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How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on January 30, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on August 14, 2023.

Literary analysis means closely studying a text, interpreting its meanings, and exploring why the author made certain choices. It can be applied to novels, short stories, plays, poems, or any other form of literary writing.

A literary analysis essay is not a rhetorical analysis , nor is it just a summary of the plot or a book review. Instead, it is a type of argumentative essay where you need to analyze elements such as the language, perspective, and structure of the text, and explain how the author uses literary devices to create effects and convey ideas.

Before beginning a literary analysis essay, it’s essential to carefully read the text and c ome up with a thesis statement to keep your essay focused. As you write, follow the standard structure of an academic essay :

  • An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on.
  • A main body, divided into paragraphs , that builds an argument using evidence from the text.
  • A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

Table of contents

Step 1: reading the text and identifying literary devices, step 2: coming up with a thesis, step 3: writing a title and introduction, step 4: writing the body of the essay, step 5: writing a conclusion, other interesting articles.

The first step is to carefully read the text(s) and take initial notes. As you read, pay attention to the things that are most intriguing, surprising, or even confusing in the writing—these are things you can dig into in your analysis.

Your goal in literary analysis is not simply to explain the events described in the text, but to analyze the writing itself and discuss how the text works on a deeper level. Primarily, you’re looking out for literary devices —textual elements that writers use to convey meaning and create effects. If you’re comparing and contrasting multiple texts, you can also look for connections between different texts.

To get started with your analysis, there are several key areas that you can focus on. As you analyze each aspect of the text, try to think about how they all relate to each other. You can use highlights or notes to keep track of important passages and quotes.

Language choices

Consider what style of language the author uses. Are the sentences short and simple or more complex and poetic?

What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

Also keep an eye out for imagery in the text—recurring images that create a certain atmosphere or symbolize something important. Remember that language is used in literary texts to say more than it means on the surface.

Narrative voice

Ask yourself:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How are they telling it?

Is it a first-person narrator (“I”) who is personally involved in the story, or a third-person narrator who tells us about the characters from a distance?

Consider the narrator’s perspective . Is the narrator omniscient (where they know everything about all the characters and events), or do they only have partial knowledge? Are they an unreliable narrator who we are not supposed to take at face value? Authors often hint that their narrator might be giving us a distorted or dishonest version of events.

The tone of the text is also worth considering. Is the story intended to be comic, tragic, or something else? Are usually serious topics treated as funny, or vice versa ? Is the story realistic or fantastical (or somewhere in between)?

Consider how the text is structured, and how the structure relates to the story being told.

  • Novels are often divided into chapters and parts.
  • Poems are divided into lines, stanzas, and sometime cantos.
  • Plays are divided into scenes and acts.

Think about why the author chose to divide the different parts of the text in the way they did.

There are also less formal structural elements to take into account. Does the story unfold in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? Does it begin in medias res —in the middle of the action? Does the plot advance towards a clearly defined climax?

With poetry, consider how the rhyme and meter shape your understanding of the text and your impression of the tone. Try reading the poem aloud to get a sense of this.

In a play, you might consider how relationships between characters are built up through different scenes, and how the setting relates to the action. Watch out for  dramatic irony , where the audience knows some detail that the characters don’t, creating a double meaning in their words, thoughts, or actions.

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Your thesis in a literary analysis essay is the point you want to make about the text. It’s the core argument that gives your essay direction and prevents it from just being a collection of random observations about a text.

If you’re given a prompt for your essay, your thesis must answer or relate to the prompt. For example:

Essay question example

Is Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” a religious parable?

Your thesis statement should be an answer to this question—not a simple yes or no, but a statement of why this is or isn’t the case:

Thesis statement example

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is not a religious parable, but a story about bureaucratic alienation.

Sometimes you’ll be given freedom to choose your own topic; in this case, you’ll have to come up with an original thesis. Consider what stood out to you in the text; ask yourself questions about the elements that interested you, and consider how you might answer them.

Your thesis should be something arguable—that is, something that you think is true about the text, but which is not a simple matter of fact. It must be complex enough to develop through evidence and arguments across the course of your essay.

Say you’re analyzing the novel Frankenstein . You could start by asking yourself:

Your initial answer might be a surface-level description:

The character Frankenstein is portrayed negatively in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .

However, this statement is too simple to be an interesting thesis. After reading the text and analyzing its narrative voice and structure, you can develop the answer into a more nuanced and arguable thesis statement:

Mary Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

Remember that you can revise your thesis statement throughout the writing process , so it doesn’t need to be perfectly formulated at this stage. The aim is to keep you focused as you analyze the text.

Finding textual evidence

To support your thesis statement, your essay will build an argument using textual evidence —specific parts of the text that demonstrate your point. This evidence is quoted and analyzed throughout your essay to explain your argument to the reader.

It can be useful to comb through the text in search of relevant quotations before you start writing. You might not end up using everything you find, and you may have to return to the text for more evidence as you write, but collecting textual evidence from the beginning will help you to structure your arguments and assess whether they’re convincing.

To start your literary analysis paper, you’ll need two things: a good title, and an introduction.

Your title should clearly indicate what your analysis will focus on. It usually contains the name of the author and text(s) you’re analyzing. Keep it as concise and engaging as possible.

A common approach to the title is to use a relevant quote from the text, followed by a colon and then the rest of your title.

If you struggle to come up with a good title at first, don’t worry—this will be easier once you’ve begun writing the essay and have a better sense of your arguments.

“Fearful symmetry” : The violence of creation in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The introduction

The essay introduction provides a quick overview of where your argument is going. It should include your thesis statement and a summary of the essay’s structure.

A typical structure for an introduction is to begin with a general statement about the text and author, using this to lead into your thesis statement. You might refer to a commonly held idea about the text and show how your thesis will contradict it, or zoom in on a particular device you intend to focus on.

Then you can end with a brief indication of what’s coming up in the main body of the essay. This is called signposting. It will be more elaborate in longer essays, but in a short five-paragraph essay structure, it shouldn’t be more than one sentence.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Some students prefer to write the introduction later in the process, and it’s not a bad idea. After all, you’ll have a clearer idea of the overall shape of your arguments once you’ve begun writing them!

If you do write the introduction first, you should still return to it later to make sure it lines up with what you ended up writing, and edit as necessary.

The body of your essay is everything between the introduction and conclusion. It contains your arguments and the textual evidence that supports them.

Paragraph structure

A typical structure for a high school literary analysis essay consists of five paragraphs : the three paragraphs of the body, plus the introduction and conclusion.

Each paragraph in the main body should focus on one topic. In the five-paragraph model, try to divide your argument into three main areas of analysis, all linked to your thesis. Don’t try to include everything you can think of to say about the text—only analysis that drives your argument.

In longer essays, the same principle applies on a broader scale. For example, you might have two or three sections in your main body, each with multiple paragraphs. Within these sections, you still want to begin new paragraphs at logical moments—a turn in the argument or the introduction of a new idea.

Robert’s first encounter with Gil-Martin suggests something of his sinister power. Robert feels “a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him.” He identifies the moment of their meeting as “the beginning of a series of adventures which has puzzled myself, and will puzzle the world when I am no more in it” (p. 89). Gil-Martin’s “invisible power” seems to be at work even at this distance from the moment described; before continuing the story, Robert feels compelled to anticipate at length what readers will make of his narrative after his approaching death. With this interjection, Hogg emphasizes the fatal influence Gil-Martin exercises from his first appearance.

Topic sentences

To keep your points focused, it’s important to use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence allows a reader to see at a glance what the paragraph is about. It can introduce a new line of argument and connect or contrast it with the previous paragraph. Transition words like “however” or “moreover” are useful for creating smooth transitions:

… The story’s focus, therefore, is not upon the divine revelation that may be waiting beyond the door, but upon the mundane process of aging undergone by the man as he waits.

Nevertheless, the “radiance” that appears to stream from the door is typically treated as religious symbolism.

This topic sentence signals that the paragraph will address the question of religious symbolism, while the linking word “nevertheless” points out a contrast with the previous paragraph’s conclusion.

Using textual evidence

A key part of literary analysis is backing up your arguments with relevant evidence from the text. This involves introducing quotes from the text and explaining their significance to your point.

It’s important to contextualize quotes and explain why you’re using them; they should be properly introduced and analyzed, not treated as self-explanatory:

It isn’t always necessary to use a quote. Quoting is useful when you’re discussing the author’s language, but sometimes you’ll have to refer to plot points or structural elements that can’t be captured in a short quote.

In these cases, it’s more appropriate to paraphrase or summarize parts of the text—that is, to describe the relevant part in your own words:

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The conclusion of your analysis shouldn’t introduce any new quotations or arguments. Instead, it’s about wrapping up the essay. Here, you summarize your key points and try to emphasize their significance to the reader.

A good way to approach this is to briefly summarize your key arguments, and then stress the conclusion they’ve led you to, highlighting the new perspective your thesis provides on the text as a whole:

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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By tracing the depiction of Frankenstein through the novel’s three volumes, I have demonstrated how the narrative structure shifts our perception of the character. While the Frankenstein of the first volume is depicted as having innocent intentions, the second and third volumes—first in the creature’s accusatory voice, and then in his own voice—increasingly undermine him, causing him to appear alternately ridiculous and vindictive. Far from the one-dimensional villain he is often taken to be, the character of Frankenstein is compelling because of the dynamic narrative frame in which he is placed. In this frame, Frankenstein’s narrative self-presentation responds to the images of him we see from others’ perspectives. This conclusion sheds new light on the novel, foregrounding Shelley’s unique layering of narrative perspectives and its importance for the depiction of character.

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literary analysis essay example symbolism

Symbolism Definition

What is symbolism? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is meant to symbolize, or is related to it in some other way. Characters and events can also be symbolic. A famous example of a symbol in literature occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird , when Atticus tells his children Jem and Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds cause no harm to anyone; they just sing. Because of these traits, mockingbirds in the novel symbolize innocence and beauty, while killing a mockingbird symbolizes an act of senseless cruelty.

Some additional key details about symbolism:

  • Symbolism can be very subtle, so it isn't always easy to identify or understand.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to say whether an author intended for something to be symbolic or not.
  • Symbolism allows writers to convey things to their readers poetically or indirectly rather than having to say them outright, which can make texts seem more nuanced and complex.

