What's the Point of Analyzing Literature?

By Erika Kvistad

analysis Originally, the word analysis meant taking something apart, dissolving it, splitting it into pieces. This might seem like a cruel thing to do to a piece of literature, and yet it’s the one thing your high school English course is supposed to teach you how to do. In high school I had a mental image of any book I was writing about as a complicated building made of Lego. By writing an essay about it I was taking bricks out of the structure, and putting them together differently to build something of my own. Even when I was pleased with what I’d made, I also felt a little bit guilty about it, like I’d only been able to create it by taking something away from the original text.


Even if you don’t think of your English homework as Lego, the other images ‘literary analysis’ calls up aren’t necessarily any more appealing. Is it like chemical analysis, running tests on the book to see what it’s made of? Or like psychoanalysis – the text feels like something is wrong; it needs to talk through its issues in therapy? It’s not that these aren’t valuable activities, but neither one seems to have much to do with what we assume that reading a book should be about, which is pleasure. What is the point of reading if you’re not enjoying it? And considering this, why is analyzing a piece of literature something any reasonable person would want to do?


There is something strange about the literature classroom, whether it’s the one you attend at your high school, or the university classroom where I teach. There aren’t that many other classes where you do in the classroom, with the pressure of deadlines, assignments, grades and exams, exactly what you might do after school for fun. If you do read for fun, you might love your literature classes, but it can also make you feel like one of your joys in life is being messed with. You are being told not only what to read, but when and how. I imagine students who like thinking about physics and engineering problems might sometimes feel the same way in science classes. Not surprisingly, making a thing compulsory and high-pressure tends to take a bit of the sparkle out of it.


Not only that, but the way you’re being taught to read is probably quite different from the way you’ve been doing it all along. Your usual habits are broken. You’re taught to notice details you would normally skip over, and to put your feelings and thoughts into new categories: setting, plot, characterization, theme, rhythm, rhyme. As a result, almost everyone who learns about literature at some point writes a piece of work that’s 100% bureaucratic box-ticking. (I don’t even want to think about how many of them I wrote.) Common features of the box-ticking essay include listing features of the text as though they were car parts, like ‘this poem contains alliteration, regular meter, and an ABAB rhyme scheme’. This is followed by a short, more or less randomly chosen description of the effect this has on the reader: ‘this creates a calming effect’.


Box-ticking happens for a reason: it’s what you do when you know what you’re supposed to be looking for, but you don’t yet know why. Or when you know why in theory, but you don’t feel it. You are learning how to analyze literature, but it isn’t doing anything for you yet; it feels less fun than just reading the way you normally would. Regular meter in a poem seems like the kind of thing that could produce a calming effect, but it’s not actually making you feel very calm. Mostly, what you feel is stress at the idea of having to do this in an exam in a few months’ time.


Ideally the box-ticking stress mode shouldn’t last forever, although it might pop up again in times of pressure. Your teacher, and of course your textbook, will be doing their best to help you get past it, and into a place where analysis is what it’s supposed to be: a way of reading that lets you understand literature more deeply and take more pleasure in it.


But how does this kind of pleasure actually work, in practice? To try to answer that, I’m going to look at a short piece of literature with an analytical eye. What I hope to show is that literary analysis, although it can feel artificial at first, is basically a slowed-down version of what your brain is already doing when you read. You’re not going to want to read everything this way, of course. Sometimes you just want to get to the next plot twist in a story without pausing too long to think carefully about all the landscape descriptions. But when you do slow down, you can notice more details, make more connections, have more revelations – in short, experience whatever you’re reading more intensely.

 

‘The Specialist’s Hat’

‘The Specialist’s Hat’ (see link below) is a short story by Kelly Link, from the 2001 collection Stranger Things Happen. If you have the collection itself in your hands, you can start reading slowly at the front cover, which shows a blonde girl in a 1960s outfit walking through a twisted, surreal forest. If you read old Nancy Drew books growing up, you’ll notice that it looks exactly like a Nancy Drew cover set in a fantasy-horror landscape, and this will give you an idea of what you’re about to read: something that mixes familiar and comforting things with unfamiliar and unsettling things.


‘The Specialist’s Hat’ is a story about two girls who are left with a babysitter in their new house. It begins like this:

 

‘When you're Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don't have to brush your teeth …’

‘When you're Dead,’ Claire says, ‘you live in a box, and it's always dark, but you're not ever afraid.’

Claire and Samantha are identical twins. Their combined age is twenty years, four months, and six days. Claire is better at being Dead than Samantha.

