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  • How to write a literary analysis essay | A step-by-step guide

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay | A Step-by-Step Guide

Published on January 30, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on August 14, 2023.

Literary analysis means closely studying a text, interpreting its meanings, and exploring why the author made certain choices. It can be applied to novels, short stories, plays, poems, or any other form of literary writing.

A literary analysis essay is not a rhetorical analysis , nor is it just a summary of the plot or a book review. Instead, it is a type of argumentative essay where you need to analyze elements such as the language, perspective, and structure of the text, and explain how the author uses literary devices to create effects and convey ideas.

Before beginning a literary analysis essay, it’s essential to carefully read the text and c ome up with a thesis statement to keep your essay focused. As you write, follow the standard structure of an academic essay :

  • An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on.
  • A main body, divided into paragraphs , that builds an argument using evidence from the text.
  • A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

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Table of contents

Step 1: reading the text and identifying literary devices, step 2: coming up with a thesis, step 3: writing a title and introduction, step 4: writing the body of the essay, step 5: writing a conclusion, other interesting articles.

The first step is to carefully read the text(s) and take initial notes. As you read, pay attention to the things that are most intriguing, surprising, or even confusing in the writing—these are things you can dig into in your analysis.

Your goal in literary analysis is not simply to explain the events described in the text, but to analyze the writing itself and discuss how the text works on a deeper level. Primarily, you’re looking out for literary devices —textual elements that writers use to convey meaning and create effects. If you’re comparing and contrasting multiple texts, you can also look for connections between different texts.

To get started with your analysis, there are several key areas that you can focus on. As you analyze each aspect of the text, try to think about how they all relate to each other. You can use highlights or notes to keep track of important passages and quotes.

Language choices

Consider what style of language the author uses. Are the sentences short and simple or more complex and poetic?

What word choices stand out as interesting or unusual? Are words used figuratively to mean something other than their literal definition? Figurative language includes things like metaphor (e.g. “her eyes were oceans”) and simile (e.g. “her eyes were like oceans”).

Also keep an eye out for imagery in the text—recurring images that create a certain atmosphere or symbolize something important. Remember that language is used in literary texts to say more than it means on the surface.

Narrative voice

Ask yourself:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How are they telling it?

Is it a first-person narrator (“I”) who is personally involved in the story, or a third-person narrator who tells us about the characters from a distance?

Consider the narrator’s perspective . Is the narrator omniscient (where they know everything about all the characters and events), or do they only have partial knowledge? Are they an unreliable narrator who we are not supposed to take at face value? Authors often hint that their narrator might be giving us a distorted or dishonest version of events.

The tone of the text is also worth considering. Is the story intended to be comic, tragic, or something else? Are usually serious topics treated as funny, or vice versa ? Is the story realistic or fantastical (or somewhere in between)?

Consider how the text is structured, and how the structure relates to the story being told.

  • Novels are often divided into chapters and parts.
  • Poems are divided into lines, stanzas, and sometime cantos.
  • Plays are divided into scenes and acts.

Think about why the author chose to divide the different parts of the text in the way they did.

There are also less formal structural elements to take into account. Does the story unfold in chronological order, or does it jump back and forth in time? Does it begin in medias res —in the middle of the action? Does the plot advance towards a clearly defined climax?

With poetry, consider how the rhyme and meter shape your understanding of the text and your impression of the tone. Try reading the poem aloud to get a sense of this.

In a play, you might consider how relationships between characters are built up through different scenes, and how the setting relates to the action. Watch out for  dramatic irony , where the audience knows some detail that the characters don’t, creating a double meaning in their words, thoughts, or actions.

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literary essay themes

Your thesis in a literary analysis essay is the point you want to make about the text. It’s the core argument that gives your essay direction and prevents it from just being a collection of random observations about a text.

If you’re given a prompt for your essay, your thesis must answer or relate to the prompt. For example:

Essay question example

Is Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” a religious parable?

Your thesis statement should be an answer to this question—not a simple yes or no, but a statement of why this is or isn’t the case:

Thesis statement example

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is not a religious parable, but a story about bureaucratic alienation.

Sometimes you’ll be given freedom to choose your own topic; in this case, you’ll have to come up with an original thesis. Consider what stood out to you in the text; ask yourself questions about the elements that interested you, and consider how you might answer them.

Your thesis should be something arguable—that is, something that you think is true about the text, but which is not a simple matter of fact. It must be complex enough to develop through evidence and arguments across the course of your essay.

Say you’re analyzing the novel Frankenstein . You could start by asking yourself:

Your initial answer might be a surface-level description:

The character Frankenstein is portrayed negatively in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .

However, this statement is too simple to be an interesting thesis. After reading the text and analyzing its narrative voice and structure, you can develop the answer into a more nuanced and arguable thesis statement:

Mary Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as.

Remember that you can revise your thesis statement throughout the writing process , so it doesn’t need to be perfectly formulated at this stage. The aim is to keep you focused as you analyze the text.

Finding textual evidence

To support your thesis statement, your essay will build an argument using textual evidence —specific parts of the text that demonstrate your point. This evidence is quoted and analyzed throughout your essay to explain your argument to the reader.

It can be useful to comb through the text in search of relevant quotations before you start writing. You might not end up using everything you find, and you may have to return to the text for more evidence as you write, but collecting textual evidence from the beginning will help you to structure your arguments and assess whether they’re convincing.

To start your literary analysis paper, you’ll need two things: a good title, and an introduction.

Your title should clearly indicate what your analysis will focus on. It usually contains the name of the author and text(s) you’re analyzing. Keep it as concise and engaging as possible.

A common approach to the title is to use a relevant quote from the text, followed by a colon and then the rest of your title.

If you struggle to come up with a good title at first, don’t worry—this will be easier once you’ve begun writing the essay and have a better sense of your arguments.

“Fearful symmetry” : The violence of creation in William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The introduction

The essay introduction provides a quick overview of where your argument is going. It should include your thesis statement and a summary of the essay’s structure.

A typical structure for an introduction is to begin with a general statement about the text and author, using this to lead into your thesis statement. You might refer to a commonly held idea about the text and show how your thesis will contradict it, or zoom in on a particular device you intend to focus on.

Then you can end with a brief indication of what’s coming up in the main body of the essay. This is called signposting. It will be more elaborate in longer essays, but in a short five-paragraph essay structure, it shouldn’t be more than one sentence.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often read as a crude cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement unrestrained by ethical considerations. In this reading, protagonist Victor Frankenstein is a stable representation of the callous ambition of modern science throughout the novel. This essay, however, argues that far from providing a stable image of the character, Shelley uses shifting narrative perspectives to portray Frankenstein in an increasingly negative light as the novel goes on. While he initially appears to be a naive but sympathetic idealist, after the creature’s narrative Frankenstein begins to resemble—even in his own telling—the thoughtlessly cruel figure the creature represents him as. This essay begins by exploring the positive portrayal of Frankenstein in the first volume, then moves on to the creature’s perception of him, and finally discusses the third volume’s narrative shift toward viewing Frankenstein as the creature views him.

Some students prefer to write the introduction later in the process, and it’s not a bad idea. After all, you’ll have a clearer idea of the overall shape of your arguments once you’ve begun writing them!

If you do write the introduction first, you should still return to it later to make sure it lines up with what you ended up writing, and edit as necessary.

The body of your essay is everything between the introduction and conclusion. It contains your arguments and the textual evidence that supports them.

Paragraph structure

A typical structure for a high school literary analysis essay consists of five paragraphs : the three paragraphs of the body, plus the introduction and conclusion.

Each paragraph in the main body should focus on one topic. In the five-paragraph model, try to divide your argument into three main areas of analysis, all linked to your thesis. Don’t try to include everything you can think of to say about the text—only analysis that drives your argument.

In longer essays, the same principle applies on a broader scale. For example, you might have two or three sections in your main body, each with multiple paragraphs. Within these sections, you still want to begin new paragraphs at logical moments—a turn in the argument or the introduction of a new idea.

Robert’s first encounter with Gil-Martin suggests something of his sinister power. Robert feels “a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him.” He identifies the moment of their meeting as “the beginning of a series of adventures which has puzzled myself, and will puzzle the world when I am no more in it” (p. 89). Gil-Martin’s “invisible power” seems to be at work even at this distance from the moment described; before continuing the story, Robert feels compelled to anticipate at length what readers will make of his narrative after his approaching death. With this interjection, Hogg emphasizes the fatal influence Gil-Martin exercises from his first appearance.

Topic sentences

To keep your points focused, it’s important to use a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph.

A good topic sentence allows a reader to see at a glance what the paragraph is about. It can introduce a new line of argument and connect or contrast it with the previous paragraph. Transition words like “however” or “moreover” are useful for creating smooth transitions:

… The story’s focus, therefore, is not upon the divine revelation that may be waiting beyond the door, but upon the mundane process of aging undergone by the man as he waits.

Nevertheless, the “radiance” that appears to stream from the door is typically treated as religious symbolism.

This topic sentence signals that the paragraph will address the question of religious symbolism, while the linking word “nevertheless” points out a contrast with the previous paragraph’s conclusion.

Using textual evidence

A key part of literary analysis is backing up your arguments with relevant evidence from the text. This involves introducing quotes from the text and explaining their significance to your point.

It’s important to contextualize quotes and explain why you’re using them; they should be properly introduced and analyzed, not treated as self-explanatory:

It isn’t always necessary to use a quote. Quoting is useful when you’re discussing the author’s language, but sometimes you’ll have to refer to plot points or structural elements that can’t be captured in a short quote.

In these cases, it’s more appropriate to paraphrase or summarize parts of the text—that is, to describe the relevant part in your own words:

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The conclusion of your analysis shouldn’t introduce any new quotations or arguments. Instead, it’s about wrapping up the essay. Here, you summarize your key points and try to emphasize their significance to the reader.

A good way to approach this is to briefly summarize your key arguments, and then stress the conclusion they’ve led you to, highlighting the new perspective your thesis provides on the text as a whole:

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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By tracing the depiction of Frankenstein through the novel’s three volumes, I have demonstrated how the narrative structure shifts our perception of the character. While the Frankenstein of the first volume is depicted as having innocent intentions, the second and third volumes—first in the creature’s accusatory voice, and then in his own voice—increasingly undermine him, causing him to appear alternately ridiculous and vindictive. Far from the one-dimensional villain he is often taken to be, the character of Frankenstein is compelling because of the dynamic narrative frame in which he is placed. In this frame, Frankenstein’s narrative self-presentation responds to the images of him we see from others’ perspectives. This conclusion sheds new light on the novel, foregrounding Shelley’s unique layering of narrative perspectives and its importance for the depiction of character.

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200 Common Themes in Literature

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Sarah Oakley

themes in literature

Table of Contents

What is the theme of a story, common themes in literature, universal themes in literature, full list of themes in literature, theme examples in popular novels.

The theme of a novel is the main point of the story and what it’s really about. As a writer, it’s important to identify the theme of your story before you write it.

Themes are not unique to each novel because a theme addresses a common feeling or experience your readers can relate to. If you’re aware of what the common themes are, you’ll have a good idea of what your readers are expecting from your novel .

In this article, we’ll explain what a theme is, and we’ll explore common themes in literature.

The theme of a story is the underlying message or central idea the writer is trying to show through the actions of the main characters. A theme is usually something the reader can relate to, such as love, death, and power.

Your story can have more than one theme, as it might have core themes and minor themes that become more apparent later in the story. A romance novel can have the central theme of love, but the protagonist might have to overcome some self-esteem issues, which present the theme of identity.

Themes are great for adding conflict to your story because each theme presents different issues you could use to develop your characters. For example, a novel with the theme of survival will show the main character facing tough decisions about their own will to survive, potentially at the detriment of someone else they care about.

Sometimes a secondary character will represent the theme in the way they are characterized and the actions they take. Their role is to challenge the protagonist to learn what the story is trying to say about the theme. For example, in a novel about the fear of failure, the antagonist might be a rival in a competition who challenges the protagonist to overcome their fear so they can succeed against them.  

It’s important to remember that a theme is not the same as a story’s moral message. A moral is a specific lesson you can teach your readers, whereas a story’s theme is an idea or concept your readers interpret in a way that relates to them.

literary essay themes

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Common literary themes are concepts and central ideas that are relatable to most readers. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use a common theme if you want your novel to appeal to a wide range of readers.  

Here’s our list of common themes in literature:

Love : the theme of love appears in novels within many genres, as it can discuss the love of people, pets, objects, and life. Love is a complex concept, so there are still unique takes on this theme being published every day.

Death/Grief : the theme of death can focus on the concept of mortality or how death affects people and how everyone processes grief in their own way.

Power : there are many books in the speculative fiction genres that focus on the theme of power. For example, a fantasy story could center on a ruling family and their internal problems and external pressures, which makes it difficult for them to stay in power. 

Faith : the common theme of faith appears in stories where the events test a character’s resolve or beliefs. The character could be religious or the story could be about a character’s faith in their own ability to succeed.

Beauty : the theme of beauty is good for highlighting places where beauty is mostly overlooked by society, such as inner beauty or hard work that goes unnoticed. Some novels also use the theme of beauty to show how much we take beauty for granted.

Survival : we can see the theme of survival in many genres, such as horror, thriller, and dystopian, where the book is about characters who have to survive life-threatening situations.

Identity : there are so many novels that focus on the common theme of identity because it’s something that matters to a lot of readers. Everyone wants to know who they are and where they fit in the world.

Family : the theme of family is popular because families are ripe with opportunities for conflict. The theme of family affects everyone, whether they have one or not, so it’s a relatable theme to use in your story.

themes in literature list

Universal themes are simply concepts and ideas that almost all cultures and countries can understand and interpret. Therefore, a universal theme is great for books that are published in several languages.

If you want to write a story you can export to readers all over the world, aim to use a universal theme. The common themes mentioned previously are all universal literary themes, but there are several more you could choose for your story.

Here are some more universal literary themes:

Human nature


Coming of age

Not all themes are universal or common, but that shouldn’t put you off from using them. If you believe there is something to be said about a particular theme, your book could be the one to say it.

Your book could become popular if the theme of your book addresses a current issue. For example, a theme of art is not as common as love, but in a time when AI developments are making people talk about how AI affects art, it’s a theme people will probably appreciate.

Here’s a full list of themes you can use in your writing:

Abuse of power

American dream


Change versus tradition

Chaos and order

Circle of life

Climate change


Common sense




Convention and rebellion

Darkness and light





Everlasting love

Forbidden love



Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights

Good vs evil










Not giving up


Peer pressure


Personal development








Unconditional love

Unrequited love


Winning and losing

Working class struggles

If you’ve decided on a literary theme but you’re not sure how to present it in your novel, it’s a good idea to check out how other writers have incorporated it into their novels. We’ve found some examples of themes within popular novels that could help you get started.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is famous for the theme of the American dream, but it also includes themes of gender, race, social class, and identity. We experience the themes of the novel through the eyes of the narrator, Nick Carraway, who gradually loses his optimism for the American dream as the narrative progresses.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

It’s well known that Shakespeare was a connoisseur of the theme of tragedy in his plays, and Romeo and Juliet certainly features tragedy. However, forbidden love and family are the main themes.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Charlotte’s Web is a classic children’s book that features the themes of death and mortality. From the beginning of the book, the main characters have to come to terms with their own mortality. Charlotte, the spider, does what she can to prevent the slaughter of Wilbur, the pig.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four , focuses on themes of totalitarianism, repression, censorship, and surveillance. The novel is famous for introducing the concept of Big Brother, which has become synonymous with the themes of surveillance and abuse of power.

themes in 1984

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

The fantasy novel, A Game of Thrones , is popular for its complex storylines that present themes of family, power, love, and death. The novel has multiple points of view, which give an insight into how each main character experiences the multiple themes of the story.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a popular teen novel that focuses on themes of poverty, rebellion, survival, friendship, power, and social class. The novel highlights the horrifying consequences of rebellion, as the teenage competitors have to survive the Hunger Games pageant.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall features themes of power, family, faith, and a sense of duty. It’s a historical novel about the life of Oliver Cromwell and how he became the most powerful minister in King Henry VIII’s council.

As you can see, the literary theme of a novel is one of the most important parts, as it gives the reader an instant understanding of what the story is about. Your readers will connect with your novel if you have a theme that is relatable to them.

Some themes are more popular than others, but some gain popularity based on events that are happening in the world. It’s important to consider how relevant your literary theme is to your readers at the time you intend to publish your book.

We hope this list of common themes in literature will help you with your novel writing.

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The 25 Most Common Themes in Literature and Why They Matter

by Sue Weems | 0 comments

If you've ever survived a high school English class, you've likely been asked to consider the most common themes in literature. What are they and why do they matter for readers and writers? Let's take a look.

literary essay themes

Literature's first job is to entertain. But at the same time every novel has a kernel of truth in it, or perhaps several kernels, ideas about how life works or philosophies on the best way to live or some gesture to the broader meaning of life. 

Taken together, these ideas may combine into a “theme.” 

I say “may” because theme is more a tool of interpretation than creativity. The writer may come into the story with an idea of what their story is about. This understanding of what their story is “about ” may even help add focus and depth to their story.

Once a book is published, though, the audience owns theme, and they may depart with a totally different message than the author intended.

Which is all to say, as a writer, theme may or may not be helpful to you. 

As a reader, though, you can use theme to unlock the deeper truths both in the story and in life. Let's look at what theme is, why it matters for readers and writers, how to identify them, and some common examples of theme in literature. 

Why trust Sue on theme? I'm one of those annoying English teachers who helps students analyze literature. Students ask me why we do it, and I'll tell you the secrets I share with them: analyzing literature helps us understand our humanity and world– from the misuse of power to the meaning of life.

Secondly, learning to look at a part of something and understand how it functions in the whole (AKA analysis) is a skill that transcends literature. It's a low-stakes way to practice life skills. 

Want to skip ahead? Click on the topic that best answers your question. 

Table of Contents

What is a literary theme? Why does theme matter for a reader? How do you identify theme in a story? Types of story: a shortcut to theme Common themes in literature with examples Why theme matters for writers Practice  

What is a literary theme?

A literary theme is a universal concept, idea or message explored in a story or poem. It's often a moral, lesson, or belief that the writer wants to convey to readers.

Think of theme as the underlying message that shapes the story. It’s not always obvious at first glance – sometimes it takes some close reading and analysis to identify what’s going on beneath the surface.

A universal theme is one that transcends time and place. For example, the popular theme “love conquers all” shows up in old romances such as The Epheseian Tale from 2-50 AD to Disney's Robin Hood from 1973 to Nicholas Sparks' novel The Notebook from 2004. 

Why does theme matter for a reader?

You can certainly enjoy a story without knowing the theme explicitly, but most stories are about something beyond the character's actions. And we want them to be about something more. 

Stories are the way we build meaning—the way we understand human life, the way we process and confront controversial ideas, the way we sometimes relate to each other on a universal level. 

When someone asks you what a book you're reading is about, you likely give a sentence or two about the character, their goal, and the conflict, but you're just as likely to identify an abstract idea that the book is about. That idea is a touchpoint for our humanness. 

I may not be into a book about a boy wizard who is swept into a world where he must overcome his fears and insignificance to defeat a formidable foe, but I can certainly understand what it means to belong, what it means to find your way through inadequacy, what it means to defeat your fears. 

That's the power of theme. It points to deeper meaning, connecting me to a story and to other readers like me.

How do you identify theme in a story?

If you are a student or a writer trying to identify theme, it sometimes feels like trying to crack a secret English major code. But here's a trick I teach my students. 

1. Find the big idea

First, ask yourself about the big ideas or concepts that seem important throughout the entire story. These may feel abstract, such as love, beauty, despair, justice, or art. Sometimes the main character has very defined beliefs (or misbeliefs!) about the idea. 

2. Ask what the story suggests about the idea

Once you have one or two overarching central ideas that seem important for the story, then ask yourself this question: What does the story seem to say about this idea?

For example, if I'm reading Shirley Jackson's chilling short story “The Lottery,” I might identify that the story is about community and tradition. If I wanted to be a little more specific I'd say tradition in the vein of conformity. 

Quick summary of the story (spoiler alert!): The story opens on a summer day when an entire community participates in their annual lottery. Each family in town draws a paper until a single community member has been selected. The end of the story shows the town stoning the “winner” in a barbarous act of solidarity to maintain community traditions.

Now, to identify the central theme, I'd ask myself, what does Jackson's story seem to say about community or tradition or conformity? 

Some communities are willing to maintain their traditions (or conformity) at any cost.

3. Support the theme or message with examples

If I wanted to support the central theme I identified, I would pull quotes or examples from the story that support it. In this case, I could look at the children who are willing to participate, the contrast of the summer day and the dark deed, the insistence that the stoning will keep them prosperous, even though there is no evidence of such. 

Are there other possible themes? Sure. There are no wrong answers, only themes that can be defended from the texts and those that don't have enough support. It takes a little practice, but try this technique and see if it doesn't help. 

Types of Story: a shortcut to finding theme in a story

As a part of his book The Write Structure , Joe has identified several types of story that help writers plan and execute their books. The detailed post is here. 

In short, Joe argues that all stories are built on six values frameworks, regardless of genre. The values are directly related to the human condition and identify base needs we have for moving through the world. 

Knowing your story types and the value scale can be a short cut to identifying themes in books and stories, because those universal ideas are tucked inside the values. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for Writers

Here are the values in each type of story:

  • Survival from Nature > Life vs. Death
  • Survival from Others > Life vs. Fate Worse than Death
  • Love/Community > Love vs. Hate
  • Esteem > Accomplishment vs. Failure
  • Personal Growth > Maturity vs. Immaturity
  • Transcendence > Right vs. Wrong

The types can help you identify the central ideas that the story speaks into because you know that the values will be key. Your question then is what does the story seem to say about this value? Or more specifically, what does the story seem to say about the way this particular character pursues this value? 

For example: If you are reading a Jack London short story or novel, you know that the protagonist is going to be facing survival from nature. The value is life versus death. So to determine the theme we ask what does the story say about life vs death or survival?

In Jack London's short story “To Build a Fire,” an arrogant man trying to survive the Yukon wilderness makes a series of novice mistakes from traveling alone to getting wet with no way to get warm and dry. Spoiler alert, he dies. 

What is the theme of this story? My students usually shout out something like, “Don't be a dummy and travel alone with no way to make a fire!” And they're not wrong. The ideas here are life, death, nature, and humanity. Here are a number of ways you could frame the theme with specific support from the story:

  • Nature is indifferent to human suffering. 
  • Human arrogance leads to death.
  • There are limits to self-reliance. 

As you can see, the theme is what the story suggests about the story value. 

Common themes in literature with examples

James Clear collected a list of the best-selling books of all time on his website . Let's start with some of those fiction titles.

Disclaimer: I know many of these summaries and themes are vastly oversimplified and most could be fleshed out in long, complicated papers and books. But for the sake of time, let's imagine my list as limited examples of theme among many that could be argued. 

Disclaimer 2: I tried to get ChatGPT to help me write the one sentence summaries for these titles even though I've read all but two of the listed books. The summaries ChatGPT wrote were weak or too general for our purposes. So if there are errors below, they are all mine—I can't blame the bots today. Let's look at the list: 

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605) summary: Aging nobleman Don Quixote deludes himself into thinking he's a knight and takes on a satirical quest to prove his honor by defending the helpless and defeating the wicked. 

theme: Being born a nobleman (or any class) does not automatically determine your worth. 

2. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859) summary: In this sprawling novel of swapped (or reconstructed) identities and class warfare during the French Revolution, characters navigate the nature of love, betrayal, justice, and the possibility of transformation. 

theme: Transformation is possible for enlightened individuals and societies.

3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) summary: An unlikely hobbit and his diverse team set out to find and destroy a powerful ring to save Middle-earth and defeat the dark lord Sauron. 

theme: Good can defeat evil when people (or creatures) are willing to sacrifice for the common good. 

4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943) summary: A prince visits various planets and discovers the importance of curiosity and openness to emotion.

theme: The most important things in life can't be seen with the eyes but with the heart. 

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997) summary: An unsuspecting orphan attends a wizard school where he discovers his true identity, a dark foe, and the belonging he craves. 

theme: Love and friendship transcend time and space. 

6. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) summary: Seven guests gather at a house on an island where they are killed off one-by-one as they try to discover the murderer. 

theme: Death is inevitable, justice is not.  

7. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cat Xueqin (1791) summary: In this complex family drama, a nobleman's son is born with a magic jade in his mouth, and he rebels against social norms and his father resulting in an attempted arranged wedding and illness rather than reinforce oppression.

theme: Social hierarchies maintained by oppression will eventually fall. 

8. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) summary: Timid hobbit Bilbo Baggins is called by a wizard to help a band of dwarves reclaim their land from a terrible dragon, Smaug.

theme: Bravery can be found in the most unlikely places.

9. She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (1886) summary: An professor and his ward seek out a lost kingdom in Africa to find a supernatural queen.

theme: Considering the imperialism of the time as well as worry about female empowerment, the themes here are varied and problematic, but perhaps one theme might resonate: Be careful what you seek, for you may find it. 

10. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) summary: Four children venture through a wardrobe into a magical kingdom where they must work together to save Narnia, meet Aslan, and defeat the White Witch. 

theme: Evil is overwhelmingly tempting and can only be defeated through sacrifice. 

11. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) summary: An expelled prep school student, Holden Caulfield, has a number of coming-of-age misadventures on his way home for the holiday break.

theme: Innocence can only be protected from the risks of growing up for so long. 

12. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (1988) summary: A Spanish shepherd named Santiago travels to Egypt searching for treasure he saw in a dream. 

theme: Anyone can make the world better if we are willing and courageous.

13. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967) summary: This circle of life novel covers seven generations of the Buendia family as they build a small dysfunctional utopia in a swamp amidst a changing political and social Latin American landscape.

theme: Solitude is an inevitability for humankind. 

14. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) summary: An orphan finds her place with the Cuthbert siblings, and she brings her peculiar and delightful blend of imagination and optimism to their lives and community.

theme: Every human desires and deserves belonging. 

15. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (1952) summary: Wilbur the pig and his unconventional spider friend Charlotte join forces to save Wilbur's life from the slaughterhouse. 

theme: Friendship can be found in the most unlikely places.

And let's throw in a few additional well-known stories and notable examples to see how their themes stack up:

16. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597) summary: Two teens from warring families fall in love and die rather than be kept apart from their families feud. 

theme: Passion is costly.

17. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) summary: An ambitious scientist creates a monster without considering the larger implications. Chaos ensues.

theme: Knowledge can be dangerous when coupled with unbridled ambition.

18. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) summary: Formerly enslaved mother Sethe and her daugher Denver are haunted by the ghost of Sethe's oldest daughter who died when she was two-years-old. 

theme: The physical and psychological effects of slavery are damaging and long-lasting. 

19. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) summary: In this dystopian novel, people are cloned and held in preparation to be life-long organ donors for others. 

theme: Freedom is a basic human desire. 

20. Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959) summary: The Younger family grapples with identity and dreams in the wake of the death of their patriarch. 

theme: Dignity and family are worth more than money. 

The 5 most common themes in literature

You may have been asked to define universal themes as a part of a school assignment. Universal themes are those that transcend time and cultures, meaning they are often found to be true in real life no matter who you are or where you live. 

Granted, I haven't read all the books across time and space (yet), but there's a pretty good bet that one of these major themes might apply to what you're reading regardless of time period, genre, or culture: 

  • Love conquers all.
  • Things are not always what they seem.
  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 
  • Blood (family) is thicker than water. 

Which other larger themes would you list here as some of the most common in literature? Share your theme examples in the comments . 

Why theme matters for writers

Why do themes matter for writers though? After all, isn't it enough to write an entertaining story? It can be, but exploring universal themes can help take your work to the next level. You don't have to identify a theme for your story and write everything to that end—in fact that might work against you. But when done well, it can enhance your story.

Here are a few reasons you may want to think about theme in your writing:

1. Coherence

Theme can bring together the various parts of a story, including plot and subplot, characters, symbols, and motifs. Readers can feel the variations on a theme laced throughout your story and done well, it's engaging and satisfying.

If your theme is love conquers all, then you likely have two people who over come incredible odds to be together. What are the other elements that subtly underscore it? Maybe there's a house that was built with love in the setting or maybe a secondary character is failing at love because they keep putting their work first. If it's subtle, those small details reinforce the main storyline.  

2. Significance

As we discussed, universal themes will resonate with readers, even when they haven't experienced the same events. Many of the works we've listed above are remembered and revered due in part to their lasting themes about human experience.

3. Expression

Theme is an opportunity to weave together your world view, experiences, perspective, and beliefs with artistic and creative possibilities. Theme serves as a unifying element as you express your vision. Try playing with theme in a story or other creative work to see how it pushes boundaries or got beyond the expected. 

In summary, theme can serve as the backbone of a story, giving it structure, depth, and resonance. It can help convey the writer's intended message and engage readers on multiple levels, making it a crucial element of literary and creative expression. 

Which other larger themes would you list as the most common in literature? Share your theme examples in the comments .

Set your timer for 15 minutes . Choose one of the common themes above and create a character who has strong beliefs about that theme. Now, write a scene where an event or person challenges that belief. How will the character react? Will they double-down and insist on their worldview? Or will they soften and consider alternatives? Will shock at the challenge plunge them into despair? Play with their reaction. 

Once you've written for 15 minutes, post your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop and leave feedback for a few other writers. 

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Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website .

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literary essay themes

Theme Definition

What is theme? Here’s a quick and simple definition:

A theme is a universal idea, lesson, or message explored throughout a work of literature. One key characteristic of literary themes is their universality, which is to say that themes are ideas that not only apply to the specific characters and events of a book or play, but also express broader truths about human experience that readers can apply to their own lives. For instance, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (about a family of tenant farmers who are displaced from their land in Oklahoma) is a book whose themes might be said to include the inhumanity of capitalism, as well as the vitality and necessity of family and friendship.

Some additional key details about theme:

  • All works of literature have themes. The same work can have multiple themes, and many different works explore the same or similar themes.
  • Themes are sometimes divided into thematic concepts and thematic statements . A work's thematic concept is the broader topic it touches upon (love, forgiveness, pain, etc.) while its thematic statement is what the work says about that topic. For example, the thematic concept of a romance novel might be love, and, depending on what happens in the story, its thematic statement might be that "Love is blind," or that "You can't buy love . "
  • Themes are almost never stated explicitly. Oftentimes you can identify a work's themes by looking for a repeating symbol , motif , or phrase that appears again and again throughout a story, since it often signals a recurring concept or idea.

Theme Pronunciation

Here's how to pronounce theme: theem

Identifying Themes

Every work of literature—whether it's an essay, a novel, a poem, or something else—has at least one theme. Therefore, when analyzing a given work, it's always possible to discuss what the work is "about" on two separate levels: the more concrete level of the plot (i.e., what literally happens in the work), as well as the more abstract level of the theme (i.e., the concepts that the work deals with). Understanding the themes of a work is vital to understanding the work's significance—which is why, for example, every LitCharts Literature Guide uses a specific set of themes to help analyze the text.

Although some writers set out to explore certain themes in their work before they've even begun writing, many writers begin to write without a preconceived idea of the themes they want to explore—they simply allow the themes to emerge naturally through the writing process. But even when writers do set out to investigate a particular theme, they usually don't identify that theme explicitly in the work itself. Instead, each reader must come to their own conclusions about what themes are at play in a given work, and each reader will likely come away with a unique thematic interpretation or understanding of the work.

Symbol, Motif, and Leitwortstil

Writers often use three literary devices in particular—known as symbol , motif , and leitwortstil —to emphasize or hint at a work's underlying themes. Spotting these elements at work in a text can help you know where to look for its main themes.

  • Near the beginning of Romeo and Juliet , Benvolio promises to make Romeo feel better about Rosaline's rejection of him by introducing him to more beautiful women, saying "Compare [Rosaline's] face with some that I shall show….and I will make thee think thy swan a crow." Here, the swan is a symbol for how Rosaline appears to the adoring Romeo, while the crow is a symbol for how she will soon appear to him, after he has seen other, more beautiful women.
  • Symbols might occur once or twice in a book or play to represent an emotion, and in that case aren't necessarily related to a theme. However, if you start to see clusters of similar symbols appearing in a story, this may mean that the symbols are part of an overarching motif, in which case they very likely are related to a theme.
  • For example, Shakespeare uses the motif of "dark vs. light" in Romeo and Juliet to emphasize one of the play's main themes: the contradictory nature of love. To develop this theme, Shakespeare describes the experience of love by pairing contradictory, opposite symbols next to each other throughout the play: not only crows and swans, but also night and day, moon and sun. These paired symbols all fall into the overall pattern of "dark vs. light," and that overall pattern is called a motif.
  • A famous example is Kurt Vonnegut's repetition of the phrase "So it goes" throughout his novel Slaughterhouse Five , a novel which centers around the events of World War II. Vonnegut's narrator repeats the phrase each time he recounts a tragic story from the war, an effective demonstration of how the horrors of war have become normalized for the narrator. The constant repetition of the phrase emphasizes the novel's primary themes: the death and destruction of war, and the futility of trying to prevent or escape such destruction, and both of those things coupled with the author's skepticism that any of the destruction is necessary and that war-time tragedies "can't be helped."

Symbol, motif and leitwortstil are simply techniques that authors use to emphasize themes, and should not be confused with the actual thematic content at which they hint. That said, spotting these tools and patterns can give you valuable clues as to what might be the underlying themes of a work.

Thematic Concepts vs. Thematic Statements

A work's thematic concept is the broader topic it touches upon—for instance:

  • Forgiveness

while its thematic statement is the particular argument the writer makes about that topic through his or her work, such as:

  • Human judgement is imperfect.
  • Love cannot be bought.
  • Getting revenge on someone else will not fix your problems.
  • Learning to forgive is part of becoming an adult.

Should You Use Thematic Concepts or Thematic Statements?

Some people argue that when describing a theme in a work that simply writing a thematic concept is insufficient, and that instead the theme must be described in a full sentence as a thematic statement. Other people argue that a thematic statement, being a single sentence, usually creates an artificially simplistic description of a theme in a work and is therefore can actually be more misleading than helpful. There isn't really a right answer in this debate.

In our LitCharts literature study guides , we usually identify themes in headings as thematic concepts, and then explain the theme more fully in a few paragraphs. We find thematic statements limiting in fully exploring or explaining a the theme, and so we don't use them. Please note that this doesn't mean we only rely on thematic concepts—we spend paragraphs explaining a theme after we first identify a thematic concept. If you are asked to describe a theme in a text, you probably should usually try to at least develop a thematic statement about the text if you're not given the time or space to describe it more fully. For example, a statement that a book is about "the senselessness of violence" is a lot stronger and more compelling than just saying that the book is about "violence."

Identifying Thematic Statements

One way to try to to identify or describe the thematic statement within a particular work is to think through the following aspects of the text:

  • Plot: What are the main plot elements in the work, including the arc of the story, setting, and characters. What are the most important moments in the story? How does it end? How is the central conflict resolved?
  • Protagonist: Who is the main character, and what happens to him or her? How does he or she develop as a person over the course of the story?
  • Prominent symbols and motifs: Are there any motifs or symbols that are featured prominently in the work—for example, in the title, or recurring at important moments in the story—that might mirror some of the main themes?

After you've thought through these different parts of the text, consider what their answers might tell you about the thematic statement the text might be trying to make about any given thematic concept. The checklist above shouldn't be thought of as a precise formula for theme-finding, but rather as a set of guidelines, which will help you ask the right questions and arrive at an interesting thematic interpretation.

Theme Examples

The following examples not only illustrate how themes develop over the course of a work of literature, but they also demonstrate how paying careful attention to detail as you read will enable you to come to more compelling conclusions about those themes.

Themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald explores many themes in The Great Gatsby , among them the corruption of the American Dream .

  • The story's narrator is Minnesota-born Nick Caraway, a New York bonds salesman. Nick befriends Jay Gatsby, the protagonist, who is a wealthy man who throws extravagant parties at his mansion.
  • The central conflict of the novel is Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy, whom he met and fell in love with as a young man, but parted from during World War I.
  • He makes a fortune illegally by bootlegging alcohol, to become the sort of wealthy man he believes Daisy is attracted to, then buys a house near her home, where she lives with her husband.
  • While he does manage to re-enter Daisy's life, she ultimately abandons him and he dies as a result of her reckless, selfish behavior.
  • Gatsby's house is on the water, and he stares longingly across the water at a green light that hangs at the edge of a dock at Daisy's house which sits across a the bay. The symbol of the light appears multiple times in the novel—during the early stages of Gatsby's longing for Daisy, during his pursuit of her, and after he dies without winning her love. It symbolizes both his longing for daisy and the distance between them (the distance of space and time) that he believes (incorrectly) that he can bridge. 
  • In addition to the green light, the color green appears regularly in the novel. This motif of green broadens and shapes the symbolism of the green light and also influences the novel's themes. While green always remains associated with Gatsby's yearning for Daisy and the past, and also his ambitious striving to regain Daisy, it also through the motif of repeated green becomes associated with money, hypocrisy, and destruction. Gatsby's yearning for Daisy, which is idealistic in some ways, also becomes clearly corrupt in others, which more generally impacts what the novel is saying about dreams more generally and the American Dream in particular. 

Gatsby pursues the American Dream, driven by the idea that hard work can lead anyone from poverty to wealth, and he does so for a single reason: he's in love with Daisy. However, he pursues the dream dishonestly, making a fortune by illegal means, and ultimately fails to achieve his goal of winning Daisy's heart. Furthermore, when he actually gets close to winning Daisy's heart, she brings about his downfall. Through the story of Gatsby and Daisy, Fitzgerald expresses the point of view that the American Dream carries at its core an inherent corruption. You can read more about the theme of The American Dream in The Great Gatsby here .

Themes in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

In Things Fall Apart , Chinua Achebe explores the theme of the dangers of rigidly following tradition .

  • Okonkwo is obsessed with embodying the masculine ideals of traditional Igbo warrior culture.
  • Okonkwo's dedication to his clan's traditions is so extreme that it even alienates members of his own family, one of whom joins the Christians.
  • The central conflict: Okonkwo's community adapts to colonization in order to survive, becoming less warlike and allowing the minor injustices that the colonists inflict upon them to go unchallenged. Okonkwo, however, refuses to adapt.
  • At the end of the novel, Okonkwo impulsively kills a Christian out of anger. Recognizing that his community does not support his crime, Okonkwo kills himself in despair.
  • Clanswomen who give birth to twins abandon the babies in the forest to die, according to traditional beliefs that twins are evil.
  • Okonkwo kills his beloved adopted son, a prisoner of war, according to the clan's traditions.
  • Okonkwo sacrifices a goat in repentence, after severely beating his wife during the clan's holy week.

Through the tragic story of Okonkwo, Achebe is clearly dealing with the theme of tradition, but a close examination of the text reveals that he's also making a clear thematic statement that following traditions too rigidly leads people to the greatest sacrifice of all: that of personal agency . You can read more about this theme in Things Fall Apart   here .

Themes in Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken

Poem's have themes just as plot-driven narratives do. One theme that Robert Frost explores in this famous poem,  The Road Not Taken ,  is the illusory nature of free will .

  • The poem's speaker stands at a fork in the road, in a "yellow wood."
  • He (or she) looks down one path as far as possible, then takes the other, which seems less worn.
  • The speaker then admits that the paths are about equally worn—there's really no way to tell the difference—and that a layer of leaves covers both of the paths, indicating that neither has been traveled recently.
  • After taking the second path, the speaker finds comfort in the idea of taking the first path sometime in the future, but acknowledges that he or she is unlikely to ever return to that particular fork in the woods.
  • The speaker imagines how, "with a sigh" she will tell someone in the future, "I took the road less travelled—and that has made all the difference."
  • By wryly predicting his or her own need to romanticize, and retroactively justify, the chosen path, the speaker injects the poem with an unmistakeable hint of irony .
  • The speaker's journey is a symbol for life, and the two paths symbolize different life paths, with the road "less-travelled" representing the path of an individualist or lone-wolf. The fork where the two roads diverge represents an important life choice. The road "not taken" represents the life path that the speaker would have pursued had he or she had made different choices.

Frost's speaker has reached a fork in the road, which—according to the symbolic language of the poem—means that he or she must make an important life decision. However, the speaker doesn't really know anything about the choice at hand: the paths appear to be the same from the speaker's vantage point, and there's no way he or she can know where the path will lead in the long term. By showing that the only truly informed choice the speaker makes is how he or she explains their decision after they have already made it , Frost suggests that although we pretend to make our own choices, our lives are actually governed by chance.

What's the Function of Theme in Literature?

Themes are a huge part of what readers ultimately take away from a work of literature when they're done reading it. They're the universal lessons and ideas that we draw from our experiences of works of art: in other words, they're part of the whole reason anyone would want to pick up a book in the first place!

It would be difficult to write any sort of narrative that did not include any kind of theme. The narrative itself would have to be almost completely incoherent in order to seem theme-less, and even then readers would discern a theme about incoherence and meaninglessness. So themes are in that sense an intrinsic part of nearly all writing. At the same time, the themes that a writer is interested in exploring will significantly impact nearly all aspects of how a writer chooses to write a text. Some writers might know the themes they want to explore from the beginning of their writing process, and proceed from there. Others might have only a glimmer of an idea, or have new ideas as they write, and so the themes they address might shift and change as they write. In either case, though, the writer's ideas about his or her themes will influence how they write. 

One additional key detail about themes and how they work is that the process of identifying and interpreting them is often very personal and subjective. The subjective experience that readers bring to interpreting a work's themes is part of what makes literature so powerful: reading a book isn't simply a one-directional experience, in which the writer imparts their thoughts on life to the reader, already distilled into clear thematic statements. Rather, the process of reading and interpreting a work to discover its themes is an exchange in which readers parse the text to tease out the themes they find most relevant to their personal experience and interests.

Other Helpful Theme Resources

  • The Wikipedia Page on Theme: An in-depth explanation of theme that also breaks down the difference between thematic concepts and thematic statements.
  • The Dictionary Definition of Theme: A basic definition and etymology of the term.
  • In this instructional video , a teacher explains her process for helping students identify themes.

The printed PDF version of the LitCharts literary term guide on Theme

  • PDFs for all 136 Lit Terms we cover
  • Downloads of 1899 LitCharts Lit Guides
  • Teacher Editions for every Lit Guide
  • Explanations and citation info for 39,983 quotes across 1899 books
  • Downloadable (PDF) line-by-line translations of every Shakespeare play
  • Formal Verse
  • Bildungsroman
  • Flat Character
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Rhyme Scheme
  • Epanalepsis
  • Anachronism

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beginner's guide to literary analysis

Understanding literature & how to write literary analysis.

Literary analysis is the foundation of every college and high school English class. Once you can comprehend written work and respond to it, the next step is to learn how to think critically and complexly about a work of literature in order to analyze its elements and establish ideas about its meaning.

If that sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Literary analysis is really just a way of thinking creatively about what you read. The practice takes you beyond the storyline and into the motives behind it. 

While an author might have had a specific intention when they wrote their book, there’s still no right or wrong way to analyze a literary text—just your way. You can use literary theories, which act as “lenses” through which you can view a text. Or you can use your own creativity and critical thinking to identify a literary device or pattern in a text and weave that insight into your own argument about the text’s underlying meaning. 

Now, if that sounds fun, it should , because it is. Here, we’ll lay the groundwork for performing literary analysis, including when writing analytical essays, to help you read books like a critic. 

What Is Literary Analysis?

As the name suggests, literary analysis is an analysis of a work, whether that’s a novel, play, short story, or poem. Any analysis requires breaking the content into its component parts and then examining how those parts operate independently and as a whole. In literary analysis, those parts can be different devices and elements—such as plot, setting, themes, symbols, etcetera—as well as elements of style, like point of view or tone. 

When performing analysis, you consider some of these different elements of the text and then form an argument for why the author chose to use them. You can do so while reading and during class discussion, but it’s particularly important when writing essays. 

Literary analysis is notably distinct from summary. When you write a summary , you efficiently describe the work’s main ideas or plot points in order to establish an overview of the work. While you might use elements of summary when writing analysis, you should do so minimally. You can reference a plot line to make a point, but it should be done so quickly so you can focus on why that plot line matters . In summary (see what we did there?), a summary focuses on the “ what ” of a text, while analysis turns attention to the “ how ” and “ why .”

While literary analysis can be broad, covering themes across an entire work, it can also be very specific, and sometimes the best analysis is just that. Literary critics have written thousands of words about the meaning of an author’s single word choice; while you might not want to be quite that particular, there’s a lot to be said for digging deep in literary analysis, rather than wide. 

Although you’re forming your own argument about the work, it’s not your opinion . You should avoid passing judgment on the piece and instead objectively consider what the author intended, how they went about executing it, and whether or not they were successful in doing so. Literary criticism is similar to literary analysis, but it is different in that it does pass judgement on the work. Criticism can also consider literature more broadly, without focusing on a singular work. 

Once you understand what constitutes (and doesn’t constitute) literary analysis, it’s easy to identify it. Here are some examples of literary analysis and its oft-confused counterparts: 

Summary: In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher and witnesses his sister escape a horrible fate.  

Opinion: In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe uses his great Gothic writing to establish a sense of spookiness that is enjoyable to read. 

Literary Analysis: “Throughout ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Poe foreshadows the fate of Madeline by creating a sense of claustrophobia for the reader through symbols, such as in the narrator’s inability to leave and the labyrinthine nature of the house. 

In summary, literary analysis is:

  • Breaking a work into its components
  • Identifying what those components are and how they work in the text
  • Developing an understanding of how they work together to achieve a goal 
  • Not an opinion, but subjective 
  • Not a summary, though summary can be used in passing 
  • Best when it deeply, rather than broadly, analyzes a literary element

Literary Analysis and Other Works

As discussed above, literary analysis is often performed upon a single work—but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be performed across works to consider the interplay of two or more texts. Regardless of whether or not the works were written about the same thing, or even within the same time period, they can have an influence on one another or a connection that’s worth exploring. And reading two or more texts side by side can help you to develop insights through comparison and contrast.

For example, Paradise Lost is an epic poem written in the 17th century, based largely on biblical narratives written some 700 years before and which later influenced 19th century poet John Keats. The interplay of works can be obvious, as here, or entirely the inspiration of the analyst. As an example of the latter, you could compare and contrast the writing styles of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe who, while contemporaries in terms of time, were vastly different in their content. 

Additionally, literary analysis can be performed between a work and its context. Authors are often speaking to the larger context of their times, be that social, political, religious, economic, or artistic. A valid and interesting form is to compare the author’s context to the work, which is done by identifying and analyzing elements that are used to make an argument about the writer’s time or experience. 

For example, you could write an essay about how Hemingway’s struggles with mental health and paranoia influenced his later work, or how his involvement in the Spanish Civil War influenced his early work. One approach focuses more on his personal experience, while the other turns to the context of his times—both are valid. 

Why Does Literary Analysis Matter? 

Sometimes an author wrote a work of literature strictly for entertainment’s sake, but more often than not, they meant something more. Whether that was a missive on world peace, commentary about femininity, or an allusion to their experience as an only child, the author probably wrote their work for a reason, and understanding that reason—or the many reasons—can actually make reading a lot more meaningful. 

Performing literary analysis as a form of study unquestionably makes you a better reader. It’s also likely that it will improve other skills, too, like critical thinking, creativity, debate, and reasoning. 

At its grandest and most idealistic, literary analysis even has the ability to make the world a better place. By reading and analyzing works of literature, you are able to more fully comprehend the perspectives of others. Cumulatively, you’ll broaden your own perspectives and contribute more effectively to the things that matter to you. 

Literary Terms to Know for Literary Analysis 

There are hundreds of literary devices you could consider during your literary analysis, but there are some key tools most writers utilize to achieve their purpose—and therefore you need to know in order to understand that purpose. These common devices include: 

  • Characters: The people (or entities) who play roles in the work. The protagonist is the main character in the work. 
  • Conflict: The conflict is the driving force behind the plot, the event that causes action in the narrative, usually on the part of the protagonist
  • Context : The broader circumstances surrounding the work political and social climate in which it was written or the experience of the author. It can also refer to internal context, and the details presented by the narrator 
  • Diction : The word choice used by the narrator or characters 
  • Genre: A category of literature characterized by agreed upon similarities in the works, such as subject matter and tone
  • Imagery : The descriptive or figurative language used to paint a picture in the reader’s mind so they can picture the story’s plot, characters, and setting 
  • Metaphor: A figure of speech that uses comparison between two unlike objects for dramatic or poetic effect
  • Narrator: The person who tells the story. Sometimes they are a character within the story, but sometimes they are omniscient and removed from the plot. 
  • Plot : The storyline of the work
  • Point of view: The perspective taken by the narrator, which skews the perspective of the reader 
  • Setting : The time and place in which the story takes place. This can include elements like the time period, weather, time of year or day, and social or economic conditions 
  • Symbol : An object, person, or place that represents an abstract idea that is greater than its literal meaning 
  • Syntax : The structure of a sentence, either narration or dialogue, and the tone it implies
  • Theme : A recurring subject or message within the work, often commentary on larger societal or cultural ideas
  • Tone : The feeling, attitude, or mood the text presents

How to Perform Literary Analysis

Step 1: read the text thoroughly.

