English 1302 ONL / Skrabanek


What Is Analysis?

The assignments you complete in this course will be exercises in literary analysis and interpretation.
The exams also will emphasize analysis and interpretation. This document will give you basic information on analyzing short fiction.

Basic Concepts
The Analytical Process
Writing About Fiction
The Basic Questions of Analysis
Thinking Analytically
A Note about Symbolism
Analyze This

Basic Concepts

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:

  • A plot summary is a brief informative report of what happens in a literary work (the facts of the story).
  • An interpretation is a logical analytical conclusion about a work based on the facts of the story.
  • A literary analysis is a careful examination of the mechanism of a literary work and a discussion of how that mechanism functions to reveal meaning.

    To make an interpretation effectively, you must base it on a set of facts. Here's a simple interpretation. You have nine dogs. Five are white, and four are black. The logical conclusion you can make from this set of facts is that you have more white dogs than black dogs.

    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.

    The Analytical Process

    Begin the effective analytical process with an open mind and several assumptions.

    Writing About Fiction

    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.

    Assume that the reader of your analysis has read the story in question but doesn't quite get it. Inform your reader about the story and its meaning. Be direct and specific in your writing. Explain the story to your reader using analytical statements, not plot summary; use plot events to support your analytical claims. But the obvious emphasis of your essays should be on analysis, not plot review. You as the analyst should indicate the analytical conclusions and provide evidence. Don't expect the reader to assume or infer your conclusions.

    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.

    The Basic Questions of Analysis

    When you begin the analysis process, you must ask and answer some key questions:

    When you are able to answer these questions about a story, you have made a fair start of the analytical process.

    Examples of Literary Analysis

    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.


            In E.A. Robinson's poem "Richard Cory," all the poor villagers admire and envy the wealthy and debonair Richard Cory. Cory displays all the traits and qualities the villagers lack. To the villagers, Cory possesses all the things that make life good--nice clothes and good manners, good food and wealth, education and grace. Then, for some unknown reason, Cory suddenly commits suicide.

            Robinson uses situational irony in his poem "Richard Cory" to show that the grass is not always greener on the other side. To develop his irony, Robinson contrasts the somewhat envious portrait of Cory by the villagers to Cory's sad plight. Though the villagers think Cory has a good life, obviously Cory disagrees. Though the villagers desire all the things Cory has, obviously Cory needs something more. The villagers' envy causes them ultimately to curse their fate. But no doubt they are confused and dismayed to hear that Cory's "good life" has ended in ironic suicide.


            In Act III, Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius. Claudius is kneeling in prayer, and Hamlet spies on him. But Hamlet does not act, and Claudius lives longer.

            Shakespeare uses Hamlet's procrastination in Act III to seal the young prince's doom. Hamlet and Claudius are alone, and Claudius is unarmed. Hamlet could easily kill his uncle. But Hamlet perceives Claudius's prayers as penance, something Hamlet's father did not enjoy. Hamlet wants to send Claudius straight away to hell, so he cannot act during Claudius's plea for mercy. Hence, Hamlet's tragic flaw of procrastination in Act III leads to his death in Act V.

    Thinking Analytically

    There are two kinds of thinking required in analysis of fiction.

    To be successful in analysis of fiction, you must employ both kinds of thinking, and you must be able to pose and answer the why questions. Most importantly, you must trust your own ideas.

    In my opinion, writing is a craft; thinking is an art--in all fields. A brilliant mathematician is an artist. A brilliant painter or poet is an artist. Most anyone can write a fairly comprehensible paragraph: monkeys can type, and computers can construct grammatically correct essays. But is such writing interesting? Does it make sense? Probably not. Anyone can put slips of paper in a shoebox, but is that a good filing system? Is retrieving such information easy or efficient? The brain/mind is a giant filing system. The better the organization and retrieval system, the more effective (smarter) the brain/mind. Thinking helps to develop a better neuro-network.

    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 Note about Symbolism and Opposites

    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:

    Opposites such as these can help you to understand the central character's situation better.

    Analyze This

    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?

    As noted above, the papers you write for this course are to be objective, interpretive analyses, so avoid the use of first-person and second-person pronouns. Limit your use of direct quotes to no more than 10% of the total word count of the essay. Now, let's get those brain juices flowing!

    D.W. Skrabanek 2007-2014
    English/Austin Community College
    Last update: May 2014