Composition No. 5: Analytical Essay
Here are some guidelines you ought to look over and remember as you begin conceiving and writing your
Your essay must be some sort of interpretive argument. In a formal scholarly essay, this means that you
must make some interesting claim about the play or part of the play that focuses on the text alone and
uses evidence from the text (quotations and references) to back up and extend your argument.
Another word for an essay’s argument is the thesis.
Your argument or thesis should be interesting and, ideally, a little surprising, something your reader
might not have expected if he or she had read the play casually. When you state your thesis (usually
at the end of the first paragraph of the essay), your reader should be curious, even eager, to see how
such an argument can be supported. And all writers want eager readers. The flip-side of this situation
is an essay that argues for something that may already be obvious to any reader of the novel start.
Assume that your reader has read the text. Thus, do not spend much time recounting the facts of the story
for their own sake; refer to such facts only in the process of saying something about them.
Indicate a broad reading on the subject. Be sure to incorporate what at least three scholars have also said
in support or to challenge your thesis. While the majority of ideas must be yours, a carefully
placed reference to scholarly research indicates additional reflection and insight on your part.
Give your essay a logical organization. Make sure that you know, and your writing at least implies, why
one particular sentence is following another and why one particular paragraph is following another
Also, do not feel obliged to write a “conclusion” if all that means is restating what you have already
said. While such recapitulations are useful in longer essays where the reader might have forgotten the
dimensions and substance of the writer’s argument, if that substance is clearly set forth in a short
essay, a summary at the end is not really needed.
Do not write a lot more words than ideas. That is, do not pad your essay with unnecessary repetitions or
APA Quotation Form should be as follows: for a quotation less than three lines long, quote the passage in
your double-spaced text, ending with this form: “Charley tries to make Willy realize the limits of his
personal philosophy, “Willy, when’re you gonna realize that them things don’t mean anything? You
named him Howard, but you can’t sell that” (Miller, p.97). For longer quotations, introduce the passage in
a clear and specific way and then put the quoted passage, without quotation marks (unless it is quoted in
the book), in a double-spaced block of text, indented twice as far as the start of a paragraph, with the page
number from the play in clearly indicated in parentheses under the block as shown in the following
example. (The sentences in this example are for illustrative purposes only and may be completely
- When you have finished reading the text, and completed your activity sheets, sit for a while to think
about how this novel relates to our course themes. What does it means to you? Ask yourself what you
have learned, or what you have experienced in a new way. For example, reading great writers may
have given you a deeper understanding of some aspect of the human condition: the value of
authenticity, the need for honesty, our insensitivity to one another, death, trust, and so on.
- Re-read the sections of the novel that most interests you, this time going beyond text details to look at
issues like reliable narration and authorial point of view. Good story-telling can often be interpreted on
several different levels. For example, scholars continue to write about Jean Valjean, the protagonist of
the novel, as “fallen saint,” a disturbed convict, a victim of an insensitive society and a rebellious man
who has dedicated himself to generosity, humility and integrity. On a deeper level, though, some have
suggested he is a Christ like figure who finds peace in a highly immoral and unfair world.
- Moreover, we all have a tendency to put something of ourselves into what we read; a personal response
makes interpretation possible. However, you must be careful not to put into a work something that the
author has not written or intended. Do not let your feelings get in the way of textual evidence. Read
what the author has written and try to deduce, or “contextualize” what Hugo is implying. Critically
examining literary elements should give you an indication of what the author is trying to say.
- Most of the time, when you write an essay, you are given a specific piece of literature and a specific
topic; other times, you may have a great deal of choice and are able to brainstorm topics. If the choice
of topic is up to you, you may want to examine the influence of one of the literary elements on the
worth of the piece of literature; for example, the importance of a particular set of plot events, the
development of the main character, the meaning of a central symbol, or your interpretation of a theme.
- Choose one of the writing topics from your activity sheets based on the novel. Here is a sampling of
essay topics for your consideration:
The classic definition of the tragic hero in literature is found in Aristotle’s Poetics:
…A man not pre-eminently virtuous and just,
whose misfortune is brought upon him not by vice
or depravity, but by some error in
judgement…the change in the cause of it must
lie not in any depravity, but in some great
error on his part…
Write your thoughts about this quotation with respect to the novel. Is Jean Valjean a hero in the
- If you still feel you have nothing to say after you have read any of the essay suggestions, thought about
it, and discussed it with others, you might like to refer to a few secondary sources and read what others
have said about the novel. Following is a list of suggested resources; your school or community library
should have many others.
- As always, state your thesis clearly and early, (the first or last sentence of the first paragraph) as well as
the title and the author of the work you are discussing.
- Be selective in using quotations and text details; use only those that support your argument. Ask
yourself, does the evidence prove what I want it to prove?” If not, you may want to look for stronger
evidence, or revise your main claims and thesis.
- Never retell, or outline, the events of the chapter or novel. If you assume that your reader knows that he
or she is reading your essay to reach some understanding of the selection that had not occurred to
him/her, you will produce a much tighter essay. Some teachers, though, may ask for a brief summary
of the selection. I do not want one.
- Generally, your essay should be written in the third person rather than the first and usually in the
present tense rather than the past. Though only a convention of this type of writing, the third person
sounds authoritative and objective; the present tense keeps the piece in question alive. For example,
the first person and past tense of “In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet died needlessly” are not as
effective as the third person and present tense of “Romeo and Juliet die needlessly.” Not to mention
that one is more concise than the other also.
The following essay demonstrates many of these qualities.