This lesson will examine the steps involved in the basic analysis of literature in order to identify the meanings and purpose embedded within the written word. Using fiction as the subject, we will explore how specific analytical techniques help us to isolate, identify, and draw conclusions about literary expressions of the human experience.
- Identify the elements of literary fiction
- Recognize how to apply literary analysis to fiction to interpret meanings
- Apply literary analysis to a short story
Literature is a vast body of written work within the the Humanities. The written works are considered to have artistic and/or intellectual value because it relies on language in a way that diverges from common use – such as in the use of symbolism, allegory, metaphor, rhyme, pattern, fantasy and so on. Literature is a diverse body of work that is comprised of several genres, or categories sharing a similar trait, feature, content or technique, which includes; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, play-write, and has recently expanded to include digital formats and oral histories and storytelling. Literary forms are often categorized according to categorized according to the historical period from which it emerged (ie medieval), writing style or content, or use of particular aesthetic features. This lesson will address fiction, explore the ways that fiction communicates shared meanings, and practice interpreting those meaning through literary analysis.
A fictional literary piece is a story derived moreso from creative imagination than history or fact. Literary fiction includes short stories (at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words), novellas (A work of at least 17,500 words but under 50,000 words), or novels (50,000 words or more). Literary fiction is also subcategorized according to content into genres which are differentiated by a particular unifying tone or style, content, narrative technique, or popular criterion such as science fiction, dystopias, fantasy, historical, realism, and more. Since fiction emerges from the creative imagination rather than real-world accounts or historical fact, the elements of fiction are subject to interpretation.
Elements of Fiction
The elements of fiction are five basic components used to organize, compose and analyze a fictional story;
There are two types of setting: Physical and Chronological. The physical setting is where the story takes place, and it can be as general as a country or community or as specific as a migrant farmworker camp off SR26 in Hastings, Florida. The chronological setting establishes when, and this can be as general as the Civil War period or as specific as the moment of a murder.
Character identity and disposition established the actors in the piece. Are they human, animals, plants, objects, or elements? What demographic attributes do they possess? (sex, gender, class, race, nationality, etc.) What is their disposition? (brave, insecure, frustrated, kindhearted, simpleminded, etc?) Who is/are the main character(s), or protagonist(s) and who is/are the antagonist(s)? Consider what the character says and does and what other say and do about them.
The plot is the main events of the work which are organized organized in a series by the writer. The Hero’s Journey presented in the Fantasy lesson is an example of a series of events that make up a plot.
There are two types of conflict: external and internal. External conflict is the broader circumstances such as war, weather, or gender, class and race relationships. The internal conflicts are the personal or interpersonal struggles.
The theme is the main idea the writer conveys to the reader by making a statement about a topic. For example, ‘Love’ is not a topic, but the story may make a statement that ‘Love is more important than money.’
Point of View
The point of view is the perspective from which the story is told and how the story is told. First person POV is from the protagonist using the first-person pronoun I. If the narrator is a secondary character then the POV is first person observer. The point of view is also defined by the social positioning of the characters and their perspective based on demographics such as race, gender, class, nationality, and other variables that affect personal experiences.
Analyzing fiction allows the reader to draw out the more complex meanings embedded within the written text produced by the author. It allows us the see the literary piece as a sum of all of its parts – the details within each elements serve a purpose, and the cumulative purpose of those details defines the work. For discussion, you will need to conduct an analysis of a short story or novella selected from a list of authors. Use this three-step process: comprehension, interpretation, analysis.
Comprehension: In order to interpret meaning from fiction and draw a conclusion about the work, it is necessary to understand the literary map that underlies the piece. Analyzing literature is like reading directions. Read it first for comprehension: do you recognize the elements? Do you understand the events that lead from the beginning to the middle and how it comes to an end? Where are the most important parts of that puzzle? Establish the elements; setting, characters, theme, conflict, plot, point of view.
Interpretation: Once you established a map of the work, you can move on to interpretation,which requires you to fill in the pieces that were not explicitly stated. To do this you need to draw out significant details like symbolism and other literary devices, and cast light on patterns, mood and tone. What is the author’s style and point-of-view? Speculate on the intent and purpose of what you have drawn out with the assumption that the author made a deliberate choice with every word with the overall goal of delivering a specific message.
Analysis: Once you have dissected the literary work through story comprehension and personal interpretation, compile it all together to make an analytical statement about the piece as a whole. This can include things like theme, author commentary or choices, overall character analysis, how literature reflects a time period, etc. The list of possible topics for overall analysis is endless, and not everyone will interpret the same work in the same way.
- Literary Analysis – Purdue Owl
- Watch: The Politics of Fiction
- Watch: The Danger of a Single Story
- Elements of Fiction worksheet
For Discussion: Select a short story or novella written by one of the authors included in the lists below. Conduct a minimum two-page (1500 word) analysis using the rubric in this lesson. Be sure to comment on the analysis of at least two other students.
- One fictional short story from this list of authors (or pre-approved author):
Expression: Create a character using the character elements presented in the lesson. What is their identity? Are they human, an animal, plant, object, or element? What demographic attributes do they possess? (sex, gender, class, race, nationality, etc.) What is their disposition? (brave, insecure, frustrated, kindhearted, simpleminded, etc?) Create a representation of the character and describe them in the surrounding space on the page. Consider what the character says and does and interacts with others. Feel free to create a storyline around the character.
When you complete the discussion, move on to the Poetry lesson.