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12.6: Literary Thesis Statements

  • Page ID
    43636
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    The Literary Thesis Statement

    Literary essays are argumentative or persuasive essays. Their purpose is primarily analysis, but analysis for the purposes of showing readers your interpretation of a literary text. So the thesis statement is a one to two sentence summary of your essay's main argument, or interpretation.

    Just like in other argumentative essays, the thesis statement should be a kind of opinion based on observable fact about the literary work.

    Thesis Statements Should Be

    • Debatable
      • Ex: "While most people reading Hamlet think he is the tragic hero, Ophelia is the real hero of the play as demonstrated through her critique of Elsinore's court through the language of flowers."
        • This thesis takes a position. There are clearly those who could argue against this idea.
    • Rooted in observations about literary devices, genres, or forms
      • Ex: "Hawthorne’s use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter falters and ultimately breaks down with the introduction of the character Pearl, which shows the perceived danger of female sexuality in a puritanical society."
        • Look at the text in bold. See the strong emphasis on how form (literary devices like symbolism and character) acts as a foundation for the interpretation (perceived danger of female sexuality).
    • Specific
      • Ex: "Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American ideals, one must leave ‘civilized’ society and go back to nature" ("Thesis Statements")
        • Through this specific yet concise sentence, readers can anticipate the text to be examined (Huckleberry Finn), the author (Mark Twain), the literary device that will be focused upon (river and shore scenes) and what these scenes will show (true expression of American ideals can be found in nature).

    Thesis Statements Should NOT Be

    • Overly broad or generalized
      • Ex: "I am going to be writing about "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe."
        • While we know what text and author will be the focus of the essay, we know nothing about what aspect of the essay the author will be focusing upon, nor is there an argument here.
    • More about society than the work of literature
      • Ex: "Gender roles are bad and should be abolished."
        • This may be well and true, but this thesis does not appear to be about a work of literature. This could be turned into a thesis statement if the writer is able to show how this is the theme of a literary work (like "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid) and root that interpretation in observable data from the story in the form of literary devices.
    • A summary or obvious statement about the text
      • Ex: "Hamlet is about a prince whose father dies."
        • Yes, this is true. But it is not debatable. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who could argue with this statement. Yawn, boring.
    • A judgment about the quality of the work
      • Ex: "'La Migra' by Pat Mora is a really good/powerful poem"
        • This may very well be true. But the purpose of a literary critic is not to judge the quality of a literary work, but to make analyses and interpretations of the work based on observable structural aspects of that work.
    • About the author (biographical) rather than literature
      • Ex: "Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving were both creepy towards women in their personal lives but in different ways"
        • Again, this might be true, and might make an interesting essay topic, but unless it is rooted in textual analysis, it is not within the scope of a literary analysis essay. Be careful not to conflate author and speaker! Author, speaker, and narrator are all different entities! See: intentional fallacy.

    Thesis Statement Formula

    One way I find helpful to explain literary thesis statements is through a "formula":

    Thesis statement = Observation + Analysis + Significance

    • Observation: usually regarding the form or structure of the literature. This can be a pattern, like recurring literary devices. For example, "I noticed the poems of Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir all use symbols such as the lover's longing and Tavern of Ruin"
    • Analysis: You could also call this an opinion. This explains what you think your observations show or mean. "I think these recurring symbols all represent the human soul's desire." This is where your debatable argument appears.
    • Significance: this explains what the significance or relevance of the interpretation might be. Human soul's desire to do what? Why should readers care that they represent the human soul's desire? "I think these recurring symbols all show the human soul's desire to connect with God." This is where your argument gets more specific.

    Thesis statement: The works of ecstatic love poets Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir use symbols such as a lover’s longing and the Tavern of Ruin to illustrate the human soul’s desire to connect with God.

    Thesis Examples

    SAMPLE THESIS STATEMENTS

    These sample thesis statements are provided as guides, not as required forms or prescriptions.

    ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    The Literary Device Thesis Statement

    The thesis may focus on an analysis of one of the elements of fiction, drama, poetry or nonfiction as expressed in the work: character, plot, structure, idea, theme, symbol, style, imagery, tone, etc.

    Example 1:

    In “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty creates a fictional character in Phoenix Jackson whose determination, faith, and cunning illustrate the indomitable human spirit.

    Note that the work, author, and character to be analyzed are identified in this thesis statement. The thesis relies on a strong verb (creates). It also identifies the element of fiction that the writer will explore (character) and the characteristics the writer will analyze and discuss (determination, faith, cunning).

    Example 2:

    The character of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet serves as a foil to young Juliet, delights us with her warmth and earthy wit, and helps realize the tragic catastrophe.

    ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    The Genre / Theory Thesis Statement

    The thesis may focus on illustrating how a work reflects the particular genre’s forms, the characteristics of a philosophy of literature, or the ideas of a particular school of thought.

    Example 1:

    “The Third and Final Continent” exhibits characteristics recurrent in writings by immigrants: tradition, adaptation, and identity.

    Note how the thesis statement classifies the form of the work (writings by immigrants) and identifies the characteristics of that form of writing (tradition, adaptation, and identity) that the essay will discuss.

    Example 2:

    Samuel Beckett’s Endgame reflects characteristics of Theatre of the Absurd in its minimalist stage setting, its seemingly meaningless dialogue, and its apocalyptic or nihilist vision.

    Example 3:

    A close look at many details in “The Story of an Hour” reveals how language, institutions, and expected demeanor suppress the natural desires and aspirations of women.

    Generative Questions

    One way to come up with a riveting thesis statement is to start with a generative question. The question should be open-ended and, hopefully, prompt some kind of debate.

    • What is the effect of [choose a literary device that features prominently in the chosen text] in this work of literature?
    • How does this work of literature conform or resist its genre, and to what effect?
    • How does this work of literature portray the environment, and to what effect? 
    • How does this work of literature portray race, and to what effect?
    • How does this work of literature portray gender, and to what effect?
    • What historical context is this work of literature engaging with, and how might it function as a commentary on this context?

    These are just a few common of the common kinds of questions literary scholars engage with. As you write, you will want to refine your question to be even more specific. Eventually, you can turn your generative question into a statement. This then becomes your thesis statement. For example,

    • How do environment and race intersect in the character of Frankenstein's monster, and what can we deduce from this intersection?

    Expert Examples

    While nobody expects you to write professional-quality thesis statements in an undergraduate literature class, it can be helpful to examine some examples. As you view these examples, consider the structure of the thesis statement. You might also think about what questions the scholar wondered that led to this statement!

    • "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality" (Achebe 3).
    • "...I argue that the approach to time and causality in Boethius' sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy can support abolitionist objectives to dismantle modern American policing and carceral systems" (Chaganti 144).
    • "I seek to expand our sense of the musico-poetic compositional practices available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, focusing on the metapoetric dimensions of Much Ado About Nothing. In so doing, I work against the tendency to isolate writing as an independent or autonomous feature the work of early modern poets and dramatists who integrated bibliographic texts with other, complementary media" (Trudell 371).

    Works Cited

    Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa" Research in African Literatures 9.1, Indiana UP, 1978. 1-15.

    Chaganti, Seeta. "Boethian Abolition" PMLA 137.1 Modern Language Association, January 2022. 144-154.

    "Thesis Statements in Literary Analysis Papers" Author unknown. https://resources.finalsite.net/imag...handout__1.pdf 

    Trudell, Scott A. "Shakespeare's Notation: Writing Sound in Much Ado about Nothing" PMLA 135.2, Modern Language Association, March 2020. 370-377.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Thesis Examples. Authored by: University of Arlington Texas. License: CC BY-NC


    This page titled 12.6: Literary Thesis Statements is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .