In the trenches of my AP Literature and Composition classroom, I’ve observed a peculiar phenomenon. It’s as though many of my students, after a summer spent in the virtual arms of SparkNotes, Shmoop, and LitCharts, walk into the first day of class bearing a curious misconception.
They seem to believe that every novel or poem exists solely as a maze of symbols and motifs to be decoded. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, becomes nothing more than an elusive green light. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is reduced to a simple red hunting hat. The complexity of Golding’s Lord of the Flies is minimized by the symbolism of a conch shell.
The start of each academic year presents the challenge of dispelling this illusion. A number of my students arrive with the fixed idea that literature is a sort of elaborate treasure hunt, with each piece of text hiding symbolic artifacts that they must unearth and interpret. Some even harbor the belief that their intellectual prowess is measured by their ability to spin grand theories around the significance of these unearthed objects.
Adding to this dilemma is the rather unfortunate stereotype perpetuated by popular culture: literary analysis is a high-brow pursuit, reserved for stuffy, tweed-clad academics in dimly-lit, oak-paneled rooms. The fact that this depiction is a far cry from reality does little to allay my students’ intimidation.
But let me tell you this. Literary analysis is not confined to the realm of symbols and motifs. It doesn’t demand pretentious posturing or the mastery of an arcane language. The journey into the heart of a literary work begins with the most basic and practical tool at our disposal: words.
The purpose of any analysis is to carefully examine the parts and see how they impact 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 figurative things like symbols and motifs, grounding students in diction can build confidence and skill.
Every text novel, poem, or play has words, making every text 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:
-The Catcher in the Rye
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 anyone,’ 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, and 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.