Literary analysis begins with the literature itself, which means performing a close reading of the text. As you read, you should focus on the work. That means putting away distractions (sorry, smartphone) and dedicating a period of time to the task at hand. 

It’s also important that you don’t skim or speed read. While those are helpful skills, they don’t apply to literary analysis—or at least not this stage. 

Step 2: Take Notes as You Read  

As you read the work, take notes about different literary elements and devices that stand out to you. Whether you highlight or underline in text, use sticky note tabs to mark pages and passages, or handwrite your thoughts in a notebook, you should capture your thoughts and the parts of the text to which they correspond. This—the act of noticing things about a literary work—is literary analysis. 

Step 3: Notice Patterns 

As you read the work, you’ll begin to notice patterns in the way the author deploys language, themes, and symbols to build their plot and characters. As you read and these patterns take shape, begin to consider what they could mean and how they might fit together. 

As you identify these patterns, as well as other elements that catch your interest, be sure to record them in your notes or text. Some examples include: 

  • Circle or underline words or terms that you notice the author uses frequently, whether those are nouns (like “eyes” or “road”) or adjectives (like “yellow” or “lush”).
  • Highlight phrases that give you the same kind of feeling. For example, if the narrator describes an “overcast sky,” a “dreary morning,” and a “dark, quiet room,” the words aren’t the same, but the feeling they impart and setting they develop are similar. 
  • Underline quotes or prose that define a character’s personality or their role in the text.
  • Use sticky tabs to color code different elements of the text, such as specific settings or a shift in the point of view. 

By noting these patterns, comprehensive symbols, metaphors, and ideas will begin to come into focus.  

Step 4: Consider the Work as a Whole, and Ask Questions

This is a step that you can do either as you read, or after you finish the text. The point is to begin to identify the aspects of the work that most interest you, and you could therefore analyze in writing or discussion. 

Questions you could ask yourself include: 

  • What aspects of the text do I not understand?
  • What parts of the narrative or writing struck me most?
  • What patterns did I notice?
  • What did the author accomplish really well?
  • What did I find lacking?
  • Did I notice any contradictions or anything that felt out of place?  
  • What was the purpose of the minor characters?
  • What tone did the author choose, and why? 

The answers to these and more questions will lead you to your arguments about the text. 

Step 5: Return to Your Notes and the Text for Evidence

As you identify the argument you want to make (especially if you’re preparing for an essay), return to your notes to see if you already have supporting evidence for your argument. That’s why it’s so important to take notes or mark passages as you read—you’ll thank yourself later!

If you’re preparing to write an essay, you’ll use these passages and ideas to bolster your argument—aka, your thesis. There will likely be multiple different passages you can use to strengthen multiple different aspects of your argument. Just be sure to cite the text correctly! 

If you’re preparing for class, your notes will also be invaluable. When your teacher or professor leads the conversation in the direction of your ideas or arguments, you’ll be able to not only proffer that idea but back it up with textual evidence. That’s an A+ in class participation. 

Step 6: Connect These Ideas Across the Narrative

Whether you’re in class or writing an essay, literary analysis isn’t complete until you’ve considered the way these ideas interact and contribute to the work as a whole. You can find and present evidence, but you still have to explain how those elements work together and make up your argument. 

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

When conducting literary analysis while reading a text or discussing it in class, you can pivot easily from one argument to another (or even switch sides if a classmate or teacher makes a compelling enough argument). 

But when writing literary analysis, your objective is to propose a specific, arguable thesis and convincingly defend it. In order to do so, you need to fortify your argument with evidence from the text (and perhaps secondary sources) and an authoritative tone. 

A successful literary analysis essay depends equally on a thoughtful thesis, supportive analysis, and presenting these elements masterfully. We’ll review how to accomplish these objectives below. 

Step 1: Read the Text. Maybe Read It Again. 

Constructing an astute analytical essay requires a thorough knowledge of the text. As you read, be sure to note any passages, quotes, or ideas that stand out. These could serve as the future foundation of your thesis statement. Noting these sections now will help you when you need to gather evidence. 

The more familiar you become with the text, the better (and easier!) your essay will be. Familiarity with the text allows you to speak (or in this case, write) to it confidently. If you only skim the book, your lack of rich understanding will be evident in your essay. Alternatively, if you read the text closely—especially if you read it more than once, or at least carefully revisit important passages—your own writing will be filled with insight that goes beyond a basic understanding of the storyline. 

Step 2: Brainstorm Potential Topics 

Because you took detailed notes while reading the text, you should have a list of potential topics at the ready. Take time to review your notes, highlighting any ideas or questions you had that feel interesting. You should also return to the text and look for any passages that stand out to you. 

When considering potential topics, you should prioritize ideas that you find interesting. It won’t only make the whole process of writing an essay more fun, your enthusiasm for the topic will probably improve the quality of your argument, and maybe even your writing. Just like it’s obvious when a topic interests you in a conversation, it’s obvious when a topic interests the writer of an essay (and even more obvious when it doesn’t). 

Your topic ideas should also be specific, unique, and arguable. A good way to think of topics is that they’re the answer to fairly specific questions. As you begin to brainstorm, first think of questions you have about the text. Questions might focus on the plot, such as: Why did the author choose to deviate from the projected storyline? Or why did a character’s role in the narrative shift? Questions might also consider the use of a literary device, such as: Why does the narrator frequently repeat a phrase or comment on a symbol? Or why did the author choose to switch points of view each chapter? 

Once you have a thesis question , you can begin brainstorming answers—aka, potential thesis statements . At this point, your answers can be fairly broad. Once you land on a question-statement combination that feels right, you’ll then look for evidence in the text that supports your answer (and helps you define and narrow your thesis statement). 

For example, after reading “ The Fall of the House of Usher ,” you might be wondering, Why are Roderick and Madeline twins?, Or even: Why does their relationship feel so creepy?” Maybe you noticed (and noted) that the narrator was surprised to find out they were twins, or perhaps you found that the narrator’s tone tended to shift and become more anxious when discussing the interactions of the twins.

Once you come up with your thesis question, you can identify a broad answer, which will become the basis for your thesis statement. In response to the questions above, your answer might be, “Poe emphasizes the close relationship of Roderick and Madeline to foreshadow that their deaths will be close, too.” 

Step 3: Gather Evidence 

Once you have your topic (or you’ve narrowed it down to two or three), return to the text (yes, again) to see what evidence you can find to support it. If you’re thinking of writing about the relationship between Roderick and Madeline in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” look for instances where they engaged in the text. 

This is when your knowledge of literary devices comes in clutch. Carefully study the language around each event in the text that might be relevant to your topic. How does Poe’s diction or syntax change during the interactions of the siblings? How does the setting reflect or contribute to their relationship? What imagery or symbols appear when Roderick and Madeline are together? 

By finding and studying evidence within the text, you’ll strengthen your topic argument—or, just as valuably, discount the topics that aren’t strong enough for analysis. 

literary essay themes

Step 4: Consider Secondary Sources 

In addition to returning to the literary work you’re studying for evidence, you can also consider secondary sources that reference or speak to the work. These can be articles from journals you find on JSTOR, books that consider the work or its context, or articles your teacher shared in class. 

While you can use these secondary sources to further support your idea, you should not overuse them. Make sure your topic remains entirely differentiated from that presented in the source. 

Step 5: Write a Working Thesis Statement

Once you’ve gathered evidence and narrowed down your topic, you’re ready to refine that topic into a thesis statement. As you continue to outline and write your paper, this thesis statement will likely change slightly, but this initial draft will serve as the foundation of your essay. It’s like your north star: Everything you write in your essay is leading you back to your thesis. 

Writing a great thesis statement requires some real finesse. A successful thesis statement is: 

  • Debatable : You shouldn’t simply summarize or make an obvious statement about the work. Instead, your thesis statement should take a stand on an issue or make a claim that is open to argument. You’ll spend your essay debating—and proving—your argument. 
  • Demonstrable : You need to be able to prove, through evidence, that your thesis statement is true. That means you have to have passages from the text and correlative analysis ready to convince the reader that you’re right. 
  • Specific : In most cases, successfully addressing a theme that encompasses a work in its entirety would require a book-length essay. Instead, identify a thesis statement that addresses specific elements of the work, such as a relationship between characters, a repeating symbol, a key setting, or even something really specific like the speaking style of a character. 

Example: By depicting the relationship between Roderick and Madeline to be stifling and almost otherworldly in its closeness, Poe foreshadows both Madeline’s fate and Roderick’s inability to choose a different fate for himself. 

Step 6: Write an Outline 

You have your thesis, you have your evidence—but how do you put them together? A great thesis statement (and therefore a great essay) will have multiple arguments supporting it, presenting different kinds of evidence that all contribute to the singular, main idea presented in your thesis. 

Review your evidence and identify these different arguments, then organize the evidence into categories based on the argument they support. These ideas and evidence will become the body paragraphs of your essay. 

For example, if you were writing about Roderick and Madeline as in the example above, you would pull evidence from the text, such as the narrator’s realization of their relationship as twins; examples where the narrator’s tone of voice shifts when discussing their relationship; imagery, like the sounds Roderick hears as Madeline tries to escape; and Poe’s tendency to use doubles and twins in his other writings to create the same spooky effect. All of these are separate strains of the same argument, and can be clearly organized into sections of an outline. 

Step 7: Write Your Introduction

Your introduction serves a few very important purposes that essentially set the scene for the reader: 

  • Establish context. Sure, your reader has probably read the work. But you still want to remind them of the scene, characters, or elements you’ll be discussing. 
  • Present your thesis statement. Your thesis statement is the backbone of your analytical paper. You need to present it clearly at the outset so that the reader understands what every argument you make is aimed at. 
  • Offer a mini-outline. While you don’t want to show all your cards just yet, you do want to preview some of the evidence you’ll be using to support your thesis so that the reader has a roadmap of where they’re going. 

Step 8: Write Your Body Paragraphs

Thanks to steps one through seven, you’ve already set yourself up for success. You have clearly outlined arguments and evidence to support them. Now it’s time to translate those into authoritative and confident prose. 

When presenting each idea, begin with a topic sentence that encapsulates the argument you’re about to make (sort of like a mini-thesis statement). Then present your evidence and explanations of that evidence that contribute to that argument. Present enough material to prove your point, but don’t feel like you necessarily have to point out every single instance in the text where this element takes place. For example, if you’re highlighting a symbol that repeats throughout the narrative, choose two or three passages where it is used most effectively, rather than trying to squeeze in all ten times it appears. 

While you should have clearly defined arguments, the essay should still move logically and fluidly from one argument to the next. Try to avoid choppy paragraphs that feel disjointed; every idea and argument should feel connected to the last, and, as a group, connected to your thesis. A great way to connect the ideas from one paragraph to the next is with transition words and phrases, such as: 

  • Furthermore 
  • In addition
  • On the other hand
  • Conversely 

literary essay themes

Step 9: Write Your Conclusion 

Your conclusion is more than a summary of your essay's parts, but it’s also not a place to present brand new ideas not already discussed in your essay. Instead, your conclusion should return to your thesis (without repeating it verbatim) and point to why this all matters. If writing about the siblings in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, you could point out that the utilization of twins and doubles is a common literary element of Poe’s work that contributes to the definitive eeriness of Gothic literature. 

While you might speak to larger ideas in your conclusion, be wary of getting too macro. Your conclusion should still be supported by all of the ideas that preceded it. 

Step 10: Revise, Revise, Revise

Of course you should proofread your literary analysis essay before you turn it in. But you should also edit the content to make sure every piece of evidence and every explanation directly supports your thesis as effectively and efficiently as possible. 

Sometimes, this might mean actually adapting your thesis a bit to the rest of your essay. At other times, it means removing redundant examples or paraphrasing quotations. Make sure every sentence is valuable, and remove those that aren’t. 

Other Resources for Literary Analysis 

With these skills and suggestions, you’re well on your way to practicing and writing literary analysis. But if you don’t have a firm grasp on the concepts discussed above—such as literary devices or even the content of the text you’re analyzing—it will still feel difficult to produce insightful analysis. 

If you’d like to sharpen the tools in your literature toolbox, there are plenty of other resources to help you do so: 

  • Check out our expansive library of Literary Devices . These could provide you with a deeper understanding of the basic devices discussed above or introduce you to new concepts sure to impress your professors ( anagnorisis , anyone?). 
  • This Academic Citation Resource Guide ensures you properly cite any work you reference in your analytical essay. 
  • Our English Homework Help Guide will point you to dozens of resources that can help you perform analysis, from critical reading strategies to poetry helpers. 
  • This Grammar Education Resource Guide will direct you to plenty of resources to refine your grammar and writing (definitely important for getting an A+ on that paper). 

Of course, you should know the text inside and out before you begin writing your analysis. In order to develop a true understanding of the work, read through its corresponding SuperSummary study guide . Doing so will help you truly comprehend the plot, as well as provide some inspirational ideas for your analysis.

literary essay themes

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You’ve been assigned a literary analysis paper—what does that even mean? Is it like a book report that you used to write in high school? Well, not really.

A literary analysis essay asks you to make an original argument about a poem, play, or work of fiction and support that argument with research and evidence from your careful reading of the text.

It can take many forms, such as a close reading of a text, critiquing the text through a particular literary theory, comparing one text to another, or criticizing another critic’s interpretation of the text. While there are many ways to structure a literary essay, writing this kind of essay follows generally follows a similar process for everyone

Crafting a good literary analysis essay begins with good close reading of the text, in which you have kept notes and observations as you read. This will help you with the first step, which is selecting a topic to write about—what jumped out as you read, what are you genuinely interested in? The next step is to focus your topic, developing it into an argument—why is this subject or observation important? Why should your reader care about it as much as you do? The third step is to gather evidence to support your argument, for literary analysis, support comes in the form of evidence from the text and from your research on what other literary critics have said about your topic. Only after you have performed these steps, are you ready to begin actually writing your essay.

Writing a Literary Analysis Essay

How to create a topic and conduct research:.

Writing an Analysis of a Poem, Story, or Play

If you are taking a literature course, it is important that you know how to write an analysis—sometimes called an interpretation or a literary analysis or a critical reading or a critical analysis—of a story, a poem, and a play. Your instructor will probably assign such an analysis as part of the course assessment. On your mid-term or final exam, you might have to write an analysis of one or more of the poems and/or stories on your reading list. Or the dreaded “sight poem or story” might appear on an exam, a work that is not on the reading list, that you have not read before, but one your instructor includes on the exam to examine your ability to apply the active reading skills you have learned in class to produce, independently, an effective literary analysis.You might be asked to write instead or, or in addition to an analysis of a literary work, a more sophisticated essay in which you compare and contrast the protagonists of two stories, or the use of form and metaphor in two poems, or the tragic heroes in two plays.

You might learn some literary theory in your course and be asked to apply theory—feminist, Marxist, reader-response, psychoanalytic, new historicist, for example—to one or more of the works on your reading list. But the seminal assignment in a literature course is the analysis of the single poem, story, novel, or play, and, even if you do not have to complete this assignment specifically, it will form the basis of most of the other writing assignments you will be required to undertake in your literature class. There are several ways of structuring a literary analysis, and your instructor might issue specific instructions on how he or she wants this assignment done. The method presented here might not be identical to the one your instructor wants you to follow, but it will be easy enough to modify, if your instructor expects something a bit different, and it is a good default method, if your instructor does not issue more specific guidelines.You want to begin your analysis with a paragraph that provides the context of the work you are analyzing and a brief account of what you believe to be the poem or story or play’s main theme. At a minimum, your account of the work’s context will include the name of the author, the title of the work, its genre, and the date and place of publication. If there is an important biographical or historical context to the work, you should include that, as well.Try to express the work’s theme in one or two sentences. Theme, you will recall, is that insight into human experience the author offers to readers, usually revealed as the content, the drama, the plot of the poem, story, or play unfolds and the characters interact. Assessing theme can be a complex task. Authors usually show the theme; they don’t tell it. They rarely say, at the end of the story, words to this effect: “and the moral of my story is…” They tell their story, develop their characters, provide some kind of conflict—and from all of this theme emerges. Because identifying theme can be challenging and subjective, it is often a good idea to work through the rest of the analysis, then return to the beginning and assess theme in light of your analysis of the work’s other literary elements.Here is a good example of an introductory paragraph from Ben’s analysis of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Among School Children.”

“Among School Children” was published in Yeats’ 1928 collection of poems The Tower. It was inspired by a visit Yeats made in 1926 to school in Waterford, an official visit in his capacity as a senator of the Irish Free State. In the course of the tour, Yeats reflects upon his own youth and the experiences that shaped the “sixty-year old, smiling public man” (line 8) he has become. Through his reflection, the theme of the poem emerges: a life has meaning when connections among apparently disparate experiences are forged into a unified whole.

In the body of your literature analysis, you want to guide your readers through a tour of the poem, story, or play, pausing along the way to comment on, analyze, interpret, and explain key incidents, descriptions, dialogue, symbols, the writer’s use of figurative language—any of the elements of literature that are relevant to a sound analysis of this particular work. Your main goal is to explain how the elements of literature work to elucidate, augment, and develop the theme. The elements of literature are common across genres: a story, a narrative poem, and a play all have a plot and characters. But certain genres privilege certain literary elements. In a poem, for example, form, imagery and metaphor might be especially important; in a story, setting and point-of-view might be more important than they are in a poem; in a play, dialogue, stage directions, lighting serve functions rarely relevant in the analysis of a story or poem.

The length of the body of an analysis of a literary work will usually depend upon the length of work being analyzed—the longer the work, the longer the analysis—though your instructor will likely establish a word limit for this assignment. Make certain that you do not simply paraphrase the plot of the story or play or the content of the poem. This is a common weakness in student literary analyses, especially when the analysis is of a poem or a play.

Here is a good example of two body paragraphs from Amelia’s analysis of “Araby” by James Joyce.

Within the story’s first few paragraphs occur several religious references which will accumulate as the story progresses. The narrator is a student at the Christian Brothers’ School; the former tenant of his house was a priest; he left behind books called The Abbot and The Devout Communicant. Near the end of the story’s second paragraph the narrator describes a “central apple tree” in the garden, under which is “the late tenant’s rusty bicycle pump.” We may begin to suspect the tree symbolizes the apple tree in the Garden of Eden and the bicycle pump, the snake which corrupted Eve, a stretch, perhaps, until Joyce’s fall-of-innocence theme becomes more apparent.

The narrator must continue to help his aunt with her errands, but, even when he is so occupied, his mind is on Mangan’s sister, as he tries to sort out his feelings for her. Here Joyce provides vivid insight into the mind of an adolescent boy at once elated and bewildered by his first crush. He wants to tell her of his “confused adoration,” but he does not know if he will ever have the chance. Joyce’s description of the pleasant tension consuming the narrator is conveyed in a striking simile, which continues to develop the narrator’s character, while echoing the religious imagery, so important to the story’s theme: “But my body was like a harp, and her words and gestures were like fingers, running along the wires.”

The concluding paragraph of your analysis should realize two goals. First, it should present your own opinion on the quality of the poem or story or play about which you have been writing. And, second, it should comment on the current relevance of the work. You should certainly comment on the enduring social relevance of the work you are explicating. You may comment, though you should never be obliged to do so, on the personal relevance of the work. Here is the concluding paragraph from Dao-Ming’s analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

First performed in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest has been made into a film, as recently as 2002 and is regularly revived by professional and amateur theatre companies. It endures not only because of the comic brilliance of its characters and their dialogue, but also because its satire still resonates with contemporary audiences. I am still amazed that I see in my own Asian mother a shadow of Lady Bracknell, with her obsession with finding for her daughter a husband who will maintain, if not, ideally, increase the family’s social status. We might like to think we are more liberated and socially sophisticated than our Victorian ancestors, but the starlets and eligible bachelors who star in current reality television programs illustrate the extent to which superficial concerns still influence decisions about love and even marriage. Even now, we can turn to Oscar Wilde to help us understand and laugh at those who are earnest in name only.

Dao-Ming’s conclusion is brief, but she does manage to praise the play, reaffirm its main theme, and explain its enduring appeal. And note how her last sentence cleverly establishes that sense of closure that is also a feature of an effective analysis.

You may, of course, modify the template that is presented here. Your instructor might favour a somewhat different approach to literary analysis. Its essence, though, will be your understanding and interpretation of the theme of the poem, story, or play and the skill with which the author shapes the elements of literature—plot, character, form, diction, setting, point of view—to support the theme.

Academic Writing Tips : How to Write a Literary Analysis Paper. Authored by: eHow. Located at: https://youtu.be/8adKfLwIrVk. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license

BC Open Textbooks: English Literature Victorians and Moderns: https://opentextbc.ca/englishliterature/back-matter/appendix-5-writing-an-analysis-of-a-poem-story-and-play/

Literary Analysis

The challenges of writing about english literature.

Writing begins with the act of reading . While this statement is true for most college papers, strong English papers tend to be the product of highly attentive reading (and rereading). When your instructors ask you to do a “close reading,” they are asking you to read not only for content, but also for structures and patterns. When you perform a close reading, then, you observe how form and content interact. In some cases, form reinforces content: for example, in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, where the speaker invites God’s “force” “to break, blow, burn and make [him] new.” Here, the stressed monosyllables of the verbs “break,” “blow” and “burn” evoke aurally the force that the speaker invites from God. In other cases, form raises questions about content: for example, a repeated denial of guilt will likely raise questions about the speaker’s professed innocence. When you close read, take an inductive approach. Start by observing particular details in the text, such as a repeated image or word, an unexpected development, or even a contradiction. Often, a detail–such as a repeated image–can help you to identify a question about the text that warrants further examination. So annotate details that strike you as you read. Some of those details will eventually help you to work towards a thesis. And don’t worry if a detail seems trivial. If you can make a case about how an apparently trivial detail reveals something significant about the text, then your paper will have a thought-provoking thesis to argue.

Common Types of English Papers Many assignments will ask you to analyze a single text. Others, however, will ask you to read two or more texts in relation to each other, or to consider a text in light of claims made by other scholars and critics. For most assignments, close reading will be central to your paper. While some assignment guidelines will suggest topics and spell out expectations in detail, others will offer little more than a page limit. Approaching the writing process in the absence of assigned topics can be daunting, but remember that you have resources: in section, you will probably have encountered some examples of close reading; in lecture, you will have encountered some of the course’s central questions and claims. The paper is a chance for you to extend a claim offered in lecture, or to analyze a passage neglected in lecture. In either case, your analysis should do more than recapitulate claims aired in lecture and section. Because different instructors have different goals for an assignment, you should always ask your professor or TF if you have questions. These general guidelines should apply in most cases:

  • A close reading of a single text: Depending on the length of the text, you will need to be more or less selective about what you choose to consider. In the case of a sonnet, you will probably have enough room to analyze the text more thoroughly than you would in the case of a novel, for example, though even here you will probably not analyze every single detail. By contrast, in the case of a novel, you might analyze a repeated scene, image, or object (for example, scenes of train travel, images of decay, or objects such as or typewriters). Alternately, you might analyze a perplexing scene (such as a novel’s ending, albeit probably in relation to an earlier moment in the novel). But even when analyzing shorter works, you will need to be selective. Although you might notice numerous interesting details as you read, not all of those details will help you to organize a focused argument about the text. For example, if you are focusing on depictions of sensory experience in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” you probably do not need to analyze the image of a homeless Ruth in stanza 7, unless this image helps you to develop your case about sensory experience in the poem.
  • A theoretically-informed close reading. In some courses, you will be asked to analyze a poem, a play, or a novel by using a critical theory (psychoanalytic, postcolonial, gender, etc). For example, you might use Kristeva’s theory of abjection to analyze mother-daughter relations in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Critical theories provide focus for your analysis; if “abjection” is the guiding concept for your paper, you should focus on the scenes in the novel that are most relevant to the concept.
  • A historically-informed close reading. In courses with a historicist orientation, you might use less self-consciously literary documents, such as newspapers or devotional manuals, to develop your analysis of a literary work. For example, to analyze how Robinson Crusoe makes sense of his island experiences, you might use Puritan tracts that narrate events in terms of how God organizes them. The tracts could help you to show not only how Robinson Crusoe draws on Puritan narrative conventions, but also—more significantly—how the novel revises those conventions.
  • A comparison of two texts When analyzing two texts, you might look for unexpected contrasts between apparently similar texts, or unexpected similarities between apparently dissimilar texts, or for how one text revises or transforms the other. Keep in mind that not all of the similarities, differences, and transformations you identify will be relevant to an argument about the relationship between the two texts. As you work towards a thesis, you will need to decide which of those similarities, differences, or transformations to focus on. Moreover, unless instructed otherwise, you do not need to allot equal space to each text (unless this 50/50 allocation serves your thesis well, of course). Often you will find that one text helps to develop your analysis of another text. For example, you might analyze the transformation of Ariel’s song from The Tempest in T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Insofar as this analysis is interested in the afterlife of Ariel’s song in a later poem, you would likely allot more space to analyzing allusions to Ariel’s song in The Waste Land (after initially establishing the song’s significance in Shakespeare’s play, of course).
  • A response paper A response paper is a great opportunity to practice your close reading skills without having to develop an entire argument. In most cases, a solid approach is to select a rich passage that rewards analysis (for example, one that depicts an important scene or a recurring image) and close read it. While response papers are a flexible genre, they are not invitations for impressionistic accounts of whether you liked the work or a particular character. Instead, you might use your close reading to raise a question about the text—to open up further investigation, rather than to supply a solution.
  • A research paper. In most cases, you will receive guidance from the professor on the scope of the research paper. It is likely that you will be expected to consult sources other than the assigned readings. Hollis is your best bet for book titles, and the MLA bibliography (available through e-resources) for articles. When reading articles, make sure that they have been peer reviewed; you might also ask your TF to recommend reputable journals in the field.

