What to Ask When You Read Literature

The questions below are meant as a general guide – not all questions will be relevant to every work, and not all important questions for every work are included.

A. The Writer’s Life: Who wrote this? What kind of person was s/he? Can you tell from the text, or must you look outside the text? How old was the writer when s/he wrote this? What happened before or after this was written?

B. The Writer’s Culture: In what place and time was it written? What was going on then? What events and ideas were important? What cultural values are evident from the text? Are the events contemporary with the author or set in a past or future from the author?

C. The Work: What key words/images/figures of speech are important? How is language used in the work to set tone and attitude? What patterns do you see? Does the work exist within a generic tradition (epic, novel, sonnet) or is it innovative or different? What other texts does this one remind you of? How is the form (genre and structure) related to developing the meanings of the text? Is the title one chosen by the author? If so, how does it resonate with the ideas in the text? How are time, space, and place treated within the work?

D. The Speaker and Characters: Who is talking here? To whom? Is the author the same as the narrator/speaker? Is there more than one narrator? What relationships exist between characters? What motivates them? What conflict(s) do they have? How do characters (and/or their society) change as a result of the events in the work? How does the choice of speaker(s) affect your understanding of and reaction to the work?

E. The Ideas: What lessons/messages are expressed or implied here? What values? What “forces” have determined these events (gods, people, chance…)? What changes occur in the text, and how and why do those changes occur?

F. The Reader (YOU): How does this work make you feel? What stands out to you? What in your background makes those features and feelings come out? How is your world alike or different from the one portrayed in the text? What ideas are more or less important now? In what ways do you agree or disagree with the ideas presented?

(adapted from Purves & Quattrini, Creating the Literature Portfolio)