These guidelines for writing papers about literature are organized into four sections: general guidelines, fiction guidelines, poetry guidelines, and drama guidelines. To view each section, click on the links at the left of your screen. You may also click on the links to read the primary sources (the literature featured in the examples.)
Writing a Literary Essay
A literary essay is an essay in which you will interpret and analyze a literary text: a fictional work, such as a short story or novel; a poem; or a dramatic work, informally called a play. To write a competent literary essay, you will need to read and study the literary work (known as a primary text) carefully. Then, considering your class assignment carefully, you should choose a topic and focus for your essay. An early step in drafting your essay will be to create a suitable thesis statement.
A thesis is a precisely worded statement that summarizes the main idea to be presented in an essay. In order to direct and control the development of the essay, a thesis should specify the limited aspects of the topic that will be included in the discussion. The thesis statement of a literary essay is the sentence that outlines the analysis the essay will present. A good literary thesis is specific, concise, and purposeful. Study the models below for illustrations of weak and improved thesis statements. For additional models from each genre, visit the fiction, poetry, and drama sections of this web site.
First Draft (Fiction): “The Story of an Hour tells about a woman’s reaction to her husband’s death.
Revised Thesis: Louise Mallard’s reaction to the news of her husband’s death reflects her changing attitude about her role as a proper wife.
Explanation: The first draft thesis shown above is only a plot summary. The improved version makes a thematic assertion that the writer can explain and support in the essay.
First Draft (Poetry): In this essay, I will analyze the poem “Richard Cory” for its interesting images and characterization.
Revised Thesis: Robinson’s “Richard Cory” presents a series of memorable images that contrast the affluence of Cory with the poverty of his envious audience.
Explanation: The draft thesis shown above begins with an unnecessary “I will analyze” statement and concludes with a vague statement of the essay’s goals. The improved thesis offers a more direct and concise opening, followed by specific goals for the essay’s development.
First Draft (Drama): In Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll's House,” Norma leaves her husband and children to find herself.
Revised Thesis: Although Nora Helmer, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House, suffers severe emotional turmoil and financial deprivation by leaving Torvald and her children, she must separate herself from them in order to become a mature, independent woman.
Explanation: The first draft thesis is stated too broadly. The revised thesis presents a precisely worded statement about the effects of Nora’s leaving Torvald and the children, and it clearly identifies her goals for the future. The improved version provides direction and control for the development of the essay.
In a direct quotation, a passage from a text is inserted verbatim (i.e., word for word) in an essay. Be sure to enclose direct quotations within double quotation marks.
The only changes that are permitted in direct quotations are the following:
- Adding a brief explanatory word or phrase enclosed in brackets. (See #2 below.)
- Omitting a portion of text, indicated with an ellipsis (i.e., three dots). (See #4 below.)
- Changing a lower case letter to a capital or a capital to a lower case letter. (See #4 below.)
1. Whenever possible, introduce the quotation with a coherent introductory phrase.
Example: Chopin’s opening sentence announces that “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble” (265).
Explanation: This introductory phrase includes the author’s name and identifies the section of the story from which the quotation is taken. In general, an introductory phrase (also known as a lead-in phrase) serves to connect a quoted passage to the ongoing literary analysis in your essay. Note that when the author’s name is included in the introductory phrase, it does not need to be repeated in the parenthetical citation; only the specific page number is shown.
2. Enclose the quotation in quotation marks. A brief explanatory word or phrase may be enclosed in brackets.
Example: “Now her [Mrs. Mallard’s] bosom rose and fell tumultuously” (Chopin 265).
Explanation: The addition of Mrs. Mallard’s name explains the pronoun “her.” Note that the period at the end of the sentence follows the parenthetical citation, which includes both the author’s last name and the specific page reference for the quoted passage.
3. Follow the quotation with a parenthetical citation identifying the author (if his or her name is not included in the introductory phrase) and the exact page location of the quotation.
Example: The author describes the scene Mrs. Mallard views from her bedroom window: “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life” (Chopin 265).
Explanation: Note that the period at the end of the sentence follows the parenthetical citation.
4. If you omit a portion of the original text, use an ellipsis (i.e., three dots) to indicate the omission.
Example: When Mrs. Mallard begins to change her attitude, she realizes that “there would be no one to live for during those coming years…” (Chopin 266).
Explanation: Be sure that the words you have retained from the author’s original sentence read coherently and create a complete and grammatical sentence. Note that if the text omission occurs at the end of a sentence, as shown here, the period is placed in its standard position—after the parenthetical citation.
5. If an error exists in the quoted text, you must still quote accurately, but you should indicate the error with the Latin word “sic” in brackets immediately after the error.
Example: “Now her bosom rose and fell tumulltuously [sic]” (Chopin 266).
