riting About Literature


Generally, the essays you write in literature courses attempt to answer interesting questions about works of literature.  These questions are interesting for at least two reasons:  a) their answers are not obvious, and b) their answers (or at least the attempt to answer them) can enrich other readers’ understanding and experience of those works of literature.  Often works of literature seem to be intentionally posing these questions to us; they require us to do some work to get them to work.


Readers have asked many different types of questions of works of literature, for example:

  • What did the author want to communicate in this work?
  • What does the work reveal about the author’s feelings, opinions, or psychology?
  • What does the work reveal about the society in which it was written?
  • What can we learn from this work about the issues or topics it deals with?
  • What motivates the characters in the work to behave as they do?
  • How are literary devices used in the work?
  • How does the work create emotional or intellectual experiences for its readers?
  • Is this work good or bad?
  • Is this work good or bad for its readers?

Some of these questions require information from outside the text itself; for example, to argue that a work reveals a writer’s psychological condition, it would be helpful to have some other evidence of that condition to corroborate your interpretation of the work of literature.  Some of these questions ask about the world outside the work—about the author, his/her society, or our own society, for example—while others try to focus more on the features of the work itself.  Analyses which try to make statements about the work itself is often calledformalist criticism:  it attends more to the structures and strategies employed in the work.  Ultimately, such arguments generally do try to move beyond the work, to claim, for instance, that it is likely to create certain effects in its readers, or that readers will understand the writer’s intent more clearly if they pay attention to its formal characteristic.


In LIT 100, we are going to be paying attention primarily to these formal features of literary works.  In fiction, some of these features include tone, point of view, setting, character, etc. We will be paying less attention to extra-textual features, such as the author’s biography or the historical contexts in which the literature was produced and/or read; these elements are not less important than formal features, but they naturally vary greatly from one work to another and often require in-depth study to truly appreciate.  To understand how Shakespeare’s social situation in London in the 1590s might have been reflected in his plays would require a whole course in Elizabethan history.  On the other hand, the formal features we will be studying in this course can be found in literature of all eras and genres, though they may often be used to different effect by different writers at different times.  Almost all fiction has something like a plot, a setting, a point of view, etc., whether written in 700 BCE or today.


Thus, in your essays, you will be asked to analyze the formal features of a work of literature and to use that analysis to answer an interesting question about that work.



Essay #1 Assignment


Write an essay of 750-1000 words in response to one of the topics below.  (If you would like to create a topic of your own or write on a story not listed below, check with the instructor first.)  Your essay should have a clearly stated thesis and should refer to specific passages from the story as evidence to support your claims.  Consider you audience for the paper to be other students in the class; in other words, people who have read the story but may not have thought about it as carefully as you have.


Because your reader has recently read the story, you don’t need to summarize the basic plot in your paper.  Where necessary, you should quote passages, but try to keep your quotations as brief as possible, quoting only those words necessary to your argument.  You should use quotes only when the exact wording is important to your argument or to remind the reader of a detail he/she might not remember.


You should not use any secondary sources in your argument, though you are welcome to discuss your paper with other students in the class.  If you have any questions at any point in the process of writing the paper, please do not hesitate to contact the instructor.





“A & P”:  Explain why Sammy makes the decision that he does at the end of the story.  Use evidence from throughout the story to explain his motives and/or the process by which he arrives at this decision.  What do this decision, and his reflections on it in the final paragraphs, tell us about him? 


“A Rose for Emily”:  Explain what we learn about Miss Emily’s character in the story (not just what she does, but what kind of person she is).  Use specific evidence found in the story to support your conclusions.  Be alert to the possibility that the narrator who reveals this evidence to us might have certain biases of his/her/their own.


“A Rose for Emily”:  Explain who the narrator of the story seems to be and how the narrator’s point of view influences our opinion of Miss Emily and of the people of the town of Jefferson.  You might begin by trying to figure out if the narrator seems to be an individual or somehow speaks for the town as a whole (“we”).


“The Tell-Tale Heart”:  Explain how our understanding of the narrator evolves over the course of this story.  Discuss what each paragraph adds to our understanding as the story unfolds.  What is our final opinion of the narrator, based on these unfolding clues?


“Miss Brill”:  Try to explain how the plot of this story works using any of the following concepts that seem useful to you:  conflict, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion, recognition, reversal (see the textbook Glossary for definitions of rising and falling action).  Don’t feel you need to use all of these concepts, just those that help explain how the story is structured.  Try to explain how the components you discuss help the story communicate its meaning or create its effect on the reader.


“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:  Compare and contrast the three main characters that appear in this story:  the two waiters and the old man they observe in their cafe.  What evidence in the story helps you to form opinions about them?  How do the younger waiter and the old man in the café help us to understand the character or situation of the main character, the older waiter?


Araby”:  Describe how the settings contribute to the story’s meaning or effect (these settings include the street on which the narrator lives, the house in which he lives, and the bazaar of the title).  Look at the specific imagery used to describe these settings.  Try to explain what that imagery tells us about the world as the bo experiences it, and how that world might lead him to respond in the ways he does in this story.


Araby”:  Try to explain how the plot of this story works using any of the following concepts that seem useful to you:  conflict, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion, recognition, reversal (see the textbook Glossary for definitions of rising and falling action).  Don’t feel you need to use all of these concepts, just those that help explain how the story is structured.  Try to explain how the components you discuss help the story communicate its meaning or create its effect on the reader.


Araby”:  Try to identify two or three symbols in this story, and explain what they might symbolize and how they contribute to the story’s overall effect or meaning.





1.      Once you have picked a topic, reread the story.  As you read, keep you topic in mind.  Also, whenever you find evidence in the text that might help you answer the question, mark it so you can find it later.


2.      Formulate a tentative thesis.  Try to write this thesis out in a single sentence if possible.  If that’s not possible, don’t worry, but do try to write down the thesis.


3.      Consider how best to organize your evidence.  For example, would it make sense to divide the story into stages or sections, and deal with each one at a time, perhaps in separateparagraphs.  Or if the question itself has more than one part, should you address one idea first and then the other?  If you’re writing on the Hemingway story, would it make better sense to discuss one character first and then the other, or to discuss them together as they appear at different stages in the story?  In other words, break your response to the question into parts, if you can.


4.      Once you’ve divided the task into its parts, draft each part as at least one separate paragraph; some parts may require more than a paragraph.  Each of these parts of the paper should have a claim of its own to argue, a claim that helps you prove your general claim about the story.  In each paragraph, you should explain how the evidence in the story supports your claim.  Note that simply quoting or referring to the evidence will not be sufficient:  you need to explain to your reader what conclusion he/she should be drawing from that evidence.  If you’d like models for such paragraphs, there are several sample student essays in our textbook on pp. 260, 1365, and 1368.  Consult the document on How to Use Quotations in the Course Documents for more information on properly formatting quotes.


5.      At this point you should have a first draft of the paper.  You will share this draft with several other students and the instructor, who will make suggestions.  Ideally, you should not look at it yourself for a couple of days.  When you do pick it up again, try to read it over as if you were a reader who had never seen it before (this is hard to do!).  Consider the following general features of the draft:

·          Do you agree with the thesis?

·          Is the thesis clearly stated?  Are there any terms used that are vague or could be more clearly defined?

·          Does the evidence presented support the thesis?

·          Can you recall evidence from the story that might contradict the thesis?

·          Can you recall additional evidence from the story that might support the thesis?

·          Is it easy to follow the connections between paragraphs?  Does each paragraph clearly support the thesis of the whole paper?

·          Are individual paragraphs easy to read?  Are they each unified around a single topic or claim, or do some try to do too much? 

·          Is all evidence clearly explained?  Will the reader be able to see how it supports the conclusions drawn from it?


6.      Based on the feedback you get from others and your own rereading of the draft, revise the draft.


7.      Once you have revised the draft, edit it:  make sure sentences are clear and grammatical, check spelling, etc.  Your computer can help you do some but not all of this work, so be sure to read it over yourself before handing it in.



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