Writing in Your Major

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Variations on a Theme: Common Types of Literary Analysis Papers

Specific kinds of assignments will definitely vary depending on the class you are in and who the professor is (the same topic can be approached very differently by different scholars). Below are some brief strategies and tips for writing some general types of papers you may encounter in literary studies (but this is by no means an exhaustive list): Close Reading, Theoretical, Comparative, Historical/Contextual, and Applied.

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Close Reading
  • Close reading is a term often used in literature courses. It refers to the process of reading a text, or a passage from a text, while paying close attention to details that might otherwise seem trivial. A character’s usage of certain words or their seemingly superfluous gesture; the imagery associated with a scene and how characters respond to it; syntax and tone of narration–these are all the product of choices that have been made by the author of the text. A better understanding of why these choices were made often lends a more insightful view of the text as a whole.
  • When an assignment requires close reading, it is rarely enough to have read the relevant material. A passage must be reread and scrutinized. Recalling certain details from the reading will only guide you to a passage of interest; it will not lead to the depth of analysis that such an assignment likely calls for.
  • A common essay assignment calls for you to close read a passage from a text.
    • The choice of passage may be the professor’s or your own, just as the focus of the analysis may be the professor’s or your own–it all depends on the assignment. The sample assignment below is of the more guided variety.
    • Choose a passage that interests you. Parts that were funny, awkward, difficult to follow, or anticlimactic often lead to interesting and fruitful analysis.
    • As is always the case with critical literature essays, the thesis is incredibly important. How do the details in the passage inform your reading of the work as a whole?
    • Close reading a specific passage does not mean that you should ignore the rest of the text. In most cases, citing others parts of the work are necessary in order to construct an argument about how details from the passage work on a larger scale.

Sample Assignment: This is an example of such an assignment from a 100-level English course. [Thanks to Professor Lindstrom for lending the use of his assignment.]

Sample Essay: This is a sample essay submitted for the assignment above.

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Theoretical
  • A paper geared towards explicitly learning and/or practicing literary theory could take many forms: applying a particular theoretical lens to a text, comparing and contrasting two different theories, an intense study of one particular theory, and so on.
  • Many times this kind of paper is designed to give you practice at studying texts using different theoretical lenses and aims to help you understand what a particular school of literary criticism believes the functions and limits of literature are.
  • When applying theories to literature, remember, as always, that it is your thesis that matters. Theory is a framework…it is what you do with it that is the core of any literary analysis. Many pieces of literary criticism do not even mention what approach is used. The approach is inherent in the argument the author makes. This is a good benchmark to help you assess the appropriateness of your argument given the theory you are tasked to explore.
  • This sample assignment is from a final English 086 (intro to literary theory and criticism) class and is designed to get you to engage in-depth with a particular theory of literature [thanks to Professor Stephen Schillinger for letting us use his assignment as an example].
  • Theory can be tough and confusing at first. And many theories of literature (though not all) are, rather than exclusive and independent, interrelated with one another and can be used in conjunction (e.g. a historicist-feminist reading). Ask lots of questions and stick with it!
  • Intersectionality is important because it refuses to look at factors like gender, race, sex and class in isolation; it is a concept that acknowledges how all of these realities inform identities in the "real world." Patricia Hill Collins defines intersectionality in this way: "Race, class, and gender are all interlocking categories of experience that affect all aspects of human life; they simultaneously structure the experience of all people in this society…they are overlapping and cumulative in their effect on people’s experience."
  • Writers can use this theoretical paradigm of intersectionality to delve deeper into issues that they are already familiar with: feminism and gender studies, queer theory, race and critical theory, global and postcolonial studies, etc. If you’re feeling stuck on a topic, or feel as though "everything has been said and done before" within a particular paradigm, draw on more than one theory and see how they intersect!
  • Click here to see a sample paper (written for English 281) that uses the theoretical lens of intersectionality to explore code switching in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Brief Overview of Major Theoretical Paradigms

Once you have a framework for your argument (and it is not always necessary to explicitly state it…in fact, most times you will not-it is just a way to get your thoughts organized and give some context to your argument), you're well on your way to writing a strong paper.

Remember: which paradigm might be appropriate (or even possible to use) depends on the kinds of questions you are asking of a text(s), which in turn depends on your particular class (and particular writing assignment) e.g., if you are in a postmodernism class and looking at how a particular text reflects the greater social anxieties/concerns of its 1970s context, a New Critical approach is not appropriate or possible. Always be clear about your professor’s expectations.

Hopefully this quick overview can help get your thoughts together:

