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How do students of English learn to analyze literature? How do they come up with new things to say about texts that everyone doesn't already know?

The essence of the question is given above, but personal background follows, which might be helpful for people writing answers.

I’m an English major having an incredibly difficult time coming up with my own ideas about texts. When I finish reading a set text, I usually have a pretty good idea of what the broad themes are, but beyond that, I don’t have much to say that everyone doesn’t already know. I don’t have any real insights. Reading the suggested material on the texts (mostly articles from literary journals) is not too helpful; they are filled with wonderful ideas but you can’t use those ideas in your own essay (because that would be plagiarism) and citing them would reveal that my work is really just a patchwork of things other, smarter people have said.

I’m really lost here. I moved to the US with my family as a junior in high school, and the country I am from did not encourage original work at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if most college students there aren’t even aware of the concept of plagiarism. I feel like my upbringing killed any creative potential I may have had. I love reading, and I love reading what literary scholars have written about those texts because they often amaze me with all the little connections they make, all the details they notice that just don’t occur to me. Even my professors always have such astute and (I’m guessing) original remarks to make in lectures. I feel so inspired when I read something especially brilliant or illuminating, but that inspiration leads me nowhere. I mean, I notice things like images and metaphors but I almost never know what to make of them. Laura in The Glass Menagerie likes collecting little glass animals, but… so what? What does it mean?

I’m assuming at least some of you who visit this site have been or currently are English majors too. I just want to ask you, how do you do it? I’m far too embarrassed to talk to a classmate or professor about this. Do I just not have a literary brain? Could someone like me learn to analyze literature like an English major should?

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  • Welcome to Literature.SE! Will you please "Edit" the question and highlight the question that you have? You presented a situation, but I cannot understand what is the thing that you want to solve. Or what is the target you want to achieve.
    – virolino
    Dec 5, 2022 at 6:22
  • Moreover, questions like "Could someone like me learn to analyze literature like an English major should?" are against the rules o f the site, simply because they are unanswerable. Only you can know the answer to that.
    – virolino
    Dec 5, 2022 at 6:24
  • Hi, @virolino. I just put my primary question right at the beginning. Dec 5, 2022 at 8:52
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    I took the liberty of updating the post to clearly separate the question from the personal background that inspired it. We're not a site that offers personal advice, but I think the general question of how people learn to analyze literature is a good one. Dec 5, 2022 at 14:55

4 Answers 4

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If you're an undergraduate, I think you may be setting the bar too high.

Undergraduate programmes are there to help you learn the skills you will need if you were to take the subject forward into academia or industry. In the case of English, textual analysis is one of the key skills that will be taught. When you go to lectures or workshops and write essays, your instructors will be looking for evidence to see that you are beginning to pick up the critical skills required. This does not include new, independent analyses of texts. Rather the expectation will be that you are able to expand on the ideas presented in class and in the texts and restate them in your own words.

Compare it with a STEM degree. Undergraduate students are not expected to come up with original pieces of scientific research which is essentially the equivalent of what you're expecting yourself to do here as an English student. They go to classes to learn theory and labs to learn how to put that theory into practice by repeating well-rehearsed experiments to see how well they can repeat expected results. This is no different from how you're learning theory in lectures and essentially rehearsing that theory in discussion groups and essays.

Most undergraduate programmes do get students involved in some original research but only in their final year and only in close collaboration with their professor or another academic. This is still more at an apprenticeship kind of level where you're helping someone work on a well-established research team, not coming up with your own original ideas.

So in short, don't expect to run before you can walk. Go to classes, learn how to analyse texts, how to do close reading, the different theoretical lenses with which you can scrutinise a text and the necessary historical contexts that go along with texts and authors. The practice them. Then, and only then, can you have a realistic expectation that you might be able to contribute something truly original to the conversation.

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  • Thank you very much, Matt. This is definitely a relief to hear. Dec 5, 2022 at 10:46
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In this answer I’m going to explain how people generate literary analysis, and how to come up with original analysis. It’s not as difficult as it looks!

How to analyze texts

The process looks mysterious if you’re listening to a professor generate interpretations apparently from nowhere, but in fact it’s straightforward: you analyze literature by applying a theory to a text! When a critic “amazes you with all the details they notice” it’s because they were applying a theory that brought those details to their attention.

