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Writing about World Literature

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The diversity of stories and poems available from around the world makes writing a world literature paper a fascinating experience. At the same time, dealing with texts from different cultures, languages, and time periods presents challenges. Here are six questions to help you through the writing process. Click the link at the top of the page to find a worksheet that will help you organize your notes when writing a world literature paper.

1) What is the assignment?

Make sure you understand what the assignment is asking you to do. Here is a list of common world literature papers (adapted from Karen Gocsik’s Writing about World Literature):

Literary Analysis

Goal: Explore an image, theme or other element in a text and come to a conclusion about how that element relates to the work as a whole. See the OWL's PowerPoint workshop on literary analysis.

Historical Analysis

Goal: Demonstrate the relationship between a text and its political, cultural, or social environment and argue for the significance of this relationship.

Comparison Paper

Goal: Compare or contrast two texts in order to draw a conclusion about their worldviews, values, rhetorical aims, or literary styles. The following two assignments are types of comparison papers.

Writing about Adaptation

Goal: Compare a literary work to a later work that creatively responds to it (e.g., Disney’s The Lion King as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Make an argument about the significance of the similarities and differences between the original and the adaptation.

Writing about Translation

Goal: Compare two or more different translations of a work. Evaluate the translators’ decisions about certain textual aspects and make an argument about how these decisions exemplify different perspectives on the text as a whole.

2) What are the social and historical contexts?

Research the author and time period, consulting, for example, the introduction in an anthology or The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Make sure that your interpretation of the text makes sense in light of its contexts. Be careful not to make blanket assumptions about cultures, countries, or time periods, and remember that literary movements are expressed in different ways by different writers. American romanticism is not the same thing as German romanticism.

Example:

If you are writing on Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, research nineteenth-century labor issues and labor rights in the United States.

3) What is the genre?

A genre is a type of composition that has its own characteristic forms, styles, and themes. Genres can vary across cultures.

Example:

Both the West African Epic of Sunjata and Homer’s ancient Greek Odyssey are epic poems recounting the adventures of a hero; however, they have important differences in form, style, and meaning. 

4) Are you reading the text in translation?

If so, consider what may have been lost in translation. When using a translation as your source text, do not ground your argument on word choice, sentence structure, or rhyme scheme unless you can refer back to the original language.

5) What is your thesis?

Your thesis should put forward an argument rather than merely offer a description or observation. Ask the following questions: What is the significance of your interpretation? How does your interpretation help us to better understand the work as a whole?

Here is an example of a descriptive thesis. It is too obvious and does not constitute a real argument.

Achilles and Hector in Homer’s Iliad are both strong heroes.

Here is an example of an argumentative thesis. It offers an interpretation of the characters of Achilles and Hector that sheds light on the meaning of the work as a whole.

Achilles and Hector present two different versions of the hero, suggesting that the very concept of heroism in Homer’s Iliad is to some degree unstable.

6) Are your citations correct?

When you quote from your sources, be sure to cite correctly.

Here is an example that shows how to quote a primary source from an anthology in MLA style.

At the end of Voltaire’s Candide, the character Candide finally eschews philosophy and takes up a life of simplicity: “That is very well put, said Candide, but we must cultivate our garden” (413).

Then, in the Works Cited, provide full bibliographic information for the source:

Lastname. First name. “Title of Essay.” Title of Collection. Ed. Editor’s Name(s). City of Publication: Publisher, Year. Page range of entry. Medium of Publication.

OR

Voltaire. “Candide, or Optimism.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. D. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York and London: Norton, 2012. 355-413. Print.

Works Consulted

Damrosch, David. How to Read World Literature. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

---, ed. Teaching World Literature. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

---. What Is World Literature? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Gocsik, Karen. Writing about World Literature. New York and London: W.W. Norton and
            Company, 2012.

*Special thanks to the World Literature teachers of Purdue University for sharing their insights.

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