How to Write a Literary Exegesis

 

Thesis Sentence

 

To write a college-level paper over a piece of literature, whether the paper is to be researched or not, must have a thesis sentence.  To write the thesis sentence, you can take one of two approaches: you can base the thesis on an analysis of literary devices in the piece of literature or you can base the thesis on a theme from the piece of literature.

           

A Literary-Device Thesis Sentence: First, let’s talk about writing a thesis using literary devices.  Literary devices are character, conflict, point of view, symbolism, irony, metaphor, simile, denotation, connotation, & etc.  Remember two things about using literary devices to write an essay:  (1) all pieces of literature—fiction, poetry, drama—contain literary devices, and (2) the purpose of writing an essay about a literary device is to help the reader understand a theme of the work.

 

Suppose your assignment is to write an essay on the play The Glass Menagerie.  Here are some possible thesis sentences using literary devices:

 

1.      1.      Tom is the protagonist of The Glass Menagerie because the self-conflict he experiences—the rage he feels at his entrapment and the pity he feels at leaving the others trapped—leads us to understand how the play teaches us that sometimes any decision we make causes pain to those involved.

2.      2.      Laura’s glass menagerie is a symbol both her delicate personality and of the fragile world which she shares with her family, both of which are designed to cope with a world that can’t be easily faced and neither of which can survive long in the real world.

3.      3.      Tom’s highly poetic language when he functions as narrator contrasts with his very plain language as a character, pointing up the split between the imaginative world of the mind and the everyday world of the body that the characters live in but are unable to reconcile.

 

Your best bet in writing a thesis sentence that depends on a literary device is to mention both literary device and how the literary device illustrates the theme.

 

Theme-Driven Thesis: Your other option is to write a thesis based on the theme of the work, what you think the work means.  Generally, this approach will lead you to write a cause-effect essay, where you state the theme and then develop the essay by giving the reasons why you think your statement of theme is valid.  Here are some possible thesis sentences using theme:

 

1.      1.      In The Glass Menagerie, we learn that we can never escape entrapment from looking at the way Amanda is trapped by the past, Laura by her insecurity, and Tom by his desire for adventure and love for his family.

2.      2.      In the play, we see that waiting for future events to guarantee happiness is no guarantee because each of the characters receives what she or he waited for, but none are happy with the result.

 

Organization and Outlining

 

Whether or not you believe in outlining and whether or not you can outline, one clear fact remains: the college essays that receive the best grades look as though they have been outlined.  Your thesis sentence will suggest the organization of your paper.

Let’s take one of the thesis sentences from the section above to use as our guide: Tom is the protagonist of The Glass Menagerie because the self-conflict he experiences—the rage he feels at his entrapment and the pity he feels at leaving the others trapped—leads us to understand how the play teaches us that sometimes any decision we make causes pain to those involved.

 

I.  Tom feels unhappiness at his entrapment.

A.     A.     He longs for adventure and involvement in the important events of his time.

B.     B.     He feels anger at the guilt he feels for wanting to leave, focusing that anger on his mother.

II.  The guilt he feels comes from a true sense of pity for his mother and sister who cannot escape.

A.     A.     He feels some pity for Amanda.

B.     B.     He feels even more pity for Laura.

C.     C.     Neither one can escape even though Tom can.

III. Tom’s conflict between these two emotions helps us to understand one of the themes of the play: that sometimes any decision we make has painful consequences.

A.     A.     Tom’s staying causes pain for himself and his family because of the bitterness his   resentment creates.

B.     B.     Tom’s decision to leave

1.      1.      probably causes pain for his family for they will most likely not escape and

2.      2.      definitely causes pain for Tom because of the remorse he feels at having had to leave.

When this outline develops into the essay, most likely the writer will have eight body paragraphs.

 

Developing the Essay

Topic Sentences

 

In an essay where each section of the paper is developed by several paragraphs, it is important to allow your topic sentences to organize a section of the paper.  What follows is a sample of how you would write the topic sentences for the eight paragraphs of the essay:

 

            Paragraph 1:  Tom feels unhappiness at his entrapment because he longs for adventure and involvement in the important events of his time and de feels anger at the guilt he feels for wanting to leave, which he focuses on his mother.

            Paragraph 2:  His frustration at not being able to follow his dreams easily becomes anger at the guilt he feels for wanting to leave, which he focuses on his mother.

            Paragraph 3:  His constant anger makes it hard to see, but Tom truly is a good man who feels pity for his mother, his sister, and their circumstances.

            Paragraph 4: Though we primarily see his pity for Amanda in his insistence as narrator that she be seen with dignity, the pity he feels for Laura seems clear in the gentle and sympathetic way he treats her.

            Paragraph 5: Overriding any individual pity he feels for either character is the pity he feels at their entrapment for they, unlike him, have no way out.

            Paragraph 6: Tom’s conflict between these two emotions helps us understand one of the themes of the play: that sometimes any decision we make has painful consequences, in Tom’s case, staying or going.  Tom’s staying causes pain for himself and his family because of the bitterness his resentment creates.

