Learning Lab Tips on Critical Analysis

Short Stories and Novels

So, you have to write a critical analysis. It is a chore for some, a joy for others--and everyone has to do at least one. What is a critical analysis? Is it like the standard essay paper students are taught to write? What should go into a critical analysis paper? These questions will be answered in this handout.

Individual instructors may have specific requirements for papers written in their classes. Those requirements take precedence over anything written in this handout. Otherwise, a critical analysis paper may be written in the same format that is taught for writing ordinary essays in Comp. I and Comp. II. A critical analysis includes an introduction, a thesis statement, perhaps a map of the essay, the body of the essayconsisting of an argument which supports the essay’s thesis, and a conclusion which restates the thesis and sums up the essay’s main points. The paper itself will consist of demonstrating, or proving, the thesis.

It must be kept in mind, however, that in critical analysis one looks both analytically and critically at fiction and makes an argument about its meaning. What follows is a discussion of what the words "critical" and "analysis" actually mean.

What does "analysis" mean
Analysis will make up most of the body of the paper. It is helpful to look at analysis as "decoding". Authors rarely say what they mean in a straightforward, obvious way, but they are trying to communicate with readers nonetheless. In doing so they use a variety of tools to enrich their purpose, tools such as character, setting, symbol, etc. These tools are the elements of fiction, and they make up a "code". Analysis means literally picking a story apart--separating out the characters, the plot, the imagery, the setting, and so on, from one another in order to get a look at how they work together to get a theme across to a reader. By doing this, one decodes the story. These can be mysterious and confusing to the beginner. However, with practice, a reader can learn to unravel the code.

For example, regarding the story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield (in Structure, Sound and Sense), one might say many things. However, one must limit the scope of the paper and say, perhaps, that one important theme is that human beings become out of touch with reality if they do not spend time actually communicating with other real human beings or acting in the real world. The thesis statement of the paper might be as follows:
Katherine Mansfield's theme in ‘Miss Brill,’ expressed through the character of Miss Brill the idealist and dreamer, is that people who do not communicate with real people and act in the real world can get out of touch with reality, and their naivete can lead to their own pain.
After stating one's idea about the theme of the story in the thesis statement, one must prove one's idea, and this follows in the body of the paper. One proves the thesis through analysis; analysis usually looks something like this: give a thesis for your paper (the thesis is the jist of your argument); make a series of assertions supporting your thesis (these can consist of the topic sentences of your paragraphs), find evidence from the text that supports your assertions, and explicate the evidence in light of the assertions you have made (these make up the supporting details of your paragraphs).

The following is one example of analysis, and it proves the first part of the thesis statement: One might observe that Mansfield has Miss Brill use very descriptive, colorful, and even loving language in characterizing other people to herself--thus one notices her extreme affection for them and perhaps idealism regarding them. The critical paper will give examples of this language in the form of quotations from the story; this is evidence. (Evidence does not have to take the form of an entire paragraph; it can consist of short quotes from the text as well. The point is, make sure it is clear why the evidence you have chosen is relates clearly to the idea which you claim it supports.) One example of this idealism can be found in Miss Brill’s way of thinking about her fur stole:

Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur...Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed life back into the dim little eyes. "What has been happening to me?" said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown!...But the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn’t at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind--a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came--when it was absolutely necessary...Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little rogue biting its tail just by her left ear.

Next, explicate this quoted passage in relation to the assertion that Miss Brill is an "idealist." (In other words, tell your reader just how, exactly, this quote is adequate proof of your assertion) Begin with a topic sentence that relates to your thesis statement; this topic sentence will be on aspect of your argument in the paper:

This passage demonstrates Miss Brill’s idealism. The protagonist uses language such as "sweet" and "dear" to describe a thing that has no life, her fox fur. She also uses terms of endearment such as "Little Rogue" in thinking about her fox stole. Also, in her perspective, the fox has "sad little eyes" instead of dead glass ones. Thus, she seems to regard it as though it were alive and had a personality. The stole even asks her a question, in her imagination: "What has been happening to me?" Now, all this takes place in direct opposition to what the reader can knows is the truth: that fox stole is not, indeed, alive, but dead and inanimate. However, to think of a dead fox stole as a cute, engaging little living animal is surely to idealize that animal. Thus one proves that Miss Brill is an idealist. Everything and everyone is interesting, colorful, and most of all good on account of Miss Brill’s idealism.

