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Guide: How to write a literary essay

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  • Subject area(s): Types of essay
  • Reading time: 2 minutes
  • Price: Free download
  • Published: 6 December 2019*
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  • Words: 597 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 3 (approx)
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In a literary essay, a writer analyzes some aspect of a piece of literature.


Literature is made up of elements such as character, symbolism, theme, language and structure. The best way to approach a literary analysis is to choose an element of the story, poem or novel to focus on and think about what examining that particular element can reveal about the story or poem.


A thesis statement tells the paper’s main idea. For a literary analysis essay, the thesis needs explain what an element of the story says about the story’s deeper meaning. A thesis for a literary essay needs to go beyond making an observation about the work and actually analyze the work.

For example, a writer may be working on a literary essay about a poem that discusses the Vietnam War. This might be the writer’s first attempt at a thesis:

In the poem “Heading Home,” a group of soldiers are going home from the Vietnam War.

This doesn’t work as a thesis, though, because it only tells what the poem is about on the surface. It simply makes an observation. Here is a more analytical thesis statement:

In the poem “Heading Home,” the recurring imagery of the dying birds suggests that parts of the homebound veterans have died even though they have all survived their service.

This is a better thesis because it looks at an element of the poem, a recurring image of dying birds, and makes a statement about what that imagery means in interpreting the poem.

Another way to think about a thesis for a literary essay is that it should make an arguable point. That means that it should make a point about which reasonable people could disagree.


For a literary essay, it’s important to distinguish between analysis and plot summary. A literary essay does not need to contain a summary of the plot. At most, there may be a few sentences or a paragraph briefly giving an overview of the poem or story at the beginning of the paper. It is generally assumed, however, that the audience for a literary essay is familiar with the piece of literature to some degree.

Therefore, the body of a literary analysis essay needs to be structured in terms of discussing material that proves the thesis instead of relating the plot in chronological order. Plot points only need to be explicated as needed to prove a point for the analysis.

The best approach to structuring the body of a literary essay is to choose several things in the work that support the point of the thesis. For example, for the literary essay about the Vietnam War poem, the writer might choose three mentions of birds from the poem. The writer would then analyze each of those mentions.

It’s important to use examples from the story or poem to support one’s points in a literary analysis. These examples may be direct quotes. Direct quotes or other examples should be introduced by the writer and followed by an explanation that demonstrates how the quote illustrates the writer’s point. Here’s an example:

The imagery of eagles shows that the returning soldiers have been crushed by their experiences: “Bald eagles, soaring, now plummeting to ground.” The bald eagle is an American symbol, and by showing the eagles plummeting to the ground, the poet is showing how the soldiers are similarly brought low by their plight.


The tone for a literary analysis is formal, and the writer should avoid the words “I” or “you.”

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