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Literary analysis and figurative language are among my favorite subjects to teach my students in English Composition. While other teachers might find these akin to “pulling teeth,” I thrive on the challenge. I like to create original hand-outs for my students for each assignment, or in some cases, multiple worksheets. My teaching persona might be considered “the Hand-out Queen,” if there are such things. (What’s your teaching style? Aren’t there quizzes in magazines for this?)

Literary analysis, also known as literary criticism, is a tool that writers use to examine elements in fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry. When a writer uses this tool, the objectives of the essay might include answering some of these questions about the literature:

  • What is the story or book (or collection) about? (this does not mean that you write full plot summary or a book report)
  • What is the problem or conflict in the story, book or poem?
  • What points is the author or poet trying to make about society, love, religion, war, culture, or some other important topic?
  • What’s the main idea of the poem or story?
  • What symbolism is used? Analogies, central themes?
  • What lies beneath the surface? Is there an underlying tension?
  • What kinds of emotional response does this piece of lit. bring about for the reader? Does it bother you? Did it affect you in any way? Any elements of surprise, suspense?

The above list is just the beginning. Of course, I start with the basics, including an understanding of metaphor, point of view, character development and how to write a thesis statement. But my students still appreciate seeing some additional examples that dig a little deeper. I offered this lesson to be helpful. Maybe others will find this useful, too.

Revising & Strengthening Literary Analysis Essays

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My dining table has become the “grading station”

  • Make sure to have a clear thesis statement in your first paragraph (or the opening sentence of second paragraph). This thesis statement will direct the essay.
  • Make sure to have quotes from the literature you’re analyzing (quotes from the text) —These quotes will range the gamut from short phrases to longer “block quotes,” which you must indent & center (and format single-spaced).
  • Make sure to correctly identify whether it is a novel (fiction)—and identify which genre, e.g. detective/crime story, suspense/thriller, Victorian gothic, science fiction fantasy, novelette, which is a short novel, such as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle); or a creative nonfiction book such as a memoir, travel narrative such as Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, science and nature memoir, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; or short story, such as “The Open Window;” or an essay.
  • Make sure that you have correctly identified the type of narrator (e.g. omniscient (all-knowing), a named character in a novel (whether a protagonist or minor character), the author (if memoir), and kept that distinct throughout your essay. Be careful not to confuse these.

If you have selected to analyze an entire book, for example, a memoir—imgres-1let’s say, John Berendt’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated creative nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1995), there is a LOT to analyze in a full book. However, in a short literary analysis essay, you’d be wise to focus your thesis statement on one concept or two themes, and dig into that idea, or parallel ideas, from a multitude of angles. For example, you might notice a lot of scenes, conversations between people in the book and references to “house-proud Savannah” and the pride of the residents in the Georgia city. You might also notice how Berendt uses contrast to depict envy among the same people. As a reader, you could step back and look at “pride” as a positive and “envy” as a negative; go further, and we look at “good and evil” as “pride and envy.” Or, as another example, you might be more interested in the theme of what it means to be “a true Savannahian.” Whatever grabs your interest is likely to work well in an essay that you craft.

Then we can skim through the book, and hopefully you have thought to annotate the text with sticky notes to color-code your favorite quotes. If not, you’ll have to go through the text again and find passages in the book that mention “jealousy,” “envy,” “pride” or “proud” (or “house-proud,”) or any characterizations that speak to these concepts. Select 4-10 quotes. You want a combination of short phrases, any special terms coined by the author or a character, location-specific phrases that are relevant to your analysis/thesis statement, a longer quote that you will indent to create a block quote. See below for a few examples of a phrase, a sentence quoted in the body of your paragraph an indented block quote. If you have a long quote and you want to use only parts of it but to keep it mainly in tact, use a […] << like that within the quote and within the body of your paragraph. This keeps it sleek. Nothing in quotes should appear in your essay unless it is a direct quote from the text. In other words, don’t put something in quotes if it is from your brain; it will confuse the reader.

An exception to the quote rule: if you’re quoting a literary critic, who has made a comment on the text that you’re analyzing, in which case you’re quoting that critic AND you must then cite that source and attribute that concept to the literary critic. Hot tip: if you quote a literary critic, keep that reference to a minimum and put it in one paragraph. You don’t want to confuse your reader and have quotes from literary critic(s) mixed in with quotes from the narrator and quotes from the characters or real people in the text.

