"Essay" According To Railton

"Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much." -- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"
There is no one model or formula for a good literary critical essay. You each have your own voice and style, and can look for ways to use the papers you write to express yourself as well as analyse literature. But since I have my own prejudices -- my own convictions about what a good essay will do -- I'll try here to be as specific as I can about what I look for in a paper from a student.

To me, the best place to begin writing an essay is with your own reading experience. Try to find something in one of the works we've read that really interests, perplexes, aggravates, excites or confuses you -- whether it's part of the plot, the role of a character, a pattern of images or thematic concerns, the style, or whatever. If you start with something that genuinely interests you, then you've got two reasons to write the paper: to get a grade, sure, but also to explore the issue and reach a conclusion about it that satisfies your own intellectual curiosity.

Before you can start writing the essay, you have to turn the topic into a focused argument. The topic is the subject you're writing about. The argument commits your essay to a particular point -- it's what you are trying to say, what you want your reader to see, about the meaning of the subject. The importance of women in Uncle Tom's Cabin is a topic. Cassy's character, and how it is transformed (so that, as the narrator says, "our readers would scarcely know her" [p. 607]) -- that's a narrower topic. How Tom and Emmeline help Cassy by allowing her to recover her feminity -- that's still more focused. That Stowe's novel suggests that it's only when Cassy ceases to resist her fate as a woman and submit both to God and to her motherly role that she can be saved -- that is an argument. One way to know you've got an argument is if you can see how people could argue against what you want to say. No one could disagree with the idea that women are important in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but there wouldn't be much point in writing a whole essay just to say that. You could, however, disagree with what I've just said about Cassy's transformation (a good essay could be written, for instance, arguing that although even "in the home," Cassy remains rebellious and subversive -- a vengeful ghost in the attic rather than an angel in the house).

I think it's more fun to write an essay when you've committed yourself to an argument -- you're not just filling pages, but you're building a case, proving how right your idea is. And I think it's easier to know how to shape and organize such an essay too -- because you can plan it around the idea of making your point persuasive, leading your reader to your own idea or conclusion, planning each paragraph as a step in that one direction. And thinking of the paper as an argument helps you know where the boundaries of your discussion are too -- if something isn't directly relevant to the larger conclusion you want your reader to reach, then it doesn't belong in this paper.

You figure out what you want to say by looking closely at what the text itself says or suggests about the issue that you're interested in, so once you've identified your subject, you should next go back to the text, looking carefully at the passages and episodes and chapters where the issue is prominent (in the case of Cassy and true womanhood, I'd definitely want to re-read all the scenes in which she appears -- but I might also want to look at how other women are defined elsewhere in the novel -- Eliza, Mrs. Bird, Rachel, etc.). The most persuasive essays are the ones that can cite and discuss good textual evidence to explain, develop and support their ideas. To me, a good essay is going to have quotations in every paragraph, is going to continuously show how its ideas arise from the text itself. What I'm looking for is not an intrepretation I personally agree with, but rather a well-developed, well-supported conclusion of your own, a paper that shows me how the text does support its conclusion.

When I write an essay I don't usually know "what I think" until I see "what I write" -- by which I mean that it's usually only as I write a first draft that my interpretation comes into focus. That means I usually have to throw away most of the first draft and begin again, because the whole essay has to be focused on developing that interpretation to a conclusion, and it's not until I have a clear idea of the conclusion that I really know where to start from, what to go to next, &c. That may not be true for you, but you should make sure that before you begin writing you could tell someone else, in twenty-five words or less, not just the general topic of your essay (say, women in Stowe's novel), but the specific point you're going to argue (say, "I'm going to show my reader that Cassy is 'born again' by recovering her own maternal feelings, especially through 'mothering' Emmeline"). By the way, once you know that -- the specific argument you're trying to prove -- then you know what title to put on your essay: you want a title that points to your particular argument. How about "Cassy Comes Home"?

There are abstract terms for the basic strengths I'm trying to describe -- focus, coherence, etc. But to sum them up more concretely, and I hope clearly: I think good literary analyses have a point and stick to it, that they develop an idea to a conclusion -- or ask and answer a specific interpretive question, that they make good and consistent use of examples from the text to develop and support their ideas, that they give the writer and the reader (i.e. you and me) the chance to go deeply into some one aspect of what a text means.

"Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters." -- Whitman, "Song of Myself"

I hope by now you know your own interest and my expectations, but it might help if I go on to add the kinds of papers I'm not looking for:

  • A comparison paper. If you're really interested in looking at how two different writers treat a particular issue, you can organize the paper that way -- just make sure your focus is particularly tight. Six pages isn't much to talk about a work. The problem with most comparisons is that they don't give you time to get to the bottom of an issue. If you really want to compare two writers, okay -- but unless you've got a comparison that really interests you, my advice would be to stick with one of the authors we've read.

  • A research paper. Some topics might require you to do primary research in Alderman, but I don't want you to look up or rely on published critics' ideas about the text you're interested in. I can find out what other critics have said; only you can tell me what you think.

  • A paper about "American literature," or "the nineteenth century," or any other huge, vague topic. Keep your focus on what you can really discuss and support in 6 pages. That means keeping the focus on what you know firsthand and have a right to talk about. Unless you've done a lot of outside reading, you probably don't know enough about "society in those days" to try writing about it, but if you've read, say, Douglass' Narrative carefully, you not only know it, you have every right to develop your own ideas about it. As I hope you already know, there's plenty to say about a work of literature -- and by "limiting" yourself to that, you're actually opening up the chance to really see and say a lot more than big generalizations can express.

  • And one last thought:

  • Another starting point for your essay might be something I said in lecture that seemed to you like a misreading of a particular work. Some of my favorite essays have been the ones that showed me what I missed. As I said above, I don't have to agree with an essay to give it an "A" -- I just have to be able to see exactly what it's point it, how it defends that point with well-chosen evidence from the text, and so on.