Analyzing novels & short stories

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen và exp& our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose và their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at khiêu vũ with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.

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— Anne Lamott

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Literary analysis looks critically at a work of fiction in order to lớn understvà how the parts contribute to the whole. When analyzing a novel or short story, you’ll need to consider elements such as the context, setting, characters, plot, literary devices, and themes. Rethành viên that a literary analysis isn’t merely a summary or đánh giá, but rather an interpretation of the work và an argument about it based on the text. Depending on your assignment, you might argue about the work’s meaning or why it causes certain reader reactions. This handout will help you analyze a short story or novel—use it khổng lồ form a thesis, or argument, for your essay.


Begin by summarizing the basic plot: “Matildaby Roald Dahl is about a gifted little girl in small town America who learns khổng lồ make things move sầu with her mind and saves her teacher & school from the evil principal.” This will help ground you in the story. (When you write your paper, you probably won’t include a summary because your readers will already be familiar with the work. But if they aren’t, use a brief summary to orient them.)


Research the author’s background và other work. This can give insight into lớn the author’s perspective and bias, as well as tell the reader what he might be commenting on. For example, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringsis about a group of friends who embark on an epic journey và fight a great war. Knowing Tolkien fought in the Battle of Somme during World War I and that his closest friends were killed helps explain his sentiments about war.

Other questions about context can stem from the story itself. Consider the narrator’s personality and their role in the story. In The Outsiders, the narrator is the character of Ponyboy Curtis & not the author, S.E. Hinton. Also consider who the narrator is addressing. At the end of The Outsiders, for example, you find out that the entire book was an essay for one of Ponyboy’s teachers, which makes the story seem more honest và real.


When and where a story takes place can be profoundly significant. Consider where the author’s story is placed và why the author made that decision. In Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, the setting is Italy, although Shakespeare was writing in England. He set his play elsewhere, in part, so he could make social commentary about Engl& without incurring the wrath of English rulers.

Rethành viên, many stories would be irretrievably altered if their setting were different & setting is, therefore, integral for interpreting the story’s meaning. For instance, the setting for Faulkner’s work—the American South after the Civil War—is essential lớn his overall message. Faulkner’s characters are people who can’t move sầu on, and through them he suggests that the South similarly can’t get past the Civil War and the wrongs of slavery.


Story lines usually follow patterns lượt thích those in the example below. Identifying essential plot points will help you to analyze, interpret, & explain the story.

Main Problem (Conflict): The plot hinges on some major problem, often a conflict between characters or an obstacle that must be overcome.

Ex. In Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, Matilda’s parents neglect her and the Trunchbull is evil khổng lồ everyone, including Miss Honey. The Trunchbull is Miss Honey’s aunt và cheated her out of her inheritance.

Climax: The high point of the action, when the conflict or problem could either be resolved or cause a character’s downfall.

Ex. Matilda uses her telekinetic powers lớn scare the Trunchbull inkhổng lồ believing the ghost of Miss Honey’s father is haunting her. The Trunchbull runs away, leaving Miss Honey her house và belongings.
Ex. Matilda’s family flees so her dad can escape prison, but Matildomain authority gets khổng lồ stay and live with Miss Honey.


Characters are the driving force behind stories, both major characters & minor ones, and authors use them lớn broadcast their most important messages. You won’t be able khổng lồ analyze every character, but pichồng out several important ones khổng lồ consider.

First, describe the character for yourself; next, consider why the character was portrayed in that way. The following are some guiding questions:

What are the character’s main personality traits? Why did the author give sầu hyên these traits?
Ex. In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the character Dumbledore is wise, calm, courteous, protecting, encouraging, powerful, và ambitious. As the story progresses, his faults và imperfections appear. Rowling creates Dumbledore as a force to protect và guide Harry.

What is the character’s role in the story? Is she the hero? The bad guy? A secondary character? Why did the author give her this role?

Ex. Dumbledore is the classic “teacher wizard” figure, in that he is all wise và has magical powers that others bởi not. People have sầu an instinctive trust in this type of character; he voices many of Rowling’s most important themes.

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Ex. Dumbledore’s morality is based on compassion, understanding, & respect for all. If the respected, powerful teacher says something, Rowling’s readers, & Harry, will be more likely to lớn believe it.
Ex. Readers find out that Dumbledore was not born wise & all knowing, but was ambitious và egotistical when he was young. His wisdom was gained through pain & tragedy. This illustrates Rowling’s theme that a normal, flawed person, with courage & love sầu, can save sầu the world.

