How to Write Essays on Literature for ENGL1020
This resource provides references, writing aids and guides for students writing essays in a literature-based composition course. These materials were culled from several different sites; the individual pages link back to the original resource and indicate the Creative Commons license under which the page is adapted and/or reused. Except where otherwise noted, this resource is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.
What Does My Professor Want
In your English literature courses, you’ll be asked to write a formal analysis (sometimes called a “research paper,” a “term paper,” or even a “documented literary analysis”). This paper should present an original argument about an aspect or aspects of literature and should engage with critical sources. It is important to keep in mind that this assignment is not a report. It should not merely rehearse the critical arguments that have already been made about your topic. Rather, the argument should be based on your own close reading of your chosen text(s) and, at the same time, demonstrate the scholarly maturity that comes with situating this argument in relation to the work of other scholars. Material from these sources should be carefully documented using the MLA style of documentation.
Here are some tips:
- All professors will want to see a strong argument, cogently advanced and well-supported by evidence from the literature.
- Organization counts. Make sure you have a focused, detailed thesis within your introductory paragraph. Succeeding paragraphs should state a topic and supply evidence and argument to support that topic. Don’t forget the conclusion. A strong conclusion leaves your reader with a clear sense of your perspective and helps the reader to recall the most important aspects of your argument.
- Don’t let the critics run away with your paper. Subordinate their views to your own, and make sure that the preponderance of the paper is yours. Never cite a critical view that you do not understand.
- Remember to revise your work and proof-read carefully. Some professors care more about one aspect of paper writing than others. Some particularly hate to see documentation errors; for others sloppy writing (lots of spelling, punctuation and other mechanical errors) spells doom. Always do your best work, and don’t assume that you can neglect any aspect of your essay.
- Your professor will give you specific guidelines for topic selection, but general topics often include: poetry explication, analysis of theme(s), exploration of one or more characteristic(s) of an author’s style and approach, placement of a work or works in literary historical context, the comparison/contrast of works sharing similarities but written by different authors and/or in different literary periods.
- You may find the MLA Bibliography tutorial particularly useful.
- The Library Database at Columbia State can help you find different databases, books, and articles.
APPROPRIATE GENERAL TOPICS
Analysis of theme(s)
A theme is a recurring idea or concept in a text. It is not explicit; therefore, the writer must to look for repeated imagery or symbols, examine the relationships between plot, setting, characters, and structure, and think about the feelings evoked throughout the text. Common themes in literature include love, jealousy, and friendship. If assigned to analyze a theme in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you could analyze the theme of friendship between Huck and Jim.
Exploration of one or more characteristic(s) of an author’s style and approach
Consider analyzing the author’s use of imagery or setting:
“Setting refers to the natural or artificial scenery or environment in which characters in literature live and move. Seeing also includes what in the theater would be called props or properties—the implements employed by the characters in various activities. Such things as the time of day and the consequent amount of light at which an event occurs, the flora and fauna, the sounds described, the smells, and the weather are also part of the setting. Paintbrushes, apples, pitchforks, rafts, six-shooters, watches, automobiles, horses and buggies, and innumerable other items belong to the setting. References to clothing, descriptions of physical appearance, and spatial relationships among the characters are also part of setting.” (Edgar V. Roberts, Writing Themes about Literature)
In order to create an argument about the function of the setting in a particular work, you need to identify the principal settings and to see how they work. Here are five steps you can take:
- Read the story and mark references to setting. Start with the place and time of the action and then focus upon recurrent details and objects.
- Think about what the story is about. What happens? What is its point? Is it a story about love, jealousy, gain, or loss? What is the main experience here?
- Look through your setting notes and see if they fall into any pattern. What are the interesting shifts and contrasts?
- Determine how the setting relates to either the main point of the story (step 2) or to some part of it. In other words what does the setting have to do with character or action? What are its effects? Whatever you decide here will be your thesis statement.
- Make an outline, indicating what aspects of setting you will discuss and what you intend to say about them. Discard notes that are not central to your plan (you don’t have to discuss everything). Focus on the four or five key passages in the story that you wish to examine. List them in your outline in the order in which they occur.
As distinct from character, theme, and plot, imagery occurs primarily in language, in the metaphors (i.e. comparisons), similes (comparisons with “like” or “as”), or other forms of figurative (pictorial) language in a literary work. Sometimes setting, i.e., the locality or placing of scenes, or stage props (like swords, flowers, blood, winecups) can also be considered under the rubric of imagery. But whatever the expression, images primarily are visual and concrete, i.e., things which the reader sees or can imagine seeing. Some examples are flowers, tears, animals, the moon, sun, stars, diseases, floods, metals, darkness and light.
In order to create an argument about the significance of an image in a particular work, identify a principal image or image cluster and to see how it works by following these five steps:
- Read the work and mark recurrent images or image clusters. If you are seeing references to roses, e. g., references to other thorns or to other flowers might also be pertinent parts of a cluster. Look at notes to the images carefully. Take out your microscope. You may also track down occurrences of related words with the help of a concordance (See Marvin Spevack’s Concordance to Shakespeare in the library) or electronic word searches. You can use secondary sources for this assignment as well.
- Think about what the play is about. What happens? What is its point? Is it a play about love, jealousy, gain, or loss? What is the main experience here? Look through your images and image clusters and see if they fall into any pattern. What are the interesting shifts? Do they generally appear in the speeches of certain characters? in certain scenes? Do we have a progression or development? Significant contrasts?
- Determine how the images or image clusters (step 3) relate to either the main point of the play (step 2) or to some part of it. In other words what do the images have to do with character or action? What are their effects? Whatever you decide here will be your thesis statement.
- Make an outline, indicating what your image pattern is and what you intend to say about it. Discard images that are not central to your plan (you don’t have to discuss everything). Focus on the four or five key passages in the play that you wish to examine. List them in your outline in the order in which they occur.
- Read Criticism and watch films to deepen understanding and refine your thesis. Compile a bibliography. Adjust outline as necessary.
Placement of a work or works in literary historical context
By placing a work in its literary historical context, one can trace the influences a historical period had on an author and/or the creation of his/her work(s). In doing this, a literary historical critic gains insights about the nature of a particular historical period. Using the historical context as a lens through which to read literature allows one to gain an understanding of both larger social issues, as well as the personal struggles that everyday people endured. As Janet E. Gardner explains in Writing about Literature,
“We may be able to learn from parish burial records, for example, how common childhood mortality was at a particular time in English history, but only when we read Ben Johnson’s poem “On My First Son” do we begin to understand how this mortality may have affected the parents who lost their children. Likewise, the few pages of James Joyce’s story “Araby” may tell us more about how adolescent boys lived and thought in turn-of-the-century Dublin than several volumes of social history” (Gardner 147-8).
Comparison/contrast of works sharing similarities but written by different authors and/or in different literary periods
While there are many forms of compare-and-contrast essays, the best ones use the points of comparison and contrast that they identify between the works in order to make a claim about how one text illuminates the other or how they illuminate each other. Rather than a simple delineation of differences and similarities, your essay should use those differences and similarities to make a larger argument about how comparing the two texts reveals some unexpected or non-obvious about one or both of the works.
Most often, such claims work to show how texts do similar things differently. Therefore, often the best structure for this kind of argument is to detail enough similarities between the works (especially works written by vastly different authors and/or in different literary periods) to justify your comparison and to narrow the scope of your discussion. In other words, first show how your two vastly different texts are attempting similar things. Then, focus the remainder of your essay on the nuanced differences between each text’s approach to those similar things and the way in which juxtaposing them illuminates our understanding of one or both.
Explication, from explicare meaning “to unfold,” is an exercise in analysis. In it, the writer shows that he or she can read a poem and explain how it the various choices a poet makes shape its message and affect the reader. One writes an explication by paying close attention to the meaning of words, to their sounds, to their placement in lines and sentences. One then explains how the parts contribute to the whole. This exercise trains the ear, eye, and mind. It develops critical faculties and discipline. To prepare a poetry explication, follow these eight steps:
- Read the poem out loud several times. Look up in a dictionary at least 10 words in it for meanings, alternate meanings, and for shades of meaning. Take notes. Jot down some general observations about the poem and your initial reactions.
- Ask yourself who is the speaker? What is the situation and what is the poem about? Be as precise and as specific as possible. What about tone, diction [level of word choice—high, medium, low, or slang], mood? Jot down your answers.
- Underline all repetitions or devices of sound that you notice. Pay attention to any surprising shifts of sound or meaning. Ask yourself what effects they have? Jot down your answers.
- Type the poem out (double-spaced) on a separate sheet of paper. Number the lines and mark all stressed and unstressed syllables. Mark also significant devices of sound: caesuras [breaks within a line, usually signalled by punctuation], alliteration, or assonance (“significant” means important enough for you to discuss later). This does not count in the four pages and must be handed in with the poem.
- Write in your first paragraph a brief summary of the poem, i.e. a notice of its central statement and constituent parts. Show some emotion or interest here; don’t be flat or effusive (avoid general and meaningless praise: “this is a wonderful or incredible or brilliant poem”).
- Quote the first few lines of the poem (1-4, or whatever you’re comfortable with). Talk about the speaker and situation, about what is said, how, and why. Note connotations and overtones, how sound creates or enhances sense. Don’t ever notice a poetic device without explaining its effect. Pay attention to sound and sense, to music and meaning.
- Repeat step 3 for the rest of the poem, working your way through slowly and carefully. Note instances of repetition and their effects; note development of phrases or ideas. Note images and be account for shifts in tone, sound, rhythm, diction, or subject. Discuss the ending of the poem separately.
- For a conclusion write a brief, specific statement about the effect or meaning or artistry of the poem, about structures or patterns or insights that your analysis has revealed. Look through your opening paragraph for hints that you can now develop in closing. Or revise opening in light of what you have discovered.
Before a literary scholar can begin writing about a piece of literature, one must engage in the exercise of close reading. As the term suggests, “close reading” means closely examining the words on a page in order to come up with a reading or an interpretation about the greater meaning of a work.
How does one “read closely”?
The first task involves dissecting a passage or phrase by analyzing literary elements that stick out. For instance, is the tone, diction, syntax, style, imagery, figurative language, theme(s), cultural/historical/religious references, rhyme, rhythm and meter, etc. significant in the passage or stanza? Take notes on whatever seems significant by writing in the margins of your text or keeping a reading journal.
- After taking notes, the second task in close reading is looking for patterns or interruptions of patterns. Gather the evidence collected and think about how each one works together to create the work as a whole or how these elements contribute to or complicate larger issues such as theme, setting, characterization.
