Literature is, or can be, a very sensitive subject. It embodies the mind, spirit, heart and soul of the reader. Great literature takes you to a place that is hard to return from. So how can a reader analyze a work of literature for excellence? Analyzing works of literature is not easy but can be done with some very simple techniques.
When thinking of literature I have analyzed in the past and evaluated to be a great piece, one that came to mind was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” by Alexandar Solzhenitsyn. This is a powerful story for so many reasons. First, it allows us to see raw suffering firsthand. From the time you open the book you feel nothing but devastatingly cold. It grips every part of your being. Second, it helps you to ‘see’, in your mind’s eye, how power can ultimately go wrong to the detriment of other human beings. Third, it lets you peer into the power of the human spirit even in the face of severely adverse conditions where there appears to be no hope.
All of these attributes (and I could list many more) make this an excellent piece of literature. After finishing this novel, I understood where the author had taken me and what he wanted me to see. The idea that there are people in the world whom we find utterly repulsive in manner or strange in behavior leads us to wonder, “How am I viewed by others?”
Great works of literature make us think. They go beyond the mere following of words on a page (or e-reader) with our eyes. Excellent literature makes us ask questions of ourselves as well as the world around us. What now? How can this story make me better or perhaps even worse? When a work gets a response from you, be it angry or ashamed or even happy, if you can identify an aspect of yourself in the characters, then the author has successfully done their job. These are the features that assist you in analyzing a great literary work.
Again I refer to “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” The most painful line of this book is at the very end when you discover that this is only one day in this poor man’s life. He has over 3,000 days to go. Three-thousand more days of cold, of the desire for more food, of hoping and not hoping for a parcel, of prayers to not be put in the hole. This single day in Ivan’s life will be repeated over again for many years to come.
Is this a great work of literature because it shows us what not to do so that bad things do not occur again? No. This is a great work because the basis of its story is not that of the awful torment in the Gulag, but of the courage, dignity, and strength of the human spirit. One character, though a prisoner, takes pride in his work. He keeps to himself and while doing so he contemplates the life of the moon. The tenderness in this contemplation makes you, for a moment, forget the horror that surrounds this man and you also begin to consider the moon, the expanse of the universe, and your tiny part in it.
These are aspects of a great work because the author does not preach to you how bad the Gulag was, how we should never allow this to happen again, etc. This work instead gently guides us, like a parent with a toddler learning to walk, to come to our own conclusions about humanity.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” asks the reader to look deep inside these characters and see how very much like us they are. Though we do not want certain things to ever be repeated, many dreadful things continue to happen in our world. These works show the frailty and, yet at the same time, the strength of the human spirit. Where we think we are strong we can be proven to be very weak; when we feel we are at our weakest is when we are at the pinnacle of our strength. This is demonstrated in Solzhenitsyn’s novel. We walk with the characters through the cold, the hunger, the hope, and the prayers. And even in the direst of situations we stand with them as they ponder the moon.
This is great literature. Words that smash together, that make black marks on a white surface, and that make us look deep into our world and ourselves. In analyzing works of literature we find more of what we truly are: human.