I blame it all on SparkNotes.
For every summary it provides, there are “Themes, Motifs & Symbols.” When students visit sites like it, Shmoop, and LitCharts, they come away with the impression that the sole purpose of a work of literature is to exist through its symbols and motifs. It is a poor form of reduction. The Great Gatsby becomes the green light. The Catcher in the Rye is the red hunting hat. The Lord of the Flies is summed up by the conch shell.
When students walk into my AP Literature and Composition class at the beginning of the year, some have the wacky notion that every text is a scavenger hunt for symbols. Or they must say the most profound things about the significance of the major objects in a text.
It doesn’t help that literary analysis is terribly intimidating for most students. Pop culture creates the caricature that it belongs in dark-paneled rooms with pretentious, tweed-jacketed professors spouting grand ideas.
But literary analysis isn’t all about symbols and motifs. It isn’t stuffy either. It starts with the most practical of things–words.
The purpose of any analysis is to carefully examine the parts and see how they impact to the whole. Auto mechanics do this every day as they investigate the rattles, clacks, and clangs of a car to see how it impacts the performance of an entire system. Doctors do it too. Detecting the slightest murmur or spike in blood pressure can save someone’s life.
As with any analysis, literary analysis requires you to break the subject down into its component parts. Rather than begin with the figurative things like symbols and motifs, grounding students in diction can build confidence and skill.
Every text novel, poem, or play has words, making that every text is open to an analysis of diction. The simplest way to get students to evaluate diction is to give them two opposing choices. Is it simple or formal? Colloquial or pedantic? Scholarly or slang? Vulgar or moralistic?
Here is a passage, an opening first sentence, that you can use with your students to analyze diction:
Words stand out. “Probably,” “Lousy,” “occupied and all,” “crap,” and “truth.” It is simple, colloquial to a teenager, and may border on vulgar, depending on your taste.
The informal language connects with its rambling syntax (check out how I analyze syntax here), which creates a tone of frustration, anger, fear, and resentment all at the same time. Through word choice, a character is revealed.
Compare it to this opening to another famous novel.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
— The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby’s diction is formal, moralistic, perhaps even a bit ostentatious. It suits its purpose to establish a novel based on class and money (“advantages”), insecurities (“vulnerability”), and unresolved conflict (“turning over in my mind” and “criticizing”).
Attempts like these at close reading are easy ways for students can succeed. You can use my Diction Analysis Worksheet to create the binary questions that will help students recognize an author’s word choice and evaluate its impact. It is FREE, all you need to do is fill in the box below.
Download My FREE Diction Guide
It walks students through the three simple steps to analyze diction in any text!