- Finally, think about the purpose and the effect of these significant elements/patterns in the work as a whole. This means asking why and how: Why is an author using a particular metaphor, tone, diction, etc. and how does it affect one’s understanding of the passage? How are they all related to one another? How do they help us understand the larger work?
- The steps listed above are a pre-writing exercise, designed to help you identify a potential thesis. Once you have formulated a thesis about how to read a larger work, you can use the smaller significant elements as evidence. This evidence will then need to be analyzed in order to support that thesis.
Defining Literary Criticism
Literary criticism is a disciplined attempt to analyze some aspect or aspects of one or more works of art—for our purposes, mostly literary art (plays, novels, short stories, essays, poems). Serious literary critics study their primary materials very closely and repeatedly, examine the contexts in which the works they are studying were produced, and read widely in the work of other literary critics on their subject before producing their own original analysis of a work or works of literature. Generally, literary criticism is published in one of three forms: in a book; in an article published in a professional journal, whether print-based or online; or in an article published in a book as part of a collection. These formats insure that experts in the appropriate field(s) have reviewed the literary criticism and judged its accuracy in points of fact, its attention to scholarship in the field, etc. These formats are peer-reviewed sources (also known as “refereed sources”). Peer-reviewed means that a source has been rigorously scrutinized by other experts before publication.
Why consult and cite literary criticism? Consider these reasons:
- Reading a variety of views increases your knowledge of your subject and helps you to demonstrate to your reader that you have considered views other than your own.
- Reading literary criticism enables you to weigh your conclusions against others’ to check your logic and to see whether you have covered all significant aspects of your argument.
- Citing others’ views makes you appear a more knowledgeable writer to your readers.
- Citing literary critics whose views agree with yours can strengthen your case (although you must still supply the appropriate evidence).
- Taking issue with a critic with whom you disagree can also strengthen your case if you present your counterargument effectively.
- Literary criticism can enable you and your readers to see how evaluations and analyses of literature have changed over time.
Where do I find literary criticism?
Encyclopedia articles do not offer true literary criticism, nor do Cliff’s Notes, Spark Notes, or “overviews” of authors, works, or literary topics available online. Some websites post serious scholarship, but many are run by fans or students who may or may not know more than you do(!) Wikipedia, for example, is not considered a peer-reviewed source for the purposes of this course.
If you find your sources from the Columbia State Library Database, you are unlikely to go wrong. The college has several databases specific to literature that can provide good sources. These include the Literary Reference Center, Gale Literary Sources, and the Literary Reference eBook Collection.
Formal analysis involves a close reading of the literary elements of a text. A formal analysis examines elements such as setting, imagery, characters, tone, form/structure, and language. The goal of a formal analysis is to create meaning by exploring how these elements work together in any given text. You can compare parts of a text or you can analyze how parts of a text relate to the whole text.
MLA STYLE OF DOCUMENTATION
Follow the MLA style of documentation, which is a parenthetical style. Remember that you need a “Works Cited” page that follows MLA format, not one you create on the spur of the moment or borrow from some other discipline. The “Works Cited” page lists all works you cite in the essay. You should always note your professor’s requirements as to minimum number of sources.
The handbook for this course is the Purdue OWL MLA Formatting and Style. Here are some resources:
Every paper must contain an introduction (which states the argumentative thesis), subsequent argument paragraphs, and a conclusion.
As Janet E. Gardner writes in Writing About Literature, “Essentially, and introduction accomplishes two things. First, it gives a sense of both your topic and your approach to that topic, which is why it is common to make your thesis statement a part of the introduction. Second, an introduction compels your readers’ interest and makes them want to read on and find out what your paper has to say. Some common strategies used in effective introductions are to begin with a probing rhetorical question, a vivid description, or an intriguing quotation. Weak introductions tend to speak in generalities or in philosophical ideas that are only tangentially related to the real topic of your paper. Don’t spin your wheels: get specific and get to the point right away.”
Your introduction is your opportunity to catch your reader’s attention and involve that person in the ideas you put forth in your paper. Imagine riding in an elevator with someone you’d like to strike up a conversation with about a specific topic. How do you do it? How do you catch that person’s attention before the ride is up? You can’t just immediately throw your claims and evidence at that person, yet at the same time, he or she is unlikely to be compelled by vague general statements about “the history of time” or where and when a certain person was born. And you can’t stand there all day getting to the point. Instead, you look for compelling point of interest that is both related to where you’d like to go with your discussion, and is of shared interest between you and that person. After raising the topic through this point of common ground, you can then put forth what you will claim about it.
A complete argument paragraph consists of the following four components
- Topic Sentence: Suggests generally what the paragraph is talking about; often includes a transition from previous paragraphs.
- Claim: Makes a very specific claim that the paragraph will argue is true; you’ll likely derive this claim from your thesis statement (together, all your paragraph claims will work to prove your thesis).
- Evidence: Provides the textual support for the claim.
- Analysis: Explains how the evidence actually relates to the argument. This is typically the most challenging part of composing your
paragraph, and it is often forgotten (much to the peril of both reader and writer!). Here, you must articulate how the passage you’ve just cited supports the paragraph claim/argument premise. You must explain how the textual evidence means what you think it means. Never rely on the reader to be able to interpret the evidence on his or her own. That is, if your argument is a statement with which the careful reader can disagree, this means that the evidence you provide can likely be interpreted in many different ways. You need to guide your reader in interpreting the evidence so as to argue why your claim is true.
- Conclusion: Offers implications of the argument and evidence, often transitions to the next paragraph. This often answers the “so what?” question. It articulates why what you’ve just proven matters and usually articulates how your argument claims relates to/proves the thesis statement.
After the explanation of evidence, a well-developed paragraph might also include:
Additional Evidence/Explanation: What other evidence is there to support your claim?
Concession/ Nonclusion (these are an inseparable pair!): What evidence might contradict your claim? (The concession acknowledges the perceived opposition (perhaps in the form of another critic) or the skeptical reader). And, why, despite this evidence, is your argument still more effective than the concession? (The nonclusion is essential—never end a paragraph with a concession; take the concession into account while further proving your argument!)
As Janet E. Gardner points out in Writing About Literature, “Your conclusion should give your reader something new to think about, a reason not to just forget your essay. Some writers like to use the conclusion to return to an idea, a quotation, or an image first raised in the introduction, creating a satisfying feeling of completeness and self-containment…. Some writers use the conclusion to show the implications of their claims or the connections between literature and real life. This is your chance to make a good final impression, so don’t waste it with a simple summary and restatement.”
This doesn’t mean that your conclusion should not restate your thesis. Your conclusion is the place in which you draw together all the threads of your argument and neatly tie them up. When Gardner says not to “waste” your conclusion with “simple summary and restatement,” she means don’t ONLY summarize and restate. Your should absolutely recap your main points, but a good conclusion ALSO does more. Additionally, treading the path between not giving your reader anything new in the conclusion and introducing more unsupported claims can be tricky. The conclusion is a good place to SUGGEST the further implications of your argument, for life, for literature, for an author’s body of work, etc., but be careful that you don’t find yourself making new claims your reader is unlikely to agree with. These implications should follow naturally from the structure of your argument and often are best expressed with less-definitive phrasing (i.e. “perhaps,” implies,” “suggests,” “hints,” “may,” etc.).
Revise again and again. All good writing is rewriting. Clarify, define, smooth-out rough spots. Work to develop ideas, and round out paragraphs. Try to be more accurate and graceful, to clean up mistakes, and to correct embarrassing errors. Look hard at your evidence. Be tough and cut out the nonsense.
Proofread carefully, by means of spell-check and by your own reading. Make sure you have supplied a title, page numbers for the paper. (No decorative bindings; use 12-point type, double spaced, with standard page margins.)
Make sure you have provided accurate documentation for every quotation and outside source cited or consulted.
It is a good idea to include a full quotation when the critic says something particularly well. Paraphrase when the idea is important, but the wording is nothing special. Whether using a direct quotation or a paraphrase, document both using an MLA style in-text citation.
Don’t let the critics run away with your paper. Instead, keep their ideas subordinated to your own and use them to support your own claims. Typically, your paragraphs should begin with your topic sentence, then provide your evidence from the text, and then (perhaps) include a comment or comments from critics. A rare exception might be when you are disagreeing with a critic. In this instance, you may wish to state the opposing idea first, and then follow up by expressing your disagreement and presenting the evidence for your point of view.
Cited passages should be integrated into your text and be attributed to their originators. For example, “Elgin Slapworthy has observed that ‘Dickens remembered this period in his boyhood as both painful and humiliating’ ” (237). Don’t just pop in a quotation without making the context and source of the quotation clear. Attribution in the text makes the essay read more smoothly and cuts down on the amount of parenthetical documentation that must be provided.
Quotations of more than three lines should be indented and set off in the text. Setting off indicates quotation, so quotation marks are not needed, unless you have a quotation within a quotation.
As Prof. Bladderstock argues:Austen’s prose has often been imitated but never matched. Even my own brilliant Austen parody, Sense and Susceptibility, fell short in regard to dialogue.
Austen’s uncanny ability to combine sense and wit, while suiting words and phrasing to character, is difficult, perhaps impossible to reproduce. (132)
A quotation within a quotation—say you quote a critic who quotes a passage from Dorothy Sayers—this should be indicated by using single quotation marks: According to Evangeline Pink, “Sayers’ use of the line, ‘So, you’re one of them,’ echoes a statement in the trial of the infamous Madeline Smith” (299).
EVIDENCE FROM LITERATURE
Just as scientists provide data to support their results, literary critics must use evidence from literature in order to convince their audience that they have a cogent argument. Evidence must be provided in every body paragraph in order to support your claims. Where will you find evidence? First, you must do a close reading of the text. It is much easier to first analyze and think about how the smaller literary elements work together to create the whole work, rather than randomly thumbing through a work to find support for your thesis. When you provide evidence, you are providing proof from the text that shows your audience that your thesis is valid. Critics most commonly provide evidence by quoting a line or a passage from a work. When you provide evidence, it is imperative not to take it out of context. For example, if a character is joking with another character that he will kill himself if he fails his chemistry test and there’s no other mention of death in the work, it would be unfair to represent this character as suicidal by eliminating the context of him joking. Accurately quoting and fairly representing events/characters/etc. adds to your credibility as a writer. If you find evidence that counters your thesis, you should still engage with it. Think about what your critics would say and come up with a response to show how that particular piece of evidence might still support your stance. Once you’re done gathering evidence, you can move on to the analysis portion in which you explain how the evidence supports your claims.
