One of the marks of a great work of literature is its ability to raise significant questions in the mind of the reader, either explicitly or implicitly. Likewise, one of the marks of a great literary critic is her ability to recognize those questions, to articulate them thoughtfully, and to offer sensible answers to those questions. To do this, literary analysis must take place.
Literary analysis, like any kind of analysis, is the process of examining the whole by breaking it down into its natural parts in order to see the way in which they relate to, and inform, each other. By taking a closer look at these parts, the critic can then fashion some kind of interpretation from a particular perspective (or bias). Today these perspectives range from existentialist to deconstructionist, feminist to Marxist, and several varieties in between.
Once the whole work is broken down into parts, the critic puts on a pair of glasses and looks at and interprets what these parts mean according to the prescription of the lenses. These lenses, metaphorically speaking, are the strictures dictated by the particular critical perspective the critic upholds. Each perspective maintains certain assumptions about the nature of humankind, life, death, God, technology, power, and a whole host of other realities of importance to most people.
But before a critic can put on the pair of glasses she feels is most accurate or feels most comfortable with, she must first be able to identify the basic elements of literature and know their significance and potential for meaning. (You will want to review the section entitled some common literary elements periodically during the course of the semester.)
With a knowledge of literary elements, the critic now begins to look closely at the text, searching for these elements. Next, she begins asking questions of the text: What is the significance of this story's setting? What is the cause of the conflict between the main character and his wife? Is this barren tree a symbol? The critic isn't afraid to ask questions--even far-out questions--because that is what literature bids the reader to do.
When you begin asking questions of the particular works you are reading, in a vicarious way you are also asking yourself questions about your own life and its meaning. As you search for answers to the puzzling aspects of a poem or a short story, you are, in a way, looking for pieces that might fit the puzzle of your own existence. This process can induce all kinds of positive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.
After you have analyzed the parts of the work, then step back and take another look at the big picture--the whole. Does it look any different than when you first finished reading it? How? What larger significance does it seem to present to you?
Once you have thought about these questions, you are ready to provide some answers with an interpretation according to the particular critical approach you believe in. (See the section entitled a few critical approaches to literature.)
Realize that the questions do not stop just because you have given an interpretation; in many ways they have just begun. Once others in the classroom hear your ideas, no doubt they will challenge them as being inaccurate or incomplete. (This does not have to be a threatening experience, so long as those who hold differing interpretations strive to maintain respect for each other.) The dialog that follows will provide even more meaning and significance. In this sense, literature and the discussion of literature is generative; this is why it is such a fine tool for education.
One final footnote: The word "critic" comes from the Greek term "kritikos," which translates "discernment" or "decision." Integral to the work of a literary critic is using judgment (based upon discernment) to make interpretive choices (decision). This is what life is about. Consequently, it is clear why many make the case that literature and life are synonymous.