My task…is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. (Joseph Conrad)
You’ve probably been told by writing teachers that if the topic is the main idea, then the thesis is the main idea statement. You develop your topic, which was a word or a phrase (your subject), into a sentence (your subject plus a predicate, or what you have to say about it). But that’s not enough if you want the satisfaction of creating a fine thing, or if you want to present your reader with an essay worth reading. You’re past the “But I have nothing to say” stage – you’ve already begun the writing process by taking notes, and you’ve reviewed those notes to discover your interests. You’ve explored possible topics in discussion and settled on a manageable topic. Now you must move from your open-ended first reading of your texts to a more deliberate rereading of particular passages. These closer readings of passages relevant to your topic will suggest interpretations that need to be developed. It’s important at the outset to dismiss anything as a possible thesis that is either factual or self-evident. Nothing obvious needs arguing, so a paper that argues the obvious has no purpose. You don’t want your reader to respond, “So what?” to an essay you’ve just gone to a lot of trouble to write. You can prevent this by anticipating your reader’s responses and asking yourself questions such as:
- What interpretation am I trying to persuade my reader is valid?
- What are my reasons for this interpretation?
- How is my interpretation different from other, accepted interpretations?
- What parts of the text am I going to examine? To emphasize?
- What are my assumptions?
- Who would disagree? What objections can I expect? (If none, then do I have a thesis worth developing at all?)
Remember: a focused thesis statement connects your more general main idea with your specific development of it – in which you’ll use concrete illustrations, observations, quotations, analysis, and interpretation. Thus, the topic sentences of your supporting paragraphs will be contained, explicitly or implicitly, in the all-important thesis sentence(s).
Settling on a Workable Thesis, you should keep in mind that:
- You must have discovered your topic first – if your subject doesn’t interest you, you will merely write mechanically;
- You should have more than enough material – notes, passages marked in your text, your ideas – to investigate;
- You’re going to state it in your first paragraph, so make your thesis as terse and as explicit as possible.
The process of rereading your texts with your topic in mind and organizing your evidence helps you move from your initial, open-ended exploration to creating a thesis and ultimately supporting arguments. This stage is often called “brainstorming” or “freewriting” or “prewriting.” Like preparing notes to bring to discussion, it’s an informal, personal part of the writing process. Often you’ll be the only person to see these notes – they probably won’t be graded. Do them anyway. Like your initial note-taking, this is an important step. The work you do here will prevent you having to grope for ideas and evidence when you’re outlining and writing. And like taking notes, this is also writing. You improve at anything by practicing it – this is another chance to practice writing.
An Example (from history)
Let’s suppose one of your textbooks is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, for a course that deals with our changing ideas about history over time. In Chapter 6, which is titled “John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: the invisibility of antiracism in American history textbooks,” Loewen says that history has mostly portrayed violent white abolitionist John Brown as insane, “narrowly ignorant,” and “a religious fanatic.” In contrast, Loewen says, “Consider Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the most important slave revolt since the United States became a nation. John Brown and Nat Turner both killed whites in cold blood…but unlike Brown, Turner is portrayed as…something of a hero.”
You begin wondering, what is the difference between John Brown and Nat Turner? Loewen cites his sources, so you can look at them to see how the ways the two men are portrayed differs and how these portrayals have changed over time. You take your questions to discussion and your peers and instructor find them interesting. Your topic, “Why is Nat Turner a Hero and John Brown a Villain?” will probably be controversial, but after bringing your questions to discussion and finding that your peers and instructor are interested in the direction you’re taking this, you begin looking at some other texts that mention Brown or Turner (if you’re really lucky, you find some that compare them). Your closer reading reveals that many histories portray John Brown as ignorant, even though the record shows he was a highly educated man who had traveled in sophisticated social circles before Harpers Ferry. You read more and begin to form an interpretation: that maybe history can forgive Nat Turner for his killings because he was an escaped slave acting in a manner expected of his peer group, while John Brown was considered a traitor to his white, educated peer group. There are other possible interpretations, but you decide to test the thesis that “John Brown is vilified by history because Brown’s certainty that Christianity and slavery were incompatible was an intolerable challenge to the smug rationalizations of other whites in 19th century America.”
This will be a controversial thesis to explore – you’ve already run into many histories that implicitly or explicitly deny this interpretation. The upside is that you’ll have the full attention of your reader. As you continue your research, you may find there were other factors leading to history’s rejection of Brown, or that not all histories rejected him. You’ll have an opportunity to refine your thesis – it’s not carved in stone – but for now it’s a good source of direction for your project.
Another Example (from literature)
Suppose you decide to pursue “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey.” Class discussion reflected on the emphasis on “family values” in recent news coverage of politicians looking for issues near election time. You were stimulated by what they had to say. Or maybe you were offended by the superficiality of the “soundbites” – after all, you’ve just read Odysseus telling Agamemnon in Book Eleven that “empty words are evil.” So you want to take a closer look at families in the text. You reread relevant passages, highlighting the relationships of Odysseus-Penelope-Telemakhos on one side, and Agamemnon-Klytaimnestra-Orestes on the other.
You plan to contrast the “functional” families in The Odyssey with the “dysfunctional” ones, focusing on the role that the wives play. You know you won’t use those terms in your final draft, as they’re both jargon and clichés, but they will get you started. It would be too obvious merely to point out that Penelope and Klytaimnestra represent “good guys” versus “bad guys.” That’s a “So what?” paper. As you reread, you notice that Penelope is not such a one-dimensional character; neither is Klytaimnestra. You sense that Odysseus’s wife’s “fidelity” is motivated by causes more complicated than conventional, and Agamemnon’s wife’s “infidelity” is grounded in his sacrifice of her daughter for his brother’s honor. Now you’re interpreting and you know someone will disagree, so you prepare an argument. Your (tentative) thesis statement is: “Although some have proposed that The Odyssey was presented as an educational model prescribing rules and roles for generations of Greeks, a close look at the characters of Penelope and Klytaimnestra suggests that Homer was as much a probing psychologist as a patronizing pedagogue.” Okay, the alliteration might be a bit too much – but you’ll worry about that in a later draft; this is a good start. This thesis is a bit too general: ultimately you’ll have to be more specific as to which psychological aspects of these characters Homer probes. But it will serve to focus your “brainstorming” and help you develop your argument.
Remember: you can (and often do) change both your attitude and your plan as you explore the text and your responses to it. As that happens, you refine or revise your thesis. Your original statement is meant to function as your guide; it directs your writing, but it serves your purposes.