Symbolism Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce symbolism: sim -buh-liz-uhm

Types of Symbolism

A symbol can be a physical object, a character, or an event. Here's a brief overview of how each type of symbolism works:

  • Symbolism through physical objects: Most often, physical objects are used to symbolize an idea or concept, as a way of pointing the reader towards some of the basic themes that a work is dealing with. For example, a poet might write a poem about a flower dancing in the wind in order to convey a sense of innocence, harmony with nature, or sheer happiness.
  • Symbolism through characters: Sometimes, characters themselves can serve as symbols—of a particular virtue or vice, or of a political ideology. For example, in Edmund Spenser's famous allegorical poem, The Faeirie Queene , the female knight Britomart is a symbol of the values of chastity and restraint, traits which many 16th-century readers held in high esteem.
  • Symbolism through events: Events can also be symbolic. For example, while a character's long, wild hair might symbolize a period of youth or innocence, a scene in which the character chops off his or her long hair might symbolize a loss of innocence—or the sacrifices people have to make in the process of becoming a mature adult with responsibilities. While the act of cutting off the hair is neither an object nor a character, but it would still be an example of symbolism.

Identifying Symbolism

Writers employ a wide variety of symbols to deepen the meaning of their work. Some symbols, though, are much easier to identify than others. It's worth recognizing the ways that some symbols can be obvious, while others might be less so. For example, sea glass might be used as a fairly obvious symbol in one text, and a more subtle symbol in another:

  • Sea glass as an obvious symbol: If a character in a story gives her son a piece of sea glass just before she dies, and the son then puts the sea glass on a necklace and wears it every day, that's a pretty clear example of something being symbolic: the sea glass represents the son's relationship with his mother, his grief at her passing, or perhaps even the more general concept of loss. In this example, the author might choose to describe how the son plays with his necklace obsessively in order to convey his ever present grief at the loss of his mother—instead of having to state it outright.
  • Sea glass as a less-obvious symbol: If a character in a story delivers a monologue about sea glass in which they explain how something sharp and broken (a shard of glass) becomes smooth and beautiful only through years of being tossed about on the ocean's currents, it might over the course of the story come to be symbolic for the process of growing up or recovering from trauma—but not every reader will necessarily pick up on the symbolism. In this case, sea glass would be an example of a symbol that might be harder to identify as a symbol within the context of the story.

Is a Symbol Purposeful or Not?

In some cases, particularly when a symbol is subtle, it's not always even clear whether the author's use of symbolism is intentional, or whether the reader is supplying their own meaning of the text by "reading into" something as a symbol. That isn't a problem, though. In fact, it's one of the beautiful things about symbolism: whether symbolism can be said to be present in a text has as much to do with the reader's interpretation as the writer's intentions.

Symbol vs. Metaphor

At first glance, symbolism and metaphor can be difficult to distinguish from one another—both devices imbue a text with meaning beyond its literal sense, and both use one thing to represent something else. However, there are a few key differences between metaphor and symbolism:

  • Metaphors compare two different things by stating that one thing is the other (e.g., your eyes are heaven). This doesn't happen in symbolism, where the relationship between a symbol and what it represents is not stated explicitly and one thing is not said to be the other thing. Instead, a symbol stands for or represents something else.
  • Whereas a metaphor is used to compare one thing to another based on shared characteristics, symbols can but don't need to have any characteristics in common with what they represent. For instance, Annie Proulx's story Brokeback Mountain ends with one character taking in the smell of a shirt that was once worn by his lost love. The shirt doesn't have any characteristics in common with the lover—it symbolizes him only insofar as it once belonged to him.

Symbolism and Allegory

An allegory is a work that conveys a moral through the use of symbolic characters and events. Not every work that incorporates symbols is an allegory; rather, an allegory is a story in which the majority of characters and plot developments serve as symbols for something else, or in which the entire storyline is symbolic of a broader phenomenon in society.

For example, the characters in Edmund Spenser's allegorical poem The Faerie Queene are not very complex or deep characters: they're meant to embody virtues or ideas more than they are meant to resemble real people. By contrast, Hester Prynne (the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly symbolic novel, The Scarlet Letter ) exhibits a great deal of complexity and individuality as a character beyond whatever she may symbolize, so it doesn't really make sense to say that The Scarlet Letter is an allegory about adultery; rather, it's a novel that is literally about adultery that has symbolic aspects. In short, all allegories are highly symbolic, but not all symbolic writing is allegorical.

Symbolism Examples

Symbolism is very common is all sorts of narrative literature, poetry, film, and even speeches.

Examples of Symbolism in Literature

Authors frequently incorporate symbolism into their work, because symbols engage readers on an emotional level and succinctly convey large and complex ideas.

Symbolism in Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain"

The following passage from Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" describes a character named Ennis's visit to the childhood home of a lost lover named Jack. There, Ennis finds an old shirt of his nestled inside of one of Jack's shirts.

At the north end of the closet a tiny jog in the wall made a slight hiding place and here, stiff with long suspension from a nail, hung a shirt. He lifted it off the nail. Jack’s old shirt from Brokeback days. The dried blood on the sleeve was his own blood, a gushing nosebleed on the last afternoon on the mountain when Jack, in their contortionistic grappling and wrestling, had slammed Ennis’s nose hard with his knee. He had stanched the blood, which was everywhere, all over both of them, with his shirtsleeve, but the stanching hadn’t held, because Ennis had suddenly swung from the deck and laid the ministering angel out in the wild columbine, wings folded. The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.

