Once your students have become adept at identifying and summarizing elements of plot and author’s craft in literature, they should begin learning the critical thinking strategies necessary for analyzing literature. For my students, this step occurred in 8th grade. When I was in the classroom, I looped with my ELA students from 6th to 7th to 8th grade. Teaching and learning about literature in 7th grade focused on the basics of plot and author’s craft, and in 8th grade, students took the plunge into beginning literary analysis.
One of the best resources I found to support my planning and teaching on the topic of critically analyzing literature was a blog entitled “How to Read Literature Critically.” That article drew together the best approaches for beginning to think about literature critically, an essential stepping stone toward preparing students for high school experiences with literature. Click here for a free graphic organizer that your students can use to organize their critical reading analysis.
Summary Vs. Analysis
As students move from summarizing elements of literature to actually analyzing literature, it is imperative that they understand how their thinking should be deepening. Here is a chart from Ashford University that does a great job of distinguishing between what it means to identify elements in literature in order to summarize it from interpreting elements of literature in order to analyze it:
Whereas summary deals with the “what,” analysis deals with the “why” and the “how.”
I found that short stories were the best vehicle for teaching literary analysis. A complete work of fiction accomplished in just a few pages removed the burden of extensive reading and freed up our classroom teaching and learning time to focus on acquiring the concepts and skills necessary for successful experiences analyzing literature.
The examples that I will be presenting to you in this post come from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.”
Step #1 in Analyzing Literature Critically – Understanding the Structure of the Text
Though all works of narrative fiction contain an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution per se, the ways authors reveal these elements of a story vary widely. For instance, all narrative works have a plot, but there are many kinds of plots, among which are the following examples:
- Progressive plot- a plot that presents events chronologically from exposition to resolution (think short stories…)
- Episodic plot – each chapter has it’s own mini plot, all contributing to an overall plot (think chapter books…)
- Parallel plot – there are more than just one plot lines occurring simultaneously in the story (think “A MidSummer Night’s Dream”…)
- Flashback plots – similar to a parallel plot, but each plot line is occurring in a different time period, most often the earlier plot contributes to the later plot (think HOLES…)
- Circular plot – the resolution connects back to the exposition (think THE OUTSIDERS…and “The Black Cat”)
Interpreting plot would require the student to identify the plot type; summarizing it would require the student to recount it. Analyzing plot type means that the student considers WHY the author chose they type of plot he/she chose in which to present the story…maybe even conjecturing about how the story would have been different had the author used a different type of plot structure.
Analyzing literature in terms of plot goes beyond just thinking about plot structure. It means analyzing each element of plot by considering it’s contribution to the telling of the story. Here are a few examples of questions to lead students to close analysis of “The Black Cat.”
- This tale is told in retrospect on the day the narrator is to be executed for the murder of his wife and the subsequent cover-up–Why did the author choose to unfold the story in this way rather than simply writing the events in chronological order? How would the overall effect of the story have been different had the story been told in a progressive plot format?
- Why did Poe choose to present this story through a first person narrator? How might it have been different had it been told in third person?
- Which is the true antagonist in this story: the cat(s) or the alcoholism? How does consideration of the conflict help the reader determine the antagonist? How would this story have been different had the narrator’s pet been a dog? Had the narrator’s affliction been cancer or some other physical disease?
Step #2 in Critically Analyzing Literature- Understanding Archetypes
The term “archetype” has its origins in ancient Greek. The root words are archein, which means “original or old”; and typos, which means “pattern, model or type”. The combined meaning is an “original pattern” of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are derived, copied, modeled, or emulated. (The 12 Common Archetypes by Carl Golden).
Carl Jung, in his theory of the human psyche, identified 12 basic character archetypes. Understanding the characteristics of archetypes–be they character, setting, or situational archetypes–assists readers in making inferences about characters and in understanding characters’ motivations.
There are numerous tutorials on YouTube that will teach students the basics about character archetypes. Here are a few I have used in my classroom:
Understanding the characteristics of certain archetypes will not be hard for your students. What they may find challenging, however, is explaining why the author chose the particular archetypes he chose to portray his characters, predicting character behavior and motivation based on archetype, and how the story would have been different one or more of the characters been assigned a different character archetype.
In “The Black Cat,” the narrator’s archetype is THE DANGEROUS ALCOHOLIC, the wife is THE ABUSED WOMAN, and the cat (who is so human-like in his influence, he simply must be assigned a character archetype) is a DEMON.
- How would the story have been different if the wife had been a CAREGIVER, rather than an ABUSED WOMAN?
- How might the plot have changed if the narrator had been a REBEL, rather than a DANGEROUS ALCOHOLIC?
- How might the events have taken a different course had the cat been an INNOCENT, rather than a DEMON?
- The situational archetype in the story is that of a criminal bearing his crime to the world…what other situational archetype might the author have used to tell this tale?
