Part One: General Comments
You are required to write an analytical essay, not an informal response to literature. An analytical essay presents an argument about how and why an author does certain things in his or her work; it examines the work's thematic, conceptual, or rhetorical infrastructure ("the basic, underlying framework or features of a system"). The following comments are designed to prepare your ideas and papers. If you are not sure that you know how to write the kind of paper I am requiring, don't hesitate to ask for advice or help. Although I cannot do the basic work for you, I can help you at each stage of the writing process.
I expect you to write a formal analytical
essay even if you've never done so before. If you have never written this
kind of essay, and if you have no experience reading literature analytically,
I recommend that you look at Mortimer J. Adler's and Charles Van Doren's
to Read a Book, not as simplistic a book as the title might imply.
If you are an experienced analytical reader, and if you would like to develop
your skills by thinking about theoretical approaches to literary criticism,
I recommend that you look at Critical Terms for Literary Study.
Finally, if you would like to increase your critical vocabulary, develop
your understanding of terms that I mention in class, or familiarize yourself
with literary genres and periods, look through C. Hugh Holman's
to Literature. The last two books should be in the personal library
of any serious English major.
b) The Introduction:
Your introductory paragraph should have three stages:
1) In the first stage, you introduce your subject--the literary work itself. In a few sentences (2-4) sentences, you should present the author and title of the work; in some cases, a very short discussion of the work's plot, characters, themes, historical background, or general achievement might be in order. (The shorter the paper, the shorter this introductory passage should be.) Assume that your reader is a casual reader of the work, one who has read the work through once and grasped its obvious features of plot and character, but who will benefit from a deeper discussion of these items.
2) Next, you should present the reader with the general problem or issue you wish your paper to examine. You need to establish that there is cause for misunderstanding or interpretive controversy, or that there is a dimension of the work that is not apparent or clear unless one looks at it in a certain manner (for example, from a historical or psychoanalytic point of view). You might establish the problem or issue in a number of ways:
Do not begin your essay from the beginning
of time. Postpone your comments about your personal feelings or response
to the work. And pay close attention to the historical period in which
your work is set (i.e., don't treat Shakespeare as a twentieth-century
author!). Get to your point, elegantly, gracefully, directly, and quickly.
And make your focus specific rather than general--one cannot
possibly handle "the problem of love in Shakespeare" in four pages, but
one can handle "the issue of Petruchio's cruelty toward Kate masked as
love in The Taming of the Shrew" in such a space.
c) The Thesis:
An argument demonstrates the validity, value, and logical coherence of your thesis. A thesis is different from a subject or topic. A "subject" is the literary work you are analyzing. The "topic" is the interpretive issue or question you are examining (say, "justice" or "Prospero's character motivations"). The thesis is the stand or claim you make about the issue or question at hand. A thesis is by its nature debatable; a topic is not, for a topic simply identifies the grounds for debate or the issue you are looking at. A topic is something that you can mention to the professor without feeling nervous; a thesis involves possibly being wrong. The most typical error in undergraduate literature papers is to avoid taking a stand or to fake taking a stand (i.e., "There are many ways to examine King Lear's poor treatment of Cordelia," or "Many differences and similarities can be seen between Shakespeare's early and late plays").
Here's an example of a topic rather than a thesis: "Shakespeare uses symbolism in A Midsummer Night's Dream." What kind of symbolism? How does he use it? To what purpose? Why is this an interpretive problem or issue? Such a sentence might be fine for freewriting or even an early draft, but not for a final draft. Here's another example of a topic rather than a thesis: "Revenge is an issue in Hamlet." You might make this statement into a thesis by establishing the specific issue and taking a clear stand:
This paragraph both establishes the issue and the clear stand that the writer has taken on it.When Hamlet's ghost appears to his son early in Shakespeare's Hamlet, he tells him to avenge his wrongful death. Yet Hamlet soon discovers that carrying out the orders that the ghost gives him is more complicated than it first appears. The ghost gives two injunctions: to kill Claudius and to avoid harming Gertrude. As the play goes on, doing both of these at once becomes more and more complicated as Hamlet contemplates the larger implications and details of both actions. Hamlet does not foolishly delay, as many critics have argued; rather, he encounters problems avenging his father's death because the simple act of revenge is in the Christian world of the play so morally complex. (Ersatz 1)
Note that, because the above quotation is
more than four lines long, I present it as a block quotation--meaning that
I indent at least one tab stop (five spaces) from the left, that I do
not use quotation marks, and that I present the parenthetical citation
the period (two spaces) instead of before (as I might normally do if I
were using a shorter quoted passage).
d) Using Quotations.