Harvard College Writing Program: https://writingproject.fas.harvard.edu/files/hwp/files/bg_writing_english.pdf

In the same way that we talk with our friends about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or newest Marvel movie, scholars communicate their ideas and interpretations of literature through written literary analysis essays. Literary analysis essays make us better readers of literature.

Only through careful reading and well-argued analysis can we reach new understandings and interpretations of texts that are sometimes hundreds of years old. Literary analysis brings new meaning and can shed new light on texts. Building from careful reading and selecting a topic that you are genuinely interested in, your argument supports how you read and understand a text. Using examples from the text you are discussing in the form of textual evidence further supports your reading. Well-researched literary analysis also includes information about what other scholars have written about a specific text or topic.

Literary analysis helps us to refine our ideas, question what we think we know, and often generates new knowledge about literature. Literary analysis essays allow you to discuss your own interpretation of a given text through careful examination of the choices the original author made in the text.

ENG134 – Literary Genres Copyright © by The American Women's College and Jessica Egan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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When someone asks you “What is this book about?” , there are a few ways you can answer. There’s “ plot ,” which refers to the literal events in the book, and there’s “character,” which refers to the people in the book and the struggles they overcome. Finally, there are themes in literature that correspond with the work’s topic and message. But what is theme in literature?

The theme of a story or poem refers to the deeper meaning of that story or poem. All works of literature contend with certain complex ideas, and theme is how a story or poem approaches these ideas.

There are countless ways to approach the theme of a story or poem, so let’s take a look at some theme examples and a list of themes in literature. We’ll discuss the differences between theme and other devices, like theme vs moral and theme vs topic. Finally, we’ll examine why theme is so essential to any work of literature, including to your own writing.

But first, what is theme? Let’s explore what theme is—and what theme isn’t.

  • Theme Definition

20 Common Themes in Literature

  • Theme Examples

Themes in Literature: A Hierarchy of Ideas

Why themes in literature matter.

  • Should I Decide the Themes of a Story in Advance?

Theme Definition: What is Theme?

Theme describes the central idea(s) that a piece of writing explores. Rather than stating this theme directly, the author will look at theme using the set of literary tools at their disposal. The theme of a story or poem will be explored through elements like characters , plot, settings , conflict, and even word choice and literary devices .

Theme definition: the central idea(s) that a piece of writing explores.

That said, theme is more than just an idea. It is also the work’s specific vantage point on that idea. In other words, a theme is an idea plus an opinion: it is the author’s specific views regarding the central ideas of the work. 

All works of literature have these central ideas and opinions, even if those ideas and opinions aren’t immediate to the reader.

Justice, for example, is a literary theme that shows up in a lot of classical works. To Kill a Mockingbird contends with racial justice, especially at a time when the U.S. justice system was exceedingly stacked against African Americans. How can a nation call itself just when justice is used as a weapon?

By contrast, the play Hamlet is about the son of a recently-executed king. Hamlet seeks justice for his father and vows to kill Claudius—his father’s killer—but routinely encounters the paradox of revenge. Can justice really be found through more bloodshed?

What is theme? An idea + an opinion.

Clearly, these two works contend with justice in unrelated ways. All themes in literature are broad and open-ended, allowing writers to explore their own ideas about these complex topics.

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Let’s look at some common themes in literature. The ideas presented within this list of themes in literature show up in novels, memoirs, poems, and stories throughout history.

Theme Examples in Literature

Let’s take a closer look at how writers approach and execute theme. Themes in literature are conveyed throughout the work, so while you might not have read the books in the following theme examples, we’ve provided plot synopses and other relevant details where necessary. We analyze the following:

  • Power and Corruption in the novel Animal Farm
  • Loneliness in the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
  • Love in the poem “How Do I Love Thee”

Theme Examples: Power and Corruption in the Novel Animal Farm

At its simplest, the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell is an allegory that represents the rise and moral decline of Communism in Russia. Specifically, the novel uncovers how power corrupts the leaders of populist uprisings, turning philosophical ideals into authoritarian regimes.

Most of the characters in Animal Farm represent key figures during and after the Russian Revolution. On an ailing farm that’s run by the negligent farmer Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II), the livestock are ready to seize control of the land. The livestock’s discontent is ripened by Old Major (Karl Marx/Lenin), who advocates for the overthrow of the ruling elite and the seizure of private land for public benefit.

After Old Major dies, the pigs Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) and Snowball (Leon Trotsky) stage a revolt. Mr. Jones is chased off the land, which parallels the Russian Revolution in 1917. The pigs then instill “Animalism”—a system of government that advocates for the rights of the common animal. At the core of this philosophy is the idea that “all animals are equal”—an ideal that, briefly, every animal upholds.

Initially, the Animalist Revolution brings peace and prosperity to the farm. Every animal is well-fed, learns how to read, and works for the betterment of the community. However, when Snowball starts implementing a plan to build a windmill, Napoleon drives Snowball off of the farm, effectively assuming leadership over the whole farm. (In real life, Stalin forced Trotsky into exile, and Trotsky spent the rest of his life critiquing the Stalin regime until he was assassinated in 1940.)

Napoleon’s leadership quickly devolves into demagoguery, demonstrating the corrupting influence of power and the ways that ideology can breed authoritarianism. Napoleon uses Snowball as a scapegoat for whenever the farm has a setback, while using Squealer (Vyacheslav Molotov) as his private informant and public orator.

Eventually, Napoleon changes the tenets of Animalism, starts walking on two legs, and acquires other traits and characteristics of humans. At the end of the novel, and after several more conflicts , purges, and rule changes, the livestock can no longer tell the difference between the pigs and humans.

Themes in Literature: Power and Corruption in Animal Farm

So, how does Animal Farm explore the theme of “Power and Corruption”? Let’s analyze a few key elements of the novel.

Plot: The novel’s major plot points each relate to power struggles among the livestock. First, the livestock wrest control of the farm from Mr. Jones; then, Napoleon ostracizes Snowball and turns him into a scapegoat. By seizing leadership of the farm for himself, Napoleon grants himself massive power over the land, abusing this power for his own benefit. His leadership brings about purges, rule changes, and the return of inequality among the livestock, while Napoleon himself starts to look more and more like a human—in other words, he resembles the demagoguery of Mr. Jones and the abuse that preceded the Animalist revolution.

Thus, each plot point revolves around power and how power is wielded by corrupt leadership. At its center, the novel warns the reader of unchecked power, and how corrupt leaders will create echo chambers and private militaries in order to preserve that power.

Characters: The novel’s characters reinforce this message of power by resembling real life events. Most of these characters represent real life figures from the Russian Revolution, including the ideologies behind that revolution. By creating an allegory around Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other leading figures of Communist Russia’s rise and fall, the novel reminds us that unchecked power foments disaster in the real world.

Literary Devices: There are a few key literary devices that support the theme of Power and Corruption. First, the novel itself is a “satirical allegory.” “ Satire ” means that the novel is ridiculing the behaviors of certain people—namely Stalin, who instilled far-more-dangerous laws and abuses that created further inequality in Russia/the U.S.S.R. While Lenin and Trotsky had admirable goals for the Russian nation, Stalin is, quite literally, a pig.

Meanwhile, “allegory” means that the story bears symbolic resemblance to real life, often to teach a moral. The characters and events in this story resemble the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, with the purpose of warning the reader about unchecked power.

Finally, an important literary device in Animal Farm is symbolism . When Napoleon (Stalin) begins to resemble a human, the novel suggests that he has become as evil and negligent as Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II). Since the Russian Revolution was a rejection of the Russian monarchy, equating Stalin to the monarchy reinforces the corrupting influence of power, and the need to elect moral individuals to posts of national leadership.

Theme Examples: Loneliness in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is concerned with the theme of loneliness. You can read this short story here . Content warning for mentions of suicide.

There are very few plot points in Hemingway’s story, so most of the story’s theme is expressed through dialogue and description. In the story, an old man stays up late drinking at a cafe. The old man has no wife—only a niece that stays with him—and he attempted suicide the previous week. Two waiters observe him: a younger waiter wants the old man to leave so they can close the cafe, while an older waiter sympathizes with the old man. None of these characters have names.

The younger waiter kicks out the old man and closes the cafe. The older waiter walks to a different cafe and ruminates on the importance of “a clean, well-lighted place” like the cafe he works at.

Themes in Literature: Loneliness in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Hemingway doesn’t tell us what to think about the old man’s loneliness, but he does provide two opposing viewpoints through the dialogue of the waiters.

The younger waiter has the hallmarks of a happy life: youth, confidence, and a wife to come home to. While he acknowledges that the old man is unhappy, he also admits “I don’t want to look at him,” complaining that the old man has “no regard for those who must work.” The younger waiter “did not wish to be unjust,” he simply wanted to return home.

The older waiter doesn’t have the privilege of turning away: like the old man, he has a house but not a home to return to, and he knows that someone may need the comfort of “a clean and pleasant cafe.”

The older waiter, like Hemingway, empathizes with the plight of the old man. When your place of rest isn’t a home, the world can feel like a prison, so having access to a space that counteracts this feeling is crucial. What kind of a place is that? The older waiter surmises that “the light of course” matters, but the place must be “clean and pleasant” too. Additionally, the place should not have music or be a bar: it must let you preserve the quiet dignity of yourself.

Lastly, the older waiter’s musings about God clue the reader into his shared loneliness with the old man. In a stream of consciousness, the older waiter recites traditional Christian prayers with “nada” in place of “God,” “Father,” “Heaven,” and other symbols of divinity. A bartender describes the waiter as “otro locos mas” (translation: another crazy), and the waiter concludes that his plight must be insomnia.

This belies the irony of loneliness: only the lonely recognize it. The older waiter lacks confidence, youth, and belief in a greater good. He recognizes these traits in the old man, as they both share a need for a clean, well-lighted place long after most people fall asleep. Yet, the younger waiter and the bartender don’t recognize these traits as loneliness, just the ramblings and shortcomings of crazy people.

Does loneliness beget craziness? Perhaps. But to call the waiter and old man crazy would dismiss their feelings and experiences, further deepening their loneliness.

Loneliness is only mentioned once in the story, when the young waiter says “He’s [the old man] lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.” Nonetheless, loneliness consumes this short story and its older characters, revealing a plight that, ironically, only the lonely understand.

Theme Examples: Love in the Poem “How Do I Love Thee”

Let’s turn towards brighter themes in literature: namely, love in poetry . Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “ How Do I Love Thee ” is all about the theme of love.

Themes in Literature: Love in “How Do I Love Thee”

Browning’s poem is a sonnet , which is a 14-line poem that often centers around love and relationships. Sonnets have different requirements depending on their form, but between lines 6-8, they all have a volta —a surprising line that twists and expands the poem’s meaning.

Let’s analyze three things related to the poem’s theme: its word choice, its use of simile and metaphor , and its volta.

Word Choice: Take a look at the words used to describe love. What do those words mean? What are their connotations? Here’s a brief list: “soul,” “ideal grace,” “quiet need,” “sun and candle-light,” “strive for right,” “passion,” “childhood’s faith,” “the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life,” “God,” “love thee better after death.”

These words and phrases all bear positive connotations, and many of them evoke images of warmth, safety, and the hearth. Even phrases that are morose, such as “lost saints” and “death,” are used as contrasts to further highlight the speaker’s wholehearted rejoicing of love. This word choice suggests an endless, benevolent, holistic, all-consuming love.

Simile and Metaphor: Similes and metaphors are comparison statements, and the poem routinely compares love to different objects and ideas. Here’s a list of those comparisons:

The speaker loves thee:

  • To the depths of her soul.
  • By sun and candle light—by day and night.
  • As men strive to do the right thing (freely).
  • As men turn from praise (purely).
  • With the passion of both grief and faith.
  • With the breath, smiles, and tears of her entire life.
  • Now in life, and perhaps even more after death.

The speaker’s love seems to have infinite reach, flooding every aspect of her life. It consumes her soul, her everyday activities, her every emotion, her sense of justice and humility, and perhaps her afterlife, too. For the speaker, this love is not just an emotion, an activity, or an ideology: it’s her existence.

Volta: The volta of a sonnet occurs in the poem’s center. In this case, the volta is the lines “I love thee freely, as men strive for right. / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.”

What surprising, unexpected comparisons! To the speaker, love is freedom and the search for a greater good; it is also as pure as humility. By comparing love to other concepts, the speaker reinforces the fact that love isn’t just an ideology, it’s an ideal that she strives for in every word, thought, and action.

“Theme” is part of a broader hierarchy of ideas. While the theme of a story encompasses its central ideas, the writer also expresses these ideas through different devices.

You may have heard of some of these devices: motif, moral, topic, etc. What is motif vs theme? What is theme vs moral? These ideas interact with each other in different ways, which we’ve mapped out below.

Theme of a story diagram

Theme vs Topic

The “topic” of a piece of literature answers the question: What is this piece about? In other words, “topic” is what actually happens in the story or poem.

You’ll find a lot of overlap between topic and theme examples. Love, for instance, is both the topic and the theme of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How Do I Love Thee.”

The difference between theme vs topic is: topic describes the surface level content matter of the piece, whereas theme encompasses the work’s apparent argument about the topic.

Topic describes the surface level content matter of the piece, whereas theme encompasses the work’s apparent argument about the topic.

So, the topic of Browning’s poem is love, while the theme is the speaker’s belief that her love is endless, pure, and all-consuming.

Additionally, the topic of a piece of literature is definitive, whereas the theme of a story or poem is interpretive. Every reader can agree on the topic, but many readers will have different interpretations of the theme. If the theme weren’t open-ended, it would simply be a topic.

Theme vs Motif

A motif is an idea that occurs throughout a literary work. Think of the motif as a facet of the theme: it explains, expands, and contributes to themes in literature. Motif develops a central idea without being the central idea itself .

Motif develops a central idea without being the central idea itself.

In Animal Farm , for example, we encounter motif when Napoleon the pig starts walking like a human. This represents the corrupting force of power, because Napoleon has become as much of a despot as Mr. Jones, the previous owner of the farm. Napoleon’s anthropomorphization is not the only example of power and corruption, but it is a compelling motif about the dangers of unchecked power.

Theme vs Moral

The moral of a story refers to the story’s message or takeaway. What can we learn from thinking about a specific piece of literature?

The moral is interpreted from the theme of a story or poem. Like theme, there is no single correct interpretation of a story’s moral: the reader is left to decide how to interpret the story’s meaning and message.

For example, in Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the theme is loneliness, but the moral isn’t quite so clear—that’s for the reader to decide. My interpretation is that we should be much more sympathetic towards the lonely, since loneliness is a quiet affliction that many lonely people cannot express.

Great literature does not tell us what to think, it gives us stories to think about.

However, my interpretation could be miles away from yours, and that’s wonderful! Great literature does not tell us what to think, it gives us stories to think about, and the more we discuss our thoughts and interpretations, the more we learn from each other.

The theme of a story affects everything else: the decisions that characters make, the mood that words and images build, the moral that readers interpret, etc. Recognizing how writers utilize various themes in literature will help you craft stronger, more nuanced works of prose and poetry .

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” —Herman Melville

Whether a writer consciously or unconsciously decides the themes of their work, theme in literature acts as an organizing principle for the work as a whole. For writers, theme is especially useful to think about in the process of revision: if some element of your poem or story doesn’t point towards a central idea, it’s a sign that the work is not yet finished. 

Moreover, literary themes give the work  stakes . They make the work stand for something. Remember that our theme definition is an idea plus an opinion. Without that opinion element, a work of literature simply won’t stand for anything, because it is presenting ideas in the abstract without giving you something to react to. The theme of a story or poem is never just “love” or “justice,” it’s the author’s particular spin and insight on those themes. This is what makes a work of literature compelling or evocative. Without theme, literature has no center of gravity, and all the words and characters and plot points are just floating in the ether. 

Should I Decide the Theme of a Story or Poem in Advance?

You can, though of course it depends on the actual story you want to tell. Some writers certainly start with a theme. You might decide you want to write a story about themes like love, family, justice, gender roles, the environment, or the pursuit of revenge.

From there, you can build everything else: plot points, characters, conflicts, etc. Examining themes in literature can help you generate some strong story ideas !

Nonetheless, theme is not the only way to approach a creative writing project. Some writers start with plot, others with character, others with conflicts, and still others with just a vague notion of what the story might be about. You might not even realize the themes in your work until after you finish writing it.

You certainly want your work to have a message, but deciding what that message is in advance might actually hinder your writing process. Many writers use their poems and stories as opportunities to explore tough questions, or to arrive at a deeper insight on a topic. In other words, you can start your work with ideas, and even opinions on those ideas, but don’t try to shoehorn a story or poem into your literary themes. Let the work explore those themes. If you can surprise yourself or learn something new from the writing process, your readers will certainly be moved as well. 

So, experiment with ideas and try different ways of writing. You don’t have think about the theme of a story right away—but definitely give it some thought when you start revising your work!

Develop Great Themes at Writers.com

As writers, it’s hard to know how our work will be viewed and interpreted. Writing in a community can help. Whether you join our Facebook group or enroll in one of our upcoming courses , we have the tools and resources to sharpen your writing.

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Sean Glatch


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Sean Glatch,Thank you very much for your discussion on themes. It was enlightening and brought clarity to an abstract and sometimes difficult concept to explain and illustrate. The sample stories and poem were appreciated too as they are familiar to me. High School Language Arts Teacher

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Hi Stephanie, I’m so glad this was helpful! Happy teaching 🙂

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Wow!!! This is the best resource on the subject of themes that I have ever encountered and read on the internet. I just bookmarked it and plan to use it as a resource for my teaching. Thank you very much for publishing this valuable resource.

Hi Marisol,

Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad to hear this article will be a useful resource. Happy teaching!

Warmest, Sean

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What is Theme? A Look at 20 Common Themes in Literature | writers.com

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Hello! This is a very informative resource. Thank you for sharing.

farrow and ball pigeon

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This presentation is excellent and of great educational value. I will employ it already in my thesis research studies.

John Never before communicated with you!

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Brilliant! Thank you.


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marvellous. thumbs up

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Thank you. Very useful information.

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found everything in themes. thanks. so much

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In college I avoided writing classes and even quit a class that would focus on ‘Huck Finn’ for the entire semester. My idea of hell. However, I’ve been reading and learning from the writers.com articles, and I want to especially thank Sean Glatch who writes in a way that is useful to aspiring writers like myself.

You are very welcome, Anne! I’m glad that these resources have been useful on your writing journey.

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Thank you very much for this clear and very easy to understand teaching resources.

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Hello there. I have a particular question.

Can you describe the exact difference of theme, issue and subject?

I get confused about these.

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I love how helpful this is i will tell my class about it!

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Literary Analysis Essay

Cathy A.

Literary Analysis Essay - Step by Step Guide

15 min read

Published on: Aug 16, 2020

Last updated on: Jan 29, 2024

Literary Analysis Essay

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Literature is an art that can inspire, challenge, and transform us. But how do we analyze literature in a way that truly captures its essence? 

That's where a literary analysis essay comes in. 

Writing a literary analysis essay allows you to delve into the themes, characters, and symbols of a literary work. It's a chance to engage with literature on a deeper level and to discover new insights. 

In this comprehensive guide, we will take you through the process of writing a literary analysis essay, step by step. Plus, you’ll get to read some great examples to help you out!

So let’s dive in!

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What is a Literary Analysis Essay?

Literary analysis is a process of examining a literary work in detail to uncover its meaning and significance. 

It involves breaking down the various elements of a work, such as plot, character, setting, and theme. And then analyzing how they work together to create a specific effect on the reader.

In other words, literary analysis is an exercise in interpretation. The reader of a work asks questions about what the author means to say, how they are saying it, and why. 

A literary analysis essay is an essay where you explore such questions in depth and offer your own insights.

What is the Purpose of a Literary Analysis Essay?

In general, the purpose of a literary analysis essay is as follows: 

  • To gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the work.
  • To be able to think critically and analytically about a text. 

Content of a Literary Analysis 

A literary analysis essay delves deep into the various aspects of a literary work to examine its meaning, symbolism, themes, and more. Here are the key elements to include in your literary analysis essay:

Plot Analysis 

Plot refers to the sequence of events that make up the storyline of a literary work. It encompasses the main events, conflicts, and resolutions that drive the narrative forward. 

Elements of Plot Analysis 

The elements of a plot typically include:

  • Exposition: The introduction of the story that establishes the setting, characters, and initial circumstances.
  • Rising action: A set of events or actions that sets the main conflict into motion, often occurring early in the story.
  • Conflict: The series of events that build tension and develop the conflict, leading to the story's climax.
  • Climax: The turning point of the story, where the conflict reaches its peak and the outcome hangs in the balance.
  • Falling Action: The events that occur after the climax, leading towards the resolution of the conflict.
  • Resolution: The point in the story where the conflict is resolved, providing closure to the narrative.

Character Analysis 

Character analysis involves studying the role, development, and motivations of the characters in a literary work. It explores how characters contribute to the overall narrative and themes of the story.

Elements of Character Analysis 

  • Identification of major and minor characters.
  • Examination of their traits, behaviors, and relationships.
  • Analysis of character development and changes throughout the story.
  • Evaluation of the character's role in advancing the plot or conveying themes.

Symbolism and Imagery Analysis 

Symbolism and imagery analysis focuses on the use of symbols, objects, or images in a work. It analyzes and explores the use of literary devices to convey deeper meanings and evoke emotions. 

Elements of Symbolism and Imagery Analysis 

  • Identification of key symbols or recurring motifs.
  • Interpretation of their symbolic significance.
  • Analysis of how imagery is used to create vivid mental pictures and enhance the reader's understanding and emotional experience.

Theme Analysis 

Analyzing the theme involves exploring the central ideas or messages conveyed in a literary work. It examines the underlying concepts, or messages that the author wants to convey through the story.

Elements of Theme Analysis 

  • Identification of the main themes or central ideas explored in the text.
  • Analysis of how the themes are developed and reinforced throughout the story.
  • Exploration of the author's perspective and the intended message behind the themes.

Setting Analysis 

The Setting of a story includes the time, place, and social context in which the story takes place. Analyzing the setting involves how the setting influences the characters, plot, and overall atmosphere of the work.

Elements of Setting Analysis 

  • Description and analysis of the physical, cultural, and historical aspects of the setting.
  • Examination of how the setting contributes to the mood, atmosphere, and themes of the work.
  • Evaluation of how the setting shapes the characters' actions and motivations.

Structure and Style Analysis 

Structure and style analysis involves studying the organization, narrative techniques, and literary devices employed by the author. It explores how the structure and style contribute to the overall impact and effectiveness of the work.

Elements of Structure and Style Analysis 

  • Analysis of the narrative structure, such as the use of flashbacks, nonlinear timelines, or multiple perspectives.
  • Examination of the author's writing style, including the use of language, tone, and figurative language.
  • Evaluation of literary devices, such as foreshadowing, irony, or allusion, and their impact on the reader's interpretation.

Paper due? Why Suffer? That's our job.

Paper due? Why Suffer? That's our job.

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay?  

Writing a great literary analysis piece requires you to follow certain steps. Here’s what you need to do to write a literary essay:

Preparing for Your Essay 

The pre-writing process for writing a literary analysis essay includes the following:

  • Choosing a literary work to analyze
  • Reading and analyzing the work
  • Taking notes and organizing your thoughts
  • Creating an outline for your essay

Choosing a Work to Analyze 

As a student, you would most probably be assigned a literary piece to analyze. It could be a short story, a novel, or a poem.  However, sometimes you get to choose it yourself.