Step #3 in Critically Analyzing Literature- Understanding Figurative Language
Figurative language appeals to the senses. Some of the most common types of figurative language used in literature are similes, metaphors, and personification. Though figurative language will probably not be new to your students as they endeavor to begin analyzing literature, pinpointing why authors choose to use specific figurative language rather than simply using literal language, both in words, sentences, and whole passages will challenge them beyond the simple identification of the elements.
- What are the implications of the narrator saying that the appearance of the cat figure on the burned wall as “as if in bas relief”? (simile)
- Why does the narrator refer to “my whole heart” rather just saying his conscience? (metaphor)
- The narrator refers to the “teeth of our best judgement.” What is the implication of giving “judgement” teeth? (personification)
Step #4 in Critically Analyzing Literature- Understanding Tone
Simply stated, tone refers to the “attitude” of the author toward the subject he or she is writing about. I find that definition somewhat vague… I prefer referring to tone as the attitude of the author as reflected in his word choices throughout the piece of literature. Tone is fluid; it changes. Be careful in spending too much time trying to label tone in a story. It is more beneficial to analyze word choices than it is to label tone, unless students are simultaneously being asked to defend their choices of labels by offering up evidence from the text. Start analyzing tone at the word level and work up to identifying overall tone in a story. Here are some examples to begin thinking about tone in “The Black Cat.”
- Why does it matter that the narrator’s wife’s murder is referred to an “assassination” rather than just a murder? How do the two terms differ? How are they alike?
- Analyze the term “intemperate language.” What is “temperance”? How does the prefix “in” change the meaning of the word? Does this word work well in the telling of this tale?
- In boasting about his crime, the narrator uses the term “rabid.” What are the implications of this word?
- Overall, is there more evidence to support a formal or an informal tone in this story?
Step #5 in Critically Analyzing Literature – Understanding Author Influences
Authors are impacted by a myriad of influences: personal, historical, and contemporary. They are influenced by experiences, tangible or vicarious. They are influenced by world and local events from the past or from their present. Authors are also influenced by literary movements and by other authors. Consideration of author influences is the area of literary analysis that requires the reader to research outside the actual text in order to ascertain ideas about possible influences. Often, literature textbooks offer brief glimpses into information about authors, but this information is often limited to facts about the author’s life and seldom mentions influences, though sometimes influences can be inferred from considering the author’s life experiences. Book jacket covers, likewise, seldom explicitly state influences on the author’s work.
Students can research author influences by examining timelines and historical era summaries on websites like historylists.org. They can learn about literary movements on websites like The Literature Network, a site that not only details literary eras but also highlights famous authors from each. Tracing authors’ influences can be challenging, but the results can lead to a more informed understanding of the literary text at hand. Here are some questions to get students thinking about influenced Poe as he penned “The Black Cat”:
- Poe enjoyed studying Greek and Roman mythology. What influences from mythology can be found in this short story? What was the significance of naming the cat “Pluto”?
- Poe wrote during the “American Romanticism” literary era, which included Romantic Gothic Literature. What elements of Gothic Literature can be found in “The Black Cat.”
- Poe’s girlfriend, Sarah Whitman, was interested in spiritualism and metaphysical science, which was popular at the time. What evidence of the supernatural is there to be found in this short story?
- Many of Poe’s loved ones died of tuberculosis, a disease during which the victims often spit up blood–thus, the color red is often a motif in his works. What color motif can be found in this story and how might that be related back to Poe’s influences?
Step #6 in Critically Analyzing Literature – Identifying and Interpreting Symbolism
Symbols are details in a text that have both a literal and a figurative meaning. A single word or an entire passage in a work can be interpreted to be a symbol–it has a literal function/meaning in the story, but is also has a hidden meaning as well. Symbolism springs from not only the pen of the writer but from the imagination of the reader. Often, readers may interpret symbols that the author never intended or even contemplated. The interpretation of one symbol in a text often leads to the unveiling of numerous related symbols also embedded in the story. There are common symbols (symbol archetypes) that are often implicit in literature: spring/fresh start, clouds/trouble, night/death, etc.
The more readers learn about and practice interpreting symbols, the more they are able comprehend and appreciate the nuances that symbolism bring to literature. Students can delve deeper and deeper into “meaning” in text via symbolism. Here are a few examples of symbols from “The Black Cat”:
- The character’s pen knife symbolizes his imagined power over the cat
- The white region on the breast of the cat symbolizes purity in the cat’s heart
- The second cat’s habit of “clinging” to the narrator symbolizes the memory of Pluto that continually haunts the narrator
- The false chimney in the basement of the narrator’s house symbolizes the narrator’s false sense of security
The logical next step in completing a critical analysis of a text is using the information gleaned from these steps to compose an essay wherein some argument is to be presented and defended with evidence about the piece of literature. A first step for the teacher would be to develop a rubric for the proposed piece of student writing using the elements of critical analysis noted in the table at the beginning of this blog post. Perhaps I will dive into this topic in a future post!
Click here to download a free graphic organizer that will help your students organize information from their reading according to the above analysis topics. While one copy of the form will probably be sufficient for short stories, you will probably want students to use separate forms for particular sections or even for each chapter of novel.