To present an effective argument, you must quote from the text you are analyzing, and you must explain carefully how the evidence you are presenting leads to and supports your interpretation of the work. This is not to say that you should be inelegant or blatant about this. That is, you shouldn't lead into a quotation by saying, "This interpretation is supported by the following passage." Here are some important guidelines:
The following is a passage from an essay of mine, to illustrate how citations might be properly used. I've put it in single-spacing to save on paper, but you should always double-space your own papers (including block quotations!):
It is not only Egeon who demands another's gaze--a constant witness--to confirm who he is. Antipholus of Syracuse underscores that his quest for his twin brother is motivated by a search for his confirming other:
I to the world am like a drop of waterAlthough critics have traditionally (and rightly) understood this passage as evincing a latent fear of self-dissolution (Barton 44, Coursen 182), Antipholus's interjected "unseen" suggests a rather precise formulation: the single gaze of his "fellow," a gaze in which he might find himself, is set against the engulfing gaze of the world, a gaze that fails to see him. His musings, we might remember, follow his declaration that he intends to "view the manners of the town, / Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings" (I.ii.12-3), pointedly as the viewer rather than the one viewed. Only after recalling his lost brother does he designate Dromio "the almanac of my true date" (I.ii.41), as if his servant were a text--the last he has left--in which he can confirm his being. As the confusions mount, Dromio of Ephesus too seeks to confirm who he is by pointing to his (apparently rocky) relationship with his master, his central exhibit being the bruise marks upon his head and shoulders that function, he remarks later, as Antipholus's characteristic signature:
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself. (The Comedy of Errors, I.ii.33-40, emphasis added)
That you beat me at the mart I have your hand to show.Here subjectivity--"what I think"--becomes quite literally black-and-blue characters on the white flesh. The joke is that the wrong Antipholus does not recognize those "self-evident" marks and so, ironically, he adds a few of his own.
If skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own hand-writing would show you what I think. (III.i.12-4)
(Note how material from the work is integrated with my own words, and how I combine both block quotation and in-text citation to incorporate the evidence into the prose. Try these techniques in your own work.
Note one other feature: since the text I'm
quoting is clearly The Comedy of Errors throughout this section,
I don't need to repeat the title every time I quote from it; if it were
not so clear, say, if I were quoting from two works at once, I might need
to repeat the title more than I do here. Use judgment in such cases, in
order to avoid any lack of clarity on the reader's part.)
"How many research sources should I include?" This is the most frequently asked question about research essays. Each assignment will vary, of course, but as a general guideline you might adopt the following: cite at least as many secondary sources as there are pages in your essay. If you are writing a four-page research essay, you should consult at least four secondary sources; you should include at least six sources for a six-page essay. Note that I have specified secondary sources here, that is, sources other than the actual work you are analyzing (which is called a primary source). Your primary source should be included in addition to the secondary sources you cite. Again assignments vary, but it is usually a good idea to include a mix of books and articles in your sources. Books are often comprehensive in their commentary; journal articles offer more pin-pointed and up-to-date information. Usually you should prefer recent to more dated secondary works.
You can find books by using the card catalogue (both the computer and the cards) or through bibliographies in the reference department. You can find articles by using the MLA Bibliography (on CD-ROM and in yearly volumes) or through various bibliographies. For most literary topics, using the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature or Infotrak will be useless or lead you to poor journal articles. Learn how to use the reference sources in Dimond Library early. The librarians at the Reference desk can be very helpful if you catch them before the great paper crunch descends upon students at mid-terms.