  • New Criticism started in the 1930s in the United States. It focuses on removing a work from its historical context and judging it solely on the words we have in front of us. The technique of close reading arose from this movement. While it has the benefit of allowing us to interpret a work without anything" extra," some critics argue that historical and personal context is important to fully understanding a work.
  • Phenomenology began in the early 20th century with philosopher Edmund Husserl. It dismisses notions of objectivity, certainty, and totality and instead asks readers to explain the world as it is presented uniquely to them.
  • Structuralism was established in the 1950s primarily by a group of French intellectuals in direct opposition to phenomenology. The most prominent literary structuralists are Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. Structuralism focuses on how signs and signifiers interact to create meaning, and what that means for various cultures.
  • Deconstructionism (post-structuralism), founded largely by Jacques Derrida, evolved from structuralism. It aims to further clarify meaning by critiquing, blurring the lines between, and "teasing out" conceptual opposites-inside/ outside, mind/ body, literal/ metaphorical, speech/ writing, presence/absence, form/ meaning. To do this tries to prove not that the meanings of things are set in stone, but rather they are" constructed" by various systems. However, to deconstruct is not to destroy, but rather to make the deconstructed something's function clearer and richer.
  • Psychoanalysis evolved from Jacques Lacan and the works of Sigmund Freud and uses a highly specific, highly technical vocabulary most commonly associated with psychology in an effort to discuss the self as a function of language. Based on the Freudian concept of transference, where one getting analyzed associates a role with the analyzer, meaning arises from the relationship, not necessarily the events tied to it.
  • Post-Colonialism deals with increasing questions of Western hegemony since the 1980s and throughout history. How are subjects, cultures and meanings affected by European and American imperialism as well as imperialism in general?
  • Marxism, derived from the writings of Karl Marx, focuses primarily on economic critique, often exploring how identity is related to social class.
  • Feminism, in the strictest sense, aims to deconstruct the man/woman hierarchy by promoting women's rights and women's writings to offer a representation of an authentically female experience. In the school of French feminism, "woman" becomes synonymous with anything different from the norm – perhaps anything Other, as Simone de Beauvoir would say – to deal with the problems of patriarchal discourse.
  • Queer Theory aims to discuss not only issues of sexuality and identity, but to expose and analyze anything thought perverse or marginalized— things commonly dismissed or not given enough credit—to further understand and enrich meaning.
  • Historicism

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Comparative/Synergistic
  • A comparative essay is one in which you are called on to draw out similarities (sometimes also contrasts) between two or more elements. Most often, this will be between texts that have been covered in class, but it could also be between authors, genres, literary periods, or even between specific passages or characters in the same text.
  • The goal here is to make connections and draw conclusions based on your comparisons (i.e. you must have a thesis about whatever you are comparing that is based on looking at them together.
  • It is not enough to just compare and simply describe the similarities (and/or differences)—your thesis is what really matters. That argument will be the product of your comparison and will answer the broader question of “why is it important that these texts (authors, periods) be read together/studied closely against one another?” What can we learn from these similarities or differences? How do they help us understand the text(s) more fully?
  • Some strategies that might be helpful as your read/think about how to compare (and what the importance of these comparison are) include:
    • Venn Diagrams
    • Charts
    • Lists
  • Your particular assignment might be open to you (i.e. you can choose to compare any element of the text and craft an argument around that comparison), or your professor might ask you to compare/contrast very specific elements (the argument around those elements is still up to you to craft).
  • This example can give you a good idea of what this kind of assignment might look like [thanks to Professor Elizabeth Fenton for letting us use her assignment as an example].
  • Note that this assignment directly cautions against straight comparing or contrasting (i.e. simply figuring out the similarities/differences and stopping there). It asks for you to demonstrate dialogue of some sort between texts—i.e. using two texts to craft an argument that is only possible if we read them together (implying that there are things about each that are inherently similar or different and that this has important meaning, which you will argue with the thesis you craft). Your goal is to create a synergy between the texts, leading to an argument about how they work together construct America as an idea.
  • Note also that it is an example of an open assignment (described above)—you get to choose what texts and what in those texts to focus on in terms of how the texts “construct” America.

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Historical/Contextual
  • An analysis that focuses on the context of the text, or that views the text within its larger historical or sociocultural framework will often call not only for close reading of the text, but it may also require some additional research that will be used to help craft and support your argument (this is part of the theoretical school of historicism).
  • As with any other paper, your thesis is what really matters—the context is not the primary focus, but rather how the context affects your reading of the text and how the text is affected by its context.
  • Remember that the key here is to use your research on the historical and social context of the text to come up with a thesis on ho w the text and its context are related. This is not a history paper. One way to think about this particular methodology is as the attempt to study literature through history, asking how a text’s context can help us understand it more fully.
  • This sample prompt from a class on the early modern period and Renaissance literature can give you an idea of the kinds of questions that can be asked using this lens [thanks to Professor Stephen Schillinger for letting us use his assignment as an example].

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Applied
  • Sometimes professors will ask you to use a text in a somewhat less formal kind of analysis (though no less critical). This could be called a kind of applied essay and might ask you to use a text to explore certain kinds of issues and your own, personal relation to them.
  • An example of this kind of essay might ask you to explore issues of race or gender, identity, and your own experiences by using the text(s) read in class. Maybe it asks you to analyze a current event that echoes some of the important concepts brought up by a particular text that you have read in class, or envision that you are an editor who is working with two very difficult texts and must decide how/if they should be edited (and the implications).
  • Depending on the assignment, the applied essay could also be any of the kinds of essays described above.
  • The most important thing to remember about this kind of writing is that while it is a somewhat less “formal” kind of literary analysis and might rely heavily on your own personal anecdotes, voice, and experience, it is no less critical. The goal of the assignment is still to engage with and analyze the text as well as demonstrate an understanding of the text in light of the themes of the class.
  • Be sure not to just dismiss this kind of assignment as “fluff”! They are just as important and rewarding to write as other kinds of analyses and, for many writers, can help you engage with the text(s) and class in an even deeper way by allowing you to connect them to personal experiences and events (and thereby forcing you to think critically about them).

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