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English Literature & Literary Criticism: Introduction to Research for Literary Criticism

Writing about Literature

What is literary criticism?

How do I write a literary analysis?

Broadly speaking, literary analysis contextualizes a close reading of a text. That close reading could take on many forms. You could look at plot, character, narrative device, literary device, genre, symbolism, language, point of view, etc...  In essence, you will take a part of the book and contextualize it by applying some sort of convention on to it. Those conventions could be a social or historical event or time period, a theory, philosophy, or school of thought.

Other Perspectives for Literary Analysis to consider:

  • plot
  • genre conventions (adherence to and/or deviation from)
  • setting
  • narration
  • point of view
  • characterization
  • symbolism
  • metaphor
  • irony/ambiguity
  • historical context
  • social, political, economic contexts
  • ideologies
  • literary theories, schools of thought.
  • idea
  • theme
  • style
  • imagery
  • tone
  • characteristics of a philosophy (of literature)
  • historical events
  • the author’s life
  • medical diagnoses
  • geography  
  • critical orientations


For more ideas, look at these dictionaries and glossaries of literary terms available through the library: 

Don't know where to start when writing a literary analysis?

This presentation by Purdue OWL is a great introduction and/or refresher on writing about literature. The presentation also  points out key elements to remember when writing a literary analysis. 

  • You have a clear argument or position
  • It focuses on particular elements of the literary work
  • Your  argument or position is well defended  
  • You integrate supporting materials to defend your argument or position

Developing a thesis statement

Spending 5-10 minutes thinking about your research question will ultimately help you save time, develop a more organized research strategy, and ultimately, a more organized paper.  The thesis statement guides the reader through your paper. The thesis statement helps the reader anticipate your argument. 

The thesis statement is born from your research question. It has, of course, gone through many transforamtions. Like the thesis staement, the research question guides you through your process and help you decide what to look for and where to look for it. 

Elements of a good question: The research question and thesis statement  should be imited in scope, specific, and offer a particular perspective.  The examples below show a mix of helpful and unhelpful thesis statements. (Taken from and

Examples of helpful thesis statements:

  • In this paper I will show that Margarete in Goethe’s Faust is a tragic heroine in the classical sense, by comparing her role with that of Electra in Electra by Sophocles.
  • The tradition of the epic hero journey is one which has been passed through the centuries from the ancient Greeks to the modern day. This paper will analyze comparatively the use of this archetype in both Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns by Gisela and Bettina von Arnim, and in contemporary video games.
  • Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother. 
  • King Lear, Romans, and Zen each view the soul as the center of human personality.

Examples of passive, ambiguous, non-helpful thesis statements:

  • In one of his stories, Kafka used an ape who criticizes human beings as the main character.
  • Many women in Germany in the 19th century had difficulty in being accepted as legitimate authors
  • Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge.
  • Spirituality means different things to different people. King Lear, The Book of Romans, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance each view the spirit differently.

The exercises below are a great place to start when you are organizing your research. 

  • The next step is to to  find books and scholarly articles to support your thesis statement. Follow these links to more information on research.

  • Literary criticism is presented in different ways.  Broader information will be found in books and specific examples will be found in articles.

  • The chart  below gives examples of where certain types of information will be found.


When to look in BOOKS

  • Broader topics will be found in books. Books are longer, therefore the author can cover much broader topics like a social or historical movement. 
  • Books are a great place to look when you want to find information about an author's live or his or her works in general. 
  • Books are a great place to find information that compares two major authors. 



No Man's Land

  • There is a "no man's land." Sometimes there will be information found in a book or an article and it ay be worth looking at both types of resources. 


When to look for ARTICLES

  • Articles are much shorter, generally 15-20 pages and only allow authors to write about very specific aspects of a literary work. 
  • Articles are a great resource when you are looking for a very specific aspect such as a particular literary device, use of language, or them in a particular literary work. 





Integrating Resources into Your Paper

The final step in writing a literary analysis is to ethically integrate the secondary (supporting) materials that you used to defend your thesis statement. This included appropriately citing the source according the citation style requested and producing a list of materials used in a works cited page, footnotes, or bibliography. 



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