Try It: Complex Claims

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Making Claims Complex

For a literary argument to be compelling, readers must find its claim complex. These claims answer questions that require close reading and analysis rather than surface-level familiarity with a text. Their questions resist “yes” or “no” answers and thereby create space for further conversation. In this section, you’ll practice determining whether or not a claim is complex, and then you’ll work on writing your own complex literary claims.

Exercise 1: Which Claim is Complex?

You will decide which of the following claims is complex. For each claim presented to you, click either A) Claim is complex, or B) Claim is not complex.

Prompt 1: “Make an argument about how Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility responds to an earlier sentimental work, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.”

Claim 1: “In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen mirrors Samuel Richardson’s thematic concerns of loss and atonement, but her use of realism in characterization calls into question the way Richardson uses sentimentality to oversimplify the female characters in his novels.”

  • Claim is complex

  • Claim is not complex

  • Correct. This claim is complex. It suggests where readers will find the compelling links between Austen’s novel and Richardson’s, and complicates that relationship by addressing Austen’s commentary on Richardson’s characterization. In order to make its case, it requires the reader to return to the evidence in order to evaluate the interpretation. You might have noticed that this claim is also thematically explicit. Often, claims that are complex are also thematically explicit. Well done!

  • Sorry. This claim is complex. If it were not complex, it would be possible to evaluate this claim without revisiting the evidence in the novels. However, there is more going on here. Take another look.

Exercise 1: Which Claim is Complex?

You will decide which of the following claims is complex. For each claim presented to you, click either A) Claim is complex, or B) Claim is not complex.

Prompt 2: “Using one or more of Emily Dickinson’s poems, discuss the effects of her use of form.”

Claim 2: “In her poem, ‘A Great Hope Fell,’ Emily Dickinson’s first stanza is one line longer than the other stanzas in this poem; this extra line, ‘And let no Witness in’ emphasizes the poem’s interest in silence and containment.”

  • Claim is complex

  • Claim is not complex

  • Sorry. This claim is not complex. Although the claim seems to be making an argument about how to interpret Dickinson’s poem, it actually just describes it. The reader can quickly confirm or deny your point here by returning to the text once; it does not require that the reader evaluate an interpretation of the text. You may have noticed that this claim is also not contestable<, as there is not enough of an argument for a reader to disagree (or agree) with. If your claim is not complex, it is likely that it is also not contestable. Take another look.

  • Correct. This claim is not complex. It is wholly descriptive, and does not require evaluation of the text. Well done!

Exercise 2: Which Claim is More Complex?

You are writing a 5-6 page paper for an introductory literary course, in which you are reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Keeping what you’ve learned about complex claims in mind, rank the following claims from most to least promising for this assignment.

  • Claim A: “Tristram Shandy is a novel that is characterized most clearly by its extraordinarily digressive form, typified by the passage on Le Fever’s sword and the nature of the ‘sentimental soldier.’”
  • Claim B: “In Tristram Shandy, swords are at once emblems of honor and a comment on the contradictory nature of the ‘sentimental soldier.’”
  • Claim C: “In Tristram Shandy, swords are passed down from father to son, as can be seen when Le Fever’s sword is passed on to his son, who takes it into battle once he has reached adulthood.”
Most Complex
Less Complex
Least Complex

Most readers would argue for a different order of complexity. Try again.

Exercise 2: Which Claim is More Complex?

In your introductory literary course, you are reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Your instructor has asked you to workshop a set of claims about the novel, in which you begin by ranking them from most to least complex. She shows you the following claims:

  • Claim A: “The novel is narrated by Janie, the protagonist, and exhibits a kind of nested narration, in which Janie tells the story of her life to her best friend Phoeby, who will, in turn, tell that story to the nosy community in which they live.”
  • Claim B: In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake examines issues of authority, gender, and desire between an older woman and a much younger man.
  • Claim C: “Hurston’s use of language and silence in Their Eyes Were Watching God suggests that Janie’s empowerment as an individual and a woman are linked to finding a voice and then learning to use and control it.”
Most Complex
Less Complex
Least Complex

Most readers would argue for a different order of complexity. Try again.

Exercise 3: Find the Complex Content

In the claims below, click on the part of the claim that you believe to be the most complex.

Claim 1:

  • ‘In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen mirrors Samuel Richardson’s thematic concerns of loss and atonement,

  • but her use of realism in characterization calls into question the way Richardson uses sentimentality to oversimplify the female characters in his novels.’

  • This points to themes that Austen uses in her novel, but does not require the reader to return to the text to think carefully about their significance to the novel. Try again.

