How to analyze a book

You just received the grade from a review you did on Great Expectations from your instructor, and to your shock and disappointment the "A" grade that you had worked so hard to achieve only translated into a "D+." You don’t understand why, after all the time you spent reading the novel, you earned such a low grade. It is not until you spoke with the instructor that you realize that what you turned in is a book report not a book review. At sometime or another, we have all been asked to write a book review or a book report , and many times what we think is a book review is in fact a book report. Yes, there is a difference between the two. The difference lies in the fact that a custom written book report is much simpler in structure than a book review and a book report does not require any in depth analysis of the text.

When your teacher asks you to write a book report, all she/he is asking you to explain is the topical details about the author and the plot of the story. Most book reports explain biographical information about the author like where and when he/she was born, what schools he/she attended, what degrees he/she earned, and where he/she lived, what his/her marital status was or whether he/she had children or not. This information gives background detail so that whoever is reading the report will have an understanding of the perspective the author is writing from. After he/she gives background material, the academic writer will then summarize the story. The writer may include details like the plot, setting, climax, and main characters so that the book report is well understood by the reader. Some instructors may ask for relevant themes and symbols, but for the most part, the book report summarizes the relevant details of the story – very simple.

On the other hand, a book review is an analysis of the story. Students really have to be careful in not retelling the story because that is not the purpose of the assignment. The purpose of the assignment is to bring new light to the audience reading of the story. Like the book report, the paper may discuss the characters, plot, climax and the biography of the author, but only briefly. The emphasis of the review will, however, cover the author’s intent, thematic elements, or symbols within the text. The review will also often discuss the story’s relevance to its historical setting, and whether the author’s expertise fully covers the subject of the book. The review will discuss the strengths or limitations of the book, in addition to whether the book will have lasting value or not. The book review may additionally address whether the author’s tone is sympathetic or biased toward the subject or fair and objective about the material discussed. In all, the book review is an analysis of the book, which is centered on elements of the story and not a summary.

Overall, the book report is a simple explanation of the author’s background and a summary of the plot of the story while a book review is an analysis that covers the themes or ideas in the text in a much more in depth and critical manner. While a book report just provides information about the text, the book review is a diagnostic that explores the text’s significance and relevance to the time and place in which the story takes place. To avoid confusing the two, just remember that any custom book report rehashes the story while the book review is an examination of its contents.

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The Importance of Teaching Literary Analysis

Nadyja Von Ebers, English

How to analyze a book

At The Chicago Academy for the Arts, our English department is centered heavily around literature and literary analysis, which is to say: reading, interpreting, and discussing literature of many forms and genres in order to make cogent written and verbal arguments about it. As we are propelled forward into the changing landscape of the digital age, we as educators frequently assess what types of courses and objectives should be included in our English department. While there are many good arguments for teaching technical writing and composition for digital platforms, I think there are several reasons why teaching literary analysis is the hallmark of progressive and comprehensive education. I’m proud to be part of an English department that values this simultaneously classic and progressive approach to curriculum.

Literature holds up a mirror to the world

Within the Academy’s English department and school-wide, we maintain the philosophy that art is descriptive, not prescriptive. In essence, this means that literature (like most of the best art) is powerful in its ability to hold up a mirror to the world and reveal to us truths about it–however brutal or beautiful–rather than merely to preach to us. Literature worth studying is illuminating, not didactic, which allows students the ability to bear witness to realties both common to and outside of their own, and in turn, to formulate complex responses to them—a process that builds empathy and open-mindedness. For example, Richard Wright’s Native Son, taught in Chicago Literature, portrays the roots of systemic racial oppression in America so honestly and vividly that students confront the subject more palpably and meaningfully than through historical, non-fiction lenses alone.

Literary analysis promotes critical thinking

Constructing a literary analysis essay requires an exploration of textual themes as presented through concrete literary devices and stylistic choices in order to develop and shape a complex argument about said themes. The process of argumentation relies on both deductive and inductive reasoning in order to arrive at multifold conclusions that are fully supported by logical evidence. In doing so, students interrogate the relationship between form and content, consider and assess multiple interpretations of text, and select and dissect convincing evidence to support highly specific interpretations. One of our goals as instructors at The Academy is to help students learn how to think, not what to think, and engaging in literary analysis provides a set of skills that are transferable to innumerable contexts within their education here and beyond.

