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Arguments in an Essay on Literature

Summary:

These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.

Contributors:J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:27:30

One of the great struggles for writers in literature is making and sustaining coherent arguments in their papers. Although argument is an essential part of all papers, the literary paper has aspects of rhetoric that are all its own.

Other OWL Resources:

A good argument in an essay on literature has:

A tight, specific focus

Rather than broad sweeping statements, a good argument teases out a single aspect of a piece of literature and analyzes it in minute detail: literature under the microscope.

Example: Loose: “Characters in this novel spend time a great deal of time looking at each other, and an examination of those gazes can give us great insight into the characters."

Problems:

  1. Too big. You would have to write a book to do the subject justice.
  2. Too general. Whose gaze is being considered? Are we considering the object of the gaze? The person doing the looking? What insight exactly is to be gained?

Tighter: “When the protagonist turns her gaze upon her former lover in their final meeting, it is her own fears, her emotional blindness, and her refusal to learn from the past that can be read in her eyes as she looks upon him."

Solutions:

  1. Small. Rather than gazes in general, this statement focuses on one event.
  2. Specific. It makes an arguable claim about the implications and suggests a close reading to support those claims.

A step beyond the teacher’s assignment

Some may tell you that a good paper rephrases a writing prompt as a statement rather than a question. Do not believe it. Instructors want to see evidence that you have read the work in question with enough seriousness to reply to the prompts given in your own way. Remember: If an answer seems obvious, keep digging.

A gaze that remains fixed on the work in question

When your argument ceases to discuss the work itself and begins to focus on the personal (your own reaction) or the biographical (the author’s life), you need to get back on track. Make no mistake: a sense of audience and information about the author can be important. When these details become central to the essay, however, you are no longer writing on literature.

Example: “One of the worst parts of this book begins in chapter three when . . .”

This statement reflects a personal reaction to the work. If you want to show that a particular piece or part of a piece is better or worse than others, begin with your evidence rather than starting with emotion.

“This could be a result of the time the author spent in jail in 1938. On the 30th of April he was arrested on charges of . . .”

Although evidence is vital to a sound paper, the statement above focuses on historical rather than critical evidence. If you include biographical information, always be ready to direct that information back into the main point of the essay. Stray from your topic only as long as is strictly necessary.

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