The Nature and Purpose of Literary Analysis
G. Stolyarov II
A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XL-- August 28, 2005
For the millennia during which literature has existed, scholars, intellectuals, and lay people have unceasingly engaged in the act of analyzing it. Whatever the variety of analytical approaches to literature might be, literary analysis is in itself a universal necessity when approaching a text, and cannot be escaped on some level. Literary analysis enables readers to fully grasp the core abstractions which an author has bestowed upon his work. Furthermore, it is indispensable in rendering the literature relevant, both to the individual’s own life and to an understanding of the universal human condition.
When any author creates a work of literature, he does so starting with a set of basic intellectual premises, fundamental assumptions that permeate the entirety of his work. The author has chosen to create a work of literature as a vehicle for transmitting those premises to his readers. On their own, as floating abstractions detached from the empirical observation and the detailed logical reasoning which led to their derivation, the author’s premises cannot be readily communicated to a reader who does not grasp them already. An author who holds individualism as a basic premise, for example, will find difficulty in communicating it by simply stating, “I believe in individualism.” If, however, he offers a lucid analysis of the superiority of individualism over the alternatives, filled with realistic examples of why this is so, then his convictions become far more persuasive. Better yet, he might write a story, a series of rationally structured fictional events, which a reader could approach as if it were a concrete experience. All knowledge, at its root, is derived from sensory experience and observation. Thus, a work of litearture, by recreating an environment of observation through the events and descriptions within it, aims to allow the reader to tap into the source of the premises the author seeks to communicate. Thereby, the reader is given the foundation from which to proceed in understanding and identifying with the author’s abstract ideas.
When the reader sees a literary text before him, the author has already done the work of translating his guiding premises into a concrete presentation. The task of the reader, then, becomes to fathom the concrete presentation in such a manner as to derive the abstract premises from it, thereby participating in an act of intellectual discovery which the author has facilitated for him. All literary analysis is, in essence, such a process of discovery. It aims toward an understanding of the author’s guiding abstractions by identifying literary concretes—the characters, events, descriptions, dialogues, and stated ideas of a narrative—and discerning their relevance to the work as a whole and its central themes. Whereas, in writing a work of literature, the author begins at the abstract level and, from it, crafts the concretes of his narrative, the reader must begin at the concrete level and reach the level of abstraction via literary analysis.
Furthermore, a work of literary merit must offer an insight, principle, or example valuable to the individual reader. Aside from discovering the author’s intentions and guiding principles in writing a work, the reader must inquire of himself, “What benefits to my own life and understanding might I extract from this text?” The insights the reader might seek to derive through literary analysis can be positive or negative. A text can offer models to emulate, or examples of what not to apply to one’s own life. The reader can even disagree with the author’s worldview or ideas of desirable conduct and, through literary analysis, discover the root of his divergence from the author. In this respect, the undertaking of literary analysis is necessarily didactic, even if the author did not create his text with a didactic purpose. Literary analysis is a process of cognitive discrimination, in that the reader must be selective in what he does and does not derive from the author’s premises. In analyzing a text, the reader interacts with these premises by filtering them through his own.
Aside from individual relevance, a worthy work of literature has a universal relevance, either to an aspect at the core of the general human condition, or at the root of some widespread field of human endeavor. The author, as a human being, enters the writing process with certain assumptions, implicit or explicit, regarding a set of universal human themes, including the nature of life, consciousness, volition, and human action, the meaning and possibility of success and happiness, and the status of the individual himself. In addition, the author might hold a set of views which are more narrowly targeted, but still potentially relevant to a wide array of human beings. While the conflict between the individual and the omnipotent totalitarian state in George Orwell’s 1984, for example, is not a historical universal, Orwell uses it to arrive at an understanding of the meaning of a universal human concept, freedom. He then uses this understanding to analyze, through the eyes of Winston Smith, the manner in which a totalitarian state necessarily robs an individual of his freedom and, by implication, his very humanity. The task of the reader in conducting literary analysis becomes to discover the pathway by which the specifics of a given literary presentation can arrive at truths which are relevant to humans in general. The truths thus discovered will transcend the accidents of time, culture, history, and geographical location. Furthermore, such a comprehensive universal understanding is valuable irrespective of the reader’s agreement with the author’s approach to the human condition. If the reader is of a different opinion, he can simply use his knowledge of the author’s worldview to pinpoint where and how he disagrees with it. Thus, the reader, through literary analysis, will still attain his own positive understanding of the essential and inescapable issues pertaining to man.
The three-pronged purpose of literary analysis—to discover the author’s basic premises, to attain individual value from the literary work, and to derive from it knowledge concerning the universal human condition— serves a greater goal yet. Literary analysis, like any other systematic approach to things, offers the demystification of ideas and of reality. Instead of being perpetually confined by a set of irresolvable questions and dilemmas, man can obtain the answers through literary analysis, by means of a deliberate, targeted, rational treatment of the text. If the reader finishes a text with greater knowledge, erudition, and confidence in his worldview than he had upon starting it, then literary analysis has fulfilled its most essential role.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician and composer, contributor to organizations such as Le Quebecois Libre, Enter Stage Right, the Autonomist, and The Liberal Institute. Mr. Stolyarov is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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