“Theory” in this context is academic jargon that encompasses several aspects of the study of literature, including the reasons you are studying the text, the perspectives with which you approach the text, and the techniques that you use to study it. For example (allowing for a certain amount of caricature!),

  • in rhetorical criticism you study literature to learn how it persuades, which you do by identifying rhetorical devices;
  • in biographical criticism you study literature to learn about the author, which you do by correlating the author’s life with their works;
  • in allegorical criticism you study literature to learn ethical and philosophical truths, which you do by constructing systematic correspondences or allegories;
  • in textual criticism you study literature to reconstruct the original forms of texts, which you do by constructing family trees of manuscripts or stemmas;
  • in feminist criticism, you study literature to learn what it says about women, which you do by applying the perspective of feminist theory;
  • and so on, though reader-response, structuralist, anthropological, Marxist, Freudian, deconstructionist, post-modernist, environmental, post-colonial, and many other theories.

So you learn to analyze literature by learning theories, and practicising the associated techniques. As in any field, it helps to “play the sedulous ape”, that is, to imitate the techniques you find in the best examples.

Just as different texts appeal to different readers, different theories appeal to different scholars, for example, textual criticism requires patience for the minute details involved in comparison of manuscripts, while feminist criticism requires sympathy for feminist political ideals. So if you find one approach does not suit your temperament and aptitude, then keep looking and another one will.

Critical theories come into and out of fashion along with their intellectual foundations, for example, allegorical criticism survives now mainly among theologians, as few others believe that you can learn truths by constructing allegories.

How to come up with original analysis

Any well-studied text has had many theories applied to it, for example people have been publishing analyses of the Aeneid for more than sixteen hundred years:

Critical theory Example of its application to the Aeneid
Rhetorical Servius (c. 400). In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii.
Biographical Tiberius Claudius Donatus (c. 500). Interpretationes Vergilianae.
Allegorical Cristoforo Landino (1507). In P. Virgilii Maronis Allegoris.
Textual Juan Luis de la Cerda (1612). P. Virgilii Maronis Priores sex libri Aeneidos argumentis, explicationibus notis illustrati.
Feminist S. Georgia Nugent (1992). ‘Vergil’s “Voice of the Women” in Aeneid V’.

So we can imagine the scholarly literature as looking something like the table below, where each ■ represents a publication applying a theory to a text.

Theory Text 1 Text 2 Text 3 ...
Theory 1 ■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■ ...
Theory 2 ■■■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■ ...
Theory 3 ■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■ ...
... ... ... ... ...

Popular combinations of theory and text get “mined out” as scholars publish everything there is to say about that text under that theory. If you want to apply rhetorical criticism to the Aeneid the chance of finding something original to add is low!

But there are a lot of theories and “of making many books there is no end”, so it is always possible to find a cell in the table where the possibilities have not yet been exhausted. To make original contributions, you find the under-populated or empty cells in your areas of interest. Of course, to find these cells, you need to have the skills to explore the scholarly literature, which is something that you should learn to do as an undergraduate.

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  • This seems backwards. In all my years of analyzing literature and hanging out with people who do so, both professionals and amateurs, I have yet to encounter anyone who proceeds in this way. One doesn’t learn a body of theory in the abstract and apply it to literary works; one reads literature to understand the theory. To take the simplest example, one doesn’t start off with “what is a metaphor?”, then glean examples from texts. One starts off with, “what’s going on in these lines here?” and arrives at, “oh, this is a metaphor, here’s how it works.”
    – verbose
    May 15, 2023 at 6:59
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I personally think a good way to characterize “literary theory” is an attempt to answer the simple question “What is literature?”. I like to think of science as nothing more than mere description. The more precisely you can describe all aspects of a phenomenon, the more you “understand” it. Instead of trying to have an interesting opinion on the text I think you could try simply “describing” it, in the way I mean above. Not a superficial description, but an attempt at a complete explanation of “What is this and how does it work?”. Being forced to answer very fundamental questions like “Are there patterns from work to work, like recurrent characters or plot devices? If so, why?”, or “Why do authors make the stylistic choices they do? Perhaps it lends a particular effect, but why does that style have that effect, and why did the author choose to use it?”, basically is literary theory. If you go deeper into these questions you realize how complicated they are. The more your mind is exposed to interesting questions, theories, observations, the more naturally you will start to have thoughts on something, like a sommelier has a lot to say about wine. If you would like a very actionable way to get ideas, I would go sentence by sentence through the text and ask, “Why?”. Why does the book has this title? Why is the first sentence what it is? Why is the second chapter what it is? If you spend some time thinking about that question, you might discover you already have a lot of beliefs about the text, which are embedded in you.

