Analyzing Overanalysis


Bianca Plowman (10) completes literary analysis worksheets in her English class. English classes often overanalyze stories and lose the true meaning behind them.
Photo by Sadie Tresnit

As someone who has loved reading books from a very young age, I can’t stand analyzing books in school. Too often, teachers turn to overanalysis, and the poor book is picked apart and studied to death. Plot is sacrificed for symbolism, and many truly important parts of the story can be lost. When this happens, I usually sit at my desk mourning the arbitrariness of the American English curriculum. When I read a book, of course I care about the deeper meaning, but I also value the plot of the story that is being told. When the plot is lost, the universal theme of the story loses its real-world context, and this takes away from the whole point of the literature, which is to tell a story with both metaphor and roots in reality.

Currently in my sophomore English class, we’re studying Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It’s a fine book. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, the first time I read it, I liked it a lot. The ending surprised me, and as a whole, the book really made me think. I was able to make connections between Steinbeck’s work and other pieces of writing. I thought a lot about the human mind and difficult decisions. I pondered questions that had never occurred to me before, things that would later keep me up at night. Although that may sound like a lot, it all happened in one class period in which I had nothing else to do.

When I rehashed the book in my English class, the writing lost its spark. I had to deal with everyone trying to read out loud, sticking long pauses wherever they saw fit. The language didn’t flow anymore; it stumbled drunkenly in the dark and hit its leg on a table. We read certain scenes over and over again, to the point where nothing new was realized, but we were all tired of the same five paragraphs. In short, the story was no longer interesting because we placed too much focus on analysis.

My fellow Of Mice and Men studier Bianca Plowman (10) shares my sentiments. “I think that analysis is fine. However, when you’re reading realistic fiction, and you’re asked, ‘now, what do you think these creaky floorboards represent?’ I don’t know. Maybe my [joints] after you’ve made me sit here for the past hour and a half,” she says. Oftentimes, overanalysis can seem pointless, and that’s because it usually is. Students can clearly make connections on their own without drowning in purportedly helpful worksheets, such as those for finding ten similarities between the main characters of different stories. Of Mice and Men is, as Plowman says, realistic fiction, so it stands to reason that while some parts of the story are metaphorical, others are no doubt meant to show and explain real experiences and must be taken at face value.

Of course, I’m not arguing for the complete removal of all analysis, because that would be ridiculous. As Franklin English teacher Anne Meadows puts it, “I think [analysis] helps to appreciate the power of story, and how theme is universal, usually, to human experience. I think we can miss those deeper meanings if we don’t slow down and analyze the text.” Analysis can certainly help clarify ideas that literature is meant to represent and explain. It’s a good way to process reading, whether it’s for an assignment or entertainment.

Based on this, I advocate for more thoughtful analysis. High school English classes often employ overanalysis, which is when the plot gets lost. Instead of overanalyzing, I propose that we focus more on discussion-based processing, in which students have the opportunity to have conversations about their ideas. Instead of just answering questions on paper, students should be able to actually receive feedback for their thoughts and help each other discover new multifaceted layers to literature. Discussion keeps analysis fascinating and allows students to collaboratively build upon their ideas, making it a beneficial experience for entire classes. To instill a love of reading in more high schoolers, English classes must place more importance on keeping lessons focused on real, impactful analysis.

Of course, this won’t work for every single student. I know that in my classes and others, there are students who need to write things down and hear the words read aloud, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, sometimes hearing a book read aloud can help even me process the story better. However, this isn’t the case for every student at Franklin, and the current system doesn’t allow for that. Because of this, it is my belief that students should be given a more active role in how they analyze literature, choosing on their own whether they want to read outside of class and discuss ideas or whether they would prefer to read in class and complete written analysis. By giving students a more active role in this, they will be more focused on a learning method that works for them, leading to more insightful analysis and genuine interest in classwork.

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