LITERARY ANALYSIS THESIS
A thesis in a literary analysis or literary research paper can take many forms. When given an assignment to
analyze a work of fiction, poetry, or drama, you must first determine the requirements of the assignment. Make
sure that you understand the nature of the assignment and that you follow the instructions of your professor.
Useful Information: Literature is classified in categories, or genres, which have sub-classifications
or forms of their own. Being familiar with the characteristics of the genre in which the work is
classified will provide context for your analysis of that work. In the list below, which is not
exhaustive, are common forms of literature with the genres they represent.
Fiction: myths, parables, short stories, novels (picaresque, romance, historical, gothic,
science fiction, mystery, modernist)
Poetry: sonnets, ballads, epics, limericks, elegies, free verse, odes, lyrics, tercets, villanelles
Drama: tragedies, comedies, theatre of the absurd
Nonfiction (sometimes called creative nonfiction): slave narratives, personal essays,
memoirs, biographies, travel writing
Once you decide what work you will analyze, you will begin the analysis of the work and do any research
required. As you think about your topic, be sure to construct a thesis that will guide your analysis as well as
serve to focus and organize your essay. A good thesis is specific, limited in scope and offers a perspective or
interpretation on a subject. A literary thesis should be clear and focused, setting up an argument that the essay
will support with discussion and details from the work.
SAMPLE THESIS STATEMENTS
These sample thesis statements are provided as guides, not as required forms or prescriptions.
The thesis may focus on an analysis of one of the elements of fiction, drama, poetry or
nonfiction as expressed in the work: character, plot, structure, idea, theme, symbol, style,
imagery, tone, etc.
In “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty creates a fictional character in Phoenix Jackson whose
determination, faith, and cunning illustrate the indomitable human spirit.
Note that the work, author, and character to be analyzed are identified in this thesis statement. The
thesis relies on a strong verb (creates). It also identifies the element of fiction that the writer will
explore (character) and the characteristics the writer will analyze and discuss (determination, faith,
The character of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet serves as a foil to young Juliet, delights us with her
warmth and earthy wit, and helps realize the tragic catastrophe.
The works of ecstatic love poets Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir use symbols such as a lover’s longing and the
Tavern of Ruin to illustrate the human soul’s desire to connect with God.
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The thesis may focus on illustrating how a work reflects the particular genre’s forms, the
characteristics of a philosophy of literature, or the ideas of a particular school of thought.
“The Third and Final Continent” exhibits characteristics recurrent in writings by immigrants:
tradition, adaptation, and identity.
Note how the thesis statement classifies the form of the work (writings by immigrants) and
identifies the characteristics of that form of writing (tradition, adaptation, and identity) that the
essay will discuss.
Samuel Beckett’s Endgame reflects characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd in its minimalist stage
setting, its seemingly meaningless dialogue, and its apocalyptic or nihilist vision.
A close look at many details in “The Story of an Hour” reveals how language, institutions, and
expected demeanor suppress the natural desires and aspirations of women.
The thesis may draw parallels between some element in the work and real-life situations or
subject matter: historical events, the author’s life, medical diagnoses, etc.
In Willa Cather’s short story, “Paul’s Case,” Paul exhibits suicidal behavior that a caring adult
might have recognized and remedied had that adult had the scientific knowledge we have
This thesis suggests that the essay will identify characteristics of suicide that Paul exhibits in the
story. The writer will have to research medical and psychology texts to determine the typical
characteristics of suicidal behavior and to illustrate how Paul’s behavior mirrors those
Through the experience of one man, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American
Slave, accurately depicts the historical record of slave life in its descriptions of the often brutal and
quixotic relationship between master and slave and of the fragmentation of slave families.
In “I Stand Here Ironing,” one can draw parallels between the narrator’s situation and the author’s life
experiences as a mother, writer, and feminist.
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SAMPLE PATTERNS FOR THESES ON LITERARY WORKS
In (title of work), (author) (illustrates, shows) (aspect) (adjective).
Example: In “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner shows the characters Sardie and Abner
Snopes struggling for their identity.
In (title of work), (author) uses (one aspect) to (define, strengthen, illustrate) the (element
In “Youth,” Joseph Conrad uses foreshadowing to strengthen the plot.
In (title of work), (author) uses (an important part of work) as a unifying device for (one
element), (another element), and (another element). NOTE: The number of elements can
vary from one to four.
Example: In “Youth,” Joseph Conrad uses the sea as a unifying device for setting,
structure and theme.
(Author) develops the character of (character’s name) in (literary work) through what
he/she does, what he/she says, what other people say to or about him/her.
Langston Hughes develops the character of Semple in “Ways and Means”…
In (title of work), (author) uses (literary device) to (accomplish, develop, illustrate,
strengthen) (element of work).