It already seems, based on your question, that you have a highly analytical mind. You haven’t yet developed a mental habit of noticing things about a text that stand out to you, especially in relation to every other text you’ve read, the similarities and differences, but that can come with time. It’s partially about “metacognition” - many creative people do not have good ideas absolutely out of nowhere. Actually, people have mental strategies that they use to get the creative ideas they have. It’s like a mental routine where you get better at going through certain steps to produce something of substance. Cognitively, I am sure your ability for reflection, seeing a situation comprehensively and considering insights into why it is the way it is, will lend itself well to literature. If you just develop a number of foundational personal interests or convictions over time, it will get easier and easier to think something about a text you encounter. Consider how I believe some postmodern philosophers / cultural analysts had entire books worth of ideas about popular culture, like the Wizard of Oz. Even when the content seems self-explanatory and one-dimensional if a person with a lot of ongoing currents of thought in their mind sees it, it activates the ideas they have in their mind, so that it seems like what is more important is how a literary work can stimulate a person to their own thoughts, rather than thinking the thoughts are embedded in or come from the work itself. From this perspective, “literary theory” is a highly chameleonic field, which can actually draw from any academic field, so long as you use the tools of that field to say anything about the book. For example, the physicist Richard Feynman struggled in a similar way to you when he had to write an essay on Faust at MIT. Flustered, he finally gave in and analyzed how the characters in some ways resembled an aspect of his views on the philosophy of science. Insecure about his essay, he says in a memoir essay that he received a good grade and the professor found his essay original.

Lastly - a great professor of mine said that the best way to engage with literature was to go to a cafe with some classmates or friends and drink an enormous coffee and have a frenetic discussion or argument about a text. I would agree that simply realizing that other people do not have some of the same fundamental, even casual beliefs you hold on the text helps you unearth what your subjective angle is and feel more motivation to justify it by citing examples and evidence from the text itself. One time my cousin told me he thought a certain superhero movie was a great film with deep political, allegorical meaning. I disagreed completely and had found it aesthetically disappointing and thematically uncompelling. This is most certainly a launch point to think about why you think what you do and more broadly what you think the nature of, the criteria of, a good film or book vs. a bad one might be.

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    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and detailed reply. I really appreciate it. Dec 5, 2022 at 8:58
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How do people learn to analyze literature?

This is an interesting question, and fortunately, the answer is shorter. The "spouse" of this question would be "How do people do analyze literature?" - and this would be a b!tch to answer, because the answer would be very long.

So, back to the original question. They learn it exactly how they learn everything else. They find out the expectations, and they try to comply to those expectations.

You have to be aware that different people have different expectations about the same subject. So if you can please one person, it does not mean that you can please every person.

Since your question has an academic background, you need to find out what the teachers / professors expect from you - and then do what is necessary to make them happy. Once you can satisfy several people with one piece of work, you know that you are on the right track.

How do they come up with new things to say about texts that everyone doesn't already know?

Well, that is a matter of experience, culture, education, ability to think, willingness to think, getting pleasure in finding "hidden" meanings and so on. Also, some inspiration and some luck. Usually there is no cheating on this one. You cannot copy / paste from someone else, because the information simply is not there.


Personal experience: I finally understood some passages in a famous book ONLY after I read certain other books (3 or 4 of them). However, until I found the 3 or 4 books which made a difference, I read hundreds of other books - some of them only gave me the pleasure of reading, while others gave me insights about other things.

So, literature is like mathematics or geography or anything else: without enough experience, and without enough exercise, you cannot really do much.

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