In such a case, you should choose a work that you find interesting and engaging. This will make it easier to stay motivated as you analyze the work and write your essay.

Moreover, you should choose a work that has some depth and complexity. This will give you plenty of material to analyze and discuss in your essay. Finally, make sure that your choice fits within the scope of the assignment and meets the expectations of your instructor.

Reading and Analyzing 

Once you’ve chosen a literary work, it's time to read the work with careful attention. There are several key elements to consider when reading and analyzing a literary work:

  • Plot - The sequence of events that make up the story. Analyzing the plot involves examining the structure of the story, including its exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
  • Characters - The people or entities that populate the story. Analyzing characters involves examining their motivations, personalities, relationships, and development over the course of the story.

Want to learn more about character analysis? Head to our blog about how to conduct character analysis and learn easy steps with examples.

  • Setting - The time, place, and environment in which the story takes place. Analyzing the setting involves examining how the atmosphere contributes to the story's overall meaning.
  • Theme - The underlying message or meaning of the story. Analyzing themes involves examining the work's central ideas and how they are expressed through the various elements of the story.

Moreover, it's important to consider the following questions while analyzing:

  • What is the central theme or main point the author is trying to make?
  • What literary devices and techniques has the author used?
  • Why did the author choose to write this particular work?
  • What themes and ideas are present in the work?

These questions will help you dive deeper into the work you are writing about.

Take Notes and Gather Material 

As you read and analyze the literary work, it's important to take notes so you don’t forget important details and ideas. This also helps you identify patterns and connections between different elements of the piece.

One effective way to take notes is to list important elements of the work, such as characters, setting, and theme. You can also use sticky notes, highlighters, or annotations to mark important passages and write down your ideas.

Writing Your Literary Analysis Essay 

Once you have read a piece of literature and taken notes, you have all the material you need to write an essay. Follow the simple steps below to write an effective literary analysis essay.

Create an Outline for Your Essay 

Firstly, creating an outline is necessary. This will help you to organize your thoughts and ideas and ensure that your essay flows logically and coherently.

This is what your literary essay outline would look like: 

Writing the Introduction 

Writing your essay introduction involves the three following parts:

  • Begin the introductory paragraph with an engaging hook statement that captures the readers' attention. An effective hook statement can take many different forms, such as a provocative quote, an intriguing question, or a surprising fact. 

Make sure that your hook statement is relevant to the literary work you are writing about. Here are a few examples of effective hooks:

  • Afterward, present the necessary background information and context about the literary work. For instance, 
  • Talk about the author of the work or when and where it was written. 
  • Give an overview of the work or why it is significant. 
  • Provide readers with sufficient context so they can know what the work is generally about.
  • Finally, end the introduction with a clear thesis statement . Your thesis statement should be a concise statement that clearly states the argument you will be making in your essay. It should be specific and debatable, and it should provide a roadmap for the rest of your essay.

For example, a thesis statement for an essay on "Hamlet" might be: 

Watch this video to learn more about writing an introduction for a literary analysis essay:

Writing the Body 

Here are the steps to follow when writing a body paragraph for a literary analysis essay:

  • Start with a topic sentence: 

The topic sentence should introduce the main point or argument you will be making in the paragraph. It should be clear and concise and should indicate what the paragraph is about.

  • Provide evidence: 

After you have introduced your main point, provide evidence from the text to support your analysis. This could include quotes, paraphrases, or summaries of the text.

  • Explain and discuss the evidence:

Explain how the evidence supports your main point or argument or how it connects back to your thesis statement.

  • Conclude the paragraph: 

End the paragraph by relating your main point to the thesis and discussing its significance. You should also use transitions to connect the paragraph to your next point or argument.

Writing the Conclusion 

The conclusion of a literary analysis essay provides closure to your analysis and reinforces your thesis statement. Here’s what a conclusion includes:

  • Restate your thesis statement: 

Start by restating your thesis statement in a slightly different way than in your introduction. This will remind the reader of the argument you made and the evidence you provided to support it.

  • Summarize your main points: 

Briefly summarize the main points you made in your essay's body paragraphs. This will help tie everything together and provide closure to your analysis.

  • Personal reflections:

The conclusion is the best place to provide some personal reflections on the literary piece. You can also explain connections between your analysis and the larger context. This could include connections to other literary works, your personal life, historical events, or contemporary issues.

  • End with a strong statement: 

End your conclusion with a strong statement that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. This could be a thought-provoking question, a call to action, or a final insight into the significance of your analysis.

Finalizing your Essay

You’ve completed the first draft of your literary analysis essay. Congratulations!

However, it’s not over just yet. You need some time to polish and improve the essay before it can be submitted. Here’s what you need to do:

Proofread and Revise your Essay 

After completing your draft, you should proofread your essay. You should look out for the following aspects:

  • Check for clarity: 

Make sure that your ideas are expressed clearly and logically. You should also take a look at your structure and organization. Rearrange your arguments if necessary to make them clearer.

  • Check for grammar and spelling errors: 

Use spelling and grammar check tools online to identify and correct any basic errors in your essay. 

  • Verify factual information:

You must have included information about the work or from within the work in your essay. Recheck and verify that it is correct and verifiable. 

  • Check your formatting: 

Make sure that your essay is properly formatted according to the guidelines provided by your instructor. This includes requirements for font size, margins, spacing, and citation style.

Helpful Tips for Revising a Literary Essay 

Here are some tips below that can help you proofread and revise your essay better:

  • Read your essay out loud:

Reading your essay out loud makes it easier to identify awkward phrasing, repetitive language, and other issues.

  • Take a break: 

It can be helpful to step away from your essay for a little while before starting the editing process. This can help you approach your essay with fresh eyes and a clearer perspective.

  • Be concise:

Remove any unnecessary words or phrases that do not add to your argument. This can help to make your essay more focused and effective.

  • Let someone else proofread and get feedback: 

You could ask a friend or a teacher to read your essay and provide feedback. This way, you can get some valuable insights on what you could include or catch mistakes that you might have missed.

Literary Analysis Essay Examples 

Reading a few good examples helps to understand literary analysis essays better. So check out these examples below and read them to see what a well-written essay looks like. 

How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

Literary Analysis Essay Example

Sample Literary Analysis Essay

Lord of the Rings Literary Analysis

The Great Gatsby Literary Analysis

Literary Analysis Example for 8th Grade

Literary Analysis Essay Topics 

Need a topic for your literary analysis essay? You can pick any aspect of any work of literature you like. Here are some example topics that will help you get inspired:

  • The use of symbolism in "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The theme of isolation in "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger.
  • The portrayal of social class in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen.
  • The use of magical realism in "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
  • The role of women in "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood.
  • The use of foreshadowing in "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding.
  • The portrayal of race and identity in "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison.
  • The use of imagery in "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.
  • The theme of forgiveness in "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini.
  • The use of allegory in "Animal Farm" by George Orwell.

To conclude,

Writing a literary analysis essay can be a rewarding experience for any student or writer, But it’s not easy. However, by following the steps you learned in this guide, you can successfully produce a well-written literary analysis essay. 

Also, you have got some examples of essays to read and topic ideas to get creative inspiration. With these resources, you have all you need to craft an engaging piece. So don’t hesitate to start writing your essay and come back to this blog whenever you need.

The deadline is approaching, but you don’t have time to write your essay? No worries! Our analytical essay writing service is here to help you out!

At CollegeEssay.org, we have a team of professional and experienced literature writers who can help you craft a compelling literary essay. Our affordable and reliable essay writing website focuses on providing high-quality essays and deliver them timely.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 4 components of literary analysis.

The four main components of literary analysis are: 

  • Conflict 
  • Characters 
  • Setting 

What is the fundamental characteristic of a literary analysis essay?

Interpretive is the fundamental characteristic of a literary analysis essay. 

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literary essay themes

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Posted on Jun 30, 2021

12 Common Themes in Literature Everyone Must Know

By nature, literary themes are broad and universal. It’s no wonder, then, that certain themes come up again and again across the spectrum of literature, from novels and short stories to poetry and creative nonfiction . That’s not to say that works which share a common theme tackle it in the same way — indeed, the beauty of themes in literature is that they can be approached from multiple perspectives that offer different thematic statements (in other words opinions on said themes).

Here, we’ll be focusing on broader thematic concepts, with some examples of how themes are being used. Whether you’re looking to identify common themes or searching for the right kind of inspiration for your next writing project, this list is just what you need. 

literary essay themes

Like you might see anytime you turn on the news, power (or the desire for it) makes people do crazy things. This is naturally reflected in fiction. From dystopias (Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, for example) to fantasy (like that other famous trilogy The Lord of the Rings , or that little-known series by George R. R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire ) and classics like George Orwell’s Animal Farm , the concept of power has fueled countless literary projects. Sometimes the focus is power’s corruptive abilities, sometimes it’s the exchange of power between oppressive states and individuals, sometimes it’s simply the power of dreams. Regardless, the element of power remains central.

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literary essay themes

Family relationships and dynamics make for the most interesting and complex sources of conflict in literature . From intergenerational epics like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude to contemporary novels like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , books have always asked what the meaning of a family is, and will continue to highlight both the dysfunctional and wholesome relationships within them. 



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3. Identity 

literary essay themes

Questions of identity and the labels that come with them are powerful animating forces in much of literature. From representing one’s ethnic or racial identity (Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake , for example) to gender identity (e.g. George by Alex Gino) and mental health diagnoses like in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar , who we are is one of the fundamental questions we must face. For some writers, literature is a place to try and answer that question for themselves or the group they identify with; for others, it’s a place to dismiss the need for labels and embrace a self that exists at the intersections of various groups. This is also a theme connected to the way society impacts the way we perceive ourselves and others. 

🏳️‍🌈 Check out some more book recommendations about queer identity over on our list of the best LGBT books !

4. Loneliness 

literary essay themes

Is there anything more writerly (or typically associated with writerliness, anyway) than the image of a lone, isolated scribe visible inside a lit window at night, typing away into the dark? Or (let’s face it) the loner in school, symbol of misfits all over? From the famous alienated high schoolers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye to more recent bestsellers like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine , there’s no shortage of loners, isolated misfits, or content-to-be-alone introverts in literature. Whether the theme is used to show that human nature is inherently lonely, to criticize dependence, or to argue that loneliness is a societal privilege ( A Room of One’s Own -style), these are stories that never fail to be deeply affecting.

5. Friendship 

literary essay themes

Friends, it’s often said, are the family we choose for ourselves — and the bonds we have with them are just as complex, potentially tense, or heart-warming as familial bonds. Childhood friends are often at the heart of children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Charlotte’s Web . In books for young readers, friendship is commonly praised for its selflessness and camaraderie. It remains a common theme for books that deal with young adulthood, coming-of-age narratives, and even later life, as titles like Teddy Wayne’s Apartment , Zadie Smith’s Swing Time , Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Carolina de Robertis’ Cantoras show. In such stories, friendship is also thematized for its absence, its tensions, shortfalls, and failings. No single friendship is the same, and the same is true of their literary representations.

🎉 To discover more books, head to Reedsy Discovery , our dedicated platform for readers and reviewers!

6. Free will vs. Fate

literary essay themes

A common type of conflict as well as a literary theme, the friction between one’s ability to determine their own future and their externally determined fate can be found in many enduring classics, especially plays! From the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex , Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to beloved children’s series Harry Potter and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore , the tension arising from the sense of external expectations and pressures and the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies is, ahem, fated to be a part of literature forever.

Fate is often what knocks at the door of the hero in the first act of a novel. Learn about the 3-act story structure in our free course. 


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literary essay themes

Hope springs in the most unlikely places — and for books, that often means stories of loss, despair, or disaster. Memoirs of suffering or hardship, like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air , tend to end on a note of hope, whereas stories about social issues like racism or climate change also tend to locate reasons for optimism. Examples here include Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give , Richard Powers’ The Overstory , and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being .

📚 Our list of the best memoirs is sure to find you some more hopeful books to read.

literary essay themes

* Sighs in lovestruck ❤️ * Ah, yes. Romance is yet another of those undying forces that has sustained works of literature since the beginning of time, and it’s not about to stop. From literary fiction and classics like Romeo and Juliet to YA heartwarmers like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue and epic historical fiction like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander , romantic love (or the heartbreak resulting from the lack of it) lies at the center of books from more genres than just romance. Some authors use this theme to write delightfully comforting works that offer readers an escape from their routine, while others ask what it means to be dependent on another person, or observe the changing dynamics within a relationship. Whatever the overarching opinion, stories that focus on love promise to be deeply emotionally resonant.

literary essay themes

From war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who wrote about the toll of World War I to modern novels exploring its emotional and social consequences (e.g. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun ), violence and conflict works could constitute an entire genre of fiction in themselves. 

10. Childhood

literary essay themes

Our childhood years might not necessarily define us, but they’re still pretty integral in terms of changing who we want to be. So whether it’s to look back at our childhoods with nostalgia, to acknowledge the bitter realizations that followed it, or to simply consider the point of view of a child, childhood keeps coming back as a prevalent theme in literature — and three examples that do just these things are Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, and Room by Emma Donoghue.

11. Coming of age

literary essay themes

Entering adulthood is another period that brings many changes, and so the time during which people come of age tends to be a common theme. In books as varied as Jane Austen’s Emma , Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex , and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend , growing up, maturing, and coming into your own are thematized to show the uncertainty and empowerment that comes with this stage of life. 

💡 Head to our list of the 70 best coming-of-age books for more examples!

12. Environment and climate change

literary essay themes

Unfortunately, the planet is warming up. And as the planet’s temperature grows, so do concerns about our future as a species — which leads to an increased prevalence of the environment or climate change appearing as core themes in literature. Now that ecofiction and “cli-fi” are becoming more popular, books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior , John Lanchester’s The Wall , and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax will see their themes discussed more than ever. 

Test your theme-detecting skills!

See if you can identify five themes from five questions. Takes 30 seconds!

We hope this list has been handy! Remember that your own book doesn’t need to tackle a new-found, unbelievably novel theme to have merit: as long as you approach a theme in a fresh way, it’s completely natural for others to have discussed it before you. 

If you're a writer who wants to start working themes into your stories, be sure to check out the final section of this guide.

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Literary Analysis Essay Writing

Literary Analysis Essay Topics

Cathy A.

Interesting Literary Analysis Essay Topics & Ideas

15 min read

literary analysis essay topics

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Good Literary Analysis Essay Topic Ideas

How to choose a literary analysis essay topic , tips to write a compelling literary analysis essay.

You’re a literature student, and you’ve been assigned to work on a literature analysis essay, but you’re not sure which topic to go for. It’s a tricky situation!

We understand that choosing a worthy topic for a literary analysis essay is never an easy task. But don’t you worry!

For literature students, we know the importance of drafting an excellent literary analysis essay . And for an exceptional essay, one needs a standout topic.

That’s why in this blog, we have gathered more than 200 exciting and interesting literary analysis essay ideas for you to get started. 

Read on! 

If you are a high school or a college student, and you’re having difficulty coming up with a good topic for your essay, choose from the topic list below.  

Literary Analysis Essay Topics Middle School

  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane 
  • Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
  • Harry Potter’s powers in the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 
  • Allegory in Lord Byron’s Vision of Judgement 
  • Impact of Henry Miller and Gordon Byron’s life on their legacy 
  • Comparative analysis of Dickens VS Thackeray 
  • Canterbury Tales VS Decameron 
  • The irony in Jerome’s stories
  • Mood expressions in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for High School

  • The representation of justice in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Analyze the theme of friendship in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
  • Explore the theme of identity in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series
  • The role of nature in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights
  • Discuss the concept of heroism in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
  • The use of foreshadowing in George Orwell's Animal Farm
  • The representation of mental health in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
  • The impact of war on individuals in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
  • The use of symbolism and allegory in Lois Lowry's The Giver
  • Discuss the role of cultural identity in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club

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Literary Analysis Essay Topics For College

  • Literary devices used in The Night by Elie Wiesel 
  • The portrayal of the escape theme in Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer 
  • The evolution of Celie's character in 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
  • Jane Austen's critique of social class and marriage in Pride and Prejudice
  • Shed light on the theme of chaos in Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Examine the historical events of World War II and their significance in Elie Wiesel's “Night.”
  • The power of love in The Princess Bride by William Goldman 
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
  • Presentation of dreams in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 
  • The Rocking Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence 

Literary Analysis Essay Prompts in Classics

  • The portrayal of fate in Romeo and Juliet 
  • The portrayal of love in Romeo and Juliet 
  • Concept of mortality in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet 
  • Misogyny in Hamlet 
  • Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth 
  • The tragic flaws and character development of King Lear in William Shakespeare's play
  • The philosophical underpinnings of justice and governance in Plato's 'The Republic
  • Exploring the theme of civil disobedience and consequences in Sophocles' 'Antigone’
  • Exploring the conflict between illusion and reality in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
  • The complex character relationships and moral dilemmas in 'Montana' by Larry Watson

Social Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Social injustice in Oliver Twist 
  • Ethnicity in Burmese Days by Orwell
  • Torture and injustice in Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Vanity Fair - the culture of the 19th century according to Thackeray 
  • The portrayal of the Civil Western Society in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The role of women in society in the 18th Century according to Jane Austen 
  • Escape from society and its rules in Into the Wild by John Krakauer 
  • The place of women in the society in Hamlet 
  • Social status of women in the 17th century portrayed by Jane Austen in Emma 
  • The wrongs of the modern society in Fight Club by Palahniuk 

War and Peace Topics for Literary Analysis Essay

  • The portrayal of war and violence in the poems of Stephen Crane
  • Literary works during WWI
  • War setting in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The depiction of war in Homer’s plays
  • Toni Morrison’s views on the civil war
  • The war between demons and angels in Paradise Lost
  • War in the Mother Courage and Her Child by Bertolt Brecht
  • The portrayal of war and peace by George Orwell
  • Concept of war in A Fable by Faulkner
  • Steinbeck’s presentation of injustice in The Grapes of Wrath

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for Movies

  • Comparison between the book and film “Sense and Sensibility.” 
  • The portrayal of women in the “Little Women.” 
  • Imitation of society and class in “The Great Gatsby.”
  • The ideas of love and trust in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” 
  • The good and evil in “A Wrinkle in Time.” 
  • Feminity in Sense and Sensibility 
  • The role of Saruman and Gandalf 
  • Spirituality and religion in “Lord of the Flies.” 
  • Oskar’s struggle to find a sense of home in “The Tin Drum.”
  • Jealousy and male pride in “The Dead.” 

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for the Subject of Race

  • “Waiting for the Barbarians” by J.M. Coetzee
  • Race and Injustice in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Race and fellowship in Melville’s Moby Dick
  • “Under The Feet Of Jesus”
  • Description of culture and tradition in “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Interracial relationship in Back to Life by Wendy Coakley
  • Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by McMorris
  • The Art Of Love by Hong Ying
  • Multiculturalism in the Captain Underpants series by Dev Pilkey
  • Imitation of slavery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

General Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Focalization techniques in When I Lay Dying
  • Historical background of Duma’s Novels
  • The use of imagery in Walt Whitman’s works
  • Male and female characters in Beowulf
  • Character analysis of Emmy in Vanity Fair
  • Character analysis of Rebeca in Vanity Fair
  • The complicated relationship between mother and daughter in Beloved
  • Beauty standards in The Bluest Eye
  • Comparison in the portrayal of death by Keats and Blake
  • The idea of death in Renaissance literature

1984 Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Roles of genders in the novel
  • What role does the Ministry of Truth play in the story?
  • The theme of subversion of love in 1984
  • The importance of memory in 1984
  • Totalitarian society in George Orwell's 1984
  • Analyze the role O'Brien plays in Winston's life
  • An in-depth analysis of the novel 1984 by George Orwell
  • How is the historical background reflected in 1984?
  • Lack of privacy in 1984
  • Propaganda and totalitarianism in Orwell’s “1984”

Hamlet Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • A theme of revenge in Hamlet
  • Explore Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia
  • Explore Hamlet’s mental state
  • Discuss Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude
  • Ghost in Hamlet
  • Was Hamlet truly mad?
  • Is Hamlet a villain or a hero?
  • How does Shakespeare present the idea of madness in Hamlet?
  • Is Hamlet’s love for Ophelia genuine?
  • Tragedies in Hamlet VS Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Discuss the development of characters during the play
  • Examine the role of women in Romeo and Juliet.
  • What is the role of history in Romeo and Juliet?
  • Analyze the Romeo and Juliet play
  • Romeo and Juliet: Fate or Free Will?
  • Why did Juliet warn of danger?
  • Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet
  • The love language of Romeo and Juliet
  • A fate analysis essay on Romeo and Juliet
  • The death of Romeo and Juliet

Macbeth Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Macbeth’s mental state
  • The role of morality in the play “Macbeth”
  • Describe the use of figurative language in Macbeth
  • The symbolism of blood in Macbeth
  • Applying imagery in Macbeth to advance the story
  • Lady Macbeth character analysis
  • What role did social hierarchies play in the play?
  • Analysis of gender roles in Macbeth
  • Role of women in Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • Is Lady Macbeth a dominant heroine?

Beowulf Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Why is Beowulf a work of Christian propaganda?
  • What is the main idea of the story?
  • The meaning of rings in Beowulf
  • Which of Beowulf's fights was most heroic?
  • How do Beowulf’s heroic qualities affect the story?
  • Discuss the digression's role in Beowulf
  • Analyze the significance of the mead hall in Beowulf.
  • The difference between Beowulf and Modern-Day Heroes
  • Beowulf’s personality traits in the epic story
  • Analysis of Beowulf's symbols and their importance

Frankenstein Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Analyze what fire is trying to symbolize.
  • Frankenstein: The theme of guilt
  • Discuss any romantic elements in “Frankenstein”
  • The family relationship in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Who is more human, Frankenstein or the monster?
  • Romantic and gothic Frankenstein elements
  • Sacrifices for ambitions in the novel Frankenstein
  • Relationship between Victor and Frankenstein
  • Romanticism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • Family Values and Frankenstein

The Great Gatsby Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Discuss the novel as a cautionary tale
  • The meaning of wealth in the novel
  • What is the novel’s title meaning?
  • Explain how the novel demonstrates the characteristics of modernism
  • Explore the symbolism of the “green light” in “The Great Gatsby”
  • Discuss the role of women in the 1920s society as portrayed in “The Great Gatsby”
  • Dreams are the main theme in “The Great Gatsby”
  • What makes The Great Gatsby great?
  • The Great Gatsby: Winter Thoughts
  • What role does money play in Fitzgerald’s novel?

The Crucible Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Relate the Crucible to modern society
  • Analyze the most important theme of 'The Crucible.'
  • What are the dynamics of puritanism?
  • Examine the importance of religion in 1953 in work
  • The use of fear tactics in “The Crucible”
  • John Hale in The Crucible
  • Morality and The Crucible
  • The Crucible Critical Lens
  • The sinful confessions in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

Fahrenheit 451 Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • History of the Fireman in Fahrenheit 451
  • Discuss the roles of both nature and technology play in Fahrenheit 451
  • The use of Parallelism in Fahrenheit 451
  • Analyze the three parts of Fahrenheit 451
  • Discuss the dual image of fire in the novel
  • How relevant is Fahrenheit 451 today?
  • The role of Clarisse McClellan in “Fahrenheit 451”
  • Analyze Mildred Montag
  • Discuss the usage of literary quotes in Fahrenheit 451
  • Examine the novel's main title

Literary Analysis Essay Topics For Othello

  • Examine the portrayal of women in ‘Othello’
  • A true reason for Othello's demise
  • Consider Othello’s suicide
  • The real motives of Iago in Othello
  • Women's roles in Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet
  • Gender roles and racism in “Othello”
  • Discuss Othello's relationship
  • Analysis of The Film “Othello” By Oliver Parker
  • Explore themes of love and betrayal within Shakespeare's work of literature, “Othello”
  • How was Emilia treated by the men in the play “Othello”?

