Chapter 46: CRITICAL OR INTERPRETIVE ANALYSIS OF
How is a "critical analysis" or "interpretive
Goal or Assignment
Critical Thinking Alternatives.
This chapter discusses how to write a specific type
of literature paper often referred to as a "critical analysis" or "interpretive
analysis" of literature. This type of paper is different from merely
analyzing or examining literature using the elements of literature. It
also is different from an interpretive or argumentative thesis on a literary
An interpretive or critical analysis is one of the two most common
types of research papers in literature, the arts, and the other humanities.
(See also the other most common type, an
It is common in both introductory
literature courses and in intermediate and advanced ones requiring research
To analyze means “to break
into parts and examine the components.” To
interpret means "to offer possible meanings." In
literature and the other humanities, to interpret or critically analyze means to
break a subject (such as a a segment of a work of art or, in other fields, a culture, person,
or event) into its constituent parts, examine these components, and offer a
meaning--or alternative meanings--about each.
Usually such a paper starts with an interpretive question, such as
"What is the relationship of Romeo to his father," "What did the
one ring symbolize to the dwarves in Lord of the Rings," or
"How does the element of chance control the fortunes of two different male
characters in The Color Purple?"
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Writer's Goal or Assignment
The goal of writing a literary
analysis is to thoroughly take
apart and look at some important or interesting segment of a literary
work. To do so, you should choose a scene, character, activity, line, or
some other segment of a literary work, break it into parts, and analyze it part
by part. You can examine each part thoroughly using the elements of
literature to help explain its meanings, compare/contrast each part to others in
the literary work, or apply a literary theory or other point of view to each
part. The structure you use is that of a logical, balanced essay, with a
brief introduction, a series of body sections explaining each part, and a brief
conclusion. If your instructor suggests or allows it, you also may have a brief first
body section, after the
introduction, that summarizes the main elements of the work (if your instructor
is unacquainted with it) or reports biographical, historical, or other background.
In your introduction and conclusion and throughout
the body paragraphs of your paper, you should consistently quote and paraphrase
the literary work that is your subject as you analyze parts and their possible
meanings. These quotations and paraphrases help you support what you are
saying by showing clearly just what the author of the work has written. If
you are writing a research paper, you also must add quotations, paraphrases, or
other references from additional sources--whether other literary works,
professional critics, or other interpretive resources--using these additional
resources to add more analysis and interpretation. You also will need a
full MLA bibliography.
Here are examples that include not only literature
but also other arts and humanities disciplines:
the character Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a fully
three-dimensional character or only a two-dimensional caricature?
How do bulls in other Picasso
paintings help explain
the symbolic meaning of his prominent bull in his famous
can Plato’s Cave Metaphor be found in the treatment he recommends for the
unenlightened masses in his book The Republic?
does classic Marxism explain twentieth-century Brazilian voudoun?
One way to write such a paper is to simply work your way through most or
all of the major elements or parts, piece by piece, explaining how each fits or
should be interpreted according to your research question.
A more common way, however, is to choose a narrower range of elements,
limiting yourself to a smaller field that can much more easily be handled in one
relatively short research paper. For
example, you might narrow the first question above as follows:
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, does the dialogue about, by, and/or
with character Tiny Tim suggest that he is a two-dimensional caricature of a
You then apply your question, step by step, to the elements or parts of
the work that help prove your tentative answer.
As you develop your interpretations step by step, you quote and
paraphrase the elements or parts in the work in order to show how they exist.
In this way, your readers can see for themselves that the way you
interpret each element or part appears reasonable.
You are, in effect, proving to the reader that your interpretation is
sensible, both at each step of the way and in the overall view. If
you have two sources with one being applied to the other, then you quote and
paraphrase both as needed to show exactly what it is that you are applying from
one source, to what you are applying it in the other, and how.
In a research paper, you use additional resources to help prove
your interpretations. You
still write the paper from element to element or part to part within the
work, analyzing the elements or parts you have chosen to use.
However, you add comments from other sources to help develop your
interpretations. Here, for
example, is a research question:
the Greek play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, can King Oedipus be defined in
modern terms as a jock-warrior, a lost soul, or a tragic figure?
To start, whether a research question is given to you or you invent
one yourself, you should not treat it like a multiple-choice question, selecting
the one that seems the most “right.” Rather,
you should seek to redefine the question so that you can work with it more
easily and completely. This means
(1): what you find interesting,
(2) what you can easily research,
(3) what no other published author has
(4) what you can narrow to make the best
You must weigh all four guidelines against each other.
You are the only person who can determine the first choice: what you
might find most interesting. However,
figuring it out sometimes can mean a trip to the library or the Internet to see
what types of quality sources are available.
Such a trip is part of your second choice: what you can easily find for
the type of resources your teacher expects.
The third choice may be easy or difficult, depending on the level of your
class and your teacher’s expectations. Your
research question for a paper in the second or third year of college, for
example, may need nothing more than acceptance by your teacher as valid for the
purposes of your class (However, if you accidentally discover, during your
research, that someone already has discussed the same question, you should go
immediately to your teacher with the evidence so that you are not later accused
of plagiarizing the published author’s ideas.)
On the other hand, your teacher may reasonably expect you to use library
and/or online research in literary journal indexes to see whether any published
authors have handled the same question or one like it.
If so, you should bring the evidence to your teacher and talk about it.
The fourth choice is how to narrow the question further.
For starters, you usually should not try to examine all possible answers
by all possible researchers when you first start developing a research question.