Proulx's description of the shirts sounds like it could be a description of the feeling of intimacy shared between lovers: she writes that they are "like two skins, one inside the other, two in one." The shirts symbolize the love the two men shared, but Proulx avoids having to explain Ennis's feelings directly by using symbolism in her description of the shirts, instead.

Symbolism in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias "

In the sonnet "Ozymandias," Shelley uses the story of an encounter with a decaying monument to illustrate the destructive power of nature, the fleetingness of man's political accomplishments, and the longevity of art.

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The symbolism in Shelley's poem transforms the half-sunken monument into a powerful representation of the passage of time. The poem reminds readers that natural forces will put an end to the reign of all empires and the lives of every person, whether king or commoner. In the final lines, the poem juxtaposes two very different symbols: the fallen statue, greatly reduced from its former size, and the huge, barren, and unchanging desert. The statue of Ozymandias is therefore symbolic of man's mortality and smallness in the face time and nature.

Symbolism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

In Chapter Ten of I nvisible Man , the book's protagonist goes to work at the Liberty Paints Factory—the maker of a paint "so white you can paint a chunk of coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through"—where he is surprised to learn that the recipe for the brilliant white paint actually calls for the addition of a few drops of black paint. The symbolism of the black paint disappearing into the white is a direct reference to the "invisibility" of black people in America—one of the major themes of Ellison's book.

"The idea is to open each bucket and put in ten drops of this stuff," he said. "Then you stir it 'til it disappears. After it's mixed you take this brush and paint out a sample on one of these." He produced a number of small rectangular boards and a small brush from his jacket pocket. "You understand?" "Yes, sir." But when I looked into the white graduate I hesitated; the liquid inside was dead black. Was he trying to kid me?

Symbolism in Film

Filmmakers often endow particular objects with emotional significance. These visual symbols may shed light on a character's motivations or play an important role later on in the film.

Symbolism in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane

In the closing scene of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane , the camera pans to a sled with the word "Rosebud" printed on it—the same word that is uttered by the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed. The movie itself portrays Kane's ruthless efforts to consolidate power in his industry. Yet in his final moments, he recalls the sled associated with the happier days of his youth. The "Rosebud" sled can be described as a symbol of Kane's youthful innocence and idealism, of which he lost sight in his pursuit of power. The sled is one of the most famous symbols in all of film.

Symbolism In Speeches

Orators often turn to symbolism for the same reasons writers do—symbols can add emotional weight to a speech and can stand-in for broad themes and central parts of their argument.

Symbolism in John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address

In the opening lines of his 1961 inaugural address , President Kennedy claims that his inauguration is the symbol of a new era in American history, defined by both reverence for the past and innovation in the years to come:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

Here, President Kennedy argues on behalf of the symbolic significance of his election, suggesting that his Inauguration Day stands for the progress in America that is soon to come. Though it's not an especially subtle use of symbolism, Kennedy's assertion that his first day in office represents the first of many steps forward for America likely had a considerable emotional impact on his audience.

Symbolism in Barack Obama's Speech on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches

In his speech on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches , President Obama casts the Edmund Pettus Bridge (in Selma, Alabama) as a symbol of American progress and resilience.

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot and workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

In this example, President Obama paid tribute to the activists who were beaten brutally by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a 1965 demonstration in Selma, Alabama. Likening their perseverance in the face of police brutality to other prominent examples of American resistance, such as the American Revolution, Obama claims that the demonstrators symbolize a quintessential American trait: a commitment to securing and protecting personal freedom. Thus, in Obama's speech, crossing the bridge can be said to function as a symbol of the long struggle for civil rights.

Why Do Writers Use Symbolism?

It's hard to find a work of literature that lacks any kind of symbolism. Symbolism is an important literary device for creating complex narratives because it enables writers to convey important information without having to state things directly. In addition, the use of symbolism is widespread because it can:

  • Help readers visualize complex concepts and central themes, and track their development.
  • Afford writers the opportunity to communicate big ideas efficiently and artfully.
  • Invite readers to interpret a text independently, rather than be directly told what the author means.
  • Add emotional weight to a text.
  • Conceal themes that are too controversial to state openly.
  • Imply change or growth in characters or themes through shifts in the way that characters interact with particular symbols, or ways in which the symbols themselves change over time.

Other Helpful Symbolism Resources

  • The Wikipedia Page on Symbols : A rather theoretical account of symbolism, which delves into competing definitions of the term that might be more complicated or detailed than is necessary for many readers. Still, the page demonstrates just how pervasive symbolism is in language and thought.
  • Cracked's List of 7 Films With Symbolism You Didn't Notice : Though the author's speculations verge on conspiracy theories at times, at its best, the list demonstrates how artists might use symbols to bury risqué themes in works for popular consumption.
  • The HyperTexts Page on The Best Symbols in Poetry and Literature : The explanations here aren't especially in-depth—certainly not as sophisticated as the symbols they discuss. Still, this is useful as a survey of poems by major writers with examples of concrete, object-based symbolism.

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Symbolism

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Literary Analysis Essay Writing

Cathy A.

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay - A Step-by-Step Guide

16 min read

Published on: Sep 15, 2018

Last updated on: Nov 15, 2023

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Students often struggle when asked to write a literary analysis essay. It's challenging to know where to begin and how to navigate the complexities of dissecting a text.

The world of literary analysis can seem confusing, with symbolism, tone, and perspective to consider. Without guidance, it's easy to feel lost.

In this guide, we'll provide a clear roadmap, practical tips, and examples to simplify the process. You'll gain the skills to confidently analyze any text. By the end of this read, you will have the skills to develop a good literary analysis essay. 

So let’s dive right in!

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What is a Literary Analysis Essay?

A literary analysis essay is a detailed examination of a literary work's components, including its themes, characters, setting, and the author's creative choices.

This analytical approach can be applied to various forms of literary writing, such as novels, short stories, plays, poems, etc. It's a method for diving deeper into the layers of meaning within a literary work.

Literary Essay, Rhetorical Analysis, and Argumentative Essay

A Literary Analysis Essay is distinct from a rhetorical analysis or argumentative essay. While all three types of essays involve a critical examination, they have different purposes and focuses. 

  • In a literary analysis essay , the focus is on exploring elements of a literary work, like themes, characters, and symbolism, to understand the author's choices.
  • Conversely, a rhetorical analysis essay assesses how an author uses persuasive techniques in non-literary contexts. 
  • An argumentative essay aims to present a clear viewpoint on a specific topic supported by evidence and reasoning.

These essays demand critical thinking, but they serve different communication and expression purposes.

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How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay?

Writing a strong literary analysis essay can be tricky. Many students often fall into the trap of sharing their own thoughts or simply summarizing the text. 

To avoid this and write a more effective literary analysis essay, follow the steps below:

Step 1: Select a Text

To begin your literary analysis essay, pick a piece of writing that you like and is suitable for analysis. This could be a poem, a short story, a novel, a play, or any similar written work.

Tips for Choosing Your Text

  • Take it slow. Read them more than once.
  • Pay attention to the words used and their meanings.
  • Think about the emotions or ideas the author is trying to convey.
  • Look at the way it's structured, like how a poem is divided into lines and stanzas.
  • Give yourself enough time to read the whole thing.
  • Take notes on important events, characters, and themes.
  • Think about the author's choices in writing and how they affect the story.
  • Consider the overall structure and how the parts fit together.

Explore Language Choices: 

  • Look for words or phrases that stand out. They might have special meanings or create certain feelings.
  • Consider how the author uses language to describe things, characters, or emotions.

Understand Narrative Voice:

  • Think about who is telling the story. Is it one of the characters (first-person) or someone outside the story (third-person)?
  • The narrative voice can shape how you perceive the events and characters.

Analyzing Structure: 

  • Examine how the text is organized. For example, poems have lines and stanzas, while novels have chapters.
  • Structure can affect the flow of the story and the reader's experience. Pay attention to how it's used in the text you've chosen.

Step 2: Brainstorm a Topic

Once you've chosen your text, the next step is to come up with a topic for your literary analysis essay. Think about what aspect of the text you find most interesting or want to explore. 

It could be a theme, a character's development, the use of symbolism, or anything else that stands out to you.

Tips for Brainstorming a Topic:

  • Consider what questions you have about the text. What do you want to understand better?
  • Look for patterns or recurring elements in the text. Is there something that keeps coming up, like a symbol or a particular theme?
  • Think about the author's choices. Why did they write the text this way? What message are they trying to convey?
  • Don't rush this step. Take your time to explore different ideas, and choose a topic that genuinely interests you. It will make the writing process more engaging and enjoyable.

Step 3: Collect the Evidence and Write a Thesis

Now that you have your topic, it's time to gather evidence from the text to support your analysis. Look for quotes, passages, or examples that relate to your chosen topic. Once you have your evidence, use it to craft your thesis statement . 

This statement should be a concise summary of the main point or argument you'll explore in your literary essay.

Tips for Collecting Evidence and Writing a Thesis:

  • Your thesis should be a single sentence that presents your analysis or interpretation of the text. It's your main argument.
  • Your evidence should directly support your thesis. It's the proof that your analysis is based on.

Step 4: Develop the Outline

Creating an outline is like making a roadmap for your literary analysis essay. It helps you organize your thoughts and decide how to structure your essay. Here's how to develop a literary analysis essay outline :

Tips for Developing the Outline:

  • Start with your introduction: Write down the main points you want to cover in the introduction, such as introducing the text, the author, and your thesis statement.
  • Plan your body paragraphs: Decide how many body paragraphs you'll have and what each one will focus on. Will you analyze characters, themes, symbols, or something else?
  • List your supporting points: Under each body paragraph, jot down the key ideas or arguments you'll discuss.
  • Consider your conclusion: Think about how you'll sum up your analysis and restate your thesis in the conclusion.

Step 5: Craft Your Introduction

Your introduction sets the stage for your literary analysis essay. It should grab the reader's attention and provide essential information about the text you're analyzing. 

Tips for Crafting Your Introduction:

  • Begin with a hook : Start with an intriguing question, a captivating quote, or an interesting fact related to your text.
  • Introduce the text and the author: Provide some background information about the literary work and its creator. Mention the title, author's name, and any relevant context.
  • Present your thesis statement: Clearly state the main point or argument you'll explore in your essay.
  • Give a brief overview: Provide a snapshot of what your analysis will cover, mentioning the key elements or aspects of the text you'll discuss.