Explanation: The bracketed “sic” (a word that means “thus”) indicates that “tumultuously” is misspelled.
6. Short quotations can be incorporated into the text of your essay. However, long quotations (i.e., quotations that are more than three or four lines long) should be presented in the indented form.
Example: Chopin vividly describes Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the news of her husband’s death:
She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her. (265)
Explanation: Note that the final period in an indented quotation precedes the parenthetical citation.
Quotation from Primary text: Quoting from the primary text is important to support your generalizations about the story or the characters. The author’s “voice” should be heard!
First Draft: "Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death" is a great way to begin the story.
Revised Quotation: Chopin's opening announcement that "...Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble..." foreshadows the events to come in the story (Chopin 265).
Explanation: The first draft allows this writer to get her thoughts out on paper. The revision shows that she has remained accurate, favored a briefer portion of the quote and used ellipsis marks to show the omission, added a more coherent lead-in phrase, and followed the quotation with the correct citation.
Quoting from Secondary Sources (Critical and Biographical Works)
1. Limit the use of verbatim quotations when you are using secondary sources. In general, only ten to fifteen percent of your secondary source references should be in the form of direct quotations.The subsequent secondary source citations are from an article by Daniel Deneau.
Explanation: Use direct quotation of secondary sources only for a few exceptionally well-phrased critical statements. Use summary or paraphrase for most references to critical or biographical sources. (See “Paraphrasing from Secondary Sources” below.)
2. Just as with a primary source quotation, introduce a secondary source quotation with a coherent introductory phrase, and enclose the quotation in quotation marks.
Example: Daniel P. Deneau points out that Mrs. Mallard emerges from her bedroom “with a totally new perspective on…her place in the scheme of things” (2).
Explanation: In this introductory phrase, the author’s name and a specific connection of the quoted passage to the story are provided. The ellipsis (i.e., three dots) indicates that some words from the original text have been omitted because they are not essential to the meaning of the passage. Be sure that when you omit words from a quotation, the remaining text reads coherently and creates a complete and grammatical sentence.
3. Identify the author in your parenthetical citation if his or her name is not included in the introductory phrase.
Example: One critic emphasizes that Mrs. Mallard is affected “with a totally new perspective on…her place in the scheme of things” (Deneau 2).
Explanation: Even when the author’s name is shown in the parenthetical citation, it’s very helpful to have an introductory phrase that signals the beginning of the source information.
For additional information about adding brief explanatory insertions to quotations, identifying errors within quotations, or indenting long quotations, see “Quoting from Primary Sources” above.
For specific information about quoting correctly from other literary genres, see the following specific sections of the tutorial: “Quoting From Fiction,” “Quoting From Poetry,” or “Quoting From Drama.”
While verbatim quotations are important in a literary essay, students should take care not to quote excessively. In general, not more than ten to fifteen percent of a research essay should be presented in the form of verbatim quotations from secondary sources. Another useful method for bringing secondary sources into a literary essay is to use paraphrased ideas. A paraphrase is a restatement in your own words of a secondary source. Up to forty or fifty percent of your research essay may be based on information obtained from critical sources in the form of paraphrased ideas.
1. Introduce any paraphrased ideas that you obtain from secondary sources with an appropriate and coherent introductory phrase, and follow each paraphrased idea with a parenthetical citation. Do not use quotation marks for paraphrased information.
Example: One critic emphasizes that Mrs. Mallard develops a new attitude about her changed status (Deneau 2).
Explanation: The introductory phrase and the parenthetical citation show your reader where the paraphrased information begins and ends. Without this framework, paraphrased ideas will be difficult for your reader to identify. Note that paraphrased passages are not enclosed in quotation marks; only word-for-word quotations are placed in quotation marks.
2. Be sure to paraphrase secondary sources accurately; never misrepresent a critic’s ideas.
Example: Critic Daniel Deneau traces Louise Mallard’s transformation from bereaved widow to liberated woman to a precise moment in Chopin’s story (2).
Explanation: Although Deneau pinpoints the exact time of Mrs. Mallard’s transformation, he does not take a position on her new situation. To say that he “celebrates” her change would misrepresent his perspective; the verb “traces” in the example above is a neutral assessment of her character development, one that better demonstrates the tone of Deneau’s analysis.
3. Be sure to introduce every paraphrased idea, and follow it with a parenthetical citation. Adding a parenthetical citation at the conclusion of several paraphrased sentences is not adequate because you must acknowledge every idea that you obtain from a source.
Example: One critic emphasizes that Mrs. Mallard’s new attitude about her changed status overtakes her with little warning (Deneau 2). Although she seems unlikely to recover easily from the shock of her husband’s untimely death, in less than an hour an unidentified “something” envelops her, transforming grief into joy. Deneau not only describes Louise Mallard’s transformation from bereaved widow to liberated woman but also connects it to a precise moment in Chopin’s story (2).
