One of the biggest shocks students faces when they begin the study of Literature is the moment when they are first handed three passages from a text and told to write an essay. Faced with a wall of text, and what seems like very vague instructions, this task can often seem daunting, or even overwhelming.
In a passage analysis essay, you will be expected to respond to three passages of writing from your selected text. This might be a passage from act one, two and three of a play, three passages from a novel, three poems from a collection or three passages from different short stories in a collection. Your essay will need to engage in close reading of the selected passages, while also advancing an overall interpretation of the novel, play or poetry collection.
Therefore, you are not only expected to engage in close reading and analysis of each individual passage, but you will also be expected to find links between the passages which reflect either the style of the author, their thematic concerns or their views and values.
These links will become the foundation of your paragraphs, with each paragraph looking at the passages through a different ‘lens’ or thematic concern. However, it is important to remember to draw your interpretation and ideas from the passages themselves, and the implications of the passages selected. Do not attempt to impose an interpretation on a passage because it makes for a neat paragraph.
This is a simple step-by-step guide you can use if you are struggling with getting started on a passage analysis:
- Annotate each individual passage. It is important to always start with close-reading, and stay open-minded about what the passages are telling you about the text. If you move onto thinking about links too early, you might miss crucial details within the passages themselves which might have a created a more complex and sophisticated analysis. At this stage, you are still using the principles of FEAR+C (Features/Elements/Author’s Views and Values/Reader Response + Context) and remaining open to the potential of the passages.
- Identify links between the passages. The links can be stylistic, thematic or views, values, and contexts. So long as you can confidently discuss how the link operates across passages, and what this reveals about the wider text. This can include supporting your analysis of a thematic concern in one passage with evidence from another passage, juxtaposing two passages to show character growth from the beginning to the end of a novel or to complicate an author’s position an issue.
- Think about how you will build your paragraphs. It is important that you discuss at least two out of the three passages in each paragraph. There are several ways you can go about this. Each passage does not need to be weighted equally, and you can refer to passages either as an equal contrast, a supporting passage or as a reference. Remember to include references to the wider text, as in, quoting sections of the text not included in the passages to demonstrate how the passages reflect the whole text.
- Determine your overall interpretation of both the passages and the text. While you are being assessed on your ability to analyse your selected passages, your interpretation must reflect an interpretation of the overall text. It is so important to make wider text references within your essay, as this implies that while your close analysis is situated around these specific three passages, your interpretation remains applicable to the text as a unified object of study. At this stage, you need to decide what this overall interpretation is.
Students often ask how to balance close analysis of the set passages with making wider text references. It is essential that you strike a balance between the two, as your close analysis of the passages illustrates your depth of understanding, while your wider text references underscore your breadth of understanding. This is across all types of texts, from plays to novels to poetry. As a rule of thumb, you should aim for between 80-85% of your essay focusing on a close analysis of the set passages, while around 15-20% of your essay should include wider text references (preferably substantiated by quotes). The wider text references should only be used as references to support your close analysis of the set passages. This means they should not be the star of the show! Avoid falling into the trap where you avoid analysing passages you are struggling with by using wider text references to excessively jump to parts of the text outside of the passages which you feel you can develop a stronger analysis around. Much the same as essay prompts, always go with the implications of the passages, not what you wish they were about!
Now, all you need to do is open your book, select three passages and get to work!
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