            Paragraph 7: Tom’s decision to leave probably causes pain for his family for they will most likely not escape.

            Paragraph 8: This decision to leave definitely causes pain for Tom because of the remorse he feels at having had to leave.

 

 

 

Developing the Paragraphs

 

 In the section on outlining above, I only outlined the essay down to the topic sentence.  A common mistake that student make in writing literary analysis is explaining too little of their logic and thoughts, assuming that the reader knows more about the work that the writer.  Yet, when the very same student sits in literature teacher’s class, she expects the teacher to explain the work fully, without assuming that the student understands much of anything.  A good literary analysis needs to explain in the same way, using the same sort of logic and examples, that a student would expect a good teacher to use.

           

Let’s take the first topic sentence outlined above: Tom feels unhappiness in his entrapment because he longs for adventure and involvement in the important events of his time.  Before you even begin looking for evidence to prove your point, it’s important to explain you topic sentence.  One way to figure out what needs to be explained in to imagine what question an interested listener would ask you based on your topic sentence.  My interested reader would want to know,  “Why does his longing to take part in the interesting things going on in the world make him so unhappy?”  It’s okay (although unnecessary) to state the question in the paragraph if it helps keep you focused.  Then, based on your own understanding of the character, without referring to anything specific in the play yet, you simply talk the answer.

 

Tom feels unhappiness in his entrapment because he longs for adventure and involvement in the important events on his time..  Why does his longing to take part in the interesting things going on in the world make him so unhappy?  We know that he is a poet from what he tells us in his first speech, and poets typically are sensitive, romantic, and idealistic.  The setting of the play, which Tom emphasizes, is during primarily with surviving while Europeans, particularly the Spanish, were involved in idealistic struggles for freedom and human rights.

 

Try to keep in mind that you are the expert on what you have to say.

 

Paraphrases and Quotations

 

Having written the topic sentence and explained it, now it is time to find evidence from the play to back up the explanation.  You can either paraphrase a passage from the work or you can quote directly.

 

If you paraphrase, you tell in your own words something specific from the work.  For might want to refer to Tom’s father’s departure in a specific way without quoting the passage directly.  Thus, a paraphrase might be: Like his father before him  who was a telephone operator who fell in love with long distances, he also wants to cover long distances in his own life.  Though technically paraphrases are a particular incident in a play; it’s much easier to supply a general plot summary, thinking that you are paraphrasing when you are not.  You are only paraphrasing if you are taking a specific number of lines out of work and rewording them in your own voice.

           

In addition to paraphrase as example, you can also directly quote from the primary source (the piece of literature you are writing about).  There are two kinds of direct quotation: block and run-in.  A block quotation is used when you are quoting more than three lines.  A block quotation (1) is indented five spaces on the left margin; (2) lacks quotation marks; and (3) places the end punctuation before the parenthetical page citation.  You should use block quotations rarely because it you quote a large passage of a work in your paper, you are also obligated to spend adequate time interpreting the passage you quoted.

           

A run-in quotation is used when quoting less than three lines.  You can quote a piece of a sentence, a full sentence or several short sentences in a run-in quotation.  A run-in quotation (1) in incorporated into the text of your essay; (2) separated from the essay with quotation marks; and (3) places the end punctuation of the sentence after the parenthetical page citation.

           

You can find examples of both kinds of quotation in the following paragraph:

 

            Tom feels unhappiness in his entrapment because he longs for adventure and involvement in the important events of his time.  Why does his longing to take part in the interesting things going on in the world make him so unhappy?  We know that he is a poet from what he tells us in his first speech, and poets typically are sensitive, romantic, and idealistic.  The setting of the play, which Tom emphasizes, is during the 1930s when the people of the United States, in the middle of the Depression, concerned themselves primarily with surviving while Europeans, particularly the Spanish, were involved in idealistic struggles for freedom and human rights.  Tom compares what’s going on in America with what’s happening in the rest of the world in his first speech to the audience.  He characterizes the Depression as a time “when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind.  Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy” (957).  The language he uses suggests contempt for the ineptitude of the Americans, who were suffering from a mess they had made themselves from their blindness and who lacked enough awareness to realize their own mistakes and were having to be taught, forcibly, and brutally.  He says moments later, “In Spain there was revolution.  Here there was only shouting and confusion” (957).  “Elsewhere, people who saw undesirable circumstances were working vigorously to change them; here, people were too unfocused and confused to do more than complain.  Later on in the play, to the music of “All the World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” he contrasts once mote the imminent disaster in Europe with the superficial coping devices around him.  Commenting on the activities at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, Tom notes the couples who sneak out into the alley to kiss do so as “compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure” (973).  Tom sees all the rest of the world “waiting for bombardments” while those around him sedate themselves with “hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with grief, deceptive rainbows” (973).  His desire to join the Merchant Marines certainly comes strongly from his awareness that changes are taking place in the world that will affect the world for years to come.  Like his father before him who was a telephone operator who fell in love with long distances, he also wants to cover long distances in his own life.  He wants to be a part of those changes.  Ironically, of course, leaving doesn’t guarantee escape from his entrapment.  In his concluding speech, he talks about how on can feel trapped even when running free:

            I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further....I traveled around a great deal.  The cities swept out me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.  I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something….Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! (1000)

 No matter what Tom does, he feels trapped, both by his own needs and desires and by his love for his family.  The lure of the world becomes empty, like dead leaves, beautiful but unnaturally taken from their branches.  Ultimately, Tom cannot be happy, no matter what he chooses.

