Literature courses are all about two things: reading and writing about what you’ve read. It’s hard enough to understand great pieces of literature, never mind analyze them.
But you’re in luck:
This article summarizes a vast array of literary analysis topics and literary analysis topic ideas. These insights into the literary analysis paper topics that you need to write about provide you with the first step towards producing a great literary essay.
Before delving into the great topics and themes of this article, it’s important to note some ground rules for writing about literature. Here are three very basic points that will help to make sure you get a great grade on your essay:
- Make sure you refer to the literature you are writing about in the proper format. For example, the titles of plays and full-length books should be italicized while poems and short stories should be in quotes (under the MLA style).
- If your essay contains quotes, make sure that those quotes are properly attributed with the correct page numbers and lines. (Ask your instructor to make sure you are formatting these quotations correctly.)
- Do not directly quote or borrow arguments from a previously published literary analysis sample. Often, teachers see the same forms of argument (and even language) again and again. This is a form of plagiarism.
One last thing:
Before moving on to the topics covered by this article, remember that the basics of essay writing are just as important in this style of an essay as any other. This means you need a clear introduction (with a concise thesis statement), a distinct body, and a cohesive conclusion. If you can do this in a 5 paragraph essay, you can certainly do this for much longer essays as well. Don’t get sloppy with your essay structure just because you have a few more pages to express yourself. So make sure you use a literary analysis essay outline!
(If all else fails, try watching a video on literary analysis writing.)
If you’re an English student, you will study the works of William Shakespeare, which is why this article begins with a list of foolproof Shakespeare essay topics. How many Romeo and Juliet essays have been written? There’ve been too many to count. Is there a unique Shakespeare love essay topic left? Surely, there isn’t. But still there are thousands of Shakespeare essay examples written every day by students around the globe. The key to writing a Shakespearian quality essay can be found in this list of Shakespearian literary analysis essay topics.
(By the way, you can find all of Shakespeare’s works on the internet for free.)
Unlocking the top Romeo and Juliet essay topics and themes
- Romeo and Juliet essay examples can be found all over the internet. Here are some of the top Romeo and Juliet themes and topics.
1a. Fate in Romeo and Juliet: We all know that Romeo and Juliet were the archetypal star-crossed lovers. Throughout the text of this famous work, Shakespeare makes it quite clear that their love is doomed by fate.
1b. Light and dark in Romeo and Juliet: Both light and dark, as well as the more general concept of contrasts, figure heavily into the language of this play. Romeo himself is the embodiment of someone containing contrasting elements.
1c. Time in Romeo and Juliet: Romeo visits Juliet in the course of the night, promising to return in the future. And all this occurs in a play that spans less than a week’s time. For this reason, the theme of time is usually discussed in the context of how short our time truly is.
1d. Love in Romeo and Juliet: But of course, love is the ultimate theme of Romeo and Juliet. The tragic love of this pair has become a cliché for romantic fatalism for a very good reason. Love is perhaps the number 1 topic of Romeo and Juliet essay prompts.
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be the second most widely assigned play in the history of English courses. Accordingly, here are the top Hamlet essay topics.
2a. Mortality in Hamlet: Here is your spoiler alert—the title characters of most Shakespearean plays do not survive.And Hamlet is no exception. As you read this play, pay special attention to the characters that die and those, like Yorick, who died before the play began.
2b. Women and misogyny in Hamlet: In the time in which the play is set, women were not treated very well in society. Characters like Gertrude and Ophelia are not treated well in the play, and they are an excellent prism through which to consider the place of women in society.
2c. Madness in Hamlet: The cliché “method to his madness” is derived from this classic play. This is a great topic or theme for any student reading Hamlet.
- Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the last (and shortest) of the 3 big Shakespearean plays that every high school student reads before graduation. Like the rest of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, it is full of meaningful themes and topics for literary analysis essays.
3a. The corrupting influence of ambition in Macbeth: The title character is on a quest, and throughout the play he time and again decides that the ends justify the means. Alternatively, you can explore how Lady Macbeth does precisely the same thing in pursuing her goals.
