How to write a literary essay with guidelines

[The following outline is intended to help students produce a competently-organized, sufficiently detailed literary paper. Each of four typical approaches will be covered if you follow instructions. It includes a series of questions intended to help the student come up with a thesis statement along which to organize and argue a literary analysis]

Guidelines for Writing your Essay

1. The first paragraph should give a very brief summary of the author's life, or, in the case of a comparison between two or more author's lives, a summary of these in a couple of paragraphs. You are asked to relate the specific text you are dealing with to some incident in the life of your authors or to some events in the period in which they lived. If we know little about the author, you may substitute a description of the kind of genre he was working in or the kind of conditions (as in the case of a play which is staged). You must shape this summary so as to tell how the text fits into the life of the writer or writers you are dealing with or the conditions and assumtions within which they worked. You can pick just a bit of an author's life which has to do with when the book was published; but you must connect the life to the text in question, and a connection between the author's inner life and the text is the most interesting kind of connection to make. This should be 4 - 8 sentences, or a short paragraph chock-a-block with dates and information.

2. The second paragraph should give a brief summary of themes or ideas the work or works explore. Here you should show how these mirror the period in which your text or texts were written or produced. A theme is a central idea or comment that the work makes on the human condition. It is not the same as the work's subject. The subject of a work may be love; you can state the subject in one word love. Its theme is what the author says about love. One of the subjects of Austen's Sense and Sensibility is love; the themes or moral inferences she asks you to make are what she says about love. Thus one theme in Sense and Sensibility may be stated as follows: "In a society where money and status are most important to people's survival, people betray one another and themselves by marrying for position and money instead of love." A theme is a complete sentence in which you move from a concrete or particular situation and generalize out to state the work's idea in such a way as to make it relevant to analogous situations during the work's era and in our own time. You can use the editorial material in your edition or classnotes; you can do research. (If the journal-essay is on a movie, you could instead tell how the director sought to convince the viewer that what he or she was seeing is a genuine recreation of the period in which the action of the story is supposed to take place in.) This should be 6 - 10 sentences, or a medium-sized paragraph just packed with precise words which capture general ideas specifically.

3. The third paragraph should give a concise synopsis of the plot. Do not give a blow-by-blow account. For example, of the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, you could write: "This book is about Holmes's investigation of Sir Charles Baskerville's death, the attempted murder of Sir Henry Baskerville, and their relationship to an old west-country legend." Of a long complicated movie, Excalibur, which retells the legend of King Arthur, you could write: "this movie takes us from the conception of Arthur through the love of Lancelot and Guenevere and the entire Grail quest." Keep it to 5 sentences at most, or a very short paragraph using general concise language. If it's a case of three short stories, try to sum each story up in two sentences each.

4. Then you chose one question from the list below and write a detailed answer to it. This is a very important part of the journal-essay and you are required to fulfill minimum length. First type the question (with the number) and then for the rest of your journal (2-3 or 3-4 pages) respond by answering your question as maturely or in as much depth as you are able in such a way as to use concrete details (describe incidents and characters and images from your book) and to quote from what you read as part of your answer (surround each quotation with quotation marks and follow it by a parenthesis with the page in the book it comes from). Let me be frank: you are asked to include these details and quotations to demonstrate whatever you want to say in order that I can know you have read the book and understood it. If you are dealing with one or more works, you must answer the question in such a way as to compare the two or more texts in question.

