A Guide to the Literary-Analysis Essay

This guide is designed to help you write better literary-analysis essays for your English classes. It contains explanations and many examples to take you through each part of the essay.

This booklet is based in part on the MLA Handbook for Writer’s of Research Papers. In addition, essay models are based on actual student papers.

Writing Terms Defined

INTRODUCTION: the first paragraph in your essay. It begins creatively in order to catch your reader’s interest, provides essential background about the literary work, and prepares the reader for you major thesis. The introduction must include the author and title of the work as well as an explanation of the theme to be discussed. Other essential background may include setting, capsule plot summary, an introduction of main characters, and definition of terms. The major thesis goes in this paragraph usually at the end. Because the major thesis sometimes sounds tacked on, make special attempts to link it to the sentence that precedes it by building on a key word or idea.

CREATIVE OPENING: the beginning sentences of the introduction that catch the reader’s interest. Ways of beginning creatively include the following:
1) A startling fact or bit of information:
Ex. Nearly two citizens were arrested as witches during the Salem witch scare of 1692. Eventually nineteen were hanged, and another was pressed to death (Marks 65).
2) A snatch of dialogue between two characters:
Ex. “It is another thing. You [Frederic Henry] cannot know about it unless you have it.”
“ Well,” I said. “If I ever get it I will tell you [priest].” (Hemingway 72). With these words, the priest in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sends the hero, Frederic, in search of the ambiguous “it” in his life.
3) A meaningful quotation (from the work or another source):
Ex. “To be, or not to be, that is the question” {3.1.57}. This familiar statement expresses the young prince’s moral dilemma in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
4) A universal idea:
Ex.The terrifying scenes a soldier experiences on the front probably follow him throughout his life—if he manages to survive the war.
5) A rich, vivid description of the setting:
Ex. Sleepy Maycomb, like other Southern towns, suffers considerably during the Great Depression. Poverty reaches from the privileged families, like the Finches, to the Negroes and “white trash” Ewells, who live on the
outskirts of town. Harper Lee paints a vivid picture of life in this humid Alabama town where tempers and bigotry explode into conflict.
6) An analogy or metaphor:
Ex. Life is like a box of chocolates: we never know what we’re going to get. This element of uncertainty plays a major role in many dramas. For example, in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet have no idea what tragedies lie ahead when they fall so passionately and impetuously in love.

7) MAJOR THESIS: a statement that provides the subject and overall opinion of your essay. For a literary analysis your major thesis must (1) relate to the theme of the work and (2) suggest how this theme is revealed by the author. A good thesis may also suggest the organization of the paper:
Ex. Through Paul’s experience behind the lines, at a Russian prisoner of war camp, and especially under bombardment in the trenches, Erich Maria Remarque realistically shows how war dehumanizes a man.
Sometimes a thesis becomes too cumbersome to fit into one sentence. In such cases, you may express the major thesis as two sentences.
Ex. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens shows the process by which a wasted life can be redeemed. Sidney Carton, through his love for Lucie Manette, is transformed from a hopeless, bitter man into a hero whose life and death have meaning.


TOPIC SENTENCE/SUPPORT THESIS: the first sentence of a body or support paragraph. It identifies one aspect of the major thesis and states a primary reason why the major thesis is true.
EX. When he first appears in the novel, Sidney Carton is a loveless outcast who seems little worth in himself or in others.

BODY: the support paragraphs of your essay. These paragraphs contain supporting examples (concrete detail) and analysis/explanation (commentary) for your topic sentences/support theses. Each paragraph in the body includes (1) a topic sentence/support thesis, (2) integrated concrete detail and commentary, and (3) a concluding sentence. In its simplest form, each body paragraph is organized as follows:
1. topic sentence / support thesis
2. lead-in to concrete detail
3. concrete detail
4. commentary
5. transition and lead-in to next concrete detail
6. concrete detail
7. commentary
8. concluding or clincher sentence

CONCRETE DETAIL: a specific example from the work used to provide evidence for your topic Sentence/ support thesis. Concrete detail can be a combination of paraphrase and direct quotation from the work.
EX. When Carlton and Darnay first meet at the tavern, Carlton tells him, “I care for no man on this earth, and no man cares for me” (Dickens 105).

