Analysis is an interpretive process that draws conclusions from a set of facts.
When you write an analytical essay, you must make that interpretive process apparent to your reader.
For our purposes, the following definitions will apply:
When you make an interpretation, you must make the reader aware of the facts that allow you to make the conclusion.
If you provide the facts, the reader can then more readily agree (or disagree) with your conclusion.
For example, you might write:
He had short black hair and steely gray eyes. His face was square, his nose Roman. He was a ruggedly handsome fellow.
The first two sentences provide the facts, and the third sentence presents the interpretation.
Or you might write:
At the beginning of the story, the woman is dissatisfied with her role in life. She is tired of her household duties and wishes she could try new things. She feels her life is without merit. At the end, she gains a great sense of self-satisfaction and self-accomplishment when she wins the grand prize ribbon at the state fair. As a result, she can be considered a dynamic character.
The first three sentences provide the facts, and the fourth sentence presents the interpretation, an analytical conclusion.
Begin the effective analytical process with an open mind and several assumptions.
When you write about fiction, you must closely examine (and think about) the material. An analysis of fiction is not simply an identification of literal images or events in the story. Those literal images or events are facts of the story, and you would present them as part of your plot summary or as support for your analytical conclusions. The analytical conclusions you make are the essence of analytical writing about fiction. Some analytical conclusions might be who the central character is, whether the central character is static or dynamic, what the central conflict is, what the climax is, what the tone of the story is, what a symbol in the story means, and so forth.
Here are the three steps to a good analysis:
1. Make a direct analytical claim. (The central character is dynamic. The central conflict is . . . . The climax of the story is when . . . .)
2. Provide evidence from the story by identifying a specific plot event or character action--the facts of the story.
3. Explain the link between the analytical claim and the evidence, if necessary.
Example: The climax occurs [analytical claim] when Mrs. Ames goes down in the drain with the plumber [fact of story].
Important: Do not make vague references to broad parts of the story, and do not make analytical claims without support.
Do not place the burden of understanding on the reader. Explain how your quotes or plot events reveal or support your analytical claims.
When you begin the analysis process, you must ask and answer some key questions:
Be aware that literary analysis is not the same as plot summary. A plot summary tells what happens in the story. The events are known as the facts of the story. A literary analysis tells how the author has used certain basic elements of fiction such as character, conflict, and setting. An analysis uses facts of the story to support logical conclusions about the story, such as whether the central character is static or dynamic. Here are some examples showing the difference between plot summary and literary analysis.
Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is about a woman going insane. To recuperate from childbirth, the woman, Jane, is prescribed rest and inactivity by her physician-husband, John. But she resents her idleness and tries to write a journal. In her solitude she comes to hate the wallpaper in her bedroom. She comes to see it as a pattern of bars with a woman imprisoned behind. Jane's mental condition seems to worsen throughout the story, but John pays this little mind. Finally, Jane sees herself as the imprisoned woman in the wallpaper. To free herself, she rips the paper from the wall. By the end, Jane is hopelessly insane.
Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is about women's place in society. In the story, a young woman, Jane, has a restrictive lifestyle imposed upon her. She is imprisoned in a role. She is to bear and nurse children. Beyond that, she is to do nothing. Indeed, her room is barred and her bed nailed down. She rebels against this social role and keeps a secret diary. She comes to view her bedroom's wallpaper as a prison of bars without sense, much as she views society. She sees herself as confined by these bars. By the end, though, she is "out at last." The rebellious part of Jane refuses to succumb.
There are two kinds of thinking required in analysis of fiction.
As noted above, two kinds of thinking are involved in analysis. The first kind is literal thinking, which gauges your reading comprehension and your ability to identify facts and sequence. Suppose you are asked: What is the setting of "Guests of the Nation"? If you read the footnotes, you probably know that the setting is Ireland. With literal thinking, you have two shoeboxes--one called Setting of this story and the other called Ireland--with a single path running between them. This kind of thinking is not unlike the series circuit in electricity.