 

The box-ticking version is that this is an in medias res opening, because we get action, in this case dialogue, before we get an introduction or an explanation. If you read these sentences more slowly, it might strike you that the in medias res opening is an early sign that this story is deliberately going to mystify you, to leave you in the dark about certain things – like what it means to be capital D-Dead rather than just dead. You get another hint of this when the story makes you solve a math problem to work out how old the twins are, rather than just telling you. (Although the mention of ‘combined age’ does something else, too – doesn’t it make you feel like the twins themselves are in some way ‘combined’, like they’re not quite two different people?)


haunted house The cover of the book hints that these are stories that make references to other works of literature (you can call this allusion). You quickly realise that this is the case with ‘The Specialist’s Hat’. For instance, even if Claire hadn’t said so, it’s obvious to you from the start that this is a haunted house story. It’s full of details that you associate with ghost stories and horror films: the babysitter’s ghostly ‘long white hands’, the twins that like pretending to be dead (this makes you think of that hallway scene in The Shining), the fact that the house has a name and is thus presumably an old-fashioned Gothic mansion. Most importantly, there’s the fact that the twins just moved in, since you’re well aware that about 99% of haunted-house films start with a family moving to a new house to get a fresh start. Of course, how much of this occurs to you will depend on your reading habits. If you’re not particularly interested in horror, the story might look quite different to you; you might see things in it that a horror fan wouldn’t. (Not to mention that the ending might be more of a surprise to you.)


As you read on, you realize that the references to literature aren’t just there to create atmosphere or tell you what kind of story this is. They’re clues to what’s going to happen next, or foreshadowing. Verses from creepy little poems keep turning up in the text:

 

Dreary and dreadful beats the sea at the shore.
Ghastly and dripping is the mist at the door.
The clock in the hall is chiming one, two, three, four.
The morning comes not, no, never, no more.

 

You figure out that these must be the work of Charles Cheatham Rash, the nineteenth-century poet who used to live in the house before he mysteriously disappeared. But that must mean that the poems describe things that he experienced in the house. Soon, you realize that the things Rash wrote about are also happening in the story itself. Rash writes that he ‘met a woman in the wood’, and the twins’ father meets a woman in the wood. Rash’s novel is called The One Who is Watching Me Through The Window, and the twins’ father sees something with orange eyes watching him through the window … on the second floor. This is unpleasant enough, but if you’re reading slowly enough you’ll also start to think: whose point of view is this? Most of the story is in the third person from the twins’ point of view, and describes their thoughts and feelings. But it doesn’t seem like the twins are the ones quoting these poems, since we know that they don’t like Rash’s poetry. So what are the poems doing here? It feels as if they’re being spoken by a ghost voice, a voice you can’t quite identify.


In fact, the more slowly you read the story, the stranger it gets. You know that the twins’ mother has quite recently died, so the next time the word ‘mother’ is mentioned, you pay attention. Groups of tourist families arrive to visit the house, but Claire and Samantha only notice the mothers:


The dim light in the house makes the mothers look pale and flickery and tired. They leave Eight Chimneys, mothers and families, looking not quite as real as they did before they paid their admissions, and of course Claire and Samantha will never see them again, so maybe they aren't real.


This makes you feel sorry for the twins, who are clearly missing their mother, but it also tells you something: that there’s something about the house that makes mothers unreal (or that turns them into ghosts, even – pale and flickery). At this point you’re sensitive to any mention of mothers, since you’ve realized that it’s almost certain to mean something interesting. (You could call this a theme, which is when a story is so interested in a concept that you can’t help noticing it.) So when a little later Claire and Samantha play a game where ‘they made the babysitter into a mummy’, you interpret mummy as ‘a preserved body wrapped in bandages, like in ancient Egypt’, but also as ‘a female parent’. So which of the two is the babysitter being turned into? Don’t trust her! you find yourself thinking. She’s not your real mother!


As the story comes to a conclusion, it turns out you were probably right that they shouldn’t have trusted her – but almost everything else is questionable. ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ is a particularly fun story to read slowly and to write about, because it has such an open ending and leaves so many questions for you to answer. What really happens to the girls, and what does it mean to be Dead? Is it their father they hear at the end of the story, or is it the Specialist pretending to be him? Why are there so many snakes in this story, and so many horses? Who or what is the Specialist? Is this even really a haunted-house story at all, or is it all just a metaphor for coping with grief? Could there be other stories hidden in this one that no one else has seen yet?


Reading slowly is the first and most important part of answering these questions; the next step might be talking to someone else about it, or putting down your thoughts in writing. Either way, your reading of the text will be different from anyone else’s. So every time I say ‘you’ in the passages above, what I really mean is ‘me’ – I can’t predict which things you’ll notice or how you’ll think about them, I can only tell you the things I notice. Which is why it’s important that you, and no one else, are reading this story. You’re not splitting the story into pieces; you’re bringing it to life.

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