  • Correct. This part of the claim is complex because it can only be resolved by referring to both thematic content (sentimentality) and formal content (realism and characterization) as they relate to each other. By interpreting multiple textual elements, it invites further academic inquiry.

Exercise 3: Find the Complex Content

In the claims below, click on the part of the claim that you believe to be the most complex.

Claim 2:

  • “While swords are talismans of chivalry, and pride in the legacy of the ancestors who might have passed them down,

  • they also embody violence.

  • In Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, swords are at once emblems of honor and a comment on the contradictory nature of the ‘sentimental soldier. ’”

  • This is an assertion of commonly-held views of swords and works to set up the complex part of the claim. However, this is not the complex content. Try again.

  • While this complicates the student’s depiction of the sword and further sets up the complex content, this does not constitute the complex content. Try again.

  • Correct. This part of the claim is complex because it cannot be resolved by referring to a single textual element and requires further academic inquiry. The student asks us to revisit the text to evaluate the nature of the sentimental soldier, and how something which symbolizes both chivalry and violence plays into Sterne’s depiction of the sentimental man.

Exercise 4: Revise This Claim To Make It Complex

Now, you will work on revising a claim to make it complex. In the following examples, you will decide which pieces need to be added to an existing claim to make it complex.

In your class, you have just read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Classroom discussions have focused on the violence of the story’s shocking ending. You have been given an assignment that asks you to explore the use of violence in the story. Here is the prompt:

“What is the purpose of violence in Flannery O’Connor’s story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’?”

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You write the following claim:

“In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ the violence helps the reader understand the major themes of the story.”

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You realize that your claim needs to be revised to make it more complex, and after brainstorming, you decide that you want to focus on O’Connor’s treatment of morality in the context of violence. Here are some of the elements you can choose from to make your claim more complex. Which element would you choose?

  • The relationship between the characters’ violence and their clearly established moral codes.

  • The point in the story when the grandmother tells the Misfit to pray, so that “Jesus [will] help you.”

  • The Misfit’s discussion with the grandmother about whether Jesus could really raise the dead.

  • Correct. Exploring the relationship between O’Connor’s use of violence and her characters’ relationship to clear-cut moral codes is a way of opening up an argument and building a claim that would require readers to return to the text to think further about it. Here’s what that claim might look like:

    In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” the deployment of deadly violence corresponds directly to moral clarity and helps the characters understand how to live in their world.

    Of course there are many ways in which you could use this complex element to build a claim. This is just one example.

  • Sorry. Including more detail from the plot will not automatically make your claim complex. Avoid retelling the story of the literary work you are discussing in your claim. Try again.

  • Sorry. Including more detail from the plot will not automatically make your claim complex. Avoid retelling the story of the literary work you are discussing in your claim. Try again.

Exercise 4: Revise This Claim To Make It Complex

Now, you will work on revising a claim to make it complex. In the following examples, you will decide which pieces need to be added to an existing claim to make it complex.

In your class, you have just read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Classroom discussions have focused on the violence of the story’s shocking ending. You have been given an assignment that asks you to explore the use of violence in the story. Here is the prompt:

“What is the purpose of violence in Flannery O’Connor’s story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’?”

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A friend of yours is thinking along the same lines and also wants to write about violence and morality, but your friend wants to focus on gender. Which of these pieces would you advise your friend to use?

  • The Grandmother’s apparent recognition of the Misfit as one of her own children at the end of the story.

  • The relationship between the bloody, “masculine” violence of the Misfit, which readers recognize as masculine, and the Grandmother’s “feminine” passive-aggression.

  • The fact that the title of the story ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ draws readers’ attention to gender because it contains the word “man.”

  • Sorry. Including more detail from the plot will not automatically make your claim complex. Avoid retelling the story of the literary work you are discussing in your claim. Try again.

  • Correct. By looking at the relationship between deadly violence directly employed by a pathologically aggressive male character and the insidious, but arguably equally harmful, brutality of a matriarchal character, you can hope to tell your readers something interesting about how O’Connor uses violence in her story. Examining this complex aspect of the text allows you to make a claim that cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no,” but instead requires the reader to consider your evidence carefully in order to evaluate the strength of your argument.

    Here’s what that claim might look like:

    “In her short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," Flannery O’Connor unpacks the different ways that violent men and women deploy brutality in order to explore how social expectations guide the extent to which characters can manifest violence or leave it latent.”

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    Of course there are many ways in which you could use this complex element to build a claim. This is just one example.

  • Sorry. Without connecting it to larger issues in the text that readers might have a conversation about, an observation about a local issue, such as a particular word in the title, will not make your claim more complex. Try again.