Inver Hills Community College


Home & Contents                       Basics                       College Writing             




Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions




How is a "critical analysis" or "interpretive analysis" written?




Writer's Goal or Assignment



Sample Papers (Separate Web Page)


See also Prewriting Activities and 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 work.



A 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 interpretive thesis.)  It is common in both introductory literature courses and in intermediate and advanced ones requiring research writing.  

To analyze means “to break into parts and examine the components.”  To interpret means "to offer possible meanings."  The phrase "close reading" also is sometimes used to describe this kind of writing, as it requires close examination--detailed, careful reading sentence by sentence--of one or several small parts, sometimes as little as a line (in poetry), a paragraph (in short stories and essays, or a page or two (in books) to critically (thoughtfully and carefully) explain a work of literature.

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 a major turning point in the work of literature." Other interpretive questions might, instead, be used, 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?"


Return to top.


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 an important turning point, or a scene, character, activity, 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:

What is one of the major turning points--within a page or two--of the story (plot), a major character, a major symbol, or a major event in J.RR. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Is the character Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a fully three-dimensional character or only a two-dimensional caricature?

(Example for art:) How do bulls in other Picasso paintings help explain the symbolic meaning of his prominent bull in his famous Guernica? 

(Example for history, philosophy, or the humanities:) How can Plato’s Cave Metaphor be found in the treatment he recommends for the unenlightened masses in his book The Republic?

(Example for sociology or history:) How does classic Marxism explain twentieth-century Brazilian voudoun? 

One basic way to write such a paper is to simply ask yourself, "What is the (or a) major turning point?" Then you work your way through most or all of the major literary elements or parts, piece by piece, explaining how each fits or should be interpreted according to your understanding of where the turning point lies.

Another way 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:

In 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 real person?

You then apply your question, step by step, to the elements or the parts of the work that help prove your tentative answer, significant scene by significant scene.  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:   

In 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 choosing

(1): what you find interesting,

(2) what you can easily research,

(3) what no other published author has argued, and

(4) what you can narrow to make the best research question.

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

In the Greek play Oedipus Rex by 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:

In 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:

Clearly, Oedipus fits not only ancient standards for the tragic hero, but also modern existentialist ones.

Oedipus only partly fulfills the requirements of a modern existentialist tragic hero.

While Oedipus clearly was an ancient tragic hero, he cannot be a modern existentialist one. 

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, and balanced.


Return to top.


How do you organize this type of paper?

A critical 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, a more complex version is 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:


with main research question (hypothesis)

1st Element or Quotation
or passage from work, and its meanings

2nd Element or Quotation
or passage from work, and its meanings

3rd Element or Quotation
or passage from work, and its meanings

4th Element or Quotation, 5th, etc.
or passages from work, and their meanings

with tentative answer to question

 For example, if you were to write a critical 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 interpretation.  



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 humanities classes.


Sample Papers (Separate Web Page)


Return to top.








 43. What Is "Writing to Lit"?

 44. How To Read Literature

 45. Analysis of Elements

 46. Critical Analysis

 47. Interpretive Thesis

 48. Literary Review


Prewriting Activities

Critical  Alternatives


For writing about content in articles, essays, & books, see

E. Responding to Reading



 Related Links in

4. Literature, Reading, & Writing


Updated 16 Nov. 2015

              also is at and

Natural URL:
1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012.
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
Images courtesy of Barry's Clip Art, Clip Art Warehouse, The Clip Art Universe, Clipart Collection, MS Clip Art Gallery and Design Gallery Live, School Discovery, and Web Clip Art
Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.