Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Biography/Autobiography

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  • 0:02 Analyzing an Autobiography
  • 1:01 Style, Diction & Tone
  • 3:33 Keller's Autobiography
  • 5:56 Herrmann's Biography of Keller
  • 8:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Understanding and evaluating an autobiography or a biography can seem like a challenging task, but in this lesson, we'll discuss how to effectively analyze both.

Analyzing an Autobiography or a Biography

An autobiography tells the history of a person's life and is written by that person in the first-person, using 'I'. A biography is similar, but it tells the history of a person's life and is written by someone else. The key to not getting these confused is to know that the Greek prefix 'auto' means 'self.' So if Beyonce were to write a book about her life, it would be an autobiography, but if someone were to interview her extensively and do research about her life, then that author's work would be a biography about Beyonce.

In order to fully analyze a biography or an autobiography, we need to:

  • Analyze the purpose of the text, whether it is written to inform, persuade, or entertain
  • Evaluate its effectiveness by examining its use of anecdotes, facts and examples
  • Evaluate the author's writing style, diction, and tone

Style, Diction, and Tone

The author might choose to write in a narrative style in which a linear account of events is given with little reference to underlying emotions. Or, it may be descriptive, meaning the author paints a picture for the reader to describe each scene fully, making the reader see moments in his or her mind. There's also an emotional writing style when the author wants to evoke some emotional response in the reader.

Writers often use a combination of these styles within one book, but it's important to pay attention to which style is most often used throughout a biography or autobiography because it helps us recognize how the author's style influences his or her purpose for writing that book. For instance, if Beyonce wanted to write an autobiography to persuade critics and skeptics to like her, then she may use an emotional style to heighten emotions in moments in which the media has attacked her, or when she struggled with her former girl group members. That might cause readers to feel bad for her and better understand how she was feeling and why.

Analyzing the diction means to analyze the choice of words and phrases used. Some authors tend to write with a more simplistic vocabulary, while others use more advanced words to sound more serious or formal. In some autobiographies or biographies, more old or archaic words are used that might not be used today but can give a feel for the time and place.

Connotative words, or words associated with certain positive or negative emotions, can also be used, such as when an emotional style is being used. For instance, confident and egotistical have very different connotations. Some autobiographies or biographies tend to use technical or scientific words, while others may be written more casually using slang. A biography about Martin Luther King Jr. would most likely use terms related to the civil rights movement to educate readers and sound reliable. Chances are, if it contained slang terms like 'cool' or 'rad' it would not be taken seriously.

The tone is the general attitude that a piece of writing has. Some autobiographies and biographies are written with a humorous tone, while others might be reflective, solemn, or respectful. The tone can also change within the book. Recognizing the tone helps us see how the author's attitude shapes what facts and examples are included to persuade, entertain, or inform us.

Analyzing Keller's Autobiography

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller is an autobiography of Keller's early life, since she was in her twenties when she wrote it. It primarily focuses on her work with teacher Anne Sullivan of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Were it not for Miss Sullivan, Keller probably would not have become such an accomplished, college-educated adult who inspired so many people. Keller was born in the late 1800s when people with disabilities were often institutionalized and not even seen as intelligent. In light of Keller's challenges, she could have easily written her autobiography in an emotional style with a self-pitying tone, providing facts about all she will never be able to see or hear to evoke emotions in her readers. But instead, she writes in a tone of joy and emphasizes her love of language and learning through anecdotes.

Here's an excerpt that describes when Helen Keller first met Miss Sullivan:

'I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.'

There are some key words and phrases to note here. Keller wrote that she felt approaching footsteps since she could not hear them. She doesn't simply write that she thought it was her mother approaching her. She specifically says she stretched out her hand. Keller also avoids using Miss Sullivan's name and refers to her as someone and says Miss Sullivan came to reveal all things to her and above all else to love her. Keller's careful use of diction helps her paint a vivid picture of this moment, which points to her descriptive style. The last sentence is written in an emotional style that conveys how Keller feels about Miss Sullivan and how grateful she was that Miss Sullivan came into her life.

Though Keller's autobiography informs her readers about her experiences, it is clear she also wants to evoke emotion to persuade readers to feel as she did about people like Miss Sullivan. Had she simply wanted to educate readers about how they met, she would have stated facts about Miss Sullivan's background and teaching experiences and written in a linear narrative when exactly they met, how old they both were, etc., leaving out all emotion.

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