  1. Describe briefly three memorable dramatic scenes from the texts (or movie). (You could explain why these would make a movie based on your text interesting and dramatic.) Explain why you chose these scenes; that is, why do you remember them particularly.
  2. Discuss the most interesting incident(s) in your texts (or movie). What made them interesting to you? Or, discuss the most interesting character in your texts (or movie). What made him or her interesting to you?
  3. What kinds of conflict are dramatized in your texts?
    1. Discuss an internal one; or
    2. Discuss one or more conflicts among the characters; or
    3. Discuss how one character is in conflict with society in general; or
    4. Discuss how one character is victimized by or takes advantage of the circumstances in which he finds himself.
    What ideas does it seem the author wants to suggest by dramatizing this conflict.
  4. Does anyone's character in your texts or movie seem to change during the stories? What caused the changes?
  5. Discuss how a major character from each of your text comes to stand for a particularly important theme in the book.
  6. How does the natural setting influence or control the characters? (If this is about a movie, you could instead discuss the use of lighting, landscape, costumes, props, and so on.)
  7. How do the authors' tones influence the effect of their stories? (If this is about a movie, discuss the use of music or a particular actor's performance: how does one or the other influence the effect of the film on the viewer?)
  8. What forces of change or new beliefs are present in the texts? How do they affect the characters in the stories or the authors' view of them?
  9. Discuss the versification or prosody of your texts (if it is a poem), the style of the sentences (if it is a prose work), the use of the camera or stylization (artificiality) in the presentation of scenes or characters (if it is a movie). Tell and show how the techniques you describe enable the author (or director) to figure forth one or more of his themes.
  10. Analyze the connotations of the imagery in your texts (if this is used for a movie discuss the visual imagery on the screen). What themes are embodied here?
  11. Discuss the allegory or symbols in your texts. (Actually this is one aspect or way of working out imagery so can be regarded as a specific case of #13; it differs from #13 in that it includes characters and settings and whole phrases which, like imagery, can be used allegorically or symbolically.) Think to yourself, is some character or image made to mean the same idea as the story unfolds? What meaning is conveyed by this equation?
  12. What patterns of love (or sex) are depicted in the texts?
    1. or what patterns of family life; or
    2. or what patterns of ambition; or
    3. or what patterns of religion; or
    4. or what patterns of political behavior.
    Is this pattern like or unlike patterns you are familiar with?
  13. What attitudes are expressed by the author or filmmaker or characters in the stories towards
    1. sex; or
    2. marriage; or
    3. family ties; or
    4. religion; or
    5. science; or
    6. the class system; or
    7. slavery; or
    8. money; or
    9. war (or violence); or
    10. authority or the political establishment (kings, princes, dukes, judges, politicians, the police, courts); or
    11. power; or
    12. ruthless action; or
    13. suffering; or
    14. criminals (or prisons); or
    15. literature (or any form of art, painting, music, &c); or
    16. death;
    17. women;
    18. race;
    19. bisexuality or homosexuality;
    20. violence;
    21. revolution.
    Did the authors change your views or consolidate them on this topic?
  14. Are there similar kinds of events in the stories; that is, does the same sort of thing happen more than one time and perhaps to more than one character or group of characters? If so, describe the kind of incident which seems to repeat itself over and over, and discuss the thematic or dramatic effect of these patterns.
  15. If there is more than one plot or group of characters in your texts or film, do they mirror one another in some way? Is it that the situations in the stories are parallel and similar or parallel and contrasting? _Without retelling the story_ (remember you've done this in Paragraph 3 of the introductory matter) describe the parallels and discuss how they operate in the text or film.
  16. How does the genre (tragedy, comedy, romance, satire) affect the action or mood of the texts? Here you have to try to define gothic romance, horror story, fantasy or whatever terms you are using.
  17. Has your text made you aware of any social problems in an earlier era and our own that you hadn't thought much about before? Explain.
  18. If your texts were clearly autobiographical (from internal evidence or what we say in class or what your editor says), did this change the way you responded to what you were reading? Explain.
  19. If you feel you know enough about the authors' lives, how did their stories reflect their actual experiences. Point out parallels and show how each author changed the "real" story to suit his or her themes, or obsessions, or preoccupations, or genre.
  20. How might an understanding of the unconscious help us to understand the story, conception of the characters, or imagery of the text or film? This can be subdivided and you can deal specifically just with one of the following questions:
    1. How might an understanding of regression, dream symbolism, or "the return of the repressed" help us to interpret your texts or films?
    2. How might denial and displacement of sexual anxieties help us analyze the text or film?
    3. How might an understanding of our attitudes towards death help us to interpret the text?
  21. How is the idea of emotional repression seen or manifest in both novels; what meaning does it give to the story and which characters exhibit this behavior?
  22. Discuss the class structure in the work or film. You can describe how the class system works in the text or film; you could describe how attitudes are instilled in the characters which make them ignore their subordinate position in a hierarchy.
  23. How does this text critique patriarchical ideology, particularly as it manifests itself in the characters' relationships with one another?
  24. How does this text or film reflect an attitude towards women which regards them as secondary and inferior (or dangerously sexual) beings. Does the work invite us to accept or criticize sexism?
  25. What is the attitude of this work towards women's experience of sexual desire?
  26. Does the work help us to respect women for their strength, perseverance, generosity? Does it show any understanding of the importance of women's friendships and women's communities in their own lives and to society at large?
  27. How might you use myths and archetypes to analyze this work?
  28. What would you say is the overt ideological project of this work or film? Does it seek to ridicule something, to uphold or to criticize some sort of established coterie or group of people, or criticize or reinforce false stereotypes. Explain.
  29. What is the political stance of this work? Would you say it is liberal, conservative, reactionary, radical? Explain.
  30. How does this text or film reflect the cultural prejudices of its time, author, or imagined audience?
  31. Would you say that transgressive sexual attitudes (lesbian, homosexual) are present in this work? Does the presentation of homoerotic desire and relationships work to free people of stereotypes which limits their experience or makes them feel fearful. Explain.
  32. What does the work reveal about the operations of sexual ideologies? of class ideologies? of race ideologies? of colonialist ideologies? Pick just one or two of these and analyze your text from the perspective of the harm such ideologies can do to the vulnerable and powerless.
  33. Analyze the effects on the work's characters of racism, sexism, and various ideologies which suggest that people from the "third" world are somehow lesser people than Westerners.
  34. Does the work show characters who do not feel at home in their society? How so? How is this lack of feeling at home shape their existences?
  35. What is the effect of the narrator on the work? Think about the kind of person the narrator is, his gender, class, race, profession, nature.
  36. You have the option to write personally once this term. If you are personally moved, realise that the text solicited something in you which came out of a memory or specific incident in you life, you may write about your own life and relate it to the texts you are discussing. Your journal entry would be only partly autographical because what you would do would be to talk about how you personally related to your text. As in all the other questions, you are expected to quote and to describe your text in detail here too; the difference is here you relate the text to your private life explicitly. If your text has hit on some personal issue or problem of yours, you can talk about the parallels between your personal life and what you have read. You might label such a journal entry "personal," and would not be expected to read it aloud in class. You can only use this option once. This is a valid way of responding to literature. It is supposed to extend our imaginative sympathies, make us understand ourselves and our past better.

