This handout is drawn from The American Short Story and
Its Writer: An Anthology (Bedford/St. Martin’s: 1999),
edited by Ann Charters.
General Questions for the Analysis of Literature
The following questions are designed to prompt your
approaches to your reading and to preparing papers or
notes for classroom discussion. It is by no means necessary
to prepare systematic answers for all or any of the stories.
Obviously not all questions need to be answered in relation
to any particular story. But their best use might be in
focusing your attention on one or another of those aspects
the writer has managed in weaving the whole fabric of the
EXPOSITION AND SETTING
1. How and when has the author introduced the main
2. How much background information or history has the
author provided for them? At what point in the story, and
by what means, is this background information brought in?
What makes such backgrounding necessary or (in cases in
which it is scanty or lacking altogether) unnecessary? Are
the characters made quickly comprehensible by
representing them as familiar types?
3. What means provide us with an understanding of the
situation prevailing before the action, properly speaking,
begins? To what extent is a prevailing and preexisting
conflict used as a jumping-off place for the present action
of the story?
4. What is there of special interest or significance in the
setting of the story? By what means are we informed about
the details of the setting? At what point in the story? How
is its relation to the signification of the action expressed?
5. Is the setting vividly represented or merely implied by
the way in which events unfold? Has the author assumed
that readers would be familiar with the significant qualities
to be found in this setting?
6. How is the setting exploited to enhance or control the
mood of the story? How does it help to bring out the
feelings or emotions experienced by the characters?
7. In stories told in the first person, do we learn essential
things about the narrator by the feelings or attention the
narrator devotes to the setting?
8. Could the action take place meaningfully in another
setting? That is – has the setting been chose arbitrarily, for
its own sake, or because it has an integral connection to the
plot – if it is noticeable at all – subordinate to the other
2. To what extent does the action of the plot emerge from
the kinds of characters depicted in the story and their
relation to each other?
3. Are there any major breaks or omissions in the chain of
causality that links the events or episodes of the plot? Is the
outcome of the plot consistent with the actions that initiated
it? If there is a surprise ending, does it emerge from some
unforeseen but plausible change in direction of the plot
4. How is the plot related to the chronology of the story?
That is, have some decisive actions, necessary to the plot,
taken place before the narration begins? Is the narration
halted with an implication of some event still to come that
will round out the plot?
5. Test the plot for meaning and credibility by imagining
alternative events which, at any point, might have made for
a different outcome.
6. What motivations in the characters are necessary to
move the plot along?
CHARACTER AND CONFLICT
1. Who is the central character, or who are the central
characters? What means has the author used to demonstrate
their qualities? To what extent are the characters defined by
contrast with minor characters?
2. Do we understand the characters as types or as
individuals? By their actions? Their speech? Their
thoughts? (It may be useful for you to pick a single instance
of action, speech, or thought and ask in what ways it
represents the character to whom it is attributed.)
3. Which characters are active and which passive within the
pattern of the story?
4. Does the story show growth or change of characters?
How much of the story’s meaning depends on such growth
5. How much of the conflict in the story rises from an
opposition between the central character and his or her
6. Is the conflict inherent in the personality of the
characters assembled by the author or in the backgrounds
7. How has the author worked to involve the reader’s
sympathies for certain characters, and how does this
contribute to the reader’s assessment of the issues of the
1. Do the meaning and emotional impact of this story
heavily depend on the working out of the plot? Or is the
8. How much are the characters (or their representation)
conditioned by their time and place?
POINT OF VIEW AND PERSON OF NARRATION
1. Has the author confined the narration to a single point of
view? Taking into account the nature of the material in the
story, what apparent advantages lie in telling about it from
the point of view actually chosen?
2. What potentially interesting aspects of the subject matter
have been subordinated or omitted by the choice of point of
3. In first-person narration, to what extent does the author
appear to have identified himself with the narrator? What
has the author gained by keeping a distinction between
himself and the personality of the narrator?
4. What would be gained or lost by changing the narration
from first to third person, or vice versa? (Class exercises in
rewriting parts of stories may be useful in support of this
5. How is the point of view complemented by disciplines of
style and diction? How do self-imposed limits of diction
reinforce the emotional impact of a story or focus its
6. Is an illusion of reality enhanced by choice of point of
view? A sense of immediacy?
1. Does the story make a general statement about life or
experience? Can it be stated in the form of a maxim? (The
effort to reduce the meaning of any piece of fiction to a
short, aphoristic summary can stumble all too readily into
simplistic errors. A teacher should point out that summary
of any theme is less than a complete understanding of the
story from which it comes.)
2. Is the thematic statement accomplished chiefly by the
outcome of the action? What qualifications and shadings
are given to it by the awareness of the characters of what
has happened to them?
3. What values and ideas have been put into the conflict
from which the thematic statement comes?
4. Is the theme a traditional one? Has the story given a new
twist to traditional wisdom? Where else – in literature,
history, or religion – have you encountered a similar
theme? Can you recall a poem or another story that makes a
comparable thematic statement?
DESCRIPTION, REPRESENTATION, AND SYMBOL
1. Pick out some examples of language used by the author
to stimulate and control the reader’s visualization of the
scene. Consider not only individual words and phrases but
the accumulation and combinations of nouns, verbs, and
their modifiers in paragraph structures.
2. How have the details chosen by the author given the
essential appearance of the characters or scene? Is the story
fully presented to your senses? Comment on the adequacy
of the description.
3. Has the author relied on your familiarity with certain
scenes, characters, and situations to fill in what has been
omitted from the actual text of the story?
4. How has the objectively rendered action of the story
helped you to understand the thoughts, emotions, and
motivations of the characters? Can you fill in the thought
processes of those characters whose thoughts are not
5. What objects, acts, or situations have a symbolic
meaning? Are the characters aware of these symbolic
meanings? Has the author used symbols as a means of
communicating to the reader some meanings not implicit in
the action and not understood by any character in the story?
MODE (AS IT APPLIES)
1. What devices or instances has the author relied on to
heighten the comic (pathetic, tragic, satiric, elegiac) effect
of the story?
2. What exaggerations or distortions of reality do you find
used to shape the material of the story to a particular
purpose? Could the same material serve another purpose?
(For example, in the case of comedy, could the material
have been treated in a way that would produce a tragic
3. To what extent has the author manipulated the tone of
the story to give a special flavor to the material?
4. With what views of life does this story fit best?
5. What satiric or ironic elements can you distinguish in the
story? Do these dominate the whole story? Are they
consistent with the overall quality of the story, or do they
provide tension, variety, and suspense as you wait to learn
what the author is really driving at?
6. Does the story appeal chiefly to a romantic or a realistic
sensibility? Does it tend to stir up pity, contempt,
amusement, awe, dismay, admiration, or a desire that life
should be different than it is?
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