Constructing an Argument about Literature
The root of writing about literature is the crafting of an argument about a text(s) relevant to the kind of study you are doing. This involves reading differently than you might read for pleasure, developing a thesis based on that reading, understanding how to organize your argument (the “five paragraph template”), and knowing which theoretical approach may be appropriate for the kind of question(s) you are asking/study you are doing. We hope these tips help as you craft your argument. Once you have crafted your argument and written a draft, you can often dramatically improve your paper through revising at the global, paragraph, and sentence levels.
Reading for Literary Analysis: Some Strategies
Reading anything with the intent to analyze or study it requires you to read in a somewhat different way than you might if you were just reading for pleasure. Literary texts are no different. Here are some tips and strategies for getting the most out of your reading:
- Read fully. Skimming and reading Spark notes are the same thing: they both will give you an idea of basic plot happenings (maybe) but in no way capture the essence of the text (dialogue, narrative, nuanced details, etc.). Without these elements it is basically impossible to study a text; it will be like watching clips of a sports game and then trying to give an accurate and critical analysis/commentary on the game as a whole—something is just missing, and often times the key to literary analysis is the close attention to these details of the story that skimming cannot provide.
- Read carefully. If you were like many of us and read the Harry Potter series growing up, then you know what it is like reading a book in a matter of hours. But if you were to study Harry Potter critically, that kind of speed reading could actually hinder you. Be sure you spend time with the text and really pay attention to what you are reading. Reading lightning fast is good if you just can’t wait to know what happens next (and you are reading for fun), but reading for academic study requires you to slow down, take things in, and think while you read. Literary analysis is about so much more than the plot of the book (although plot is one important part), and you want to come out of your reading having carefully thought about the text in terms of the themes of the class and class discussions so you are prepared with ideas when you sit down to write your analysis.
- Give yourself plenty of time. Trying to cram your reading into the hour before class just won’t cut it for most of us. Besides rushing yourself (which takes away from actually enjoying the text), you probably will not have enough time to take in the text and think about it critically. This can hurt your ability to participate in class discussions and make connections/arguments that might be useful in a paper.
- Go back to the text. Studying literature means that one reading probably will not be enough. This is not to say that you must re-read the entire novel (realistically, there is no time). However, you will need to go back to certain sections and work with them in order to craft an argument, come up with discussion questions, or make complex connections between different parts of the text (for instance, a part in the beginning with a small part at the end). This is why leaving yourself time is important.
- Post-it notes (or pens) are your friends. Likewise, in order to go back and re-read/work with the text as noted above, it could be helpful to keep notes. If you can’t bear the thought of writing in your book, post-its are very handy to keep track of passages you have questions about, think are important, and want to respond to immediately so you do not lose your thoughts about them. Make connections to class discussions, connect different parts of the text, and keep track of it all (and make your book colorful). When you go to craft an argument about the text, having those notes will save you time and remind you of your brilliant insights.
- Ask questions (out loud and in your head/on the page). Be sure to bring your thoughts to each class so you can clear up anything you are confused about and also engage more fully with the text. Likewise, ask questions of the text as you read (and make note of them and your responses). This will help you “connect the dots” both within a single text and between several texts and start forcing you to see not just each text in isolation, but how close and critical study and understanding of one text can help you in your analysis of others—especially when you are looking at texts as part of a class theme (colonial literature, say). Asking questions will help you develop ideas that allow you to explore how texts are related, which is very valuable (and necessary) when it comes time to write an analysis that deals with more than one text.
Your thesis statement is basically the “what” of your paper. It is not just a summary of your topic, but instead lays out what it is you are arguing about your topic. For example, a paper for a colonial literature class that must use two novels read during the semester to explore how the idea of “America” was constructed (the topic) might argue that close study of both Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Winkfield’s The Female American reveals that both texts construct America as a “melting pot,” extolling problematic ideas of cultural assimilation as necessary and beneficial (a thesis—one of many possible ones depending on what the writer chooses to focus on, argue, and substantiate).
- A thesis is arguable.
- A thesis is (99.9% of the time) not just a statement of fact (or of your general topic).
- The key here is that you are providing an insight about the literature and then using close reading and analysis to substantiate and support that insight. This is the core of literary criticism and analysis.
Tips for Finding A Thesis (with Thelma)
Step 1: Read (carefully and critically) For A Possible Topic
In the same way that a college application expresses the work you did in high school, a paper should express the work you did while reading. If you feel like you have lots of ideas after reading, move on to the next step.
On the other hand, you may have read the book and feel a bit lost about where to go next. At this point, there are few options. The first is to ask yourself honestly if you did a decent reading. If you haven’t read carefully or thoughtfully, you might consider rereading or skimming all or part of the text. You should linger over the parts that confused you most. Scribble your questions in the margins, and then try to answer them.
If you’ve read closely but are having trouble thinking critically about what you read, you might try reading some of the scholarship around the literature to get started. Book reviews can be helpful, as can scholarly criticism pieces and even other texts in the author’s canon.
Thelma just read Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s novel about a woman in Russia in the 19th century who betrays her husband. She tried to pay attention to the themes and the author’s style. To supplement her reading, she decides to read some professional criticism around the novel to see what scholars are talking about in this novel.
Step 2: Brainstorm (and Trust Your Instincts) about How to Enter the Text
This is the key step in finding a topic. Consider elements of literary analysis: motifs (recurring symbols), personality traits of characters, turning points in the plot, who narrates the text and what it contributes, the writing style of the author, the historical context of the book, the way the text begins and the way it ends, etc.
Once you’ve found a topic that interests you, you can brainstorm ideas about those topics. For example, if you decide that a recurring symbol you’ve noticed seems important to analyze, think of how it is conveyed throughout the text, where it usually comes up, and what it could mean given its context in the text and how/when it appears.
Here are a few tips to start the brainstorming process:
- Have a conversation. Talking to a writing center tutor, a friend, or your professor is a great way to get started. Tell this person where your instincts have led you. Speaking your ideas out loud and having them questioned will help you critically analyze your own thoughts, find holes in your arguments and also where you have a solid understanding/support for that argument.
- Make a list. Listing is another great way to narrow possibilities. You can make a list of anything: topics, possible arguments and support for them– whatever works for you.
- Critically Reflect. Some writers find that just ruminating on the text helps them come up with their best ideas. If this is your style, go for it. Thinking—especially while paging through the text—is a great way to brainstorm ideas.
You should care about your topic. Otherwise, your paper will feel like a chore. Even if you don’t know what particularly you plan to argue about your topic (your eventual thesis), trust your instincts on where to head. What jumped out at you? What parts did you like? What parts were challenging or confusing or seemed strange to you? What characters did you find fascinating? What symbols were intellectually provoking? The most interesting place for you is where you should start.
Thelma really loves the author’s voice. She feels Tolstoy’s narrative style added a lot to the novel. She decides to make a list of ideas relating to Tolstoy’s narrative voice, paying attention to patterns. The omniscient narrator is able to see into every single character’s mind and hear every conversation. The narrator has a powerful ability for physical description. Also, the narrator often makes blanket statements such as the assertion in the first paragraph that “all happy families are alike.” After making her list of observations relating to narrative voice, she is ready for step four.
Step 2 ½ : Go back to the Text
Going back to the text is crucial during this process. Don’t just brainstorm, but brainstorm while you actually refer back to the parts of a text that interest you. By doing this, you will get yourself in tune with finite details of the text that may become important as you begin to craft your argument. Write down some notes and page numbers so these ideas are easy to find later.
Thelma likes her observation that the narrator often issues opinions in the form of fact, such as “All happy families are the alike.” She goes back to the text and writes down many instances where the narrator employs this tactic, along with the page numbers.
Step 3: Think of Something You Can Argue about Your Topic
Now you can begin to shape your observations about your topic into an arguable point (a THESIS). Some writers accomplish this by sitting down and starting to write based on their observations—that’s perfectly fine! Others like to come up with their argument by thinking and planning before they begin writing. Regardless of when you actually do it, the goal here is to take the things you have been observing and thinking about and craft an argument about them. Two questions that might help you start: WHAT are you observing and WHAT function does it serve in the text?
Thelma asks herself, “why does the narrator say these arguable statement as fact? What function does it serve?” She thinks the narrator could say these arguable statements as fact for many reasons: to provide artificial confidence in the narrator, to make the reader confused, to set a particular tone in the novel. Ultimately, she decides that the idea that seems most important or arguable is that these statements confuse the reader. Then she asks herself what function this narrative style might serve.
Step 4: Start Writing in Some Way (if you haven’t already done so)!
For some people, this is the hardest part. If you have a preliminary thesis, start writing. This will serve the same function as having a conversation during the brainstorming process: it will help you really get into your ideas and figure out what is working and what make more sense in you head but seems to have some holes in it.