Attribution and License
This section is from the following materials:
"What Does My Professor Want?" as it appears in Writing and Critical Thinking Through Literature, edited by Heather Ringo and Athena Kashyap, as they adapted it from Writing about Literature by the Loyola English Department. This material is used under CC BY-NC-SA.
Prewriting for Essays
The first step in writing a Literary Analysis essay is actually completing the reading. Sometimes the professor will give you a prompt before you read. If this is the case, look for material which relates to the prompt as you read. If the professor did not give you a prompt, look for any material in the assigned reading that piques your interest or relates to class discussions. Highlight or underline any moments in the reading which stick out to you: something you don't understand, something that relates to a topic you care about, or something weird or surprising. Keeping track of patterns, themes, or literary devices is a great way to engage with a work of literature and prepare for a future discussion or essay.
Completing the Reading
One time, I was talking with my sister-in-law about her experience in nursing school. Whereas her brother had barely achieved Cs in college, she somehow maintained a 4.0, even though she was simultaneously working and caring for her two young daughters.
“What is your secret to success?” I asked.
“Actually doing the assigned readings,” she laughed, “most of my peers didn’t. And it showed.”
As a college professor who teaches reading-heavy classes, this is not a shock to me. After all, most students taking the required writing and literature courses do not wish to become English majors. They sometimes see their literature class as a means to an end: at best, a stepping stone towards their future career; at worst, a time-suck of hoops to jump through. Also, because of today's gig economy, many students are juggling multiple jobs in addition to multiple college classes. This makes it tempting for students to want to skip the readings and just read SparkNotes. Truth be told, students who pursue this method, depending on their BSing skills, might be able to pass a literature class. But for the vast majority of students, this popular high school tactic will not work at the college level. More importantly, it means students miss out on many of the exciting benefits of diving deep into analysis, discussion, and engaging with the text.
Of course, I want my students to fall in love with the written word. I want my passion for literature to be contagious, to light students’ hearts and minds on fire with a hunger for the beauty of syntax and diction and literary devices. But I also completely understand that students have limited time. Therefore, I recommend prioritizing the writing process so students can make the most efficient use of their time. In the long run, while it might seem like skipping the readings saves time, completing the readings is actually the best way for students to optimize their time. This is because a strong essay depends on a deep understanding of the literature. If the class features examinations, these almost always test students on whether they completed and understand the readings. Finally, class will be more fun for students if they understand what their peers are talking about in class discussion, and what their professor is talking about during lectures.
Students who complete the readings and annotate as they go will find it much easier to flip back through their notes to find relevant quotations and information. They usually break the readings into small, manageable chunks of twenty to thirty minutes at a time. This helps their brains absorb the information better and retain information for writing and tests.
Students skipping reading often end up performing more work when it comes to writing an essay because they will spend so much time looking up text summaries on the internet (which may or may not be accurate or pertain to the intricacies of the assignment). They will also have to go back and re-read the text to find quotations that fit their prompt. Their essays usually fail because they do not fulfill the in-depth analysis required by the assignments.
So, long story short: even the most practically-minded, time-crunched students would do well to perform the readings. And, while in pursuit of success, a previously literature-averse student might find themselves liking literature more than they thought they would. Just like watching a favorite movie or show, reading a good book can be fun and relaxing!
Active versus Passive Reading
Many students, when first reading academic material, read it like they would a timeline of Facebook or Instagram posts: not fully attentive, skimming over the material in search of something interesting. Or they might read them with full attention, but simply read without questioning or engaging with the material. The difference between a student who is successful in a literature class and a student who is not successful is often that the successful student participates in active reading.
|Actions||Passive Reading||Active Reading|
|Engagement Level||Skimming or not giving the reading undivided attention; reading for gist rather than substance||Reading closely, annotating & analyzing & reflecting as you read; reading deeply for understanding|
|Tools||Just the book||Book, writing utensils, highlighters, sticky notes, reading journal|
|Number of Times Read||Once (or *gasp* not at all!)||Read three or more times: Once without expectation, Once for comprehension, Once for closely analyzing and annotating|
In a Literature class, students encounter a lot of literature, written by many different authors. Annotating, or taking notes on the assigned literature as you read, is a way to have a conversation with the reading. This helps you better absorb the material and engage with the text on a deeper level. There are several annotation methods. These are like tools in a student's learning utility-belt. Try them all out to discover which tools or combinations of tools help you learn best!
Margin Notes & Highlighting
One of the best ways to interact with a text is to write notes as you read. Underlining and/or highlighting relevant passages, yes, but also responding to the text in the margins. For instance, if a character I love makes a bad choice (like Sydney Carton in Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities), I will write “Nooooo Sydney Carton, don’t sacrifice yourself for Lucie’s sake!” This helps me remember the events of the plot. Many students also find it helpful to summarize each chapter or section of the literature as they read it. For example, a student said it was helpful for them to draw a picture representing every stanza of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth to help them understand what was being said. Other ideas include:
- Circling unfamiliar words
- Writing questions in the margins
- Color-coded highlighting to track various literary devices (i.e., blue for metaphors, pink for symbolism, and so forth)
- Sticky Notes
For students who would like to sell their textbooks back to the bookstore, writing notes in the margins might not be a practical choice, as it may devalue the textbook or the bookstore may refuse to take it back. For these students, I recommend using sticky notes instead. If sticky notes are cost-prohibitive, most colleges have plenty of scrap paper students can use as bookmarks to stick between pages. This is also an eco-friendly way to re-use paper!
Another option many students find helpful is keeping a reading journal. Students can write notes in their journals as they read. This helps students keep track of readings and materials in a chronological fashion. Just like when annotating the text directly or upon sticky notes, the most effective use of a reading journal, for learning purposes, is going to be active engagement with the text rather than passive absorption. That is, try to summarize the plot of what you read every time you read. Also, ask questions about the text. If you can record quotes and paraphrase along with in-text parenthetical citations (i.e., the page number where you found the material), this will optimize your time because you already have quotes ready to go when you write an essay!
Example of an Annotated Passage
Using the guidelines above, let’s consider this excerpt from a scholarly article by Jacob Michael Leland, “‘Yes, That is a Roll of Bills in My Pocket’: The Economy of Masculinity in The Sun Also Rises.”
A great deal of critical attention has been paid to masculine agency and its displacement in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction. The story is familiar by now: the Hemingway hero loses some version of his maleness to the first World War and he replaces it with a tool—in Upper Michigan, a fishing rod or a pocket knife; in Africa, a hunting rifle—a new object that emblematizes his mastery over his surroundings and whose status as a fetishized commodity and Freudian symbolic significance is something less than subtle. In The Sun Also Rises, this pattern repeats itself, but with important differences that arise from the novel’s cosmopolitan European setting. Mastery over the elements, here, has more to do with economic agency and control over social relationships than with nature and survival. The stakes are different, too; in the modern European city, the Hemingway hero recovers not only masculinity but also American identity in social and sexual interaction. (37)
In researching The Sun Also Rises for a project, Ling Ti found Leland’s article. What follows is her annotated copy of the above excerpt:
In the image above, this writer highlighted words that seemed important to understanding the text.
- economic agency
- American identity
She included questions in the margins to help her understand the reading.
- Freudian symbol: something representing subconscious insecurity or desire - knife = penis = mastery?
- Economic power = masculinity = mastery?
She also provided definitions for terms she did not know, presumably looking them up as she read.
- Agency: the ability to assert one's will, as an agent
- Displacement: being pushed out of your position
- Emblematizes: represents
- Fetishized: obsessed over
- Commodity: something to buy and sell
Finally, she wrote a brief summary of her reading, also known as a reflection.
If Lei and is saying that the character uses economic mastery to feel like a man, what does this say about big spenders in general? About American consumers who think they have to have a certain kind of phone or car or jeans? Is spending really related to masculine identity? I’m not sure - I need to think about it. Maybe it’s at least true for Jake in the 1920’s Paris and Spain settings of the novel.
Reflecting on Assigned Literature
Studies show reflecting on reading is one of the best ways to learn. This is called metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It is a way to keep track of the knowledge you have learned as you go. Students who reflect on their reading and learning tend to, as a whole, perform better on essays and examinations. So how can you take advantage of this skill?
If you have a prompt, choose a prompt and read through the assigned literature again, noting any quotes which may relate to the assigned topic. It is recommended at this point that you keep track of your observations in a document: either on a computer (Word, Google docs) or on a physical piece of paper. Write down any quotations along with page numbers (fiction, nonfiction), line numbers (poem), or act, scene, line #s (drama). This way, you have all potential evidence in one place, and it makes for easy in-text citations when it comes to knitting the evidence together to form an essay. In fact, it is highly recommended that students start an informal Works Cited page to keep track of every source consulted. This makes it much easier to avoid plagiarism by practicing ethical citation habits. For more information about citations, please see the Citations and Formatting Chapter.
Start with a hypothesis or focus but be willing to refine, adjust, or completely discard it if new evidence refutes it. An essay is not a stagnant piece, but a living, breathing thought experiment. Many students feel reluctant to change their thesis or major parts of their essays because they are afraid it means the previous writing was wasted. As a professional writer, editor, and scholar, I want to clue students in on a secret:
There is no such thing as wasted writing.
Even writing that does not end up in the final draft is worthwhile because it is a chance to experiment with ideas. It helps students find a path toward stronger ideas. Just like a gardener might allow branches of a tree to grow to see which ones bear flowers and fruit and then prune the weak, unproductive branches to make the plant stronger and more beautiful, so too must a writer be willing to cut out branches of reasoning which no longer serve the essay. But before you know which ideas or thoughts are worth pursuing, you first have to give them space to grow. You never know what idea branches might prove fruitful!
Attribution and License
This section is from the following materials:
Prewriting for Literature Essays as it appears in Writing and Critical Thinking Through Literature, edited by Heather Ringo and Athena Kashyap, which is adapted from "Reading Like a Professional" in Writing and Literature: Composition as Inquiry, Learning, Thinking, and Communication by Dr. Tanya Long Bennett of the University of North Georgia. It is used under CC BY-SA.
Writing About Fiction
Demystifying the Process
Writing an analysis of a piece of literature can be a mystifying process. First, literary analyses (or papers that offer an interpretation of a story) rely on the assumption that stories must mean something. How does a story mean something? Isn’t a story just an arrangement of characters and events? And if the author wanted to convey a meaning, wouldn’t she be much better off writing an essay just telling us what she meant?
