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:
1. Direct statements
2. Imagery and symbolism
3. A character’s thoughts or statements
4. A character who stands for an idea or
5. The total impression of the work?