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 approach will be more nuanced.
4) Archetypes. Your critical reading should also include an awareness of archetypes. Like influences, archetypes are things patterned after an original, and many are so common that you often don’t need extensive knowledge of the original to appreciate the meaning or intent. For example, Cervantes’ Don Quixote is an example of the most notable of archetypal “buddy pairs”; both the Don and his sidekick Sancho Panza are clueless but essentially well-meaning characters who stick together (even when they'd prefer not to). Friends who rely on one another through thick and thin are a staple of literature—from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Archetypes often fall into one of two categories: character archetypes and situational archetypes.
Along with the buddy pair, common character archetypes include the Christ-figure (Simon in Lord of the Flies), the scapegoat (Darcy in Pride and Prejudice), and the hero who saves the day (Homer’s Odysseus or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.)
Situational archetypes include the quest and the pursuit of an elusive goal, whether that quest is King Arthur’s relentless pursuit of the Holy Grail or Frodo’s search for the ring in Tolkien’s trilogy. Another readily identifiable situational archetype is the loss of innocence, such as Huck Finn’s evolving racial awareness or Holden Caulfield’s recollection of the harsh realities of adulthood. Initiation is also a frequent situational archetype. In fact, Hemingway’s short story “Indian Camp” combines both the initiation and loss of innocence archetypes: Nick, the young protagonist, must be initiated into the world of sexuality by witnessing its most profound product—childbirth. At the same time, he is stripped of any romantic illusions about a woman’s body.
5) Symbolism. Ah, the most dreaded word for many a reader. What is a symbol and how can you identify one in literature? A symbol typically encompasses both a literal meaning and a figurative meaning. Unlike a metaphor, a symbol is not necessarily a statement: a single word can evoke meaning and become a symbol. Being aware of common symbols in novels will increase your ability to read a work critically. Spring, for example, is often a symbol of renewal; conversely, winter often symbolizes a figurative death. Fitzgerald’s short story “Winter Dreams” is heartbreakingly rendered from the outset by the symbolism of its title. We know that the harsh, symbolically loaded word winter offsets the fragility and hope of the word dreams. Other common symbols include lightness and darkness, the Christian cross, the Star of David, and the Nazi swastika. The more symbols you are able to identify, the richer your critical interpretation will be.
6) Read and reread.Resist the impulse to assess a work after you first read it, even if you have diligently completed the first five steps given here. A thorough critical analysis cannot be accomplished until you’ve reread the work.