Literature, according to the Oxford dictionary, is defined as: “pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays and poems.”
And so, throughout the ages we have preserved, analysed and celebrated these writings because they are representative of us as people and our various cultures. Literary works of fiction transport us to magical places and allow us to see life through the eyes of fascinating characters. Just as importantly, non-fiction serves to keep record and educate, it’s a means of sharing wisdom, insight and knowledge.
Literary analysis has been taking place for generations by scholars and literary enthusiasts alike. This is because comparing the texts of great writers is a means of appreciating and celebrating good literature as well as understanding the elements that create a classic literary work.
The literature aspect of English as a school subject during the FET phase (Grade 10-12) is a fantastic introduction to the world of literary theory and appreciation. By studying various types of literature and learning about the various literary elements during the senior phase, learners are given the necessary foundation to pursue further English literature studies at a tertiary level.
Analysing Literature by Comparing and Contrasting Texts
Part of the process of analysing literature text involves comparing different texts and various writers’ methodologies which we will now explore.
Making a Comparison by Looking at Purpose and Form
One of the most elementary means of drawing a comparison between various texts is by looking at the form as well as the purpose of each literary text.
Form refers to the actual format of a written work, for instance an email, letter, diary entry or article. The form will be influenced by the type of audience the writing is intended for. Naturally a letter would be written with a private audience in mind whereas a newspaper article is obviously written for the public. Writers and even authors of books will choose the format of their writing according to the audience they hope to reach.
When it comes to purpose it’s all about the motivation behind the literary work. Does the writer wish to inform, entertain, advise, persuade or argue? And there may often be more than one purpose to a writer’s work.
The simplest way for learners to approach the idea of comparing texts is to merely observe the similarities and differences between any given texts.
Sometimes texts have a similar purpose and if so, these are good questions to ask yourself:
- Do they use similar methods?
- Are they aimed at the same kind of audience or different ones?
And then you may come across texts that have different purposes yet are written about the same subject. Ask yourself:
- How do they treat the subject differently?
- How have the writers shown a different opinion about the same subject?
Making a Comparison of Authors’ Methodologies
Just as artists have varied methods they use to give meaning to their art, writers too have particular methods they will use to convey their purpose when writing literature. And, especially with regards to non-fiction, form has a direct influence on a writer’s methods.
Think of these three elements of literature when comparing writers’ methods:
- Tone: if it is humorous, serious or satirical,
- Language: specific word choice, literary techniques and rhetorical devices,
- Structure: the way that ideas are ordered, repetition and the sentence structure.
The aim of a writer is to evoke a particular response from a reader so it’s important to think about how a reader may be impacted when reading a text. It will help with you to analyse and compare.
How to Compare Literary Non-Fiction and Non-Fiction
Non-fiction is just non-fiction, right?
Yes ... and no.
Usually the word “non-fiction” alludes to dry academic writing that aims to inform such as a research paper, thesis or newspaper article. However, just because something is factual doesn’t mean it can’t be colourful.
Literary non-fiction is the label given to non-fiction prose and is also known as creative non-fiction or literary journalism. What makes it unique is that although the writing is based on facts and true events, the purpose isn’t merely to convey information but actually to entertain and tell a story.
In order to differentiate between the two styles of writing it’s helpful to look at the word choice and literary techniques that writers choose to use when producing works of non-fiction.
The use of figurative language is a true mark of literary non-fiction. Look out for any figures of speech found within a text such as:
- Assonance etc.
If a reader easily identifies a writer’s point-of-view on a topic then it’s usually a tell-tale sign of literary non-fiction. Ordinary non-fiction should be unbiased.
Writing a Literature Review
So many learners complain that they don’t know how to write a literary analysis or review. This is an understandable complaint because it’s not the kind of text we practice doing as often as we would practice writing essays, letters and speeches etc.
But, in truth, writing a review of the literature you are studying can be a lot easier than you may think, so long as you have the right methods and tools!
The most important part is recording and synthesising all your thoughts in a coherent way. And here are some strategies that we would suggest:
Using Spider Diagrams
Spider diagrams are a popular choice when it comes to writing, studying, brainstorming and note-taking because they’re just the quickest option when you’re trying to jot down thoughts before they disappear.
But, as convenient as spider diagrams can be, for some learners they just create even more confusion because they can end up being very messy. So you have to decide if this approach works for you.
When you’re analysing a text you may want to look at different aspects such as the literature themes, narrative techniques or characterisation. It helps to have a separate diagram for the various aspects you are looking at and then linking them up afterwards.
Using a Table or Venn Diagram
Although Venn diagrams and tables require a bit more pre-planning and aren’t the instantaneous solution that spider diagrams or brainstorms offer, they’re a useful tool to use. Sometimes it helps to use them alongside your spider diagram as a means of organising the various points you jotted down.
Tables are also a fantastic tool for displaying similarities and differences in a visually appealing manner. And when your info is in a table it saves you valuable time that is sometimes wasted scanning pages of notes for a particular point.
The following is an example of a table that could be used to plan your ideas:
|simple present||imperfect||simple past||simple future||past participle|
|J'||ai||avais||eus||aurai||eu (m.),eue (f.)|
If you’re using a table you’ll have to sift through all the similarities and differences and only focus on the most relevant instead of trying to address every single literary element.
More Tips for Writing a Literary Essay or Review
When you approach the task of putting all your observations, comparisons and contrasts into a cohesive essay it can be a daunting task. But, in reality the structure of a literary essay is just like any other.
Remember These Points on Structure:
- Introduction: a very brief introduction that either links the two texts or addresses the literary work you are analysing
- Main points: contrasting or comparing the two texts, or highlighting important elements supported by details. The main points may include points on tone, language choices, literary devices, structure, character and plot
- Conclusion: the conclusion doesn’t have to be drawn out. Including a keyword/phrase from the original question or task instructions can help to bring everything together nicely.
If the explicit instructions were to compare two texts then be sure to give both texts equal attention throughout your written assignment. Don’t address one text and then the other, they must constantly be linked and contrasted.
Even if you have a paragraph that focuses on a particular sequence of events in one of the texts for instance, be sure to still mention the other text.
Here Are Some Examples of Terminology You Can Use When Doing Comparisons:
- Similarly ...
- Equally ...
- In the same way ...
- Just as ... so does ...
- Both ... and ...
These Are Phrases You Can Use to Refer to Contrasts:
- In contrast ...
- However ...
- On the other hand ...
- Alternatively ...
- In a different way.
When you are writing a literary analysis it’s important that when you use quotations from the text to support your ideas that you clearly link their relevance to your points.
Remember that a literary essay or review is by no means a summary of literature.
Only too often learners end up summarising the plot of an entire novel in an attempt to write an analysis. Remember to focus of specific themes and to read the initial instructions very carefully. The questions that are posed in the instructions you receive for any writing assignment are designed to guide you in the right direction and are often very specific.
Sometimes it helps to remember that by reviewing the literature you are studying at school you are actually preparing yourself for your examinations. Making an in depth research and study of literary works helps learners to grasp the plot and recognise important themes.
You may be questioning the relevance of all this analysing but in the process you are not just learning literary terms and Shakespearean language – you are learning to think analytically, which is an invaluable skill!