Literary analysis fosters invaluable communication skills

Discussing literature in my class involves verbally engaging in inquiry, interpretation, and argumentation, all of which when practiced regularly lead my students to an increased ability to eloquently articulate questions and stances. Discussing literature often involves the dialectical re-patterning of statements like “I just don’t understand this” into layered and pointed questions about the text at hand; the ability to verbally reframe and work through confusion fosters problem-solving that is applicable well beyond the classroom. Moreover, essay writing also familiarizes students with a multitude of valuable conventions and expectations of written communication, regardless of venue, such as topic sentences, transitional phrases, and precise pronoun reference.

Literature is art

Part of the artist’s journey is learning not just to create art (through the acquisition, practice, and execution of technical skills), but to analyze and critique it: to truly interrogate a piece of art’s purpose and how that purpose is realized through the form-content relationship. Literature is indeed art, and I can think of no better place than in an English class to explore how the abstract is expressed through the concrete in order to demonstrate impact and consequence. Young artists often believe that making art is simply about emoting–about expressing themselves through mediums that feel good. Analyzing literature helps illustrate for students that successful art may involve self-expression, but to a greater purpose beyond the creator, whether to inform, to invoke empathy, to inspire, or simply to entertain. I consistently witness my students benefitting from literary analysis in their artistic pursuits at The Academy and I often hear them using the language of literary analysis when discussing their artistic processes. Regularly engaging in literary analysis strengthens the symbiotic relationship between arts and academic curricula and I believe that these convergences provide students at The Chicago Academy for the Arts with an unparalleled educational experience.

Setting is a description of where and when the story takes place.

  • What aspects make up the setting?
    • Geography, weather, time of day, social conditions?
    • Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
    • How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere or social circumstances of the novel?

    Characterization

    Characterization deals with how the characters are described.

    • through dialogue?
    • by the way they speak?
    • physical appearance? thoughts and feelings?
    • interaction – the way they act towards other characters?
    • Are they static characters who do not change?
    • Do they develop by the end of the story?
    • What type of characters are they?
    • What qualities stand out?
    • Are they stereotypes?
    • Are the characters believable?

    Plot and structure

    The plot is the main sequence of events that make up the story.

    • What are the most important events?
    • How is the plot structured? Is it linear, chronological or does it move back and forth?
    • Are there turning points, a climax and/or an anticlimax?
    • Is the plot believable?

    Narrator and Point of view

    The narrator is the person telling the story.
    Point of view: whose eyes the story is being told through.

    • Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
    • Is the narrator the main character?
    • Does the author speak through one of the characters?
    • Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
    • Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she” point of view?
    • Is the story written in an “all-knowing” 3rd person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?

    Conflict

    Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the novel and is related to the main character.

    • How would you describe the main conflict?
      • Is it internal where the character suffers inwardly?
      • is it external caused by the surroundings or environment the main character finds himself/herself in?

      Theme

      The theme is the main idea, lesson or message in the novel. It is usually an abstract, universal idea about the human condition, society or life, to name a few.

      • How does the theme shine through in the story?
      • Are any elements repeated that may suggest a theme?
      • What other themes are there?

      Style

      The author’s style has to do with the author’s vocabulary, use of imagery, tone or feeling of the story. It has to do with his attitude towards the subject. In some novels the tone can be ironic, humorous, cold or dramatic.

      • Is the text full of figurative language?
      • Does the author use a lot of symbolism? Metaphors, similes?
        An example of a metaphor is when someone says, “My love, you are a rose”. An example of a simile is “My darling, you are like a rose.”
      • What images are used?

      Your literary analysis of a novel will often be in the form of an essay or book report where you will be asked to give your opinions of the novel at the end. To conclude, choose the elements that made the greatest impression on you. Point out which characters you liked best or least and always support your arguments. Try to view the novel as a whole and try to give a balanced analysis.