Here is my example.  This is a snippet of a literary analysis essay I wrote about John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil:

In “house-proud Savannah,” the reader quickly sees the lush lawns and elaborate porches of the prominent homes “north of Gaston” (Berendt, 48). But what most visitors may not realize is that there are rules in Savannah. These rules dictate socially acceptable behavior for a “true Savannahian.” We know that the narrator and author, John Berendt, is a writer from New York, not a native to Georgia. He meets Joe, who explains the rules of Savannah living. Joe says, “Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. […] That’s when you find out everything you want to know.” Throughout the story, John attends a number of cocktail and dinner parties, and he engages in lively conversations with colorful characters—all real people living in Savannah. One thing he learns: locals are more forthcoming with him after he has earned their trust and they have had a few drinks together. It is during one of these parties that he sees the shadow-side of a prominent figure in the community and learns the truth about a crime, a murder.

Joe’s discussion of “the Rules” continues— “Rule number two: Never go south of Gaston Street. A true Savannahian is a NOG. ‘NOG’ means ‘North of Gaston.’ We stay in the old part of town.” The reader is permitted entrance into this tightly-knit, exclusive community—Savannah—and through Berendt’s writing, gains the privilege of learning these local secrets, or rules, for society, or at least, for Savannah. We learn what it means to be a “true Savannahian,” one who sticks around for one more drink, stays “north of Gaston,” and finally, “observes the high holidays,” such as St. Patrick’s Day and the annual football game (Berendt, pg. 48). We later learn that there are consequences for breaking the rules of Savannah living, or repercussions for failing to be “a true Savannahian.”                                                                         ~LCS

The GirlAnother example. Fiction.  Looking at “coming of age” and peace/purity versus darkness/devil (or fear v. wonder) themes in Peter Benchley’s short novel, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982). Notice the use of an indented block quote in an excerpt of my essay:

Peter Benchley’s novelette is a magical story with elements of suspense, not unlike his famous novels, Jaws and The Deep. However, unlike those other full-length novels, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is a coming-of-age story. Paloma is a girl of sixteen, whose name means “dove,” a symbol of peace, purity and of “the Holy Spirit.” She lives in a village beside the Sea of Cortez and thrives on her saltwater swims and boating expeditions into her own world of magic and sea life. By 16, Paloma has encountered many sea creatures, including sharks and barracuda, and she has indigenous knowledge—partly taught by her late father and partly by her brother, Jobim, also known as Jo. Her brother’s knowledge of geology and marine life had come from his elders; Paloma prefers to learn by observation and first-hand experience. She embraces fear and curiosity equally—but above all, maintains a sense of wonder about the sea world.

“Paloma looked up. One behind another, a procession of hammerhead sharks passed overhead in a parade. Their silver-gray bodies were as sleek as bullets and the sunlight touched the ripples of moving muscle and made them sparkle. Paloma loved the hammerheads, for they seemed somehow to focus her thoughts about God and nature.” (Benchley, 26)

                     Paloma considers that if there were any animal that were “particularly blessed,” it would be the hammerhead shark. Sharks had been “critical to the island’s survival” and yet, the hammerhead species had survived there for millions of years. (Benchley, 26) Most 16-year-olds would be terrified to swim with hammerhead sharks, which are known to attack divers in other parts of the world. But Paloma understands the sharks. She admires them. She understands them. She uses her fear as a tool, as she might a fishing knife or piece of rope within her diving bag. By contrast, when she encounters a giant manta ray for the first time, she faces a new type of fear and must conquer that fear. The manta ray, known locally as a “Manta Diablo,” or “black devil fish,” symbolizes the very antithesis, or opposite, of the young pure-of-heart Paloma.

As the story develops, Paloma explores the Sea of Cortez, puts herself in close proximity with the “Manta Diablo” and compels herself to conquer her fear. She finds a deep resolve within herself and gains a profound understanding for the nature of things, and more importantly, her identity as she becomes a woman. Benchley illustrates her sea adventures as if each one were a rite of passage, which Paloma herself has invented. No one is telling her to seek out the “black devil-fish,” let alone ride on top of the ray, in fact, her brother and the others warn her to stay away from the mysterious creature, a thing of myth and mystery. Despite those warnings, Paloma swims with the manta ray and rides on its back. She conquers her fear, comes to know herself more confidently and enriches the local knowledge and understanding of the manta ray’s behavior and biology through her observations. ~ LCS

Poet’s note: I came across a writing prompt to take a piece of fiction (that I wrote) and attempt to turn it into poetry. Let me know what you think.

