, you’ve come up with this thesis. “The pace of The Aeneid’s structure follows the flow of Aeneas’ fortunes, rising and falling, and rising again with the hero.

We begin with our hook, then add a couple more sentences of background before stating our thesis. The rest of the structure will also be the same as our first example, although the content will be a bit different. One paragraph can focus on how the pace of the structure, including the number of words, length of the lines, etc., picks up with the action, while another paragraph shows that the pace slows when Aeneus contemplates his next move. The conclusion should follow a similar format to the first example.

Literary Analysis of a Short Story

If you’ve been assigned to write a literary analysis of a short story or novella, you’ll follow the pattern of the first example. For this example, suppose your professor has assigned you to write a literary analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea. You can choose your own topic, so after reading the book, you’ve decided to examine the theme of Christianity in the story. The thesis statement could be, “The main character Santiago was portrayed as a Christ-like figure.”

After writing your hook, you then state your thesis and go into the supporting paragraphs. Because this is a short story, you’ll probably only need two supporting paragraphs. One paragraph can compare Santiago to Christ, how both were fishermen, and both were willing to give their lives for the greater good. The second paragraph can focus on the importance of three days, both in the story and the Bible. Finally, you wrap the essay with a conclusion paragraph, just as we did with the other essays.

Final Tips and Reminders

You’re now ready to go but don’t forget a few of these often-overlooked things before you submit your paper. Once you’ve written your paper, make sure to proofread and edit it multiple times if necessary. It also helps to seek feedback at every stage of the process from friends or your professor. By proofreading your work and seeking feedback from others, your work will continuously improve, and so too will your grades!

To briefly summarize everything from this blog. Knowing how to write a good literary analysis essay is important because it will improve your appreciation of literature, enhance your writing skills, and make you a better critical thinker. Once you’ve been assigned a book, poem, or short story to write about, familiarize yourself with the text and take plenty of notes. Ensure your topic and thesis are relevant and thoughtful, and don’t forget to use a good hook. Each supporting paragraph should contain quotes and evidence from the text that supports your thesis, along with plenty of good analysis.

Finally, wrap everything up nicely in your conclusion paragraph.

Now that you have this roadmap to write an excellent literary analysis essay, get out there and start writing! You’ll quickly find out that the more literary analysis essays you write, the easier they will get.

Elissa Smart Elissa Smart
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