Analyzing Quotes

Sample Quote Explication
(Tolkein example and some explanations are from a guidebook published by Colegio Bolivar)

Using Quotations in Formal Analysis

You are always making an argument when you write an essay. Incorporating quotes from a passage into your prose is the best way to begin to prove that your point makes sense. But just putting quotes in is not enough – using quotes can make a good essay great, but it can also be a pointless exercise if it is not done correctly.

The first step is to select a quote that is significant and determine what the quote means.

The first part of this sentence – finding a quote that is significant – should not be overlooked. It does no good to put in a quote that is self-explanatory (Holden “put on his red hat” before getting into the cab) or one that doesn’t matter at all (Romeo says “Hello” to Tybalt). If these examples are obvious, then consider this: Is the quote that you are selecting more important than the lines that come immediately before it and after it? If not, then you have found an important scene, perhaps, but not an important quote.

Also worth noting here, you are selecting quotes that you think are significant. Going online and searching for important quotes from a text is plagiarism – you are allowing someone else to determine what is or is not important in the text.

To determine what a quote means, consider all of the following aspects of the quotation.

Context: the framework of the quote

· Where is the quote in the story?
· Is it narration? If so, consider the perspective.
· Is it a character’s voice? If so ask: who is the character, whom is the character speaking to, why, when, what, and maybe even how is the character speaking?

Literal: the exact meaning of the quote

· What does the quote mean?
· Literally what do the words say?

Figurative: the ideas of the quote

· Consider the connotations the words create. What images and pictures are brought to mind?
· Consider figurative language. For example, look for the use of metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and other the literary terms.

Meaning: the relationship of the quote to the work

· How does this quotation fit the meaning of the entire work?
· Why is this quotation crucial to understanding?

Analysis: total explication of the quote

· Make at least a couple of statements about the quote.
· Include fragments of the quotation in the analysis.

At the bottom of this page is an example of a quote that gets examined through all of the elements explained above.

One final strategy that you should use is pulling out / highlighting the most important parts of the quote that you have just used. If you have found an excellent quote, and it’s in your paper, you owe it to yourself to explain exactly why that quote is so good. Don’t presume that a quote is obvious or that it speaks for itself. And don’t move on until you have pointed out at least one specific word choice, interesting element, or significant meaning from the line that you are quoting. Here’s an example, from W. H. Auden’s poem, The Unknown Citizen:

Auden further criticizes the dullness of  the citizen’s life when the speaker stats that “[he] had everything necessary to the Modern Man, / A phonograph, a radio, a car, and a frigidaire.” Auden capitalizes “Modern Man” to make the citizen seem grand on the surface, but then lists four generic and ordinary possessions as ironic proof of that grandness. By ending the list with a frigidaire, Auden hints at the frozen nature of the citizen’s life. And by listing the items without employing an active verb, the focus shifts away from the citizen and what he does, and onto his items, which are motionless.

Without these specific explanations, the essay would rely too heavily on the reader to provide meaning. By breaking the quote down, the essay is now working harder to prove a point, and makes it easier for the reader to see the logic.


Read this quote from Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. Then, look at the example analysis.

Gandalf paused. “And there in the dark pools amid the Gladden Fields,” he said, “the Ring passed out of knowledge and legend; and even so much of its history is known now only to a few, and the Council of the Wise could discover no more. But at least I can carry on the story, I think.” (page 77, The Shadows of the Past)

Context: At the beginning of the trilogy, Gandalf’s quotation explains to Frodo the history of the Ring.

Literal: Gandalf explains that although legend shrouds the ring’s history, he thinks he can try to explain the origin and significance of the ring.

Figurative: A legend, with its basis in fact, embellishes the story in the retelling. Council of the wise sounds like a wise group with all the answers. Knowledge implies wisdom more than the word facts, just as legend suggests mystery and fame. As a circle has no end nor beginning, so the ring’s end is its beginning, and vice versa. The legend goes round from fact to fiction and back. The words “I think” qualify and weaken the authority of the speaker’s claim to discern the fact from the legend.

Meaning: This quotation depicts the apocryphal nature of the ring whose legacy blends legend and fact.

Analysis: Gandalf relates to Frodo, the story of the ring which “passed out of knowledge and legend.” Just as the ring defies complete understanding requiring instead faith, its esoteric origins are “known now only to a few,” including Gandalf who questions his ability to relate the tale.


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