Blue Dog & the Sea Fan Girl

Most of the beach-bums packed their vans
And kids, to leave Scarborough at happy hour.
Blue Dog carried his longboard down a path
Sharply netted with the shoots and sour

Blades of dune grass. His stocky form
Read like a rap sheet, pale pink scars
Cave diving, rock climbing, surfing
With the big boys off Alaska, Hawai’i.

He didn’t wear a wetsuit, or own a car
(Commandeered a bike, or hitch-hiked)
An old shaper taught him how to carve,
Make his first board out of balsa scraps,
Coat it with resin, smooth as shark skin.

Leans into his element, a bird on a current,
High in the sky; waves, wind—he needs.
Body limp, arms held down at his sides,
Loose and controlled at the same time,
Pressed into waves like palms to wet sand.

Shoulders rolled as though waves themselves.
For fun, sometimes he let it pummel him
Into tunnels of clashing tides and flow
Of the undercurrent. Or else he might fly
Down that blue slope, rope left, tilted low
Leaning to let go, his deep ecology.

In a swoosh, Blue Dog flipped
His board, suspended upside-down
Red hair coiled, hanging jellyfish
Tentacles off a translucent face.

She moved so fast it looked to him
As though she had the tail of a fish
But kelp trailed behind her legs,
Kicking together dolphin-ish.

She smiled at him. This wasn’t
The typical reaction he got
From females; when he tried it,
Blue Dog was too aggressive, not

Good at flirting. Here was Asrai,
Waving flat coral, a sea fan to signal
One thing or another, mermaids always
Expect others to have the manual.

She snaked his waves, for once
He didn’t care; impressed
With her telehydrokinesis,
Tripped over her jets, crushed.

A sea-lust mates of another kind
Neither man nor woman satisfied
In the dark of night, at high tide
He found her in a pool, lying

In her throat, flecked mussel necklace.
His half-moon went taut, his claspers,
Stiffened. Her scent drenched his snout
As if she’d been riding on top of his head.

Asrai splashed. Suddenly he slid upon her
Scaled curvy figure and thrashed as his nose
Broke the surface. Half in the water, half out,
The shark lover rolled over, then rough-shod

Four limbs to hold her, a mouth
To kiss, not rows of teeth for a spine,
Not some island nightmare myth;
But Asrai had other treasure hunts
In mind.

Leah C. Stetson

Every now and then I catch a NATURE special featuring the weird mating rituals of some animal, like the koala in “Cracking the Koala Code” or mountain lions or prairie voles. I’ve already written plenty (far too much) about prairie voles, and that whole chemistry topic is nothing new. What I’m interested in is this topic of “dating down” that I keep seeing in blogs, or *gasp* crappy dating advice from over-eager dating coaches, who even encourage this twirpy and negative spin on dating. We all know what “dating down” means…in the usual context, it makes me think of some line from “Dirty Dancing” when the arrogant waiter tells Baby it’s okay if she’s “slummin’ it. We all do that sometimes, Baby.” (She was in love, dammit! And Johnny Castle aka Patrick Swayze was a stand-up guy.)

Osprey at Wolf’s Neck Farm. Terry Chick photo.

But I got thinking of another way to read the “dating down” concept:  what if it’s down to the bones of the dating rituals, or more accurately, the mating rituals. What it’s really about is dating down to the animal within us. When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was part fish and part otter, full of fur and snout and salt water. (My mother affectionately referred to me as her little raccoon, or otter, because I washed my seafood before eating it.) My dad’s a Grizzly Adams-Dirty Harry cross, and in my dreams, he sometimes appeared beside a bear, or AS a bear himself. I realized I was raised by some kind of bear-man, who identified himself as a lone wolf, and now I see him as part-wolf, part-bear, and still part Dirty Harry. My mother always said that the osprey was her totem animal, and she was always a bird-mom, in the best and worst possible ways, feeding us hors d’oeuvres and making nests for us, wherever we moved, which was often, circling in the same general territory, never straying too far from the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine.  Our family land, now a Chewonki Preserve, has had an eagle’s nest for many years, along with osprey nests, and I grew up with a strong sense of responsibility in protecting our heritage and the wild things that depended on our land ethic.

