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How to Read Literature Critically


Even if you’re taking your very first literature class, it’s easy to read critically if you follow our 6-step method. But before you get started, always keep this in mind: reading critically doesn’t mean tearing a work of literature apart. Instead, it means understanding what the author has written and evaluating the success of the work as a whole.

1) Figurative language. As you are reading, make note of expressive language such as similes, metaphors, and personification. Then consider why the author employs these devices. Here’s a brief definition of each term and an example:

Simile. A simile is a comparison of two terms and frequently uses the words like or as. For example, in John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums,” he writes of the character Eliza: “She crouched low like a fawning dog.” The image gives the reader a clear indication of Eliza’s state of mind as she reaches out to the peddler for acceptance. Literary works are replete with similes, so being aware of their presence and possible meanings will aid your critical analysis.

Metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison of two seemingly unrelated subjects. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, her character Paul D.’s pain is expressed in a metaphor: “He would keep his heart where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where his red heart used to be.” Metaphors are used to give language color and depth and to impact the reader’s senses.

Personification. Personification is the granting of human traits to objects or animals. When Nick in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby describes the trees in his hometown as “friendly,” he is giving human qualities to an object that obviously cannot “feel” anything, friendly or otherwise. But for the reader, personification provides yet another way to understand the author’s intent.

2) Structure. Many times an author opts to tell a story out of chronological sequence, perhaps with flashbacks or integrated tales. Faulkner does this in his short story “A Rose for Emily.” The purpose of the nonlinear structure is for the reader to understand, in retrospect, how prior events led to the discovery of Emily’s dark secret and how the town’s complicity contributed to her death. Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club uses flashback and multiple voices in the narrative to create a new perspective on immigration.

3) Influence. For every writer, some other author’s work appeals to him or her on some level, whether it is in the lessons learned, the style used, or the conclusions reached. Try to discover who has influenced the author of the work you are studying. Herman Melville dedicated his novel Moby Dick to fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although the two men have a markedly different style, Melville so admired Hawthorne that he wrote to the elder author: “I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.” If you can trace an influence like this one, your critical...

(The entire section is 995 words.)