- The first secret of literary analysis is that you don’t have to agree with your teacher.
Yep, I said it. While some people try to fit literature into tidy boxes, genres, and purposes, my favorite high school English teachers and college professors encouraged individual thought–and, conversely, discouraged regurgitation of ideas. These teachers asked questions, gave their thoughts but listened to other perspectives, and loved literature for its beauty, its mystery, and its sometimes-contradictory nature. I was fortunate to have many teachers who embraced this mindset. Today, when students are often primed for tests and asked to select the best canned answer on exams, free thought has gone by the wayside in classrooms; however, teaching to a test or to one literary interpretation is a grave disservice to students. A reader should be allowed his or her own interpretation of a work of literature so long as the text provides adequate evidence for the interpretation. If I read a story and see a prominent theme of depravity, but you see a theme of hope, that is ok. While these themes seem contradictory, having room for both themes within a work of literature demonstrates the complexity of life and the coexistence of ideas that seem paradoxical.
Regardless of one’s opinion of Stephen King’s body of works, it is evident that he is a master of his genre, having sold over 350 million books globally. In his book On Writing, King discusses the relationship between readers and writers, admitting that readers will bring their own experiences, beliefs, and cultural and social ideas into a piece of writing. As a result, any number of readers may have any variety of interpretations, and all of those interpretations will be valid. While this statement may seem like an anything-goes-mentality, it is far from it. This approach to literary analysis actually offers deeper thought and fuller conversation, giving the spotlight to various perspectives. Flannery O’Connor, a celebrated Southern author, pushes a little further into such a concept, arguing that interpretation can be flimsy in the face of overall meaning. O’Connor states, “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation.” If you read a novel when you are 17 and read it again when you are 30, you will probably get something entirely different out of it. It is not the work that has changed; rather, your life experiences, your worldview, and your other literary exposures will likely change the way you perceive that novel.
Not everyone holds this view on literary analysis, and you may encounter teachers and professors who won’t budge on it. To an extent, you will have to get to know your instructors to determine how much you can push the boundary of literary analysis within their classrooms. Even if you feel that an instructor is asking you to adhere to a particular interpretation of a piece, always acknowledge that instructors are educated and hold teaching positions for a reason,
No matter where you find yourself (or your teacher) on the spectrum of literary analysis, here are some other secrets to help you get the most out of meaning:
- Make connections. What speaks to you? Why does it speak to you? This is your chance to make personal connections to the piece and bring your life experiences, world views, and knowledge of history into the literature you are studying.
- Identify the impact of literary devices. Beyond being able to label something as a simile or an example of personification or a section of alliteration, reflect on the impact the use of literary devices has on the piece and on the reader. Often literary devices guide readers toward meaning.
- Get to know the author. While you should not assume that everything you read is a direct reflection of the author’s own beliefs and experiences, it does help to know a little bit about the author when analyzing something he or she wrote. Bringing the author’s background, experiences, and beliefs into the discussion can broaden your interpretation of the work and allows for another voice to come to the table.
- Annotate. Make notes as you read. These annotations allow you to read carefully, catch things you may have missed otherwise, and process as you read. Here’s a separate blog just on annotating.
- Discuss with others. Similar to point four above, discussing with others allows more voices to come into your interpretation of a text. Sometimes these voices will open your eyes to something you didn’t see. Sometimes these voices will affirm something you already think. Sometimes you will appreciate someone else’s perspective but not agree with it. All of this is good.
- Lastly, let go of the pressure to fully grasp the text. Some authors want to leave the reader disoriented (looking at you, Poe); it’s part of the reading experience. If you go into every piece of literature thinking you have to have it completely figured out, you are doing it wrong. Appreciate the text even if you feel lost. Find meaning where you can, acknowledge the literary devices, surrender to the mood, and figure out what makes you feel the way you are feeling. Make connections. Get to know the characters. And enjoy!
Stephen King’s On Writing
Flannery O’Connor quote from the letters of Flannery O’Connor
Jess Woods graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor's degree in English Education and from Arizona State University with a Master's degree in English. She began her career teaching in a public high school; however, since 2013, she has been teaching middle school and high school English courses online. Jess is a life-long reader and writer. She comes alive in the company of words and music, and she has a passion for literature that reaches through every part of her being. She believes wholeheartedly that each person has a relevant voice and perspective, and she eagerly teaches her students to embrace their individual voices by exploring their own thoughts and learning to confidently articulate them. It is her desire to encourage growth in all students (regardless of their love for English courses…or lack thereof). She considers it a tremendous success if she can awaken a love of literature and/or composition in her students. Jess currently resides in Alabama with her pastor-husband, Josh and their three kids. They also have a lot of animals and plants. While reading and writing are clearly on the top of her hobby list, Jess also enjoys all things musical, cooking competition shows, gardening, hiking, and traveling.