One day when I was a teen-ager, a mountain lion showed up in our backyard, close to the Sheepscot River. I made sure that my cat was inside the house and together, my cat and I watched the mountain lion creep over the stone wall terraces like a duchess descending a grand staircase. She was well-camouflaged against a meadow of lilies, a strong tawny blonde, and purposeful in her movements. I never forgot her. Over the years, I have grown to accept that I transformed, at puberty, from part-otter part-fish girl into a part-otter part-mountain-lioness and as daughter of an osprey-woman and a wolf-man, I have those animal traits, too. (If you’ve seen “LadyHawke,” then you can picture what I’m talking about.) I am protective and territorial of the land that I nurture and call home; I move through each day with purpose but I don’t show off, surrounded by the lakes and natural beauty. Yet I am still playful and never lose my sense of wonder, or love for the water.  

A female mountain lioness stakes out her territory, and then allows some males to approach. Most of the males are chased away, mauled and intimidated into submission, but a couple will remain, to tough it out. They compete for her affections, but it’s really more about chemistry—as she picks the mate no matter who wins the battle for dominance between the toms. It’s up to her, ultimately. Then after she mates with the tom, he’s allowed to stick around. This is a pretty big deal since mountain lions are not like lions in Africa—with a whole pride. And dare I mention kinky otter sex? That’s probably better left up to the imagination. Otter sex is not for the faint-of-heart, lemme tell you. Only Scorpios could really even imagine going there as it’s worse than shark BDSM. Ask a marine biologist. I’m not at liberty to say.

So what’s the take-away from this post? Date down, you might be disappointed. Date down to the animal, you might find the right mate, someone who echoes your instincts and brand of wildness. Or you might get mauled.

Today I won a shark trivia contest over Twitter. The prompt was, “Name a shark species that is directly threatened by climate change.” I made a case for the bull shark, which depends on coastal estuaries, rivers, mangroves, freshwater wetlands to nurse their young. Rivers and coastal wetlands are disappearing, in part due to sea level rise and other impacts of climate change. I won the trivia contest with my answer. It got me thinking about other endangered species…and their impediments to survival. For example, there is this article about the gray wolf ‘Single white male wolf seeks companionship. Must love the outdoors.” (For article, click here.)

If I were an endangered species, I might be the rare sawfish. Why? Oh, indulge me. 🙂 The sawfish live in saltwater and freshwater habitats–freely swimming from one to the next and back again. Its versatility is part of what makes it so unique, and I do love to swim in both freshwater and saltwater. The shark-like smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), for example, which can go into freshwater, as well as shallow waters of bays and estuaries in the southeastern U.S. and Caribbean, is technically a ray. (For more about this, see my past Strange Wetlands blog about Sharks in Wetlands.) Listed as an endangered species, the smalltooth sawfish has become extirpated because of changes to coastal environments—namely losses of wetlands, such as the Everglades. While I’m not from the Everglades, I was conceived in Florida…so who’s to say that I don’t have that in common with young sawfish nursed by their parents in the freshwater swamps of the Everglades? I did grow up on the coast of Maine, swimming in shallow coastal estuaries of the Sheepscot River, in similar habitats as preferred by sawfish. I have a prominent nose (it’s genetic) & strong sense of smell as shared by sharks & rays, and I don’t have the best eyesight, same as for the sawfish, who likes muddy waters. (In high school, one of my favorite perfumes was called “Ocean,” and friends thought it smelled like low tide mudflats.) Sawfish and I both like to eat crustaceans, especially lobster!

Little is known about the courtship behaviors of sawfish except that they seem to couple up once every two years. (This is somewhat true of me, too.) Despite their unusual appearance, they don’t attack people; sawfish put up a fight once hooked (by a fisherman) and this is probably true of me, too, to some degree. Take this with a drop of saltwater. Allow me to cut to the chase: I’m no sawfish but I do feel like a rare creature most of the time, swimming around, looking for a mate, someone who shares my versatile interests in different environments from the sea to the lakes & rivers, someone who’s capable of swimming upstream, against the current, against the odds, to find me. Single female rare lake-dwelling ocean-dipping sawfish seeks companionship. Must love to swim.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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