Writing about Literature

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1 Writing about Literature According to Robert DiYanni, the purposes of writing about literature are: first, to encourage readers to read a literary work attentively and notice things they might miss during a more casual reading; second, to stimulate thinking and enable readers to discover what, how, and why they think or feel about literary works; third, to provide opportunities for readers to state their views about the ideas and values expressed in literary works; and finally, to enhance readers enjoyment of the many pleasures literary works offer and deepen their appreciation of their artistic achievement. Writing about literature may take many forms. The kind of writing emphasized here are the personal responses and the critical essay/paper. I. Personal Responses Personal responses to a literary work always prompt memories and feelings in readers and call up their own experiences. Subjective and impressionistic as they may seem, personal responses can reveal the reader beginning to reflect on the meaning and values of a literary work. II. Critical Essay/Paper A critical essay or paper is a piece of writing that is relatively short, somewhat formal and, most importantly, logic and argumentative. Specifically, it involves an analysis of one particular element of a literary work or a comparison of one particular element between two literary works (characterization, setting, style, conflict, theme, or point of view of each story, for example). Critical essays are often written outside the classroom. But in the tests and examinations, essay writing is also required. In either case, essay writing asks you to state your ideas about literary works and to support those ideas with facts. Your instructor may demand either short, one-paragraph essays or long essays. When you write critical essays, you should keep in mind that your essays are arguments: They should have a thesis and should try to convince your instructor of the validity of that thesis. They should be logic, coherent, and well organized. In the out-of-class critical essay writing, the writing process usually includes the following steps: 1.Taking notes 2. Choosing a topic 3. Developing a thesis 4. Arguing about literature 5. Organizing a paper 6. Writing a draft 7. Using format and quotations 8. Revising and editing Most often, your writing is strictly confined to your instructor s requirement. Here is an example of paper assignment which focuses on short fiction. Paper Assignment I. Requirements: 1. Paper Length: 4-5 typed, double-spaced pages. 2. Your paper assignment for English and American Literatures will be a 3-5 page critical 1

2 essay on short stories. This essay is not a research paper. Rather, its purpose is to demonstrate your ability to investigate and support a thesis of your own devising; to analyze with skill and insight the evidence from specific literary works; and to present the whole in a clearly organized, well-written fashion. 3. Format: Your paper should be typed and double-spaced with 1" margins on each side. Citations and bibliography should follow the MLA style of citing the author and page number for the works cited. II. Writing Topic: Write an essay in which you compare two stories from the textbook. You may, if you wish, choose to focus upon one particular element, such as comparing characters, themes, imagery, symbolism, and so forth. Some possible subjects for these papers include the following: 1. The Journey as a Symbol 2. Initiation into Reality 3. Racial or Religious Problems 4. Love and Marriage 5. Family Relationships 6. Loneliness or Death 7. Self-identity Seeking 8. Man and Nature III. Some Questions to Think About When Preparing to Write Your Paper: 1. Subject. What theme or subject will your paper address? What works will you compare? What limits will you place upon the subject? In other words, if you re writing about initiation, how did you decide which two stories to compare? Will you compare characters? plots? themes? settings? Do the stories you've chosen have significant similarities and differences? 2. Approach to the Topic. Will you be writing a subject-by-subject comparison? A point-by-point comparison? What will your organizational plan be? Are you looking at the subject from a particular critical perspective? What will be new or unique about your approach? What do you want to tell the reader that probably isn't already known? 3. Thesis. What argument are you making in this paper? Remember, a thesis must be 1) limited to a single subject (but not too limited); 2) arguable; and 3) able to be developed in the amount of space you have available. What topics will you cover in the paper? Your paper will have to start with a thesis statement. Here are three sample essays: Essay one: Ironies of Life in Kate Chopin s The Story of an Hour Kate Chopin s The Story of an Hour ---which takes only a few minutes to read---turns out to have an ironic ending. On rereading it, however, one sees that the irony is not concentrated only in the outcome of the plot---mrs. 2

