how to analyze quotes in essays

How to analyze quotes in essays: A step-by-step guide

Katie communication, study skills, writing tips

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

how to analyze quotes in essays

You need to know how to analyze quotes in essays for high school, college, and beyond. Finding and including quotes to support your argument is an important first step, but the real skill is in how you analyze the quotes to thoroughly convince the reader of your essay’s thesis. (Need to write an essay in a week or less? Here’s your roadmap.)

How to analyze quotes in essays at 3 levels

Good quote analysis has three parts. The sequence of each level is important because each level builds off the one before it. Below are the three levels of properly analyzing textual evidence (quotes) you include in your essays:

  1. Level 1: Explanation
  2. Level 2: Connection to paragraph claim
  3. Level 3: Connection to essay thesis and larger ideas/themes

In the following sections, I will explain exactly how to analyze quotes at all three levels. To better illustrate how to do this, I will use a quote from John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace. If you have not read this book, you’ll still be able to follow along.

Here’s a quote from A Separate Peace that I will refer to throughout this blog post. This is the quote we will analyze at all 3 levels:  “Although they were old stairs, the worn moons in the middle of each step were not very deep. The marble must be unusually hard. That seemed very likely, only too likely, although with all my thought about these stairs this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me. It was surprising that I had overlooked that, that crucial fact” (Knowles, 10).

Context of the quote (to help you better understand, in case you haven’t read the book): Gene Forrester is returning to the campus of his former boarding high school. As he’s touring the campus as an adult, he comes to a large marble staircase and stops to reflect on its appearance. This is the staircase his childhood best friend Phineas fell down, leading to his death. Gene is partly responsible for Phineas’s death.

Quote analysis Level 1: Explanation

At this level, the goal is to ensure the reader fully understands the meaning of the quote and the purpose of the author’s language. Here, we analyze the quote for:

  • Word choice
  • Literal meaning
  • Connotation
  • Word order
  • Symbolism
  • Figurative language

Example quote analysis at Level 1 (explanation):

Analysis: When the author describes the stairs with “worn moons” in the middle, he’s indicating that Gene has repetitively replayed the staircase incident in his memory over the years. In other words, while the stairs are literally worn, the memory of the staircase incident has “worn moons” in his ruminations.

Quote analysis Level 2: Connection to paragraph claim

Every body paragraph in your essay should begin with a claim (topic sentence). This sentence should connect back to the essay’s thesis statement and introduce the idea forthcoming in the paragraph. Once you insert your quotation and analyze it for explanation (level #1), we must connect the quote to your claim. 

To show you what this looks like in real life, I wrote a sample claim statement (topic sentence). I want you to imagine it is the opening line of a body paragraph. Then we will analyze the same staircase quote as before, but this time we will connect it to the claim.

Sample claim statement: Gene’s teenage insecurity and anxiety cloud his judgment, alter his reality and prevent him from forming meaningful connections to the truth.

Example quote analysis at Level 2 (connection to claim):

Analysis: When the author describes the stairs with “worn moons” in the middle, he’s indicating that Gene has repetitively replayed the staircase incident in his memory over the years. In other words, while the stairs are literally worn, the memory of the staircase incident has “worn moons” in his ruminations (analysis from level one). Even while attending the school, Gene’s excessive ruminations and insecurities prevent him from seeing the truth of what’s right in front of him, including the love that Phineus extends to Gene, without reciprocation, throughout the novel (connection to claim).

Quote analysis Level 3: Connection to essay thesis and larger ideas

Level 3 quote analysis drives home the connection between your chosen quote and the whole argument of your essay. In other words, you need to prove to the reader exactly why this quote validates your thesis.

A tip for this type of quote analysis is to think of the following sentence starters:

  • This quote* validates the idea that [thesis statement] because _____.
  • This quote* is critical to proving [thesis statement] because _____.

* Using “this quote” isn’t the best way to introduce analysis, but you get the idea. What I want you to focus on is filling in the BECAUSE statement: that’s critical.

To show you how to analyze quotes in essays at Level 3, I wrote a sample thesis statement that I want you to imagine is the introduction paragraph of your essay. Then we will analyze the same staircase quote as before, but this time we will connect it to the thesis.

Sample thesis statement: Gene’s teenage insecurity and anxiety are the root causes of his toxic interactions with himself and those closest to him, eventually leading him to choose either acceptance of or rejection of responsibility for his role in the tragedies that surround him.

Example quote analysis at Level 3 (connection to thesis):

Analysis: When the author describes the stairs with “worn moons” in the middle, he’s indicating that Gene has repetitively replayed the staircase incident in his memory over the years. In other words, while the stairs are literally worn, the memory of the staircase incident has “worn moons” in his ruminations (analysis from level one). Even while attending the school, Gene’s excessive ruminations and insecurities prevent him from seeing what’s right in front of him, including the love that Phineus extends to Gene, without reciprocation, throughout the novel (connection to claim). Because Gene’s cognitive capacities are impeded by his anxiety, his ability to create and maintain relationships is null. As a result, his relationship with Phineus is superficial and one-sided, leading him indirectly to contribute to Phineus’s death. Only after Phineus’s death is Gene able to confront the choice to accept or deny responsibility for his role. His genuine reflection at the staircase, years later, reveals that he is finally capable of acknowledging and accepting the truth (connection to thesis).

Final notes about analyzing quotes for essays

Knowing how to analyze quotes in essays is literally the golden key to writing strong literary analysis papers. It’s never enough to say, “This quote proves the thesis.” You have to show why and how it proves the thesis. And just when you think you’ve made your point, go one level deeper and challenge yourself to analyze why the analysis matters. THAT’S the golden nugget of analyzing quotes right there.

If you struggle to edit your own essays, here’s my ultimate guide for editing your own papers.

You might also be interested in my FREE essay editing checklist. It’s kind of awesome.

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