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Exploring 'why' in English Literature

Whatever level you are studying English literature at, and whatever exam board you may be working with, you will need to be able to show that you can explore the 'why' of a text. This doesn't meant that you have to become a cocky know-it-all and decide what Dickens or Shakespeare or Austen were actually thinking as the very second they wrote each word (were they cold? Had someone left a door open? Did the fire just go out?) because there is absolutely no way we could know these things, unless the authors themselves have kept meticulous diaries! 

As a literature student, you can only work with what you know to be true. For example, if you know that there was civil unrest and lots of fighting in the streets around the time that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, then you can sensibly assume that a Jacobean audience would be better able than a modern audience to empathise with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, as it was something that was very commonplace to them at the time. For us watching the play in the 21st century, the violence and fighting seem a little far fetched and exaggerated. If you know that Dickens believed in charity, you can sensibly assume that his overuse of the connective 'and' exaggerates the excess of food available at Christmas time, and therefore emphasises the capacity of the rich to help the poor. It would not, however, be sensible to suggest that because Shakespeare's birthday is presumed to have been April 23rd, that he included a party scene in Romeo and Juliet. 

So, how do we go about exploring 'why' in an essay? There is no single rule - as is often the case in English - which can make this a frustrating skill for some of us to master. There are many questions we can ask ourselves about many different aspects of a text, and many different answers we can come up with. 

Sometimes, the 'why' of literature is summarised into questions such as:

  • why has the writer described the character in this way?
  • how does this make the reader/audience feel?
  • which word in this quotation is the most important, and why?

All of these are valid questions to ask of a text, but they do not apply to every single comment you may have in response to the question. By trying to shoe-horn in an answer to each of these questions in every single paragraph that you write, often the result is one of the following responses:

  • 'This makes the reader want to read on.'
  • 'This engages the reader because they understand how the character feels.'
  • 'The writer may have done this so that we can create an image in our minds.'
  • 'By using a metaphor, the writer has gripped the reader's attention.'
  • 'The writer uses short sentences to bring drama into the situation; this makes us feel shocked.'

In terms of analysis (one of the key things the examiner wants to see that you can do!) there is very little in any of these statements. You'll also notice, that all of these statements can prompt the question: why? Why does this make the reader want to read on? Why does an understanding of how a character feels engage us? What image do we have in our minds and why did the writer want to place it there? Why does this metaphor grip the reader's attention? Why do we feel shocked because there are short sentences? (Admittedly, some of these can also be covered by: how?)

In short: why 

Or: why x infinity

Or, why? why? why? why?  why? why? why? why?  why? why? why? why? etc.

One way to ensure that you are engaging with 'why' in your responses to literature is to review your work and see if asking why would get an interesting response. Detail is usually linked to a deeper exploration of an idea in a text. 

Now, have a look at this quotation: ‘she looked up, but it was all dark overhead’. It is from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and describes one of her actions as she begins to fall down the rabbit hole. Here are two responses that analyse this quotation, as well as commentaries:

Response 1: The word ‘dark’ shows that she is far away from where she started. The writer may have done this to make the reader want to read on so that they can find out what happens to Alice and they are intrigued to see where she ends up. ‘Overhead’ is an adverb and it shows that Alice is much lower down than when she started.

Commentary: This type of response will be familiar to most teachers. It would appear that the person who has written this has learned a structure that they think they ought to use whenever they are analysing a text. The sentence starters such as 'The word...shows', 'The writer may have done this', 'it shows' are all consistent with this. Overall, the response feels as though it has been written in order to tick boxes, so to speak: the reader has been mentioned; a quotation has been used; a key word has been identified; subject terminology has been used. Unfortunately, what is lacking in this response is any real substance - essentially, the response reiterates that Alice has fallen down a hole. There is nothing that we learn from this response that we don't learn from reading the quotation alone. Also, accurate subject terminology has been used, but what does it actually add to the analysis? Nothing.So what if 'overhead' is an adverb?

This quality of response is simplistic. Some of the ideas are supported but they aren't even fully explained. At GCSE this would not receive a standard pass. I'd suggest it would be equivalent to about a grade 2. 

Response 2: 

The phrase ‘looked up’ reinforces how far away Alice is from the place she started her journey. This is further emphasised by the use of the adverb ‘dark’, which also suggests that Alice is now in a less safe space. Additionally, the fact that this place is ‘dark’ helps us to understand that she is alone, isolated, and therefore vulnerable: she has no one to rely on but herself. The writer may have done this to help the reader to understand that Alice is now somewhere that is physically and metaphorically far away from home, so that we are prepared for the strange and somewhat sinister happenings of the new location she is in. Alice’s position is also at risk, as the adverb ‘overhead’ implies that perhaps she has fallen – again, literally and metaphorically – and therefore may not have the same social status and power in this new setting as she does at home. Combined, this helps the reader to understand that Alice will have to develop as a character rapidly in order to succeed in Wonderland, and we therefore expect her to mature.

Commentary: This response actually makes inferences; not only has Alice physically fallen down a hole, but there are now metaphorical distances between the young girl she was at the start of the story, and the character she will be by the end of her journey. As with the first response, this answer addresses some of the points you might expect: the reader has been mentioned; quotations have been included; key words have been identified; subject terminology has been used. So, the main difference between these two responses is that this one goes into significantly more detail and doesn't just identify what the writer has done, but explores why they may have done it: the darkness is emphasised; we understand how isolated and vulnerable Alice is; the setting is changing drastically and therefore the plot and characters are likely to take a similar turn; Alice is now in a metaphorically different position in terms of power; Alice is expected to mature quickly...

This response is detailed; some of the ideas explored are thoughtful. At GCSE, this would be an example of writing that would be awarded at least a strong pass. I'd suggest that if it were part of an essay that explored the text in similar detail, it would be a grade 7+.


In conclusion, the key to writing a successful response to a literature based question, is to examine and explore the text. To identify the writers' methods is essential, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is imperative that you continually ask why. 

  • The writer has used the adverb 'dark'
    • Why?
  • Because it helps us to understand that this is not a safe place.
    • Why?
  • Because we stereotypically associate darkness with a lack of safety because it is more difficult to see what is happening and therefore to identify any threats.
    • Ok, so why does this matter?
  • It helps us to understand that Alice may not be safe. We do not quite know what to expect in this new setting.
    • Ok, and why does this matter? (and so on...)

See what I mean? Why  ∞


To help with exploring a text in detail, here is a series of questions you can use. It's not an exhaustive list; they won't all always be applicable, but some of them will!

    • Look at a text and think: 
      • Why have they used the punctuation they have used?
      • Why does the text start in the way that it does?
      • How does the writer want the reader to feel?
      • What does the writer want us to understand about the characters and their relationships?
      • What time of day is the text set in? Why?
      • Are there any repeated symbols? If so, what do they help us to understand about the mood and tone of the text?
      • Are there lots of long complex sentences? Are there lots of short simple sentences? Is there an even mix? Why? How do the sentence lengths link to what is happening in the text at the point they are used?
      • Is the vocabulary simple or complex? Why? How does this link to the content?
      • How is the setting described? Why?
      • What is the ‘big picture’? Overall, what does the writer want us to understand as a result of having read this text?
      • Are we supposed to have an emotional response to this text? If so, what is it, and why?
      • Has the writer used sensory imagery? What impact does this have on us?
      • Is the text ‘noisy’? Read it aloud: do certain sounds or words stand out? Does the language create a harsh or soft sound? Again, how does this link to what is happening in the text?
      • Has a character been introduced? Has the setting changed? Why do these things happen at this point in the text?
      • What is the pace of the text like? Why? Read it aloud again.