See It In Writing and Basic Principle

When you write a paper for a literature class, you aren’t just completing an assignment. You’re also showing that you’re part of a conversation that’s been taking place in the classroom. To do so, you need to show that you’re a member of an interpretive community—your peers, in this instance—by constructing an argument that demonstrates your commitment to the kind of questions and reading practices your class has undertaken.

What to Look For<

Consider the following claims written for a class about experimental fiction. Which claim would make you want to go back to the text to test its arguments? Which seems to relate better to the major themes of the novel as a whole?

Claim 1: In People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, Saturn’s passage on page 186 demonstrates the struggles throughout the novel: Little Merced’s battle to preserve her father’s dignity, Smiley’s desire to be noticed and remembered, and Baby Nostradamus’ discipline in allowing the story to play out as it must. <

Claim 2: In People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, Saturn’s passage on page 186 demonstrates the tension between intentions and actions upon which the novel’s events hinge, thereby revealing the theme at the heart of the work: that all behaviors are necessarily public performances. <

Done<

What Most Readers Think<

If you preferred claim 2 to claim 1, then you’re not alone. Most readers would agree that claim 2 seems to be more promising. While this might have something to do with clarity, that’s not the only reason. Though claim 1 tells us something about the novel and makes a tentative argument, claim 2 does a better job of relating to the themes of the novel as a whole and of making a case that readers should return to the evidence—the text—to think more carefully about what the evidence might mean. Rather than merely listing plot points, as claim 1 does, claim 2 links its observations to an overarching argument. In other words, claim 2 is both thematically explicit< and complex, while claim 1 is not.

Done<

In a Nutshell<

Most readers of literary arguments prefer claims that relate to a larger interpretation and invite further investigations of the evidence. We call such claims thematically explicit and complex.

Thematically explicit means that the claim contains specific words that relate to concepts which are central to the argument as a whole, rather than generalizations.

Complex literary claims answer questions that require significant textual analysis rather than surface-level familiarity with a text. Their questions resist ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers and can’t be determined by returning to one single point in the text. Complex claims thereby create space for further conversation about the text. Because they invite an argument, their complexity also makes them contestable<.

Claims which succeed in being both complex and thematically explicit often relate several aspects of the work to one another, and clearly demonstrate the relationship between the different parts of the claim.

The Basic Principle<

Writing about literature is similar to continuing a conversation you started in class. Your peers and professors will likely prefer claims suggesting that that conversation is worth continuing and that show you understand and value the conversation. Students and instructors expect claims made about literary evidence to answer a question. They’re unlikely to find arguments interesting, though, if the answer doesn’t tell them something about the work’s larger themes or if the question can be answered by a quick survey of the evidence.

Thematically explicit claims about works of literature give the reader a sense of what reasons and evidence will be used to support the claim. These claims don’t just list each aspect of the argument, though. Instead, they forecast the larger issues that your argument will take up.

Complex claims cannot be resolved by referring to a single textual element such as a plot point, metaphor, or poetic feature. Claims that are not complex have trouble convincing an audience that their question is interesting enough to merit sustained conversation. If your audience only needs to read the primary text in order to solve the problem of the essay, then they have little reason to read your argument–and even less reason to discuss the argument further. To be an effective literary argument, your claim must be worthy of a debate, in other words, it must be contestable. By forecasting conclusions that open up rather than shut down conversation, complex claims signal to the reader that the text warrants future academic inquiry.

Thematically explicit claims

Consider the following claims:

Claim 1: Though it portrays some of the native African characters in a sympathetic light, H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines is sexist and racist. In order to reach their quest the characters have to conquer a land explicitly compared to the female body by becoming increasingly masculine, a process that the text aligns with “going native.”<

Claim 2: H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines reveals complex attitudes toward race and gender by showing the strong bonds that develop between men of different races. However, the stigma associated with the witch Gagool, the only strong female character in the novel, reveals the limitations of gender-based solidarity.<

The words “racist” and “sexist” in Claim 1 are general terms that are not thematically explicit in the context of a discussion of Haggard’s novel. Though the claim provides specific evidence to back up these arguments, they are not tied to a larger analysis of the novel’s themes. Claim 2 contains phrases that are more specific to the main themes of the text, such as “strong bonds that develop between men of different races” as well as “stigma associated with…the only strong female character in the novel.” These phrases demonstrate a familiarity with the major themes of the text, while referring to issues that presumably matter to readers (racism and gender, for instance).

Claim 2 also gives the reader a sense of how the paper will be organized in terms of reasons and evidence; the writer will likely discuss the friendships between male characters of different races, and the text’s rejection of female characters as a part of the heroic quest of the novel.

Complex claims

Consider the following claim:

“The centrality of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird and the unfairness of the trial’s verdict suggest that the novel is interested in investigating the theme of racial injustice.”<

This claim is not complex because it forecasts an argument that only needs to string together plot points. It presents a fairly self-evident theme as the argument of the paper, not a conclusion about the book’s treatment of that theme. It asks: Is To Kill a Mockingbird about racial injustice? Such a question only requires a “yes” or “no” answer, not a conversation. You might also have noticed that this claim is not contestable<. That’s because claims that are not contestable often are also not complex.

Now consider this revision:

“By focusing on the citizens of Maycomb County as members of dynamic communities and their institutions, To Kill a Mockingbird argues that it is individuals who create systemic racial injustice.”<

This claim is complex because the argument it forecasts needs to interpret Harper Lee’s characters to prove its point. It presents a conclusion about the book’s theme—that the book wants to show us how individuals participate in racial injustice—by asking a complex question: “What does To Kill a Mockingbird say about racial injustice and its sources?” Such a question requires an argument, not a one-word answer, and thereby opens up a conversation about the book.

Let’s consider the two claims that we introduced in the beginning. Click on the various parts of the claim to see an analysis of the varying degrees of complexity and thematic explicitness in each.

Claim 1: In People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, Saturn’s passage on page 186 demonstrates the struggles throughout the novel: Little Merced’s battle to preserve her father’s dignity, Smiley’s desire to be noticed and remembered, and Baby Nostradamus’ discipline in allowing the story to play out as it must.<

Claim 2: In People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, Saturn’s passage on page 186 demonstrates the tension between intentions and actions upon which the novel’s events hinge, thereby revealing the theme at the heart of the work: that all behaviors are necessarily public performances.<