Like thesis statements, titles are a small but important part of your literary analysis essay. Why?
- They help readers determine the topic of your essay
- They help you as a writer focus your essay
- They let readers know what to expect from the essay
And, like your thesis statement, your title will likely change as you compose and revise your essay. It should reflect the topic, purpose, and content of your essay. It may hint at the thesis statement, but likely won't give it all away.
Literary Title Basics
Titles are a creative subgenre of the literary analysis essay. There is a lot of creative freedom in crafting them. But there are some common features of effective titles.
- Precisely convey topic and text(s) essay will cover
- Catch readers' attention
- Usually between 4-14 words -- yes, you're right, scholarly titles are a bit longer than titles in other genres!
- Unique to your essay
- Differentiate from other essays on topic
- Hint at thesis statement
- May use a colon to link ideas
- May incorporate a striking quotation from your chosen text(s) which connects to your topic or thesis
Let's start with what not to do when crafting a title. While it can be difficult to determine what makes a good title, it can help to determine some "bad" titles first. And by bad, I don't mean the title has a curly mustache and ties innocent victims to railroad tracks while laughing "mwahahaha!"; I mean they may not quite fit with reader expectations. That is, a "bad" title does not do justice to your essay.
The Missing Title
Why it stinks: titles help readers know what to expect. Without one, readers are not sure what to expect from the essay. They may feel the essay it starting off on the wrong foot because it's not following the expectations of the literary analysis genre. In terms of technical issues with missing titles, when it comes to publication, a title is necessary to catalogue a work of literary criticism. Without a title, readers won't be able to find your essay in the databases! (not to mention the essay probably wouldn't be published in the first place!)
The Lazy Title
Example 1: "Literary Analysis Essay"
Why it stinks: while it is better than a missing title, there are millions of essays with this same title. It's so general as to be basically meaningless. Readers know your essay is a literary analysis; what they want to know is what kind of literary analysis essay you're writing.
Example 2: "Literary Analysis of Hamlet"
Why it stinks: This is better than "Literary Analysis Essay" because at least it tells us the text we will be reading about. However, this title doesn't tell us anything about what aspect of Hamlet you're writing about. Plus, there are likely many, many, many essays with the same title. You want your essay to stand out!
Ya Basic Title
Example 1: "Hamlet as Tragedy"
Why it stinks: this is much better than The Missing Title or The Lazy Title, because we know what text you're examining (Hamlet) and we have an aspect of that text that you are focusing on (Tragedy as genre). However, there is nothing new or interesting here for readers. Readers know that Hamlet is a Tragedy. This is well-accepted among scholars. When writing a literary analysis essay, you're trying to create new knowledge and tread new ground. Be more specific!
So now that we have covered some "bad" titles, let's "Read Like a Writer" and think about what makes for an effective essay title. To do this, we will examine some essay titles written by literary scholars.
- "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" by Chinua Achebe (1977)
- "Shut up in prose: gender and genre in Austen's Juvenilia" from The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979)
- "Superhero from the Margins: Darna and the Hybridity of the Filipino Superhero Genre" by Cherish Aileen Aguilar Brillon (2021)
Which of these titles looks the most interesting to you? What makes it an interesting or effective title?
Regardless of which you chose, each of these titles gives you a strong sense of what topic(s) and text(s) will be the focus of the essay. They are specific enough to be unique. Each names the specific text, topic, genre, and/or time period. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" tells you will be will be examining Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It also tells us that this will likely be an exploration of racism (topic); more specifically, racism in Conrad's depiction (image) of Africa. It hints at the thesis by presenting the start of its main argument (Conrad's images of Africa are racist). If you chose "Shut up in prose: gender and genre in Austen's Juvenilia", we know the text to be examined is Jane Austen's writings from when she was a teenager (juvenilia). We know the topics will be gender, genre, and prose. And we may have a hint of a thesis statement with "Shut up", which piques our curiosity because it is a brash and potentially offensive command that we can imagine will likely connect to gender representations. Lastly, "Superhero from the Margins: Darna and the Hybridity of the Filipino Superhero Genre" lets us know we will be examining a particular character (Darna) in the genre of the Superhero. It seems as if the topic will be "Hybridity" and marginalization.
If you're having a tough time, you can use one of the following formulas
- "Short Representative Quotation": [Topic] in [Text Title(s)]
Example: "golden daffodils": botanical economics in Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud"
- [Topic]: [Literary Device] in [Text Title(s)]
Example: Extracted Bodies: Human/Land Metaphor in Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and LaValle's Destroyer (2017)
- [Topic] in [Author's name] [Text Title]: brief into to thesis
Example: Biblical Allusion in Morrison's Beloved: The Limits of Hermeneutics