Guidelines for Reading and Analyzing Literature

Compiled by Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

Study Guides on
Specific Works
of Literature

STEP I:    First Impression

STEP II:   Types of Literature

STEP III:  Literary Techniques

STEP IV:  Themes

STEP V:   Evaluation and Review

Ferrum College
Writing Center


1. What expectations or preconceptions do you have before you begin reading?

Do you have any prior knowledge of the author or this work or similar works?

Have introductory notes in textbooks or instructors' comments or study questions influenced your initial expectations?

(Note: In many editions of fiction or drama, if there is a long introduction, it may "give away" the outcome of the plot, so it is best not to read the complete introduction until you have read the work for the first time and are ready to analyze it as a whole.)

2. Do you enjoy reading this work?

Why or why not?

What motivates you to read through to the end, or reread it (besides the fact that it may be required for a class)?

3. What is your initial impression of the work's purpose?

Is it entertaining, informative, didactic (teaching a lesson), philosophical, argumentative, or some combination of these?

Do the title, division headings, and opening lines give precise indications of the purpose or subtle or symbolic clues, or misleading impressions of the whole work?

Try to begin reading with an open mind and attempt to understand the work on its own terms before judging its worth or quality.

4. Is this work difficult to read?

If so, why?

Have you looked up unfamiliar words in a dictionary?

Do foreign words or archaic (outdated) words or unusual sentence patterns make reading difficult?

Does the work violate our expectations about ordinary ways of using the English language?

Later decide whether it is "easy" or difficult to read for a good reason:  does the simplicity or difficulty of the language contribute to the author's message or does it seem either boring or unnecessarily obscure and complex?

5. Do your first impressions change between your reading of the beginning and end?

If so, why?

In the following steps, start to think more formally about why you have certain expectations about this type of literature and how this work uses literary techniques to create the impressions or effects or messages you have noticed in reading it.


Literature is classified by genre (type or kind).

Although critics disagree on how to define and label different genres, the three basic forms of literature are prose, drama, and poetry.  Most works we read as literature are imaginative (fictional), but some nonimaginative (nonfictional) works are read as literature as well.

Nonfiction prose includes history, biography, autobiography, religious and philosophical writing, literary criticism, political tracts, travel literature, and essays on many other subjects.

Prose fiction has been divided, since the origins of the modern novel in the eighteenth century, into the novel, the novella or novelette (a story of intermediate length), and the short story. Predecessors of these genres include fables, parables, and tales of various kinds (including folk tales, fabliaux, and fairy tales).

Drama may be written in prose or poetry. Most drama is meant to be performed, but closet drama is designed to be read rather than acted.  When we read a play we should take into consideration the differences between watching a performance and reading the script, with the background and stage directions that are provided by some playwrights.

Poetry may be narrative (telling a story, as in a ballad or a long epic poem) or lyrical (shorter subjective or reflective poems that include specific types such as the sonnet, the ode, and the elegy).

Film, which combines techniques of drama, poetry, visual arts, and music, has been included in literary studies since the twentieth century, with movie scripts being studied as works of art alongside the books and plays many films are based on.  Undoubtedly modern technology will continue to influence the forms and genres of literature, through trends in film and television, and the increasing use of computers for processing information, writing, and reading.

Picture books sometimes have no words, but usually they use words and pictures together to tell a story, present a poem, or explore concepts (as in alphabet books, counting books, and other concept books). Modern technology has made possible the publication of mass market full-color reproductions of all kinds of art in picture books for readers of all ages.

These broad genres are classified in many different ways, according to their form and content, into "modes" or "kinds" or "subgenres."  Traditional categories such as tragedy, comedy, realism, and romance, for example, have been defined in different ways at different times.

Some subcategories of fiction, drama and film include romantic comedy, satire, mystery, horror, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, bildungsroman (stories of initiation into adult life), psychological novels or plays, domestic romance or tragedy, historical fiction or drama.  Nonfiction novel is a contemporary term used by some for works that combine elements of journalistic reporting or documentary and the devices of fiction.  Although these labels help us discuss trends and make comparisons among different authors, many works of literature cannot be placed into one neat category.

The greatest writers in any period often combine traditional types, break the "rules" or conventions of older literary genres, and experiment with new forms.


The following is a list of some of the major elements and techniques of literature. Obviously, no one work of literature contains all of them (e.g., only a narrative has a plot).  Decide which elements are used and which are given the most emphasis (and why) in the particular work you are analyzing.

