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Published: Friday 25th of January 2013

How-To Guide: Literary Analysis Essays

What many don’t know about literary analysis essays is that they’re not written purposelessly, but on the contrary, they can be extremely helpful most of the times. The main reason why people should resort to reading or even writing this type of essay is that it will help them examine and even evaluate an important aspect of a work of literature or even a work of literature as a whole. Just like in the case of any other type of analysis, you’ll have to break the matter down into smaller pieces and examine each of them carefully. This way, not only you will better appreciate the work of literature, but also understand it better.

When analysing a poem for example, the focus might be on the various types of images present in that poem, or the relationships that form between the content and the form of the work. When analysing a play, the focus might be on the relationships between the characters, between the main plot and a specific subplot or on the tragic hero’s character flaw by following the plotline to see how it’s revealed throughout the play. When analysing a short story for example, the focus is mostly placed on identifying a specific theme, such as the challenges one encounters when transiting from childhood to adolescence or from adolescence to adulthood, and on emphasizing the way the writer points that theme through the particular point of view of the character from which the story is presented.

NB: Writing is the more focused and sharpened expression of both study and thought. In time, you’ll improve your writing skills and as you do so, you’ll also notice that your perceptions and critical abilities will become better and better. The main purpose in writing literary analysis essays is to develop an idea and support it with arguments, so that the ones reading the essay are convinced by your arguments. In classroom discussions or in ordinary discussions about a specific work of literature, you don’t have to follow a strict line, as you can discuss about a certain matter, jump to another one and then return to the previous matter once more. In writing however, you must follow a line, stick to the particular point of development and not jump over certain aspects. Being organized is the key to success. Therefore, it’s a must that the essay has a central idea, several paragraphs which develop systematically from the central idea, so to put it simply, everything must be directly related to and revolve around the thesis (central idea) and must have a great contribution to the readers’ understanding of that thesis. Here’s a list of these three principles below, to make it easier to follow it:

  1. The essay must cover the specific topic you’re also writing about
  2. The essay must be written around a central idea, which is also stated in the thesis and which governs the essay’s development
  3. The essay must be organized and easy to read, so that it contributes to the readers’ better understanding of the central idea

What a solid essay should contain

The thesis statement

The main purpose of the thesis statement is to present the reader what to expect. The declarative sentence is supposed to present the point you’re trying to make with this essay. If you don’t give enough attention when conceiving the thesis, chances are your essay will not be successful. Here’s an example of some thesis statements which can be used for literary analysis essays that have between 500-750 words:

  • The imagery exposed in the poem “Fern Hill” written by Dylan Thomas presents the ambiguity of the relationship between nature and humans.
  • The main characters’ fate in the “Antigone” work emphasizes the danger that comes from excessive pride.
  • The poem entitled “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” written in 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks illustrates the way the poet utilizes the conventional poetic ballad form in order to emphasize the unconventional poetic subject of the controversial racial intolerance.

In most cases, the thesis statement is placed at the end of the last introduction paragraph.

The introduction

The introduction of the literary essay is probably the most important part, because it should capture the reader’s attention and interest. If it’s not well-written in an objective manner and doesn’t present the main purpose of the essay, there are high chances the reader will stop reading the essay from the very beginning.

It’s recommended to use quotations in the introduction part, a provocative question, a startling statement, some brief anecdotes or even a mixture of these. It’s also best to include some background details that are relevant to the thesis and that will help the reader better understand the subject you are tackling. Moreover, it is advisable you also mention the title and the name of the author for the work of literature you are writing the essay on. Here are two good examples of introductory paragraph that also contain thesis statements:

