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How to Analyze Letters (+ Examples)

Rhetorical Analysis of a Letter
A rhetorical analysis of a letter is an in-depth examination of the persuasive techniques and strategies used within a written letter. In such an analysis, you closely examine how the author of the letter employs rhetorical devices to achieve their intended purpose, persuade the audience, and convey their message effectively.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis Essay

Key Components

This type of analysis typically focuses on several key main components:

  1. Exigence (The Issue or Problem):
    • What is the specific issue or problem that prompted the writing of this letter?
    • Why is it considered urgent or important?
    • Are there any immediate circumstances or events that triggered the letter?
  2. Audience (The Intended Recipients):
    • Who is the primary audience of the letter?
    • Are there secondary or unintended audiences?
    • What are the characteristics, beliefs, and values of the target audience?
    • How does the writer address the audience’s expectations and concerns?
  3. Purpose (The Writer’s Goal):
    • What is the writer’s main goal or objective in writing this letter?
    • Is the purpose to persuade, inform, request, criticize, commend, or something else?
    • Are there multiple purposes intertwined in the letter?
    • How does the writer adapt their message to achieve their purpose?
  4. Context (The Situational and Historical Background):
    • What is the broader context in which the letter is written (e.g., historical, cultural, political, societal)?
    • Are there specific events or circumstances that influenced the writing of the letter?
    • How does the context affect the writer’s tone, choice of language, and overall message?
  5. Constraints (The Limitations and Influences):
    • What constraints, such as time, space, or cultural norms, affect the letter’s content and structure?
    • Are there external factors, such as legal requirements or social expectations, that constrain the writer?
    • How do the constraints shape the writer’s rhetorical choices, including the use of ethos, pathos, and logos?
  6. Rhetorical Appeals: Analyze how the author employs the three classical rhetorical appeals:
    • Ethos: Examines the credibility, trustworthiness, and authority of the author. This includes evaluating the author’s qualifications, expertise, and the way they establish their character to gain the audience’s trust.
    • Pathos: Considers the emotional impact of the letter. How does the author use emotional appeals to engage the audience’s feelings and elicit specific emotional responses?
    • Logos: Analyzes the logical reasoning and evidence presented in the letter. Is the argument well-structured and supported by facts, statistics, or examples? How does the author use logic to make their case?
  7. Rhetorical Devices: Identify and discuss the various rhetorical devices employed in the letter, such as:
    • Metaphor, simile, and analogy: How does the author use these figures of speech to clarify or emphasize points?
    • Repetition: Analyze instances of repeated words, phrases, or ideas and discuss their significance.
    • Rhetorical questions: Examine the use of questions that are not meant to be answered but rather to provoke thought or emphasize a point.
    • Parallelism: Assess how parallel sentence structures are used for emphasis or clarity.
    • Irony, sarcasm, or satire: Discuss instances of these devices and their impact on the reader.
  8. Structure and Organization: Consider the overall structure and organization of the letter. How does the author arrange their points, and what is the effect of this organization on the reader? Does the letter have a clear introduction, body, and conclusion?
  9. Tone and Style: Evaluate the tone and style of the letter. Is it formal or informal? Does it use a specific tone (e.g., persuasive, argumentative, conciliatory), and how does this choice affect the overall impact?

Ultimately, a rhetorical analysis of a letter aims to dissect and understand the techniques and strategies used by the author to communicate effectively and persuade the audience. It provides insight into the art of persuasive writing and how authors use language to achieve their goals.


Here are some examples from famous letters along with a breakdown of the key rhetorical components:

  1. Ethos and Pathos in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
    • Quote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
    • Ethos: King establishes his credibility by explaining why he is in Birmingham, emphasizing his commitment to addressing injustice.
    • Pathos: He appeals to the reader’s emotions by highlighting the presence of injustice, which evokes a sense of moral outrage.
  2. Logos in Albert Einstein’s Letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
    • Quote: “This new phenomenon would…lead to the construction of extremely powerful bombs.”
    • Logos: Einstein uses logical reasoning to explain the potential consequences of nuclear fission, showing how it could lead to the development of powerful bombs.
  3. Metaphor and Pathos in John Keats’s Letter to George and Tom Keats:
    • Quote: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections.”
    • Metaphor: Keats employs a metaphor comparing the heart’s affections to something holy, emphasizing the profound emotional significance of human feelings.
    • Pathos: The use of the word “holiness” evokes a strong emotional response, conveying the deep value of emotions.
  4. Repetition in Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to John Adams:
    • Quote: “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”
    • Repetition: Jefferson repeats the word “freedom” to underscore his strong preference and conviction for freedom, creating a memorable phrase.
  5. Tone and Ethos in Abraham Lincoln’s “Letter to Horace Greeley”:
    • Quote: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union.”
    • Tone: Lincoln adopts a resolute and determined tone, emphasizing the seriousness of his commitment.
    • Ethos: He reinforces his credibility by stating his primary goal as the preservation of the Union, aligning himself with a widely supported cause.
  6. Ethos and Pathos in Elizabeth Sprigs’ Letter to Her Father (1776):
    • Quote: “You have often sold your slaves here, and bought others there; now, at last, you have sold all you had, here; what could have provoked you to it?”
    • Ethos: Elizabeth Sprigs establishes her credibility by referencing her father’s past actions, showing her knowledge of his business practices.
    • Pathos: She appeals to the reader’s emotions by expressing confusion and disappointment, evoking sympathy for her situation as a separated family member.
  7. Pathos in “Letters from an American Farmer” by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur:
    • Quote: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either a European or the descendant of a European.”
    • Pathos: Crèvecœur uses pathos by exploring the identity of the American as someone with European origins, provoking reflection on the diverse and evolving American identity.
  8. Logos in “Letters from an American Farmer” by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur:
    • Quote: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”
    • Logos: Crèvecœur employs logical reasoning to argue that the blending of diverse individuals in America creates a new, unified race of people.
  9. Metaphor and Ethos in “Letters from an American Farmer” by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur:
    • Quote: “Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow.”
    • Metaphor: Crèvecœur uses the metaphor of men being like plants to convey that individuals’ character and qualities are shaped by their environment.
    • Ethos: His use of this metaphor showcases his philosophical and observational authority as an “American Farmer.”
  10. Repetition and Ethos in “Letters from an American Farmer” by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur:
    • Quote: “What, then, is the American, this new man?”
    • Repetition: Crèvecœur repeats the question “What is the American?” to emphasize the central theme of identity and create a memorable phrase.
    • Ethos: By posing this question, he establishes himself as a thoughtful observer and commentator on American society.

These examples illustrate how famous letters use various rhetorical components to convey their messages effectively and engage with their audiences.