Analytical or interpretive thinking (doesn't matter if the topic is short fiction) is more like the parallel circuit in electricity. A web of paths is developed to a bunch of shoeboxes. Suppose you are asked: How does Frank O'Connor use the contrasts of light and dark in the setting of his story? A literal mind would add a third shoebox along the one path, note that it is dark at night, and leave it at that. An analytical mind would set up a bunch of shoeboxes and fill each with something related to light, dark, setting, and the story. At a minimum, an analytical mind would set up shoeboxes for "Guests of the Nation"; setting; light; dark; when and where it is dark; when and where it is light; what happens when it is dark; what happens when it is light; assorted similarities and differences. Then, the analytical mind would run back and forth on the many paths between all the shoeboxes, trying to make the pieces fit together in a puzzle. So consider analytical thinking like puzzle-making, putting together a big jigsaw puzzle.
The more your brain thinks, the more paths you have, and the stranger (yes, stranger) and perhaps more insightful connections you can make. Your brain gets stronger, smarter. Your writing gets better because you have more things to say. You have more shoeboxes that are more easily accessible during the writing/formulating process. A parallel circuit is always more robust than a series circuit. If one light bulb goes out on a series circuit, they all go out. Some wealth of ideas, huh?
Which brings us to perhaps the most important consideration of all, the beer keg. So, you're at the beer keg, minding your own business, and this nerdy fellow walks up and begins a long sequential discussion of a singular topic, say the history of race-car video games, and you don't really give a rat's behind. How long do you want to stay and listen to that? Is it interesting? Maybe for a little while, but isn't there something else to talk about? That's all you know, buddy? Hmm. Series circuits all around us. The beer keg is, of course, a metaphor--little pathways light up all over the brain--for social interaction. Why are people interesting? What makes for good conversation? Well, duh, having something interesting to say, and almost always, abstract thinking is more interesting than literal thinking.
Sidney J. Harris suggested that "The primary purpose of ... education is to make one's mind a pleasant place in which to spend one's time." Do you want to spend your time with a lazy file clerk or a brilliant artist?
A few comments about symbolism. The American flag is a piece of cloth with alternating red and white stripes and fifty white stars on a field of blue. Those details are facts related to the piece of cloth. Is the flag only and absolutely a piece of cloth? Or do you accept it as a symbol of this country? If so, why? Taken literally and without further consideration, it is only a piece of cloth--end of story.
But often it is elevated to another level--a symbolic level--based on associations not necessarily inherent in the cloth itself. Do the thirteen stripes mean anything more than thirteen stripes? Do the fifty stars mean anything more than fifty stars? Not on the literal face of the flag, no. So how does the piece of cloth become a symbol? Where do those associations and secondary meanings come from? The abstract thinking of the viewer, or in the case of fiction, the reader. The situation in a symbolic story is no different than the consideration of the flag.
An effective and efficient analysis can be rendered by observing a series of opposites in the story. When you identify these opposites, you should have a good handle on the story. With this mechanical analysis, you build a framework on which to hang other interpretations.
Look for these opposites:
To get you started thinking analytically, consider the following famous haiku by Basho. I want you to think about the haiku and what point the author is trying to make. (Please do not go searching for a source on this haiku or the other stories you will read and analyze this semester; use your own ideas. You should use secondary sources only on those assignments that have a research component.)
As you can see from the haiku, not much is revealed, so you will have to do some serious thinking. I will give you some tips, though, on how to approach the haiku. The first line is the setting; the second line is an action; and the third line is the crux of the poem, the moment of "ah-ness" at which the poet essentially says, "Ah, yes!" So what is the "ah-ness" that Basho is trying to convey?
An ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
The facts of the haiku are that a frog jumps into an ancient pond and makes a splash. But that is not analysis, only summary.
Think about the poem for a while and write down an interpretation before you continue. What is the nature of the frog in relation to the nature of the pond, especially in regard to age? And what happens when the two meet? On a related note, have you looked at the moon lately or picked up a rock?