      CRITICAL ANALYSIS

      1. Identify the author’s thesis and purpose
      2. Analyze the structure of the passage by identifying all main ideas
      3. Consult a dictionary or encyclopedia to understand material that is unfamiliar to you
      4. Make an outline of the work or write a description of it
      5. Write a summary of the work
      6. Determine the purpose which could be
        • To inform with factual material
        • To persuade with appeal to reason or emotions
        • To entertain (to affect people’s emotions)
      7. Evaluate the means by which the author has accomplished his purpose
      • If the purpose is to inform, has the material been presented clearly, accurately, with order and coherence?
      • If the purpose is to persuade, look for evidence, logical reasoning, contrary evidence
      • If the purpose was to entertain, determine how emotions are affected: does it make you laugh, cry, angry? Why did it affect you?

      SAMPLE OUTLINE FOR CRITICAL ESSAY

      • I. Background information to help your readers understand the nature of the work
        • A. Information about the work
          • 1. Title
          • 2. Author
          • 3. Publication information
          • 4. Statement of topic and purpose
          • A. Discussion of the work’s organization
          • B. Discussion of the work’s style
          • C. Effectiveness
          • D. Discussion of the topic’s treatment
          • E. Discussion of appeal to a particular audience

          Avoid introducing your ideas by stating “I think” or “in my opinion.” Keep the focus on the subject of your analysis, not on yourself. Identifying your opinions weakens them.

          Always introduce the work. Do not assume that because your reader knows what you are writing about, you do not need to mention the work’s title.

          Other questions to consider: Is there a controversy surrounding either the passage or the subject which it concerns?

          What about the subject matter is of current interest?

          What is the overall value of the passage?

          What are its strengths and weaknesses?

          Support your thesis with detailed evidence from the text examined. Do not forget to document quotes and paraphrases.

          Remember that the purpose of a critical analysis is not merely to inform, but also to evaluate the worth, utility, excellence, distinction, truth, validity, beauty, or goodness of something.

          Even though as a writer you set the standards, you should be open-minded, well informed, and fair. You can express your opinions, but you should also back them up with evidence.

          Your review should provide information, interpretation, and evaluation. The information will help your reader understand the nature of the work under analysis. The interpretation will explain the meaning of the work, therefore requiring your correct understanding of it. The evaluation will discuss your opinions of the work and present valid justification for them.

          When you analyze a story, you try to find a meaning for the story. You make a claim about the story’s meaning, and provide evidence from the story itself to support your analysis. You look for a reasonable way of understanding the story.

          Here are some questions to ask yourself about a story when you are trying to understand it.

          1. On a literal level, what happens in the story? What is the plot of the story? How do the events in each stage of the story relate to each other? Can you write a clear synopsis of the story?

          2. Does the setting create a mood? Does it affect the characters’ lives? Does it affect the feelings and final insight? Does the setting represent an idea or how a character thinks or feels?

          3. Are there any images or words which the writer repeats in the story? Could those images or words have a special significance? Do those images or words affect your response to the story? Did you get a certain feeling or impression about the characters or setting from these images or words?

          4. Does the main character have a conflict in the beginning of the story? Is the conflict resolved? Is there anything significant about the conflict or its resolution ?

          5. Does analyzing one or more characters closely help you understand the story? Compare what the characters say to what they really think or feel. Why do the characters do what they do in the story?

          6. Are there things in the story which might be symbols ? A symbol is something that represents something else. For instance, a flower bud might represent innocence; or autumn could represent the last years of a person’s life.

          7. The point of view is the angle from which the story is told. Who is the narrator ? Is the story told by a first-person narrator, a third-person narrator who is a major participant, or a third-person narrator who is just an observor? Is the point of view first-person, limited omniscient, omniscient, or objective?

          When the story is told from a first person point of view, the narrator is a character which the author has created. The author and the narrator are not necessarily the same person. How does the narrator reveal his/her values and beliefs? Are the author’s beliefs and values the same as the narrator’s? The narrator is usually an important character in the story when the story is told from the first person point of view.

