Structural Analysis: Six Categories

Writing About Literature: Six Categories


Introduction - Six Overlapping Categories: First Contact; Petals and Faces; Literature - Writers, Narrators, Speakers, & Personas - Myth & Religion - Secular Discourse - Ambiguity


In Six Categories: A Guide to Writing about Literature, I explore and illustrate six ways to approach literature. I preface my six pages — 1: Space 2: Time3: Character4: Relationship5: Theme6: Style — with an explanation of how these terms can overlap and with a brief a overview of key terms and concepts.

Six Overlapping Categories

The six categories should help you approach any literature — poetry, drama, or fiction. I mostly use poems in the examples, as they can be dealt with more succinctly.

Most literary texts use all six categories, since they’re set in a particular space (1) and time (2), they explore the psychological state of a character (3) who has a relationship or conflict (4), and they develop a theme (5) using a particular form or style (6).

In writing about literature, you can examine one category in relation to another — for example, the way symbolism (6) helps to define character (3) — or you can focus on one category and allow other categories to come in and out of your analysis.

First Contact

One way to help visualize or understand the six categories — and to understand literature in general — is to think in terms of movies. For instance, you can see the six categories at work in the popular animation Pocahontas: the film is set (1) on the ships of the English and in the woods of New England during a time of first contact (2) between Native and English peoples, and involves Pocahontas’ psychological struggle (3) between her own culture (focused on nature) and that of the arriving Europeans (focused on ownership and precious metals). The two cultures are in constant and often violent conflict (4) throughout the film. The film explores two related themes (5) — the Romeo and Juliet division of the lovers Pocahontas and John Smith, and the politics of historical encounter and cultural allegiance — which are conveyed in a Disney film format (6), where the woman is feisty and beautiful, the lovers are star-crossed (4), the songs are catchy, and the historical sources are altered (2) to suit the traditional structure of comedy (6), which requires a happy ending. 

Petals and Faces

Short poems don't always contain all six categories, although even in a poem as short as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) we can get a sense of all six.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough.

Here we have a general location (1) — a subway station in a city which uses the term metro rather than subway or underground. Within this general setting we have a fairly abstract spatial situation in which the persona sees faces in an industrial setting (the metro) and then compares them to an image which derives from a natural setting (the "petals on a wet black bough"). The bough is most likely not in the actual setting, but in the mind of the persona. Notice that although I focused on space or setting here, space implies time (a post-industrial age), connects to imagery (petals on a black bough), and reflects the mindset of a character (who sees faces as petals). Here category 1 overlapped with categories 2, 6, and 3. This type of overlap is natural in literature.


Literature might be defined simply as skillful or rich writing. In his 1711 Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope writes that “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.” If one were to use this as a definition of literature in an academic sense, one might add to it, “what oft or seldom was thought,” since literature can be about common thoughts or about extraordinary thoughts.

Because Ezra Pound’s poem refers to a metro (subway or underground), the poem implies a time period (2) which can't be any earlier than the late 19th Century. If he wrote a similar poem a hundred years earlier, in 1813, he might have set it in a factory in order to suggest something about the relationship between humanity, the industrial revolution, and nature. If he wanted to bring in ideas of movement or transportation, he might have set the poem in a busy street with horse-drawn carriages being driven in both directions. How would setting the poem in 1813 make a difference? If Pound wrote a similar poem in 1863, he might have set it in a train staion, perhaps to signal the revolution in transportation that the train began. Thinking about these earlier time periods might lead you to ask, Why might this this new setting — an underground station — be striking to a poet? What might this new setting suggest about the relation between humanity, technology, and nature? Finally, you might write an essay on how our understanding of the poem is affected by the fact that it isn’t set in the open air (as in 1813) or in a large wrought-iron building (as in 1863), but in an underground station in 1913.

Unlike the location, the psychological state of the persona (3) is fairly vague: the persona appears to be observant, open to new ways of seeing the space around, yet the persona isn't described in any way. This follows the notion (shared by imagists and many Asian poets) of not putting emphasis on the individual or artist. Or perhaps Pound omits the persona’s particular identity so that the reader can take the persona’s place. There’s also a relationship (4) between the persona and the people in the crowd. While the persona is detached from the crowd — indeed, the persona almost becomes invisible, ghost-like, like the "apparition" of the other faces — the persona sees their faces in relation to the setting in a holistic or organic way, as petals on a bough.


Finally, we have several possible themes (5), such as technology vs. nature, alienation vs. connection, the dissolution of the self, and we have the use of a particular style (6) — imagistic, self-effacing, ambiguous, and reminiscent of Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Writers, Narrators, Speakers, & Personas

Be careful not to automatically equate the writer of a text with the persona, speaker, or narrator. Writers create imaginary worlds, and often this includes the person who talks as the “I” or “me” in the text. Even when writers include aspects which connect to their real lives, readers can't assume they're writing about themselves — unless the text is overtly autobiographical, as for instance in Kanye West's "Saint Pablo."

In referring to the "I" in a text, use poet, persona, or speaker for poems, and narrator for short stories and novels. A narrator can be omniscient (all-seeing) or partially omniscient, and can also be a character in the story.