A. The principle object of writing student analyses of texts is to learn to communicate to someone else how you read a text or texts: thus, please 1) assume "with a pessimism surely born of experience" that whatever isn't plainly stated this reader will invariably misconstrue; 2) that you can express your profoundest ideas in simple words and sentences; 3) that I cannot know what is going on inside your head about yourself so you must explain any of your autobiography that you want to discuss or bring up at any time; and 4) that clarity and unpretentiousness are virtues we all appreciate when we read. I will evaluate you on how clearly you followed the guidelines and answered the question you chose, on the supporting details and quotations you used, and how carefully and thoughtfully you read your texts.

B. The secondary object in a classroom is to make everyone read all the books and to judge everyone on the amount and care and thought with which they read.

C. You are given choices of what to write about. However, it could happen that you wind up with a text you do not like. Please then remember that something is wrong if your argument comes down to "I hate this thing!" You must examine not only your author's prejudices but your own. Your values are probably not universal. Before seeking a question which enables you to attack the work or author, think about what in your private life or history might have led you to dislike it so. If it is a matter of the book's style or message, analyze the source of your distaste. Ask yourself if you feel the author excludes you or is writing for an imagined audience about whom you have an image which you dislike; ask yourself if your dislike is well-founded (on experience and real information) or prejudiced and uninformed. If you have been personally hurt, see if you can work this into your analysis.

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Page Last Updated: 12 November 2003.