Crafting a Thesis and Argument

When you write a literary analysis, you will probably be responding to a prompt from your instructor. In most cases, however, a prompt is no more than a starting point. So let me offer some advice for crafting a meaningful thesis and argument.

1. Refer to textual specifics.

This is not simply an extension of the requirement that your thesis be specific. It is also a way of ensuring that you will write an analysis and not just a summary.

The following sentence makes an interesting and contestable point, but it is not a great thesis:

The audience is supposed to have doubts about Hamlet's sanity.

Let's rewrite it with textual specifics:

By causing the Prince to speak in "wild and whirling" images, Shakespeare raises doubts about Hamlet's sanity.

This version focuses on a specific literary technique, imagery. Supporting its claim will require close attention to the text. Thus, the thesis lays the groundwork for a strong argument.

2. Don't rely on statements of, or assumptions about, authorial intention.

What an author meant to do in a particular work can be useful in determining that work's meaning. However, keep the following in mind:

  • Authors lie or make mistakes. Even if Shakespeare had said somewhere (and he didn't) that he wanted the audience to doubt Hamlet's sanity, he could have had a different intention while he was writing the play, or he could have failed to carry out his intention. So do not let Shakespeare get in the way of his own text. Focus on the work itself.
  • Authorial intention is rarely clear. Shakespeare did not give interviews, and very little is known about him personally. So how do you know what he intended? You don't.
  • Above all else, citing authorial intention is an easy way out. If you accept an author's claims about a work, you have no more analysis to do. Why bother writing your paper?

3. Avoid obvious arguments.

In some works— for instance, John Milton's Paradise Lost— the author supplies a ready theme for readers. Do not have the bulk of your argument be, for instance, "Paradise Lost attempts to justify the ways of God to man." That's what Milton says in the first dozen lines.

Instead, either call this theme into question, noting ways in which the book fails in its stated purpose, or focus on specific ways in which it achieves that purpose. If, for instance, you feel that iambic pentameter in Paradise Lost is crucial to its theme of divine providence, then say so, and prove your point. This argument avoids the obvious and requires close reading.

4. Do not be constrained by chronology.

For example, the witches in Macbeth appear in several different scenes. You are free to discuss those scenes as a group, and then backtrack to examine an intervening scene, such as the murder of King Duncan.

In other words, you can organize a literary analysis according to themes (such as witchcraft) or techniques (such as symbolism) without regard to the order in which events in a work occur.

5. Feel free to argue that a text is ambiguous — but don't stop there.

You do not have to deny the complexities in a literary work in order to craft a strong thesis. If a text is unclear, say so — but then explore the qualities in the writing that make it unclear. Consider these two comments on Hamlet:

The ghost in Hamlet may be real, but then again, he may not be.

In the closet scene, we in the audience see and hear the ghost, but Hamlet's mother does not. As a result, the play makes it impossible to tell whether we are observing an actual spirit or participating in Hamlet's delusion.

In the first example, the writer sounds uncertain about the play; the comment is a confession of bewilderment, not a literary analysis. In contrast, the writer of the second comment finds the play ambiguous but takes a definite stance about the sources of its ambiguity.

What lesson can we draw from these examples? I would say this: Be certain of your opinion, but don't be afraid to argue that the text itself is uncertain.

Literary Analysis

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