1. Plot hourglass

  • What are the actions or events of the narrative and how are they presented? Are there major and minor events in the story? How are they related?

  • How does the passage of time function in the plot? Are the episodes in chronological order? If not, why not?

  • Are any later incidents foreshadowed early in the story? Are flashbacks used to fill in past events? If so, why?

  • What elements create suspense in the plot? Where is the climax (most intense action or point of highest emotional interest)?

  • Does the plot depend on chance or coincidence, or does it grow out of the personalities of the characters? Do events seem realistic or unrealistic (romantic or fantastic)?

  • What conflicts are dramatized? Are they internal conflicts (within the minds of people) or external conflicts (between individuals or between people and the world)?

  • Are conflicts resolved at the end of the story? Is there a surprise ending? Is the ending satisfying to you as the reader?

2. Character  comedy-tragedy faces

  • Are the characters believable (round and complex, like real people) or are they flat stereotypes? (Remember that literary characters are always fictional creations; they can never be as complex as real people.)

  • Is there one protagonist (main character) or several? Does the story have traditional heroes or heroines (protagonists) and villains (antagonists)?

  • How does the author reveal characters–through direct description and authorial comment, through the comments and thoughts of other characters, or through the characters' own actions, words, and thoughts?

  • What are the most important traits of the main characters? How do their judgments of themselves compare with others' opinions of them? What is the author's attitude to characters? Are we meant to sympathize with the characters or criticize them?

  • How do the secondary and minor characters function in the work? Do they provide parallels or contrasts with traits of the main characters?

  • Do the main characters develop (change or learn something) in the story, or do they remain static (unchanging)? How? Why?

3. Setting  
  • What is the setting of the work? Is there more than one? (Consider historical period, season, time of day, geographical place, exterior and interior, urban and rural settings.)

  • Why has the author chosen to emphasize certain details of the setting? Does the setting simply provide a realistic backdrop or does it contain symbolic details?

  • Are the social class and occupation of the characters significant? Does the social, economic, political, or religious environment affect the lives of characters and help to shape the theme of the work?

  • What mood or atmosphere is created by details of the setting? (gloomy, tense, cheerful, etc.)?

4. Point of View  
  • From what point of view is the story or poem narrated? Does the narrator speak in first person (using "I") or in third person?

(a) If there is a first-person narrator, is that person a major character or a minor character observing the main action?  What are the limitations on what this person can show and tell us?  Is this narrator a reliable one, or is he or she too naive, self-deluded, or deceptive to be reliable? 

(b) If the narration is in third person, is the narrator omniscient (able to see anything and tell us what is in the characters' minds), or is there limited omniscience so that we see into the mind of only one character?

(c) Is the point of view objective (dramatic), so that we see characters only from the outside but do not see into their minds? This is the point of view in drama but it is rare in fiction.  In a play characters' thoughts are revealed only if they think out loud or speak directly to the audience or confide in another character.

  • What is the prevailing tone of the work? That is, what attitudes toward the subject are conveyed by the narrator's choice of words? Is the subject presented in a manner that is serious, satirical, playful, condescending, etc.?

  • Does the point of view change in this work?

  • Notice how your perceptions are affected if the narrator shifts the point of view from the actions or thoughts of one character to those of another.

5. Images and Symbols
  • What images (any details that appeal to the physical senses) are used in this work?

  • Are the images literal (e.g., a description of a real rose), or figurative (as in, e.g., the simile, "My love is like a rose," and the metaphor, "My love is a rose")?

  • Are there repeated images, or groups of related images in the work (e.g., various kinds of light and dark images)?  If so, what is the significance of these patterns?

  • Does any image or action suggest such complex abstract meanings beyond itself that it functions as a symbol in this work?

  • Are the symbols conventional, familiar ones (e.g., a rose symbolizing love, a cross representing Christianity), or unusual, private symbols?  (The white whale in Moby Dick, e.g., has many possible symbolic meanings suggested by Melville.)

6. Style and Language
  • How would you describe the choice of words and their arrangement (the style) in this work? Does the author call attention to the way he or she uses words, or is the style inconspicuous?

  • What are the various connotations (shades of meaning, or emotional suggestions) of key words in this work?

  • If dialect or colloquial speech is used, what is its effect? Is the level of language appropriate for the speaker or characters in the work?

  • Are there statements or actions in this work that are presented ironically (that is, there is a discrepancy between appearance and reality, or between what is said and what is intended)?

  • Is the style consistent throughout the work or does it shift to a different style (more formal or less formal, for example)?