Lord of The Flies Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • The symbolism of the conch shell and its significance in the novel
  • Analyze the themes of civilization versus savagery in “Lord of the Flies”
  • Explore the character development of Ralph and Jack in the story
  • Discuss the role of fear and the “beast” in the boys' descent into chaos
  • The portrayal of innate human nature and its consequences on the deserted island
  • Analyze the role of Piggy and his glasses as symbols of knowledge and reason
  • Analyze the use of irony in the story and its implications for the characters
  • Discuss the themes of power and leadership in the struggle for dominance
  • Examine the relationship between the boys' names and their personalities
  • The role of the island's setting in shaping the events and characters of the story

Literary Analysis Essay Topics For The Catcher In The Rye

  • Analyze the novel from the perspective of Bildungsroman
  • Analyze literary devices used in “The Catcher in the Rye”
  • Discuss the theme of death in the novel
  • Analyze the theme of self-discovery from the novel
  • Describe the story's topic of loneliness
  • Analyze growing up in the novel
  • Why does Holden love the Museum of Natural History?
  • The Role of Dialogue in The Catcher in the Rye
  • Describe the novel's portrayal of phoniness and naivety
  • Describe the character of Holden

Interesting Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • War, existentialism, and love in “A Farewell to Arms”
  • Sense of Sin in The Scarlet Letter 
  • Analyze the use of biblical allusions and religious symbolism in William Golding's novels
  • Analyze the symbolism of the “white whale” in Melville's work of literature, “Moby-Dick”
  • Lies and deceit in “The Godfather” 
  • Analyze the portrayal of fear and the human psyche in William Golding's novels
  • The symbols used to describe nature by William Wordsworth
  • Comparison between urban and rural settings of nature in the dystopia of Huxley
  • Decay and revival in post-apocalyptic novels
  • A religious and spiritual journey in “Jude the Obscure”

Now that you have the liberty to choose from a wide range of literary analysis example topics, you could use some help on how to opt for a good topic. 

To select a good and worthy topic for your literary analysis essay, follow the tips provided below:

  • Always go for an interesting topic for an engaging piece of paper
  • Look for an idea with available research material to support your analysis
  • Ensure your topic allows for an in-depth analysis rather than a surface-level summary
  • Choose an idea that challenges you to think critically and make meaningful connections
  • Avoid overly broad topics; instead, focus on a specific aspect or element of the work.
  • Choose an idea that best reflects your stance on the chosen work.
  • Analyze the topic deeply before you start writing about it
  • Balance personal interest with the potential appeal to your target audience
  • Make sure that the theme of the work is visible in your essay topic 

Here are some tips for you to pen down a compelling literary analysis essay!

Essay writing is an essential part of academics. Students always require some tips and tricks to draft perfect essays and score good grades.

To make your literary analysis essay impeccable, follow the tips provided below:

  • Thoroughly read the chosen literary work
  • Identify the main themes, settings, and characters
  • Understand the purpose of the work 
  • Pay attention to the tools and techniques used by the author to deliver the message
  • Pick an interesting literary analytical essay topic for your essay.
  • To write an analytical essay effectively, draft a perfect literary analysis essay outline
  • Develop a strong thesis statement 
  • Craft strong topic sentences to guide and structure your analysis effectively
  • Prove and support all your statements using phrases and quotes from work
  • Write your literary essay from the third-person perspective
  • Write in the present tense
  • Avoid writing a plot summary of the work
  • Use multiple literary terms to write your essay professionally
  • Always cite properly

Literary Analysis Essay Example

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Humanities LibreTexts

12.14: Sample Student Literary Analysis Essays

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  • Page ID 40514

  • Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap
  • City College of San Francisco via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative

The following examples are essays where student writers focused on close-reading a literary work.

While reading these examples, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the essay's thesis statement, and how do you know it is the thesis statement?
  • What is the main idea or topic sentence of each body paragraph, and how does it relate back to the thesis statement?
  • Where and how does each essay use evidence (quotes or paraphrase from the literature)?
  • What are some of the literary devices or structures the essays analyze or discuss?
  • How does each author structure their conclusion, and how does their conclusion differ from their introduction?

Example 1: Poetry

Victoria Morillo

Instructor Heather Ringo

3 August 2022

How Nguyen’s Structure Solidifies the Impact of Sexual Violence in “The Study”

Stripped of innocence, your body taken from you. No matter how much you try to block out the instance in which these two things occurred, memories surface and come back to haunt you. How does a person, a young boy , cope with an event that forever changes his life? Hieu Minh Nguyen deconstructs this very way in which an act of sexual violence affects a survivor. In his poem, “The Study,” the poem's speaker recounts the year in which his molestation took place, describing how his memory filters in and out. Throughout the poem, Nguyen writes in free verse, permitting a structural liberation to become the foundation for his message to shine through. While he moves the readers with this poignant narrative, Nguyen effectively conveys the resulting internal struggles of feeling alone and unseen.

The speaker recalls his experience with such painful memory through the use of specific punctuation choices. Just by looking at the poem, we see that the first period doesn’t appear until line 14. It finally comes after the speaker reveals to his readers the possible, central purpose for writing this poem: the speaker's molestation. In the first half, the poem makes use of commas, em dashes, and colons, which lends itself to the idea of the speaker stringing along all of these details to make sense of this time in his life. If reading the poem following the conventions of punctuation, a sense of urgency is present here, as well. This is exemplified by the lack of periods to finalize a thought; and instead, Nguyen uses other punctuation marks to connect them. Serving as another connector of thoughts, the two em dashes give emphasis to the role memory plays when the speaker discusses how “no one [had] a face” during that time (Nguyen 9-11). He speaks in this urgent manner until the 14th line, and when he finally gets it off his chest, the pace of the poem changes, as does the more frequent use of the period. This stream-of-consciousness-like section when juxtaposed with the latter half of the poem, causes readers to slow down and pay attention to the details. It also splits the poem in two: a section that talks of the fogginess of memory then transitions into one that remembers it all.

In tandem with the fluctuating nature of memory, the utilization of line breaks and word choice help reflect the damage the molestation has had. Within the first couple of lines of the poem, the poem demands the readers’ attention when the line breaks from “floating” to “dead” as the speaker describes his memory of Little Billy (Nguyen 1-4). This line break averts the readers’ expectation of the direction of the narrative and immediately shifts the tone of the poem. The break also speaks to the effect his trauma has ingrained in him and how “[f]or the longest time,” his only memory of that year revolves around an image of a boy’s death. In a way, the speaker sees himself in Little Billy; or perhaps, he’s representative of the tragic death of his boyhood, how the speaker felt so “dead” after enduring such a traumatic experience, even referring to himself as a “ghost” that he tries to evict from his conscience (Nguyen 24). The feeling that a part of him has died is solidified at the very end of the poem when the speaker describes himself as a nine-year-old boy who’s been “fossilized,” forever changed by this act (Nguyen 29). By choosing words associated with permanence and death, the speaker tries to recreate the atmosphere (for which he felt trapped in) in order for readers to understand the loneliness that came as a result of his trauma. With the assistance of line breaks, more attention is drawn to the speaker's words, intensifying their importance, and demanding to be felt by the readers.

Most importantly, the speaker expresses eloquently, and so heartbreakingly, about the effect sexual violence has on a person. Perhaps what seems to be the most frustrating are the people who fail to believe survivors of these types of crimes. This is evident when he describes “how angry” the tenants were when they filled the pool with cement (Nguyen 4). They seem to represent how people in the speaker's life were dismissive of his assault and who viewed his tragedy as a nuisance of some sorts. This sentiment is bookended when he says, “They say, give us details , so I give them my body. / They say, give us proof , so I give them my body,” (Nguyen 25-26). The repetition of these two lines reinforces the feeling many feel in these scenarios, as they’re often left to deal with trying to make people believe them, or to even see them.

It’s important to recognize how the structure of this poem gives the speaker space to express the pain he’s had to carry for so long. As a characteristic of free verse, the poem doesn’t follow any structured rhyme scheme or meter; which in turn, allows him to not have any constraints in telling his story the way he wants to. The speaker has the freedom to display his experience in a way that evades predictability and engenders authenticity of a story very personal to him. As readers, we abandon anticipating the next rhyme, and instead focus our attention to the other ways, like his punctuation or word choice, in which he effectively tells his story. The speaker recognizes that some part of him no longer belongs to himself, but by writing “The Study,” he shows other survivors that they’re not alone and encourages hope that eventually, they will be freed from the shackles of sexual violence.

Works Cited

Nguyen, Hieu Minh. “The Study” Poets.Org. Academy of American Poets, Coffee House Press, 2018, https://poets.org/poem/study-0 .

Example 2: Fiction

Todd Goodwin

Professor Stan Matyshak

Advanced Expository Writing

Sept. 17, 20—

Poe’s “Usher”: A Mirror of the Fall of the House of Humanity

Right from the outset of the grim story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe enmeshes us in a dark, gloomy, hopeless world, alienating his characters and the reader from any sort of physical or psychological norm where such values as hope and happiness could possibly exist. He fatalistically tells the story of how a man (the narrator) comes from the outside world of hope, religion, and everyday society and tries to bring some kind of redeeming happiness to his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, who not only has physically and psychologically wasted away but is entrapped in a dilapidated house of ever-looming terror with an emaciated and deranged twin sister. Roderick Usher embodies the wasting away of what once was vibrant and alive, and his house of “insufferable gloom” (273), which contains his morbid sister, seems to mirror or reflect this fear of death and annihilation that he most horribly endures. A close reading of the story reveals that Poe uses mirror images, or reflections, to contribute to the fatalistic theme of “Usher”: each reflection serves to intensify an already prevalent tone of hopelessness, darkness, and fatalism.

It could be argued that the house of Roderick Usher is a “house of mirrors,” whose unpleasant and grim reflections create a dark and hopeless setting. For example, the narrator first approaches “the melancholy house of Usher on a dark and soundless day,” and finds a building which causes him a “sense of insufferable gloom,” which “pervades his spirit and causes an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart, an undiscerned dreariness of thought” (273). The narrator then optimistically states: “I reflected that a mere different arrangement of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression” (274). But the narrator then sees the reflection of the house in the tarn and experiences a “shudder even more thrilling than before” (274). Thus the reader begins to realize that the narrator cannot change or stop the impending doom that will befall the house of Usher, and maybe humanity. The story cleverly plays with the word reflection : the narrator sees a physical reflection that leads him to a mental reflection about Usher’s surroundings.

The narrator’s disillusionment by such grim reflection continues in the story. For example, he describes Roderick Usher’s face as distinct with signs of old strength but lost vigor: the remains of what used to be. He describes the house as a once happy and vibrant place, which, like Roderick, lost its vitality. Also, the narrator describes Usher’s hair as growing wild on his rather obtrusive head, which directly mirrors the eerie moss and straw covering the outside of the house. The narrator continually longs to see these bleak reflections as a dream, for he states: “Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building” (276). He does not want to face the reality that Usher and his home are doomed to fall, regardless of what he does.

Although there are almost countless examples of these mirror images, two others stand out as important. First, Roderick and his sister, Madeline, are twins. The narrator aptly states just as he and Roderick are entombing Madeline that there is “a striking similitude between brother and sister” (288). Indeed, they are mirror images of each other. Madeline is fading away psychologically and physically, and Roderick is not too far behind! The reflection of “doom” that these two share helps intensify and symbolize the hopelessness of the entire situation; thus, they further develop the fatalistic theme. Second, in the climactic scene where Madeline has been mistakenly entombed alive, there is a pairing of images and sounds as the narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading him a romance story. Events in the story simultaneously unfold with events of the sister escaping her tomb. In the story, the hero breaks out of the coffin. Then, in the story, the dragon’s shriek as he is slain parallels Madeline’s shriek. Finally, the story tells of the clangor of a shield, matched by the sister’s clanging along a metal passageway. As the suspense reaches its climax, Roderick shrieks his last words to his “friend,” the narrator: “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door” (296).

Roderick, who slowly falls into insanity, ironically calls the narrator the “Madman.” We are left to reflect on what Poe means by this ironic twist. Poe’s bleak and dark imagery, and his use of mirror reflections, seem only to intensify the hopelessness of “Usher.” We can plausibly conclude that, indeed, the narrator is the “Madman,” for he comes from everyday society, which is a place where hope and faith exist. Poe would probably argue that such a place is opposite to the world of Usher because a world where death is inevitable could not possibly hold such positive values. Therefore, just as Roderick mirrors his sister, the reflection in the tarn mirrors the dilapidation of the house, and the story mirrors the final actions before the death of Usher. “The Fall of the House of Usher” reflects Poe’s view that humanity is hopelessly doomed.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 1839. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library . 1995. Web. 1 July 2012. < http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/PoeFall.html >.

Example 3: Poetry

Amy Chisnell

Professor Laura Neary

Writing and Literature

April 17, 20—

Don’t Listen to the Egg!: A Close Reading of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”

“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,” said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem called ‘Jabberwocky’?”

“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” (Carroll 164)

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass , Humpty Dumpty confidently translates (to a not so confident Alice) the complicated language of the poem “Jabberwocky.” The words of the poem, though nonsense, aptly tell the story of the slaying of the Jabberwock. Upon finding “Jabberwocky” on a table in the looking-glass room, Alice is confused by the strange words. She is quite certain that “ somebody killed something ,” but she does not understand much more than that. When later she encounters Humpty Dumpty, she seizes the opportunity at having the knowledgeable egg interpret—or translate—the poem. Since Humpty Dumpty professes to be able to “make a word work” for him, he is quick to agree. Thus he acts like a New Critic who interprets the poem by performing a close reading of it. Through Humpty’s interpretation of the first stanza, however, we see the poem’s deeper comment concerning the practice of interpreting poetry and literature in general—that strict analytical translation destroys the beauty of a poem. In fact, Humpty Dumpty commits the “heresy of paraphrase,” for he fails to understand that meaning cannot be separated from the form or structure of the literary work.

Of the 71 words found in “Jabberwocky,” 43 have no known meaning. They are simply nonsense. Yet through this nonsensical language, the poem manages not only to tell a story but also gives the reader a sense of setting and characterization. One feels, rather than concretely knows, that the setting is dark, wooded, and frightening. The characters, such as the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch, and the doomed Jabberwock, also appear in the reader’s head, even though they will not be found in the local zoo. Even though most of the words are not real, the reader is able to understand what goes on because he or she is given free license to imagine what the words denote and connote. Simply, the poem’s nonsense words are the meaning.

Therefore, when Humpty interprets “Jabberwocky” for Alice, he is not doing her any favors, for he actually misreads the poem. Although the poem in its original is constructed from nonsense words, by the time Humpty is done interpreting it, it truly does not make any sense. The first stanza of the original poem is as follows:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogroves,

An the mome raths outgrabe. (Carroll 164)

If we replace, however, the nonsense words of “Jabberwocky” with Humpty’s translated words, the effect would be something like this:

’Twas four o’clock in the afternoon, and the lithe and slimy badger-lizard-corkscrew creatures

Did go round and round and make holes in the grass-plot round the sun-dial:

All flimsy and miserable were the shabby-looking birds

with mop feathers,

And the lost green pigs bellowed-sneezed-whistled.

By translating the poem in such a way, Humpty removes the charm or essence—and the beauty, grace, and rhythm—from the poem. The poetry is sacrificed for meaning. Humpty Dumpty commits the heresy of paraphrase. As Cleanth Brooks argues, “The structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations” (203). When the poem is left as nonsense, the reader can easily imagine what a “slithy tove” might be, but when Humpty tells us what it is, he takes that imaginative license away from the reader. The beauty (if that is the proper word) of “Jabberwocky” is in not knowing what the words mean, and yet understanding. By translating the poem, Humpty takes that privilege from the reader. In addition, Humpty fails to recognize that meaning cannot be separated from the structure itself: the nonsense poem reflects this literally—it means “nothing” and achieves this meaning by using “nonsense” words.

Furthermore, the nonsense words Carroll chooses to use in “Jabberwocky” have a magical effect upon the reader; the shadowy sound of the words create the atmosphere, which may be described as a trance-like mood. When Alice first reads the poem, she says it seems to fill her head “with ideas.” The strange-sounding words in the original poem do give one ideas. Why is this? Even though the reader has never heard these words before, he or she is instantly aware of the murky, mysterious mood they set. In other words, diction operates not on the denotative level (the dictionary meaning) but on the connotative level (the emotion(s) they evoke). Thus “Jabberwocky” creates a shadowy mood, and the nonsense words are instrumental in creating this mood. Carroll could not have simply used any nonsense words.

For example, let us change the “dark,” “ominous” words of the first stanza to “lighter,” more “comic” words:

’Twas mearly, and the churly pells

Did bimble and ringle in the tink;

All timpy were the brimbledimps,

And the bip plips outlink.

Shifting the sounds of the words from dark to light merely takes a shift in thought. To create a specific mood using nonsense words, one must create new words from old words that convey the desired mood. In “Jabberwocky,” Carroll mixes “slimy,” a grim idea, “lithe,” a pliable image, to get a new adjective: “slithy” (a portmanteau word). In this translation, brighter words were used to get a lighter effect. “Mearly” is a combination of “morning” and “early,” and “ringle” is a blend of “ring” and "dingle.” The point is that “Jabberwocky’s” nonsense words are created specifically to convey this shadowy or mysterious mood and are integral to the “meaning.”

Consequently, Humpty’s rendering of the poem leaves the reader with a completely different feeling than does the original poem, which provided us with a sense of ethereal mystery, of a dark and foreign land with exotic creatures and fantastic settings. The mysteriousness is destroyed by Humpty’s literal paraphrase of the creatures and the setting; by doing so, he has taken the beauty away from the poem in his attempt to understand it. He has committed the heresy of paraphrase: “If we allow ourselves to be misled by it [this heresy], we distort the relation of the poem to its ‘truth’… we split the poem between its ‘form’ and its ‘content’” (Brooks 201). Humpty Dumpty’s ultimate demise might be seen to symbolize the heretical split between form and content: as a literary creation, Humpty Dumpty is an egg, a well-wrought urn of nonsense. His fall from the wall cracks him and separates the contents from the container, and not even all the King’s men can put the scrambled egg back together again!

Through the odd characters of a little girl and a foolish egg, “Jabberwocky” suggests a bit of sage advice about reading poetry, advice that the New Critics built their theories on. The importance lies not solely within strict analytical translation or interpretation, but in the overall effect of the imagery and word choice that evokes a meaning inseparable from those literary devices. As Archibald MacLeish so aptly writes: “A poem should not mean / But be.” Sometimes it takes a little nonsense to show us the sense in something.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry . 1942. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1956. Print.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. Alice in Wonderland . 2nd ed. Ed. Donald J. Gray. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.

MacLeish, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” The Oxford Book of American Poetry . Ed. David Lehman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 385–86. Print.


  • Sample Essay 1 received permission from Victoria Morillo to publish, licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
  • Sample Essays 2 and 3 adapted from Cordell, Ryan and John Pennington. "2.5: Student Sample Papers" from Creating Literary Analysis. 2012. Licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported ( CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 )

William Shakespeare

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Critical Essays Major Themes

The Fall of Man

The ancient Greek notion of tragedy concerned the fall of a great man, such as a king, from a position of superiority to a position of humility on account of his ambitious pride, or hubris . To the Greeks, such arrogance in human behavior was punishable by terrible vengeance. The tragic hero was to be pitied in his fallen plight but not necessarily forgiven: Greek tragedy frequently has a bleak outcome. Christian drama, on the other hand, always offers a ray of hope; hence, Macbeth ends with the coronation of Malcolm , a new leader who exhibits all the correct virtues for a king.

Macbeth exhibits elements that reflect the greatest Christian tragedy of all: the Fall of Man. In the Genesis story, it is the weakness of Adam, persuaded by his wife (who has in turn been seduced by the devil) which leads him to the proud assumption that he can "play God." But both stories offer room for hope: Christ will come to save mankind precisely because mankind has made the wrong choice through his own free will. In Christian terms, although Macbeth has acted tyrannically, criminally, and sinfully, he is not entirely beyond redemption in heaven.

Fortune, Fate, and Free Will

Fortune is another word for chance. The ancient view of human affairs frequently referred to the "Wheel of Fortune," according to which human life was something of a lottery. One could rise to the top of the wheel and enjoy the benefits of superiority, but only for a while. With an unpredictable swing up or down, one could equally easily crash to the base of the wheel.

Fate, on the other hand, is fixed. In a fatalistic universe, the length and outcome of one's life (destiny) is predetermined by external forces. In Macbeth, the Witches represent this influence. The play makes an important distinction: Fate may dictate what will be, but how that destiny comes about is a matter of chance (and, in a Christian world such as Macbeth's) of man's own choice or free will.

Although Macbeth is told he will become king, he is not told how to achieve the position of king: that much is up to him. We cannot blame him for becoming king (it is his Destiny), but we can blame him for the way in which he chooses to get there (by his own free will).

Kingship and Natural Order

Macbeth is set in a society in which the notion of honor to one's word and loyalty to one's superiors is absolute. At the top of this hierarchy is the king, God's representative on Earth. Other relationships also depend on loyalty: comradeship in warfare, hospitality of host towards guest, and the loyalty between husband and wife. In this play, all these basic societal relationships are perverted or broken. Lady Macbeth's domination over her husband, Macbeth's treacherous act of regicide, and his destruction of comradely and family bonds, all go against the natural order of things.

The medieval and renaissance view of the world saw a relationship between order on earth, the so-called microcosm , and order on the larger scale of the universe, or macrocosm. Thus, when Lennox and the Old Man talk of the terrifying alteration in the natural order of the universe — tempests, earthquakes, darkness at noon, and so on — these are all reflections of the breakage of the natural order that Macbeth has brought about in his own microcosmic world.

Disruption of Nature

Violent disruptions in nature — tempests, earthquakes, darkness at noon, and so on — parallel the unnatural and disruptive death of the monarch Duncan.

The medieval and renaissance view of the world saw a relationship between order on earth, the so-called microcosm, and order on the larger scale of the universe, or macrocosm. Thus, when Lennox and the Old Man talk of the terrifying alteration in the natural order of the universe (nature), these are all reflections of the breakage of the natural order that Macbeth has brought about in his own microcosmic world (society).

Many critics see the parallel between Duncan's death and disorder in nature as an affirmation of the divine right theory of kingship. As we witness in the play, Macbeth's murder of Duncan and his continued tyranny extends the disorder of the entire country.

Gender Roles

Lady Macbeth is the focus of much of the exploration of gender roles in the play. As Lady Macbeth propels her husband toward committing Duncan's murder, she indicates that she must take on masculine characteristics. Her most famous speech — located in Act I, Scene 5 — addresses this issue.

Clearly, gender is out of its traditional order. This disruption of gender roles is also presented through Lady Macbeth's usurpation of the dominate role in the Macbeth's marriage; on many occasions, she rules her husband and dictates his actions.

Reason Versus Passion

During their debates over which course of action to take, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth use different persuasive strategies. Their differences can easily be seen as part of a thematic study of gender roles. However, in truth, the difference in ways Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rationalize their actions is essential to understanding the subtle nuances of the play as a whole.

Macbeth is very rational, contemplating the consequences and implications of his actions. He recognizes the political, ethical, and religious reason why he should not commit regicide. In addition to jeopardizing his afterlife, Macbeth notes that regicide is a violation of Duncan's "double trust" that stems from Macbeth's bonds as a kinsman and as a subject.

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth has a more passionate way of examining the pros and cons of killing Duncan. She is motivated by her feelings and uses emotional arguments to persuade her husband to commit the evil act.

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450+ Literary Analysis Topics Ideas & Title Examples for Inspiration

Literary Analysis Essay Topics

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Finding that ideal literary analysis topic can be as complex as the literature you're studying. But fear not! Backed by our experience, we’ve gathered some good literary analysis essay topics worth your attention. 

In this blog article, we will tell you how to choose a great title and drop inspirational ideas for your literature analysis. So, sit back, relax, and let us guide you through the best literary analysis topics.

What Are Literary Analysis Topics?

Literary analysis topics are the types of analytical essay topics that deal with examining any work of literature. It might be a novel, a short story, or even literary criticism. You can select any of these topics to write a literary analysis on. 

Topics for literary analysis might focus on various elements of the literature you are supposed to study. For instance, you may explore the following things:

  • Literary devices
  • Structure and style

Essentially, your task is to unleash the hidden meanings and interpret the messages conveyed in the literary works.

>> Learn more: How to Write a Literary Analysis Essay

Features of Good Literary Analysis Topics

Before we move on to the literature essay topics, let’s talk about what makes a title stand out. Good literary analysis topics should:

  • Be related to the literature
  • Provide an opportunity for further exploration of the work as a whole.
  • Raise interesting questions and allow for different interpretations.
  • Inspire readers to think about the topic in more detail.

Choosing the right topic is very important. If you need extra help from experts, rely on our team of academic professionals. Say ‘ do my essay for me ’ and get an authentic essay crafted in line with your needs.

How to Choose a Literary Analysis Topic?

Are you staring at a blank page and don’t even know what literary analysis essay topic to choose? We know that feeling. It can be as challenging as finding a perfect rhyme in a sonnet, but no worries! Below we've got some easy steps to help you select a great literary analysis topic:

  • Read and reflect Start by immersing yourself in the text. As you read, keep an eye on themes, characters, and symbols that catch your attention.
  • Ask questions This is where your inner Sherlock should come out! Question everything about the book. Why does a character behave a certain way? What's the significance of that recurring symbol? These queries are the seeds of your literary analysis.
  • Find connections Look for links in the text – between characters, themes, or even the historical context. These connections often make for a compelling literary analysis essay title example.
  • Keep it focused Remember, you're writing an essay , not a book! So, zoom in. Instead of tackling a broad topic like "Imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird," focus on something more specific, like "The use of bird imagery in To Kill a Mockingbird."
  • Find a new angle If you're choosing a popular book, find a fresh angle. Instead of going with the crowd, create your own path. A unique perspective will make your analysis stand out.