It is crucial that you begin narrowing your topic before you begin research. By doing so, you can research much more efficiently, with a clear notion of what information you are looking for. If you do not work to narrow your topic, you will tend to flounder, wasting time following out false leads and depending too heavily on secondary works to dictate the critical questions you will answer. The worst possible approach is to take out everything in the library on your general subject, and then try to winnow it in your room. You will not only anger others who need the sources you've checked out, but you will not easily find the information you need to discover in that way. If, for example, you were to examine "marriage in Shakespeare," you will quickly become overwhelmed by the bulk of information on marriage practices in the Renaissance--there are too many books and articles on the subject. If, on the other hand, you were to choose to determine how much power daughters had over the marriage contracts their fathers arranged for them, you could focus on just those passages relevant to your topic.
Of course, you may need to narrow your topic even further as your research progresses. I have found it helpful to keep a small research journal in which I jot down questions or ideas that I later include (or discard) in the final essay. IMPORTANT: research is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Keep your goal, that is, your research question, firmly in mind. The quality of insights, not the quantity of research, should be your overriding goal.
You will probably be amazed at the range of materials available on various literary topics. In addition to the card catalog (and don't rely exclusively on the computerized catalog!), make sure to consult specialized bibliographies and encyclopedias, bibliographies for academic journals (see especially the MLA Bibliography), the reference works listed in your books and on the syllabus, and various research guides. In addition to books and articles, you may find these specialized reference tools useful: concordances, glossaries, guides to characters and place names, and dictionaries, all of which the reference section of Dimond Library may have.
Use your sources critically. You needn't agree with what they say, and you should not assume that because a judgment appears in print, it is necessarily true. Pay particular attention to dates of publication, keeping in mind that you should try to find the most current material.
MOST IMPORTANT: Begin
early. It is nearly impossible to complete a creditable
research project in a short time, particularly when you are sharing resources
with others in your classes. In general, it's best to budget much, much
more time for your project than you think it will take (I find it usually
takes about four times as long as I think it will to complete research
projects). I'll be happy to help you along the way, but I will be very
unsympathetic to those who procrastinate.
f) Manuscript Form (and other important details).
You are required to follow MLA documentational
format. I have used this format in this guide so that you have a example
to follow. At the end of the guide is a sample "Works Cited" page, which
should follow any formal essay you write for me which includes research
materials. The following are special instructions or reminders--which
means that ignoring them will certainly have a detrimental effect on your
- Your essay must be typed, double-spaced throughout (even block quotations). You should have standard 1-inch margins on all sides, top and bottom.
- Note the proper form of parenthetical citation demonstrated throughout this guide. Remember to indent block quotations and NOT to use quotations marks around block quotations.
- Your essay must have a title. Avoid bland titles like "Hamlet and Revenge." Instead, use your title to entice the reader and identify your particular interpretive angle (like "Bloody Thoughts: Hamlet's Heroic Imagination"). On your title page, please include, in addition to the essay's title, your name, the class and section number, my name and the date.
- Number the pages of your essay (in the upper right-hand corner; don't number the first page).
- Do not present your essay in a plastic cover or paper folder. Simply staple the pages once, in the upper right-hand corner. And if you are using continuous-feed computer paper, of course separate the sheets.
- Keep a xerox copy of your paper until I return your original to you. I've never lost a paper, but you are required to keep a copy just in case. Even if I lose the paper, you are still responsible for it.
- Proofread your essay before you submit it. Correct errors neatly with a pen. Yes, spelling and grammar count.
Part Two: Evaluation.
The following comments will consider each
of the categories of evaluation.
