S.Flores/Advice on Critical Essays

The primary aims of a thesis-seeking/problem-posing exploratory essay assignment is to engage with the text (literary text, typically, or film) and its critical interpretation/reception by identifying problems, developing claims and arguments, and enriching your literary understanding, interests, and commitments. Use/learn Modern Language Association format for any notes or works cited (see, for instance, link to MLA format guidelines further below, and see the other resources and examples that I provide in the Bblearn folder on Advice for Writing, those include samples of strong student essays and an full example of developing a research essay (on Austen's novel Mansfield Park).

A first step, basic approach is to ask to what extent the text presents a question or problem that seems challenging to represent and to resolve (solve/answer) without being caught up in some kind of conflict or contradiction--typically these include conflicts/contradictions between a culturally/historically predominant way of valuing or understanding particular identities and relationships versus alternative (perhaps dissenting/oppositional/other) perspectives and arrangements. The text then explores and discloses a debate over how to understand its world via such conflicting desires (including desires for power, for stability or for transgressive change)--a debate over 'systems' of belief, over ideology. And (therefore) an ideological debate over what characters and the reader/audience should do and be (including, typically, a debate over what literature should do and be).


In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, for instance, the predominant patriarchal ideology supports/directs that the daughter (Portia) submit to the will of her father, yet the play seems to support the disobedient actions of a daughter (Jessica) who rebels against her father (Shylock), and one might argue that even Portia is supported in her cross-dressing actions as the young lawyer Balthazar. Why? How so? A cultural analysis of this problem could begin with the critical-theoretical premise (see Stephen Greenblatt's essay on "Culture") that meanings and identities and relationships can be understood within a particular cultural-historical context as engaging with specific ratios between mobility and constraint--that is, terms/identities have a range of mobility to move across a range of meanings and yet face culturally coded/enforced limits or constraints upon, for instance, what a daughter is permitted to say or to do. The relation or ratio between degrees of mobility and constraint are determined by a principle of exchange--in the case/example above, the dominant Christian culture in Venice supports Jessica's transgressive rebellion against her Jewish father, because she offers the culture something in exchange (she is paying for her mobility): she robs and flees Shylock in order to marry the Christian Lorenzo. Shylock can save his life and some of his property by converting to Christianity.


Another way to identify a problem is when interpretations differ and the difference constitutes an implied/explicit argument and debate. The quotes from the following critics illustrate opposing assessments of the degree to which the character Rosalind in Shakepeare's As You Like It, ultimately manages on the one hand, to enlarge or to redefine what she (women) can do and be (see first quote by Howard), or on the other hand, shows the disciplinary limits and ideological forces that return her character to dominant ways of being (see second quote by Erickson):

As You Like It is poised carefully on the razor’s edge separating fantasy from harsh reality. . . . [the play] is to a remarkable degree open to the infinite malleability of human beings and their social practices. . . . It is with the heroine, however, that As You Like It offers its richest dramatization of a figure who plays endlessly with the limits and possibilities of her circumstances. . . . this he/she, continues to the end to defy the fixed identities and the exclusionary choices of the everyday world, offering instead a world of multiple possibilities and transformable identities.”  (Jean E. Howard, The Norton Shakespeare, 378-384)

“Male friendship, exemplified by the reconciliation of Duke Senior and Orlando, provides a framework that diminishes and contains Rosalind’s apparent power. . . . Concentration on Rosalind to the neglect of other issues distorts the overall design of As You Like It, one that is governed by male ends. . . . as the play returns to the normal world, [Rosalind] will be reduced to the traditional woman who is subservient to men” (Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama 16, 21).

To continue with examples/advice, you might explain the social dimensions or importance of a particular character's desires and relations to and for another (or to others, including a group or "category" of people or to/for some concept or principle or desired identity/achievement); your analysis may also speculate on the degrees of authority or power exercised or available to particular "figures" or "subjects" (characters) in the work/text; moreover, how are such identities or relationships represented and enacted (presented rhetorically in language and through narrative and dramatic structure and style), and to what extent are these desires and power relations and identities in flux, dramatized as being put into question or debate between different social/political/class/gender/ethnic/religious arrangements or configurations. And how do such meanings become presented in literature/text and in performance? For drama, how would a director and actors embody and perform (and address the choices for performance) and communicate a particular interpretation. . . .

Review some aspect of one of the specified, selected texts in view of such or similar problem-posing questions and critical/theoretical framework for identifying/understanding. Take care not to assume that we readily know what particular texts mean, or what meanings are possible, given our assumptions about the time periods in which the texts were composed and how we make sense of these texts today. It is productive to inquire into the possibilities for meaning and for debate, rather than to foreclose such debate by assuming in advance that a text means something or that it could not possibly mean something that seems out of bounds, out of context. As always, you need to find ways to read closely and well, and to work from the evidence and posited aims/arguments of the texts, of critics/scholars' research and arguments, and of your sense of the text's functions/meanings/effects.