Use character, protagonist, or antagonist for characters in a short story, novel, longer poem (such as an epic), and dramatic performances. In plays, TV scripts, and film scripts that have narration or voice-over, use narrator. Make sure to keep clear in your head the distinction between an actor (a real-life person) and a character (the role the actor plays).

In analyzing poetry, there's a slight complication since you can use the poet to refer to the persona or to the real-life poet. For clarity, I suggest that in referring to a real-life poet make sure to include the real-life poet's name at the beginning of your analysis and at times throughout. This way, your reader will know that you don’t see the persona as fictional. 

In referring to lyrics, you can use the name of the band or the singer, or you can use the lyricist or the poet if you're focusing on the words rather than the singing. In very scholarly contexts, you should include the name of the lyricist, yet in first-year English papers this isn’t always necessary. Referring to the band or singer makes particular sense when you're considering the performance of the song in conjunction with the written text. The same goes for a video: you can refer to the band or singer, although in very scholarly contexts referring to the director may be more appropriate.

Writer and author generally apply to prose writers, while poet and playwright apply specifically to writers of poetry and plays. There’s also another slight complication: writer and author can also be used as very general terms, and hence can also refer to poets and playwrights.

Another very general yet useful term is figure, which in literature can refer to a type of person (for instance, a tragic or mythic figure), to a figure of speech (such as a metaphor), to the outline or shape of a person (as in “He cut a striking figure from across the bar”), and also, more generally, to a well-known or notable person — as in “She was a figure of note” or “He was an obscure figure in the world of drama.”

Myth & Religion

Religion is important in literature, because 1) much of the most famous literature in history has been full of religion — The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Vedas, The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, Paradise Lost, etc., and 2) religion is still important in most people's lives. Yet because religion can be divisive, some feel that it, like politics, should be avoided in the classroom, just as religion and politics should be avoided at the dinner table. Yet the classroom isn't the dinner table. It's a much more formal environment, one in which any relevant and thoughtful idea is permissible — as long as people remain diplomatic.

Please note that I use the word mythic in the widest and most neutral sense, in order to avoid the problem of treating one belief system as religion and another as mythology. More specifically, I use mythic for ideas, events, and figures that aren't substantiated historically or scientifically and that aren't about statements of belief, rites, or institutional structures. It would be odd, for instance, to call belief in Christ or Krishna a myth, to call mass or puja a myth, or to call a minister or rishi a myth. In your writing, feel free to use mythic or religious. For instance, you could use mythic or religious to refer to Satan or Ravanna, the Trinity or the Trimurti, Moses' parting the Red Sea or Shiva and Parvati having sex on Mount Kailasa.

Garuda and Nandi, the vehicles of Vishnu and Shiva, from the British Museum (photos RYC)

Garuda and Nandi, the vehicles of Vishnu and Shiva, from the British Museum (photos RYC)


If you're referring to actual people's experience of religion, you might want to use the terms mystical or religious. For more abstract and complex discussions of religious belief, you may want to use theological. Finally, supernatural and metaphysical are terms that often apply to both myth and religion.

Secular Discourse

The separation of religion from social institutions (secularism) isn’t necessarily an anti-religious idea. It’s also a way to protect religions from being victimized, controlled, or marginalized. If no one religion (or no one version of a particular religion) can impose its rules, then all religions are free to exist and express themselves — provided they don’t impose their rules on others. In general, public universities and colleges in Canada are secular, that is, they aren’t controlled or restricted by religion. Yet they shouldn't control or restrict religion either. 

In discussing religious ideas, proceed as you would with most other ideas: don’t assume that your reader either agrees or disagrees with your views. Rather, state the terms of your argument and then make your argument, giving the particulars as you would in any other case. For instance, if you want to argue something involving reincarnation, avoid starting with, “Since each soul will be reborn according to... .” Instead, start with something like, “According to Hindus [or Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains], each person has a soul, and each soul will be reborn according to... .”

Instructors may not agree with a specific religious or political argument, yet they should mark the argument based on its clarity, level of expression, organization, logic, insight, depth, rigour, and textual substantiation. 


Ambiguity is the quality of being open to two or more interpretations. It's a wonderful thing in literature (especially in poetry) but a terrible thing in academic essays, medical diagnoses, or legal contracts!

In literature, ambiguity allows different readers to find different meanings, and it allows an individual reader to weigh different possibilities.

Some students find this difficult to deal with, especially if they want clear-cut answers or meanings. These students might remember, however, that life in general has a great deal of ambiguity – from the nature of things like light or gravity to the right or correct way to think, act, or believe. If you have difficulty with ambiguity, you might try deciding on one meaning and then showing why it's the most probable. You can make one particular meaning clear by showing how it makes more sense than other meanings.


Back to top of page

Structural Analysis: Preface - 1: Space2: Time3: Character4: Relationship5: Theme & Theme Take 2 6: Style & Style Exercises

English 1114: Introduction - Contents - Outline

Schedule: Week 1-7 - Week 8-14