Analyzing a literary work doesn’t always begin with a process of understanding the purpose of the author. As the student reader, sometimes you can’t always figure out what the main objective of the text is or for what reason the author has written the work. The author may have written the short story for pure enjoyment. Sometimes authors, in general, write for publication. Sometimes they write because it is therapeutic; for example, writing helps them to move past emotional pain. Although they may begin the process of writing with a multitude of aims, they don’t typically write to appeal to you as the reader. In other words, while they are in the process of writing, they don’t consider how a word or how a character description will impact you as the reader. Doing this will hinder the process. They just write and we, as students, take their work and discuss it.
Within the classroom, professors give (lecture) students information about the author’s name, a list of previous works, and the prevailing thought about the author and his/her influence on the literary canon. As part of the learning process, professors then instruct students to write papers in order to demonstrate their understanding of literary themes that permeate the author’s work. Where students run into problems is when it comes to writing and developing an analysis. Students don’t always know how to analyze. In other words, they don’t know how to take a chunk of material, break it into manageable parts, take one part at a time, and examine and evaluate each part. They let the task of coming up with an analysis intimidate them and they run to the first available resource they can find to fill up the essay. Developing an analysis takes time and patience. It is a skill that can’t be learned in one semester. Similarly, analyzing the literary text without any other secondary influence takes even more patience. You have to flex your own intellectual muscles in order to discover the hidden treasures of the text.
Pushing everything else aside, what can the student learn about a particular literary work? What steps are most beneficial to students who struggle with examining and evaluating the literary text? Step 1: Study the introduction and conclusion paragraphs. Examine wording in the text that indicates imagery. The word imagery refers to pictures and descriptions. Ask yourself questions about why you think the author places certain words within the paragraphs. Describe what they mean in terms of the context the author provides. Examine the text to determine also how the author introduces the main character in the first few paragraphs. If the main character is not present within these paragraphs of the story, then consider this in your analysis. Skip down to the end of the story. Search for the main character within the conclusion paragraph. If the main character is present within the conclusion paragraph, then determine the significance of how the author positions the main character within your papers.
Step 2: Learn as much as you can about the main character. When professors give students an assignment to write about a particular literary work, students never focus on the main character. Instead they merely provide a summary of the main character and provide in-depth information about the themes and ideas expressed from the professor through classroom lecture. Keep in mind that professors don’t lecture so that their work can be included in your papers. Professors present a structure of ideas based upon the canon. Your job as the student is to apply some of those ideas to “your” analysis. To understand the text is to understand the main character. This may make it easier to discover the author’s purpose. The main character is the anchor of the text. Wherever you see the main character, study his/her actions, statements, and activities within each paragraph and/or context. No one else in the story exists without the main character, so examine the actions of secondary characters in relation to the actions of the main character. Examine how the author presents the main character.
Pay close attention to what the main character says about him/herself. Treat the main character as if he or she is a person you are interested in getting to know better. Once you are able to do this you can better assess how the author uses the character in the work. Step 3: Investigate relationships. The main character is always in relationship with someone else in the story. The other person could be a husband, a child, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover, a boss, and/or a passerby. Classify relationships within the text. Draw a multiplications table in which you place the names of secondary characters in the first column and the types of relationship in the first row. Once you are able to locate these relationships within the text, describe each action of the main character in relation to other characters. Step 4: Evaluate how the author uses the antagonist. How the author uses the antagonist in the story is very important.