Elements of Literature Analysis

The following is a template I put together for formal or classic literature analysis. (Not to be confused with Formalist lit criticism.) It does not favor any particular school of literary criticism, it is simply the bare bones elements for analyzing a story. When used in group discussion it is commonly called Socratic literary analysis. I’ve noticed in home schooling communities it might be called the ‘teaching the classics’ method. It is also referred to in the book Deconstructing Penguins. (Note that I have not read Deconstructing Penguins yet, nor have I read the Teaching the Classics curriculum, so I can’t say how far my interpretation may differ.)

Anyway, although I consider most posts here on the blog as some form of literature analysis, I have never used a formal analysis template nor deliberately thought about each and every aspect of a story as I have listed below. I usually just let it all float around in my head and end up seizing on one theme or conflict that catches my attention.

Those of you that studied literature are probably very familiar with this type of analysis. Some people, maybe those that never studied lit or those who were forced to write many a paper in this form lol, may feel that this type of literary analysis is incredibly boring. That it sucks the joy out of reading or that it leads to out of thin air responses by whoever is analyzing, but I don’t think so. Call me a nerd, but I find it sort of fun ;) Rather than hemming you in, it can open up a completely new view of a story. Once your mind gets going with character symbolism and themes, it can be like falling down a rabbit hole.

Yesterday I used the template to map out Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. After reading Dorian, I actually didn’t plan on posting about it at all. I really enjoyed the story but I didn’t think there was anything interesting to be said about it. The themes, the characters all seemed so obvious.

Now mapping the plot of Dorian Gray I didn’t find all that exciting. I did think it was funny how backwards and forwards the plot had gotten jumbled in my brain. But the plot summary did not really lead to any revelations for me. However, doing the Character, Theme, and Conflict analysis did lead me to some very interesting thoughts and I did appreciate the story more. I’ll be posting my formal analysis of Dorian Gray tomorrow, for now here is the analysis template I used.

Elements of literary analysis
Plot Summary
Character Analysis
Symbolism and Metaphor

Plot Summary
The narrative structure of a story is divided into 5 parts. Organize, by list or diagram, the events of the story into the following points using as few words as possible.
(Complicated stories may have multiple turning points.)

#1 Exposition (introduction)
Introduces the main characters, setting, and conflict.

#2 Rising Action (conflict complicated)
Secondary conflicts arise. Secondary adversaries hold protagonist back from his goal.

#3 Climax (turning point)
The turning point, for better or worse, in the protagonists affairs. When we first realize the conflict will be resolved.

#4 Falling Action (loose ends tied up)
Headed towards resolution, maybe with a final moment of suspense.

#5 Denouement (conclusion)
Characters return to normal state or resolution. May close with marriage or death.

The setting for a story includes the time, place, and social reality with in the story. Also includes how time passes with in the text.
The historical and social context in which the story was written should also be considered. Each tale is a product of its time and place.
The author’s biographical info can also be considered as context.

Character Analysis
Map the story’s characters by type

Protagonist: The main character(s) that causes a sympathetic reaction from the reader. Also the character that moves the action in the story forward. The protagonist is not always the primary focal character in the story (see below).

Focal Character: The focal character may be easily confused with the protagonist. The key difference is a reader should feel sympathetic towards the protagonist where as a focal character will trigger excitement and interest but not an emotional response. (Ex: Sherlock Holmes is a focal character)

Deuteragonist: The second most important character in the text, often the side-kick. (Ex. Ron Weasley in Harry Potter series)

Tritagonist: The third most important character in the text. (Ex. Hermione in Harry Potter series)

Antagonist: Character or group that opposes the protagonist. Often the villain but not always a character that is aware that they oppose. (Ex: Voldamort in Harry Potter. Ex 2: Patriarchal society in Jane Austen or Bronte novels)

Adversaries: Secondary to the antagonist, also opposes protagonist or focal character.

Foil Characters: Character opposites who highlight the differences between themselves, the protagonist, or the different routes the protagonist may take.

Narrator: Consider the narrator of the story as he/she relates to the characters. Narration may be 1rst person, 3rd person limited, or 3rd person omniscient. Is the narrator reliable or unreliable?

Themes are the subjects and topics addressed in the story. Not to be confused with the Conflict or the Moral.
Common themes include:
Friendship-Family-Individuality-Prejudice-Growing Up-Society-Love-Marriage-Lies/Deceit-Fear-Morality-Compassion/Sympathy-Justice-Foolishness/Folly-Greed-Courage-Money-Class-Memory-Isolation-Gender-Education-Religion-Death-Nature-Ageing-Revenge-Madness-Art/Culture-Jealousy-Dreams-Innocence

Symbolism and Metaphor
Separate from classifying the characters as literary types, you can decide if each or any of the characters symbolize something greater than themselves, a universal type, theme, vice or virtue.

A metaphor compares two distinctly different objects pointing out how the are alike.
Symbolism uses a person, place or thing to stand for a complex abstract idea, truth, feeling, or experience.
Both metaphor and symbolism are used to create a new and deeper meaning beyond the surface text.
Look for symbolism and metaphor in inanimate objects, weather, nature, colors, politics, religion, architecture, and art within the art (ie: references to other books, painting, etc)

The Conflict is the challenge that the Protagonist and/or Focal character faces. A conflict may be internal, relational, or external.
Universal conflicts include:
Character Vs Self – Character Vs Nature – Character Vs Society
Character Vs Character – Character Vs Supernatural – Character Vs Fate

From the author’s perspective, the moral of the story is the message about the human condition, or the world that we live in, that he/she hopes to illustrate with the text.
The reader may arrive at the author’s moral with a careful analysis of character, setting, theme, symbolism, and conflict. A reader may also see a completely different moral than the author, based on his or her own experiences.
As Oscar Wilde said, “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth”.