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The guidelines for writing about literature can help any student who is undertaking an analysis of a cultural text. These texts include, but are not limited to, movies, musical pieces, speeches, graffiti, paintings, newspapers, sculpture, installations, architecture, fashion, commodities, advertisements, journals, letters, and even your own life. A textual analysis is open to creative approaches where any text is made up of, or points to, another text, allowing one to create meaning from a reading rather than merely discovering an inherent or intended meaning. Obviously, the most commonly analyzed text is a work of literature, but it is important to know that the principles discussed in this handout can be applied to the variety of texts already mentioned.
Note: For a more in depth
study on the nature of texts, see Roland Barthes’ From Work to Text.
To begin the process of a textual analysis, it is important to understand the aim of such a project, which is primarily to reveal something about the text in question that is not superficially or explicitly evident in a casual reading of it. W.H. Auden has suggested that this process of analysis can do six things:
In addition to Auden’s list, there exist other questions of a broader nature that a productive textual analysis can answer:
Why is this text important?
Why should it be read?
How should one approach/read a text?
How is the reading different in other contexts or with other texts?
How does language function in the text?
What is a text’s relationship with society, history, gender, sexuality, and race?
How are contemporary values and cultural assumptions reflected in the reading of a text?
What values (aesthetic, social, moral, philosophical, etc.) are used to form a literary canon, and how are these reflected/challenged in the text?
How is this text influenced or explained by looking at other kinds of texts?
How does the text reorganize our paradigms for looking at the world?
An example of how a writer could answer one or more of these questions is seen in the following abstract from the Publications of the Modern Language Association.
Feisel G. Mohamed, Confronting Religious Violence: Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Milton’s Samson has long been a character about whom readers are irreconcilably divided. Current anxiety over terrorism has made it all the more inviting to see Milton’s dramatic poem as a criticism of Samson’s slaughter of the Philistines, a sentiment emphatically expressed in John Carey’s recent claim that “September 11 has changed Samson Agonistes, because it has changed the renderings we can derive from it while still celebrating it as an achievement of the human imagination.” This paper interrogates the association of Milton with present-day antipathy to religious violence and seeks to sophisticate the position of critics who now find terrorism an inescapable presence in the field of literary interpretation. The brand of reading most necessary in current discussion is one that avoids the reactionary temptation to cleanse literary texts of sympathy with religious violence and to view such violence as the province solely of the Other.PMLAMarch 2005 (Volume 120 Number 2)
Notice how Mohamed is responding to the ways in which another person has read the text, demonstrating that the most common and controversial question one can answer is how one should read a text. However, this is not the only question answered by Mohamed’s approach to Agonistes. Much of his analysis focuses on the text’s relationship with the cultural values and assumptions of the world (specifically the western world) after September 11 and how these inform and are transformed by the text in question. Tangentially, Mohammed is also answering questions about canon formation in the post 9/11 world, arguing that just because a text seems to be advocating religious violence, it does not mean that it should be excluded from the literary canon.
One of the common mistakes students make when writing a textual analysis is to simply apply one of the many “isms” of contemporary theory to a text, putting on the hat of a Marxist or a Feminist and producing a flat reading which does more to reinforce and restate the given social theory than to produce an effective analysis of the text at hand. It is important to understand that the specific approaches, or “isms,” of contemporary theory are defined by the way that they go about answering the more fundamental questions about texts previously mentioned. In each school of thought there exists different viewpoints and fundamentally different ideas. Knowing this will prevent undergraduate students from oversimplifiying what are very complex and diverse ways of thinking. Thus, instead of merely using or applying theory as a tool to mass-produce predictable readings of a text, begin an analysis by asking the fundamental questions listed, letting theoretical assumptions and methodologies inform and transform your questions while the literature forms and transforms the very theories used to explore the text with.
An example of an analysis that is informed by theory is an article about Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus. Deborah Willis’s thesis statement demonstrates how one can begin with the assumptions and foci of theories, then let the text transform or inform those theories.
