The study of literature, or literary analysis, details the ability to interact with, evaluate, and interpret literature on a deep level. Though based primarily on theory, many would claim that modern day literary analysis has become more of a science; the application of literary techniques to develop interesting and meaningful hypotheses using evidence and inference found in the text. When one thinks of English literature, immediately images of Shakespeare, Chaucer and medieval playwrights spring to mind. Today, however, the ability to analyze and understand the deeper meaning in everyday works such as newspapers, political articles, and advertising is a highly valued one and of great use in a variety of professions and careers.
The ability to "read between the lines" is a valuable life skill to possess and will help you progress in a variety of fields such as law, history, journalism, advertising, marketing, and business. The list is endless.
For these reasons alone, the ability to fluently and confidently interpret the world around you more effectively is invaluable. Not only could this help with a future career, but a greater understanding of the abstract could help you alter your whole world perspective by allowing you to see things in a different light. For example, the next time you see an advertisement for McDonald's or Burger King on television, instead of merely taking in the superficiality, you may pick up on the clever advertising techniques used to appeal to certain target audiences; the use of alliteration for younger audiences perhaps, or the use of parody to elicit a positive response in connection with the advertisement, thus subconsciously associating McDonald's as something that appeals to you - making you more likely to buy a burger!
Whether you'd like to be able to write a compelling and immersive novel, interpret the world around you more effectively, or simply be able to relate to texts such as Romeo & Juliet, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, or A Catcher In The Rye, literature analysis is an enjoyable and invaluable skill to possess!
For those of you interested in learning more about literature, the website Guidelines for Writing a Literary Critical Analysis provides a good introduction to the basic principles. To familiarize yourself with some respected literary critics, as well as get a feel for the level of work you should be aspiring to, the Times Literary Supplement is an excellent starting point.
On a level appropriate for a student seeking college homework help, a great online tutorial for literature is offered by MIT's OpenCourseWare and is titled Writing About Literature.
Writing a Literary Essay
Your professor has just assigned you a literary essay to write and turn in to him or her. You have no idea of what a literary essay is, let alone what to do for it.
The first thing to understand is that a literary essay involves literature and the discussion of some aspect of it. For example, if you have been assigned a literary essay on Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, you may want to write it on Sydney Carton's role as a Christ figure in the novel.
The second thing is that a literary essay involves some kind of literary criticism. It also involves analysis of the literary work you are writing about for your essay. Roane State Community College's "Types of Papers: Literary Analysis" is a good link to visit when writing a literary essay, because it offers useful things to think about that will help you as you write your essay.
The third thing is that a literary essay can be about any aspect of a literary work, particularly aspects that interest readers, and that help center the work and/or carry its message. These aspects include characters, theme(s), imagery, the use of symbolism, language, and plot. All of these are good to analyze and write about in a literary essay because they tend to be the major parts of a literary work, and help keep it together and communicate its message. For example, if you are writing about Toni Morrison's Sula, the themes and characters are major parts of the novel, and you may want to write about and analyze them in your essay for this reason. As another example, if you are writing about Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the themes and characters are not only major aspects of that novel, but imagery plays a strong role in conveying its message, and you may want to analyze the imagery in it as part of writing your literary essay to show how it conveys the novel's message.
You will need to use outside sources, such as literary criticism, to support points you make in your essay, and you will need to cite and document those sources in order to give the scholars who created them credit for them, and to avoid plagiarism. MLA (Modern Language Association) style is the preferred citation and documentation style to use in the humanities, including English. You can find out more information on MLA and how to use it at the Modern Language Association's page on MLA style, "What Is MLA Style?", and at the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab). You can also read The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition, for more information on how to use MLA style to cite and document your sources in your literary essay and other papers, and also to format your paper. It can be found at any bookstore, brick-and-mortar, as well as online, including at Amazon.com, and in any library.
When looking for outside sources, use your college or university's library and the article databases on its website to find them. Article databases to use to search for literary criticism include JSTOR and Academic Search Complete, to which most college and university libraries subscribe, and which feature numerous articles dealing with literature and literary criticism from which to pick and choose in your research. You can also use print books and ebooks for your research for your literary essay. If you are unable to find something, or you have no idea of what to look for, do not be afraid to ask a librarian for help. Librarians know what resources exist for your subject, and can help you find the right sources for your essay. If you find mention of a source that is not held at your library, use Interlibrary Loan to obtain it. Interlibrary Loan obtains materials from other libraries for a library's users, and putting in a request with it for a source you need will ensure that it gets to you. Therefore, do not hesitate to use the services your library provides to obtain sources for your essays.
When writing your literary essay, follow the format of introduction (with thesis statement), body, and conclusion that you use for other essays. This gives your literary essay structure and a backbone, and puts your ideas in an easy-to-read form. Organizing your ideas for the essay in an outline before writing it can help you know how to proceed with writing it. A visit to your college or university's Writing Center will help you with creating an outline for your essay if you have never attempted one before, as well as with other aspects of essay writing from start to finish, including properly citing and documenting your outside sources.
Do not be afraid to ask your professor for help if you do not know what to do for your literary essay. He or she can give you ideas to help you write it, and achieve a good grade on it. He or she can also give you ideas for topics if you do not know what to write for it, and may even assign topics for you and your whole class.
More sources that can help you with writing your literary essay are Northeast Alabama Community College's "How to Write a Literary Analysis" and North Carolina State University's "Never Written a Literary Essay Before? Literary Criticism Research Guide". Do check out Marshall University Libraries' English LibGuides for a list of books on literature and literary criticism that may also be available at your library.
All the sources listed will prove helpful to you as you research for and write your literary essay. They may also provide more sources for you to obtain and use as you write it.
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