Writing a Literary Essay

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Writing a Literary Essay Powered By Docstoc
					Constructing an Arguable
            The Argument
• When you write a literary essay, you are
  making an argument / an interpretation.
• You will argue that your perspective – an
  interpretation, an evaluative judgment, or a
  critical evaluation – is a valid one.
• Consider the following…
  3 Components of Developing an
        Arguable Thesis
1. WHAT – plot summary or observation
   about the text.
2. HOW – the literary devices, concepts,
   themes, patterns that you choose to
   prove your claim.
3. WHY (a.k.a. So what? What is at
   stake?) – the significance of your idea in
   terms of understanding the text as a
   whole. This is the analytical part of an
   analytical paper.
               Levels of Commitment
This year your goal is to construct thesis statements and to interpret texts on
   an analytical level (to reach level 3).
 Level of Writing            Question(s) posed          Grade Range

 Level 1: Basic              What?                      Unless linked to
 (Plot summary, personal                                analysis, this level is
 impressions, reactions      (Plot and textual          inadequate for IB.
 to text)                    evidence)                  (“D”-”F”)
 Level 2: Analysis
 (Use of details to       How?                          If the writing is on grade
 engage with the text and                               level, then the student
 to trace patterns)                                     will earn a “B” or “C.”
 Level 3: Interpretive
 (Places analysis and        Why? So what?              If the writing is strong
 textual patterns in a       What is at stake?          and supported with
 larger context and                                     evidence and
 theme)                                                 commentary, then the
                                                        student earns an “A”
                                                        (“B” if insufficient)
                Levels 2 and 3
• The main distinction between levels 2 and 3 is that level
  2 asks how parts of a text (language, imagery, metaphor,
  etc.) work together to form a pattern.
• For example: One could trace the use of metaphorical
  language in AQWF (i.e. leaders being described as
  animals) by the soldiers during times of resentment. It’s
  not enough to say metaphorical language of animals is
  found throughout the novel (this is level one). [The
  pattern involves soldiers feeling resentment toward their
  superiors; thus, they use dehumanizing language to lash
  out on these leaders].
• Level 3 asks why? What is at stake in noting the above?
  Effective essays combine both levels two and three.
• For example: The soldiers, particularly Paul, describes
  their superiors using animal metaphors as a technique to
  help them cope with their situation as subordinates [or to
  lessen their fears on the frontline].
 An Arguable Thesis Statement
• Like any argument paper you have ever
  written, you must have a specific, detailed
  thesis statement that reveals your
  perspective, which must be debatable.

• A thesis is arguable when someone could
  take the same theme, symbol, idea,
  character, etc. and prove something
  entirely different.
   An Arguable Thesis Statement
• It is stated as a fact (something that can
  be proven); however, it does not state a
  fact that can easily be found in the text.
• For example: Remarque portrays the
  soldiers as animals when they fight on the
  frontline. – This is a fact, not a thesis. A
  thesis will explain why he conveys them as
   An Arguable Thesis Statement
• A thesis identifies an observation (what
  and how) and then addresses why this
  observation exists.

• Arguable thesis = Observations from the
  text (textual evidence – the what and how)
  + Commentary (Why does this
  observation exist? “So what?”)
             Arguable Thesis

Observation from the
                     +   Commentary
          In other words…
• All thesis statements can be broken down
  into two parts:

  1) the observation (using the evidence to
   support the patterns or structure of
   literary devices from the text or the
   recurring theme)
  2) the commentary you will argue (this
   helps with organization/set-up of a
   An Arguable Thesis Statement

