If you’ve ever analysed a novel in school, you probably know that reading a novel for analysis is different from reading a novel for pleasure. Especially as a literature student, you quickly have to get used to the fact that reading a novel isn’t the same as reading a novel well. The latter requires much more time and practice.

When analyzing a work of fiction, you should consider the following three steps:

1. First Reading: Comprehension

Read the full novel without dwelling for too long on single passages. Pay attention to things you notice about the text (e.g. reoccurring themes and motifs). Most importantly, block out distractions while you’re reading. If you want to understand the full meaning of a novel, you need to give your full attention to it.

It’s also helpful to write down a short summary of the main events of each chapter or part once you finish it. Not only is this a great comprehension exercise, but it also helps you find scenes more quickly afterwards. Alternatively, it can also be helpful to draw a character map such as the one above.

2. Zooming in: Close Reading

Now that you’ve become familiar with the novel’s plot, it’s time for a closer examination. You may focus on a particular passage, or on the story as a whole. When reading a novel or passage closely, consider the following aspects:

Discourse

  • Who is telling the story? Which narrative situation prevails (authorial, first-person, neutral scenic)?
  • How reliable is the narrator?
  • What’s the narrator’s function? How would the meaning of the story change if the narrator was someone else?
  • How is the story being told? (in letters, journal entries, or narration)
  • Does the narrative follow the chronological order of the events or rearrange it?

Setting

  • When and where does the story take place?
  • What is the function of the setting?

Characters

  • Who takes part in the story? Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s the significance and function of the fictional characters?
  • Are the characters static or dynamic (i.e. do they develop throughout the story or stay the same)? Are they flat or round (simple or complex)?

Action

  • What is the structure and function of the action?
  • How is the plot structured? Is the action linear, circular or fragmentary?
  • How do multiple strands of action relate to each other?
  • Is the ending closed or open?

Language & Imagery

  • What literary devices does the author make use of? (metaphor, symbolism, allusion, foreshadowing, …)
  • What’s the tone? (ironic, humorous, dramatic)
  • What’s the author’s writing style (choice of vocabulary, sentence structure)?

Themes & Motifs

  • What are the novel’s themes? (some common themes include good vs. evil, love, friendship, courage and perseverance, coming of age, death)
  • What are reoccurring motifs? How are they used to develop the major theme(s)?

3. Zooming Out: Context

Having analysed the story more closely, you should zoom out again and look at the novel in context. How does the novel relate to its cultural context? In which way does the text interact with other texts/media? Maybe the novel is a retelling of a previous story. If that’s the case, compare the story to the original and think of similarities and differences. Also, if you’re dealing with an older text or a classic, ask yourself why the text might be relevant to readers today.


Always keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer to what a work of literature means. If you can back your opinion up with evidence, it’s always valid.

Do you have any other tips you’ve found helpful when reading a novel? Let me know in the comment section below!


12 thoughts on “How to Read a Novel Like a Lit Major

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