Some tips for analyzing classic literature

Taking quizzes on Hamlet or Paradise Lost in middle school is easy enough, but things can get trickier when writing analytical essays about characters or themes for college classes. Analysis is essentially asking “why”—it moves beyond merely reading literature to interpreting it and revealing the hidden jewels of meaning inside. Though analysis may seem like a daunting task, it can actually be a fun and interesting way to exercise your brain. As an English major studying everything from ancient poetry to 19th century Russian novels, I have acquired some life-saving tips for the art of analyzing literature.

1. Take Your Time

Although it’s possible to gather plot and character information by quickly skimming a book, you won’t get the information you need for deep analysis. Put yourself in a productive environment free of distractions. Set yourself increasing time goals for your reading—first fifteen minutes without interruption, then twenty, then thirty, and so on. Allow your mind to be completely surrounded by the literature and nothing else.

2. Don’t Miss Details

One of the main reasons classic literature has stood the test of time is the author’s attention to detail which reveals the depth of their work. It is easy to finish a chapter or even an entire novel and think, “What was the point of that?” Long paragraphs of description in Dickens, for example, may seem to hold no purpose, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte often makes mention of various birds that fly in and out of the story, not simply to add dimension to the world but to give the reader a symbol for Jane’s inner journey. Don’t skip over these details!

3. Interact with the Text

One of the best ways to practice literary analysis is to keep a pen and colored tabs next to you as you read. By actively dialoguing with the novel, you begin to comprehend it in real depth. You’re more likely to remember an important quotation if you physically underline or bracket it. Try circling key words (like “bird” in Jane Eyre) to keep track of symbols; marking the first mention of a character along with their description; or using different colored tabs to label important plot, character, and theme developments. Write thoughts or questions in the margins of a paragraph that you can come back to later with a fuller understanding. These little interactions make a huge difference in our ability to concentrate and analyze.

4. Ask Questions

  • All of literary analysis branches out of simple questions, like:
  • What meaning does the author want to convey here?
  • What is the character’s motive here?
  • Why does this event happen?
  • What is the historical significance?

When you have taken time to think over possible answers to these questions, you can use the interaction you previously had with the literature to support your claim. These evidence-backed answers are the essence of your analysis.

The more you practice these techniques, the faster good habits will form. Before you know it, you’ll be automatically analyzing as you read, making connections and asking questions that never would have occurred to you before. That feeling of deep understanding can’t be matched—it’s the lightbulb going off, the epiphany of the creative analysis only your brain could bring to that piece of literature. So get analyzing!