21L.488 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate

Contemporary Literature

Study Materials

This section provides information to help students write the essays assigned for this course.

Developing a Thesis
Some Criteria for a Good Paper
Analyzing a Text

Developing a Thesis

The hard truth is that what makes an essay a piece of literary analysis is an argumentative, analytic thesis that addresses fundamental issues which a particular text raises:

  1. Descriptive Information Gathering. Observe likenesses/differences (if you are working on several texts) or central elements (of language, imagery, form) if you are focusing on one. A good thesis never rests here.
  2. Sort the data and select the central element or elements. Signs of centrality are many and varied:
    • Placement in the text (the beginning and end or the center are good places to look).
    • Recurrence or repetition (even if with slight variation).
    • What one might call “micro-placement” - at the beginning or ends of lines, in a poem; near break points or shifts of plot/scene in a piece of prose or verse narrative.
    • Pure importance and potential richness for evaluation. Here, some things fall by the wayside. Others are weak because they are too vague or general. “Love” is of undoubted importance in most human lives; but the word itself has so many shades of meaning that, to be an effective thesis, it needs full and careful definition in the terms of the text, not of your own predispositions or experiences.
  3. Articulate fully and carefully what aspects, elements, words, and images the text associates or aligns with some central issue or problem or question. At this point you are moving toward a coherent, focused, precise, and economical formulation of what the text is “about.”
  4. See how far you can press this package of associations and meanings, and in what ways you can pull them together into a cogent, argumentative position statement (which is, in fact, what a “thesis” is). This takes step three as far as you reasonably can. Remember you are concerned with what the text says, not with what you yourself believe to be true. It is altogether feasible to write a good essay on a text you think is just plain wrong, or morally abhorrent (say, Mein Kampf).

All of this occurs, by the way, before you set out to write an essay. The essay will develop and support your thesis by arraying and analyzing the specifics of the text under discussion. In other words, the essay will more or less work backward through this scheme - opening with the thesis, then elaborating the elements of that thesis by drawing on a careful and argumentative analysis of the data you gathered in step one - not all of it, just the most productive/significant aspects.

Some Criteria for a Good Paper

  1. Does your essay clearly and precisely define a fundamental human question which the text you are writing about addresses? Does your essay go on to demonstrate what position - or positions - the text takes on this issue?
  2. Does your introduction clearly and articulately identify those aspects of the text you plan to write about? Have you carefully selected those aspects which most directly and complexly address the issue you identified in step 1?
  3. Does your essay proceed to do what you said you were going to do, in a well-organized and connected manner? Have you arranged your separate points in a clear and coherent pattern or form?
  4. Is your paper - to the best of your ability - grammatically correct? Are the words spelled correctly? Not to be picky - grammatical and typographical errors can radically reduce the cogency and persuasiveness of an essay.
  5. Have you supported your arguments by specifically referring to the text? Have you avoided the tendency to propose vast generalizations? If you refer to works or to people’s ideas other than those explicitly contained in the text, have you clearly identified your sources?
  6. Does your essay have an effective conclusion? This should be not just a summary of what you’ve said but a final articulation of what you hope your reader has learned from reading your essay - a final proof of the value of your whole line of inquiry. To put this another way: you may have been taught that a good essay says what it is going to say, then says it, and finally says what it has said. True, to some degree - but profoundly boring, as well, both to write and to read.“Essay-writing for Toddlers” but this is the Big Leagues, now. A good, even an excellent, essay often “opens out” at the end, demonstrating what the writer has learned by paying the sort of close attention he/she has. A fine essay can end, in other words, with a question, an enigma, a puzzle - something which provokes its reader to look at the text in a new way, and think about it in new and unexpected directions.
  7. Have you clearly “located” any quotations you draw from the text - using parentheses and page numbers (if it’s a story or essay you are writing about, and if you are using the edition listed on the syllabus), or parentheses and line numbers (if you are writing about a poem)?