Academic writing is very basic and straightforward, though it varies a bit from assignment to assignment and discipline to discipline. It is designed to allow one to read subtle arguments quickly. Accordingly, the structure of your argument is very important. Each paragraph should present a unified and focussed block of thought, a clear and significant stage in your argument. You should therefore avoid paragraphs that are too long (in a short essay, page-long paragraphs are too long, often a sign of unfocussed thinking) or too short (often a sign of a lack of development). Generally, paragraphs should be at least five sentences long, though this is a very general guideline, one which you can violate if you develop a sophisticated writing style. Each paragraph should build upon what you have said in the previous paragraph, and should prepare for what you will say in the following paragraph. If you can move around your paragraphs without disturbing the nature of your argument, then you have not paid attention to the structure of your argument or have simply repeated yourself in the course of your paper.
A good term for the structure of the academic
essay is the "intellectual matrix" of the essay. The "intellectual matrix"
is the thesis statement, and the topic sentence of each of your paragraphs
(normally the second or last sentence of each paragraph). Just as the thesis
statement indicates clearly the argumentative position or central claim
of your paper, so should the topic sentence of your paragraphs indicate
the argumentative step of that paragraph. I should be able to read only
those sentences to determine the logical design of your argument; that
is, I should be able to summarize the paper's argument from just those
topic sentences. Part of your grade will be determined by your ability
to provide a coherent "intellectual matrix" for your paper (an overall
argument), and on your ability to construct a systematic, unified argument
that builds from one stage (one paragraph) to the next.
Remember that your assignment is to write literary analysis, not plot summary or historical commentary. Your task is to show the connections between what the author says and how he says it--in other words, to identify and examine the implications of the author's literary strategies. Remember that your reader has read and thought about the literary work to which your paper is devoted, and therefore does not need to be reminded of the plot. Do not simply summarize the plot. I find it useful to think of your reader as a first-time reader of the work, who understands the basic plot but whose attention must be guided to certain special features or ideas in the work. Similarly, if you are placing the work in historical context, you need to be specific (and accurate!) in doing so. Typically, the more general and abstract the historical context, the less useful it will be: do you see problems with a claim like "The Renaissance believed in God"? Keep in mind that all people in a given time period did not think the same way, even if there are issues and ideas that do preoccupy many. Be attentive, in other words, to conflicts, differences, and changes among groups within a period, and qualify sweeping claims. Even more important, if you introduce historical commentary, you must take care that you provide some evidence for your historical claims, that you establish your historical context efficiently and succinctly, and that you move quickly from that historical context to literary analysis (which should remain your primary focus). If you are using elements from the author's biography, for example, choose those events that are relevant to your thesis and make sure that you establish why those events are important for understanding the work. Grades for papers based primarily on plot summary or general historical commentary will begin somewhere in the area of "D"--and they go down from there.
You must present your argument carefully, methodically. In the early part of your paper, explain carefully the interpretive problem you intend to address, then proceed to address it in stages. At each point in the paper, think about what your reader needs to know if he or she is to understand what is coming in the next stage of your paper. Use quotations at each stage of the argument to support your interpretation. That is, show your reader where your interpretation comes from, rather than telling them about the work. Even so, don't forget your overall main point or thesis. I find it helpful to write your thesis (in the form of a sentence) on a post-it or card and to post it on your computer or workspace. That way, as you work you can look up at it and remind yourself what your central point is. (Of course, that thesis may change in the course of writing. If so, write out a new post-it or card and check the new thesis against your draft.)
Focus is the key to success. You cannot hope to analyze an entire book or play in a short paper. Therefore, you must isolate a representative portion of the work: a character, a scene, a rhetorical or ideological pattern, a set of allusions or images, or some other aspect of the author's techniques and strategies. Find something you will analyze in detail and explain your interpretation carefully. Briefly justify your choice at the beginning of the essay.
One final matter: significance.
Academic essays often focus on something almost absurdly small: the sex
life of the three-toed Madagascar sloth, for example, or the semi-colon
in Hamlet. Researchers do this so that they can be thorough and
detailed in their analysis. But good researchers also spend time, often
at the end of the essay, discussing the larger implications of their analysis,
answering the question "so what?" The sex life of the three-toed Madagascar
sloth, for example, may offer insights into the sexual development of other
mammals or suggest the relationship between environmental decay and animal
reproduction; the semi-colon in Hamlet may give clues about how
actors should deliver certain of Shakespeare's lines or how the typesetters
of the Renaissance chose to punctuate the playtexts. These very small topics,
in other words, become ways of talking about larger topics. Make sure that
your essay addresses the "so what?" question, perhaps in the final paragraph.