          8. Is there any irony in the story? Is there a difference between what the characters think and what is really going on in the story? Whenever appearance and reality don’t quite match in a story, there is irony.

          9. Does the story illuminate any of the following subjects ?

          * a conflict between appearance and reality

          * growing up (a coming of age or a loss of innocence?)

          * triumph over adversity

          * the individual vs. society

          * struggle against oppression or injustice in society

          * conflict between cultures

          * a journey or quest

          * love or marriage

          * human relationship to nature

          * dealing with death or one’s own mortality

          * the ephemeral nature of human existence

          10. The theme is the author’s main insight about life, society, or human nature. The theme is different from the subject of the story because the theme is a statement. To state a theme, first find an important subject in the story and ask yourself, "What does the author say about this subject?"

          11. When you write an analysis, you have to decide what element of the story you are going to analyze. The two main questions to answer for any short story are:

          a. How does the story element I want to analyze contribute to the meaning or effect of the story?

          b. Why do I have the response I have to the story–what did the author do to make me feel the way I did about the characters or the ending?

          You can analyze any element of a short story. For instance, you might decide you just want to analyze a single character and how that character contributes to the meaning of the story to you. It is possible to have multiple interpretations as long as you can find evidence for your interpretation in the text of the story. You support your analysis with specific examples and descriptions from the story.

          12. When you write an analysis, you are not writing about whether the story is good or not; you are explaining your interpretation about what the story shows you or how the author gives you some insight about a subject such as growing up, human nature, relationships, and other experiences through the characters in the story.

          Learn to spot and describe character traits and development

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          • M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
          • B.A., History, Armstrong State University

          Being mindful of subtle hints, like mood changes and reactions that might provide insight into your character's personality, can help you write a character analysis.

          Describe the Character's Personality

          We get to know the characters in our stories through the things they say, feel, and do. It's not as difficult as it may seem to figure out personality traits based on a character's thoughts and behaviors:

          You can probably make some assumptions about Margot from the brief segment above. If you had to name three character traits to describe her, what would they be? Is she a nice, innocent girl? Doesn’t seem like it from this passage. From the brief paragraph, we can assume that she’s apparently sneaky, mean, and deceptive.

          Determine the Character Type of Your Protagonist

          You will receive clues about personality through a character's words, actions, reactions, feelings, movements, thoughts, and mannerisms. Even a character's opinions can help you learn more about the individual, and you may discover that the person fits one of these stock character types:

          • Flat character. A flat character has one or two personality traits that don't change. The flat character can play a major or a minor role.
          • Round character. A round character has many complex traits; those traits develop and change in a story. A round character seems more real than a flat character because real people are complex.
          • Stock or stereotype character. Stock characters are stereotypes, such as hot-tempered redheads, stingy businessmen, and absent-minded professors. They are often found in genre fiction (romance novels and mysteries, for example), and are usually flat characters. They are often used as a tool to move a plot forward.
          • Static character. A static character never changes. A loud, obnoxious "background" character who remains the same throughout the story is static. A boring character who is never changed by events is also static.
          • Dynamic character. Unlike a static character, a dynamic character does change and grow as the story unfolds. Dynamic characters respond to events and experience changes in attitude or outlook. The character might go through a transformation during the course of the storyline, and grow as a result of actions that took place.

          Define Your Character's Role in the Work You're Analyzing

          When you write a character analysis, you must define that character's role. Identifying the character type and personality traits can help you better understand what the larger role of the character is within the story. The character either plays a major role, as a central element to the story, or a minor role to support the major characters in the story.

          Protagonist. The protagonist of a story is another name for the main character. The plot revolves around the protagonist. There may even be more than one main character.

          • In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Huck Finn is the protagonist.
          • In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the little girl is the protagonist.

          Antagonist. The antagonist is the character who represents a challenge or an obstacle to the protagonist in a story. In some stories, the antagonist is not a person but rather a larger entity or force that must be dealt with.

