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Michael Barsanti's Levels of Analysis

Levels of Analysis

by Michael Barsanti


The following levels of literary analysis are based on my own experiences in writing, reading, and grading. Not all papers can be easily placed onto these levels, but they correspond to general trends in student writing. Often students will come in to a class ready to discuss a book or a film in terms of its characters. A good literary reading goes beyond character to answer questions about what a work is trying to say, and how it goes about saying it. Don't think of these levels as steps on an evolutionary chain where one mode of writing completely succeeds the other. Instead, think of each level as building upon the first. A good "Structure" paper rises out of, or begins with, some sort of judgment about the characters in the play.


I. Character Algernon is funny, but a bit of a jerk. This thesis talks about a character as if he were a person-a necessary first step, in many cases, but not enough for a real reading. A thesis at this level often turns upon the question of whether the author identifies with the character and therefore "likes" him or her, or if the author can't, and therefore finds the story boring.
II. Theme Oscar Wilde, through the character of Algernon, emphasizes the importance of cleverness. This sort of thesis is clearly built upon the first level of character analysis, but draws a conclusion relating to theme, or "the point of the story." There is considerable danger that an author of a paper working at this level will settle on a clich? as a theme, instead of looking very carefully at the evidence of the story and drawing a tentative conclusion empirically.
III. Structure Algernon's limitless witty sayings reveal the absence of a true character, and show Wilde's love for aesthetic surfaces over psychological depth. A crucial level-here the thesis is concerned less with what the play is trying to do (taking that as almost a given) than it is with how the work is doing it. This sort of thesis demands attention to details of the story that might at first seem marginal, such as stage setting or narration, but produce interesting arguments.
IV. Context Wilde's Algernon is antithetical to the Realistic tradition of the late Victorian period. The next level up takes the how question of level III and sets it into a broader literary/historical context. This level often requires some research into the history of the author, the period, or the genre in question.