  • In the first paragraph of the short story entitled “The Secret Lion”, Alvaro Rios presents the point of view of a twelve-year-old boy related to the process of growing up and how everything changes during this. One significant event the narrator presents is the one with the magician that pulls a small tablecloth out from under a big stack of dishes. When he does so, children are both amazed and amused at the fact that everything stays the same, while adults tend to focus more on the tablecloth (42). Due to their experience, adults know that as long as the technique is executed correctly, the trick will always be successful. This is a great example to illustrate the way people change as they “grow up”, the way their knowledge and experience influences their perception on things and how they lose their sense of wonder and innocence as years go by. To put it simply, there’s a price people pay for growing up and that is having a permanent sense of loss. This is also the central idea of “The Secret Lion”, while the main theme revolves more around the idea that people cannot escape change and this is also accompanied by the sense of loss.
  • In the story entitled “A & P” and written by John Updike, the most essential aspect that also has a great impact on the reader is the description of the setting in which the story happens. This helps the reader understand why Sammy, the main character, decided to quit his job. Although Sammy is aware that by quitting his job will only bring more challenges to his life and make it more difficult, he still continues describing his point of view regarding the role of A & P in the story. Sammy doesn’t leave behind only a job, but also the rigid and rigorous state of mind that he associates with the A & P. What makes this story so special is that Updike takes as much time to invest in his main character as he takes to specify every detail related to the setting, as small or insignificant that detail may seem. Thus, both Sammy and the setting can be considered main characters in the story. The setting can even be seen as the antagonist of the story.
  • Saying there’s a man, a Renaissance duke, who decided to sent his wife away to a remote convent or, a more gruesome scenario, to murder her, for no other reason that she enjoyed the sunset too much and took pleasure in a compliment a man paid to her. What would you expect the husband’s character to be like? That’s the story that Robert Browning decided to portray in the poem entitled “My Last Duchess”. By analysing the Duke’s character, one can understand that his main traits (greediness, arrogance and jealousy) emerge clearly not only through his actions, but also through his way of interpreting earlier incidents and his internal dialogue.

The Body and the topic sentences

The body encompasses the greatest part of the development of the central idea in your literary analysis essay. Here’s where you include the paragraphs that support the thesis statement. If the essay has between 500-750 words, the body must include at least three paragraphs. Well-written literary analysis essays include detailed explanation of the ideas, as well as evidence from the work of literature that supports them. Worth mentioning is that textual evidence consists of direct quotations, particular details, paraphrase or even a short summary.

A topic sentence is needed for each paragraph. In most cases, this sentence is the first one of the paragraph and it is used to present one of the many topics that are associated with the thesis. There are two main reasons why topic sentences should not be missed from each paragraph:

  1. because they relate the details of each paragraph to the thesis statement
  2. because they help the readers understand the idea easier by tying all the details presented in the paragraph together

Each developmental paragraph, which constitute the body of the essay, will consist of the summaries and explanations, on paraphrases and direct quotations, as well as on some specific details to both develop and support the more general idea you have previously mentioned in the topic sentence. Here’s an example of a developmental paragraph that can be placed right after the introductory paragraph B mentioned above:


By taking a look at the way Sammy describes the A & P, it can be understood that the setting is monotonous, rigid and ugly. The reader can see uniformity in what Sammy describes, as the chain store that can be found both in the story and reality is seen as a regular fixture in modern society. The “checkerboard green-and-cream rubber tile floor” (486) is just as mildly cool as the light that appears fluorescent. Sammy also talks about the traffic in the store which he finds quite unusual, as everyone moves towards a certain direction, “except for the swim suited girls”, who follow the opposite direction. Everything is extremely well organized. Also, Sammy associates the shoppers with a pack of “sheep”, with “pigs” and with “house slaves” all together (486). He claims that they won’t be strayed from their routine not even by a dynamite.

What makes this paragraph strong and relevant is that it uses quotations, explanation, summary, as well as many details that help supporting the topic sentence. It’s clear how everything relates back to the central idea presented before.