Analyzing a Text

Years ago I was a freshman in college. (Yes, they had discovered fire then, but only just!) I took a course that was intended to teach me how to analyze literary texts. We started with poems, and the professor (he was also my TA, remarkably enough) passed out a step-by-step assignment sheet. I just found it, buried in a file folder, and it seemed useful. So I pass it along to you:


_Your object is to guide your reader to a full and relevant experience of the text. As you read your first draft, ask yourself: ‘How does this statement help a reader to get what the text is expressing?’


_Questions to answer:

  • What does the text express? (I would put it a different way - what specific human issue or question does the text approach? I emphasize “specific.” And your attention should be on issues, not plot elements. Moby Dick is “about” a fishing trip, but that’s hardly the reason why pedantic teachers keep assigning it. Something more like “Moby Dick grapples with complex issues of power and belief, hung on the frame of a very simple plot.” “Defining the issue” may take two or three hard, precise, coherent sentences. Skip the large “filosofizing” - “Mankind has been troubled by love since the beginning of recorded time:” that sort of thing.)

  • How is the text organized? For example:

    1. What is the dramatic situation and tone? What particular uses of language define the tone?

    2. What metaphors and images do you find? How are they connected? Is there a dominant metaphor? What significance(s) is there to the order in which metaphors are presented?

    3. How is the text organized as an experience to the ear? (It will help to read the text aloud, maybe even several times). Note some peculiarities in what you hear when you read the text. Can you point to any arrangements of words or syllables which affect what you heard? In what ways to the arrangements of sound connect ideas or metaphors? In what ways do they work against the explicit “point” of a particular line or paragraph? (This is where rhyme and meter come in. But remember your work is to define expression, not to describe. If you point out a rhyme, you should offer some propositions about how that rhyme, how joining those two (or more) particular words leads to expression of ideas and situations. And remember that not all rhyme is end-rhyme. And if the terminology of scansion is available to you, use it - or look it up.)

    4. How is the plot shaped? What are the implications of the beginning and ending point of the text? What is the climactic or decisive “turning point” of the text, and what are the implications of this arrangement? Similar questions can and should be asked about characters, settings, and the angle from which the text is presented to us.

      Be careful, here - the Summarizing Daemon will be lurking in wait for you. Retelling the story or summarizing the “facts” of a character’s description is a waste of your time and mine. In fact, it’s a bit of an insult to me - I have been reading for nearly 50 years now, so I really don’t need your help with that.

  • How is the experience of the text shaped and qualified by these different modes of organization? Can you describe what is expressed through tone or metaphor or choices about plot, setting, point of view, and characterization? How must you adjust your provisional statement (that is, item #1) to fit what you have been discovering as you pay closer attention to particular aspects of the text?


  • Write an essay using what you have learned by asking the above and similar questions.
  • Under each general point in your essay, select one or two of the most telling examples, and support your statement by analyzing those examples closely.

Paraphrasing - The Deadly Sin

All of these remarks are based on a familiar story.


This is a paraphrase (roughly, a “translation” of the specific words of the poem into your own language):

It was a pretty dark day for the home team -
they were behind by two runs,
and it was the last of the ninth.
The star slugger might get one last swing -
but it didn’t look promising. Two outs
happened quickly, and then two bozos were
due to come up before the hero himself.


This is a summary (roughly, a recapitulation of the information contained in a particular poem):

Improbably, the local team nearly scored a come-from-behind win, with two out in the last of the ninth. But, sadly, the hero everyone was pinning their hopes on struck out on three pitches.


This is an argument, which would then need development and proof in the body of an essay. It states its position and gives some indication about what sorts of evidence, or rather what aspects of the poem, it will go on to consider. The one thing that might improve this argument is to reshape it in the form of questions, rather than propositions:

“Casey at the Bat” has been interpreted as a study in heroism and failure (two ideas that are linked more often than we think; Beowulf dies in his poem, Sir Lancelot never gets to find the Holy Grail, and John Wayne, more often than not, is dead at the end of his movies). The title gives Casey center stage; but the poem itself spends at least as much time and energy looking at the crowd of fans. In the end, the poem may well be one of the most astute and complex studies of the capacity for self-delusion that gives rise to sports fandom, and not just in Boston or just for baseball, either.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2003
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Presentation Assignments