Often your detailed analysis can help readers to understand other aspects
of the work, of the author's other works, of the period, or of the genre.
Certainly a final paragraph that merely reiterates what the reader has
already read is a sign that the writer has not sufficiently addressed the
important question of significance.
Your paper must meet the grammatical and formal standards of academic prose. That is, grammar, spelling and style count, and they count a lot. Your ideas are never independent from how you present them. Leave yourself time to revise, and revise with a good handbook close at hand. Type carefully, and double-space the lines, even the quotations. For the conventions concerning the proper handling of quotations, the presentation of titles of works, and the documentation of sources, see the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. (A copy is available at the Reference department of Dimond Library for consultation.) If you are an English major, and do not yet own a copy of this book, buy one. It is the final word on matters of documentary form.
Remember also that academic conventions of clarity and formality are also important. Avoid hazy generalizations and other forms of vagueness. (A good way to check for this problem is to look at the main verbs and nouns in your sentences: do they tend to be abstract and general, or specific? If the former, change the noun or verb to something more specific rather than adding adjectives or adverbs.) One source of ambiguity can be pronouns: make sure that your reader clearly knows what "this" or "that" refer to or, better yet, include clarifying nouns along with with the pronouns ("this idea," "that action"). "This" or "that" should not be the subject of any sentence in your essay.
Also avoid cliches and "boilerplate" prose,
reductive expressions, and hollow modifiers like "interesting," "positive,"
"negative," or "successful." A certain amount of technical language may
be necessary, but make sure you use it judiciously and correctly. Strive
for gender-neutral prose: he or she, her and his, etc. Remember that there
is nothing that warms a professor's heart so much as the carefully, memorably
turned phrase or well-written passage. Good writing simply gives your argument
more authority and weight and suggests your care as an analyst (as well
as a stylist). All the elements that make for good creative writing also
make for good academic writing, so show some creativity and care in your
Part Three: Grading Standards.
Once again, please note that the central distinguishing element in evaluating essays is your argumentative claim, or thesis. A thesis is the single distinguishing element of good college-level writing--all else follows from it. If you do not understand the concept of a thesis, make sure to ask.
An "A" essay:
Not all assignments are the same. For that
reason, these criteria may be modified to fit the requirements of a given
assignment. For example, if you are asked to write a "personal reaction"
statement to the final scene of The Taming of the Shrew, you may
include a good deal of personal opinion (though analysis of the textual
passages that prompt your opinion should also appear in the statement).
Similarly, if you are asked to review Branagh's film of Henry V,
you may (even should!) include some evaluative comments (supported,
of course, by descriptions of relevant scenes from the film). For a short
writing assignment, I will not expect the level of stylistic polish I might
from a longer, more formal assignment (though I will expect grammatical
correctness and some element of precision!). Carefully analyzing the assignment
(and asking questions about it) will prevent later misunderstandings and
Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book. Revised and Updated Edition. A Touchstone Book. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Ersatz, Owen. "Hamlet's Christian World." Unpublished essay submitted for English 657, May 5, 1993.
Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Third Edition. NY: MLA, 1988.
Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. Fifth Edition. NY: Macmillan, 1986.
Lanier, Douglas. "'Stigmaticall in Making': The Material Character of The Comedy of Errors." ELR 23 (Winter 1993): 81-113.
Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin, eds. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.
(Note the features of this "Works Cited" page. Each line of each citation is indented, except for the first line--this makes it easy to scan the list for a last name. The first name in the list is always reversed, but the second one (and all others afterward) are not. Titles of books and journals are underlined; titles of individual articles or papers are placed in quotation marks. The entries are alphabetized. Some standardized abbreviations are used: "eds." for "editors," "U" for "University," "P" for "Press." Books with multiple editions are carefully identified for the reader. For more information on other kinds of cases, see MLA Handbook, listed above.)