Step 6: Write Body Paragraphs and Analysis

Now that you've laid the groundwork with your outline, it's time to dive into writing the body of your literary analysis essay. Each paragraph should focus on one of the main points or arguments you outlined in the previous step.

Here is how to write body paragraphs: 

  • Topic Sentence: Start each body paragraph with a clear topic sentence that relates to your thesis. This sentence should introduce the main point you'll discuss in the paragraph.
  • Provide Evidence: Use quotes or specific examples from the text to support your topic sentence. Make sure the evidence directly relates to your argument.
  • Analysis: After presenting evidence, analyze it. Explain how the evidence supports your argument and contributes to your overall thesis. What does it reveal about the text and its meaning?
  • Transition: Use transition words and sentences to smoothly connect your ideas and guide the reader through your analysis. These sentences help create a logical flow between paragraphs.

Step 7: Literary Devices and Techniques

In this step, you'll explore the literary devices and techniques used by the author in the text. These devices, such as symbolism, imagery, foreshadowing, and irony, play a crucial role in conveying the author's message and creating a deeper layer of meaning.

You can dedicate specific paragraphs or sections of your essay to discuss these literary devices.

How to Analyze Literary Devices and Techniques:

  • Identify Devices: Begin by identifying the literary devices used in the text. Look for symbols, metaphors, similes, imagery, alliteration, personification, and more. Note where and how they appear.
  • Examine Their Purpose: Consider why the author used these devices. What do they add to the story or poem? How do they contribute to the overall message or theme?
  • Impact on the Reader: Explain how these literary devices enhance the narrative and reinforce the themes or messages within the work.
  • Provide Examples: Use specific examples from the text to illustrate and reinforce your analysis.

Step 8: Conclude your Essay

Concluding your literary analysis essay is the final step in wrapping up your analysis and leaving a lasting impression on the reader. Here's how to craft a strong conclusion:

Key Elements of a Strong Conclusion:

  • Key Findings Recap: Summarize your key findings and restate your thesis statement in a rephrased manner.
  • Significance Emphasis: Emphasize the significance of your analysis and highlight its broader implications for understanding the literary work as a whole.
  • Thought-Provoking Closing: Leave the reader with a thought-provoking or insightful concluding statement that ties together your analysis.
  • Avoid Introducing New Ideas: Your conclusion should not introduce new topics or evidence that wasn't discussed in the body of your essay.

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Types of Literary Analysis Essay

When it comes to literary analysis essays, there isn't just one approach to fit all. The type of literary analysis essay you write depends on your specific goals and the literary work you're analyzing. 

Here are some common types:

Theoretical Literary Analysis (Aesthetic or Formalist Analysis) 

This type of analysis focuses on the text's form, structure, and aesthetics. It explores how literary elements like symbolism, imagery, and narrative style contribute to the overall meaning.

Close Reading Literary Analysis (Textual Analysis)

Close reading involves a detailed examination of a specific passage or section within the text. It dissects the language, syntax, and word choice to uncover deeper meanings.

Applied Literary Analysis (Practical or Real-World Analysis)

This analysis applies the lessons or insights gained from literature to real-life situations, social issues, or practical concerns. It explores how literature can inform or influence the world.

Comparative or Synergistic Literary Analysis

This type of analysis explores connections and contrasts between different texts, genres, or forms of art. It considers how literature interacts with other disciplines, such as history, psychology, or visual arts.

Contextual or Historical Literary Analysis

This analysis examines a text within its historical, cultural, or social context. It considers how the time period and societal influences shape the themes, characters, and narrative.

Literary Analysis Essay Example

In this section, we provide literary analysis examples that help students better understand and apply literary analysis. These examples cover various aspects, including examining text, exploring themes, and using literary devices. 

Let’s check out some literary analysis essay examples pdf below

Literary Analysis Essay Example PDF

Sample Literary Analysis Essay

Literary Analysis Essay Format

Literary Analysis Essay Topics

Choosing a strong topic is important to draft a good literary essay. Following are some topic examples that you can use for your literary essays:

  • The Symbolism of the Green Light in 'The Great Gatsby.'
  • The Role of Gender and Identity in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
  • Exploring the Themes of Love and Fate in 'Romeo and Juliet.'
  • The Use of Magical Realism in Gabriel García Márquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.'
  • Analyzing the Motif of War in Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms.'
  • The Metaphorical Layers of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm.'
  • The Complexity of Morality in J.D. Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye.'
  • The Historical Context of Haruki Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore.'
  • The Portrayal of Race and Identity in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'
  • The Significance of Nature in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Looking for more topic ideas? Our literary analysis essay topics blog has plenty of ideas for you!

Wrapping Up!

We hope this guide has provided you with the insights, and clarity you need to start on your literary essay with confidence.

However, if you find yourself short on time remember that professional help is just a click away. At MyPerfectWords.com , we offer reliable essay writing service at the best price. 

Our team of expert writers is well-equipped to handle a diverse range of literary analysis topics. So, if you're ready to take your literary analysis to the next level, don't hesitate to place your order. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What should a literary analysis essay include.

A good essay will have an explanation of the author's ideas and evidence from their text (short story, poem) to support those thoughts. Textual information includes a summary, paraphrase as well specific details like direct quotations in summaries or extracts where they are relevant for clarification on certain points.

Why literary analysis is important?

