Behind the Scenes of being a Literature Major

Boy have I avoided writing this one for the longest and for a reason. This article itself is going to be a text which begins in Medias Res, so hold on to it. Today, I will (hopefully) take you through my process of literary analysis or in less pretentious words, STUDYING!

For the ones who are new here, I am a literature graduate who is now pursuing her Master’s in the same major and I absolutely love what I do. Most of my passion stems from my undergraduate professors who have not only made me efficient enough to pursue a Master’s but also cultivated this undying love for the subject, which has become a huge part of my identity. Having said that, through most of this article, I will be sprinkling the advice given by my professors, because honestly this blog would be incomplete without the same. Without further ado, let’s get right into it!

  1. To-do list

When I say To-do list here, I mean it as a chronological outline of everything you want to look out for in a text, in an order convenient for you. I like looking into the background of the author first, then the period in which it was written and published, then dive into the plot, move ahead with the themes, study the characters, towards the end the style of writing along with a brief of the genre the book inherits and if it adheres to the features of the said genre or is contradicting the norms, and conclude this session by comparing it with other works by the same author followed by comparing the text to works by different author of the same period and same genre.  Obviously, in the middle of that huge endless sentence somewhere I must have left out something, but this is how my outline ideally looks like . 

Nine out of ten times this to-do list is my holy guide. You really do not want to sit and study without having an outline of the process. Literature to me is a universe, which makes it easier for anyone who’s learning to wander off to irrelevant yet significant spaces. Diving into an analysis of any text, without a map of what you want to achieve out of it beforehand will see you all lost (yes, that unfortunately comes from personal experience which has cost me my grades 🙂 )

  1. ‘Hyperlinks’

Once in one of our classes, one of our professors happened to say, “Treat any text in front of you as a cluster of hyperlinks. Meaning, when I say the author’s name for instance, a couple of their notable works, a brief of their biography along with their distinct  writing style should come naturally to you. This should be done with every relevant term.” That is (almost) verbatim of what she stated in class, because I was nerdy enough to make a note of everything she used to say in class and this seemed like a ‘study inspiration’ quote for me at the time (it still does). For instance, if someone leads a discussion Daddy by Sylvia Plath, it is quintessential for me to know about her lifelong struggle with her mental health, the impact of her marriage on her, her collection of poems called Ariel and her novel called The Bell Jar. Since much of her writing is confessional in nature, it is also essential to know names like Robert Lowell, who taught her and had a great impact on her writing apart from his own poems of the same style and his volume Life Studies

This advice is also what I call my starter kit for any text that comes in front of me. I start looking at any name, term, theme, style I come across not as an end itself, but as a beginning of several potential areas of research left unexplored under my watch. So looking at every text as a hyperlink will help to create a library in your mind. 

  1. Motivated Close Reading

After you’ve read the text once, the next you approach it is probably going to be for the outline you have made. It is advisable to jot down significant lines from the book, to substantiate your arguments in the exam (also for brownie points). Before diving right into the second reading, I have only recently learned that the trick which works to understand and comprehend faster is to approach the text now with questions. I call this motivated close reading, simply because when I approach the text with definite questions in my mind, I do not wander in spaces which are important albeit irrelevant. Apart from the same, when you know what you’re looking for, chances are your arguments and interpretations of the texts are concrete and well articulated. 

A glimpse of my notes

Such questions can look like: 

  1. What is the repeated use of xyz symbol in the text suggesting? (For instance in the novel Sula by Toni Morrison, what does the engineering of  ‘fire’ as a symbol bring to light?)
  2. Is there a pattern of repetition? If so, what is it suggesting? (For instance, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, what is the repeated use of the word “heart” suggesting?)
  3. Has your text developed unexpectedly? Explore that tension. (For instance, what is the impact of the revelation of Ed’s identity on the other characters in Mahesh Dattani’s, On a Muggy Night in Mumbai ?)

A little something called ‘theoretically informed reading’ as Harvard calls it, will also help you explore areas left in the dark under your watch. For literary analysis, it would be expected of a student to apply a theory to a text and investigate it through the lens of a single theorist/ multiple theorist under that theory.  For instance, after studying Alice Walker’s, The Colour Purple, one can opt to apply the philosophy of Black Feminism to the same and explore the same text from a different lens. This would involve an in depth study of black feminism, its features, contemporary relevance, relevance with the selected work and a brief of its noteworthy proponents. After that, this available pathway can be applied to your text to learn more about its impact and also to open up further areas of investigation (especially if you’re supposed to undertake a response paper).

Literature is subjective, which is why it will offer space for all interpretations to exist at once. Its nature allows for every passionate learner to have their own process of analyses. What I have outlined here is a basic sketch of what my course of action looks like, yours can look different based on what you’re looking for in a text and what makes you feel comfortable. Studying this subject over the years has taught me that even this process is bound to change and look different, possibly every day with every text. You cannot and should not look at every text with the same lens, that is what drives me closer to this subject. However, this sketch remains the jumping off point for me before beginning an intense essay writing session! 

Here’s hoping that this was helpful for you to catch a glimpse of what we do! We read books then we read books about reading books and then read books about books. 

Thank you for reading!

(A huge shoutout to Maanasi, thank you for making me do this!)