3b. Witchcraft in Macbeth: The three witches’ prophecies famously propel Macbeth to take action. However, many essays have been written on the supernatural element of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. (By the way, Lady Macbeth herself is one of the best Macbeth essay topics.)
But wait, there’s more:
Shakespeare wrote many more plays beyond the big 3 listed above. Here are a couple more topics and works that show of the range of William Shakespeare.
- Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the longest works by the Bard. (This is another name for Shakespeare, by the way.)And King Lear is filled with great essay topics. Many actors feel that the title role is one of the most challenging available for an actor because of his gradual descent into madness. Accordingly, “madness” is perhaps the best topic related to this play.
- Shakespearean sonnets like “Sonnet 18” make excellent Shakespeare essay topics because they are so succinct, but so rich with meaning. Love and adoration, which are expressed in “Sonnet 18” and throughout his other sonnets, are great critical analysis essay topics. Use Shakespearean sonnets as an opportunity to show off how many poems you can analyze in a single literary analysis example.
This list only scratches the surface, so check out literary analysis sample essays on Shakespeare written by professionals. There are plenty of excellent essay collections available on the web.
The world of literature goes far beyond William Shakespeare and fiction in general. Here is a bunch of more literary analysis paper topics for other great works of literature.
- Elie Wiesel’s classic memoire of the holocaust Night is a difficult book for many students to read. And yet, most students need to write a Night by Elie Wiesel essay at some point. (If you need help with specific Night essay questions and answers, check out one of the many resources on the book.) In fact, many students need to write one Night by Elie Wiesel essay in high school and another in college. Every decent Night analysis essay should touch on the key themes challenged religious faith and the inhumanity of people towards others. (Overcoming this latter theme is actually the focus of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.)
- Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild chronicles the journey of 22-year-old Christopher McCandless from modern society into a 2-year trip in the wilderness of the western United States. This work of non-fiction explores the themes of escape, society, and the power of nature. (Warning: things do not end well for McCandless along the Stampede Trail of Alaska.)
There is a lot of great nonfiction. But most great books assigned in English courses are fiction. Read on to learn how to write essays for great pieces of fiction.
Works of literature from Ancient Greece have a timeless quality. This has kept them taught in our educational system for thousands of years. With thousands of years to digest them, there is little that hasn’t already been written about these works.
Keep the scope of your essays on the classics somewhat modest.But be sure to consult other sources if you’re confused.
- Plato is perhaps the most influential thinker in the Western World. Accordingly, it is not an easy task to write about his powerful philosophical tomes. Most teachers will assign only portions of The Republic, so it is important to approach essays about them carefully.
- “Antigone” is one of the masterworks of the Greek playwright Sophocles. The key themes to explore in this tale of royal succession include civil disobedience, natural and human law, and faithfulness.
An exceptional amount of writing has been devoted to the subject of race. Here are a few of the most important works on this controversial topic.
- J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a powerful book. (It earned its author from South Africa a Nobel Prize in Literature.) A short Waiting for the Barbarians summary should capture the narrative of the escalation of tensions between a fictional colonial town and its surrounding indigenous population. When the protagonist helps a native woman, he begins to doubt the humanity of colonialism, another of the key Waiting for the Barbarians themes that should be explored in any Waiting for the Barbarians analysis.
- Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the chilling tale of young Marlow’s voyage up the Congo River. There he meets the wicked ivory trader Kurtz. The book explores the themes of imperialism and racism. It also questions the civility of Western society over supposedly savage indigenous people.
- Mark Twain is one of the great American writers and satirists. But his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn delved into themes and topics that are among the most serious of any literary analysis essay topics. These include freedom versus slavery and man versus nature.
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant classic. Like many great books of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the American South. And like many books set in the American South, it explores the themes of race and justice. (Note: this book is full of amazing quotes that can be used to motivate your essay.)
Literary analysis on the topics of gender and women in society is critical to understanding the modern world. Here are a few powerful essay topics in this area.
- Alice Walker is one of the great literary figures of the 20th century. She’s written many notable books and stories. But two of her works rise above the rest, and are referenced by more than one literary analysis sample online.