  • Is the style suitable for the subject and theme of the work?  Does it contribute to the meaning of the whole or hinder the reader's understanding?

  • If you are reading a translation of a foreign work of literature or a modern translation of an older English work, what limitations or difficulties are created by your lack of contact with the author's original language?



Theme may be thought of as the central ideas, values, thesis, message, or meaning presented in a work of literature.  The theme reveals the connection between the literary work (the world created by the author's imagination) and the outside world. Thus literature can be both fictional and "true" when it expresses real human emotions or makes valid comments on human experience, even if on the surface the characters, plots, and settings are not realistic ones.

Analyzing theme always involves generalizations and abstractions. There are universal themes that can be found in countless works of literature, such as love and hate, good and evil, innocence and experience, communication and isolation, life and death, society and the individual. A story or poem may be about a specific love affair, for example; it is easy to say the general subject is love, but interpreting the theme involves explaining what the work says about love.

Great, complex works of literature have more than one theme and we can never pin down their meanings with absolute certainty. Some works are deliberately vague or ambiguous (suggesting more than one alternate meaning). Our interpretations of theme must always be supported by evidence from the text. Themes may be revealed in a number of ways:

  1. Does the title indicate theme?

  2. Are themes revealed in direct statements by the author?

    Nonfiction usually states its ideas and arguments explicitly. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, Jefferson asserts the beliefs and intentions of the American colonies directly.

    Most imaginative literature presents theme indirectly and dramatically, although in some works the theme is quite obvious and in others it is more difficult to detect.

  3. Are themes revealed in direct statements by a narrator in the work?
    Remember that the speaker's voice (or persona) in a story or poem usually should not be equated with the author's voice. The narrator may be unreliable or may express ideas quite different from the author's own values.

  4. Are themes revealed through actions, dramatic statements or personalities of characters?
    If characters convey conflicting values, which values does the whole work seem to be defending?
    Sometimes a character's main function is to symbolize an abstract quality, such as greed or honesty or laziness. Remember that names are sometimes symbolic, in obvious or subtle ways.

  5. Are there other symbols, images, and descriptive details in the work that suggest themes? Look for repeated words and images as clues to theme.

  6. Are there characters or events or other details that seem to have no importance in the plot of a story? In good literature, these details are there for a reason; they probably have a special thematic significance.

  7. What ideas are implied by the total impression of the whole work?
    Sometimes theme is revealed only when the work is viewed as a whole.


A. Personal Reactions  

  1. Has your reading of this work been enhanced in any way by your personal experience, other readings and studies, or plays and movies you have seen? (What have you learned from this work that could enhance your own life and work?)

  2. Have you made notes (including underlining and marking in your own text) to help you remember and review important features of this work?

  3. Are you judging the work solely on its own merits, unswayed by personal judgments about the author's life and reputation or private prejudices about the content of the work (including prejudices against required reading or long, difficult works)?

  4. Do you agree or disagree with evaluations made by other readers of this work (students, professors, critics)?

  5. Do you agree or disagree with the ideas or values presented in the work? Why?

  6. Has your enjoyment and appreciation of the work increased or decreased after analyzing it carefully on your own or in class?

  7. If you were writing a review of this work for a newspaper, what would you say to encourage others to read it or not read it?

B. Author's Accomplishment

  1. Do the imaginative world and ideas of the work seem vivid and alive?  Does it present a mature and meaningful vision of reality that deserves serious reflection?

  2. Is the language of the work appealing?  Are the form and content consistent with each other? What are the strengths and weaknesses in the literary techniques used?

  3. Has the reputation of this work and its author changed since it was written?  Does knowledge of the author's life enhance your understanding of the work? (Avoid simplistic assumptions about the connections between authors' personal lives and characters or events in their writings.)

  4. How does this work compare to other works by the same author, and to works by other authors?  (This is especially important in a survey course.)

  5. How is this work representative of literary trends of its nation and period?  Does it reflect concerns related to the history, sociology, religion, etc. of its period?  Does learning more about the history and culture of the work's origin enhance your understanding of the literature or does the work have a universal message that is clear to any reader?

Great works of literature should both enrich your appreciation of the past (the times in which they were written) and give you new insights into common human experiences regardless of time or place.

These guidelines are recommended in "Helping Gifted Students Analyze Literature" by Carol Fertig, Prufrock's Gifted Information Blog, Prufrock Press Inc., a resource for gifted and advanced learners (Friday, September 25, 2009).

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This page's last update: 9/26/09

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