By analyzing literary work, students can see that successful art is more than just self-expression. It may serve a purpose beyond the creator's intent whether it be to inform or evoke empathy in its audience and even inspire them at times.

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Understanding, Recognizing, and Examining Symbolism in Literature — Find Out How to Write a Symbolism Essay

Don't get caught plagiarizing

As a middle school English teacher I’ve spent countless hours reading novels, short stories, poetry, and beyond with my students. We read for content, we read for meaning, we read for literary devices, we read for themes, we read for countless reasons.

With each new work of literature we read, we try to extract the story’s lesson, its central message, its theme.

If you’ve found yourself in the same position my students often find themselves, grappling to understand an abstract idea like symbolism, you’ve come to the right place. If you read on, you will be able to understand the following principles of writing a symbolism essay:

  • Defining symbolism.
  • The different types of symbolism.
  • The function of symbolism in literature.
  • Components of a symbolism essay.

How to Write a Symbolism Essay: Defining, Identifying, and Analyzing Symbols

One of the many ways we arrive at a work’s meaning is through an analysis of the literary devices employed by writers. When we get to our study of symbolism, students like you have no trouble understanding the overarching idea of symbolism. However, independently identifying and analyzing symbolism in a passage can be mind-boggling.

One of the easiest and most relatable examples I use to teach symbolism is the American flag. Concretely, it’s a rectangular piece of fabric with red and white stripes and white stars upon a navy blue background.

American Flag Includes Many Symbols Which Can't Be Seen at First Glance

Symbolically, however, the flag means so much more. It represents our freedom, patriotism, the thirteen original colonies, the 50 states, liberty, justice, our independence from Great Britain, and so much more.

Easy peasy, right? You get it just like my students get it! But when they have to apply the idea of identifying symbolism in literature, they’re totally lost.

In trying to help my students recognize symbolism I’ve visited countless forums, blogs, university websites, and beyond to try to strategize ways to make the concept clearer. What it comes down to is, as with any other assignment, you have to be willing to do the work to conceptualize symbolism.

To be good a analyst of symbols, you need to truly understand what a symbol is. So let’s start in the same place I start with my own students: defining symbolism. After that, I’ll tell you how to write a symbolism essay.

Symbolism Defined

In short, symbolism is the literary device that refers to the use of words, colors, objects, people, locales, or ideas that represent an idea beyond itself.

Anything That Represents an Idea Can Be a Symbol

If you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” try to recall how frequently he references the color green. Green is widely accepted as symbolic of greed and money. In the novel, green represents the protagonist’s belief that he has to earn and maintain great wealth to win the heart of the object of his affection.

Symbolism calls on readers to make the connection between recurring objects, colors, words, etc., and their intended meaning. Ask yourself, is green just a descriptive word that modifies a noun? Or is there more to it than that? If, as a reader, you can attach greater significance to that recurring element, you’ve likely just identified symbolism.

In this helpful video, an Oregon State University professor discusses ways to recognize symbolism in literature.

He provides some really great examples to further aid students like you in identifying recurring objects that are likely symbolic.

3 Types of Symbolism in Literature

Although how we define symbolism has not fluctuated over time, the types of symbolism writers use, have. With that being said, the three most commonly used types of symbolism are as follows:

1. Religious Symbolism

Probably the most widely recognized type of symbolism, religious symbolism refers to objects or ideas that have sacred, spiritual, or holy significance. For instance, in Christianity, the Crucifix is literally the wooden cross upon which Jesus Christ lost his life, but spiritually it represents God’s sacrifice for the salvation of humanity.

In Buddhism, a Lotus on its surface is a beautiful flower, while symbolically the stages of the flower’s budding represent Buddha’s awakening and a Buddhist’s spiritual growth.

The Name Buddha Itself Means “One Who Is Awakened”

Religious symbols have been used by writers throughout the ages to allude to the conflicts, settings, etc. that characters endure in the plot of a story.

For example, in William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies,” the story’s setting, a utopian island with temptation at every turn, religiously symbolizes the Garden of Eden. Much like the boys on the island who are unable to regulate their desires without social order, the Garden of Eden is absent of authority which leads its occupants to their own devices.

2. Romantic Symbolism

Romantic symbolism refers to those objects correlated to expressions of love. Love has been a topic for many novels and poems. Romantic symbols are those objects, words, colors, etc. that so emblematically express and signify love.

Literature Presents All the Types of Love in a Very Excitable Way

In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” for instance, the speaker compares his mistress’s cheeks to the color of a rose and her scent to the fragrance of a rose. Red roses are commonly accepted as a symbol of love; through the speaker’s comparison of his mistress to the rose, the reader understands, that although it’s not implicitly stated, the rose represents his love for her. Ergo, romantic symbolism.

3. Emotional Symbolism

Good writers use figurative language to hint at the emotions and feelings characters experience rather than coming right out and saying it. Doing so is what makes literature engaging and entertaining.

This Sign Is Used in Relation to People Experiencing Any Form of Oppression to Reject Discriminatory Behavior

Emotional symbols represent particular sentiments. Like when someone raises a clenched fist it represents political solidarity as in the Black Lives Matter Movement. The fist is just a fist, but depending on the circumstances in which it’s raised, it may carry this much deeper meaning.

