By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define key terms and organizational patterns of textual analysis.
- Explain how genre conventions are shaped by purpose, culture, and expectation.
As a genre—or literary category in which works feature similar forms, styles, or subject matter—textual analysis is less of a genre in itself and more of an exploration and interpretation of other genres. That is, textual analysis is explanatory and interpretive. When you receive an assignment to analyze a text, you focus on the elements that give it meaning. Usually your instructor will assign a specific writing task: to analyze and explain certain aspects of a text, to compare or contrast certain elements within a single text or in two or more texts, or to relate certain text elements to historical context or current events (as student writer Gwyn Garrison has done in the Annotated Student Sample). These writing tasks thus explore genre characteristics of fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, film, and other forms of literary language.
When you write a textual analysis, ask yourself questions such as these:
- In what ways can this text be read?
- What are some different ways of reading it?
- Which reading makes the most sense to me?
- Which passages in the text support this reading?
- Whom does my analysis need to convince? (Who is my audience?)
Textual Analysis and Interpretive Communities
Before writing an interpretive or textual analysis essay, it is helpful to ask, Who am I when writing this piece? Be aware of your age, gender, race, ethnic identity, economic class, geographic location, educational level, or political or religious persuasion. Ask to what extent and for what purpose any of these identities emerges in your writing. Readers will examine the biases you may bring to your work, understanding that everyone views the world—and, consequently, texts—from their own vantage point.
College is, of course, a large interpretive community. The various smaller communities that exist within it are called disciplines: English, history, biology, business, art, and so on. Established ways of interpreting texts exist within disciplines. Often when you write a textual analysis, you will do so from the perspective of a traditional academic interpretive community or from the perspective of one who challenges that community.
Whether you deliberately identify yourself and any biases you might bring with you in your essay depends on the assignment you are given. Some assignments ask you to remove your personal perspective as much as possible from your writing, others ask that you acknowledge and explain it, and others fall somewhere in between.
Conventions of Textual Analysis
- Alliteration: literary device consisting of repetition of initial consonant sounds. (“Away from the steamy sidewalk, the children sat in a circle.”)
- Analysis: close examination and explanation of a text, supported by reasoning and evidence.
- Antagonist: character or force opposing the main character (protagonist) in a story.
- Climax: moment of emotional or intellectual intensity or a point in the plot when one opposing force overcomes another and the conflict is resolved.
- Epiphany: flash of intuitive understanding by the narrator or a character in a story.
- Figurative language: language that suggests special meanings or effects. Similes and metaphors are examples of figurative, rather than literal, language. (“She stands like a tree, solid and rooted.”)
- Imagery: language that appeals to one (or more) of the five senses. (“The cicadas hummed nonstop all day, but never loud enough to dull the roar of the leaf blowers.)
- Metaphor: direct comparison between two unlike things. (“She is a sly fox in her undercover work for the government.”)
- Narrator: someone who tells a story. A character narrator is a part of the story, whereas an omniscient narrator tells a story about others.
- Persona: mask to disguise or cover the author’s real self when presenting a story or other literary work.
- Plot: sequence of events in a story or play.
- Point of view: vantage point from which a story or event is perceived and told. The most frequently used points of view are first person and third person. In first person, the narrator is a character or observer in the story (fiction) or the author of it (nonfiction). In third person, the narrator has no part in the story other than telling it.
- Protagonist: main character or hero in a story.
- Rhyme: repetition of sounds, usually at the ends of lines in poems, but also occurring at other intervals in a line.
- Rhythm: rise and fall of stressed sounds within sentences, paragraphs, and stanzas.
- Simile: indirect comparison of unlike things using the word as or like. (“When he does undercover work, he is as sly as a fox.”)
- Symbol: object that represents itself and something else at the same time. A red rose is both a rose of a certain color and the suggestion of something romantic.
- Theme: meaning or thesis of a literary text.