Students may recognise the most common literary devices like personification, alliteration and onomatopoeia, but their subsequent analysis of these can be superficial. Simply recognising a literary device and pointing it out to an examiner is of no use at all. If they ever have to ask you ‘so what?’ then you are losing marks. Remember that a writer never uses these techniques by accident or simply because they’re fun; they always have a purpose, and it is your job to work out what that purpose is. Phrases like ‘it puts an image in the reader’s head’ and ‘it makes the reader feel emotion’ are not going to get you marks – they lack detail and precision. You must explain what image or what emotion, and why you have made that link.
Effects: The Big Three
Showing, evoking, reinforcing – that’s basically it in terms of the effects writers are going for. These are of course elaborated into a myriad of different variables, different emotions, different scenarios, but they almost always come back to those three main effects.
- To Show:
- To Evoke:
- To Reinforce:
Useful Vocabulary: Top Ten
Below is a list of vocabulary you will find useful when writing English essays. Most of these words are synonyms for show, evoke and reinforce, but it’s good to avoid being repetitive!
There’s an excellent resource online here listing useful vocabulary for literary analysis, for describing anything from characters to syntax, style to diction.
Sample Analysis of Literary Devices
Below are three literary devices, and a brief explanation of the effect of each as used in a sample text. I’ve chosen devices that students often identify, but rarely apply analysis to effectively. You’ve all learnt PEE (point, evidence, explain) or PQA (point, quote, analyse). The first two parts of this are easy: state your point, and provide a quote to prove it. The difficult part, and this is where most of your marks are coming from, is the explanation or analysis. Remember, you must explain what image or what emotion is being evoked/ reinforced etc, and why you have made that link.
- Example 1: Sentence Structure
Structure is always difficult to comment on, but it is important. The rhythm of a text is affected not only by word-choice but by punctuation and the length of sentences and their clauses. Structure can therefore affect your mood as you read a passage and how you interpret the events described, and often reflects the movement as well as emotions of the characters.
It was one of the biggest man-hunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter, the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
(extract from The Secret History by Donna Tartt)
This sentence describes the search for a missing boy. It is distinctive because it is a long sentence, but it is punctuated frequently. You must take a deep breath to read it without stopping, but you also pause often. The length reflects the continuous movement of the searchers, but the frequent breaks reflect their pauses and changes of direction – their search may be chaotic rather than ordered.
- Example 2: Juxtaposition
When people, concepts, places, ideas or themes are placed parallel to one another in a text, the contrast between the two is highlighted and comparison encouraged. This is a very simple device that writers use frequently, but students’ analysis often presumes only that its effect is to link ideas or to illustrate contrast, without realising that one idea can impact upon, even evolve, the other.
The whole weight of the hill hung over me.
Gladly I would have stayed there and been hidden
From every beast that moves beneath the sun,
From age’s enmity and love’s contagion.
(extract from The Cave by James K Baxter)
By juxtaposing the concepts of ageing and love, Baxter asks us to compare them and so perceive how both are dangers we may wish to hide from, yet never can. Ageing is an inevitable process that can be altered little by man, and yet here it is personified as being malevolent; like a spurned lover seeking revenge. Baxter then surprises us by positioning love as a potential danger, a disease as virulent as death itself. Love, unlike ageing, is typically conceived of as an emotion rather than a medical fact, and one that we do in fact have a large element of choice in. By referring to it as a contagion, however, Baxter emphasises the helplessness felt by those who fall in love, perhaps against their better judgement, with the wrong person.
- Example 3: Pathetic Fallacy
Pathetic fallacy attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature such as the weather, ground and stars. Its effect is similar to personification or anthropomorphism and they are often confused, but pathetic fallacy refers specifically to nature. It typically reveals the emotions of characters, and illustrates how a reader should interpret a scene or events.
I looked at the sky; it was pure: a kindly star twinkled just above the chasm ridge. The dew fell, but with propitious softness; no breeze whispered. Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was; and I, who from man could anticipate only mistrust, rejection, insult, clung to her with filial fondness.
(extract from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)
Bronte’s star could easily have been described purely in visual terms as being glittering or cold, for example, but instead has kindness attributed to it. This reveals that Jane perceives nature as being benign and protective of her. Christianity teaches us to associate stars with the bible, where the star of Bethlehem guided the Magi to the newly-born baby Jesus. Bronte’s star could therefore function as a guide, significant when she is lost, penniless and friendless on a wild moor. Classical learning would lead us to astrology, whereby the movements and alignment of the stars can reveal our fate. In this moment, Jane has no plan other than to run from a situation that has become untenable to her, so would derive comfort from the idea that her fate is in kindly hands.