Powered up by these guidelines, you are sure to find an excellent literary analysis essay idea. Now, let’s see what literary analysis titles and writing prompts we have prepared for you.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics List

If you are not sure how to get started, look at the list of essay titles below. Here, we’ve selected top literary essay topics and prompts to kickstart your journey into literature. Let’s begin with some basic themes and literary elements:

  • Symbolism in Emily Dickinson's poetry.
  • Women’s portrayal in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Orwell's use of dystopia in 1984.
  • Time in Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • Death's representation in Edgar Allan Poe’s works.
  • Mystery and suspense in Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.
  • Symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Portrayal of masculinity in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.
  • Handling of grief in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
  • Solitude in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Role of supernatural elements in Macbeth.
  • American Dream in Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.
  • Postcolonial themes in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
  • The role of setting in A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Juxtaposition of civilization and savagery in Golding's Lord of the Flies.

Good Literary Analysis Essay Topics

If you're searching for that spark of inspiration, look no further. Choose a title idea from the collection of literary analysis essay prompts we added below:

  • Jane Austen's social satire in Sense and Sensibility.
  • Use of stream-of-consciousness in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.
  • Survival in Yann Martel's Life of Pi.
  • Love in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
  • Illusion versus reality in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Ambition's consequences in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
  • Power in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
  • Role of nature in Jack London's Call of the Wild.
  • Innocence in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • J.D. Salinger's use of first-person narrative in Catcher in the Rye.
  • Conflict of individual versus society in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
  • Isolation in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.
  • Friendship in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
  • Social class in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
  • Gender roles in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

Interesting Literary Analysis Topics

Are you looking for something more mind-blowing? Consider these interesting literary analysis essay topics ideas to shake things up a bit:

  • Irony in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Satire in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
  • Perspective shifts in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
  • Justice in Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman .
  • Power dynamics in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.
  • Fear in Stephen King's The Shining.
  • Identity crisis in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.
  • Spiritual growth in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha.
  • Betrayal in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.
  • Symbolism in Toni Morrison's Beloved.
  • Freedom in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
  • Class struggle in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
  • Portrayal of war in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.
  • Obsession in Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray .
  • Romanticism in J.M Barrie's Peter Pan.

Unique Literary Analysis Essay Topics

When it comes to a literary analysis paper, standing out from the crowd can make all the difference. If you're looking to bring a touch of uniqueness to your writing, consider one of these these distinctive literary analysis prompts:

  • Magical realism in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Portrayal of rebellion in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 .
  • Maternal relationships in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.
  • Existentialism in Albert Camus' The Stranger.
  • Deceit in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
  • Quest for identity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
  • Treatment of time in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • Pride in Sophocles' Antigone.
  • Role of memory in Toni Morrison's Beloved.
  • Perspective and truth in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.
  • Portrayal of destiny in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
  • Madness in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.
  • Courage and survival in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.
  • Role of society in George Orwell's 1984 .
  • Youth and age in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye .

Best Literature Essay Topics

Are you ready to take your analysis to the next level? Take a look at these top-notch literary topics for essays, each one carefully crafted for an A+ analysis essay :

  • Challenging societal norms in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
  • Portrayal of love in Pablo Neruda's poetry.
  • Loss and grief in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.
  • Paradox in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Representation of animals in Jack London's The Call of the Wild.
  • Disillusionment in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.
  • Trauma and healing in Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.
  • Use of language in James Joyce's Ulysses.
  • Quest for identity in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  • Portrayal of family in August Wilson's Fences.
  • Loyalty in Homer's Iliad .
  • Portrayal of survival in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
  • Duality in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Isolation in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
  • Influence of society in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

Easy Literary Analysis Title Examples

If you are a novice or prefer simple literary analysis essay ideas, this list is for you.

  • Uncovering themes in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • The symbolism in Lord of the Flies.
  • Understanding character development in Great Expectations.
  • Love and relationships in Pride and Prejudice.
  • The role of setting in Wuthering Heights.
  • Morality in Moby Dick.
  • Exploring imagery in The Great Gatsby .
  • Power dynamics in Animal Farm.
  • Social critique in Brave New World.
  • Conflict in Romeo and Juliet .
  • Identity and culture in The Namesake.
  • Supernatural elements in Macbeth .
  • The quest for freedom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Aging and time in The Old Man and the Sea.
  • Survival in Life of Pi.

Topics for Literary Analysis in Different Genre

Exploring different genres can add a whole new dimension to your literary analysis. Whether it's the captivating world-building of fantasy or the futuristic visions of science fiction, each genre offers a bunch of literary analysis ideas for any taste. Check out the following literary analysis essay topics sorted by genre:

  • Utopian ideals in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.
  • Symbols and motifs in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
  • Suspense in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
  • Love in Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook.
  • Representation of war in Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth.
  • Humanity in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Courage in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • Justice in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.
  • Conflict in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
  • Time in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.
  • Portrayal of technology in William Gibson's Neuromancer.
  • Good versus evil in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
  • Clues in Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
  • Portrayal of passion in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.
  • Use of historical detail in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

American Literature Essay Topics

American literature has produced some of the most iconic works in history. Take a glance at these essay topics for American literature analysis essay topics to get motivated:

  • Racial tensions in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
  • Transcendentalism in Walden.
  • Role of women in The Scarlet Letter .
  • Slavery and freedom in Beloved.
  • The meaning of home in Langston Hughes' poetry.
  • Masculinity and honor in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
  • Individualism in On the Road.
  • Illusion versus reality in Death of a Salesman.
  • Navigating adolescence in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
  • Tragic hero in A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Consequences of power in The Crucible .
  • Love and loss in The Fault in Our Stars.
  • Identity in Invisible Man.
  • Nature and the self in Leaves of Grass.
  • Religion and faith in The Poisonwood Bible.

English Literature Essay Topics

If you are a British literature enthusiast, don’t skip this list. Below, we have collected the most trending literary analysis title examples in English literature:

  • Class struggle in Dickens' Oliver Twist.
  • Mysticism in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
  • Misogyny in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
  • Role of weather in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.
  • Satire of Victorian Era in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Subversion of romance in Jane Austen's Emma.
  • Landscape and memory in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.
  • War and its effects in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • Power and corruption in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
  • Maturation in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre .
  • Religious doubt in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.
  • Time and consciousness in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
  • Subconscious in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.
  • Rebellion against society in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

Literary Analysis Topics for Students

We've carefully curated literary analysis essay topics suitable for students at different levels of education. From high school to college, there's something for everyone. We've categorized these topics for a literary analysis essay according to academic level to help you find what fits your needs best. Are you ready to dive in? Get prepared to discover literary analysis title ideas that will make your writing process an absolute pleasure.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for Middle School Students 

  • Understanding friendship in The Outsiders.
  • Lessons about tolerance in Wonder.
  • Courage and bravery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • The importance of individuality in A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Family and identity in The Giver.
  • The theme of adventure in Treasure Island.
  • Life lessons in Charlotte’s Web.
  • Overcoming obstacles in Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The impact of rumors in The Watsons Go to Birmingham.
  • Symbolism in Tuck Everlasting.
  • The significance of heritage in Esperanza Rising.
  • Power of persistence in Hatchet.
  • Examining the hero's journey in Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief.
  • Struggles with fairness in The Westing Game.
  • The role of honesty in The Secret Garden.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for High School Students

  • Tragic love in Romeo and Juliet.
  • Prejudice and racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • The dangers of ambition in Macbeth.
  • The importance of friendship in The Outsiders.
  • Symbolism in The Great Gatsby.
  • Coming of age in The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Man versus nature in Moby Dick.
  • Power and corruption in Animal Farm.
  • Morality in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • The impact of war in All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • Human nature in Lord of the Flies.
  • The role of the American dream in Death of a Salesman.
  • Heroism in Beowulf.
  • Innocence and experience in Catch-22.
  • Dystopian society in Fahrenheit 451.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics for College Students

  • Irony and satire in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Freedom in A Doll's House.
  • Role of madness in Hamlet.
  • Colonialism and its impacts in Heart of Darkness.
  • Alienation and isolation in The Metamorphosis.
  • Tragedy and fate in Oedipus Rex.
  • Exploring human consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway.
  • Modernism in Ulysses.
  • Language and power in 1984.
  • Identity and society in Invisible Man.
  • Existentialism in Waiting for Godot.
  • Feminism and gender roles in The Yellow Wallpaper.
  • Justice and judgment in Crime and Punishment.
  • The influence of society on individuals in A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Role of memory in Remembrance of Things Past.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics in Poetry

Poetry has a unique way of touching our hearts and minds. Poem analysis can reveal hidden meanings behind the verses. If you're searching for literary analysis essay topics with a focus on poetry, check out some pointers in the sections below.

Romeo and Juliet Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Fate and destiny in Romeo and Juliet.
  • Masculinity and its influence on the characters' actions.
  • The impact of family feuds on individual choices in Romeo and Juliet.
  • Concept of time in Romeo and Juliet.
  • Understanding love at first sight through Romeo and Juliet.
  • The juxtaposition of love and violence in the play.
  • Secret identities and deception in Romeo and Juliet.
  • The influence of peer pressure on the events of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Contrasting views of love: Exploring the perspectives of Romeo, Juliet, and other characters.
  • Dreams and omens in Romeo and Juliet.

Hamlet Literary Analysis Essay Topics Ideas

  • Hamlet's madness: Genuine condition or clever ruse?
  • Revenge and its destructive consequences.
  • Role of women: Analyzing the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia.
  • Appearance versus reality: The dichotomy of disguise and deceit.
  • Hamlet's soliloquies: A window into his psyche and moral dilemmas.
  • The tragic flaw of Hamlet.
  • The ghost of King Hamlet: Its role and significance.
  • Corruption and decay in Hamlet's kingdom.
  • Father-son relationships in Hamlet.
  • Morality and ethical decision-making in Hamlet.

Macbeth Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Supernatural elements in Macbeth.
  • Moral decline of Macbeth throughout the play.
  • Lady Macbeth's role in Macbeth's ambition and actions.
  • Guilt and its consequences in Macbeth.
  • The power of prophecy and its impact on Macbeth's decisions.
  • Role of sleep and sleeplessness in the play.
  • The symbolism of blood in Macbeth.
  • Disorder and chaos in Macbeth.
  • The transformation of Lady Macbeth's character over the course of the play.
  • The portrayal of kingship and tyranny in Macbeth.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics Ideas & Prompts

Still can’t find a topic? Scroll down to spot more fantastic literary analysis writing prompts and ideas, categorized by popular works. Whether you're analyzing character development, theme, or narrative style, you will definitely recognize some good literary analysis topics ideas.

Frankenstein Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Role of nature in shaping the characters of Frankenstein.
  • Dangers of unchecked ambition in Frankenstein.
  • Impact of isolation on Victor Frankenstein and his creature.
  • Women in Frankenstein's world.
  • Creator and creation in Frankenstein.
  • Creature’s desire for companionship.
  • Frankenstein as a critique of enlightenment ideals.
  • Concept of 'otherness' in Frankenstein.
  • Knowledge and ignorance in Frankenstein.
  • Comparing Victor Frankenstein and his creature.

Beowulf Literary Analysis Essay Prompts

  • Christian and pagan elements in Beowulf.
  • Lineage and ancestry in Beowulf.
  • The symbolism of monsters in Beowulf.
  • The representation of kingship in Beowulf.
  • Fame and reputation.
  • Treasure and gift-giving in Beowulf.
  • Loyalty in the world of Beowulf.
  • Good versus evil in Beowulf.
  • Beowulf's three battles: A comparative analysis.

The Great Gatsby Literary Analysis Topics

  • Destructive power of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby.
  • Social classes in The Great Gatsby.
  • Motif of the 'green light' in The Great Gatsby.
  • Illusion versus reality in The Great Gatsby.
  • Time and the past in The Great Gatsby.
  • The role of geography and setting.
  • The portrayal of love and desire.
  • Significance of Gatsby's parties in the novel.
  • Symbolism of the 'Valley of Ashes' in The Great Gatsby.
  • Nick Carraway as an unreliable narrator.

Fahrenheit 451 Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Censorship and its impact on society in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Technology in Fahrenheit 451's dystopian society.
  • Symbolism of fire.
  • Motif of mirrors in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Individuality versus conformity in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Portrayal of reading and books in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Mechanical hound and its role.
  • The impact of isolation and disconnection in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Happiness and fulfillment represented in the book.
  • Symbolism of the phoenix in Fahrenheit 451.

Othello Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • The impact of jealousy on the characters of Othello.
  • Race and racism in Othello.
  • Manipulation and its role in this play.
  • Representation of women in Othello.
  • Appearance versus reality in Othello.
  • Reputation and honor in this play.
  • Impact of insecurities on the character of Othello.
  • Role Desdemona's handkerchief plays.
  • Motif of animals in Othello.
  • Friendship and betrayal as represented in this play.

The Catcher In The Rye Literary Analysis Topics

  • How does Salinger represent teen angst in Catcher in the Rye?
  • Role of Phoebe in Holden Caulfield's life.
  • Analysis of Holden's perception of adulthood.
  • Symbolic meaning of the Museum of Natural History.
  • Red hunting hat as a symbol of isolation.
  • Salinger's portrayal of mental illness through Holden.
  • Relevance of the carrousel scene at the end of this novel.
  • Language and narrative style in Catcher in the Rye.
  • Understanding Holden's relationships with other characters.
  • How does this title relate to Holden's personality and actions?

The Crucible Literary Analysis Topics

  • Fear and hysteria as represented in The Crucible.
  • Power dynamics in Salem's society.
  • John Proctor's character development throughout this play.
  • Abigail Williams' motivations.
  • Analysis of Arthur Miller's use of historical events.
  • Symbolism of the witch trials.
  • Religion and how it is represented in The Crucible.
  • Comparing the characters: Elizabeth Proctor vs. Abigail Williams.
  • Suspicion and paranoia in this play.
  • Relevance of The Crucible in today's society.

1984 Literary Essay Topics

  • George Orwell's depiction of totalitarianism.
  • Concept of Newspeak.
  • Surveillance and control in 1984.
  • Winston's rebellion against the Party.
  • Symbolism of the glass paperweight.
  • Analysis of the Party's manipulation of history.
  • Role of Big Brother in this novel.
  • ulia's character and her contrast to Winston.
  • Significance of Room 101.
  • Doublethink and its influence on citizens' mentality.

The Story of an Hour Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Mrs. Mallard's freedom and confinement.
  • Irony in The Story of an Hour.
  • Theme of time in this short story.
  • Heart and it symbolism.
  • Portrayal of marriage in The Story of an Hour.
  • Significance of the open window.
  • Railroad and its role in this story.
  • How does Mrs. Mallard's reaction reflect societal norms?
  • Analysis of Louise's transformation.
  • Representation of life and death.

The Cask of Amontillado Literary Analysis Ideas

  • Revenge in The Cask of Amontillado.
  • Significance of setting in this story.
  • Symbolism of the cask.
  • Montresor as an unreliable narrator.
  • Concept of pride in this story.
  • Foreshadowing in The Cask of Amontillado.
  • Contrast between Montresor and Fortunato.
  • Motif of disguise and deception.
  • Exploring the concept of madness.
  • How does the catacomb setting contribute to the story's tone?

Pride and Prejudice Literary Analysis Prompts

  • First impressions in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Jane Austen's portrayal of marriage and social status.
  • The theme of pride in this novel.
  • Understanding the character of Mr. Darcy.
  • Significance of the title in understanding this novel.
  • Contrasting characters of Elizabeth and Jane.
  • Letters and their role in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Social hierarchy and class in this novel.
  • Theme of family in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Lydia and her impact on the plot.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis Literary Analysis Title Examples

  • Exploring Gregor Samsa's transformation.
  • Kafka’s portrayal of family relationships.
  • Symbolism of the apple in Metamorphosis.
  • How does Kafka depict the human condition?
  • Understanding Grete's role in this story.
  • Kafka's commentary on work and responsibility.
  • Gregor's room as a symbol of his inner state.
  • Role of dehumanization in Metamorphosis.
  • Kafka's style in conveying existentialist themes.
  • Understanding the character of Mr. Samsa.

Topics for Literary Analysis of The Odyssey

  • Role of hospitality in ancient Greek society.
  • Examination of Odysseus as a hero.
  • Vengeance in The Odyssey.
  • Significance of the Underworld.
  • Role of gods and goddesses in the plot.
  • Women characters in The Odyssey.
  • Understanding Telemachus' character arc.
  • Significance of Ithaca in Odysseus’ journey.
  • Analysis of deception.
  • Circe: Character analysis .

The Old Man and the Sea Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Perseverance in Hemingway's novel.
  • Analyzing Santiago's relationship with the sea.
  • Significance of Santiago's dreams about lions.
  • Hemingway's portrayal of friendship and camaraderie.
  • Symbolism of the marlin.
  • The sea and its significance in Santiago's journey.
  • Heroism as depicted in this novel.
  • Role of nature and its depiction.
  • Santiago's hand injury and its symbolic meaning.
  • Defeat and its role in shaping Santiago’s character.

Jane Eyre Literary Analysis Topics

  • Gothic elements in Jane Eyre.
  • Concept of the madwoman in the attic.
  • Religion in Jane's life and development.
  • Portrayal of women's independence in the novel.
  • Significance of Thornfield Hall.
  • Motif of fire and ice in Jane Eyre.
  • Examining the character of Mr. Rochester.
  • Understanding the role of Adele in this novel.
  • Analyzing forgiveness.
  • Jane’s quest for self-identity and belonging.

The Scarlet Letter Literary Topics for Essays

  • Sin and guilt and how they are depicted.
  • Symbolism of the scarlet letter 'A'.
  • Understanding Hester Prynne's character development.
  • Role of Pearl as a symbol.
  • Exploration of hypocrisy.
  • Examination of the Puritan society.
  • Roger Chillingworth as a character.
  • Role of secrets and hidden identities.
  • Significance of the forest and the town.
  • Portrayal of women in The Scarlet Letter.

Of Mice and Men Literary Analysis Essay Ideas

  • Lennie's dream and its impact on this story.
  • How does Steinbeck present George and Lennie's friendship?
  • Decoding symbolism in Of Mice and Men.
  • Loneliness in this novel.
  • Analyzing Steinbeck's portrayal of the American Dream.
  • Unraveling Curley's wife's character.
  • A critical look at attitudes towards women.
  • Analysis of power dynamics in Of Mice and Men.
  • Steinbeck’s depiction of life during the Great Depression.
  • Understanding the tragic end: Was there an alternative?

Lord of the Flies Literary Analysis Titles

  • Loss of innocence in Lord of the Flies.
  • Power struggle: Analyzing leadership styles of Jack and Ralph.
  • Deconstructing the symbol of 'beast' in the novel.
  • Golding’s portrayal of the thin veneer of civilization.
  • Survival instincts in Lord of the Flies.
  • Motif of the conch shell in this novel.
  • Exploring fear and its implications.
  • Golding's view on human nature.
  • A critical look at the novel's ending.
  • Understanding the novel’s allegorical elements.

To Kill a Mockingbird Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Racial injustice in this novel.
  • How does Scout's perspective shape the narrative?
  • Harper Lee's portrayal of small-town life in the South.
  • Moral education in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Understanding Boo Radley's impact on this story.
  • Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Analysis of Atticus Finch's parenting style.
  • Class structure in Maycomb County.
  • Gender roles in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Bravery in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics & Title Ideas by Themes

Are you interested in how the good is represented in literature. Or, want to explore the dark side of human nature? No matter what theme you’re analyzing, these literary analysis topics will surely help you get your gears turning.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics on Education

  • Exploring education's impact in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Jane Eyre's education and its effects on her life.
  • Learning and wisdom in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Views on education in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • Education’s role in the development of Huck Finn.
  • Value of practical knowledge in Moby-Dick.
  • Understanding Malvolio’s wisdom in Twelfth Night.
  • How The Great Gatsby criticizes education in the 1920s.
  • Education as liberation in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
  • Women's education in Pride and Prejudice.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics on Religion 

  • Understanding religious allegory in Lord of the Flies.
  • Christian symbolism in The Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Religion’s impact on communities in The Poisonwood Bible.
  • Religious imagery in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.
  • Criticism of the church in The Canterbury Tales.
  • Dystopian views of religion in Brave New World.
  • How The Scarlet Letter deals with religion and sin.
  • Portrayal of religious hypocrisy in Huckleberry Finn.
  • Religious aspects in Paradise Lost.
  • Comparing religious symbolism in Moby Dick and Billy Budd.

Literary Analysis Essay Topics on Race

  • Discussing racial prejudices in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Understanding racial disparities in The Color Purple.
  • Representation of race in Othello.
  • Racial discrimination in Nella Larsen's Passing.
  • Concept of race in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Racial dynamics in Go Set a Watchman.
  • Racial identity in The Bluest Eye.
  • Race and identity in Invisible Man.
  • Racial politics in James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain.
  • Racial tensions in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

War and Peace Literary Analysis Essay Topics

  • Understanding war's impact in All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • Depiction of warfare in War and Peace.
  • Post-war society in The Sun Also Rises.
  • Effects of war on Mrs. Dalloway.
  • Concept of peace in A Separate Peace.
  • Interpreting war in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  • Post-war life in The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Pacifist messages in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.
  • Consequences of war in A Farewell to Arms.
  • Portrayal of war in The Red Badge of Courage.

Literary Analysis Topics on Justice and Judgment

  • Concept of justice in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Justice and injustice in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
  • Judgment in Jane Austen’s Emma.
  • Analyzing justice in George Orwell's 1984.
  • Exploring judgment in Pride and Prejudice.
  • Justice in A Tale of Two Cities.
  • Critique of justice in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
  • Judgment in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
  • Justice in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
  • Portrayal of justice in The Merchant of Venice.

Literary Analysis Ideas About Good and Evil

  • Good and evil in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Good vs evil in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
  • Struggle between good and evil in Moby-Dick.
  • Dichotomy of good and evil in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Conflict of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings.
  • Good and evil in Golding's Lord of the Flies.
  • Representation of good and evil in Heart of Darkness.
  • Exploration of good and evil in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • How Bram Stoker’s Dracula deals with good and evil.
  • Examining the balance of good and evil in Macbeth.

Bottom Line on Literary Analysis Essay Topics

When you're dealing with a literary analysis paper, it can be overwhelming to come up with unique topics. The trick is finding the perfect topic that you will be excited to work with. These literary analysis ideas should help get you started in the right direction. From time-tested classics to more modern works, we focused on different themes so you can pick the one you like.

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How to Write a Literary Analysis

Hamlet Themes

‘ Theme ’ is an overarching idea, philosophy, and belief used in the literary works by a writer to show these concepts directly or indirectly. However, in the case of Hamlet , this single idea sometimes fail to cope with the issue in the face of various interpretations. Hamlet’s themes are pervasive and yet dominant that every reader has his own opinion. Some of the major ideas of Hamlet have been discussed below.

Themes in Hamlet

Madness is one of the dominant themes of Hamlet. Hamlet displays many sides of his personality since the death of his father. He appears as a philosopher, a sage, a mad as well as a mentally disturbed person. He also expresses that there is a “method in my madness.” It shows that he is insane but just in his pretensions to show his pain to others. He wanted them to see and understand that it was difficult for him to bear things like loss and betrayal. That is the very reason that King Claudius fears his madness as some pretention to have exposed his crime of assassinating Old Hamlet.

On the other hand, he shows such a face to Ophelia that she reports that his madness is true. Polonius, on his part, considers it a madness of love, while Gertrude considers it only madness. However, King Claudius does not accept any of these opinions and sees his folly a threat to his throne and his own life. In the end, his fear comes true when Hamlet exposes him. However, Hamlet also loses his own life in this struggle.

