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Analyzing Parts of a Text to Understand the Whole

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you will get a taste for using the parts of a text to better understand the whole. Find out how structure, style, language, symbolism, setting, and mood can help you get better at this.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Have you ever read a sentence or paragraph and wondered why an author might have decided to include it? This lesson looks at how understanding the parts of a text can help us analyze the whole.

In particular, we'll look at how structure, style, language, symbolism, setting, and mood help reveal pieces of our literary puzzle. First, we'll focus on understanding each term and then dive into a sample text so you can see how the puzzle pieces fit together.

Analyzing the Elements of a Text

Let's start with a description of some of the different elements you'll use when analyzing a text.

The language an author chooses gives us clues for how to interpret the text. When considering language, you might ask if the language used is from a certain time period or from a particular point of view.

The language and particular words a writer chooses can influence the mood of a text. A text about a hospital environment, for instance, might involve a mood that reflects the state of mind of the physicians as they encounter various patients.

Language is related to the overall style of a text, too. For example, if you were reading a book about life on a farm, the style could vary depending on the purpose and genre of the book. Is the text describing how to perform certain activities? Or is it giving you a description of events that take place?

Often, you can bet that setting is another puzzle piece in understanding the whole of a text. Let's say we're reading a text about life in New York City that focuses on the relationship between two friends. Their experience of the city itself could play a role in how their story unfolds.

You may also opt to analyze the symbolism in a text. Through symbolism, the author uses one concept to refer to another. To understand symbolism better, think about how a country's flag represents so much more than simply the country's name. The flag has symbolic meaning and can be a symbol of national pride, a shared history, and cultural identity.

Finally, structure relates to the order of events and the level of detail we receive from the text. For example, a text about a political career could be arranged in chapters representing different elections or different offices held, telling the events within the context of each time frame.

Considering a Specific Text

Now that you have an understanding of some of the basic elements to consider in analyzing parts of a text, let's dig into a sample text taken from a fictional tale about the life of a truck driver:

  • ''I watched drivers risk their own lives every day. This always got me thinking about the fragile nature of life. I knew the risks. I'd seen the results of an interaction between a car and a semi. Whether you're the driver in a car or you're watching the world from up in a massive truck, there's no safe place to be. Sometimes we think of ourselves as invincible. I know from experience that it only takes a second to change your life.''

The narrator warns against believing you are invincible, giving the text a somber and serious mood.
A car that has been badly damaged in an accident.

First, you might notice that the style of the text is straightforward and conversational. The writer uses the first person ''I'' and references ''you,'' as though the narrator is speaking to the reader. This gives us an indication of what to expect in the book as a whole.

This particularly passive language takes on a persuasive tone in a narrative format. In other words, she's telling a story (a narrative) but also encouraging her audience to see her point of view, that life is fragile and driving can be a dangerous activity.

Due to the darker subject matter, such as cars and semi-trucks having accidents, the mood is somber and reads a bit like a warning.

Later in our story, we find our narrator transitioning to what seems like a completely different topic:

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