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8.3: Determining an Effective Essay Structure

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    One common misconception students entertain when they approach literary analysis essays is the idea that the structure of the essay should follow the structure of the literary work. The events of short stories, novels, and plays are often related chronologically, in linear order from the moment when the first event occurs to the moment of the last. Yet, it can be awkward to write a literary analysis using the story’s chronology as a basic structure for your own essay. Often, this approach leads to an essay that simply summarizes the literary work. Since a literary analysis paper should avoid summary for summary’s sake, the writer should avoid an essay structure that results in that pattern: And then Brett goes to San Sebastian with Robert Cohn, and then she returns in time to meet her fiancé Mike Campbell, and then….

    Note that in Bill’s essay on The Sun Also Rises, he decided to focus on two significant metaphors and to dedicate a major section of his paper to each. He does not mention Brett’s trip to San Sebastian at all since it does not pertain directly to the paper’s discussion of the metaphors. How does he determine the paper’s arrangement? Why does he discuss the metaphor of Jake’s wound before that of the tainted bull fights? In the novel, we do learn of Jake’s wound first, and according to Bill, this metaphor helps establish the theme of psychological wounds caused by the war. So, chronology does influence the arrangement of the paper to some extent, but it is not the primary factor in the paper’s structure. Rather than beginning his paper with a description of Jake’s wound and then moving on to relate Brett’s trip to San Sebastian with Robert, the ensuing antics of the group in Paris, their journey to Spain, etc., on through the list of the novel’s plot events, Bill only includes the plot details supportive to his point, first illustrating the irreversible wounds of the group, represented by Jake’s war-wound, and second examining the spoiled bull fights representing the group’s irreparable loss of faith and hope. The arrangement of the paper does not reject chronological order simply for the sake of doing so—Bill relates the events in the sequence of their occurrence when it is reasonable. However, it is his focus on the two metaphors that provides the basic structure for his paper.

    Similarly, in Katherine Jones’s essay arguing that Brett Ashley is not a monster but a woman caught between two ideologies, she structures the paper this way:

    1. Brett Ashley as sympathetic character in spite of some readers’ disapproval of her behavior
      1. Description of Brett’s unconventional ways
      2. Signs that her rebellion takes its toll on her
        1. Alcohol
        2. Promiscuity
        3. Alienation and despair
    2. Conclusion: Her behavior is understandable given her challenging circumstances

    Like Bill, Katherine structures her paper by arranging the major points logically: The description of Brett’s nontraditional behavior comes first in the essay’s body because it helps set up the points that follow, points supporting Katherine’s argument that Brett’s struggles illuminate her very human, and thus understandable, reactions to her challenges.

    If chronology is not the primary structural factor in setting up a literary analysis paper, what is? You might consider the following hints in arranging the points of your own essay:

    1. What are your major points? In Bill’s essay, he explores two important metaphors; in Katherine’s she examines (a) Brett’s unconventionality and then (b) evidence that her nontraditional behavior is more than simple pleasure-seeking, seen in (i) her alcoholism, (ii) her promiscuity, and (iii) her expressions of despair. In Marion Velis’s essay “Clinging to Love: Theodore Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz’,” printed in Chapter 2, her major points focus on Roethke’s use of rhythm, the poem’s point of view, and its controlling metaphor. These major points should form the main organizing components of the essay.
    2. What order will most effectively lead the reader to your perspective on this subject? In each of the essays mentioned above, the first point of discussion helps to set up the paper. These writers work to draw in and orient the reader, first with the introduction and then, further, in the second body paragraph. Conversely, the final point of the paper’s body should be one that helps to “clinch” the paper’s argument or end it “with a bang” just before the conclusion reiterates the overarching argument in the essay’s final lines.
    3. Paragraph breaks should (a) cue the reader regarding shifts in focus (hence Bill begins a new paragraph when he finishes discussion of Jake’s wound and starts his exploration of the spoiled bull fights) and (b) break down ideas into small enough chunks that the reader does not lose sight of the currently emphasized point (thus Katherine breaks her discussion of Brett’s need to cope into separate paragraphs on alcohol abuse, promiscuity, and expressions of Brett’s despair). On the other hand, in an academic essay, the paragraphs should not seem “choppy.” Rather each should be long enough to develop its point thoroughly before shifting to the next.

    The literary analysis paper can be written with examination of only the primary source, or, as we will discuss in the next chapter, you may integrate into your argument the perspectives of other scholars (secondary sources). Regardless, your own findings from your analysis of the primary text should be a priority in your interpretation of the work. Analytical skills are invaluable as you explore any subject, investigating the subject by breaking it down and looking closely at how it functions. Finding patterns in your observations, then, helps you to interpret your analysis and communicate to others how you came to your conclusions about the subject’s meaning and/or effect. As you make your case to the readers, it is crucial that you make it clear how your perspective is relevant to them. Ideally, they will come away from your argument intrigued by the new insights you have revealed about the subject.

    This page titled 8.3: Determining an Effective Essay Structure is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tanya Long Bennett (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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