ENGL 1302 Essay #3 Instruction: Literary
This assignment asks you to offer an interpretation of a single piece or collection of fictional literature. Like any essay, you should frame and formulate a thesis in your introductory paragraph and spend the majority of your essay proving the truth of your central claim. Unlike the previous essays, however, you are not engaging in argument for or against another’s claims; rather, you must offer an original interpretation of a work of fiction. Your thesis should center on a single claim concerning the work or works you are interpreting.
If you are focusing on a single text, this assignment can be completed in several ways:
Choose a single symbol, metaphor, characterization…etc, and offer an interpretation that explains its meaning within the text. For example, I might have this thesis for Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: “The boy, Tadzio, in Mann’s Death in Venice, represents the philosophical notion of pharmakon, serving as both a poison and a cure at the same time.” The remainder of my essay would examine passages that show Tadzio as both a healing-agent and a means of death for the central character, Aschenbach. Or, I might have this thesis for Thomas Mann’s “The Wardrobe:” “The train in Mann’s “The Wardrobe” represents the dulling, inauthentic aspects of everyday life.” The remainder of the essay would focus on the different aspects of the train that mirror the dulling aspects of life.
Offer an interpretation of the entirety of a work. For example, I might write this thesis for Bernard Schlink’s The Reader: “I interpret Schlink’s novel as giving a poignant rendering of the impossible situation that contemporary Germans have in dealing with the guilt that stems from their Nazi past.” I would spend the remainder of the essay detailing where this difficulty is shown in the different generations that have to deal with guilt throughout the novel. Or, I might make a similar thesis that is more universal in character: “Bernard Schlink’s The Reader illustrates the all-consuming nature of guilt and shame.” This would let me explore how the text relates not just to German history but to everyone.
Focus on the development of a single character. In this, I would make a claim about the development of a character and show how it plays out in the story. For example, I might write this thesis for Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “The transformation of the character, Sonya, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment shows the transformative power of grace.” The remainder of the essay would focus on the aspects of her character that show the Christian concept of grace. Another idea: “Through the character of Sonya, Dostoevsky illustrates the Christian path of salvation.” I would then spend the remainder of the essay tracing how she saves Raskolnikov in keeping with the Christian tradition of Bible-based salvation. The one danger with this type of essay, as opposed to the others, is that it might lead one to summarize rather than interpret. Be warned.
If you are comparing multiple texts, there are a few options:
One’s thesis should center on a single element or idea contained in the primary text that is strengthened/proved through presenting that idea in light of others. For example, I might read Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine through the lens of his wartime story “Trapped in Paris” and conclude, “Through reading Billiards in light of Böll’s early story “Trapped in Paris,” I interpret the novel as indicating a sense of amor fati as shown in the tragedies that befall the central characters.” The remainder of my essay would focus on examining the tragedies that befall the main characters in Billiards and interpreting them in a similar way that I would interpret “Trapped in Paris.”
One should note a common thread among multiple texts, and one’s thesis, therefore, should be based on something that must be proven through a combining of the ideas contained therein. For example, I might have this thesis: “Through a combination of the ideas in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Doktor Faustus, and Buddenbrooks, we find the true soul of the German artist as one trapped between life and death.” The remainder of my essay would focus on showing the different aspects of the German artist as similarly given in all three of the texts.
Interpretation is, by definition, opinion-based. You must make a claim that goes beyond summary or simple commentary. If it is obvious to the reader, it is not an interpretation, in other words.
I interpret _______ as showing ________.
In the story, ___________ represents ____________.
_________ illustrates ____________.
Begin by analyzing a single text or pairing two or more works of literature, both those that you have read or discussed in class and/or related works from which you might be able to make comparisons.
Chart the notable elements of a single work or the similarities/differences of the multiplicity of texts in note-form
Your thesis should come from a claim based on an interpretation of the single element or something shared between the two. Either way, it should be something you can make multiple, substantial arguments based in the text to support your assertion.
Analysis before synthesis – before you can begin writing anything, you must do a thorough literary analysis of each text that you are analyzing. The more analysis you do in the beginning, the easier putting that analysis to use will be in the end.
Introduction – in your opening paragraph you should clearly present those pieces that you are comparing, while also framing the issue and clearly establishing your position by way of a thesis statement.
Body – remember, as always, your paragraphs should represent a single idea, even if you are discussing two or more separate works. Do not allow yourself to get lost in the details of your analysis without a clear eye on the point of each paragraph. Make YOUR argument central.
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