Reading Titus Andronicus’s construction of honor and revenge in dialogue with trauma theory can, I believe, help us move beyond the blind spots in some recent feminist criticisms of this play. Calling attention to Lavinia’s plight need not require a deadening of response to the pain of Titus and other male characters; nor does a recognition of the play’s embeddedness in patriarchal structures require a disavowal of women’s complicity in revenge’s excess. Rather, the play invites us to see how characters of both sexes turn to revenge in the aftermath of trauma to find relief from terrible pain….What is done to contain trauma reproduces trauma for others. Ironically, “wholeness” is achieved only through acts of foreclosure and self-mutilation: in Titus Andronicus the perverse therapy of revenge eventually consumes the self it tries to save.Shakespeare Quarterly 2002 (Volume 53 Number 1)
It is important to see the relationship that Willis establishes between theory and the text. The important phrase that she uses shows that they are read “in dialogue” with one another. In this case feminist theory and trauma theory are read together, yet Willis readily recognizes the blind spots of feminist theories about the play as well as the ways in which Titus departs from traditional trauma theories. Willis effectively demonstrates why Titus itself is important to read in correlation with theory and shows why it is important to answer the So What? question when discussing literature.
As you examine literary elements in the text, ask yourself So What? This question helps the paper progress from merely identifying literary elements, themes, ideas, etc., in the text to making assertions about those elements—forming a thesis. Using Willis thesis as a model, you can see how her ideas could have developed using the So What? question.
A common way to begin analyzing a text is to examine the thematic elements of the text. Ask yourself what the story is about, in general, or what the message of the text is—if it has one. Identifying a central theme, sub theme, or even multiple themes is often up to you, but you will be required to make an argument for your observation. In forming the initial topic of Titus Andronicus, Willis begins by focusing on the theme of revenge breeding more revenge. Her chosen theme seems to be that revenge is cyclical. Asking So What? at this point will help you analyze the ways in which the theme is explored.
Topic: Titus Andronicusdemonstrates that revenge is a cyclical process in which violence produces more violence.
So What if Titus Andronicusdemonstrates that to revenge a violent crime, people will often turn to violence themselves?
In order to answer the first So What?, it is often important to ask yourself how the theme is communicated or what is special or significantly different in the text’s portrayal of this theme. Certain theories and social questions will often be brought up in this stage. You may wish to ask how genre is constructed, how gender relationships function, how class structures operate: Are there power struggles between ideologies, race, religions, classes, etc.? This choice could involve one of many elements of the language used, such as dialogue, setting, symbols, motifs, metaphors, and—in this case—the very nature of the plot and characters. Your choice may also be influenced by the interpretations of these elements by other writers. In this example, Willis’s initial observation is based on her reaction to other feminist theories of the play. Then, after the main area of focus has been identified, asking So What? will begin to focus your paper.
Revised Topic: Titus Andronicus demonstrates that members of both sexes take part in brutal acts of violent revenge.
So What ifTitus Andronicusdemonstrates that members of both sexes take part in brutal acts of violent revenge?
Answering this So What? will lead you to acknowledge that your idea will engage a number of other ideas. This is an effective time to use your observation as a springboard to discuss others’ ideas and problems. Then, when the relationships of your ideas and theories are established, the final So What? will help give the paper a direction and an overall point. In this case, Willis has compared her observations about the women of the play with other observations about women in the play. She also acknowledges that her idea could inform trauma theory.
Revised Topic: Titus Andronicusdemonstrates how members of both sexes take part in acts of brutal revenge, yet traditional feminist readings often cite the women in the play as victims in a patriarchal world of violence. Also, because both sexes turn to revenge, the play invites us to see how revenge and violence function in the aftermath of trauma.
So What if the play invites us to see how revenge and violence function in the aftermath of trauma?
In this final step, your thesis should begin to take its final shape. You should search for opportunities to expand or show an exception to a certain theoretical model. This helps you explore how the literature is exploring the fundamental question of what it is it to be human. In answering So What?, Willis evaluates the way in which trauma theory meets her own ideas. Traditionally, trauma theory looks at the way people deal with trauma. Their attempts to contain trauma often involve many practices and expressions of therapy; however, in Titus the therapy of revenge is one that (re)produces trauma in others. Reread her full thesis above to see how she answers the final So What?
This initial thesis is not the end of the road, however. As the paper is organized and researched more, the thesis may transform. Researching and writing a textual analysis will be much easier if you keep these steps in mind before and during the reading of the text at hand. Hopefully, this handout has also demonstrated that the more well-read you are, the more your possibilities are opened for a textual analysis. Obviously, Willis’s thesis is quite complex, but it is important to always read and engage ideas other than just the primary text.
From Work to Text.Ryan Stodtmeister, summer 2005