As part of proving the thesis, one might make an assertion that the character of Miss Brill is what is called a "dreamer" rather than a liver of her own life (this idea has been touched upon in your thesis statement).

Next, supply evidence for the assertion: One might begin with citing the fact that the text tells us that Miss Brill pays a lot of attention to the people around her, and gets very involved in what could be called a "vicarious" way in their affairs:

She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon. Last Sunday, too, hadn’t been as interesting as usual. An Englishman and his wife, he wearing a dreadful Panama hat and she button boots. And she’d gone on the whole time about how she ought to wear spectacles; she knew she needed them; but that it was no good getting any; they’d be sure to break and they’d never keep on. And he’d been so patient. He’d suggested everything--gold rims, the kind that curve round your ears, little pads inside the bridge. No, nothing would please her. "They’ll always be sliding down my nose?" Miss Brill had wanted to shake her.

Again, one must explicate this quote in light of the assertion previously made. Begin with a topic sentence that includes a transition between your ideas; you are shifting from the topic of Miss Brill’s idealism to that of her nature as a dreamer. Something like this could be said:

Miss Brill is an idealist; she is also a dreamer. The narrator tells us that though she doesn't actually talk much to other people, Miss Brill observes their clothes and behavior as though they were characters in a great big play and feels as though she knows them by doing this. Miss Brill has a wonderful, colorful imagination but is perhaps a little isolated from real people. For example, the narrator has told us, first off, that Miss Brill actively eavesdrops on others, and goes so far to consider it a talent--she is "quite expert" at it. Furthermore, we can see from the detail with which this scene is recounted from Miss Brill’s point of view that she has paid very close attention to it. Miss Brill becomes so involved with this couple that she feels the urge to physically shake the woman. Thus she is heavily involved in the lives of others at the expense of her own, perhaps. Thus, Miss Brill gets overly involved in a vicarious way, but not in a real way, with people around her, and can therefore be called a dreamer. It’s almost as though she has little life of her own. One might also note that Miss Brill thinks of herself as an "actress" in the "play" of life. Ironically, Miss Brill's actions do not reflect this--she mainly looks and imagines, but she doesn't act.

The assertions that Miss Brill is an idealist and a dreamer are thus supported by evidence from the story and by supporting explication of the evidence. In support of the thesis, one might finally assert that the turning point of the plot demonstrates the story’s theme that such an idealist and a dreamer may be headed towards a downfall. Provide evidence for the assertion in the form of quotations from the text and explicate the evidence:

Mansfield describes Miss Brill's unpleasant experience at the close of the story when a young couple are cruel to her, and this demonstrates her downfall. (Here’s the evidence; this time only a short quote and the citation of an incident are used.) As Miss Brill listen to the couple’s conversation, she overhears the young man call Miss Brill a "stupid old thing"; also, the girl laughs derisively at the precious fur. In contrast with what has taken place in the story, Miss Brill encounters the dark side of human beings as she realizes that the young couple are not willing to extend the same affection towards her as she is towards them. They do not find her a darling actor in a play, as Miss Brill might find them. She encounters common human pettiness, a side of people that she has overlooked in her affectionate daydreams.

All of these observations demonstrate the story's theme that those who idealize human beings will eventually be hurt and disillusioned by them; however, perhaps a clear-eyed, non-judgmental understanding of human beings (including Miss Brill, those whom she watches, and the young couple who hurt her) as complex and having equal parts of "good" and "evil" is a good defense against such disappointment.

What does 'critical' mean?"
Besides analysis, the other important aspect of the critical analysis paper is the "critical" part. The critical evaluation of a work is often best saved for the conclusion of the paper, though it doesn't have to be. To criticize means to judge the merits and the faults of a story. What has the author done well, and what has he done less well? Has he successfully demonstrated his theme?