The conclusion

It’s a must for a literary analysis essay to have a conclusion part. The main purpose of a conclusion is to comprise all ideas mentioned in both the introduction and the body parts of the essay and to provide a sense of completeness of it. When finishing reading the essay, the reader should be left with some clear ideas on what the essay was about and on what the main ideas were. There are several ways in which you can build the concluding paragraph:

  • By restating what you wrote in the thesis, but using different words
  • By making some relevant short comments on the literary work you’ve just analysed, but this time from a different perspective
  • By summarizing the main aspects and points you have attained in the essay

The conclusion should NOT be used as an introduction part for another topic. Here’s an example of a concluding paragraph with reference to the one mentioned above in introductory paragraph C of “My Last Duchess” by R. Browning:

The poem doesn’t reveal whether or not the Duke possesses any redeeming qualities. The author chooses to emphasize more the Duke’s traits (materialism, jealousy and arrogance) and presents them in a way that lets the reader understand that people who might have known the Duke’s character and known him personally, would have based their opinions related to him on these 3 major character flaws. At length, the reader will not form a favourable opinion of the Duke and from what can be understood, Browning didn’t intend anything else.

  • The title of the essay

The title is also a crucial part of the essay and you need to choose it carefully, as it is meant to attract the readers’ attention. The title of your literary analysis essay should describe the approach you choose to tackle in the paper. Using the title of the literary work as your essay title will not bring you the desired success. Be original and find something that would really make the reader say “I want to read this essay!”.

  • Audience

Another essential aspect you need to consider when writing a literary analysis essay is the audience you are writing for. Think about this essay as you would have it written for your professor and your colleagues or other students. You don’t have to “retell” the literary work once again, as they most probably have already read it and don’t expect for someone to tell them something they already know. Rather, you should take over the role of the interpreter or explainer of the work of literature and to present the specific elements that caught your attention, what they mean and how did you put them in relation to the thesis. The main purpose of your essay should be to provide relevant arguments with respect to the central idea and to draw some conclusions to it. Don’t resort to plot summary, as this will only make your essay irrelevant.

  • How to utilize textual evidence

First of all, textual evidence consists of paraphrase, summary, direct quotation and specific details. These ones are used within the literary analysis essay in order to support and illustrate the major ideas you are discussing and developing in the paper. Nevertheless, you should not exaggerate in using them. Utilizing them effectively and correctly within the essay is crucial with respect to reach success and obtain reader’s appreciation.


The best time to make use of paraphrase text is when you need to bring forth specific details of the original text, but without using the exact words present in the original. In other words, you use paraphrase when you want to express someone else’s words using your own words.


NB: What was mentioned above related to retelling the work and plot summary remains valid. However, you can still use summary as a textual evidence when you want to use a series of events presented in the work or a specific key event in order to support a point or an idea you are trying to make in your essay. A brief summary is necessary in such situations and it can be relevant to your essay if it helps you to illustrate a certain aspect by connecting it to your idea.

Direct Quotation

A top-notch literary analysis essay must contain direct quotation. Direct quotations are one of the best practices to support and illustrate the main ideas you are developing in your essay. They will make your ideas more convincing, more professional and clearer. Just as in the case of the other textual evidence methods, it’s vital you explain the way this evidence is relevant to your essay. In other words, ensure you tell the reader the reason why the quotes you cite are so important and relevant to the specific argument. Here are some guidelines when using quotations:

  • Brief quotations should have no more than four lines in the case of prose and no more than three lines in the case of poetry. They should be carefully introduced into the essay and should be wrapped in quotation marks. Keep in mind that page numbers should be specified whenever it is necessary. In some cases, the page numbers mentioned in parenthesis might be placed outside quotation marks, but not outside the period. In case you want to quote (no more than 3) poetry lines, make sure you separate them by a slash and provide line numbers (if necessary).
  • Lengthy quotations that have more than four lines. In this case, they should not be placed along with the text of the essay, but separated from it. For prose quotes that are longer than four lines, they should be intended around ten spaces from the left-margin, whereas for poetry quotes longer than three lines, they should be centred. In both cases, the quotation is double spaced. Important: in the case of lengthy quotes, quotation marks are no longer needed, due to the use of indentation. Also, if you need to specify the page numbers, you can place them in a parenthesis after the period of the last quoted sentence.
  • You may need to use brackets when you want to add certain words within the quotation in order for instance to explain who said those words or what those words refer to. For instance, if you have a “he” or a “she” present in the material you want to quote, but it would not be clear who that person might be, it’s advisable you mention the name within brackets. Brackets will help you separate your addition from the original text. Also, you can use brackets if you want to make changes with respect to the grammatical structure of the quote in order that it matches your sentence (for instance, adding the plural [s] to a word within the quote)
  • Ellipsis are used when you need to omit certain words from the original text source you choose to quote. You can use ellipsis anywhere within the quotation and it’s usually formed of three periods with one space between each period. However, if the ellipsis is placed at the end of the sentence, it has not three, but four dots, with the forth dot being the actual period that ends the sentence.
  • When reading other literary analysis essays, you might have encountered an unusual single line of spaced periods. You should know that this is used with poetry quotations, when the author of the essay decides to omit an entire line of poetry. Here’s an example on how you could quote certain lines from the Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”:

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The dropping of the daylight in the west,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, while the white mule

She rode around the terrace -- like and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech….

(Browning 24-30)

Punctuation with Direct Quotation

The most frequent mistake people make when utilizing direct quotation as textual evidence in their literary analysis essays is related to proper punctuation. Take a look at the list below to see what the conventions are when it comes to this aspect:

  • Utilize periods and commas INSIDE the quotation marks when you choose to include the quoted material within your own text. An example would be:
    • In “The Secret Lion”, the narrator sees the change as something “like a lion,” in the sense that its onset is both ferocious and sudden. => The comma is placed inside the quotation marks.
  • Utilize periods and commas OUTSIDE the quotation marks when you also need to include, besides the quoted material, the reference to line or page numbers wrapped in parenthesis. This is the right way to write it:
    • In “The Secret Lion”, the narrator sees the change as something “like a lion” (Rios 41). => The period is placed outside the quotation marks and right after the page number and author reference in the parenthesis.
  • When you include the quoted material within your own sentence and, at the same time, the sentence should contain a question mark or any other punctuation mark other than comma and period, place that punctuation mark outside the question marks. Keep in mind that this rule applies for the case in which that punctuation mark is NOT part of the quoted material you insert in your sentence. Here’s how you should write in each situation:
    • Not included in the original: What would be a relevant reason why the narrator of “The Secret Lion” would present the idea that the change was “like a lion”? => The question mark is not part of the quotation, because it doesn’t appear in the original source. Thus, it ends a question you are asking within your essay.
    • Included in the original: The Duke’s indignation with respect to the fact that his Duchess might like everything and everyone is clearly revealed when he states, “Sir, ‘twas all one!” (Browning 25). => The exclamation point is part of the original text, which means it must be included inside the quotation marks.
  • In case the original text you choose to quote already contains quotation marks (this is mostly encountered in dialogues from short stories, but not only), you must utilize both single and double quotation marks – the entire quoted material is wrapped in double quotation marks, whereas the dialogue part within the quoted material is wrapped in single quotation marks. Here’s an example:

Lengel has a discussion with Sammy with the intend of convincing the latter one to not quit his job. So Lengel says “‘Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad’” (Updike 486)

Final thoughts

No one said writing a literary analysis essay would be something easy or something that would only take half an hour to write. You need to take many aspects into account, but most importantly, you need to have a good reason why you start writing that essay in the first place. Regardless of the type of work of literature you choose to analyse, make sure you define your central idea from the very beginning and create the essay around it. Be clear, concise and relevant in your arguments and support each idea with the right arguments. This way, it will be easier not only for you, but also for your readers to understand the connection between the work of literature and what you are trying to point in your essay. Overall, by following all these guidelines presented in this article, you’ll definitely come up with a well-organized, structured and high quality literary analysis essay.