The Effect of Symbolism in Literature

Rarely are fictitious stories written purely for the reader’s enjoyment. Like your literature teachers have likely told you, good fiction writers teach a lesson or moral or recreate some significant conflict from which you, the reader, are called upon to recognize the importance.

By including literary devices like symbolism, writers create layers of meaning beyond the prosaic. Symbols demonstrate and reveal themes, lessons, morals, and significance better than just outright saying them.

Symbols Can Teach You Life Lessons and Show What Is Better for You

For example, when you read the Modoc Indian origin story, “When Grizzlies Walked Upright,” you’re meant to learn the importance of obeying your parents. You glean a deeper meaning from the symbolism in the story than if the writer were to just say, “It’s important to obey your parents.”

Components of a Symbolism Essay and What You Should Include There

So, what’s a symbolism essay anyway? How to write a symbolism essay? One of the best ways to help you grapple with the concept of symbolism is by analyzing it in the context of the texts you read.

The fact is, symbolism has been a well-loved literary device by authors since cave paintings and hieroglyphics. The more comfortable you become with recognizing symbolism, the better you’ll understand the text and the better readers you’ll become.

The Eye of Horus (Also Called ‘Wadjet’) Is the Symbol of Power, Protection and Good Health

The body of a symbolism essay essentially identifies and analyzes particular symbols as presented in a text. When identifying the symbol(s) you should explain the author’s purpose in using them.

As the essayist, you must ask yourself why the writer thought it was important to utilize particular symbols, what he/she hopes to convey or reveal, and what you, the reader, were meant to extract from the given symbol(s)?

It’s similar to when a writer chooses to include curse words in his/her composition. What’s the purpose? What does the particular curse word add to the meaning of the text? Would the passage have the same effect without the curse word?

Just as you may wonder about the author’s choice to include curse words, which I dive into here , his/her purpose in selecting particular symbols to further engage you is significant.

You Can Use Critical Thinking While Reading for a Better Understanding

Analyzing symbolism is a process. The first step in that process is identifying a symbol in the literature.

After you’ve read a passage, think about whether an overarching subject stuck out to you. If so, is it repeated? Could it contain a deeper meaning?

If there’s an object that stands out to you, consider whether the object has other accepted meanings. If not, could you attach a logical and reasonable meaning to the object? If so, you’ve successfully identified symbolism in the text.

In this awesome overview on symbolism, Shaelin of “Shaelin Writes” discusses how you can arrive at the symbolic meaning of significant and recurring objects, colors, words, etc.

Next, it’s important to consider the effect or function of the symbol? What is the writer trying to convey? What is the writer hoping to show you instead of outright telling you?

“Word Ink” bloggers Gannon Daniels and Vanessa Ziff Lasdon, sum up the purpose of symbolism so eloquently when they assert, “In the best literature, symbols are unexpected and unique to the character, yet utterly logical and precisely chosen by the writer to evoke multiple layers of meaning.”

Finally, marry your analysis in a well-organized paragraph where you identify the symbol in a topic sentence, explain the meaning of the symbol, and provide textual evidence of how the symbol is used in the context of the passage; make these explanations in the sentences that follow the topic sentence. Round out your paragraph with a concluding sentence that links back to the topic sentence of the same paragraph.

For Analysing the Symbols Use Different Sources Like Books, Encyclopedias or Internet

In some writing mediums, you may consider alternate approaches. Like when you write a narrative literature review, as I discuss here , there are a variety of formats to choose from. However, the five-paragraph structure is most suitable for a symbolism essay.

The five-paragraph essay format is generally a good way to format a symbolism essay. Introduce the text and your subject in the first paragraph, identify and analyze a different way the symbol presents itself in each body paragraph, and conclude by connecting your analyses.

Useful Resources

  • Color meanings – the power and symbolism of colors
  • Animal symbolism: animals and their meanings
  • Examples of symbolism in literature
  • Meanings of various religious symbols

Finally, in literature symbolism is a literary device, or figurative language, that calls upon the reader to extract deeper meaning from objects, concepts, words, etc.

In literature, writers use symbols to show readers something instead of outright telling them.

A symbolism essay helps readers to identify and analyze symbols for their intended meaning and function. As well as the useful resources provided herein on how to write a symbolism essay, this article provides additional support in choosing the best plagiarism checker for teachers.

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    What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

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    A universal symbol is one that would be recognized within a culture or ideology; for example, an eagle symbolizes freedom. An example from literature from Moby Dick is Ahab's search for the white whale.

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    A famous example of a symbol in literature occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus tells his children Jem and Scout that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds cause no harm to anyone; they just sing.

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    Updated on June 6, 2022 Writing Tips Symbolism is the use of a symbol, which can be a word or an image, to communicate a distinct idea. We live in a world full of symbols: Flags, icons, and even colors work symbolically to help us navigate our environments.

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    However, the five-paragraph structure is most suitable for a symbolism essay. The five-paragraph essay format is generally a good way to format a symbolism essay. Introduce the text and your subject in the first paragraph, identify and analyze a different way the symbol presents itself in each body paragraph, and conclude by connecting your ...

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    1. Ask questions 2. Collect evidence 3. Construct a thesis 4. Develop and organize arguments 5. Write the introduction 6. Write the body paragraphs 7. Write the conclusion 1 Ask Questions When you’re assigned a literary essay in class, your teacher will often provide you with a list of writing prompts. Lucky you!