You are on page 1of 3


Adriane Genette 1

Micro and Macro Literary Analysis

As a general rule, literary analysis begins with close reading (micro). As your
analysis deepens, consider how the micro and macro elements combine to create
meaning in (first) the selected passage and (second) the work as a whole. Finally,
connect the micro and macro elements to an issue beyond the text (that nevertheless
emerges from the text).

The micro elements are covered in the Close Reading Handout, Processes and Practices,


Simply put, plot is the arrangement of the action, which generally includes some type of
conflict. Literature creates meaning by lending a pattern to events. There is a difference
between what happens (chronology/history) and how what happens is arranged on the
page (story).

One oversimplified model for considering plot is Freytags Pyramid:

Exposition: Introduction of characters

Rising action: Something distinct happens, initiating a series of intensifying incidents
Climax: Decisive moment, realization, or action
Falling action: That which was destabilized in the beginning becomes stable
Denouement: Etymologically, this term comes from the French, and means to untie as
in to untie a knot. It means the final unraveling of the complications set out in the plot.

Literature almost never follows this pattern exactly; what makes literature remarkable
and interesting is how it deviates from or adds to an expected pattern or structure.
Dr. Adriane Genette 2

Different genres of writing create different sets of expectations for the plot. For example,
you might take notice if you are reading what you think is a detective novel and the main
characters search for the killer is suddenly interrupted by a stream-of-consciousness
internal monologue.

Plots may or may not be constructed chronologically, and may use suspense,
foreshadowing, and/or flashback. Pay particular attention to when and where stories
begin and end.

One way to think about narration is whether the narrator speaks in first (I), second (we),
or third person. Yet another is to consider whether the narrator is reliable or unreliable
(chances are, a first person narrator is unreliable). Limited narration focuses on a single
character, whereas unlimited narration focuses on multiple characters. Omniscient
narrators seem to have access to all information.

You may also consider narration and point-of-view as a measure of space and time; how
near or far, both literally and figuratively, is the narrator from the people, events, and
places he or she is describing? For example, the main character might describe his most
passionate love affair in France as he daydreams in the United States. This spatial and
temporal distance will affect the narration, point-of-view, and all of the micro elements
such as tone and diction. Nostalgia, anyone?

Characters can be categorized by terms such as hero, villain, protagonist, antagonist, foil,
and antihero. It is usually more interesting to consider the ways in which characters
deviate from or add to these categories rather than how they conform. When reading for
character, think about how characters are revealed, whether through physical
descriptions, dialogue, or actions. For example, in Twelve Years a Slave, Northup relies
on physical description to support his observations that Ford is kind, Epps cruel, and
Patsey majestic.

Flat: can be summarized in a sentence or two and tend not to change (static)
Round: complex and usually change (dynamic)

Traditionally understood as where a work of literature takes place, setting is actually a
combination of space and time. For example, the overall setting of Twelve Years a Slave
is the United States prior to the Civil War. However, there are several micro settings in
which the particular dimensions of time and space combine to create the meaning of the
text: the ship, the slave pen, the swamp, the second ship returning North. These particular
settings in turn reveal aspects of character and even theme; Northup contrasts Patseys
beating with the serenity of the natural environment. Settings can also be symbolic. Ralph
Ellisons Invisible Man comes alive through colorful, sonorous landscapes that reflect his
thematic focus on the blues.
Dr. Adriane Genette 3

Symbolism/figurative language
At the level of the sentence, figurative language is a micro element. When considering
the meaning of the work as a whole, you want to look at figurative language and
symbolism in general. A symbol stands for abstract ideas that have multiple levels of
signification. A good symbol cannot be summarized in a sentence and also cannot be
extracted from the work in which it appears. For example, in 2PACs poem The Rose
that Grew from Concrete, we know that the rose is a metaphor for the author himself. In
general, the rose can be a symbol of love, romantic desire, female beauty, mortality
(flowers eventually die), and cruelty (thorns). We therefore need to read the poem for
clues as to what the rose represents in 2PACs poem. Given that it grows from a crack in
the concrete, we can suggest that in this particular poem, the rose represents a type of
fragile beauty that flourishes in unlikely circumstances. In this way 2PAC draws on the
universal significance of the rose while adapting it to his particular purpose.

An extended metaphor is detailed and complex and encompasses the work as a whole. In
an allegory, everything corresponds to something else. Some people read Where the Wild
Things Are as an allegory for gaining control over ones emotions.

A complete statement of a works theme must include a central idea and the storys claim
about or attitude towards that idea. For example, it is not enough to say that George
Moses Horton writes about the connection between death and slavery. A more complete
statement of theme would be that Horton views death as a release from slavery. Themes
often draw on common human experiences, and to that extent are accessible to most
readers. However, each work of literature lends specificity to these common themes
through its particular historical and cultural context. Literature will often leave us with
more questions than answers regarding its given theme.

Beyond the Text

At first glance, this phrase may seem counter-intuitive. Why would you closely analyze a
selection of literature in order to reach insights about an issue beyond the text? The
answer is that literature will actually demand that readers look beyond the text to issues
that emerge from the text but that resonate with the lived realities of human beings both
past and present.

For example, suppose you come across a passage referring to Medusa. At the micro level,
this diction tells you that the narrator has an interest in mythology. At the macro level,
you can assume that the reference to Medusa is either a symbol or metaphor. More
broadly speaking, however, you must ask why the narrator or character refers to Medusa.
Does he or she want the reader to think about the mythological story of the Medusa or
rather the Freudian interpretation? Or, does the narrator invoke the feminist re-
interpretations of the Medusa that reclaim her as a symbol of power? These questions
emerge from the text because the Medusa reference only makes sense in the context of
the particular text. However, the text also relies on some outside knowledge of Medusa
and prompts you to investigate and question this outside knowledge.