COMMENTARY: your explanation and interpretation of the concrete detail. Commentary tells the reader what the author of the text means or how the concrete detail proves the topic sentence/support thesis. Commentary may include interpretation, analysis, argument, insight, and/or reflection. (Helpful hint: In your body paragraph, you should have twice as much commentary as concrete detail. In other words, for every sentence of concrete detail, you should have at least two sentences of commentary.)
EX. Carton makes this statement as if he were excusing his rude behavior to Darnay. Carton, however, is only pretending to be polite, perhaps to amuse himself. With this seemingly off-the-cuff remark, Carton reveals a deeper cynicism and his emotional isolation.

TRANSITIONS: words or phrases that connect or “hook” one idea to the next, both between and within paragraphs. Transition devices include using connecting words as well as repeating key words or using synonyms.
EX. Another example… Finally, at the climax… Later in the story… In contrast to this behavior…
Not only…but also… Furthermore…

LEAD-IN: phrase or sentence hat prepares the reader for a concrete detail by introducing the speaker, setting, and/or situation.
Ex. Later, however, when the confident Sidney Carton returns alone to his home, his alienation and unhappiness become apparent: “Climbing into a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears” (Dickens 211).

CLINCHER/CONCLUDING SENTENCE: last sentence of the body paragraph. It concludes the paragraph by trying the concrete details and commentary back to the major thesis.
Ex.Thus, before Carton experiences love, he is able to convince himself that the world has no meaning.

CONCLUSION: last paragraph in your essay. This paragraph should begin by echoing your major thesis without repeating the words verbatim. Then, the conclusion should broaden from the thesis statements to answer the “so what?” question your reader may have after reading your essay. The conclusion should do one or more of the following:
1) Reflect on how your essay topic relates to the book as a whole
2) Evaluate how successful the author is in achieving his or her goal or message
3) Give a personal statement about the topic
4) Make predictions
5) Connect back to your creative opening
6) Give your opinion of the novel’s value or significance

MLA FORMAT: Modern Language Association (MLA) format is the accepted final draft format for essays and research papers in the English department at DCHS. While there are many style manuals, MLA has been widely used in liberal arts and humanities programs of colleges and universities. The general requirements are the following:

1) Heading: student’s name, teacher’s name, class title and period, date
2) Title of paper
3) Student surname, number each page
4) One side of unlined 8 1/2-by-11 inch paper
5) Typed/word processed, double-spaced throughout
6) 1/2-inch indention from margin for each paragraph
7) one-inch indention from margin on left side only for block quotations
8) one-inch margins on all sides
9) parenthetical citations within your text
10) separate Works Cited page at the end of your paper
  • A sample entry from our short story book will look like this (MINUS THE BULLETS):
  • Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Scrivener." Perrine's Story and Structure. 11th ed. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg
    • Johnson. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006: 593 - 624.

PLAGIARISM/ACADEMIC HONESTY: Plagiarism is the act of using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source. You are plagiarizing if you do the following:
  • Use someone else’s ideas or examples without giving credit
  • Use a slightly changed statement as your own, putting your own words here and there and not giving credit
  • Fail to use quotation marks around exact sentences, phrases, or even words that belong to another person
  • Cite facts and statistics that someone else has compiled
  • Present evidence or testimony taken form someone else’s argument

Plagiarism in student writing is often unintentional. You have probably done a report or research paper at some time in your education in which you chose a topic, checked out several sources, and copied several sentences or paragraphs form each source. You might have been unaware that you were committing plagiarism. However, as a high school student writing an essay or research paper, you must be aware that anytime you use someone else’s thought, words, or phraseology without giving him or her credit in your paper constitutes plagiarism. Your paper will be credible only if you thoroughly document your sources.

