Diane Thompson

Writing about literature—some suggestions


Start with a thesis:

You are the detective who forms a thesis (or hypothesis) about a literary text (which I shall call the text), and the text itself must be the source of all your supporting evidence. Your goal is to persuade your readers that your thesis is valid because the text citations and references do indeed support it. A thesis should propose an interesting answer to the question “So what?” 

  • A thesis is NOT simply a statement of fact.
    • Penelope (from the Odyssey), Esther (from the Hebrew Bible) and Shahrazad (from the Arabian Nights) are all brave women. So what? What is interesting about their bravery?
    • Each is brave in a society that controls women, gives them little power, and yet each acts with bravery and intelligence to protect her own family, castle and kingdom (Penelope), her own people (Esther), or the young women of the kingdom (Shahrazad).
    • Now that statement is a thesis—it proposes something interesting which all these women share. Your job then is to support your thesis using specific examples from each text. The support for your thesis will be your essay.

Find some aspect of the text that interests you:  

  • A character

    •  Penelope in the Odyssey--why is she interesting? How does she behave? Does she have alternatives?       

  • An element of the plot
    • it takes Odysseus ten years to get home from Troy--why does it take so long? What delays him? How does he deal with the delays?
  • The way it is written
    •  in Voltaire's Candide, characters are killed and come back to life; all sorts of terrible things happen without any reflection on them--how does that affect us as readers?
  • An idea presented explicitly in the text
    • Voltaire presents and trashes the idea of philosophical Optimism in Candide.
    • Virgil presents the idea of Destiny as crucial to the outcome of the Aeneid.
  • Purpose
    • The Oresteia of Aeschylus shows the need to end blood feuds and explains the origins of the court of law in Athens.
    • The Hebrew Bible presents the laws given by God to the Israelites.
    • Dante's Inferno gives ample evidence of the just and appropriate nature of God's punishment of each sinner.
  • Outcomes
    • Shahrazad manages through her bravery, cleverness and sexuality to keep the king from killing her or the other women in the kingdom.
    • Penelope manages through her bravery, cleverness and sexuality to keep the suitors under control long enough for Odysseus to return and take over his kingdom.
    • After ten years of warfare and ten more years of wandering, Odysseus, thanks to his great intelligence and some help from Athena, does return home and retake his palace.

If you are doing a comparison, find some common element in the two texts you are comparing.

  • Characters
    • Penelope and Shahrazad are both very clever women who manage to survive and even prevail in dangerous male-dominated environments. 
    • Achilles and Aeneas are two very different kinds of culture heroes. So what?
  • Plot elements
    • The story of Gilgamesh, the story of Joseph from the Hebrew Bible, and the Aeneid all use dreams to indicate what the future may hold, but each does so in a different way. How do the dreams operate in each text? And, of course, so what?
    • Dante's journey through the Inferno has much in common with Aeneas' visit to the Underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid. What are the similarities and what are the profound differences?
  • Concepts
    • Both the Oresteia and the Hebrew Bible deal with developing laws to regulate human behavior. How are they similar and how are they profoundly different in their ideas about the source and function of laws?
    • The ideal of a hero is profoundly different in the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Song of Roland. What essential differences do you see? Can you document them from their texts? And, of course, so what?

Stick to the text. There are serious problems with historical generalizations.

  • Without endless study, one does not know enough.
    • Just because Aphrodite in the Iliad is represented as cowardly does not mean that women had debased roles in Homeric Greece; there is no way to know that from the text.
    • Eve did indeed offer Adam the apple, which he joined her in eating. However, the focus on woman as responsible for the "fall of man" is not emphasized in the Hebrew Bible; it develops in the Christian middle ages, so if you write about Eve's disobedience and punishment, stick to what you actually find in the Genesis story, not what you may have learned in Sunday School or later.
  • Times and cultures change in all sorts of ways, not just from bad to good or vice versa.
    • Although women had various interesting roles in the Odyssey and perhaps in the Bronze Age Homer is writing about, they were much more limited in 5th century Athens (but NOT in 5th century Sparta).
    • While a warlord might be admired in the Iliad and despised in the Aeneid, that does not mean the world has progressed. Consider the warlords creating local wars in various countries today.
  • Do NOT make generalizations that go beyond the information the text provides. Stick to what you actually have.

    • You could write that both Eve and Dido changed the lives of the men they were connected to, Eve by presenting Adam with the apple, leading to the expulsion from Eden, and Dido by keeping Aeneas with her in Carthage while his Destiny was to go to Italy and help to found the Roman civilization.

    • Do NOT go on to the next step which would be to write that because Eve brought the apple to Adam and Dido delayed Aeneas  getting to Italy, all women interfere with men’s purpose or destiny.

    Pay attention to CONTEXT

    • Context is the entire text you are working with.

      • You need to be sure that what you choose to write about does not get contradicted elsewhere in the same text.

      • You must be able to defend your interpretation in terms of the entire text you are working with.

      • I once sat in a Faust seminar while a brilliant student analyzed a section of the play, reading and explicating each word and line. The only problem was, on the next page, there was material that contradicted her interpretation.

    • Read any introductions and study guides offered to you; they really can make a difference in how you approach and understand each text.

    • Plan to read the text more than once and take notes on what you are reading. I can never get enough understanding of a text on one reading to write about it reliably.

    Support each assertion you make.

    •  Either quote from the specific part of the text that you have drawn from and cite the place where you found the quote

    • OR refer the text without quoting it, but cite the place where you found the information.

    • It is actually better to avoid using many quotes because they will jar the style of your essay. When you cite a text, if it has line numbers use those; if it has page numbers, you need to include the edition you are using. The point is that your reader could go to the text and find your support.

      • If I wanted to assert that Dante’s purpose in creating the Inferno was to show the justice of God’s punishments, I would need to select certain punishments and explain why these punishments were appropriate for the sinners being so punished. I would cite Canto and line numbers whether or not I actually quoted from the section.