Literary Analysis Questions for 106WS

These are the questions you will need in for your Nella Larsen paper.


Some Questions Which May Help Direct Your Critical Interpretation of Literature

The following are an overview of the major critical schools, and questions from each area of literary interpretation that might be used to find meaning within a work of literature.  You may find them helpful in trying to focus your paper into a certain literary school.  Remember, they don’t exist in a vacuum.  One school may overlap another.  This is just a basic guide.


Formalist Questions:

Formalists believe you can tell the quality of the work without knowing who wrote it or when it was written.  They believe there is a universal standard of “good literature.”

1.         How do various elements of the work–plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, symbol, etc.–reinforce its meanings?

2.         How are the elements related to the whole?

3.         What is the work’s major organizing principle?  How is its structure unified?

Biographical Questions:

Critics who use a biographical approach believe that knowledge of the author’s life can give insight to the work.

1.         Are there facts about the writer’s life relevant to your understanding of the work?

2.         Are characters and incidents in the work versions of the writer’s own experiences?  Are they treated factually or imaginatively?

3.         How do you think the writer’s values are reflected in the work?

Psychological Questions:

Critics who use a psychological approach believe that all human interaction, even than between an author and the reader, can be examined through the prism of psychology.

1.         How does the work reflect the author’s personal psychological profile?

2.         What do the character’s emotions and behavior reveal about their psychological states?  What types of personalities are they?

3.         Are psychological matters such as repression, dreams, and desire presented consciously or unconsciously by the author?  Why?

Historical Questions:

Critics who use a historical approach believe the historical context of the work has a great deal to do with understanding the work as a whole.

1.         How does the work reflect the period in which it is written?

2.         How does the work reflect the period it represents?

3.         What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?  What evidence can you present that would back up what you say?

4.         How important is the historical context (both the work’s and your own) to interpreting the work?

Marxist Questions:

Marxist critics focus on political, social, and economic interactions in the work, and/or the role of literature and art in maintaining or challenging political, economic, or social strata in the society as a whole.

1.         How are class differences present in the work?  Are characters aware or unaware of the economic and social forces that affect their lives?

2.         How do economic conditions determine the characters’ lives?

3.         What ideological values are explicit or implicit?


Feminist Questions:

Feminist critics view literature through the lens of gender identity and how that gender identity affects the understanding of the work.

1.         How are women’s lives portrayed in the work?  Do the women in the work accept or reject these roles?

2.         Is the form and content of the work influenced by the author’s gender?

3.         What are the relationships between men and women?  Are these relationships sources of conflict?  Do they provide resolutions to conflicts?


Mythological Questions:

Critics employing the mythological approach look for mythic character types and/or mythic story types in order to examine the work in question.

1.         How does the story resemble other stories in plot, character, setting, or use of symbols?

2.         Are archetypes presented, such as questions, initiations, scapegoats, or withdrawals and returns?

3.         Does the protagonist undergo any kind of transformation such as a movement from innocence to experience that seems archetypal?


Stucturalist Questions:

Structuralists look at the way a work is constructed and how the author “built” the work.

  1. How is the work organized?  Can meaning be drawn from that organization?
  2. Does the author use specific words, images, or metaphors to organize the work?
    1. How does the way in which the work is presented reflect upon the meaning of the work?

Deconstructionist Questions:

Following the lead of Derrida, the deconstructionist school pulls works apart to examine the elements of meaning expressed in the work.  Does the work really mean what it attempts to convey?

1.         How are contradictory and opposing meanings expressed in the work?

2.         How does meaning break down or deconstruct itself in the language of the text?

3.         Would you say that ultimate definitive meanings are impossible to determine and           establish in the text?  Why?  How does that effect your interpretation?


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