It’s pretty easy to see how at least some stories convey clear meanings or morals. Just think about a parable like the prodigal son or a nursery tale about “crying wolf.” Stories like these are reduced down to the bare elements, giving us just enough detail to lead us to their main points, and because they are relatively easy to understand and tend to stick in our memories, they’re often used in some kinds of education.
But if the meanings were always as clear as they are in parables, who would really need to write a paper analyzing them? Interpretations of fiction would not be interesting if the meanings of the stories were clear to everyone who reads them. Thankfully (or perhaps regrettably, depending on your perspective) the stories we’re asked to interpret in our classes are a good bit more complicated than most parables. They use characters, settings, and actions to illustrate issues that have no easy resolution. They show different sides of a problem, and they can raise new questions. In short, the stories we read in class have meanings that are arguable and complicated, and it’s our job to sort them out.
It might seem that the stories do have specific meanings, and the instructor has already decided what those meanings are. Not true. Instructors can be pretty dazzling (or mystifying) with their interpretations, but that’s because they have a lot of practice with stories and have developed a sense of the kinds of things to look for. Even so, the most well-informed professor rarely arrives at conclusions that someone else wouldn’t disagree with. In fact, most professors are aware that their interpretations are debatable and actually love a good argument. But let’s not go to the other extreme. To say that there is no one answer is not to say that anything we decide to say about a novel or short story is valid, interesting, or valuable. Interpretations of fiction are often opinions, but not all opinions are equal.
So what makes a valid and interesting opinion? A good interpretation of fiction will:
- avoid the obvious (in other words, it won’t argue a conclusion that most readers could reach on their own from a general knowledge of the story)
- support its main points with strong evidence from the story
- use careful reasoning to explain how that evidence relates to the main points of the interpretation.
The following steps are intended as a guide through the difficult process of writing an interpretive paper that meets these criteria. Writing tends to be a highly individual task, so adapt these suggestions to fit your own habits and inclinations.
Writing an Paper on Fiction in 9 Steps
Become familiar with the text.
There’s no substitute for a good general knowledge of your story. A good paper inevitably begins with the writer having a solid understanding of the work that he or she interprets. Being able to have the whole book, short story, or play in your head—at least in a general way—when you begin thinking through ideas will be a great help and will actually allow you to write the paper more quickly in the long run. It’s even a good idea to spend some time just thinking about the story. Flip back through the book and consider what interests you about this piece of writing—what seemed strange, new, or important?
Explore potential topics
Perhaps your instructor has given you a list of topics to choose, or perhaps you have been asked to create your own. Either way, you’ll need to generate ideas to use in the paper—even with an assigned topic, you’ll have to develop your own interpretation. Let’s assume for now that you are choosing your own topic.
After reading your story, a topic may just jump out at you, or you may have recognized a pattern or identified a problem that you’d like to think about in more detail. What is a pattern or a problem?
A pattern can be the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery or events. Usually, repetition of particular aspects of a story (similar events in the plot, similar descriptions, even repetition of particular words) tends to render those elements more conspicuous. Let’s say I’m writing a paper on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In the course of reading that book, I keep noticing the author’s use of biblical imagery: Victor Frankenstein anticipates that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (52) while the monster is not sure whether to consider himself as an Adam or a Satan. These details might help me interpret the way characters think about themselves and about each other, as well as allow me to infer what the author might have wanted her reader to think by using the Bible as a frame of reference. On another subject, I also notice that the book repeatedly refers to types of education. The story mentions books that its characters read and the different contexts in which learning takes place.
A problem, on the other hand, is something in the story that bugs you or that doesn’t seem to add up. A character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Not all problems lead in interesting directions, but some definitely do and even seem to be important parts of the story. In Frankenstein, Victor works day and night to achieve his goal of bringing life to the dead, but once he realizes his goal, he is immediately repulsed by his creation and runs away. Why? Is there something wrong with his creation, something wrong with his goal in the first place, or something wrong with Victor himself? The book doesn’t give us a clear answer but seems to invite us to interpret this problem.
If nothing immediately strikes you as interesting or no patterns or problems jump out at you, don’t worry. Just start making a list of whatever you remember from your reading, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to you now. Consider a character’s peculiar behavior or comments, the unusual way the narrator describes an event, or the author’s placement of an action in an odd context. (Step 5 will cover some further elements of fiction that you might find useful at this stage as well.)
There’s a good chance that some of these intriguing moments and oddities will relate to other points in the story, eventually revealing some kind of pattern and giving you potential topics for your paper. Also keep in mind that if you found something peculiar in the story you’re writing about, chances are good that other people will have been perplexed by these moments in the story as well and will be interested to see how you make sense of it all. It’s even a good idea to test your ideas out on a friend, a classmate, or an instructor since talking about your ideas will help you develop them and push them beyond obvious interpretations of the story. And it’s only by pushing those ideas that you can write a paper that raises interesting issues or problems and that offers creative interpretations related to those issues.
Select a topic with a lot of evidence
If you’re selecting from a number of possible topics, narrow down your list by identifying how much evidence or how many specific details you could use to investigate each potential issue. Do this step just off the top of your head. Keep in mind that persuasive papers rely on ample evidence and that having a lot of details to choose from can also make your paper easier to write.
It might be helpful at this point to jot down all the events or elements of the story that have some bearing on the two or three topics that seem most promising. This can give you a more visual sense of how much evidence you will have to work with on each potential topic. It’s during this activity that having a good knowledge of your story will come in handy and save you a lot of time. Don’t launch into a topic without considering all the options first because you may end up with a topic that seemed promising initially but that only leads to a dead end.
Write out a working thesis
Based on the evidence that relates to your topic—and what you anticipate you might say about those pieces of evidence—come up with a working thesis. Don’t spend a lot of time composing this statement at this stage since it will probably change (and a changing thesis statement is a good sign that you’re starting to say more interesting and complex things on your subject). At this point in my Frankenstein project, I’ve become interested in ideas on education that seem to appear pretty regularly, and I have a general sense that aspects of Victor’s education lead to tragedy. Without considering things too deeply, I’ll just write something like “Victor Frankenstein’s tragic ambition was fueled by a faulty education.”
Make an extended list of evidence
Once you have a working topic in mind, skim back over the story and make a more comprehensive list of the details that relate to your point. For my paper about education in Frankenstein, I’ll want to take notes on what Victor Frankenstein reads at home, where he goes to school and why, what he studies at school, what others think about those studies, etc. And even though I’m primarily interested in Victor’s education, at this stage in the writing, I’m also interested in moments of education in the novel that don’t directly involve this character. These other examples might provide a context or some useful contrasts that could illuminate my evidence relating to Victor. With this goal in mind, I’ll also take notes on how the monster educates himself, what he reads, and what he learns from those he watches. As you make your notes keep track of page numbers so you can quickly find the passages in your book again and so you can easily document quoted passages when you write without having to fish back through the book.
At this point, you want to include anything, anything, that might be useful, and you also want to avoid the temptation to arrive at definite conclusions about your topic. Remember that one of the qualities that makes for a good interpretation is that it avoids the obvious. You want to develop complex ideas, and the best way to do that is to keep your ideas flexible until you’ve considered the evidence carefully. A good gauge of complexity is whether you feel you understand more about your topic than you did when you began (and even just reaching a higher state of confusion is a good indicator that you’re treating your topic in a complex way).
When you jot down ideas, you can focus on the observations from the narrator or things that certain characters say or do. These elements are certainly important. It might help you come up with more evidence if you also take into account some of the broader components that go into making fiction, things like plot, point of view, character, setting, and symbols.
Plot is the string of events that go into the narrative. Think of this as the “who did what to whom” part of the story. Plots can be significant in themselves since chances are pretty good that some action in the story will relate to your main idea. For my paper on education in Frankenstein, I’m interested in Victor’s going to the University of Ingolstadt to realize his father’s wish that Victor attend school where he could learn about a another culture. Plots can also allow you to make connections between the story you’re interpreting and some other stories, and those connections might be useful in your interpretation. For example, the plot of Frankenstein, which involves a man who desires to bring life to the dead and creates a monster in the process, bears some similarity to the ancient Greek story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wax wings. Both tell the story of a character who reaches too ambitiously after knowledge and suffers dire consequences.
Your plot could also have similarities to whole groups of other stories, all having conventional or easily recognizable plots. These types of stories are often called genres. Some popular genres include the gothic, the romance, the detective story, the bildungsroman (this is just a German term for a novel that is centered around the development of its main characters), and the novel of manners (a novel that focuses on the behavior and foibles of a particular class or social group). These categories are often helpful in characterizing a piece of writing, but this approach has its limitations. Many novels don’t fit nicely into one genre, and others seem to borrow a bit from a variety of different categories. For example, given my working thesis on education, I am more interested in Victor’s development than in relating Frankenstein to the gothic genre, so I might decide to treat the novel as a bildungsroman.
And just to complicate matters that much more, genre can sometimes take into account not only the type of plot but the form the novelist uses to convey that plot. A story might be told in a series of letters (this is called an epistolary form), in a sequence of journal entries, or in a combination of forms (Frankenstein is actually told as a journal included within a letter).
These matters of form also introduce questions of point of view, that is, who is telling the story and what do they or don’t they know. Is the tale told by an omniscient or all-knowing narrator who doesn’t interact in the events, or is it presented by one of the characters within the story? Can the reader trust that person to give an objective account, or does that narrator color the story with his or her own biases and interests?
Character refers to the qualities assigned to the individual figures in the plot. Consider why the author assigns certain qualities to a character or characters and how any such qualities might relate to your topic. For example, a discussion of Victor Frankenstein’s education might take into account aspects of his character that appear to be developed (or underdeveloped) by the particular kind of education he undertakes. Victor tends to be ambitious, even compulsive about his studies, and I might be able to argue that his tendency to be extravagant leads him to devote his own education to writers who asserted grand, if questionable, conclusions.
Setting is the environment in which all of the actions take place. What is the time period, the location, the time of day, the season, the weather, the type of room or building? What is the general mood, and who is present? All of these elements can reflect on the story’s events, and though the setting of a story tends to be less conspicuous than plot and character, setting still colors everything that’s said and done within its context. If Victor Frankenstein does all of his experiments in “a solitary chamber, or rather a cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a staircase” (53) we might conclude that there is something anti-social, isolated, and stale, maybe even unnatural about his project and his way of learning.
