A lesson in Beginning Literary Analysis: Fiction

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A Lesson in Beginning Literary Analysis: Fiction

by Dixie G. Dellinger, MA 2002

California State Standards: 3.0 Literary Response and Analysis

  1. 3.7 Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text: Recognize and understand the significance of various literary devices, including figurative language, imagery, allegory, and symbolism, and explain their appeal.

  2. 3.11 Literary Criticism: Evaluate the aesthetic qualities of style, including the impact of diction and figurative language on tone, mood, and theme, using the terminology of literary criticism (Aesthetic Approach).

Objective: The purpose of this lesson is to introduce the concept of analyzing literature and to give the student writer a vocabulary and a structure to begin writing about literature.

I. Determining Theme and Writing the Thesis.

  1. The Elements of Literature. Read the following paragraph and notice not only the basic terms of literary analysis, but also their relationship to each other. All of these terms lead to the purpose of fiction: for a reader to make meaning, which we call THEME! We make meaning when the reader and text meet together.

The writer of fiction creates some people [CHARACTERS], puts them in a time and place [SETTING], has things happen to and around them [PLOT], lets them talk to and about each other [DIALOGUE], and creates a person [NARRATOR] to tell the story from a position [POINT OF VIEW] in language [DICTION; SYNTAX] using devices of figurative language [IMAGERY, METAPHOR, SIMILE, SYMBOLISM, etc.] so that the reading makes meaning [THEME].

  1. Early Autumn” by Langston Hughes. As I read this incredible short story aloud, take notes on the following terms:

CHARACTERS: ____________________________________________________
SETTING: _________________________________________________________
PLOT: _____________________________________________________________
DIALOGUE: _______________________________________________________
NARRATOR: _______________________________________________________
POINT OF VIEW: ___________________________________________________
DICTION: _________________________________________________________
SYNTAX: __________________________________________________________
FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (imagery, metaphor, simile, symbolism, etc.)

  1. Consider the following questions when analyzing literature:

    1. What is the story about? For example, maybe it’s about loss. This is called TOPIC. NOTE: Don’t state, “It’s about this man and this woman” … that’s not what the story is about, it’s what the story is. We are not aiming for plot summary!

    1. What does the story say to you about that topic? This is called THEME (when a reader makes meaning of the text). State, “It says that one never forgets a past love.” NOTE: Answer the question in a complete sentence.

  1. NEXT, write a thesis statement using ATT&T (Author, Title, Topic, & Theme). See the following examples:

● Langston Hughes’ short story, “Early Autumn”, is about the loss of love and it states that time changes all things, even love.

● Langston Hughes’ short story “Early Autumn” is about regret and it states that one never ceases to regret losing a first love.
Your thesis statement: _____________________________________________

    1. Analyzing the Story.

Now, we are ready to analyze the story. As you look over your lists of story elements, listen as I read the story aloud again … add to your list as needed.

THINK: Which of the elements enable you to make meaning of the text (theme)? Turn to your story and annotate the text in your packet.

  1. Is it the characters? John and Mary are the most common names in English; does that mean it is everyone’s story?

  2. Is it the setting? What does autumn mean? (A dying down ... growing cold) It is early evening.

  3. Is it the plot? Nothing much happens; a man and woman who were once in love meet again, exchange a few words, and part again. Is it what happens, or what does not happen, that makes meaning for you?

  4. Is it the dialogue? Only John and Mary speak, and only to each other, and they don’t say much. Is it what is said, or what is not said, in which you make meaning?

  5. Is it the narrator’s point of view? Do you see the thoughts of either John or Mary? When? Notice the shift in “the lights down Fifth Avenue blurred, blurred and twinkled.” Whose point of view is that?

  6. Is it the diction, syntax, and figurative language? It is all plain and simple. Is that what gives it the power to move the reader?

Literary Analysis Assignment.

● Choose two or three elements that powerfully affect/support your theme (meaning) of this story.

● Write a paragraph about each element that includes a TOPIC SENTENCE, EVIDENCE (quotations, words, phrases, etc. from the text), and COMMENTARY (your insightful comments) as well as a memorable conclusion at the end of the paragraph.
KEY POINT … You, as the reader, make the meaning (theme); however, you must prove it with textual evidence and comment on HOW this evidence supports your theme (meaning).


by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

The following selection is a short story by Langston Hughes. As you read the story, note the relationship between the two characters. When you have finished reading, answer the questions that follow.

When Bill was very young, they had been in love. Many nights they had spent walking, talking together. Then something not very important had come between them, and they didn’t speak. Impulsively, she had married a man she thought she loved. Bill went away, bitter about women.

Yesterday, walking across Washington Square, she saw him for the first time in years.

“Bill Walker,” she said.
He stopped. At first he did not recognize her, to him she looked so old.
“Mary! Where did you come from?”
Unconsciously, she lifted her face as though wanting a kiss, but he held out his hand. She took it.
“I live in New York now,” she said.
“Oh” — smiling politely. Then a little frown came quickly between his eyes.
“Always wondered what happened to you, Bill.”
“I’m a lawyer. Nice firm, way downtown.”
“Married yet?”
“Sure. Two kids.”
“Oh,” she said.

A great many people went past them through the park. People they didn’t know. It was late afternoon. Nearly sunset. Cold.

“And your husband?” he asked her.
“We have three children. I work in the bursar’s office at Columbia.”
“You’re looking very . . .” (he wanted to say old) “. . . well,” he said.

She understood. Under the trees in Washington Square, she found herself desperately reaching back into the past. She had been older than he then in Ohio. Now she was not young at all. Bill was still young.

“We live on Central Park West,” she said. “Come and see us sometime.”

“Sure,” he replied. “You and your husband must have dinner with my family some night. Any night. Lucille and I’d love to have you.”

The leaves fell slowly from the trees in the Square. Fell without wind. Autumn dusk. She felt a little sick.

“We’d love it,” she answered.

“You ought to see my kids.” He grinned.

Suddenly the lights came on up the whole length of Fifth Avenue, chains of misty brilliance in the blue air.

“There’s my bus,” she said.
He held out his hand. “Good-bye.”
“When . . .” she wanted to say, but the bus was ready to pull off. The lights on the avenue blurred, twinkled, blurred. And she was afraid to open her mouth as she entered the bus. Afraid it would be impossible to utter a word.

Suddenly she shrieked very loudly. “Good-bye!” But the bus door had closed.

The bus started. People came between them outside, people crossing the street, people they didn’t know. Space and people. She lost sight of Bill. Then she remembered she had forgotten to give him her address — or to ask him for his — or tell him that her youngest boy was named Bill, too.

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