What is the character’s relationship to lớn other characters and why? Why did the author create the relationships?

Ex. To Cornelius Fudge, Dumbledore is a threat because of his power and influence. In being frightened & resentful of Dumbledore, Fudge shows himself lớn be a weak man who blames others for his mistakes—Rowling’s phản hồi on government.

Literary Devices

Various literary devices help convey meaning or create a mood. Look for these in a story lớn identify key points và their contribution lớn the author’s overall meaning. The following are a few comtháng literary devices.

Allusion. An indirect reference khổng lồ another artistic work or person, sự kiện, or place (real or fictitious). The author makes the allusion with the intention that the well-known object will create an association with the new object in the reader’s mind. For example, the title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound & the Fury is an allusion to a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—a futile speech made by an embittered man who has ruined his life. Alluding lớn that speech in the title helps Faulkner phối the tone for his story of a family in ruins.

Foil. A character used to contrast a second, usually more prominent character in order lớn highlight certain qualities of the more prominent character. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Fortinbras is a foil for Hamlet in that he is unhesitating in action và war-lượt thích in nature; in contrast, Hamlet is thoughtful, analytical, and careful.

Foreshadowing. The use of hints or clues lớn suggest what will happen later in a literary work. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo và Juliet, Juliet tells her nurse khổng lồ find Romeo’s name: “Go ask his name. If he be married, my grave is like khổng lồ be my wedding-bed.” This foreshadows the danger of Romeo’s name being Montague và of Juliet’s death because of their marriage.

Irony. An implied discrepancy between what is said & what is meant. There are three kinds of irony: verbal irony is when an author says one thing và means something else; dramatic irony is when an audience perceives something that the characters don’t know; and situational irony is a discrepancy between the expected result & the actual result. For example, in Macbeth, the three witches recount the prophecies that must be fulfilled for Macbeth lớn fall. He therefore believes he is invincible—ironic because these prophecies cause his downfall.

Symbolism. The use of an object or action to lớn mean something more than its literal meaning. For example, in Faulkner’s The Sound và the Fury, one of the principle characters, Caddy, falls & stains her White dress when she’s a child. The stained dress symbolizes (and foreshadows) her later loss of purity. A character can also be equated with an object throughout a work, another size of symbolism. In Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, an aunt is repeatedly seen carrying an empty bag, which symbolizes her childlessness.


Themes are big ideas that authors bình luận on throughout a work using tools such as context, setting, và characters. Common themes are good vs. evil, human nature, religion, social structure, authority, coming-of-age, human rights, feminism, racism, war, education, sex, friendship, love, compassion, & death. Most books deal with multiple themes, some more obvious than others. Identifying an author’s themes gives you a starting place for your thesis. It gives you a general topic. However, a theme is general. You have sầu khổng lồ dig a little deeper khổng lồ identify the author’s statement or attitude about that topic.

Ex. Theme T.H. White’s The Once và Future King deals with the theme of authority, amuốn others.
Ex. Specific Theme Other Arthurian writers associate King Arthur’s greatness with military glory và valorous deeds. White is different in that he presents Arthur as a political innovator và implies that king is not great because of an aptitude for war, but because of his ability to lớn balance government strength & social justice.

Tying It Together

Once your analysis is complete, develop a thesis that makes an arguable claim about the text. It should connect one of the themes you’ve identified with specific proof from the text (i.e. setting, context, plot, characters, symbolism, allusions, etc.). Sometimes, you will also use the support of other analysts or literary experts.

Ex. Thesis Invà The Once và Future King, White shows that the ideal leader is not one of military strength, but one who balances government power và social independence. He achieves this through his satire of the knighthood, his depiction of Merlin’s philosophical experiments, & his portrayal of Arthur.

Rethành viên that a thesis for a literary analysis should NOT merely:

Summarize the plot (“The Once and Future Kingtells the story of the legendary King Arthur.”)Announce a general theme (“The Once and Future King gives important ideas about leadership.”)Offer a Review of the book (“The Once & Future King is a literary classic that everyone should read.”)

Before you begin khổng lồ write, check the assignment và follow your instructor’s specific guidelines.

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This work is licensed under a Creative sầu Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

Chuyên mục: literature