In teaching literature classes, I can’t help but approach my lesson planning from my personal theory of how to analyze literature. I go by a few guiding principles, which I will try to articulate here:
1. Intent is not everything
Generally, I believe in the theory of Death of the Author. This is the idea that once a piece of written work has been finished, the author’s intention for what they meant the work doesn’t dictate the meaning. They can’t whisper over the shoulder of the audience member, so whatever the audience finds in the experience of the work is legitimate.
2. Intent is not nothing.
Despite what I just mentioned, I would not go so far as to as to say the author’s intention does not matter. I believe that even though the maker’s intention is not the last word on the matter, the work would not have come out the way it did had the maker approached it with a different intention. So I think their plans must be taken into account, if not take as gospel.
3. The story must be taken as its own serious universe.
Most serious analysis requires at least some level of treating the characters and world in the story as if they were as full and complete as the real world. The discovery of real meaning is cut off if one dismisses aspects of it as “not complete,” “just a story,” that sort of thing. For example, a character may seem inscrutable if you dismiss them as not a complete person, but in that case it’s better to evaluate based on what could possibly be true of a person who evidences those behaviors of traits.
4. Writers are human and make mistakes.
Despite the previous, I also think it’s important to remember that writers make mistakes and have weaknesses. It is possible to decide that something in a work was not well-made and therefore doesn’t accomplish great meaning or art. Writers are human, even the masters are not infallible. This is important because then one can analyze what might have worked better or more effectively in a given example.
5. A work should be taken for what it is.
Each work should be taken on its own terms. What is it trying to be? What are the standards that apply to it? If one does not engage with a piece on the level it’s intended, one invites misinterpretation or intellectually dishonest critique. Ask if a piece is a good example of what it is, not a bad example of something entirely different.
6. No art is exempt from critique.
Again, possibly despite the previous, any work can be judged and examined for quality and significance. It should be taken as the kind of art that it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see if it’s a worthy example of whatever it’s trying to be. This should not be dismissed as “taking something too seriously.”
These are kind of contradictory, but it’s in the interest of balance. There are of course other critical approaches, but these are the bones of mine, and it’s a place for my students to start if they’re new to the process.