Often you will be asked to write a paper that analyzes a novel or short story. Sometimes students are confused about what this means, and they end up producing a summary or synopsis instead of something that is truly analytical.
So how do you write analytically? What is analysis?
Like many words we use in English, 'analysis' comes from Ancient Greek. For the Ancient Greeks this term meant something close to "break up" or "untie" or "loosen up."
Already you can probably see how "untying" a text is different than just summarizing it. For example a paper that summarizes the plot of The Outsiders would be very different from a paper that unties what the novel actually says or means. But if you wrote a paper that said that the meaning of the novel is that outsiders struggle to fit in, you wouldn't be taking matters quite far enough. You need to go deeper. The same goes for many movies -- there is a difference between reading a summary of Interstellar and talking with friends about what it really means deep down, right?
In order to understand how to achieve this "depth" in your analytic writing, let's look at an example. Consider the following short poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The poem is describing an eagle, but it would be a mistake to say that the eagle is the "meaning" of the poem. The "meaning" of a text is not really the same thing as what the text is "about" on the surface. You have to "untie" the meanings that are hidden below the surface.
Take a closer look at the poet's use of language in his description of the eagle. Does anything strike you as unusual?
The poet describes the eagle in human terms -- eagles do not actually have "crooked hands." Why would the poet use this wording? Is it to establish a connection or relationship between the eagle and ourselves? What would be significant about this connection?
Even though this is a short poem there is much more for you to work with here. For example, next you could consider the location of the eagle. The poet indicates that the eagle is "close to the sun" and atop the "crag" of a "mountain wall," but is there some deeper significance to this? Aren't these places that would be unreachable for humans? When the poet seemed prepared to connect the eagle to the human in the first stanza, why does he appear to distance the two in the second stanza?
Any good analysis of a text will pay especially close attention to the end. This poem ends with the eagle in freefall, compared to one of the most powerful images from all of nature, the thunderbolt.
You can see that we have "untied" a lot of the poem -- are you able to tie this all back together into something that captures the deeper meaning of the poem?
Isn't analysis just making stuff up?
Yes and no. When compared to a summary, producing an analysis can feel like making stuff up. But because you are basing your analytic remarks off of a text (or film, or music) that already exists, you aren't really making something up from nothing. At the same time, you are going beyond what is literally indicated by the text on the surface, so in a way, you are making stuff up. Any good analysis will be backed up by evidence, however -- you have to show your reader that your analysis is convincing by providing an argument (hyperlink). You can't just say that a text has deeper meaning without backing up your interpretation with specific points to convince your reader.
What if my analysis is different from someone else's?
That is a good thing. Because analysis is partly creative, it is relative. You might interpret a symbol in The Old Man and the Sea one way, and the person sitting next to you in class might think that it means something totally different. That is okay, so long as both of you have good arguments that back up your interpretations. It would be a boring world if there was only one way to interpret what your favorite book or movie means below the surface!
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Image Credit: Analyze by Nithinan Tatah from the Noun Project