          • In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf is the antagonist.
          • In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” society is the antagonist. Society, with its unfair laws and rules, represents the obstacle to Huck’s development as a person.

          Foil. A foil is a character who provides contrast to the main character (protagonist), in order to emphasize the main character's traits. In "A Christmas Carol," the kind nephew, Fred, is the foil to nasty Ebenezer Scrooge.

          Show Your Character's Development (Growth and Change)

          When you are asked to write a character analysis, you will be expected to explain how a character changes and grows. Most major characters go through some kind of significant growth as a story unfolds, often a direct result of dealing with some sort of conflict. Notice, as you read, which main characters grow stronger, fall apart, develop new relationships, or discover new aspects of themselves. Make note of scenes in which character changes become apparent or the character’s opinions on a topic change. Clues include phrases such as “she suddenly realized that. ” or “for the first time, he. “

          Understanding the journey of your character and how it relates to the story as a whole can help you better understand that character's motives and better represent the person in your overall analysis.

          If you’ve ever been assigned a book report, you may have been asked to address the theme of the book. In order to do that, you really have to understand what a theme is. Many people, when asked to describe the theme of a book will describe the plot synopsis, but that’s not the same as the theme.

          Understanding Themes

          A book's theme is the main idea that flows through the narrative and connects the components of the story together. A work of fiction may have one theme or many, and they aren't always easy to pinpoint right away. In many stories, the theme develops over time, and it isn't until you're well into reading the novel or short story that you fully understand the underlying theme or themes.

          Themes can be broad or they can focus on a specific notion. For example, a romance novel may have the obvious, but very general, theme of love, but the storyline may also address issues of society or family. Many stories have a major theme and several minor themes that help develop the major theme.

          The Differences Between Theme, Plot, and Moral

          A book’s theme is not the same as its plot or its moral lesson, but these elements are related and necessary in building the larger story. The plot of a novel is the action that takes place within the course of the narrative. The moral is the lesson that the reader is supposed to learn from the plot’s conclusion. Both reflect the larger theme and work to present what that theme is to the reader.

          A story’s theme isn’t typically stated outright. Often it is suggested by a thinly veiled lesson or details contained within the plot. In the nursery tale “The Three Little Pigs,” the narrative revolves around three pigs and a wolf’s pursuit of them. The wolf destroys their first two homes, shoddily built of straw and twigs. But the third home, painstakingly built of brick, protects the pigs and the wolf is defeated. The pigs (and the reader) learn that only hard work and preparation will lead to success. Thus, you can say that the theme of “The Three Little Pigs” is about making smart choices.

          If you find yourself struggling to identify the theme of a book you're reading, there's a simple trick you can use. When you finish reading, ask yourself to sum up the book in a single word. For example, you could say preparation best symbolizes "The Three Little Pigs." Next, use that word as the foundation for a complete thought such as, "Making smart choices requires planning and preparation, which could be interpreted as the moral of the story."

          Symbolism and Theme

          As with any art form, the theme of a novel or short story may not necessarily be clear. Sometimes, writers will use a character or object as a symbol or motif that hints at a larger theme or themes.

          Consider the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," which recounts the story of an immigrant family living in New York City in the early 20th century. The tree growing up through the sidewalk in front of their apartment is more than just part of the neighborhood background. The tree is a feature of both the plot and the theme. It thrives in spite of its harsh surroundings, much like the main character Francine as she comes of age.

          Even years later, when the tree has been chopped down, a small green shoot remains. The tree serves as a stand-in for Francine's immigrant community and the themes of resilience in the face of adversity and the pursuit of the American dream.

          Examples of Themes in Literature

          There are several themes that are reoccurring in literature, many of which we can identify quickly. But some themes are a little harder to figure out. Consider these popular general themes in literature to see if any of them might be appearing in something you're reading right now.

