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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

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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