Sidebar: Moving from Topic to Claim for a Literature Paper

It’s sometimes daunting to move from a proposed topic for a literature paper to a good claim. Even if you have a prompt, that in itself is not enough to write a good essay. Describing a text or demonstrating that you have read it carefully is part of what you need to do in your writing for literature classes, but think of it as a means to an end rather than as your goal. Your essays should move the class conversation forward by answering a question you haven’t addressed as a class yet or by revising and complicating a class consensus. This sidebar will help you identify questions worth answering.

Suppose your instructor has asked you to write a paper about religion in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Your class has already discussed the protagonist’s friend Jim Conklin as a possible Christ figure. Let’s look at the development of a possible claim for this paper. Click on each claim to see an analysis of its appropriateness for the prompt:

  1. In The Red Badge of Courage, Jim Conklin is a Christ figure.
  1. Similarities between Jim Conklin and Jesus Christ include their initials, their kindness and generosity, and their sacrificial deaths.
  1. The Red Badge of Courage situates its protagonist, Jim Conklin, as a Christ figure; his position as a Union soldier, his bravery, and his sacrificial death suggest that the Union cause was indeed the noble and morally correct one.
  1. Although The Red Badge of Courage’s protagonist, Union soldier Jim Conklin, is the novel’s main Christ figure, the stereotyping of all the soldiers—both those fighting for the Union and those fighting for the Confederacy—makes it difficult to draw fine distinctions between the sides and instead highlights the terrible conditions of war that make it a universal human tragedy.