          • Family
          • Friendship
          • Love
          • Overcoming hardships
          • Coming of age
          • Death
          • Struggling with inner demons
          • Good vs. Evil

          Your Book Report

          Once you've determined what the main theme of the story is, you're almost ready to write your book report. But before you do, you may need to consider what components of the story stood out the most to you. To accomplish this, you may need to reread the text to find examples of the theme of the book. Be concise; you don't need to repeat every detail of the plot or use multi-sentence quotes from a character in the novel, a few key examples can suffice. Unless you're writing an extensive analysis, a few short sentences should be all you need to provide evidence of a book's theme.

          Pro Tip: As you read, use sticky notes to flag significant passages that you think may point to the theme; consider all of them together once you've finished reading.

          Unlike summary, a rhetorical analysis does not only require a restatement of ideas; instead, you must recognize rhetorical moves that an author is making in an attempt to persuade his or her audience to do or to think something. In the 21st century’s abundance of information, it can sometimes be difficult to discern what is a rhetorical strategy and what is simple manipulation; however, an understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical moves will help you become more savvy with the information surrounding you on a day-to-day basis. In other words, rhetorical moves can be a form of manipulation, but if one can recognize those moves, then one can be a more critical consumer of information rather than blindly accepting whatever one reads, sees, hears, etc.

          The goal of a rhetorical analysis is to explain what is happening in the text, why the author might have chosen to use a particular move or set of rhetorical moves, and how those choices might affect the audience. The text you analyze might be explanatory, although there will be aspects of argument because you must negotiate with what the author is trying to do and what you think the author is doing. Edward P.J. Corbett observes, rhetorical analysis “is more interested in a literary work for what it does than for what it is” (qtd. in Nordqvist).

          One of the elements of doing a rhetorical analysis is looking at a text’s rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is the context out of a which a text is created.

          • The questions that you can use to examine a text’s rhetorical situation are in Chapter 6.2 .

          Another element of rhetorical analysis is simply reading and summarizing the text. You have to be able to describe the basics of the author’s thesis and main points before you can begin to analyze it.

          • The questions that you can use to summarize a text are in Chapter 5.1

          To do rhetorical analysis, you will connect the rhetorical situation to the text. You will go beyond summarizing and instead look at how the author shapes his or her text based on its context. In developing your reading and analytical skills, allow yourself to think about what you’re reading, to question the text and your responses to it, as you read. Use the following questions to help you to take the text apart—dissecting it to see how it works:

          • Does the author successfully support the thesis or claim? Is the point held consistently throughout the text, or does it wander at any point?
          • Is the evidence the author used effective for the intended audience? How might the intended audience respond to the types of evidence that the author used to support the thesis/claim?
          • What rhetorical moves do you see the author making to help achieve his or her purpose? Are there word choices or content choices that seem to you to be clearly related to the author’s agenda for the text?
          • Describe the tone in the piece. Is it friendly? Authoritative? Does it lecture? Is it biting or sarcastic? Does the author use simple language, or is it full of jargon? Does the language feel positive or negative? Point to aspects of the text that create the tone; spend some time examining these and considering how and why they work. (Learn more about tone in Section 4.5 “ Tone, Voice, and Point of View. ”)
          • Is the author objective, or does he or she try to convince you to have a certain opinion? Why does the author try to persuade you to adopt this viewpoint? If the author is biased, does this interfere with the way you read and understand the text?
          • Do you feel like the author knows who you are? Does the text seem to be aimed at readers like you or at a different audience? What assumptions does the author make about their audience? Would most people find these reasonable, acceptable, or accurate?
          • Does the text’s flow make sense? Is the line of reasoning logical? Are there any gaps? Are there any spots where you feel the reasoning is flawed in some way?
          • Does the author try to appeal to your emotions? Does the author use any controversial words in the headline or the article? Do these affect your reading or your interest?
          • Do you believe the author? Do you accept their thoughts and ideas? Why or why not?

          It is also a good idea to revisit Section 2.3 “How to Read Rhetorically.” This chapter will compliment the rhetorical questions listed above and help you clearly determine the text’s rhetorical situation.

          Once you have done this basic, rhetorical, critical reading of your text, you are ready to think about how the rhetorical situation ( Section 6.2 ) – the context out of which the text arises – influences certain rhetorical appeals ( Section 6.4 ) that appear in it.