Obviously, if you consider all of these elements, you’ll probably have too much evidence to fit effectively into one paper. Your goal is merely to consider each of these aspects of fiction and include only those that are most relevant to your topic and most interesting to your reader. A good interpretive paper does not need to cover all elements of the story—plot, genre, narrative form, character, and setting. In fact, a paper that did try to say something about all of these elements would be unfocused. You might find that most of your topic could be supported by a consideration of character alone. That’s fine. For my Frankenstein paper, I’m finding that my evidence largely has to do with the setting, evidence that could lead to some interesting conclusions that my reader probably hasn’t recognized on his or her own.
Select your evidence
Once you’ve made your expanded list of evidence, decide which supporting details are the strongest. First, select the facts which bear the closest relation to your thesis statement. Second, choose the pieces of evidence you’ll be able to say the most about. Readers tend to be more dazzled with your interpretations of evidence than with a lot of quotes from the book. It would be useful to refer to Victor Frankenstein’s youthful reading in alchemy, but my reader will be more impressed by some analysis of how the writings of the alchemists—who pursued magical principles of chemistry and physics—reflect the ambition of his own goals. Select the details that will allow you to show off your own reasoning skills and allow you to help the reader see the story in a way he or she may not have seen it before.
Refine your thesis
Now it’s time to go back to your working thesis and refine it so that it reflects your new understanding of your topic. This step and the previous step (selecting evidence) are actually best done at the same time, since selecting your evidence and defining the focus of your paper depend upon each other. Don’t forget to consider the scope of your project: how long is the paper supposed to be, and what can you reasonably cover in a paper of that length? In rethinking the issue of education in Frankenstein, I realize that I can narrow my topic in a number of ways: I could focus on education and culture (Victor’s education abroad), education in the sciences as opposed to the humanities (the monster reads Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch), or differences in learning environments (e.g. independent study, university study, family reading). Since I think I found some interesting evidence in the settings that I can interpret in a way that will get my reader’s attention, I’ll take this last option and refine my working thesis about Victor’s faulty education to something like this: “Victor Frankenstein’s education in unnaturally isolated environments fosters his tragic ambition.”
Organize your evidence
Once you have a clear thesis you can go back to your list of selected evidence and group all the similar details together. The ideas that tie these clusters of evidence together can then become the claims that you’ll make in your paper. As you begin thinking about what claims you can make (i.e. what kinds of conclusion you can come to) keep in mind that they should not only relate to all the evidence but also clearly support your thesis. Once you’re satisfied with the way you’ve grouped your evidence and with the way that your claims relate to your thesis, you can begin to consider the most logical way to organize each of those claims. To support my thesis about Frankenstein, I’ve decided to group my evidence chronologically. I’ll start with Victor’s education at home, then discuss his learning at the University, and finally address his own experiments. This arrangement will let me show that Victor was always prone to isolation in his education and that this tendency gets stronger as he becomes more ambitious.
There are certainly other organizational options that might work better depending on the type of points I want to stress. I could organize a discussion of education by the various forms of education found in the novel (for example, education through reading, through classrooms, and through observation), by specific characters (education for Victor, the monster, and Victor’s bride, Elizabeth), or by the effects of various types of education (those with harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects).
Interpret your evidence
Avoid the temptation to load your paper with evidence from your story. Each time you use a specific reference to your story, be sure to explain the significance of that evidence in your own words. To get your readers’ interest, you need to draw their attention to elements of the story that they wouldn’t necessarily notice or understand on their own. If you’re quoting passages without interpreting them, you’re not demonstrating your reasoning skills or helping the reader. In most cases, interpreting your evidence merely involves putting into your paper what is already in your head. Remember that we, as readers, are lazy—all of us. We don’t want to have to figure out a writer’s reasoning for ourselves; we want all the thinking to be done for us in the paper.
The previous nine steps are intended to give you a sense of the tasks usually involved in writing a good interpretive paper. What follows are just some additional hints that might help you find an interesting topic and maybe even make the process a little more enjoyable.
Make your thesis relevant to your readers
You’ll be able to keep your readers’ attention more easily if you pick a topic that relates to daily experience. Avoid writing a paper that identifies a pattern in a story but doesn’t quite explain why that pattern leads to an interesting interpretation. Identifying the biblical references in Frankenstein might provide a good start to a paper—Mary Shelley does use a lot of biblical allusions—but a good paper must also tell the reader why those references are meaningful. So what makes an interesting paper topic? Simply put, it has to address issues that we can use in our own lives. Your thesis should be able to answer the brutal question “So what?” Does your paper tell your reader something relevant about the context of the story you’re interpreting or about the human condition?
Some categories, like race, gender, and social class, are dependable sources of interest. This is not to say that all good papers necessarily deal with one of these issues. My thesis on education in Frankenstein does not. But a lot of readers would probably be less interested in reading a paper that traces the instances of water imagery than in reading a paper that compares male or female stereotypes used in a story or that takes a close look at relationships between characters of different races. Again, don’t feel compelled to write on race, gender, or class. The main idea is that you ask yourself whether the topic you’ve selected connects with a major human concern, and there are a lot of options here (for example, issues that relate to economics, family dynamics, education, religion, law, politics, sexuality, history, and psychology, among others).
Also, don’t assume that as long as you address one of these issues, your paper will be interesting. As mentioned in step 2, you need to address these big topics in a complex way. Doing this requires that you don’t go into a topic with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find. Be prepared to challenge your own ideas about what gender, race, or class mean in a particular text.
Select a topic of interest to you
Though you may feel like you have to select a topic that sounds like something your instructor would be interested in, don’t overlook the fact that you’ll be more invested in your paper and probably get more out of it if you make the topic something pertinent to yourself. Pick a topic that might allow you to learn about yourself and what you find important.
Of course, your topic can’t entirely be of your choosing. We’re always at the mercy of the evidence that’s available to us. For example, your interest may really be in political issues, but if you’re reading Frankenstein, you might face some difficulties in finding enough evidence to make a good paper on that kind of topic. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in ethics, philosophy, science, psychology, religion, or even geography, you’ll probably have more than enough to write about and find yourself in the good position of having to select only the best pieces of evidence.
Make your thesis specific
The effort to be more specific almost always leads to a thesis that will get your reader’s attention, and it also separates you from the crowd as someone who challenges ideas and looks into topics more deeply. A paper about education in general in Frankenstein will probably not get my reader’s attention as much as a more specific topic about the impact of the learning environment on the main character. My readers may have already thought to some extent about ideas of education in the novel, if they have read it, but the chance that they have thought through something more specific like the educational environment is slim.
Attribution and License
This section is from the following source:
The original source includes the list of Works Consulted referenced below, with the following introductory note:
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using.
Barnet, Sylvan, and William E. Cain. 2011. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature, 12th ed. New York: Pearson.
Shelley, Mary. 2011. Frankenstein: Norton Critical Edition, edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Outlining for Literary Essays
The purpose of an outline is twofold: first, to help you organize your ideas. Second, to help readers follow along with your ideas. Think of an outline as a map for your essay. An essay without some kind of structure often flounders because readers get lost. The following are basic principles of essay organization that should help you craft logically organized papers that keep readers (and you!) on track.
- Always include a clear thesis. Think of this as the essay's destination. It essentially tells readers where the essay is going. Without a clear destination, readers might wonder why they are there, reading the essay in the first place!
- Keep one main idea per paragraph. Including a topic sentence--a one-sentence summary of the paragraph's main idea--is an effective way to keep the paragraph focused. Think of each topic sentence as a mini-thesis in support of the essay's overall thesis.
- Include evidence to support all claims. Usually, one quote or paraphrase per paragraph is an effective use of evidence. Spend at least 2-3 sentences analyzing and explaining each quote.
- Be flexible. An essay changes over time. Be willing to adapt and adjust the outline to fit the needs of the essay. If it doesn't serve your essay, let it go.
General Essay Template
This essay template is not meant to be prescriptive (the end all, be all), but to provide a commonly used essay structure students can adapt to write their own essays. As with any learning resource, students should choose organizational methods to enhance their learning and writing process.
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Sentence 1: Hook
captures readers' attention and interest through a quote, one or two-sentence short story, or a startling statistic.
Sentence 2-3: Context/Background
helps readers understand where the essay fits into the scholarly discourse by providing background information on the essay topic. For example, you might briefly summarize your research on your topic (what other people/scholars have said about your topic) or you might give historical background on your topic, depending on the essay prompt.
Sentence 4: (The) Thesis statement
articulates the main argument of the essay. It should be short, specific, debatable, and clear.
Sentence 5: Essay map/Sign post
uses the last sentence(s) of the introduction to transition into body paragraphs. This may look like a “map” where you state the main arguments you will make in your essay. For example, this argument is true because of reason X, reason Y, and reason Z. Basically, you give readers an idea of where the essay is going.
Paragraphs 2-10+: Body Paragraphs
Sentence 1: Topic sentence
summarizes the main argument or point of the paragraph
Sentence 2: Present evidence
in the form of quotes or paraphrasing from authoritative primary or secondary sources, which supports the paragraph main idea, as well as the thesis main idea. The more scholarly the source, the better; check with your librarian if you are unfamiliar with in-text citations.
Sentence 3: Analyze, interpret, & explain evidence
in your own words. While what the information means may be clear to you, the writer, you should not assume that readers will understand the information. Explain everything within reason.
Sentence 4: Contextualize evidence
show how evidence relates to and supports your thesis statement
Sentence 5: Transition
to next paragraph topic by using a linking word, phrase, or idea. This will improve your essay's organization and "flow."
Final Paragraph: Conclusion
Sentence 1: Restate thesis statement
using new words. This helps readers remember the focus of the essay.
Sentence 2-3: Briefly summarize main arguments
made in the essay. Again, this reminds readers of your main points in case they have forgotten.
Sentence 4-5: Explain the significance
of your analysis and/or research to other scholars in your field/scholars of the subject or topic/society in general. This is also called the "takeaway." Your readers should feel like they learned something new or are seeing the literature in a new light.
General Essay Advice
- Be as specific as possible. Use nouns rather than pronouns to eliminate ambiguity.
- Stay on topic. All information in the essay should work towards proving your argument. (Use it or lose it)
- Use the known-new contract. Every sentence should “flow” into the next sentence, unless intentionally breaking the flow to make a point. This is achieved by using repeated words, ideas, or phrases from one sentence to the next.