3 Mallard dies just when she is beginning to live---but is also present in many details. After we know how the story turns out, if we reread it we find irony at the very start. Because Mrs. Mallard s friends and her sister assume, mistakenly, that she was deeply in love with her husband, Brently Mallard, they take great care to tell her gently of his death. They mean well, and in fact they do well, bringing her an hour of life, an hour of joyous freedom, but it is ironic that they think their news is sad. True, Mrs. Mallard at first expresses grief when she hears the news, but soon (unknown to her friends) she finds joy in it. So Richards sad message (12), though sad in Richards eyes, is in fact a happy message. Among the small but significant ironic details is the statement near the end of the story that when Mallard enters the house, Richards tries to conceal him from Mrs. Mallard, but Richards was too late (13). This is ironic because almost at the start of the story, in the second paragraph, Richards hastened (12) to bring his sad message; if he had at the start been too late (13), Brently Mallard would have arrived at home first, and Mrs. Mallard s life would not have ended an hour later but would simply have gone on as it had been. Yet another irony at the end of the story is the diagnosis of the doctors. They say she died of heart disease---of joy that kills (14). In one sense they are right: Mrs. Mallard has for the last hour experienced a great joy. But of course the doctors totally misunderstand the joy that kills her. It is not joy at seeing her husband alive, but her realization that the great joy she experienced during the last hour is over. All of these ironic details add richness to the story, but the central irony resides not in the well-intentioned but ironic actions of Richards, or in the unconsciously ironic words of the doctors, but in Mrs. Mallard s own life. She sometimes (13) loved her husband, but in a way she has been dead, a body subjected to her husband s will. Now, his apparent death brings her new life. Appropriately, this new life comes to her at the season of the year when the tops of trees were all aquiver with the new spring life (12). But, ironically, her new life will last only an hour. She is Free, free, free ---but only until her husband walks through the doorway. She looks forward to summer days (13), but she will not see even the end of this spring day. If her years of marriage were ironic, bringing her a sort of living death instead of joy, her new life is ironic too, not only because it grows out of her moment of grief for her supposedly dead husband, but also because her vision of a long progression of years (13) is cut short within an hour on a spring day. Work Cited Chopin, Kate. The Story of an Hour. Literature for Composition. Ed. Sylvan Barnet et al. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins, from Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Literature Essay Two: Requirements: The following sketch is from Ernest Hemingway s first book, In Our Time (1925). Comment on the tone, the character presentation and the narrative strategy in it. While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you ll only keep me from getting killed I ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot 3

4 and muggy, and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody. In his sketch from In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway describes some realities of war. The young soldier in the trenches is terrified of the artillery shells exploding near the trench, where he lies praying to God for deliverance. Instead of behaving heroically or courageously, the young soldier bargains desperately with God. His behavior is far from the ideal not only in the way he prays, but also in the way he breaks his promise. He is neither courageous nor honest. And his visit to a prostitute degrades the ideal of love as his earlier behavior degraded the ideals of war and faith. The image of war Hemingway describes in the sketch is brutally realistic. He avoids glorifying war or idealizing the soldier s behavior. And yet even though some may find the soldier s behavior repugnant, Hemingway does not explicitly condemn that behavior. In fact, it might be argued that he helps readers understand the young soldier s predicament. His visit to the prostitute, given the circumstances, is convincing. The passage brings readers into the soldier s mind so they can understand how he feels. In its refusal to idealize war, it convinces us of its truth. Essay Three: Requirements: Analyze Frank O Connor s short story from a feminism point of view. Your thematic statement should be: Often, male authors tend to stereotype and maintain social myths about women in their writings. In My Oedipus Complex, Frank O'Connor portrays Larry's mother as a gentle, passive and caring woman, the typical housewife of the early 1900's. A Feminism Critique of My Oedipus Complex When critiquing "My Oedipus Complex" from a feminism point of view, it is necessary that a person analyzes this story from a woman's point of view. By stating this, I mean that since it was written by a male, we need to reread the story from a woman's perspective. Although the woman that was portrayed in this story fit the typical description of the early twentieth century female, Frank O'Connor portrayed Larry's mother as a strong willed, passive and caring woman. Not only is the text written by a male, but it is also narrated by a prepubescent boy. Because this story is narrated by a young boy, readers only see his view of his mother. Not to mention, she is also the only woman who is depicted in this story. As a result of the narration, her only role as a mother is to tend to her house, children and husband. Larry's mother, who ironically goes nameless throughout the entire story, plays the protagonist particularly because she is battling the conflict that Larry and his father have created over jealousy. Her love was desired by both male characters and they both wanted her to be their sole caretaker. It is obvious that her duties were quite stereotypical as a housewife, especially for that time period. The attitude that both Larry and his father hold towards her is that they cannot do without her attention, affection and caring. To Larry, her role is someone who cooks him food, brews him tea, and makes babies. To the father, her role is someone who cooks him food, brews him tea, raises children, and satisfies him sexually. All of these labels that are placed upon the mother are so stereotypical of the barefoot and pregnant housewife. This stereotyping is not generated by the characters alone, but by the author as well. It is virtually impossible for a male author to have an unbiased viewpoint of a woman's roles, especially for that time period. In addition, we can also create a feminism approach with the dialogue that is used in the story. The mother's 4

5 speech seems to be proper, gentle and reserved, and she always uses a sincere, delicate touch when speaking to Larry. On the other hand, Larry's father always spoke in short, snarled sentences that made him seem like the uninterested, boastful father. The stereotype that is involved here implies that women are dainty and gentle and never lose their composure, whereas men are loud, overbearing and forceful. The way that Larry's mother is portrayed makes her seem like the typical housewife of the early 1900's. I think that's mainly because of the image that O'Connor desired to create. She seemed to play the active role in raising Larry. She knew him best. She listened to him and she played along in his imaginary world. She answered his questions and she never physically hurt him. However, his father initially seemed to care less about Larry, particularly because he did not know Larry as a person. He didn't know Larry's habits and he certainly did not know how Larry felt about his mother. 5

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