Although not considered a good act in Christianity and even in other faiths, revenge is another theme that runs throughout the play . In fact, the appearance of the ghost in the first act lays a heavy responsibility on Hamlet to exact the revenge of his “unjust murder.” However, as a philosophical mind, Hamlet must establish the responsibility of the crime on Claudius first and only then take the decision to seek justice . Due to Hamlet’s conscious mind, the revenge is delayed. He, though, succeeds in exposing the crime, Hamlet does not find a way to try Claudius in the court. On the other hand, Laertes also seeks revenge from Hamlet for his father murder and is willing to kill Hamlet even in the Holy place, church. These two thematic stands of revenge run parallel until the dual and their deaths

Although not a dominant theme, religion still has its significant impact on the roles and acts of Hamlet and other characters. Besides some religions markers, there are some dominant religious opinions and thoughts. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” is interpreted on the lines of his religious thinking about suicide. As a suicide, is a sin and will take you to hell. He also does not kill Claudius during prayers because he would go to heaven and he does not want to grant him this opportunity.  The last comments by Horatio also show the religious expressions in the play, which is also a form of prayer, when he says “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” It means that religion is still a strong point in Hamlet even at the end.

Subversion of Relationships

Subversion and turns and twists in relationships is another theme of Hamlet. Gertrude is a cousin of Claudius and must not marry him on legal or religious terms. However, they both marry subverting their relationship. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle but also becomes his step-father. This subversion in the sacred relations against the Protestantism is another great theme of Hamlet.

One of the most controversial and most striking themes of Hamlet is his delay. While trying to establish the crime, Hamlet delays his revenge. He doesn’t want an innocent’s death on his conscience and wants his action to be justified. In the entire play, he has numerous chances to kill Claudius. He waits until he confirms the crime of Claudius by staging the play. Once he also finds Claudius praying, and has a perfect opportunity to kill him. The delay also drives him mad and leading to severe depression until he finally acts up it. The delay indirectly cost his own life. However, the last conversation with Horatio to leave and show the justification of his cause to the world makes it clear that the intent of delaying was to seek justification.

Although it is not that significant, honor is another theme that various characters depict through their actions and dialogues . The honor that Hamlet feels lies in his revenge of his father’s murder. However, he always thinks that his honor is at stake if his actions have no justification. On the other hand, Laertes thinks that he will lose his honor if he does not exact revenge of his slain father who Hamlet mistakenly kills. In other words, the true honor for both lies in seeking revenge for their fathers though in a different way. Therefore, honor is one of the notable themes of Hamlet.

Ambiguity of Language

The ambiguity of language and its skillful use is one of the minor themes of Hamlet. The language used by Hamlet and Claudius in the first act is full of ambiguity as well as the skillful use of puns . Hamlet, too, uses similes , metaphors and various literary devices to make his language sound vague. To unravel such a loaded language has lent Hamlet a great place among all the masterpieces.

Human Beings

Although it does not seem much significant, human beings or mankind’s mysterious capabilities and faculties are seen as another secondary theme in the play. Hamlet thinks too much about ‘man’ (human) and praises his abilities of thinking and taking relevant actions that impact other humans’ lives. However, he also wonders at the other metaphysical realities such as death, destiny, human relations and use of words.

Political Intrigues

Hamlet is also a political drama . It is because it starts with political intrigues in which Old Hamlet has lost his life, and the young Hamlet is after his uncle, Claudius. His mother has married his uncle, while the rest of the palace is divided into these palatial intrigues. The intrigues lead to widespread conspiracies and killings. Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s death as soon as he gets the right opportunity so that he can expose King Claudius true nature to his subject . However, everything comes to an end when Claudius also plots to kill Hamlet or be killed.

Although suicide is not all pervasive like other dominant themes, it is present in Hamlet’s character throughout the play. Specifically his soliloquy “to be or not to be” points his inclination toward suicide but he drops it later when he realizes it is forbidden in religion. Ophelia, too, commits suicide but her case is different from Hamlet because she could not carry the weight of Hamlet’s taunt and loses her sanity. In other words, suicide is also a primary theme of Hamlet.

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literary essay themes

The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade

Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).

Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)

The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.

Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).

But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)

It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)

Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.

So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.”  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)

In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.

He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)

We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.

Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief 

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)

When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.

The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)

The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay  Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions  was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel  Lost Children Archive  (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a  good  conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment.  Tell Me How It Ends  is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.”  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)

In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing  Bad Feminist  that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)

Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)

On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell.  This Young Monster  (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”

If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from  Artforum ,  Dazed & Confused , and  Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.

In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic,  This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)

Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)

When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”

Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) ·  Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012)  · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)  · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014)  · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014)  · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) ·  Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016)  · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016)  · Lindy West, Shrill (2016)  · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016)  · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016)  · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016)  · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016)  · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017)  · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017)  · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017)  · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017)  · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017)  · Joan Didion, South and West (2017)  · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017)  · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017)  · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)  ·  Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017)  · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018)  · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018)  · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018)  · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018)  · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018)  · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)  · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019)  · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019)  · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019)  · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019)  · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019)  ·  Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019)  · Robert A. Caro,  Working  (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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Read below our complete notes on the poem Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) by William Shakespeare. Our notes cover Sonnet 18 summary, themes, and literary analysis.


William Shakespeare was one of the most prominent playwrights and poets of the sixteenth century. He wrote many famous plays and sonnets. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is one of his most beautiful pieces of poetry. This sonnet is also referred to as “Sonnet 18.” It was written in the 1590s and was published in his collection of sonnets in 1609. In this collection, there are a total of 154 sonnets. These themes of these sonnets are usually love, beauty, time, and jealousy to mortality and infidelity.

This collection of sonnets is believed to be addressed to two different persons. On this basis, these sonnets are divided into two portions. The first portion consists of the first 126 sonnets. These sonnets are addressed to a male beloved. Some of these sonnets directly persuade the guy to marry while the rest addresses general themes like mortality, the value of poetry, and the attainment of immortality. The next portion consists of twenty-eight sonnets. These sonnets are addressed to some mysterious lady. The lady is usually referred to as the “dark lady.” These sonnets address the themes of greed, appetite, and sexual desires.

This sonnet belongs to the first part of the sonnet collection and is, therefore, considered to be addressed to the beloved male. This context specifies that the speaker is praising the beauty of a guy and comparing his beauty to the pleasant aspects of summer. The speaker tells him that there are a few downsides to the beauty of summer, but his beauty is flawless. Moreover, every beautiful thing is doomed to fade except the speaker’s beloved. The reason is that he is going to immortalize his beauty by describing it in his poetry. 

As the number of this sonnet is eighteenth, it is clear that it discusses the themes of mortality, the value of poetry, and the attainment of immortality. The speaker reflects on how every worldly entity is mortal. However, he is going to use his poetry against this enemy and win immortality for his beloved by canonizing him in his poetry. 

Literary Context

The wave of writing poetry in sonnet form reached England in the sixteenth century from Italy. Petrarch, an Italian poet and a philosopher, introduced this form for the first time in the fourteenth century in Italy. It was the time of renaissance in Italy. When the renaissance reached England in its real sense in the sixteenth century, sonnet form also came along.

Thomas Wyatt was the first English poet to introduce it to the English audience. Many other poets like Sidney and Henry Howard followed the same pattern and anglicized it by introducing quatrains in it. This sonnet confirms this tradition of the English sonnet form. It is written in the form of quatrains and is composed of fourteen lines. The first thirteen lines are divided into three quatrains, and the last two lines make a couplet. 

Just like other sonnets of Shakespeare, this sonnet also deviates from the traditional sonnet form in regard to its theme. It does not, like the traditional sonnets, narrate the pursuit of a god-like female beloved. On the contrary, it describes the beauty of a male beloved and celebrates poetry as a source of achieving immortality.

Sonnet 18 Summary

First quatrain.

The poem opens with a question asked by the speaker. The speaker asks the beloved whether he should compare him to a summer day. The next line announces the comparison and says that the beloved is lovelier than a summer day. Moreover, the summer day is extreme, while the beloved is better because he is temperate. The speaker furthers this comparison and says that the darling buds sprouting in May are shaken by the forceful winds that blow in the summer. Furthermore, the lease of summer is also not very long. It is very short-lived.    

Second Quatrain

The next quatrain opens with the description of yet another flaw in summer’s beauty. During summers, the sun shines very brightly, and it is very hot. The pleasant weather does not stay. Similarly, the sunshine is sometimes very faint, and the weather gets cold.

Having described the numerous flaws in the summer’s beauty, the speaker reflects on the nature of beauty in general. He says that every beautiful thing is destined to see a decline in its charm one day. The reason for this decline may vary, but the decline is guaranteed. Sometimes, it is the bearing of luck and chance, which results in the fading of prettiness. Other times, it is the working of time and nature, which brings old age. This way, no beautiful thing escapes the clutches of future decline.  

Third Quatrain

The first line of the third quatrain directly addresses the beloved and tells him that his beauty is eternal. It will never fade. The speaker tells him that you should not be afraid of losing the charm that you have now. Time will never be able to take it from you. Similarly, death will also fail in dispossessing him of his beauty. The shadows of death will never be able to take him under their control. The speaker says that you will keep on growing in the eternal lines he is saying. These lines do not come under the influence of time and will be able to remain in world till the end of time.

The last two lines of the sonnet describe the reason behind the immortality of the beloved’s beauty. The speaker says that as long as the human race remains here in this world, his lines will be read. With the reading of these lines, the beauty of the beloved described in these lines will remain in this world. This way, the speaker claims that he has given immortality to the beauty of the beloved.

Themes in Sonnet 18

Throughout the whole poem, the speaker talks about the beauty of his beloved. He admires the beauty of his beloved in different ways throughout the three quatrains. He starts by asking his beloved whether he should compare him with a summer day or not.

The comparison starts from the very next line, where the speaker mentions the limitation of summer in comparison to his beloved. He says that a summer day is either too cold or too hot, depending on the sunshine. On the other hand, his beloved is temperate and does not go to extremes. The speaker also claims that his beloved is lovelier than a summer day.

The speaker furthers his admiration by juxtaposing his beloved’s beauty with the beauty of other mortal things. He says that summer is too short and fades away into autumn. Similarly, all the other things in the world are going to lose their charm. They are either going to face some accident or fall into the arms of the inevitable death.

This admiration of the beloved’s beauty is enhanced in the poem by the use of superior metaphors. The speaker uses metaphor like “eye of heaven” in comparison with his beloved beauty to show that his beloved’s beauty is not an ordinary thing.

Cruelty of Nature

Nature is depicted as a harsh and cruel antagonist in this poem. The speaker says that the harsh winds shake the darling buds during May. This depicts that elements of nature are always bent upon damaging the beautiful objects in the world. Moreover, the two extremes of sunshine during summer deprive the humans of the pleasant weather. It is the working of the cruel nature that does not let humans have fun in this world.

Similarly, the speaker mentions how every fair thing is destined to lose its fairness in its interaction with natural cycles. Nature is filled with such dangers that can snatch the beauty of anything at any time.

Furthermore, death is depicted as a boastful antagonist in the poem. It is one of the agents of cruel nature that puts an end to the beauty of many things. It does not let humans enjoy their life and snatches it from them.

Inevitability of Death

The poem highlights the idea that no one can escape death. Everyone, no matter how powerful they are, is going to fall into this pit called grave. This idea is first developed in the poem by the description of the short-lived summer. The speaker says that summer has a very short span of time and will soon end. 

This idea is then developed, and the speaker maintains that death serves as the full stop for every entity in the world. Every beautiful thing ceases to exist and turns into dust once the time of death arrives. The speaker, however, promises his beloved to protect him from such a future by immortalizing him in his poetry.

Poetry as a Source of Immortality

In the last couplet of the poem, the speaker tells his beloved about his source of achieving immortality. He tells him that he has immortalized him by writing about his beauty in his poetry. He is sure that people will read his poetry even when they are long gone from this world. When they read his poetry, they will appreciate his beloved’s beauty. In this way, his beloved will remain immortal.

Sonnet 18 Literary Analysis

The poem starts with a rhetorical question that emphasizes the worth of the beloved’s beauty. This question plays the role of informing the reader about the ensuing comparison in the rest of the poem. The speaker talks to his beloved as if his beloved is standing in front of him. This conversational style makes the message of the poem easy to grasp. It also makes it very attractive for the readers.

The second line continues with the same conversational tone. However, this time the speaker is not asking a question. Instead, he is describing the differences between his beloved and summer. He claims that his beloved is lovelier than summer. Also, he is more temperate than summer. This comparison forms the mental image of the speaker’s beloved in the mind of the reader. The effect of this image is of awe and admiration. The reader cannot help but admire the marvelous beauty of the speaker’s beloved.

The next line continues the same comparison. The speaker describes how his beloved is more temperate than summer by describing the roughness of summer. He says that the strong winds in summer shake the newly-sprouted buds on trees. Here, the epithet “darling” is used with the word “buds” to maintain the atmosphere of romance and flattery in the poem.

The last line of the quatrain describes another flaw of the summer season. The speaker says that the summer season is short-lived and is destined to fade into the clutches of the cruel autumn. He uses the phrase “all too short a date” to describe the shortness of the summer season. The use of two quantifiers before the word short emphasizes the speaker’s claim.

The next quatrain brings a few more flaws in the summer season. The speaker is weary of the two extremes of sunshine during the summer season. He uses the metaphor “the eye of heaven” to describe the sun. This use of metaphor is intended to further elevate the status of the speaker’s beloved by showing that he is even better than heavenly entities. The speaker says that the sun shines too brightly at times during the summer season.  It makes the pleasant weather a bit too hot to bear.

Similarly, the speaker claims, sometimes the sunshine is too dull, and the weather becomes cold. Here, the speaker uses the metaphor “his gold complexion” to refer to sunshine. This metaphor creates the image of a beautiful person with golden complexion being compared with the golden rays of the sun in the minds of the readers.

The remaining two lines of the quatrain address the problem of mortality. The speaker says that every beautiful thing is doomed to lose its beauty at some point in time. It can happen to a person or a thing through a stroke of luck. The person or thing might face an accident that will take away all its beauty. Moreover, the inevitable death is also waiting for every entity and will prove to be the ultimate end of every type of beauty.

 In the third quatrain, the speaker tells his beloved that he should not be afraid of these things. He uses the phrase “thy eternal summer” to refer to his beloved’s beauty. This metaphor serves the purpose of maintaining the image of the comparison of the summer season and the speaker’s beloved, which started in the first line. The second line continues the same thought, and the speaker tells his beloved that he should not be afraid of losing his charm. His charm will stay eternally. 

In the third line of the quatrain, the speaker makes another promise with his beloved. He tells him that he should not be afraid of death. Here, death is personified and is given the human quality of bragging. The personified image of death creates the image of a boastful enemy, which is trying to bring everything under its shadows. In this way, it is portrayed as a true antagonist. The speaker tells his beloved that this antagonist will never be able to cast his shadow over him.

In the last line of the quatrain, the speaker reassures his beloved that he will go on to grow in the lines created by him. These lines will go on parallel with time and will never face death.

The last two lines of the sonnet make a couplet where the speaker talks of his arsenal in his fight against mortality and death. He says that as long as human life exists on this earth, his lines will be read. He uses the phrase “men can breathe, or eyes can see” to refer to human life on earth. Such an elaborated reference emphasizes that even when a single aspect of human life is here on earth, the speaker’s words will live. He furthers his claim by saying that the immortality of his poetry will give immortality to his beloved.

The poem is written in the form of a sonnet. It has fourteen lines, which are divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The first eight lines—the octave—discuss the same thought i.e., the comparison of the speaker’s beloved with summer. The last six lines—the sestet—bring in a new thought. These lines describe how the speaker’s beloved is unlike the summer.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg.

The words used in the sonnet are straightforward and ordinary.

The tone of the sonnet is romantic and full of flattery. The speaker speaks of his beloved beauty as there is no match for it.

The speaker of the sonnet is a person who has a lot of experience in love. He/she is very vocal about how everything is lesser in stature than his/her beloved beauty. He/she also talks about using his/her poetry to immortalize his/her beloved. This shows that he/she is a poet.

Literary Devices

Rhetorical question.

The very first line of the poem is a rhetorical question. The speaker asks his/her beloved whether he/she should compare him to a summer day. This question sets the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the discourse. It creates the air of magnificence around the personality of the speaker’s beloved.


In line number nine, death is attributed with the human quality of boasting. The personified image of death creates the image of a boastful enemy, which is trying to bring everything under its shadows. In this way, it is portrayed as a true antagonist.  

  •         In the fifth line of the poem, the sun is described as “the eye of heaven.” Here, the sun is compared with an eye, which creates the effect of vividness. It provides the reader with a mental image of the whole scenario.
  •         In the sixth line of the poem, the metaphor “his gold complexion” is used to refer to sunshine. This metaphor creates the image of a beautiful person with golden complexion being compared with the golden rays of the sun in the minds of the readers.
  •         The metaphor “thy eternal summer” is used to refer to the beloved’s beauty. This metaphor serves the purpose of maintaining the image of the comparison of the summer season and the speaker’s beloved, which started in the first line.

More From William Shakespeare

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • As You Like It
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Comedy of Errors


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Like My Book Title? Thanks, I Borrowed It.

Literary allusions are everywhere. What are they good for?

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By A.O. Scott

You see it everywhere, even if you don’t always recognize it: the literary allusion. Quick! Which two big novels of the past two years borrowed their titles from “Macbeth”? Nailing the answer — “ Birnam Wood ” and “ Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow ” — might make you feel a little smug.

Perhaps the frisson of cleverness ( I know where that’s from!), or the flip-side cringe of ignorance ( I should know where that’s from! ), is enough to spur you to buy a book, the way a search-optimized headline compels you to click a link. After all, titles are especially fertile ground for allusion-mongering. The name of a book becomes more memorable when it echoes something you might have heard — or think you should have heard — before.

This kind of appropriation seems to be a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the turn of the 20th century, titles were more descriptive than allusive. The books themselves may have been stuffed with learning, but the words on the covers were largely content to give the prospective reader the who (“Pamela,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Frankenstein”), where (“Wuthering Heights,” “The Mill on the Floss,” “Treasure Island”) or what (“The Scarlet Letter,” “War and Peace,” “The Way We Live Now”) of the book.

Somehow, by the middle of the 20th century, literature had become an echo chamber. Look homeward, angel! Ask not for whom the sound and the fury slouches toward Bethlehem in dubious battle. When Marcel Proust was first translated into English, he was made to quote Shakespeare, and “In Search of Lost Time” (the literal, plainly descriptive French title) became “Remembrance of Things Past,” a line from Sonnet 30 .

Recent Proust translators have erased the Shakespearean reference in fidelity to the original, but the habit of dressing up new books in secondhand clothing persists, in fiction and nonfiction alike. Last year, in addition to “Birnam Wood,” there were Jonathan Rosen’s “ The Best Minds ,” with its whisper of Allen Ginsberg’s “ Howl ,” Paul Harding’s “ This Other Eden ” (“ Richard II ”), and William Egginton’s “ The Rigor of Angels ” (Borges). The best-seller lists and publishers’ catalogs contain multitudes ( Walt Whitman ). Here comes everybody! (James Joyce).

If you must write prose and poems, the words you use should be your own. I didn’t say that: Morrissey did, in a deepish Smiths cut (“ Cemetry Gates , ” from 1986), which misquotes Shakespeare and name-checks John Keats, William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde — possibly the most reliably recycled writers (along with John Milton and the authors of the King James Bible) in the English language.

Not that any of them would have minded. When Keats wrote that “ a thing of beauty is a joy forever ,” he surely hoped that at least that much of “ Endymion ” would outlive him. It’s a beautiful sentiment! And he may have been right. Does anyone read his four-part, 4,000-line elegy for Thomas Chatterton outside a college English class, or even for that matter inside one? Nonetheless, that opening line may ring a bell if you remember it from the movies “ Mary Poppins ,” “Yellow Submarine” or “ White Men Can’t Jump .”

Wilde’s witticism and bons mots have survived even as some of his longer works have languished. If it’s true (as he said) that only superficial people do not judge by appearances, maybe it follows that shallow gleaning is the deepest kind of reading. Or maybe, to paraphrase Yeats, devoted readers of poetry lack all conviction , while reckless quoters are full of passionate intensity .

Like everything else, this is the fault of the internet, which has cannibalized our reading time while offering facile, often spurious, pseudo-erudition to anyone with the wit to conduct a search. As Mark Twain once said to Winston Churchill, if you Google, you don’t have to remember anything.

Seriously though: I come not to bury the practice of allusion, but to praise it. (“ Julius Caesar ”) And also to ask, in all earnestness and with due credit to Edwin Starr , “ Seinfeld” and Leo Tolstoy : What is it good for?

The language centers of our brains are dynamos of originality. A competent speaker of any language is capable of generating intelligible, coherent sentences that nobody has uttered before. That central insight of modern linguistics, advanced by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and ’60s, is wonderfully democratic. Every one of us is a poet in our daily speech, an inglorious Milton ( Thomas Gray ), a Shakespeare minting new coins of eloquence.

Of course, actual poets are congenital thieves (as T.S. Eliot or someone like him may have said), plucking words and phrases from the pages of their peers and precursors. The rest of us are poets in that sense, too. If our brains are foundries, they are also warehouses, crammed full of clichés, advertising slogans, movie catchphrases, song lyrics, garbled proverbs and jokes we heard on the playground at recess in third grade. Also great works of literature.

There are those who sift through this profusion with the fanatical care of mushroom hunters, collecting only the most palatable and succulent specimens. Others crash through the thickets, words latching onto us like burrs on a sweater. If we tried to remove them, the whole garment — our consciousness, in this unruly metaphor — might come unraveled.

That may also be true collectively. If we were somehow able to purge our language of its hand-me-down elements, we might lose language itself. What happens if nobody reads anymore, or if everyone reads different things? Does the practice of literary quotation depend on a stable set of common references? Or does it function as a kind of substitute for a shared body of knowledge that may never have existed at all?

The old literary canon — that dead white men’s club of star-bellied sneetches ( Dr. Seuss ) — may have lost some of its luster in recent decades, but it has shown impressive staying power as a cornucopia of quotes. Not the only one, by any means (or memes). Television, popular music, advertising and social media all provide abundant fodder, and the way we read now (or don’t) has a way of rendering it all equivalent. The soul selects her own society ( Emily Dickinson ).

When I was young, my parents had a fat anthology of mid-20th-century New Yorker cartoons , a book I pored over with obsessive zeal. One drawing that baffled me enough to stick in my head featured a caption with the following words: “It’s quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles.” What on earth was that? It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, cramming for an oral exam in Renaissance literature, that I found the answer in “ L’Allegro, ” an early poem by Milton, more often quoted as the author of “Paradise Lost.”

Not that having the citation necessarily helps. The cartoon, by George Booth, depicts a woman in her living room, addressing members of a multigenerational, multispecies household. There are cats, codgers, a child with a yo-yo, a bird in a cage and a dog chained to the sofa. Through the front window, the family patriarch can be seen coming up the walk, a fedora on his head and a briefcase in his right hand. His arrival — “Here comes Poppa” — is the occasion for the woman’s Miltonic pep talk.

This black-and-white cartoon shows a woman in a black dress and polka dot apron standing in the front room of her home addressing its inhabitants, which include a young child, several elderly people, a couple of cats and a dog leashed to a sofa. Through a large window, we can see the woman’s husband approaching on the front walk in an overcoat and hat and with a briefcase in one hand.

Who is she? Why is she quoting “L’Allegro”? Part of the charm, I now suspect, lies in the absurdity of those questions. But I also find myself wondering: Were New Yorker readers in the early 1970s, when the cartoon was first published, expected to get the allusion right off the bat? They couldn’t Google it. Or would they have laughed at the incongruous eruption of an old piece of poetry they couldn’t quite place?

Maybe what’s funny is that most people wouldn’t know what that lady was talking about. And maybe the same comic conceit animates an earlier James Thurber drawing reprinted in the same book. In this one, a wild-eyed woman bursts into a room, wearing a floppy hat and wielding a basket of meadow flowers. “I come from haunts of coot and hern!” she exclaims to the baffled company, disturbing their cocktail party.

That’s it. That’s the gag.

Were readers also baffled? It turns out that Thurber’s would-be nature goddess is quoting “ The Brook ,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (I’ve never read it either.) Is it necessary to get the reference to get the joke? If you chuckle in recognition, and complete the stanza without missing a beat — “I make a sudden sally/And sparkle out among the fern,/To bicker down a valley” — is the joke on you?

It’s possible, from the standpoint of the present, to assimilate these old pictures to the familiar story about the decline of a civilization based in part on common cultural knowledge. Sure. Whatever. Things fall apart ( Yeats ). In the cartoons’ own terms, though, spouting snippets of poetry is an unmistakable sign of eccentricity — the pastime of kooky women and the male illustrators who commit them to paper. This is less a civilization than a sodality of weirdos, a visionary company ( Hart Crane ) of misfits. But don’t quote me on that.

A.O. Scott is a critic at large for The Times’s Book Review, writing about literature and ideas. He joined The Times in 2000 and was a film critic until early 2023. More about A.O. Scott

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