If you did, the result often would be a PhD dissertation (a full-length
academic book) or even several of them! Rather,
you should try to narrow the question as much as possible, preferably with your
teacher’s help, however brief or long, to something that can be handled much
more easily within the scope of a five-, ten-, or twenty-page paper.
There are several possibilities. One
that I might pursue is first to define exactly what a “tragic figure” in
“modern terms” is. Most
introductions to the play tell us that King Oedipus was certainly a tragic
figure to the Greeks, but how about to the modern world?
There are definitions of modern tragedy by philosophers and critics such
as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and many others.
My research question then might become
the Greek play
Oedipus Rexby Sophocles, can King Oedipus be defined as a
modern tragic figure?
This in itself still is a rather daunting question, one that I would not
expect to be able to answer well in less than seven to ten pages.
I might even decide to narrow it further: for example, given that one of
my own specialties is modern existentialism, I might narrow the question even
more as follows:
the Greek play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, can King Oedipus be defined as a
modern tragic figure according to modern existentialist philosophy?
Next, I would draft a paper moving from specific place to place in the
play, or from element to element, that demonstrates whether Oedipus’ actions,
character, and results are typical of a modern tragic figure. I
would quote or paraphrase the places or elements, quote my philosophers’ and
critics’ definitions of modern tragedy, and explain whether Oedipus fits their
definitions. I also would keep the
reader aware, in brief comments, about whether such parts or elements fit the
ancient Greek definitions of tragedy. In
the end, I might conclude one of three overall interpretations:
Oedipus fits not only ancient standards for the tragic hero, but also modern
only partly fulfills the requirements of a modern existentialist tragic hero.
Oedipus clearly was an ancient tragic hero, he cannot be a modern existentialist
Whatever your final answer, just as in scientific research and
experiment, you should arrive at it free of prejudice.
When you write the paper (or, at least, its final drafts), you must be as
logical, fair, thorough, and balanced as possible.
It is okay to know ahead of time what your likely conclusion will be, and
even to research the question enough to see if the answer is what you think it
will be—or what you want it to be. However,
if your evidence begins to lead you elsewhere and you do not have the time to
change your subject, then you must follow the evidence to its conclusion.
And if some small or large part or element seems to disagree with your
final interpretation, you should make readers aware of it.
You are reporting a finding, just as a scientist conducting an experiment
would do so, and your teacher expects your evidence to be thorough, accurate,
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How do you organize this type of paper?
An interpretive analysis may take on the same form as a basic description
of the elements, moving through all the main elements from simplest to most
complex, offering interpretation of each in turn.
However, you are more likely to organize by selecting specific parts,
places, or examples from a work. In this type of organizing, you choose
the parts that help you answer your initial research question. In writing
the paper, you start with the initial question; then you order the series by the
order of simplest to most abstract, by the parts in the work, by their
importance, or, sometimes, by some other development that makes sense. You might
do so by their order of presentation in the work, by their order of importance
or interest, or by an order of unfolding or development (e.g., from most obvious
to least, or from simplest to most complex).
You might, for example, choose
to look at how description is applied to one character is seven different places
in a play, or how color and shape seem to suggest the same symbol is five
different places in a painting; or you might find six different paragraphs in a
work of philosophy that seem to contradict one specific point the author is
making. You then organize your paper
by making a short section of each of these places, passages, or thoughts.
Each section often is, like a basic analysis, just one or a few
paragraphs in length.
In each section, you provide a brief statement of your intention, one or
more quotations from the work you are examining, and explanations of its
meaning. In a research paper with
other sources involved, you offer their observations, thoughts, and opinions,
too, and you suggest a tentative meaning at the end of the section.
As each section ends, your overall interpretation should become more
reasonable to your reader and, by the end, it should be a strong likelihood in
your reader’s mind:
PATTERN OF AN
with main research question (hypothesis)
or passage from work, and
or passage from work, and
or passage from work, and
Quotation, 5th, etc.
or passages from work, and
with tentative answer to question
For example, if you were to write an interpretive analysis of Alice
Walker’s The Color Purple, you might choose as a subject the opinion by
some critics that males—especially black males—are portrayed in this novel
in a harsh way. You then could
analyze descriptive passages in five or six sections where black male characters
are prominent, offering quotations and several interpretive viewpoints from
other critics in each section. Your
first passage, for example, might detail the descriptive words in the opening
scene of the novel, where the main character’s sexual abuse is described; and
you might choose another passage or two that describe positive interactions the
main character has with males in her life. After
several such passages, you might reach the conclusion that while males are,
indeed, viewed harshly, a more rounded view of them also exists, especially in
the later chapters of the novel.
If you are researching a paper for philosophy, religion, or humanities as
a discipline, you might, for example, write an interpretive analysis of
Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals, choosing as a subject the
opinion by some critics that Fulcanelli reports symbolic meanings in the
architecture of the Chartres Cathedral that simply aren’t there.
You then could analyze six or seven descriptive passages in the book
about the symbols, one per section, and in each section you could
offer quotations and several interpretive viewpoints from critics and/or
those who planned and built the cathedral. You
might finally conclude that the critics are wrong, or that they are right—or
perhaps that the factual evidence is to conflicting for a final opinion.
The conclusion you reach in such a paper is your own.
However, you use balanced, factual gathering of evidence from the work
you have chosen and—in a research paper—from other sources to support your
A critical analysis is a specialized type of
literary analysis that is required in some introductory-level literature courses
and is more commonly known in upper-division and graduate-level literature
classes. If you know how to perform it, you are, essentially, working at
the level of deep critical thinking, as do students in philosophy and advanced
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