Most students cringe when they are assigned a literary analysis essay to write (also known as a critical essay). The reason for this is that they find it difficult to write about a work of literature with any authority. They are intimidated by the idea of developing their own interpretations about a text written by a famous author.

Relax. Remember that a literary text is not an authoritative document filled with all the answers. Readers interact with literature and bring as much to the work as the author does. A critical essay simply asks the reader to provide his interpretations, backed up with proof from the text.

What is a Critical Essay?

A critical essay is an in-depth analysis of a literary work. Writers develop a thesis based on interpretations of the text; they support their claims with evidence from the literary work and other sources.

Why Do Teachers Assign Critical Essays?

They certainly don’t assign these papers to torture their students! Writing a critical essay gives the writer (and reader) a deeper understanding of a text. It forces the writer to look deeply into the work and find meaningful interpretations. This kind of in-depth analysis develops essential critical thinking skills that students will take with them for life.

Choosing a Literary Work

Many instructors will assign a text for students to analyze. But if your instructor has given you a choice of literary works, begin by choosing something that interests you.

Don’t pick a story that you think will win you points with your instructor or a work that you think will be an easy read. Choose something that you feel has a great deal of material to “sink your teeth into.” If you find yourself asking questions of the text as you read, this is a good sign that the text is rich for interpretation.

Choosing a Topic

This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. You have read the text; where do you go from here? Begin by looking at the main literary features of the work:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Narrator
  • Theme(s)
  • Symbols
  • Figurative language

Then get curious. Ask yourself why the author made certain choices about one or more of these literary features.

Brainstorm a list a questions you have about the story.

Why did a character make a particular decision?

Why did the author choose that ending?

Why is the story set in that location?

Why did the author choose to tell the story from that point of view?

What is the overall message or lesson of the story?

Once you have created your list of questions, you can narrow it down to the topic that interests you most.

Developing a Thesis Statement

Use the question you chose as the basis for your thesis statement. Decide what your answer will be, then write out the answer: there is your thesis.

Don’t worry about your answer being “right” or “wrong.” Remember that the text does not hold all the answers.

It is up to you as reader to develop your own interpretations. In general, if you can support your claims with direct evidence from the text, you have a good argument.

Gathering Evidence

The support for your thesis statement will come mainly from the text itself. Scour the work to find direct quotes that will support your ideas. Do not give a full plot summary! This is not a review. Your references to the text should be directly related to your own interpretations. If you use outside sources, be sure to document them properly.

With these tools, you are well on your way to an effective literary analysis.

Last modified: Monday, 7 May 2012, 10:51 PM