- Practice ethical attribution. Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism can result in an F for the essay and the course, and can even result in expulsion. When in doubt, ask your professor or librarian. Using ethical attribution is the best way to avoid plagiarism, as it also helps you build credibility as a writer and literary scholar.
Attribution and License
This section is from the following source:
Thesis Statements Basics
In your Composition 1 course, you learned about the importance of thesis statements. A strong thesis statement has these qualities:
- It makes a claim that is arguable
- Because it is arguable, the claim demands support
- Because it demands support, the claim cannot be a mere statement of fact or statement of the obvious
- The claim asserts an important point that previews the structure of the whole essay
Thesis statements in essays on literature have these same qualities. The claim made in a literary analysis argues for your interpretation of a literary work. You must be able to support this interpretation with examples from the text. An interpretation is not merely a summary of a plot, nor is it an extended list, in narrative form, that points out different literary devices an author uses.
Using Literary Terms in Thesis Statements
The Writing Guide for Literature Assignments at the Colorado State University website emphasizes the importance of using literary terms with care when writing a thesis statement: “a thesis that only says a work uses literary devices isn't a good thesis because all it is doing is stating the obvious, leading the reader to say, ‘so what?’”
Of course, you should not completely avoid literary terms in your thesis, but you should be careful to use them in a way that offers an insight to your reader. CSU suggests reserving the use of literary terms for when you want to point out how they contribute to a text’s meaning, or when you want to point out how the writer uses them in an unusual way.
When incorporating literary terms and concepts into your thesis statement, your claim should – in addition to being debatable – be specific and rooted in observations about the literary work. Emphasizing specificity and observation shifts you away from summarizing too much or from writing an extended laundry list.
Examples of Thesis Statements
Here is an example of a literary thesis statement that is debatable:
"While most people reading Hamlet think he is the tragic hero, Ophelia is the real hero of the play as demonstrated through her critique of Elsinore's court through the language of flowers."
This thesis uses the literary term “hero” to take a position. There are clearly those who could argue against this idea.
Here is an example of a literary thesis statement rooted in observations about literary devices, genres, or forms:
“Hawthorne’s use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter falters and ultimately breaks down with the introduction of the character Pearl, which shows the perceived danger of female sexuality in a puritanical society.”
Look at the use of the literary terms “symbolism” and “character.” See the strong emphasis on how form acts as a foundation for the interpretation (perceived danger of female sexuality).
Here is an example of a literary thesis statement that is specific:
“Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American ideals, one must leave ‘civilized’ society and go back to nature.”
Through this very specific yet concise sentence, readers can anticipate the text to be examined (Huckleberry Finn), the author (Mark Twain), the literary device that will be focused upon (river and shore scenes) and what these scenes will show (true expression of American ideals can be found in nature).
What Not To Do in a Thesis Statement
Thesis statements in a literary analysis essay should NOT be:
- Overly broad or generalized
- More about society than the work of literature
- A summary or obvious statement about the text
- A judgement about the quality of a work
- About the author rather than literature
Here is an example of an overly broad thesis:
"I am going to be writing about 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe."
While we know what text and author will be the focus of the essay, we know nothing about what aspect of the essay the author will be focusing upon, nor is there an argument here.
Here is an example of a thesis statement that is more about society than the work of literature
"Gender roles are bad and should be abolished."
This may be well and true, but this thesis does not appear to be about a work of literature. This could be turned into a thesis statement if the writer is able to show how this is the theme of a literary work (like "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid) and root that interpretation in observable data from the story in the form of literary devices.
Here is an example of a thesis statement this is a summary or obvious statement about the text
"Hamlet is about a prince whose father dies."
Yes, this is true. But it is not debatable. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who could argue with this statement. Yawn, boring.
Here is an example of a there statement that is a judgment about the quality of the work:
"'La Migra' by Pat Mora is a really good/powerful poem"
This may very well be true. But the purpose of a literary critic is not to judge the quality of a literary work, but to make analyses and interpretations of the work based on observable structural aspects of that work.
Here is an example of a thesis statement that is about the author rather than literature
"Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving were both creepy towards women in their personal lives but in different ways"
Again, this might be true, and might make an interesting essay topic, but unless it is rooted in textual analysis, it is not within the scope of a literary analysis essay. Be careful not to conflate author and speaker! Author, speaker, and narrator are all different entities! See: intentional fallacy.
After reviewing this lesson on thesis-writing, you may feel that your head is spinning. There are so many things to remember! Keep this in mind: your thesis needn’t be perfect right off the bat. Get something on paper, and being shaping it by using the ideas in this lesson as a guide.
Carbone, Nick. “Thesis Statements for a Literature Assignment.” Writing@CSU. Colorado State University, 1994-2012, writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=51. Accessed 18 May 2021.
Attribution and License
"Thesis Statement Basics" is a derivative of “Literary Thesis Statements” by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap as it appears in Writing and Critical Thinking Through Literature, and is used under CC BY-NC. Ringo and Kashyap's work is adapted from "Sample Thesis Statements" by the University of Texas at Arlington and used under the same license. "Thesis Statement Basics" is licensed under the same terms as the work from which it was derived.
Point of View (P.O.V.) in Academic and Other Writing
Point of View refers here to the perspective from which you present the discussion in your essay. This can be first person, second person, or third person, and can be either singular or plural. The choice of perspective is made based on the type and purpose of assignment. In this course, this choice will be in accordance with the requirements of the essay as specified by the instructor or the prompt. Generally, personal writing will use the first-person pronouns I, me, mine, we, ours; formal academic writing will use the third-person pronouns (he, him (his), she, her (her, hers) it (its), one (one’s), them, they (their, theirs). Third-person also identifies people by proper noun (a given name such as Erin Smith) or noun (such as students, professors, parents, sanitation workers, or pilots). Academic writing in third-person uses the pronouns he, she, it, and they.
In this course, you will be asked to discuss your own opinions and interpretations on the discussion boards. In this case, it is appropriate to use first person (I believe…). Similarly, where the course assignment specifies a reader response essay, you are being asked about your own response to the literary work in question. In this case as well, use first person. However, apart from these situations, you will be asked to write explications and analyses of poems, stories, plays and novels, and these are formal academic papers requiring a more professional, removed, and scholarly posture. In this case, you will use third person perspective. You will likely say, for example, “The author writes;” (or name the author by last name, e.g. “Shakespeare writes”) “The poem says;” “Line 6 shows;” “Montresor leads;” “Showalter makes the claim;” “The presence of the color blue implies;” and so forth.
Proficient composition shows the writer’s awareness of the appropriate point of view (POV) for the situation. This includes the type of essay or writing as well as the specified POV on the assignment sheet. In short, unless otherwise specified, use first-person POV for personal writing demonstrating your own lived experience, ideas and opinions; use third-person POV for all other academic writing.
Attribution and License
"Point of View (P.O.V.) in Academic and Other Writing" by Nina Adel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.
Essay Type: Literary Response
The Response Essay
The response essay is likely the most informal type of literary analysis essay students will encounter in a literature course. This essay simply asks the student to read the assigned text(s) and respond to said text(s). There are several purposes in writing such an essay. This kind of essay:
- helps students better understand the reading through informal analysis
- enables students to practice close-reading in a low-stakes, informal, and more comfortable way
- prepares students for writing a more formal essay by recording their initial impressions of a text
Usually, the requirements for such an essay are more open-ended than what is expected on more formal essay assignments. For example, students are often allowed to use first-person "I" and colloquial (that is, spoken rather than academic) language. If you are uncertain about your professor's expectations regarding these matters, ask for clarification.
What is always required is a willingness to ask questions and engage with the text. The following are some questions students might respond to when writing a response essay:
- First impressions: When reading the title and first lines, what impression did you get from the text? How did this impression change as you read the rest of the story or poem? What might the title indicate about the story or poem?
- Characters: What kind of character is the main character of the story or poem? Are they likable? Trustworthy? Why? Which character do you like or relate to the most, and why? Which character do you dislike the most, and why? What kinds of characters (dynamic, round, flat, static) are featured in this story?
- Tone: How would you describe the tone of the story? What words, phrases, images, or snippets of dialogue indicate this tone?
- Figurative language: What figurative language or literary devices do you notice? Why do you think certain images appear? What kinds of patterns of language do you notice, and what significance might these patterns or literary devices have on the story or poem?
In addition to these basic literary analysis questions, some helpful tips for writing this kind of essay:
- Take notes as you read. Use highlighters to mark quotations or passages that jump out at you, along with post-it notes or page clips to mark those pages so you can find them again when writing the essay. Don't be afraid to write notes in the margins of the book. If you must sell back the book to the bookstore, or don't want to mark the book for other reasons, you can use post-it notes to write your responses. Essentially, effective note-taking is like having a conversation with the text.
- Keep a document or journal open to record your ideas as you read. For example, refer to the image at the top of this page. This way, you can begin responding to the text as you read it, making efficient use of your time. You can then simply develop your reading notes in the essay.
- Cite passages to support your analyses. Like in an argumentative or persuasive essay, be ready to drop quotations or paraphrase into the essay to support your analysis and show those reading your essay examples of what you are talking about. Be ready to provide page or line numbers to cite the source. For example, if you say Hamlet (the main character of Hamlet by William Shakespeare) comes across as whiny and egotistical, be prepared to quote or paraphrase the play and point readers to the act, scene, and line numbers which show your point.
- Avoid plot summary, unless used briefly to contextualize analysis. Your professor knows what happens in the stories. This is NOT a “summarize the story in your own words” exercise, but a “what patterns or interesting devices did you notice? What stuck out to you? Why do you think the author made the choices they did? In what ways does the story’s form reflect its content?” exercise.
Attribution and License
This section is from the following source:
Essay Type: Literary Analysis
The Literary Analysis Essay
The literary analysis essay is the study of literature's meat and potatoes. Like the response essay, a literary analysis essay prompt asks students to examine one or more works of literature closely. The difference is that while a response essay is informal, a literary analysis essay is more formal. By more formal, I mean it abides by the following structural requirements:
- Clear, debatable thesis statement
- Clear introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion
- Quotations as evidence from the text to support the thesis
Let's take a deeper look into the literary analysis process, which focuses on the form of the text, also called New Criticism.
New Criticism Practice
John Donne (1572–1631), the great metaphysical poet, provides a metaphor that is useful for close reading. In “The Canonization” (1633) he writes:
We’ll build sonnets pretty rooms;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for Love. (lines 32-36)
If you want to read the whole poem, click on this link to "The Canonization" on the Project Gutenberg website.