Example: In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe uses the symbolism of the stranger,
the clock, and the seventh room to develop the theme of death.
(Author) (shows, develops, illustrates) the theme of __________ in the (play, poem,
Example: Flannery O’Connor illustrates the theme of the effect of the selfishness of
the grandmother upon the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
(Author) develops his character(s) in (title of work) through his/her use of language.
Example: John Updike develops his characters in “A & P” through his use of
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Refer to your literary textbook. The first chapter often includes information on writing essays on literary
topics, and later chapters discuss elements of literature.
Use supplemental resources available in the LTC. Consider the following:
McKeague, Pat. Writing about Literature: Step by Step. 8th ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt
Publishing Co. 2005.
Roberts, Edgar V. Ed. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th Compact Ed.
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2008.
Refer to this very reputable online resource: The OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue:
“Writing in Literature: An Overview”: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/713/01/
This overview page includes links to pages that discuss how to write a thesis, how to read a
poem, how to read a novel or short story, and how to read a play, among other topics.
Ask an LTC tutor to review drafts of your thesis statement for strength and coherence.
FINAL NOTE: Conventions for Writing a Literary Analysis Essay or Research Paper
Ensure that your essay…
makes an argument or claim or illustrates an engaging perspective on the work
includes a thesis which lists the key points the essay will discuss
provides evidence to support your claim
refers to the author(s) and the work(s) in the opening sentences. Use the author’s full name the
first time and the author’s last name in all further references in the essay.
uses literary present tense to discuss events in the fiction, poetry, or drama.
For information on this convention, see: http://humanities.ucsd.edu/writing/workshop/present.htm
uses strong verbs in the thesis statement and throughout the essay: demonstrates, uses, develops,
underscores, accomplishes, strengthens, illustrates, shows, reveals, serves, emphasizes, identifies,
suggests, implies, etc.
uses formal rather than informal language
For more information on levels of formality, visit our website:
does more than simply summarize the work
For more information on literary analysis, visit our website:
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Honoré De Balzac
A Passion in the Desert
Translated by Ernest Dowson
Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a French writer and is considered one of the founders of the
realist movement in literature. He wrote a number of novels and short stories, collectively called
La Comédie Humaine. His novels and stories depict life in France after the exile of Napoleon in
1815. They show the wide sweep of French life, from the salons in Paris to the poor in the
countryside. His novels include Eugénie Grandet (1833), Père Goriot (1835), and Cousine Bette
(1846). “A Passion in the Desert,” translated here by Ernest Dowson, was published in 1830. It
was made into the movie Simoom: A Passion in the Desert (1998).
“The whole show is dreadful,” she cried coming out of the menagerie of M. Martin. She had
just been looking at that daring speculator working with his hyena,—to speak in the style of the
“By what means,” she continued, “can he have tamed these animals to such a point as to be
certain of their affection for—” “What seems to you a problem,” said I, interrupting, “is really
“Oh!” she cried, letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips. “You think that beasts
are wholly without passions?” I asked her. “Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all
the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”
She looked at me with an air of astonishment.
“But,” I continued, “the first time I saw M. Martin, I admit, like you, I did give vent to an
exclamation of surprise. I found myself next to an old soldier with the right leg amputated, who
had come in with me. His face had struck me. He had one of those heroic heads, stamped with
the seal of warfare, and on which the battles of Napoleon are written. Besides, he had that frank,
good-humored expression which always impresses me favorably. He was without doubt one of
those troopers who are surprised at nothing, who find matter for laughter in the contortions of a
dying comrade, who bury or plunder him quite light-heartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way
of bullets;—in fact, one of those men who waste no time in deliberation, and would not hesitate
to make friends with the devil himself. After looking very attentively at the proprietor of the
menagerie getting out of his box, my companion pursed up his lips with an air of mockery and
contempt, with that peculiar and expressive twist which superior people assume to show they are
not taken in. Then, when I was expatiating on the courage of M. Martin, he smiled, shook his
head knowingly, and said, 'Well known.'
“'How well known ?' I said. 'If you would only explain me the mystery, I should be vastly
“After a few minutes, during which we made acquaintance, we went to dine at the first
restauranteur's whose shop caught our eye. At dessert a bottle of champagne completely
refreshed and brightened up the memories of this odd old soldier. He told me his story, and I
saw that he was right when he exclaimed, 'Well known.'”
