Literature Essays

Writing guide
Posted on February 1, 2008

Successful literature essay focuses on an imaginative work and discuss how certain passages are related to your interpretation.

Literature is related to the humanities disciplines that are considered to be text-centered disciplines. In literature courses, your texts will be imaginative works: poems, plays, novels, and films. As a student of literature, you may compare and contrast works of the same author, responding to assignments, at least in part, informative. During your education you will complete different types of essay assignments that will vary not only by topic but also by the essay structure. There are several types of structures that you will use in your essays depending on the purpose.

Making Arguments

The purpose of making arguments in literature is to interpret texts and to defend interpretations as reasonable. No one will expect your arguments to end all discussion of a question but your arguments definitely should be convincing and well supported. The goal of an argument in the literature is reached when you understand the point of view of the author in full. You should therefore not expect to read—or write — a single, correct interpretation of a play. Instead, you should interpret the text and argue your point of view. One interpretation, argued well, can be clearly superior to and more compelling than another. It is an everlasting cycle because students of literature pose different questions and examine texts using different methods producing different interpretations, opinions, and arguments.

You would in every case be arguing for an interpretation, and in every case your argument would be more or less convincing, in light of the conventions for arguing in the literature essay. You can help yourself focus on the purpose of argumentation in your literature classes by posing these questions:
• What sorts of questions will I investigate in this course?
• What sorts of texts will I be reading?
• To what extent will I be making interpretations?

Claims, inferences, evidence

In your literature essay you may be asked to write a claim on the assigned text. When you decided on your claim you should justify it to readers by referring them to specific passages in the text. Each such reference would count as evidence in support of your claim. Especially in literature, evidence usually involves a reference to some primary source — a poem, a novel, a letter, or journal entry. There is a common pattern of claim and support in the literature essay:

1. You make a claim that commits you to an interpretation of the text.
2. You support the claim by referring to a source.
3. Optionally, you comment on the source, linking it to the claim.

In literature, sources that you use and what you write about them are connected in concrete ways to a story, imagined or actually lived by the author. An analysis of literature text is built by linking many cycles of claim, reference, and comment according to an overall plan, or thesis. When you write a literature essay for your class, don’t forget to apply these cycles, they are very helpful not only in producing the paper but even in starting it.


In your literature classes you might be asked to write an analysis of some literature text in your essay. In analyzing a short story or novel, for instance, you might focus on characters, themes, plot, or structure. You might analyze a poem for its rhymes, meter, or symbols. These features give literary texts their meaning, though the meaning of a work will never be a simple sum of its analyzed parts.

When you are conducting a literary analysis in your essay consider the following features:
Characterization Who are the main characters? What are their qualities? Is each character equally important? Equally well developed?

Language What devices such as rhyme, meter, and pauses does the author use to create special emphasis? How does the author use metaphors and choose words to create visual images? In what ways are these images tied to the meaning of the text?

Narrator, Point of View Who is speaking? What is the narrator’s personality and how does this affect the telling? Is the narrator omniscient in the sense that he or she can read into the thoughts of every character? If not, how is the narrator’s vision limited?

Plot How does the writer sequence events so as to maintain the reader’s attention? Which actions are central? How are other, subsidiary actions linked to the central ones? What patterning to the plot do you see? Are there ways in which the plot’s structure and theme are related?

Structure In what ways can you (or does the author) divide the whole poem or story into component parts — according to theme? Plot? Setting? Stanza? How are these parts related?

Setting Where does the story take place? How significant is the setting to the meaning of the text?

Symbolism Are any symbols operating, any objects that create for readers emotional, political, religious, or other associations? If so, how do these symbols function in the poem, story, or play?

Theme What large issues does this text raise? Through which characters, events, or specific lines are the questions raised? To what extent does text answer those questions?

You will be able to observe at least several of the following features in the poetry, fiction, and plays that you read. Conduct your analysis of a literary text by reading closely and identifying passages that illustrate one or more of these features. Discussions of specific features should reinforce one another so that your analysis is unified and presents a single, coherent interpretation.

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