How to get better at English lit

Aha! You’re asking how you can master the Dark Arts of English Lit? Well … it’s not as simple as casting a Crucio curse on an English professor (as satisfying as that would be). It requires more than a spell. The world’s unfair that way.

Here’s the thing. Reading great literature is necessary but far from sufficient for mastering English Lit. You need to develop some analytical approaches to make sense of the hot mess that is the English Literature canon. They say art imitates life and life is a chaotic, messy affair.

Fret not. There’s a method to the madness! Here are a few analytical approaches you can take to improve your understanding (and appreciation) of any piece of literature.

The Storytelling Analysis: “Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave”

If we use a butcher knife rather than a scalpel, we can divide a story into four general elements:

  • Character Development: you know, the people feeling, thinking, and doing stuff. Presumably, the things they’re feeling, thinking, and doing are interesting and meaningful.
  • Plot: a fancy term for “stuff that happens”
  • World: the “world” in which a story takes place doesn’t need dragons and wizards to be a fantasy. All works of fiction are fantasies … with varying degrees of realism. Always remember that.
  • Themes: what the story is about … even if it’s downright puerile.

I present these four storytelling elements simply as a framework for analysis. These elements don’t operate in isolation and there is a lot of overlap between these categories. Since character and themes are great fodder for any halfway decent English Lit paper, I’ll focus on these elements.

In any book worth its salt–and these are hopefully the ones you’re reading–the main characters mirror the message of the story itself. Their thoughts, actions, and feelings all say something important. In fact, they are oftentimes the story itself. In the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s unwavering refusal to name her lover highlights Puritans’s hypocrisy for ignoring her courageous loyalty and branding her dishonorable simply because of her adultery. In a similar vein, Tess’s stubborn honesty and purity of heart causes so much trouble and pain for her, illustrating Victorian society’s double standards for men and women in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I could go on and on, but I shan’t bore you.

This means that you must ask yourself a few questions when confronted with the seemingly perplexing main characters. Why do they do what they do? What does their motivations say about them? How are they treated by others? Why do others treat them so? What does that treatment say about society? And so on.

Themes are trickier, as they tend to be alluded to rather than stated outright. (If 1984 simply said “Language can be a tool of oppression,” it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?) Stories tend to be about something and the ones that make it onto English Lit reading lists tend to be about important stuffThe Great Gatsby showcases the superficiality of the 1920s rich. As for Ulysses, well … avant-garde stuff like masturbating over a girl with a limp. (Or you know, human desire and stuff.)

Themes often are intertwined with historical context (more on that later), so it’d behoove you to know your history. This is particularly important when it comes to novels from historically underrepresented perspectives (The Color PurpleJane EyreThe Invisible Man). Historical perspective, however, aren’t all there is. Many “important” novels comment on timeless themes of love (Pride and Prejudice), oppression (1984), and the role of science ins society (Frankenstein). If you can identify and write about these themes, you’ll graduate to level 3 of the Dark Arts.

The Style Analysis: “A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet”

Sometimes a novel’s style is the story or, at the very least, drastically alters the underlying story. In these cases, you have to take a very hard look at the different stylistic elements.

  • Prose - some authors string words together in very unusual, sometimes incomprehensible, ways. Sometimes this is due to anachronistic language, but it can be due to authorial intent, especially in those very avant-garde books.
  • Narrative Structure - some stories are told in a simple manner: everything is leaner and chronological. Others are not. These more convoluted, elliptical tales that defies time.
  • Writing Conventions: embracing it or defying it, many “English Lit-approved” novels have a stance on the prevailing genre or writing conventionsSince I’ll cover the writing conventions more in-depth in the next section, I’ll focus on an oft-overlooked analytical tool: narrative structure.

Narrative structure can massively alter a story’s meaning if you pay attention. Who tells the story and how it is told has profound implications on how you interpret a novel. An important aspect of The Great Gatsby is the impact of Nick Caraway’s retrospective narration. Since the story is told by a man who already knows the ending, you must ask yourself: how honest and trustworthy is this interpretation of events? Another good example is Margaret Atwood’s final chapter in The Handmaid’s Tale. It changes everything and you better figure out why.

Such sophisticated use of narrative requires you to ask questions such as: How much can we trust the truthfulness of the narrator? How does the narrator’s lack of trustworthiness affect our reading of the story/ How does the structure affect our understanding of the story? Why did the author choose to structure it as such rather than the more conventional chronological structure? Answering these questions will make you a more astute reader, particularly of such stylistically complex novels.

Like in life, you shouldn’t take things in literature at face value. You must look deeper.

The Historical Analysis: “Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It”

Context is everything. A particular piece of literature often gets minted as “English Lit-worthy” due to its historical importance. This can occur in several ways:

  • Zeitgeist Works: some books embody a particular region and time period in a country’s history.
  • Social Commentary: novels are often used as platforms for social criticism of the contemporaneous society.
  • Underrepresented Perspective: those books give a voice to those oppressed groups who have been written out of history books.
  • Groundbreaking Style: some authors (and books) shatter prevailing writing, genre, or narrative conventions with a fresh take on novels.

Even if you have that nasty, sneaking feeling that “literary merit” is completely arbitrary, there’s usually a solid reason why certain books are taught. As many dei ex machina as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre contains, it’s still an excellent example of a Victorian gothic and challenges quite a few of the prevalent Victorians moral ideals. Despite Ulysses’s downright obtuse and bizarre nature, it ushered in the Modernist era of literature … for better or for worse.

To spin a decent literary analysis, you have to ask yourself: What social or political issues does this book address? Why was that view popular or unpopular? How does this book break new ground? Does it do it well? Does the book’s social criticism have any flaws?

This, of course, requires some historical research on your part. Like I said, no spells here.

The Symbolism Analysis: “A Little Sincerity is a Dangerous Thing, and a Lot of it is Fatal”

Symbolism in literature can often feel like a Rorschach test: you see what you want to see. Or, more precisely, English Lit teachers see what they want to see. If abused, literary analysis can turn a spade into a flying unicorn. But when used correctly, analysis of symbolism can deepen your understanding of the novel.

This where your analysis of themes, characters, prose, and historical context will come into handy. Under all circumstances, symbolism should be closely connected to at least two of the mentioned elements.

You can see this algorithm put to good use in The Wizard of the Oz’s Deadly Poppy Field scene. To analyze the symbolism of Dorothy nearly dying in a peaceful slumber in the poppy field, it helps to know a few things. First the historical context of poppy’s connection with death and repose. Second, the book’s theme of the importance of unity and cooperation amongst Dorothy and her companions. Third, the importance of Dorothy getting to Oz to accomplish her goals. With these three premises establish, we can put forth a reasonable interpretation: the poppy field symbolizes the dangers of indolence and laziness. If Dorothy allows the poppy’s intoxicating fumes to seduce her into inaction, she will never reach Oz. But with teamwork and help from her friends, she was able to escape the dangers of interim.

Tread carefully with symbolism. It’s easy to let things get out of hand and turn a spade into a bottomless well. Be sure that your interpretation of a symbol adheres closely to your understanding of characters, themes, historical context, and such.

With these analytical tools, you can master the Dark Arts of English Literature. The only thing left is to write out your analysis in a cogent and eloquent manner, which is an entirely different sort of Dark Arts.

Bonus points to anyone who identifies the various literary references I make in this answer!

I borrowed many ideas from my previous Quora answers on literature, especially: