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What Is Literature Analysis?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Literature analysis intends to deeply examine one piece of writing. The term is applied also to the study of a group of writings, the sum of one writer’s works, a mode of writing and a particular genre of writing. Literature analysis attempts to study its subject’s themes, construction and style. The overall aim is to gain a better understanding of a piece of literature.

Any written work can be considered a form of literature. This includes personal letters and electronic messages online such as status updates. It is often associated with forms such as poetry and novels. Literature analysis, however, should not be confused with literary theory or the theory of literature, which is more philosophical and aims to fully define what exactly literature is. Literary theory has, however, influenced how an analyst approaches a book.

Studies in literature analysis can have both a narrow focus and a broad focus; they can also examine specific elements of a piece of literature. The study of a novel such as “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami, for example, can examine his use of style, his themes, his presentation of the context and his characters. A more general examination could study all of Murakami’s works as a whole, comparing “Wild Sheep Chase” with “Kafka on the Shore” or it could take on Japanese literature as a whole.

A literature analysis of “Norwegian Wood’s” characters will see that Murakami has used more character names than usual, especially in naming the lead character when he usually refers to him or her as ‘boku,’ meaning ‘I.’ Studying characters allows an analyst to see how characters are presented, whether they are presented in a realistic manner or are exaggerated caricatures.

Context in a novel is a matter of realism versus perception. Literature analysis focusing on the context or milieu of “Norwegian Wood” would look at how Murakami presents 1960s Japan and whether his portrayal is accurate. Such analysis is often important for historical settings to determine a level of accuracy; when they are semi-biographical as with Murakami’s book, it becomes a matter of finding a personal opinion of those times.

One book can portray a single theme. One writer can repeat the same theme in a number of books. Writers are also capable of using different themes in one book or across a series of books. Studying themes intends to find a larger message or idea being discussed.

Style and influences are two different elements of literature analysis. Investigating the style examines how a writer presents the story. Is it in first person or third person? Is it written in the active tense or the past tense? Influences, meanwhile, come from other pieces of writing or the author’s own biography. In the context of “Norwegian Wood,” influences range from Murakami’s love of American literature to his own experiences as a kid in the 1960s.

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Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Nov 29, 2013

@pastanaga - I can kin of sympathize with both sides of it. I've been studying writing for a while and after I started it was difficult to enjoy a book because I'd always be looking for the flaws and finding dozens of them. They were things I'd never notice if I hadn't tried to be a writer myself.

But then I realized that I was kind of doing it wrong. I should be looking for the good stuff, not just the mistakes. Now I feel like I appreciate books more than I ever did because I can see more depth in them than I did before.

By pastanaga — On Nov 28, 2013

@irontoenail - I think there is a right way and a wrong way to look at literature. A literary analysis essay should be making the text larger, not smaller. It should be revealing things and making connections that you might not have thought about, otherwise.

It shouldn't be harping on trivial stuff. It's the same as a good book. If you can see the end coming well before the end, then it's too obvious. If the end comes and it makes no sense, then it's too obscure (or just plain bad). But if the dots connect and suddenly you can see something new, then that's a good thing.

By irontoenail — On Nov 28, 2013

I really don't like this kind of thing. Whenever they made us do any kind of analysis in school, it would completely ruin the book for me (not that the books were ever that riveting in the first place). The analysis of literature just seems to suck all of the joy out of something and make it formulaic.

Not to mention that I suspect the teachers were making up half the stuff they say the authors put in there with the intent of showing particular themes. Sometimes a sky is described as blue because the sky is actually blue, not because the author wants to show how sad the character is.

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