literary analysis

Handout 9: The Literary Thesis For Major Essay Four

Before we go over what a thesis for a literary essay should be, let us consider what it should not be:

The literary thesis should not state a simple matter of taste:

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  • Example: Hamlet is one of the greatest plays ever written because it shows how Hamlet gets revenge in a bloody way.

The literary thesis should not judge the characters, author or text from a moral or ethical perspective:

  • Example: The Wall is an awful film and album because it lauds drug abuse and encourages sexism.

The literary thesis should not simply sum up the plot or argue a factual point.

  • Example: “Cinderella” tells of how an orphaned girl becomes a princess in spite of her evil stepmother.

Now that we know what the literary thesis should not be or do, let’s look at what it should do and start with


Before you get to a thesis, you will first need an issue question. An issue question can be any number of questions about the text that tries to make sense of the text as a whole.

  • Usually an issue question provides an arguable interpretation of the text—i.e.: It is a question about whose answer people may reasonably disagree.
  • A literary issue question simply asks a pertinent question about how we should read a work of literature:
    • Example:
      Does the speaker in “Californication” judge negatively judge the people it addresses?
      Does “The Sound of Silence” implore people to communicate on a more intimate level?

Once you have a good, debatable issue question, you can proceed to making your thesis which provides an answer to that question. The thesis should always be a one sentence statement.
In essence a thesis has two elements:

  • A claim—-what you are asserting about the text
  • Supporting reasons—reasons for asserting it

In a literary argument, the claim will make an assertion about the literary text:

  • Example:
    • The speaker in “The Sound of Silence” condemns those he addresses for their failure to heed his warning.
    • The Sound of Silence” urges people to engage in more profound and meaningful human interaction.

This claim is the heart of your thesis.


Some people prefer to enumerate their supporting reasons or evidence in the thesis, as so:
“The Sound of Silence” condemns the increasing distance between people by condemning ways of thinking and acting that decreases human contact, such as crowd mentality, concern with money, and the abandonment of spirituality.
You may see in this example, the three-point thesis we have been discussing all semester.

Such a thesis is fine, but in you later English 112 class and in any literature class, you will begin to move beyond this format. In fact, in a thesis for a literary paper, you often need include only your claim, though you should have several supporting reasons and ample evidence in mind for later elaboration in you essay.


Remember, your thesis must:

  • Address an arguable issue question about the literary text. It cannot address an obvious or merely factual concern such as, “Does Hamlet address the question of
  • Offer an answer to the issue question that provides an illuminating reading of the text. This statement of how the text should be read is called the claim.
  • Be ethical: that is, the claim must make an assertion that does not willfully ignore contrary evidence.

Hint at or directly state your reasons or evidence in support of your claim.

Handout 10: Helpful Hints for the Literary Essay

literary analysis: a minimum 2/5 pages.  thesis: the Grimm brothers' "Cinderella" reinforces the traditional sexist notion that in order to be happy women must be pious, loyal, and passive.  and the a 1

Handout 10: The Literary Essay: A Step-by-Step Guide

Note: Though it may seem different, a literary essay is like any of the other essays you have written in English 111.
That is to say, this essay is an argument like any other argument essay, except instead of arguing about a political topic, you are arguing about HOW a text or a significant element of a text should be read.
Below I provide you with a detailed account of how to write this essay, and I provide examples to help you along the way. Use this handout as a sort of textbook on how to write the literary essay.
As with any essay you write, the first thing you need is a thesis and then an introduction.
The Literary Introduction Paragraph
So, what do you put in an intro paragraph for a literature essay? :
1. Introduce the story by title and note the author and genre (i.e. fairy tale). It may be useful to note when it was written or recorded and whether it is a literary or oral fairy tale

2. Provide a very brief succinct summary of the plot. Example: “The Birthday of the Infanta” details the exploits of a misshapen dwarf who falls in love with a princess he is sent to entertain, and who dies when he sees his reflection in a mirror and realizes her apparent affection for him was really only cruel amusement over his deformity.”
3. Provide some background on the genre (fairy tales in this case). What is the audience, what are the genre’s characteristics, what is accomplished by using this genre (does it enable the author to do certain things—like teach children or entertain the court?)
4. Establish the cultural background. Focus here on establishing what themes these stories usually address in relation to their culture: the domestic versus the political realm, art versus pragmatism, book learning versus experience, the role of women, the role of men, the importance of wealth, the definition of happiness, the function of religion, etc…
5. Situate the particular story in this general cultural background. That is, establish how this story fits into the larger cultural background you discussed
6. Your thesis
The Literary Thesis
The thesis for a literary paper must contain an arguable claim about how that text should be read or about some aspect of what the text does.
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, “The Nightingale and the Rose” identifies the Nightingale with both Christ and the artist in order to advocate aestheticism over utilitarianism.
Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” emphasizes the point that the most essential sort of knowledge cannot be learned in books or through a commitment to practical education.

The important thing to note is that a thesis for a literary essay need not have three supporting points though it certainly may have three points.

  • Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” supports the idea that commitment to an ideal like love is more important than commitment to materialism, pragmatism, or scholarly endeavor.