I encourage you to develop and to support your ideas as clearly and as cogently as space allows, including brief citations of specific lines that illustrate your interpretation, and concise use of summary and paraphrase in support of your analysis. It may be helpful for your response to include a statement that makes a claim or presents a thesis with brief explanation and support (such as in the form of “One of Portia's main concerns is that she . . . because . . . . But her desire for . . . conflicts with . . ., and she must . . . in order to . . . . The play thus represents . . . in its depiction of . . . . Moreover, it is only through X's relationship to Y that Z can be realized or established or resolved, even though . . . .” This is just a partial and overstated (!) example of a structure that might inform your reasoning and writing--the main advice is that you may find it effective to compose a thesis for your analysis/essay.

Tory Young, for instance, offers this general schemata/structure for an essay that is concerned with argument and interpretation and analysis (from Studying English Literature): (1) The issue; (2) the claim; (3) The supporting evidence; (4) The explanation that connects the evidence to the claim about the subject; (5) Rebuttals and qualifiers; ( 6) The explanation that connects them to the claim about the subject. Some of these stages or building blocks for the essay may be repeated (steps 2-6 or 3-6), and each stage should contribute to developing the argument and potential expressed in your thesis statement. As Young states, "Your thesis statement is a sentence-long summary of your argument . . . .Your thesis statement is an argument that you are going to examine with recourse to evidence from primary and secondary research" (106). Moreover, does each paragraph in the essay provide support for the argument or clearly analyze opposing views to the argument.

Katherine Acheson (in Writing Essays About Literature) states that "the task of a student assigned to write an essay about literature is to present a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works" (7). She describes the task of writing such an essay as one in which you "produce a narrative that offers an explanation for the effects the work of literature has" (8)--these effects, for instance, are the ideas and feelings produced by the work of literature (produced through the things that are used to make it, the words). Acheson describes the thesis statement in this way: "The thesis statement describes the evidence you are using, states your interpretations of this evidence, and brings those insights together into a conclusion that is about the way the literature works, what it means, or how and why it has the emotional impact it does" (97). She also emphasizes that arguments in literary criticism analyze "examples in order to come to broader conclusions"--these arguments therefore demonstrate inductive reasoning that moves logically and persuasively from particular pieces of compelling evidence to broader generalizations that advance/deepen/enrich understanding.

Acheson notes, like Tory Young, that the paragraphs in the body of your essay "will each make a point contributing to your argument, and each will highlight the evidence that supports that point. The subject for each body paragraph is provided by your subtopic sentences" (111) and typically the concluding sentence in each paragraph "stipulates the relationship " of the paragraph "to the argument as a whole" and also "leads to the next paragraph." One's writing need not be so formulaic--you can depart from these guidelines--but this is sound general advice. Acheson offers an additional caution and encouragement: "The analytical reasons that a piece of evidence supports the argumentative contention of the paragraph are implicit in the choice you made to include that evidence in that category. But remember this important advice: your sentences must make those reasons explicit. Whenever you feel uncertain, return to two home bases: 1) your research and the evidence it has provided and 2) the thesis statement and the argument it articulates" (118).

William Whitla (The English Handbook: A Guide to Literary Studies) echoes such sentiments: "For an argument to be convincing, the relationship between generalizations or assertions and supporting evidence must be considered carefully. Many students have the most trouble at exactly this point: they either cannot qualify a generalization in the face of contradictory evidence and so ignore the exception, or they suppress that evidence and continue to assert a generalization. . . . An academic argument, then, is not a contest of absolute rights and wrongs, but rather is a structured statement of position that moves logically to persuade an audience of your views" (92).

Assume your audience is familiar with the text, but take care to articulate clearly your understanding and interpretation of the material, especially problems or contradictions that seem difficult to resolve.

Keep in mind that your analysis should aim to supplement or to build upon class discussion; in short, don't simply repeat an argument discussed substantially unless you were engaged substantially in that discussion.

Wow, this is a lot of (largely general) advice so how to sum up: Some writers use the first paragraph to describe an interpretative problem that arises in a specific passage or for/in a character (and the relations of that character to others or to the text's cultural context), or to present a conflict of critical approaches to a topic or issue that is pertinent to or evident in the literary work. This opening often includes reference to how the text or an aspect of it has been regarded by other scholars--what are some prior or 'traditional' ways of framing and understanding what's at stake in this text? In contrast or in some kind of supplementary extension, what do you understand differently--what difference does your reading make/add and why is it significant/important to consider your line of analysis and argument? What is lost by sticking with prior views and what is gained by considering your counter-view or extension of the prior view to push its analysis further? Can you state this difference that you bring to the conversation in the form of a thesis/hypothesis that addresses (answers or resolves) the problem you have identified?And as Young and Acheson note/advise above, what will be your series of claims supported by evidence and reasoning and taking into account arguments/evidence that may qualify or limit your claim along with any counter argument you make in turn to rebut or take into account the arguments and evidence against your position? As you conclude, you may find a way to restate or reframe your main claim/argument, including its value/significance (the import/importance), and whether your line of analysis suggests further avenues of inquiry and research to be done.


