Generally speaking, students are under pressure to choose subjects that promise a fantastic career: economics, political science, languages and even science and maths. Most people - students, their parents and the wider world consider literary texts a relic of days gone by; something nice to read if there's absolutely nothing else to do.
Certainly, no good career ever came from studying English literature... right?
Wrong! Besides the obvious career choices - curator, historian, teacher and anything involving the visual and performing arts, studying English literature is a boon to just about every professional field you could aspire to make your mark in.
If you selected English Literature as one of your GCSE subjects, you should consider yourself a cut above the rest because you're about to embark on a journey of discovery that will last your entire life.
Superprof is honoured to help you get started.
Why Do We Study English Literature?
Considering that statistics show fewer students than ever pursue English literature studies, this segment's header is a bit misleading. The question should be: why should we study English Literature?
We're fairly certain you could rattle off a series of reasons to read Shakespeare sonnets - they're magical! - and Shelley's Frankenstein, arguably the first modern-day science fiction literary work.
Literary study is loaded with intangible benefits.
Far from just treating readers to snapshots of English life a century or more ago, English Literature study:
- fosters creativity: read a few good texts and you, too, will think creatively
- broadens your perspective: literature often presents conflicting points of view
- builds confidence: it takes guts to hold forth in writing about classical texts
- builds communication skills: not only will you write about literature, you will also discuss those texts
- critical thinking skills: before you can either write or talk about literature, you have to think critically about it
- helps you develop research skills: as you study literature, you will seek more information about the author, their life and the times they lived in.
- working under pressure: your long reading list, with all of the work it entails, keeps you working against a deadline.
You'll note that none of these benefits relates directly to English literature texts. However, they are needed skills that are so lacking in the workforce today.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to study English literature but, if you had no interest in becoming a historian or teacher, these reasons clearly show that studying literature helps you build transferable skills that you can adapt to any career you choose.
What Are Some of the Most Well-Known Works of English Literature?
Before you even begin your English literature course, you may already of some of the best texts, even if you saw them in film. Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - oft-remade for film and telly, just to name two. If you're a fan of the horror genre, you may have seen any of the several remakes of Shelley's Frankenstein.
And you could hardly go anywhere in the world where the people have never heard of Shakespeare.
Lucky for you, all of these authors, save Jane Austen, feature on your required reading list. In fact, it includes authors from the Victorian era as well as authors from the 20th Century. William Golding is a great case in point; his Lord of the Flies should be required reading for everyone, whether they're taking literature classes or not.
You won't just read novels in your English Literature course; poetry is also on the menu. This type of literary work has gained a fresh since the American presidential inauguration, in January 2021. That's when Amanda Gorman became the youngest person ever to read or recite an original poem to celebrate a new American presidency.
Admittedly, not everyone likes to read full-length novels, even if they are barely two hundred pages long. However, your course reading list offers up a blend of works: poetry, plays and stories. Of course, what you read at any time during the course depends on which module you're currently on.
Still, you can rest assured that you'll have a fair mix of intrigue (Arthur Conan Doyle), allegory (An Inspector Calls) and comedy (Much Ado About Nothing). In short, you get to read some of the most renowned works of English literature.
Tips to Analyse English Literature Texts
As you read these great texts, you might find yourself astounded at their richness and complexity - even if you have to tease said richness out of archaic language. Luckily, analysing language is a part of your overall task of analysing these texts as a whole.
What should you look for in conducting analysis?
How the writer tells their story is a good place to start. Are you getting a first-person narrative or is the tale told by a narrator - every character and action relayed in the third person?
And, speaking of characters: how are they introduced? What is their background and do they develop as the story progresses? Which attributes does the author give each character - are they stingy or generous? Helpful and kind? Wise or a bit goofy?
Indeed, how the characters are defined sets the tone for the entire work.
Contrast the tone of Much Ado About Nothing and its light-hearted banter and double entendre with Jane Eyre, a coming of age story laden with symbolism and heavy tones. Whereas Shakespeare uses doublespeak to create misunderstanding, Ms Brontë employs linguistic devices such as metaphors to convey the seriousness of her topic.
Likewise, in Much Ado, the frequent misunderstandings were, themselves, both a theme and a plotline but Jane Eyre's themes are much less obvious.
Perhaps the best tip for analysing English literary texts is to read them twice: once for the Wow-factor and once to deconstruct it and identify all of its elements. We've listed more tips and tricks to help you analyse English literature texts in a separate article.
How to Structure an English Literature Essay
Usually, writing is a creative endeavour. Even if you're writing an academic paper, you have to have a measure of creativity so that your writing will stand out among all of the other papers your teacher has to read, evaluate and grade.
What a motivating factor that thought can be!
Granted, you will have to fulfil several requirements when writing your literature essays, so let's talk about those structural elements.
Essentially, you will write what's known in some circles as a five-point essay that will consist of (at least) five paragraphs. They are:
- first contention and supporting evidence
- second contention and supporting evidence
- third contention and supporting evidence
In your introduction, you should include the author's name and the title of the text you're analysing, and address the essay question.
For instance, if your question asks what themes are present in a work, how the main character learns and how the author uses language to set the tone, your introduction might start something like this: "In Author Name's novel, XYZ, greed, ambition and regret are running themes. We see them in the way... and so on."
The next three paragraphs discuss the themes, character development and the tone of the text, respectively... or whichever elements your question draws on.
As you start each new paragraph, the first sentence will be a declaration and the rest of that paragraph will consist of the reasons - the evidence to support your belief that that declaration is true.
Here's a pro essay-writing tip: let the last sentence of each paragraph lead into the next paragraph's contention. For other handy tips, refer to our main article on the subject.
GCSE-level literary essays are relatively easy to plan because the essay questions tell you what to write about, and in what order. University students aren't quite so fortunate. Usually, they have to come up with their own theses as well as writing about them.
How to Revise for English Literature
Some literary texts are so memorable, you might expound on them at length at the least provocation. The only trouble with that is, how well do you remember every aspect of those texts? Could you, when prompted, answer targeted questions - what if they're about the parts of the story you didn't like so well?
Hopefully, you chose English Literature because you genuinely appreciate literary texts. Because you love to read and see the value of looking to history to find answers for the future.
All of that is great but, unfortunately, you still have to prove that you've picked up the skills taught during this course. The best way to do that is to revise so that you can ace your English Literature exams.
How best to revise, then?
Besides reading each literary work listed in your course syllabus, you have to deconstruct them, list the identify various elements and build a satisfying narrative that will show you truly got the meaning behind the story.
Mind maps, flashcards - even note-taking are great revision tools. You could join a study group or establish one if none yet exists. You can hold discussions with your mates or, if they prove reluctant to talk about literature and its impact on them, engage a tutor.
These are just a few ways you could revise for your English Literature exam; there are several others and we've listed them all in a separate article.