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The Literary Essay is an piece of critical writing which deals specifically with literature, which is to say, those examples of writing which are generally considered the above the ordinary run. Literature, then, and thus “the literary”, encompass a broad range of writings and ideas.
While literature is a heterogeneous and sometimes contentious category (which sparks much debate over inclusion and exclusion), we can establish certain broad definitional precepts that clarify the concept.
Usually, “literature” pertains to poetry and narrative prose, though other genres (essays, tracts, polemics, apologetics, and so on) are at times included. We are looking for works which exhibit distinct aesthetic merit – that have artistic properties. Of course, the question of what art is inevitably encompasses a degree of subjective judgement. This is worth bearing in mind when approaching a literary essay. Take nothing for granted. Do not be afraid to question dominant assumptions – this is what will score you top marks.
For example, you might do well to open with a brief discussion of the potential difficulties of “literature” as a category. This would demonstrate a very critical eye.
A literary essay is usually a fine balance between linguistic analysis and semantic interpretations: between structures and the way those structures make meaning.
A good way of thinking about this is in relation to the distinction between form and theme. This is a paramount division established within literary studies and is always relevant irrespective of the particular genre you are dealing with.
Quite simply, when we talk about form, we are concerned with the way a particular literary text looks. Is it prose or poetry, for example? If it is poetry, what form of poetry - a sonnet, a haiku, an epic? Does the poem rhyme? What rhyming pattern and meter does it employ? These are all questions of form.
Theme, in contrast, is more abstract. For this reason, it is arguably a more complex consideration. Basically, a theme is a pattern. Take the plays of Shakespeare. In looking over his 37 recognised works, we begin to see similarities across the board. For example, we often find cases of mistaken identity - particularly of gender swapping for comedic effect. Hence we may assert that mistaken identity is a paramount theme in Shakespearean theatre. This is a very straightforward example, because it concerns easily identifiable consistencies. However, literary themes may operate on a far more subtle and opaque level. This is where it can get really tricky.
So, if we notice that the particular form of a poem uses a lot of dissonant, clashing sounds when depicting, say, modernity, we might reasonably suggest that the author is thematically insinuating negative connotations to this particular time period. Here, the theme is established in the confluence of sonic characteristics and the topics to which they are applied.
Crucially, the crux of analysis tends to exist at the crossover between form and theme, the way these two entities interact. Perhaps one might argue that literary analysis is in large part simply an examination of the interaction between literary forms and literary themes. We might notice in reading a novel that much of the story is told in retrospective: from the future, looking at past. This narrative delivery is very common in literature of the modern era. This formal quality of the work lends itself to the theme of memory.
If you can identify these crossover points, you will be in good stead for scoring top marks.
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