Writing a Literary Commentary: Guidelines
What is a commentary?
- First and foremost, a literary commentary is NOT an essay. The passage in front of you is not, therefore, an invitation to write a general essay about the work from which it has been taken.
- A commentary is an analysis of the given passage, its function and its characteristics. It should examine the key themes and stylistic devices of the passage, showing how the language works to convey (or at times undermine) its content.
- A commentary should relate the passage to the rest of the work (novel, collection of poems, etc.), but remain focused in the main on the details of the passage itself.
- Make sure that your commentary covers the whole passage. For instance, if you are given a poem with five stanzas, you should try to say something about each stanza.
- Use line numbers (in both poetry and prose) in your commentary, rather than wasting time by quoting at length.
- When you do quote, make sure that your comments don't simply repeat what the quotation already says: 'In the line "Il pleut dehors", the poet tells us that it is raining outside ...'
- Avoid verbosity or inaccurate terminology. Clarity and precision are top priorities, and polysyllabic words do not improve a commentary.
- Don't use words like 'effective', 'atmospheric', or 'beautiful' unless you are also explaining what the effect, atmosphere or beauty of the passage are, and how they are achieved.
How should I write my commentary?
There are no fixed rules for writing a commentary, but a general structure will be suggested. You should always PLAN your commentary before you start writing it, following these guidelines where appropriate.
- Put the passage into context, and summarise its arguments briefly (in a few sentences): do not spend too much time discussing matters outside of the passage.
- You should assume that your reader has read the work from which the passage has been taken.
- You may want to point out the passage's most important thematic and structural aspects in your introduction.
- Introduce the main themes and structural aspects of the passage.
- What kind of passage is it (description/dialogue/free indirect speech), and what is its function (in the rest of the work)?
- What is its overall structure (repetitious/circuIar/leitmotifs/develops to a climax)?
- What is the narrative point of view (first-person/third-person/omniscient or not)?
- What are the register (high/low) and tone (comic/surreal) of the passage?
3 Detailed Analysis
This is the most substantial part of the commentary. It should not be simple description or paraphrase, but an analysis of how the language of the passage functions. The following are aspects of the text that you should look for:
- Sentence structure
- Tense usage
- Word order (balance or lack thereof, harmony, repetition, parallels)
- Figurative language (imagery, metaphors, similes, symbolism, allegory, personification, myth, antithesis, irony, paradox)
- Characterisation (or lack thereof)
- Narrative technique/point of view (first/third person, limited point of view, stream of consciousness)
- Alliteration, assonance, rhyme (poetry and prose)
Remember that no text is likely to have instances of all of these elements, and that it is best to concentrate on those that are most relevant to the passage in question. Also, you should avoid simply commenting on the appearance of a particular technique: make sure you say why this is worth noticing. Ideally, your comments should cohere to explain how the various linguistic devices combine to produce the overall effect intended by the author.
- Summarise your findings, drawing together the different aspects of the text that you have discussed in your commentary.
- Assess briefly the achievements and significance of the passage, both in itself and in relation to the work from which it is taken.
Some useful aids to commentary-writing
- Nurse, P. (ed.), The Art of Criticism: Essays in French Literary Analysis (Edinburgh, 1969) (sample commentaries of French literary texts)
- Biard, J. D., Lexique pour I 'explication de texte (Exeter, 1980)
- Benac, H., Vocabulaire de la dissertation (Paris, 1949)
(Binac and Biard provide lists of technical terms used in close analysis of a literary text in French, and give explanations and examples of usage)