Major American Novels

Course Description

In this class, we will be reading and considering a number of the most important or most critically lauded moments in the development of the American novel.

What Is Literary Analysis?

The tests and responses assignments (above) require you to analyze themes and content of the novels we will be reading. But what does that mean, exactly? The task of saying something analytic about a text is the chief skill that differentiates readers-for-pleasure and professional English majors. While I realize that none of you are likely to be English majors (and that's okay), literary analysis is still an important skill to have some experience of. "Why is that?," you may ask.

One of the important observations made by literary critics in the middle of the 20th century is that all cultural productions (advertisements, albums, movies, billboards, etc.) operate like the novels, poems, plays, and stories typically studied in English departments. As such, literary analysis is a general purpose mode of engaging with the world that critically explores why certain objects are more appealing and persuasive. Practicing literary analysis can make you a smarter media consumer and give you an edge within the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Having said that, what is literary analysis? As a general rule, when approaching a text from an analytic perspective, you must consider that everything about the text (the color of a billboard's background, the choice of font, the wording of any slogans, the skin color of the model used, etc.) is the product of a choice that someone made for a very specific reason. When creating, we do not do things for no reason. Our reasons may be bad (for instance, I worked in an English department whose website was green (despite green clashing with the school's colors). Why was the site green? Because the department's secretary's favorite color was green), but all authors make choices about what to include and what to exclude. When we read a novel analytically, we must approach it with the idea that everything–every word, every character name, every event, every line of dialogue–was included in the novel for some reason. As literary analysts, your task is twofold: 1) to figure out why a choice might have been made and 2) to judge whether that was an effective choice.

How do you do that, though? Obviously, when thinking analytically about a long text like a novel or film you cannot talk about every element. When reading, certain things will hopefully jump out at you. For instance, you may notice that an author describes certain objects in a room in great detail. Why do this? Is the author just showing off? It is best to assume that the answer to this question is "no." With these thick descriptions of objects, you can ask yourself "how could these descriptions relate to the larger plot of the novel?" Is one of the characters obsessed with the mundane? What else could you suggest based on this observation? These questions are the beginning of literary analysis: why would an author choose to include these specific details when they could have, instead, included other points? How does noticing this aspect enrich our understanding of the text?

The key to literary analysis is to connect what you have observed as interesting to larger currents within the novel or within the author's culture. So, for instance, certain images and themes may not suggest something about the larger plot of the novel but may suggest something about attitudes towards race, class, economics, or some other issue in the culture in which the novel works. In any case, it is your task as a literary analyst to find these moments of interest and suggest what they may be connected to.