Selecting quotes for deeper literary analysis

academics analysis essay College English literature expository writing

As academic writers, we are often told that quotes are important because we need them as evidence. What we are often not told is that a truly well-selected quote should operate not just as support for your argument but as an essential springboard for analysis.

Picture a pool with a diving board. To dive into the deep end of the pool, you need a board with some spring rather than a static platform. Similarly, when we write, we want quotes that will allow us to dive the deepest into our interpretation of a text; but how do we identify these quotes, and how do we avoid selecting static quotes that will lead us into a shallow pool?

Let’s look at an example to demonstrate how to choose the best quotes for literary analysis:

Imagine you are writing an essay about class nuances in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby. In the first body paragraph, you set out to explore how Tom Buchanan, who comes from generations of wealth, represents the old-moneyed American aristocracy, while Gatsby, who built his wealth independently, represents the nouveau riche. To simply prove this notion would take only a few quick quotes about the origins of each characters’ wealth, but those quotes would be fact-based and therefore would not act as a buoyant springboard for analysis.

So, what should you be looking for instead of facts?

Start by finding passages in which Fitzgerald uses style to portray their unique class positions. Does he use symbolism to contrast their statuses? Does he use indirect characterization? Diction? Metaphors? In the case of Tom and Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the contrasting settings of Gatsby’s and Tom’s houses to parse the subtle distinctions in their class.

Take the following quotes from the novel’s exposition, at which point Fitzgerald introduces Tom’s and Gatsby’s properties within a couple of pages to highlight the gulf between old and new money:

“[Gatsby’s home] was a colossal affair by any standards—it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden.” (Fitzgerald 5)

In contrast:

“[The Buchanan] house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.” (Fitzgerald 6)

Both properties mirror the characters’ status in society: While the description of Gatsby’s home is imitative and disconnected from the natural landscape, the Buchanan property is old and integrated into the natural landscape. After close reading the two excerpts above, you might produce the following analytical paragraph:

“Throughout The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald contrasts Gatsby’s and Tom’s properties to reflect their unique statuses in 1920s New York society. Both properties are described through Nick’s point of view. While Nick notes the grand scale of both residences, he presents Tom’s property as old, established, and integrated into the natural environment, whereas he depicts Gatsby’s mansion as new and artificial. While Tom’s home dates to the Georgian colonial period, Gatsby’s house is so recently constructed that only a “thin layer of ivy” creeps up the walls. Furthermore, Nick’s remark that Gatsby’s mansion was created as a “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” further accentuates the artificial and derivative quality of the borrowed European architecture. While both properties incorporate elements of grass and water, Gatsby’s “marble swimming pool” and manicured lawn feel stagnant and austere in comparison to the Buchanan’s view of the “bay” and their poetically personified lawn, which “start[s] at the beach and r[u]n[s] toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens” until it “reach[es] the house [and] drift[s] up in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.” In this description, the lawn merges with other natural elements, including the beach, the gardens, and the presumably established vines that surround the Buchanan household. Fitzgerald uses these contrasting descriptions of architecture and landscaping to reinforce Tom’s and Gatsby’s positions in society: Though similarly wealthy, Tom’s intergenerationally established wealth permits society to view him as a natural and integrated member, while Gatsby’s newly acquired wealth results in his being perceived as an unnatural outsider.”

Tips on selecting quotes:

Annotate as you read

Scrolling through unannotated pages in search of evidence can feel like a daunting task. Annotating specific passages that relate to important themes as you read can prevent later writing paralysis. You don’t have to annotate every page of the text. A deep close reading of an occasional passage often provides more inspiration than superficial annotations on every page.

Gravitate toward poetic language

A standout literary analysis will explore not just what an author means, but how they deliver their message. It will examine style. Look for quotes that include poetic language, such as symbols, metaphors, or imagery. These quotes will allow you to analyze an author’s style.

Look for contrasting quotes

Finding contrasting quotes provides you opportunities to compare, which can help propel your analysis.

Identify quotes that are open to interpretation

As mentioned above, avoid factual quotes, and don’t allow quotes to function purely as facts. Your quotes should provide opportunities for you to use analytical verbs, such as suggests, implies, depicts, and demonstrates.

Find your quotes, then find your argument

A lot of students will outline their essay and then go hunting for quotes that support their argument. Consider working in the opposite direction: Explore a few central passages that connect to the theme you are exploring, identify important quotes, and then construct your argument.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott (Francis Scott), 1896-1940. The Great Gatsby. New York :C. Scribner's sons, 1925.

Sarah pursued her interest in the western European canon by studying the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Maryland. She then went on to receive her Master’s in Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she focused on the nineteenth-century European novel.


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