other class resources

HUM304 syllabus


Spring 2023 ENGL488

Victorian Literature

A Short Guide to Writing about Literature

Resources: The Writing Center will help you with grammar, organization, and documentation as well as more complex problems.

Form: To be accepted for a grade, papers must be either typed or printed on a computer printer. No hand-written or hand-printed papers will be read for credit. Papers must be turned in as hard copy, not emailed. Papers must have all the usual attributes of college essays: a TITLE, an introduction, unified and coherent body paragraphs, a conclusion, and standard documentation of quotes. Standard grammar and usage are also expected. All references to events that occur within texts should be in present tense. Any grammar and composition handbook will answer most of your questions about grammar and usage.

Organization/Structure: Papers should be organized in a standard, reader-friendly manner. The thesis should appear in the introduction. Each paragraph in the body of the paper should be focused on one main claim in support of your thesis, and everything else in the paragraph should develop or support that claim. After the introduction, all claims should be followed by support from the text. The conclusion should sum up the main points made and connect them to the thesis.

The Topic: Choose your own topic, following these guidelines.

1. The topic should focus on the assigned reading, not on things in your experience or observation that the reading made you think about. How your own life resembles that of Pip, for example, although obviously interesting, would not be an appropriate topic for an essay on the novel Great Expectations. Also inappropriate, would be an essay on the topic of why Great Expectations does not accurately portray 19th century English working-class experience, because to support such an assertion you would have to do a great deal of research in social history. Nor will an essay work that has as its thesis that Robert Browning's Porphyria's Lover shows an ignorance of what love really is since implied in such a statement is the idea that only you know what love is. Instead, you might want to discuss how the poem creates its impression of the pain of love. An appropriate topic for such a discussion would be Browning's use of imagery to suggest conflicting values and their impact on human relationships.

2. The topic should not treat fictional characters as real people or what happens in fiction as real events. Much of our pleasure in reading comes from understanding things this way as we read. But analysis demands that we mentally stand back and think about how effects are achieved. That the young couples in The Importance of Being Earnest have little chance of having happy marriages is not an appropriate topic because that topic implies that they are real people with an existence that continues when the text is over. Instead, you might focus on how the text defines what a happy marriage is and how the depiction of the young couples relates to this definition.

3. The topic should be limited to fit the scope of the paper and should give your reader direction. Don't try to say everything possible about any text. The title of the text you are discussing cannot also be the title of your paper since this implies that you are going to say everything that can be said about the text. Successful topics are found by focusing on one particular aspect of a literary work or group of works. You might choose to write about any one of the following: how certain types of relationships between people are depicted, how social issues are handled, how certain images (from nature, for example) or colors are used to create, how material is structured, how two texts that seem in many ways similar differ in one crucial way — or vice versa, tensions in the text where contradictory ideas are presented and seem unresolved. Many successful papers explore the ways that content (what the text is about) and form (the way the contents are presented) either work together or at cross purposes. If you aren't sure whether your topic will work, please discuss it with me.

The Thesis: Every successful essay has a clear thesis.

Your thesis is the main point you make about your topic. Your thesis cannot be the difference between Tennyson's poem Ulysses and Swinburne's Hymn to Proserpine. That is a topic. A successful thesis derived from this topic could be something like this: Ulysses and Hymn to Proserpine” are both set in the classical world and use reference to its values to comment implicitly on Victorian life, the authors' treatment of their material reflects their different attitudes about the purpose of life and of art. Moreover, both poems suggest a link between male contact with the feminine and death. However, Tennyson seems most interested in showing the demands made on individuals and on social organization by a heroic ethos which he assumes is masculine. For him to choose heroism seems to mean to go away from society and women. In contrast, acceptance of female power is central to Swinburne's concept of classical heroism. Consequently, one poem moves away from depiction of the feminine for its inspiration and the other toward it. (Note that a thesis for a paper longer than 4 pages is rarely one sentence long.)

Your thesis must make a different point about your topic than the author makes. That is, if, for instance, your topic is the way Christina Rossetti depicts sisterhood in Goblin Market, your thesis cannot be that the relationship between the sisters takes precedence over every other relationship. That is Rossetti's own point, so if you were to develop it as your thesis, you would just be repeating, in your own words, the plot of the narrative poem. Instead, you might look at how Rossetti uses natural imagery to suggest the complexity of the emotional demands of sisterhood. Rather than simply listing the images in the poem, you might explore how they work by paying attention to symbolic values and commenting on structural elements like juxtaposition.

Keep in mind that your thesis must be complex enough to give you material for a paper of the required length. A paper thesis needs to include two or more subtopics, the development of which will structure your paper. In choosing a thesis, ask yourself not only what ideas the text conveys but how they are conveyed. Remember that your reader already knows what is said in the text. In trying to find something interesting to say about it, ask yourself what details cause you to interpret the text as you do and what about the way it is written gives you specific impressions.

Supporting Evidence: As much as you need to present your own ideas, you need to convince your reader that they are reasonable and worth considering. You do this by presenting supporting evidence for your claims. There are three ways to do this in an English paper:

1. You may do research, but keep in mind two things:

(A) Expert opinions are still just opinions, consequently they can never prove a point. If you agree with the critic that is very nice, but you still have to explain what in the text being discussed causes you to agree. You must sum up the argument and add your own ideas in an effort to convince your reader. Remember that you can also include views that you disagree with in order to argue with them.

(B) If you and a critic say the same thing, mention this in your discussion.

2. You may, and in most cases should, quote from the text you are discussing. When quoting, avoid providing too much material (words or phrases that are irrelevant to your point) or providing too little material (so that your reason for thinking this supports your assertion is unclear). When it is not clear why you think that a quote supports your claim, you must explain how it does. The most common fear among students in English classes is that they will explain something that does not need to be explained. This almost never happens. When in doubt, explain.

3. You may summarize or paraphrase. When you do either of these things remember that you should be supporting a claim, not refreshing the reader's memory about what happens in the story. Don't introduce your idea about a specific scene with a summary of the events leading up to this scene.

Notes on revision:


other class resources