Another poet returns to the same metaphor 118 years later. Thomas Gray, in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), writes:
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? (lines 44-45)
If you want to read the whole poem, click on this link to "Elegy Written in Country Churchyard" on the Poetry Foundation website.
Both Donne and Gray use the image of the urn in their poetry. An urn, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an earthenware or metal vessel or vase of a rounded or ovaloid form and with a circular base, used by various peoples especially in former times… to preserve the ashes of the dead. Hence vaguely used (esp. poet.) for ‘a tomb or sepulchre, the grave.’ (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “urn.”) Donne and Gray use the urn poetically, or metaphorically, for the urn is an image, a container to hold poetic meaning. To Donne, the poet can “build sonnets pretty rooms; / As well a well-wrought urn becomes”; to Gray, the urn becomes “storied” or an “animated bust” capable of containing stories and meaning. As an image, then, the urn becomes symbolic: poets argue that a poem is like an urn, a container for artistic meaning.
Let’s add one final component to our urn image. Jump ahead another sixty-nine years from Gray’s poem and read John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820). At the end of this poem, Keats writes:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ (lines 46-50)
If you want to read the whole poem, click on this link to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" on Bartleby.com.
Donne’s “well-wrought urn” became the title of a book by Cleanth Brooks—The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) —a central manifesto of the New Criticism. New Criticism is synonymous with close reading, so the urn becomes an important symbol for the New Critics: the urn as artistic container of beauty and meaning represents the New Critical enterprise. A poem, a play, a novel, a short story is like a “storied urn” or “well-wrought urn,” capable of conveying poetic beauty and truth. Even if the poem is “Jabberwocky”!
In all likelihood, you have already practiced New Criticism, the close reading of a poem, short story, or longer narrative that focuses on the unity of that work (or even in your daily lives through text messages, tweets, song lyrics, etc.). When you examine a short story for its character development, a drama for its plot construction, or a poem for its imagery, you are reading as a New Critic, looking at the literary work through the lens of close reading. In a sense, New Critical close reading is at the heart of every form of literary analysis you do, regardless of the theoretical approach taken. Thus it becomes essential that you become proficient in close readings of texts, for this skill is the foundation of all forms of literary criticism. If you cannot read a text closely and analyze it, you will have difficulty reading from any critical perspective. But fear not! If you have ever read and reread emails/text messages/tweets/instagram posts from a friend or family member or whomever (trying to decipher the underlying meaning), if you've ever explored song lyrics and discovered a deeper meaning or interpretation, you have these skills. And these skills are like any other, you need to practice and hone them.
Focus on New Critical Strategies
The New Critics, as we discussed, regard a literary work as an urn—a well-wrought, storied urn, or a Grecian urn. As Keats writes, this urn contains not only beauty but also truth: a work of literature has some objective meaning that is integral to its artistic design. In other words, literature is the art of conveying truth about the world. Thus the New Critics view the study of literature as an inherently valuable enterprise; literary criticism, it follows, is fruitful because it clarifies art by assigning a truth value to this art. To quote the nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold, as he writes in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1865), literature reflects “the best that is known and thought in the world” (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2010). To the New Critics, as you can see, literature—in particular, the analysis of it—is a profound activity.
A central concern of the New Critics is to understand how meaning and form interweave into a total artistic effect, the well-wrought urn. A New Critical reading assumes that the literary work has an organic structure that leads to unity or harmony in the work. An important concern for New Critics, consequently, is to show how meaning is achieved or dependent on the organic structure—the form—of the work. A New Critical reading, then, focuses on the various elements of literature that complement and create the theme. Consider the way you might pick apart, almost unconsciously, the elements of a song to determine its themes: beat, melody, tone, lyrics, rhythm, speed, key, etc. All these elements help a listener determine the themes of a song and there are countless varieties of combinations to express any number of ideas/feelings/stories (love song, breakup song, celebratory song, sad song, etc.). Have you ever wondered why a song might sound happy, but when you listen to the words, you realize it's a sad song? Why did the artist choose to create this dichotomy? What is accomplished by creating this tension between happy and sad? How does this add to the experience of the piece? These are the things New Critics explore. These are some of the tools used in literary analysis.
Basic Philosophy of Close Reading
A New Critic’s toolbox will hold those elements of literature that allow for the discussion of form and technique as it applies to meaning. Since New Critics perform a close reading of the text to illustrate how structure (form/organization/etc.) and theme (idea/subject/etc.) are inseparable, they are eager to tell us both how to read and how not to read. They identify various fallacies of reading that must be avoided:
The Intentional Fallacy
The intentional fallacy occurs when readers claim to understand an author’s intended meaning for a work of literature. The New Critics believed that a literary work belongs to the readers, to the public, which suggests that we should read the work isolated from what the author may have said about the work. In other words, the critic never knows specifically what the author intended. Indeed, an author may have conveyed meanings he or she did not intend at all, but those meanings are still present in their work (what the author intended doesn't really matter). The literary critic, then, must concentrate solely on the extrinsic formal qualities of the poem, play, short story, or novel.
The Biographical Fallacy
Related to the intentional fallacy is the biographical fallacy, which, as you might suspect, is committed when you use an author’s life as a frame of reference to interpret a work of art. The New Critics took painstaking measures to keep the focus on the work of art itself (separate the art from the artist).
The Affective Fallacy
The affective fallacy is produced when the critic brings in his or her personal feelings about how a literary work moves them. While New Critics were aware that many readers found meaning in the emotional impact of literature, they were careful to distinguish between subjective emotional responses ("I hate this!") and objective, critical statements ("This isn't effective because of reasons X, Y, and Z") about a literary work. Critics, then, should stick closely to the work of art, eliminating the author’s intention from consideration, and they should also eliminate their emotional involvement in the reading experience. We discover later in our study that many critical theories—psychoanalytic and reader-response theories, in particular—are diametrically opposed to New Criticism: both psychoanalytic and reader-response theories highlight the way a literary work affects a reader’s emotional and intellectual responses.
The Heresy of Paraphrase
Finally, the New Critics warned against the heresy of paraphrase, which happens when readers artificially separate meaning from structure or form. You have probably fallen into this trap once or twice when you concentrated on summarizing a work’s plot rather than analyzing its meaning. New Criticism teaches us not to assign a meaning to a literary work unless that meaning can be supported by a close examination of the artistic elements of the text. To say that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is about the death of a migrant worker fails to acknowledge that the poem does not support such a reading. Humpty Dumpty, in fact, could be accused of the heresy of paraphrase, as Amy Chisnell explores in her student paper later in the chapter.
In review, a close reading, as defined by the New Critics, focuses narrowly on the literary work as a well-wrought urn. All we need for our interpretation is the literary work itself, where we examine how the artistry of the work leads to a larger theme that reflects the true value of the work. Easy to state, more difficult to do! So let’s now turn to see how a close reading can be connected to the writing process itself.
Implementing the Reading Protocols: A Strategy
To perform a close reading, use the following strategy:
First, identify a tension or ambiguity in the literary work, the “problem” that needs to be solved by a close reading. In other words, your interpretation will highlight a theme or meaning that resides in the work.
Then, demonstrate how the work sustains or achieves this meaning through its artistic “principle of composition,” which might include an examination of the following:
- point of view
- language use (i.e., denotation, connotation, metaphor, simile, personification, rhythm)
Of course, the principle of composition is determined by the literary genre you are analyzing (i.e., short story, poetry, drama, novel). By showing that #1 is dependent on #2, you present a New Critical interpretation reflecting how meaning is integral to theme.
Attribution and License
This section is adapted from the following source:
"Essay Type--Literary Analysis" by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap as it appears in Writing and Critical Thinking Through Literature. It is used under CC BY-NC. Ringo and Kashyap adapt material from "The Foundations of New Criticism: An Overview" by Ryan Cordell and John Pennington and use it under CC BY-NC-SA.
Writing About Poetry
When your teachers or professors ask you to analyze a literary text, they often look for something frequently called close reading. Close reading is a deep analysis of how a literary text works; it is both a reading process and something you include in a literary analysis paper, though in a refined form.
Fiction writers and poets build texts out of many central components, including subject, form, and specific word choices. Literary analysis involves examining these components, which allows us to find, in small parts of the text, clues to help us understand the whole. For example, if an author writes a novel in the form of a personal journal about a character’s daily life, but that journal reads like a series of lab reports, what do we learn about that character? What is the effect of picking a word like “tome” instead of “book”? In effect, you are putting the author’s choices under a microscope.
The process of close reading should produce a lot of questions. It is when you begin to answer these questions that you are ready to participate thoughtfully in class discussion or write a literary analysis paper that makes the most of your close reading work.
Close reading sometimes feels like over-analyzing, but don’t worry. Close reading is a process of finding as much information as you can in order to form as many questions as you can. When it is time to write your paper and formalize your close reading, you will sort through your work to figure out what is most convincing and helpful to the argument you hope to make and, conversely, what seems like a stretch. This guide imagines you are sitting down to read a text for the first time on your way to developing an argument about a text and writing a paper. To give one example of how to do this, we will read the poem, “Design,” by famous American poet Robert Frost and attend to four major components of literary texts: subject, form, word choice (diction), and theme.
As our guide to reading poetry suggests, have a pencil out when you read a text. Make notes in the margins, underline important words, place question marks where you are confused by something. Of course, if you are reading in a library book, you should keep all your notes on a separate piece of paper. If you are not making marks directly on, in, and beside the text, be sure to note line numbers or even quote portions of the text, so you have enough context to remember what you found interesting.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
The subject of a literary text is simply what the text is about. What is its plot? What is its most important topic? What image does it describe? It’s easy to think of novels and stories as having plots, but sometimes it helps to think of poetry as having a kind of plot as well. When you examine the subject of a text, you want to develop some preliminary ideas about the text and make sure you understand its major concerns before you dig deeper.
The speaker’s questions seem simple, but they are actually fairly nuanced. We can use them as a guide for our own as we go forward with our close reading.
- Furthering the speaker’s simple “how did this happen,” we might ask, is the scene in this poem a manufactured situation?
- The white moth and white spider each use the atypical white flower as camouflage in search of sanctuary and supper, respectively.
- Did these flora and fauna come together for a purpose?
- Does the speaker have a stance about whether there is a purpose behind the scene? If so, what is it?
- How will other elements of the text relate to the unpleasantness and uncertainty in our first look at the poem’s subject?
After thinking about local questions, we have to zoom out. Ultimately, what is this text about?