For example, one might say the following:
Katherine Mansfield presents conflicting views of the character of Miss Brill. On the one hand Mansfield seems to appreciate people with Miss Brill's sensitivity and imagination because of the loving detail with which she paints her. The author's loving detail helps us to understand Miss Brill's perspective on life and sympathize with her sensitive soul. On the other hand, Mansfield shows us that when a couple of characters are cruel to Miss Brill, she is crushed; her naivete has left her completely unprepared for their behavior.

Mansfield thus shows that characters like Miss Brill are heading for disappointment because they either refuse to or are unable to acknowledge the "evil" that coexists with the "good" in people. However, the conflicts Mansfield creates present a balanced, and therefore a literarily "good," presentation of her theme. Mansfield does not approve of human cruelty because she also presents us with the pain it causes Miss Brill, a character with whom the reader has been made to sympathize at least partially. In spite of the representation of "evil" and its aftermath, Mansfield neither wholly condemns nor wholly approves of any character in the story. In evaluation, one might say that this story has merit because Mansfield herself is able to balance her critical observations of the character of Miss Brill with sympathy, and thus achieves a valid insight into a particular kind of personality and its relationships with others. In this way, Mansfield's story successfully presents a complex idea about complex human beings in a fair, balanced way.

The above analysis has focussed on one character and her thoughts and behavior; however, one does not have to write only about character. In fact, there are really very few rules to follow in writing a critical analysis. One can write an analysis devoted exclusively to a writer's use of any one element or device present in fiction. One can write an analysis by talking about a combination of elements. This is because every story is different, and writers use different elements in different ways for different reasons. Thus it is really up to the writer of a critical paper to decide what is important in an individual story and why it is important enough to be written about.

However, critical analysis papers should focus on a theme or a set of themes. Any writer invents characters, uses certain kinds of imagery, describes certain settings for specific reasons, and this usually has to do with an overall theme. Any main point made in a critical analysis paper should relate back to a theme, so the question of "why" a character, image or symbol appears should always be kept in mind. What is the writer's point? How does an element relate to a story's basic message?

The following questions should be helpful in the prewriting phase of a critical analysis paper:

The relationship between the writer's own life and times and the story he has written may be very important to one's understanding of the story. One might want to consider whether the story's theme applies in today's world or only to the world of the writer. This should be discussed with one's instructor. English scholars disagree about whether or not it is appropriate or necessary to discuss an author's life in critical analysis.

Literary Elements
Examining stories in terms of each literary element will help a great deal in the interpretation of a story. What follows is a list of major story elements and a set of questions for consideration. It is not necessary to answer each and every question in a critical analysis paper; they are there to help writers get ideas. It should be kept in mind that some elements are given more emphasis than others in different stories, so only those that apply to a particular story need be discussed in a critical analysis. Finally, the "so what?" question should always be answered--in other words, critical papers should tell why something in a story is important and should give proof of any assertion about a story.


It is a good idea to put the story's theme at the center of the paper; focusing on one theme will help keep the paper unified. A theme is similar to a message, a main idea, or a moral; however, it is "deeper", more profound, than any of these. A theme is the author's statement about his view of human nature, about certain kinds of people, about certain classes of people, about particular human emotions, or about life in general. It should be expressed in one or, at most, two sentences.


A character is a person in a story. Is the character being discussed static or dynamic? Is he two dimensional or complex? Does he have contradictory characteristics or is he consistent? Does his personality relate to conflicts in the story, and if so, how? Do different characters stand in for alternative ways of living and acting? Are there characters in the story with whom the reader might choose to compare the character being considered? Is the character presented directly or indirectly? What is implied by his mannerisms, clothing, speech, background, religion or lack of religion, goals, reaction to others? Does he have a value system, how is it presented, and what is it like? What do the character's actions express about him? Is there any special imagery associated with the character, and what does it imply about him? What does the narrator say about him? Is the narrator accurate and reliable? What does the character say about himself? Is his self-knowledge limited or unrealistic, or is it accurate and complete? Is he able to apply his self-knowledge and change? Are his opinions of others reliable? What do other characters say about him? Are those characters reliable, or are they perhaps overly critical, unsympathetic or blind to his faults? What are the character's motivations? Are they believable? What interactions between characters take place, and what are the results? Why are those interactions and their results important?


