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How to Write an Interpretive Essay


An assignment to interpret a work of literature can seem overwhelming. Figuring out where to start, what literary elements to analyze and what to interpret doesn't have to be an impossible task. Choose two or three literary aspects or elements of the work you've been asked to interpret. The essay should have a clear thesis and introduction. It should include body paragraphs covering the elements you're interpreting, including symbolism, characterization, themes or mood and setting.

Prewriting Tasks

Reread the story, poem or novel chapter you've been asked to interpret in the essay and highlight literary elements such as symbols, characters, moods or setting. Focus on specific details and write a list of literary elements you want to interpret. Using Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" as an example, you could write, "The two roads in Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken' symbolize the choices people make in their lives." As an example of how to interpret a character in a poem, critic Frank Lenticcia wrote that the character of the speaker in Frost's poem was "reliant, decisive and non-conformist."

Writing the Introduction

After you have selected the literary elements you want to interpret in your essay, write an introduction including the author's name, title of the literary work and the literary elements you will interpret in your body paragraphs. If you have chosen to interpret the poem's theme as your primary focus, examine the theme in detail. Using "The Road Not Taken," you could write, "The poem's theme means that choosing your own path in life makes 'all the difference.' " However, literary critics writing in website Modern American Poetry believe Frost's poem is ironic because the paths the traveler chooses between are described as little different from each other. George Montiero wrote that the poem was a nonreligious response to a common religious theme of life choices represented by paths in the woods and "choosing the right path."

Writing Body Paragraphs

Organize your body paragraphs in order of the elements you will interpret. If you begin with symbolism, consider that poetry may contain different symbolic meanings for different time periods and readers. For example, librarian Judith Messerle said that the life choices symbolized by the paths in the woods in "The Road Not Taken" were written in a simpler era. She noted that Frost's paths still hold symbolic meaning for today's reader in the dizzying array of choices in today's information economy. While some believe the poem's theme is "life's choices don't really matter," others find that its theme is uplifting. Critic Frank Lenticchia wrote that Frost's poem is an allegory for the journey of life, and the choice to take the road less traveled represents the theme of self-reliance.

Concluding the Essay

Unify your interpretive essay by writing a conclusion that focuses on the main literary elements you have interpreted. For example, an essay interpreting the theme of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as ironic, could conclude, similarly to critic Mark Richardson, that the two roads in the poem are "really about the same," and that "both that morning equally lay." The irony in this interpretation lies in the fact that the speaker has said the roads are "the same" repeatedly, yet he concludes that by saying that he took the road "less traveled by" and this has "made all the difference." Richardson compares these statements and concludes that the traveler's choice made no difference at all.

About the Author

Amy Sterling Casil is an award-winning writer with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She is a professional author and college writing teacher, and has published 20 nonfiction books for schools and libraries.

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