When she got home, she teased me to that extent, was so charming, and made so many
promises, that I consented to communicate to her the confidences of the old soldier. Next day she
received the following episode of an epic which one might call The French in Egypt:
During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provençal soldier fell into the
hands of the Maugrabins, and was taken by these Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the
In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the French army, the
Maugrabins made forced marches, and only halted when night was upon them. They camped
round a well overshadowed by palm trees under which they had previously concealed a store of
provisions. Not surmising that the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner, they contented
themselves with binding his hands, and after eating a few dates, and giving provender to their
horses, went to sleep.
When the brave Provençal saw that his enemies were no longer watching him, he made use
of his teeth to steal a scimitar, fixed the blade between his knees, and cut the cords which
prevented him from using his hands; in a moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and
a dagger, then taking the precautions to provide himself with a sack of dried dates, oats, and
powder and shot, and to fasten a scimitar to his waist, he leaped on to a horse, and spurred on
vigorously in the direction where he thought to find the French army. So impatient was he to see
a bivouac again that he pressed on the already tired courser at such speed, that its flanks were
lacerated with his spurs, and at last the poor animal died, leaving the Frenchman alone in the
desert. After walking sometime in the sand with all the courage of an escaped convict, the soldier
was obliged to stop, as the day had already ended. In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at
night, he felt he had not strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had been able to find a small
hill, on the summit of which a few palm trees shot up into the air; it was their verdure seen from
afar which had brought hope and consolation to his heart. His fatigue was so great that he lay
down upon a rock of granite, capriciously cut out like a camp-bed; there he fell asleep without
taking any precaution to defend himself while he slept. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His
last thought was one of regret. He repented having left the Maugrabins, whose nomadic
life seemed to smile upon him now that he was far from them and without help. He was
awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite and produced an
intolerable heat—for he had had the stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow
thrown by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and
shuddered—they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which characterize
the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.
But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around him, the most horrible
despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of
the desert spread further than eye could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck
with bright light. It might have been a sea of looking-glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror.
A fiery vapor carried up in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering
land. The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the
imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on fire.
The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity, immensity, closed in upon
the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom
of the sand, ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day, with
one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.
The Provençal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees, as though it were the
body of a friend, and then, in the shelter of the thin, straight shadow that the palm cast upon the
granite, he wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness
the implacable scene, which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud, to measure the solitude.
His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill, sounded faintly, and aroused no echo—the echo was in
his own heart. The Provençal was twenty-two years old:—he loaded his carbine.
There'll be time enough, he said to himself, laying on the ground the weapon which alone
could bring him deliverance.
Viewing alternately the dark expanse of the desert and the blue expanse of the sky, the
soldier dreamed of France—he smelled with delight the gutters of Paris—he remembered the
towns through which he had passed, the faces of his comrades, the most minute details of his life.
His Southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved Provence, in the play of the heat
which undulated above the wide expanse of the desert. Realizing the danger of this cruel mirage,
he went down the opposite side of the hill to that by which he had come up the day before. The
remains of a rug showed that this place of refuge had at one time been inhabited; at a short
distance he saw some palm trees full of dates. Then the instinct which binds us to life awoke
again in his heart. He hoped to live long enough to await the passing of some Maugrabins, or
perhaps he might hear the sound of cannon; for at this time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt.
This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the weight of the ripe
fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the
palms had been cultivated by a former inhabitant—the savory, fresh meat of the dates were proof
of the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an almost insane joy. He
went up again to the top of the hill, and spent the rest of the day in cutting down one of the sterile
palm trees, which the night before had served him for shelter. A vague memory made him think
of the animals of the desert; and in case they might come to drink at the spring, visible from the
base of the rocks but lost further down, he resolved to guard himself from their visits by placing
a barrier at the entrance of his hermitage.
In spite of his diligence, and the strength which the fear of being devoured asleep gave him,
he was unable to cut the palm in pieces, though he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the
king of the desert fell; the sound of its fall resounded far and wide, like a sigh in the solitude; the
soldier shuddered as though he had heard some voice predicting woe.
But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased relative, he tore off from this beautiful
tree the tall broad green leaves which are its poetic adornment, and used them to mend the mat
on which he was to sleep.
Fatigued by the heat and his work, he fell asleep under the red curtains of his wet cave.
In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary noise; he sat up, and
the deep silence around allowed him to distinguish the alternative accents of a respiration whose
savage energy could not belong to a human creature.
A profound terror, increased still further by the darkness, the silence, and his waking
images, froze his heart within him. He almost felt his hair stand on end, when by straining his
eyes to their utmost he perceived through the shadow two faint yellow lights. At first
he attributed these lights to the reflections of his own pupils, but soon the vivid brilliance of the
night aided him gradually to distinguish the objects around him in the cave, and he beheld a huge
animal lying but two steps from him. Was it a lion, a tiger, or a crocodile?
The Provençal was not sufficiently e ...
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