Explanation: In this example of a paraphrase, related points from Deneau’s article are connected by an interpretive statement. Note that each paraphrased idea requires a separate parenthetical citation, as shown above.
For specific information about paraphrasing correctly from other literary genres, see the following specific sections of the tutorial: “Quoting From Fiction,” “Quoting From Poetry,” or “Quoting From Drama.”
1. Draft a literary analysis (as you would draft any other type of essay) by identifying your working thesis and informally outlining your main sub-topics.
2. Begin your first draft with your own ideas about the literary selection that you are analyzing.
3. After you have drafted your own ideas, support those ideas with specific details from the text of the selection—details about characters, setting, images, symbols, plot, or other relevant information. (DO NOT JUST SUMMARIZE THE PLOT, HOWEVER!) You should also support your ideas with specific quotations from the text of the selection. See specific directions for “Quoting from Primary Sources” above.
4. Once you have provided your own analysis, add supporting information from the critical or biographical sources that you have consulted. See specific directions for “Quoting from Secondary Sources” and “Paraphrasing from Secondary Sources” above.
5. Revise and edit the first draft of your essay before you write the final draft.
After you formulate your essay’s thesis, develop your introductory paragraph. You may capture the reader’s interest in a variety of ways, for example, by writing a provocative question, using a quotation from the text of the literary selection, or discussing a major theme of the selection. You may also wish to identify one of the selection’s prominent characteristics, such as the surprise ending of “The Story of an Hour.” After your introductory remarks, state your thesis at the conclusion of the introductory paragraph.
Sample Introduction: How much change can actually be depicted in a very brief story about only one hour in the life of the protagonist? Surprisingly, Kate Chopin reveals a great deal about the inner psychological life of the protagonist in “The Story of an Hour.” Louise Mallard’s reaction to the news of her husband’s accident reflects her changing attitude about her role as a proper wife.
Explanation: The introduction begins with a provocative question for capturing the reader’s interest, followed with a general overview of the story’s content in the second sentence. The third sentence, the thesis, suggests a comparison/contrast between Louise Mallard’s emotions upon hearing of Brently Mallard’s death in a railroad accident and the emotions she experiences as she begins to anticipate her new social status.
After the opening paragraph, including the thesis statement, has been presented, body paragraphs, such as the one below, develop the essay’s argument that Louise Mallard’s attitude about her role as a woman changes in the course of the story. Note how quotations from the primary source, Chopin’s story, and from a critical source, Deneau’s article, are both synthesized into the paragraph.
First Draft: At he beginning of the story, Chopin says, “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (265). When she is told her husband is dead, she reacts right away and weeps with “sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms” (265). Later, she goes to her room, and Daniel P. Deneau, a critic, says that she is affected “with a totally new perspective on…her place in the scheme of things” (265). His analysis helps explain the sudden change in Mrs. Mallard.
Revision: As the story opens, the reader learns that Louise Mallard is “afflicted with a heart trouble” (Chopin 265). Chopin's choice of detail implies that, except for her illness, Louise Mallard is a typical nineteenth-century wife. Thus, when her husband, Brently, is reported dead in a train disaster, the news is conveyed to Louise gently, “in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing” (265). Louise reacts immediately and openly, weeping with “sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms” (265). Later, she retires to her room, to mourn her husband’s death in seclusion. At this moment of social disengagement, according to critic Daniel P. Deneau, an idea suddenly occurs to her, one that “oddly arrives from the sky, [to] exert a powerful physical influence on Louise and leave her with a totally new perspective on...her place in the scheme of things” (2). Through Deneau’s perceptive analysis, the reader watches Mrs. Mallard’s transformation from bereaved nineteenth-century widow to liberated modern woman.
Explanation: The first draft demonstrates that the writer has assembled all the necessary evidence from the text. In the revision, the writer has added the following information:
1. An explanation of the significance of the first line.
2. Quoted passages from the primary text to depict the situation and highlight Mrs. Mallard’s strong response.
3. A quoted passage from a secondary source to introduce the story’s main conflict: Mrs. Mallard’s transformation. (See example in Works Cited section below.)
1. Begin a new page that you name Works Cited.
2. In alphabetical order, list all of the sources that you have quoted or paraphrased, using the author’s last name or the first important word of the title (if no author is listed). Do not number the entries on the Works Cited page.
3. Provide all of the required publication information about each source , whether the publication is a book, a periodical, or an electronic source. (Example: Deneau, Daniel. Explicator, Summer 2003, Vol. 61.)
4. Use correct MLA form for each entry. Follow the models given in your MLA handbook or use the library site.
5. Double space all lines on the Works Cited page.
This guide is an adaptation of the original, written by Professor Judy Angona and Professor Louise Silverman of the OCC English Department.