The Topic Sentences
If you adopt a three-point thesis, then you would use the standard three topic sentences and three body paragraphs.

  • The Grimm brothers’ “Cinderella” reinforces the traditional sexist notion that in order to be happy women must be pious, loyal, and passive.

If you used this thesis your topic sentences would be thus:

  • The unmistakable argument of the fairy tale is that Cinderella lives “happily ever after” in part because of her piety.
  • Another characteristic that enables Cinderella to marry the prince and secure a happy life is her loyalty.
  • Unlike her ambitious sister’s who suffer self-mutilation and violence as a result of their attempts to marry well by fooling the prince, Cinderella is passive and refuses to seek out the prince or to combat for his affections.

This last topic sentence is a particularly good model, since one of the things you would need to do to prove this thesis is to show not only that Cinderella has certain characteristics and that she lives “happily ever after,” but that her stepsisters who have the opposite characteristics suffer terribly as a consequence.
As I pointed out above, the literary essay need not have a three-point thesis though many of you may feel happier utilizing one. If your thesis does not have three distinct supporting points, your essay must still have clear topic sentences. Without these clear supporting points, you would develop topic sentences that prove key points implied in your thesis.
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, “The Nightingale and the Rose” identifies the Nightingale with both Christ and the artist in order to advocate aestheticism over utilitarianism.
This thesis lacks three clear points, but in order to argue it effectively, you must still argue a number of important sub-points as indicated below:

1.The Nightingale is depicted as a Christ figure
2.Depicting the Nightingale as a Christ figure indicates that the reader should privilege the viewpoint of the Nightingale over the viewpoint of others in the story
3.The Nightingale is identified with the artist
4.Identifying the Nightingale with the artist figure and the Christ figure suggests we should value the artist as we value Christ. Indeed, it suggests artists are Christ like, and in this way the story contends that aestheticism should be valued.
5.The student and his would-be love represent utilitarianism
6.The reader is led to sympathize with the Nightingale instead of the student and the girl who are depicted as wrong, egotistical and shallow, with limited undersandings
7.Since the student and girl are condemned and the Nightingale is praised, the story clearly advocates aestheticism over pragmatism

Now clearly you can combine many of these steps and have paragraphs that focus on a couple of these points. Your topic sentences should reflect each major step in your reasoning:

  • The Nightingale is depicted as a Christ figure.
  • The Nightingale is also depicted as an artist figure, and these parallel depictions encourage readers to sympathize with the nightingale and with Aestheticism.
  • The student and the girl are clearly identified as wrong-headed, pragmatic utilitarians who, as a result of their pragmatism, cannot understand the value of the Nightingale’s sacrifice and of true love.


The Body
Although it may seem complicated, the body paragraphs for literary essays are remarkable easy to write. Essentially, you must prove your topic sentence using quotations from the text. A body paragraph using the first topic sentence above will serve for a brief example:


The Nightingale is depicted as a Christ figure through Wilde’s use of a number of symbols and through the use of certain plot devices analogous to the story of Christ. Upon her first encounter with the young student, the Nightingale mistakes him for “a true lover” (1) and she is eventually willing to sacrifice herself precisely because she sees him as the embodiment of the ideal love she has often sang of. She claims that “night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not” (1), and she agrees to sacrifice herself in order to help the student obtain the idealized love she believes him to represent. “Be happy; you shall have your red rose,” she tells the student, “I will build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with my own hearts blood” (3). The Nightingale’s willingness to sacrifice herself so that the student might know love immediately resonates with any reader familiar with Christianity who should see in the Nightingale’s sacrifice a mirror image of God’s willingness to sacrifice his son so that mankind might be saved. Moreover, the emphasis on love is a keystone of Christian faith which typically identifies God with ideal love. This identification of the Nightingale with Christ as one who sacrifices himself for love of others is further reinforced by the fact that to obtain a red rose the Nightingale “must sing to me [the Rose tree] with your breast against a thorn…and the thorn must pierce your heart” (2). This image of the thorn clearly mirrors the crown of thorns thrust upon Christ prior to his crucifixion. Finally, Wilde uses a number of more subtle touches to identify the Nightingale with Christ. He sets the tale in a garden which should remind readers not only of the garden of Eden, but also of the garden of Gethsemane where Christ and the disciples are staying prior to his imprisonment and eventual execution.

What I hope you observe in the above example is the reliance on quotation to prove a point and the need to use a great deal of relatively short quotation to make each point in the argument. Make each sub-point thoroughly, spelling it out for your reader in clear, precise detail.

The Conclusion
The conclusion of the literary essay should, like any conclusion, tie together all the various points of your essay. If you spend a paragraph arguing each of the above topic sentences on “The Nightingale and the Rose,” you would need your conclusion to drive home the points that by depicting the Nightingale as a Christ figure and an artist figure, by encouraging the reader’s sympathy with the Nightingale, and by fostering the reader’s animosity towards the student and the professor’s daughter, Wilde is making the larger claim that the aesthetic is more valuable than the utilitarian. Then conclude, by pointing out what this tells us about the culture that produced the text.

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