Here's a reminder of a guiding principle/observation from our main course website.

The quote that follows serves as a general guiding premise/claim for the course and its outcomes (also see expected learning outcomes noted further below, following the semester schedule): Literature provides us with a way of understanding how our social life works. Human social life consists of narratives for living, with ‘narratives’ being understood here as an actual life experience spread over time and guided by cultural stories that justify it to participants. Both the cultural and real-world narrative can change; both use frames to exclude norm-dissonant perspectives and values and to ensure that the meanings that support the continuity and homogeneity of the lived process are stable, predictable, and enforced. Who tells the stories in the culture thus largely shapes how that cultural world will be organized. Stories are what people believe and how they believe, and how people believe determines how they act and how they live. Stories can change how people think, perceive, believe, and act. The analysis of the work they perform is thus an important endeavor. And that is what criticism is all about. (An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture--Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)


Evaluation/Assessment Rubric for Critical Essay and Term Essay, with check mark along a scale, including specific comments to supplement my notations on the texts of the essays themselves:

Rubric for Initial Criteria for Evaluating Critical Writing/Essays:   Excellent    Very Good-Good    Competent-Fair    Weak
Note: Ultimately the evaluation of your work is holistic,
and therefore also intends to register the different, nuanced,
unexpected and evocative effects of your analysis,
exploration, creative expression/affect, and engagement
with learning and discovery.

1. Strength and clarity of (hypo)thesis/focus,
this may include your introduction to the problem to be
addressed, the critical/scholarly question and
conversation that your essay will contribute to,
intervene in, with scholarship appropriately introduced

and integrated into your text…

2. Intellectual/conceptual strength and persuasiveness of
main claim as well as ensuing argument (including
counter-argument to respond to differing or opposing views
/logic/premises/critical analysis/theory/ideas        

3. Cohesive and coherent development, logical
 organization, including well-structured paragraphs with
clear points and compelling, specific support/evidence

4. Analysis of text’s/topic’s relevant cultural/historical
 contexts and if deployed, of related scholarship/criticism that
supports and strengthens the argument;
analysis of text’s rhetorical/persuasive strategies, structure
(narrative/dramatic/poetic structure, aspects of performance)

5. Topic’s depth/complexity, including explanation of
problem to be addressed, recognition of text’s
conflicts/contradictions (ideological/rhetorical),
creativity and sense of discovery/affective engagement
conveyed—the articulated sense of “what’s at stake, why
it matters” —what difference your essay makes

6. Significance/ conclusion

7. Effective sentences, syntax, active verbs/consistency in verb tense,
diction, punctuation, complexity, and suitable style: academic,
critical, appropriate to your understanding of the
materials/subjects; avoids clichés and trite expressions, avoids overusing
prepositional phrases, appropriately concise

8. MLA style—parenthetical citation of sources,
Works Cited; formatting; spelling ungraded but noted


University of Idaho Guidelines on Academic Dishonesty (including plagiarism)

Lessons on Style (general advice/quited dated handout but perhaps worth looking over) [pdf]

Quick Advice on Punctuation (also dated) [pdf]

Summary/Overview of Perspectives on Critical Theory

Online Writing Center Resources (from writing essays to grammar and usage advice):


Purdue OWL workshop/guidelines on using MLA for citation

MLA Quick Guide to Works Cited/citation

Questions to Guide Review of Draft of Critical Essay:

1. Does the essay clarify and advance understanding of problem/topic/method/perspective related to the “literary” text’s purposes and rhetorical strategies and to the ‘student’ writer’s interpretation and understanding of the text?
2. Can one understand the writer’s approach and strategies for introducing and developing the critical essay?
3. Sum up the essay’s central idea, hypothesis or purpose in one sentence.
4. What might a reader like best about the essay? Where might the reader want to know more or to pose a critical question?

Desired learning outcomes in the context of the Department of English and its major:

1) Students exhibit knowledge of diverse literatures in English and the cultural and historical contexts in which these works were produced.

2) Students can discern and evaluate the aesthetic and formal qualities of various texts.

3) Students can write an analytic essay that exhibits both critical thinking and effective argumentation.

4) Students can write a research essay that exhibits effective deployment of research as evidence.

5) Students’ writing exhibits correct usage of grammar and of MLA format and citation conventions.


Additonal Resources (from writing essays to grammar and usage advice):


[see link under Resourcs at this site: http://web.mit.edu/writing/Resources/Writers/index.html


"Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing" (from U. Chicago)

Review Guide to Using MLA Style for Citing Sources