If you are still not sure what you want to argue, start writing for the same reasons. By diving in and really working with the material that you have so far, you are sure to begin gaining insights and noticing things you didn’t before. The act of writing (just like talking through our ideas) helps us get them in order in our own heads and thus helps us more fully develop and revise them.
Note: you don’t have to start writing your essay per se. Instead, do what works best for you: lists, organizers, outlines, charts with all your ideas (and maybe some observations from the text that go with them), free writes, anything. The point here is that you have to work with your topic and observations (and the text) in order to figure out what you can (and want) to argue based on them.
Thelma sits down, takes a deep breath, and puts her pen to paper (or her fingers to the keyboard).
Step 5: Keep Tweaking (and thinking) and Going Back to the Text
Constructing a college-level argument (and thus a thesis) is not always easy. In fact, if you found it easy perhaps you should take a second look at what you are arguing! Writers and scholars (like you and your professors) rarely start out with a thesis that they consider perfect or with which they feel wholly satisfied. As you are writing and engaging with your textual evidence and your ideas themselves, you may find that your original thesis doesn’t hold up as well as you thought. You may find you need to add or change something based on what you have begun thinking about or noticing. Go for it. That is the name of the game. Do not come up with a thesis beforehand and then go into the text to support it. Your argument must come from careful work with the text and will probably (should) change as you go.
Thelma is mostly satisfied with her thesis, but wants to tweak one part of it based on new ideas she has begun thinking about as she writes and continues to think about the text and her argument: instead of general confusion, she wants to focus on the idea of questioning formally unquestioned truths. She notices that as a reader, she has been questioning Tolstoy’s narrator’s “factual” statements all along (not just assuming they are fact). She also realizes that Anna Karenina does this as well, one example being when she questions the morality of leaving her son whom she was once more attached to than anyone, another being when she questions the fairness of the bourgeois society that she once trusted. Thelma sees lots of examples of characters questioning their formally unquestioned worldviews and she plans to argue in her paper that the narrative voice reproduces this effect in the reader, reflecting and reinforcing the mental state of the characters. She also notes that a future paper that takes this topic even further might explore the importance of this questioning in the historical context of the text (perhaps a good thing to nod towards in her conclusion).
Steps 1-5: Don’t Ignore Contradictory Evidence
Although it is important to find evidence that supports your thesis, there may be parts of the text, or even context surrounding the text itself, that do not fit or that seem to contradict your argument. Although a re-evaluation of this evidence may lead you towards a revised thesis, it does not necessarily have to. Ask yourself: why did I interpret the text in this way? What might this contradictory evidence suggest about my thesis?
DO NOT IGNORE THIS KIND OF EVIDENCE. Just because it may not support your argument does not mean that you can pretend it does not exist; it is still a part of the text that you are studying and just ignoring it makes your argument null (you will be misrepresenting the text in order to make your own argument “work”— kind of like forging data in an experiment in order to ensure that your hypothesis is supported).
- Providing your reader with contradictory/opposing evidence gives you the chance to rebut it. This can only strengthen your argument; if you are able to come up with ways to explain how the evidence, in fact, does not ruin your argument, you are showing the reader (and yourself) that what you are arguing is strong and well supported. Poking holes in your own argument and then demonstrating how those holes do not undermine what you are arguing is a classic argumentative strategy.
- Incorporating evidence that complicates your argument is also helpful, even if it poses problems for what you are arguing. No argument/thesis is always clear– cut or perfect— that is why it is called an argument and not a fact. Make sure that you do not present yours as fact, as this will only weaken your position to readers.
- Sometimes the opposing evidence complicates your argument too much—i.e. it is useless to argue against it because clearly your argument cannot be supported strongly enough. This happens all the time in scholarship, be it in the humanities, social sciences, or physical/biological sciences—it is a GOOD thing (this is how progress is made). Don’t get too attached to your thesis, be open to tweaking (step 5 above) and in the end you will come out with a thesis that is strong, coherent and well supported.
Organizing Your Argument: How Does it “Tick”?
The academic discipline of English is very heavily based on scholarly argumentative, thesis driven writing (as most disciplines are). However, it is the study of literature that has classically lent itself to and gone hand-in-hand with writing instruction in the academic imagination. As such, most high schoolers get bombarded with the “five paragraph essay” format (PDF, new tab) in their English classes, misinterpreted as the standard to which effective, thesis-driven writing holds itself. These students quickly discover that this simply is not the case and will not cut it at the college level and beyond.