 

  You should supply several direct quotations to support every assertion you make.  Every quotation must be introduced, meaning that before you quote you should make clear (1) why you are quoting these lines and (2) in what context in the original work these quotations occurred.  Ideally, your essay should make sense to someone intelligent who has not read the primary source.  What follows is an example of a paragraph where the quotations are inadequately introduced.  Unless you know the poem already, it’s a hard paragraph to follow:

 

In all of these poems, the speakers are self-deceived and deceitful.  Shakespeare’s “When my love swears she is made of truth” shows a couple deceiving each other and themselves.  They know their relationship is based on lies.  “I do believe her though I know she lies” (2).  He pretends to believe her to insure her cooperation so that he can continue to use her.  She deceives herself and him when the poem says, “That she might think me some untutored youth/Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties” (2-3).  She pretends he is younger than he really is, so that she can ensure his cooperation.  They lie to each other in order to keep the relationship together.  They want to believe these lies because it keeps them happy.  “Therefore I lie with her and she with me/ And in our faults by lies we flattered be” (13-14).  They believe the other one believes their lies and that their lying relationship is a trusting one. “Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust” (11).  Their love comes from deceiving one another.

 

The mistake in this paragraph is that the student assumes that the reader is a familiar with the poem as the student is.  Always, always, always introduce your quotations by giving enough of the context of the work so that the reader does not necessarily have to have read it.  Here is the same paragraph with the quotations introduced more completely:

 

            In all of these poems, the speakers are self-deceived and deceitful.  Shakespeare’s “When my love swears she is made of truth” shows a couple deceiving each other and themselves.  They know their relationship is based on lies.  In the very first line of the poem, the speaker tells us that when his girlfriend swears that she is faithful to him, “I do believe her though I know she lies” (2).  He pretends to believe her to ensure her cooperation so that he can continue to use her. But he has yet an even more complicated reason for believing her lies to him; only a very young and naďve man would believe her story, since it is apparently so transparent, so by claiming to believe her, he presents himself to her as younger than he really is.  He believes her lies so “That she might think me some untutored youth/ Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties” (2-3).  She, of course, knows his real age, so she is pretending he is younger than he really is, so that she can ensure his cooperation.  They lie to each other in order to keep the relationship together.  They want to believe these lies because it keeps them happy.  At the end of the poem, having made clear that the man and the women are both lying to one another and are clearly aware that they are being lied to, the speaker sums up the ultimate reason behind the falsehood: ”Therefore I lie with her and she with me/ And in our faults by lies we flattered be” (13-14).  Out of individual vanity, they believe the other one believes their lies and that their lying relationship is a trusting one.  “Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust” (11).  Their love, as self-serving and questionable as it is, comes from deceiving one another.

 

Notice how the transition words introducing the quotation help place the quotation in the context of the larger poem.  Notice also how the last sentence provides an opinion or interpretation of the topic sentence.   All examples must be properly introduced.

 

Miscellaneous Details About Quotation Usage and Paper Writing

 

1.      1.      Only quote the material that you need to prove your point.  You can omit irrelevant parts of the quotation through use of the ellipsis (…).  For example, “I didn’t go the moon, I went much further….I traveled around a great deal” (1001).  In fact, if you have several quotes from the same page that fit together and that you want to use to make one point, use ellipsis to connect them and use just one parenthetical citation for all of them.

2.      2.      If you need to add an explanatory word inside of a quotation, use brackets to enclose your added material.  Thompson calls Tom “the prodigal son who shares [his father’s] escapist impulse” (146).

3.      3.      If you are quoting lines of poetry either from a poem or from a verse play like Oedipus, as a run-in quotation, you should use a slash with a space on each side (/) to separate the lines from one another: In Julius Caesar, Anthony begins his famous speech: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; / I came to bury Caesar not to praise him.”  Verse quotations of more than three lines should begin on a new line.  Add no quotation marks that do not appear in the original.

It is in act 2 of As You Like It that Jacques is given the speech that many think contains a glimpse of Shakespeare’s conception of drama:

                                 All the world’s stage

               And all the men and women merely players:

               They have their exits and their entrances;

                     And one man in his time plays many parts,

               His acts being seven ages.

      Jacques then proceeds to enumerate and analyze these ages.

4.      4.      Always cite page numbers at the end of prose quotations and line numbers at the end of poetry quotations.

5.      5.      Always write in present tense and double space if you type.

6.      6.      Always mention the title and author in the introduction and deal with the theme at least by the conclusion.

7.  Your title should reflect your essay’s thesis.