• A thesis should follow these guidelines

  1. One idea
  2. Arguable
  3. Takes one stance
  4. Specific
• You would NOT want to make an
  argument of this sort:
     Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about a
     young man who seeks revenge.
• This thesis doesn’t say anything – it’s a
  summary and it’s hardly debatable.
• Avoid summary statements and obvious
  observations from the text [Level 1].
    A better thesis would be…
• Hamlet experiences internal conflict because
  he is in love with his mother.
• This statement is debatable (and
  controversial). [How/Observation = internal
  conflict; Why/Commentary = in love with his
• The rest of the paper will attempt to show,
  using examples from the text, (1) how Hamlet
  is in love with his mother, (2) why he’s in love
  with her, and (3) what implications there are
  for reading the play in this manner.
     Examples of some common
   problems w/ Thesis statements
• The Plot summary thesis:
  This poem shows the narrator comparing his lover to a
    summer’s day.
• Proving the universal:
  “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” presents
    the power of love to conquer death.
• The overly general thesis:
  Shakespeare’s sonnets reveal how narratives can last
   in ways that nature cannot. [Note: if you can plug
   another text into your thesis, your thesis is probably
   too general.]
      Examples of some common
    problems w/ Thesis statements
• The cliché thesis:
   “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” proves the point that
     the pen is mightier than the sword.
• The list thesis:
   The structure, character, and dialogue in this poem show us how all
     humans search for knowledge. [Nothing technically “wrong” with
     this thesis, but it’s really boring! This is a great place to start with
     a thesis statement; then expand and/or finesse the what?, how?,
     and why? components.]
• The reader-response thesis (as an unhelpful way of
  dealing with the “so what?”):
   Shakespeare’s sonnets show how the narrator compares poetry
     favorably to nature to get the reader to understand how narrative
     lasts forever [All texts are addressed somehow to readers. This
     is not an analytical point].
     A good arguable thesis:
• In the poem “Shall I Compare Thee to a
  Summer’s Day?,” Shakespeare uses
  images and the structure of the sonnet to
  convey how the power of human narrative
  asserts its dominance over nature.
• Note:
  – Observation: the use of images and the
    structure of the sonnet
  – Commentary: the power of narrative over
• Another example:
  Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwoye
  symbolizes the deterioration of the Igbo

• Evidence/Observation – Okonkwo’s relationship
  with Nwoye (you could probably be more
  specific here and describe the relationship as
  strained and oppositional)

• Commentary – symbolizes the fate of the Igbo
  culture (explain how) and how communication
  could help.
  From the thesis, you derive your
• The student must find three strong
  examples of Okonkwo’s relationship with
  Nwoye. Each example will get its own

• After introducing and discussing the
  example, the student presents
  commentary for that example which
  explains how/why this symbolizes the fate
  of the Igbo culture.

                Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwoye
               symbolizes the fate of the Igbo culture

                         1st Body Paragraph

                                       Nwoye’s passivity is revealed
  Okonkwo criticizes Nwoye
                                       in the Igbo tribe’s inability to
as being too weak and passive.
                                         resist the missionaries.
               Another example:
                       The empathy and tolerance
                     of Mr. Brown keeps the culture
                   intact, but ignoring tribal customs,
                      as Mr. Smith and the DC has
                         done, destroys the tribe.

After a long conversation with                     Commentary:
   a tribal leader, Mr. Brown               Mr. Brown demonstrates
 shows a respect for the tribe           flexibility and a willingness to
   by building a school and                 change and deal with the
hospital for the tribe, instead of           needs of the people.
preaching at them all the time.
            Final thought…
• Everything in the paper must relate to the
  thesis. THEREFORE, …
  – You must be selective!
  – When trying to say something, you cannot say
    everything or you’ll end up saying nothing at
         Topics to consider when
          constructing a thesis:
• A discussion of a work’s characters: are they realistic,
  symbolic, or historically based?
• An examination of the characters’ motives or author’s
• A comparison/contrast of the choices different authors or
  characters make in a work.
• A study of the sources or historical events that
  occasioned a particular work.
• An analysis of a specific image occurring in several
• A study of the social, political, or economic context in
  which a work was written.
• Ideas and notes for “Constructing an Arguable
  Thesis” are taken from:
    ay.html. August 21, 2003. Additionally, some
    concepts are borrowed from Dr. Logan, professor of
    Am. Lit. at UCF.
  – Material also borrowed from UCLA’s writing website:
    “Teach 2 Write,” which is located on the web at
  – Also a special thanks to Mrs. Chantelle McKim (Lang.
    Arts teacher at Colonial High)

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