PRIMARY SOURCE: The literary work (novel, play, story, poem) to be discussed in an essay.
  • Austen's Pride and Prejudice
  • Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
  • O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

SECONDARY SOURCE: Any source (other than the primary source) referred to in the essay. Secondary sources can include critical analyses, biographies of the author, reviews, history books, encyclopedias etc. The reference room of the DCHS library has dozens of excellent secondary sources for writing a literary analysis:
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC) (78 vols.)
  • Cyclopedia of World Authors (7 vols.)
  • Magill’s Survey of World Literature (6 vols.)
  • Masterplots (12 vols.)
  • Masterplots Complete (CD-ROM)
  • Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism (28 vols.)
  • Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (52 vols.)
  • Magill’s Critical Survey of Poetry (14 vols.)
  • Magill’s Critical Survey of Drama (12 vols.)
  • Twentieth Century American Dramatists (2 vols.)
  • Magill’s Critical Survey of Short Fiction (8 vols.)
  • Magill’s Critical Survey of Long Fiction (8 vols.)
  • Magill’s Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction (4 vols.)
  • European writers (11 vols.)
  • American Writers (4 vols.)
  • Afro American Writers (4 vols.)
  • Masterpieces of African-American Literature
  • Ancient Writers of Greece and Rome (2 vols.)
  • Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers (2 vols.)
  • American Poets (6 vols.)
  • British Writers ((VOLS.)
  • Great Writers of the English Language (14 vols.)
  • Dictionary of Literary biography (98 vols.)
  • Shakespearean Criticism (10 vols.)
  • William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence (3 vols.)
  • Encyclopedia of American Poetry

When citing primary or secondary sources, follow MLA style for parenthetical documentation and “Words Cited” page.

WORKS CITED: a separate page listing all the works cited in an essay. It simplifies documentation because it permits you to make only brief references to those works in the test (parenthetical documentation). A “Works Cited” page differs from a “Bibliography” in that the latter includes sources researched but not actually cited in the paper. All the entries on a “Works Cited” page are double spaced and listed in alphabetical order.

PARENTHETICAL DOCUMENTATION: a brief parenthetical reference placed where a pause would naturally occur to avoid disrupting the flow of your writing (usually at the end of a sentence, before the period). Most often you will use the author’s last name and page number clearly referring to a source listed on the “Works Cited” page:

Ex. Hemingway’s writing declined in his later career (Shien 789).
If you cite the author in the text of your paper, give only the page number in parentheses:
Ex. According to Francis Guerin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reflects “those same nightmarish shadows that even in our own time threaten to obscure the American Dream” (49).
If two works by the same author appear in your “Works Cited,” add the title or a shortened version of it to distinguish your sources:
Ex. “He wouldn’t rest until he had run a mile or more” (Dickens, A Tale 78).

BLOCK QUOTATION: quotations that are set off form the test of the paper. Indent one-inch form the left margin only and double space. Do not use quotation marks unless they appear in the original.

1) For a prose quotation of more than 4 typed lines:
  • Based on rumors and gossip, the children of Maycomb speculate about Boo Radley’s appearance: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging form his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time. (Lee 13)
2) For any prose dialogue involving 2 or more speakers:
Ex. During the trial scene, Bob Ewell immediately shows his disrespect for both the court and his family:
  • “Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” was the next question.
  • “Well, if I ain’t I can’t do nothing about it now, her ma’s dead,” was the answer. (Lee 172)
3) for drama quotation involving 2 or more speakers:
Ex. Mama compares her children with a beloved plant:
  • Mama (looking at her plant and sprinkling a little water on it). They spirited all right, my children. Got to admit they gotspirit—Bennie and Walter. Like this little old plant that ain’t never had enough sunshine or nothing and look at it…
  • Ruth (trying to keep Mama from noticing). You…sure…loves that little old thing, don’t you?… (Hansberry 335)

QUOTING POETRY: The format of quoted poetry varies slightly from that of prose.
1) For just 2 or 3 lines of poetry, use a slash with a space on each side [/] to separate the lines
Ex. Juliet’s innocence soon turns to passion when she tells Romeo in the balcony scene, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite" (II. ii. 133-135).
2) For quotations longer than 3 lines of poetry, block quote with no quotation marks
Ex. Mercutio shows his sarcasm about love when he mocks Romeo’s lovesickness for Rosaline:
  • Romeo! Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover!
  • Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh;
  • Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied!
  • Cry but “Ay me!” pronounce but “love” and “dove.”
  • (II.i.9-12)
3) for a verse quotation that begins in the middle of a line, position the partial line as it appears in the text
Ex. When the exiled Romeo draws his dagger, Friar Lawrence scolds,
  • . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hold thy desperate hand.
  • Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art;
  • Thy tears are womanish, thy wild acts denote
  • The unreasonable fury of a beast. (III. iii.118-121)