The plot consists of the events that take place in a story, plus the conflicts and suspense involved as the events take place. The plot should never be summarized; instead, one should assume that whoever reads the critical analysis paper already knows the sequence of events. Instead, one should talk about how and why things happen. Everything happens in a story for a reason, so whenever an event takes place it should be related in some way to the author's purpose. What emotions does the reader experience at different points in the plot? These are clues to conflict and suspense? What are the conflicts--man versus man, man versus nature, society, or himself? Could any events be compared or contrasted? How do the conflicts relate to the story's theme? Is there any symbolism or imagery connected to an event that helps the reader understand the event's meaning? Is the plot suspenseful? If so, what creates the suspense--for example, which conflicts, dilemmas, important information unknown to a character? Why is the ending "true-to-life" or unrealistic? Is it crystal-clear and final, or is it indeterminate (open-ended)? Does the ending make sense when compared with what happens in the story? Does irony occur with an event or with an ending?


The main character or protagonist of a story usually has a conflict to deal with. What does the protagonist or other characters in question struggle against? How is the conflict revealed through plot, characterization, narration, dialogue, etc. Which events are particularly important in the progress of the conflicts? In other words, what are the turning points of the story? What characters or ideas are opposites in the story? Is this a story of man versus man, man versus nature, society, destiny, or himself? Is there a combination of these conflicts? Are there any choices that the character must make? Does the story show conflicting ways of looking at a person, problem, or event?

The setting consists of characters' surroundings. In what era and what nation do the characters exist? What objects appear? Does the author mention a setting simply as a matter of course, or does he describe a setting to create an atmosphere or to give clues about the characters and events? What events are tied to certain settings? How does the connection effect the meaning of the events? What imagery belongs to a particular setting, what does it imply? Is the setting symbolic in any way? Is a certain setting associated with a fantasy for a particular character? Do certain characters seem to belong more in one setting than in another, and if so, why? Does a character change when he enters a new setting? Does the new setting actually cause him to change, or does it bring out hidden aspects of his personality?

Look at Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense for a detailed discussion of the various types of point-of-view. Point-of-view, which is often called narration, has to do with the way information is presented in the story, and, as a result, what readers can know about characters and events. What one knows effects the interpretations one can make--the meanings one can get out of a story. Does the story change point-of-view? How does the change effect its meaning? If one of the story's characters tells the story, how does this effect the meaning? Is he a major or a minor character? Does he present events accurately and interpret them fairly? How do his flaws, virtues, advantages, disadvantages effect his storytelling?

Tone reflects the author's attitude toward the characters and events in his story. Is the writer detached (lacking emotion) or is he involved? Is the writer's attitude admiring, approving, warm, or disliking, cold, bitter or perhaps even angry, harsh, or condemning? Is his attitude light-hearted, playful, or comic, or is it grand, lofty, or serious? What is it about the author's writing that reflects the attitudes you find in the story? Does the writer understate or overstate his idea? Does he exaggerate or does he use irony? Does he write plainly, simply, matter-of-factly? What kinds of description does the writer use? Are his adjectives glowing and vivid or are they calm and bland? How does the author's manner of description, and thus his attitude, change from character to character? Are there particular images that seem to point to a particular attitude on the writer's part? Does the characters' situation or setting relate to or reflect the story's tone?

Irony is defined as a discrepancy between appearances and what one knows to be true, or between what one might expect to take place and what actually does. Is there a difference between what a character says and what the reader knows to be true? Does the story emphasize a difference between appearance and reality, between an expectation and an actual fulfillment? Is an outcome of a story the opposite of what one would think it would be? Does a character say one thing but mean the opposite? All of these situations signal irony. How do these situations relate to the story's theme?

A symbol is simply something that means more than what it is; it has a different, abstract meaning apart from its literal significance. It can be an object, a person, a situation, an action, or any other thing presented in a story.