Form is how a text is put together. When you look at a text, observe how the author has arranged it. If it is a novel, is it written in the first person? How is the novel divided? If it is a short story, why did the author choose to write short-form fiction instead of a novel or novella? How does the chosen form impact the story (how does the form inform the piece)? How would the piece be different if it were in a different form? Examining the form of a text can help you develop a starting set of questions in your reading, which may then guide further questions stemming from even closer attention to the specific words the author chooses. A little background research on form and what different forms can mean makes it easier to figure out why and how the author’s choices are important.
Most poems follow rules or principles of form; even free verse poems are marked by the author’s choices in line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme—even if none of these exists, which is a notable choice in itself. Here’s an example of thinking through these elements in “Design.”
In “Design,” Frost chooses an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter consisting of an octave (a stanza of eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza of six lines). We will focus on rhyme scheme and stanza structure rather than meter (a pattern of syllabic emphasis) for the purposes of this guide. A typical Italian sonnet has a specific rhyme scheme for the octave:
a b b a a b b a
There’s more variation in the sestet rhymes, but one of the more common schemes is
c d e c d e
Conventionally, the octave introduces a problem or question which the sestet then resolves. The point at which the sonnet goes from the problem/question to the resolution is called the volta, or turn. (Note that we are speaking only in generalities here; there is a great deal of variation.)
Frost uses the usual octave scheme with “-ite”/”-ight” (a) and “oth” (b) sounds: “white,” “moth,” “cloth,” “blight,” “right,” “broth,” “froth,” “kite.” However, his sestet follows an unusual scheme with “-ite”/”-ight” and “all” sounds:
a c a a c c
Now, we have a few questions with which we can start:
- Why use an Italian sonnet?
- Why use an unusual scheme in the sestet?
- What problem/question and resolution (if any) does Frost offer?
- What is the volta in this poem?
- In other words, what is the point?
Italian sonnets have a long tradition; many careful readers recognize the form and know what to expect from his octave, volta, and sestet. Frost seems to do something fairly standard in the octave in presenting a situation; however, the turn Frost makes is not to resolution, but to questions and uncertainty. A white spider sitting on a white flower has killed a white moth.
- How did these elements come together?
- Was the moth’s death random or by design?
- Is one worse than the other?
We can guess right away that Frost’s disruption of the usual purpose of the sestet has something to do with his disruption of its rhyme scheme. Looking even more closely at the text will help us refine our observations and guesses.
Word Choice, Or Diction
Looking at the word choice of a text helps us “dig in” ever more deeply. If you are reading something longer, are there certain words that come up again and again? Are there words that stand out? While you are going through this process, it is best for you to assume that every word is important—again, you can decide whether something is really important later.
Even when you read prose, our guide for reading poetry offers good advice: read with a pencil and make notes. Mark the words that stand out, and perhaps write the questions you have in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. If you have ideas that may possibly answer your questions, write those down, too.
Let’s take a look at the first line of “Design”:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white (line 1)
The poem starts with something unpleasant: a spider. Then, as we look more closely at the adjectives describing the spider, we may see connotations of something that sounds unhealthy or unnatural. When we imagine spiders, we do not generally picture them dimpled and white; it is an uncommon and decidedly creepy image. There is dissonance between the spider and its descriptors, i.e., what is wrong with this picture? Already we have a question: what is going on with this spider?
We should look for additional clues further on in the text. The next two lines develop the image of the unusual, unpleasant-sounding spider:
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth— (lines 2-3)
Now we have a white flower (a heal-all, which usually has a violet-blue flower) and a white moth in addition to our white spider. Heal-alls have medicinal properties, as their name suggests, but this one seems to have a genetic mutation—perhaps like the spider? Does the mutation that changes the heal-all’s color also change its beneficial properties—could it be poisonous rather than curative? A white moth doesn’t seem remarkable, but it is “Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth,” or like manmade fabric that is artificially “rigid” rather than smooth and flowing like we imagine satin to be. We might think for a moment of a shroud or the lining of a coffin, but even that is awry, for neither should be stiff with death.
The first three lines of the poem’s octave introduce unpleasant natural images “of death and blight” (as the speaker puts it in line four). The flower and moth disrupt expectations: the heal-all is white instead of “blue and innocent,” and the moth is reduced to “rigid satin cloth” or “dead wings carried like a paper kite.” We might expect a spider to be unpleasant and deadly; the poem’s spider also has an unusual and unhealthy appearance.
- The focus on whiteness in these lines has more to do with death than purity—can we understand that whiteness as being corpse-like rather than virtuous?
Well before the volta, Frost makes a “turn” away from nature as a retreat and haven; instead, he unearths its inherent dangers, making nature menacing. From three lines alone, we have a number of questions:
- Will whiteness play a role in the rest of the poem?
- How does “design”—an arrangement of these circumstances—fit with a scene of death?
- What other juxtapositions might we encounter?
These disruptions and dissonances recollect Frost’s alteration to the standard Italian sonnet form: finding the ways and places in which form and word choice go together will help us begin to unravel some larger concepts the poem itself addresses.
Put simply, themes are major ideas in a text. Many texts, especially longer forms like novels and plays, have multiple themes. That’s good news when you are close reading because it means there are many different ways you can think through the questions you develop.
So far, in our reading of “Design,” our questions revolve around disruption: disruption of form, disruption of expectations in the description of certain images. Discovering a concept or idea that links multiple questions or observations you have made is the beginning of discovering theme.
What is happening with disruption in “Design”? What point is Frost making? Observations about other elements in the text help you address the idea of disruption in more depth. Here is where we look back at the work we have already done: What is the text about? What is notable about the form, and how does it support or undermine what the words say? Does the specific language of the text highlight, or redirect, certain ideas?
In this example, we are looking to determine what kind(s) of disruption the poem contains or describes. We want to see what kind of disruption, or whether indeed Frost uses disruptions in form and language to communicate something opposite: design.
After you make notes, formulate questions, and set tentative hypotheses, you must analyze the subject of your close reading. Literary analysis is another process of reading (and writing!) that allows you to make a claim about the text. It is also the point at which you turn a critical eye to your earlier questions and observations to find the most compelling points and discard the ones that are a “stretch” or are fascinating but have no clear connection to the text as a whole. (We recommend a separate document for recording the brilliant ideas that don’t quite fit this time around.)
Here follows an excerpt from a brief analysis of “Design” based on the close reading above. This example focuses on some lines in great detail in order to unpack the meaning and significance of the poem’s language. By commenting on the different elements of close reading we have discussed, it takes the results of our close reading and offers one particular way into the text. (In case you were thinking about using this sample as your own, be warned: it has no thesis and it is easily discoverable on the web. Plus, it doesn’t have a title.)
Excerpt from Sample Analysis
Frost’s speaker brews unlikely associations in the first stanza of the poem. The “Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right” make of the grotesque scene an equally grotesque mockery of a breakfast cereal (4 – 5). These lines are almost singsong in meter, and it is easy to imagine them set to a radio jingle. A pun on “right”/”rite” slides the “characters of death and blight” into their expected concoction: a “witches’ broth” (6). These juxtapositions—a healthy breakfast that is also a potion for dark magic—are borne out when our “fat and white” spider becomes “a snow-drop”—an early spring flower associated with renewal—and the moth as “dead wings carried like a paper kite” (1, 7, 8). Like the mutant heal-all that hosts the moth’s death, the spider becomes a deadly flower; the harmless moth becomes a child’s toy, but as “dead wings,” more like a puppet made of a skull.
The volta offers no resolution for our unsettled expectations. Having observed the scene and detailed its elements in all their unpleasantness, the speaker turns to questions rather than answers. How did “The wayside blue and innocent heal-all” end up white and bleached like a bone (10)? How did its “kindred spider” find the white flower, which was its perfect hiding place (11)? Was the moth, then, also searching for camouflage, only to meet its end?
Using another question as a disguise, the speaker offers a hypothesis: “What but design of darkness to appall?” (13). This question sounds rhetorical, as though the only reason for such an unlikely combination of flora and fauna is some “design of darkness.” Some force, the speaker suggests, assembled the white spider, flower, and moth to snuff out the moth’s life. Such a design appalls, or horrifies. We might also consider the speaker asking what other force but dark design could use something as simple as appalling in its other sense (making pale or white) to effect death.
However, the poem does not close with a question, but with a statement. The speaker’s “If design govern in a thing so small” establishes a condition for the octave’s questions after the fact (14). There is no point in considering the dark design that brought together “assorted characters of death and blight” if such an event is too minor, too physically small to be the work of some force unknown. Ending on an “if” clause has the effect of rendering the poem still more uncertain in its conclusions: not only are we faced with unanswered questions, we are now not even sure those questions are valid in the first place.
Behind the speaker and the disturbing scene, we have Frost and his defiance of our expectations for a Petrarchan sonnet. Like whatever designer may have altered the flower and attracted the spider to kill the moth, the poet built his poem “wrong” with a purpose in mind. Design surely governs in a poem, however small; does Frost also have a dark design? Can we compare a scene in nature to a carefully constructed sonnet?
A Note on Organization
Your goal in a paper about literature is to communicate your best and most interesting ideas to your reader. Depending on the type of paper you have been assigned, your ideas may need to be organized in service of a thesis to which everything should link back. It is best to ask your instructor about the expectations for your paper.
Knowing how to organize these papers can be tricky, in part because there is no single right answer—only more and less effective answers. You may decide to organize your paper thematically, or by tackling each idea sequentially; you may choose to order your ideas by their importance to your argument or to the poem. If you are comparing and contrasting two texts, you might work thematically or by first addressing one text and then the other. One way to approach a text may be to start with the beginning of the novel, story, play, or poem, and work your way toward its end. For example, here is the rough structure of the example above: The author of the sample decided to use the poem itself as an organizational guide, at least for this part of the analysis.
- A paragraph about the octave.
- A paragraph about the volta.
- A paragraph about the penultimate line (13).
- A paragraph about the final line (14).
- A paragraph addressing form that suggests a transition to the next section of the paper.
You will have to decide for yourself the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader. Is it easier to follow your points when you write about each part of the text in detail before moving on? Or is your work clearer when you work through each big idea—the significance of whiteness, the effect of an altered sonnet form, and so on—sequentially?
We suggest you write your paper however is easiest for you, then move things around during revision if you need to.
Attribution and License
This section is from the following source:
"A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis" as it appears in the "Academic and Professional Writing" section of the UW-Madison Writer's Handbook. It is licensed and used under CC BY-NC-SA.