14a. The Color Purple is Walker’s most famous work. This National Book Award-winning work features the themes of sexism, racism, and the disruption of traditional gender roles. (This book is not for the faint of heart. There are many vivid depictions of violence contained in this cultural touchstone for African American women.)
14b. Alice Walker’s second most noted work is the short story “Everyday Use.” In this short story about heirloom possessions passed down from one generation of women to another, the author explores the themes of family and differences between generations.
- Despite her brief life, Jane Austin was one of the most important literary figures of the 19th century. Few authors were as talented as her. And even fewer dared to express the challenges of being a woman at the end of the 1700s. In her work, themes of overt sexism are not as common as themes of women working to secure firm places in society.
15a. Social standing and wealth are the two key themes of one of Austen’s most beloved novels, Pride and Prejudice. In this book, the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet must choose between two suitors. One is a personable man. The other is better established in society, though less kind.
15b. Emma is the tale of a young woman who’s less interested in securing her own marriage than those of her sisters. The key themes of this novel are the constraints placed upon women in 17th century society as well as marriage and social status.
Many of the great literary works in the English language were written in the golden era of the 19th and 20th centuries. These works, ranging from epic novels to short poems, provide insight into the themes that have come to define the spirit of the Anglophone world.
- There is no more famous detective, fiction or real, than Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” contained in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the favorite Holmes story of both the author and readers. Accordingly, many students are assigned literary analyses of this short story, which explores the themes of chaos as well as good versus evil.
- Students of all ages have read Lord of the Flies, the classic novella by William Golding that explores the dangers of groupthink and the conflicts between rationality and irrationality as well as between morality and immorality. How the characters, a group of young boys marooned on an island, struggle to survive is an allegory of modern society.
- William Goldman’s The Princess Bride was such an entertaining story that it was adapted into an even more popular film. The major themes explored in this book include the power of love to conquer all and the arbitrary nature of time and history.
19 D. H. Lawrence is one of the masters of 20th century English literature, and the short story “The Rocking Horse Winner” demonstrates his skill as well as any of his works. In this tale of a struggling family, the themes of money and greed are most fully explored, as a young boy uses clairvoyance gained on a rocking horse to predict race outcomes.
- The American writer John Steinbeck captured the hardships faced by normal people during the Great Depression. His novella Of Mice and Men is a classic tale of struggle. The main recurring theme among the characters is striving after dreams, often futilely, as demonstrated by each of the characters, from George and Lennie to Candy and Curley’s wife.
- Playwright Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire” is perhaps the most famous American dramatic play of all time. In this provocative play, the themes of reality and fantasy in conflict as well as the contemporary dependence of women on men are explored.
Many of the great works of literature are actually poems. Writing about poems requires a special approach.
Keep in mind:
Most essays on poetry actually exceed the length of the poems themselves. Accordingly, don’t be afraid to quote the poem heavily and give several alternative interpretations.
- The short-lived American poet and writer Stephen Crane wrote the acclaimed American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. But he also wrote a collection of poems entitled War is Kind. Through these poems, he delved deep into the themes of war and violence based on his experience in the Spanish–American and Greco–Turkish Wars.
- At the opposite end of the poetry spectrum you can find the Elizabethan-era Englishman John Donne. His works were largely written in the form of sonnets focused on the themes of love, social criticism, death, and religion.
Excellent books are still being written! Once in a while, your instructor may ask you to analyze a more recent work. Here are a few great books to consider for your next essay.
- Sherman Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues tells the story of a group of young men on a Spokane Indian reservation who obtain the enchanted guitar of a legendary bluesman. This book explores many themes of Native American life as well as overcoming obstacles and poverty.
- Montana 1948 by Larry Watson is a novella set in the Western American state of Montana, where a young man’s family struggles to survive. The book explores the themes of loyalty, justice, and family obligations.
- In Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, the protagonist Susie dies a violent death. And then her spirit proceeds to watch over the investigation of her disappearance and her family members’ lives. The key themes of this book are mortality, justice, and grief.
- Last but not least, you may want to write about one of the volumes of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Just remember, when you write about a book that also became a movie, actually read the book! (And most importantly, don’t confuse the two. It’s an easy way to convince your teacher that you didn’t read the book, even when you did.