How To Write Literary Essay Thesis Statement

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Thesis Statements and Topic Sentences

Thesis Statements

A thesis statement defines the scope and purpose of the paper. It needs to meet three criteria:

1. It must be arguable rather than a statement of fact. It should also say something original about the topic.

    Bad thesis: Lily Bart experiences the constraints of many social conventions in The House of Mirth. [Of course she does. What does she do with these social conventions, and how does she respond to them? What's your argument about this idea?]

    Better thesis: Lily Bart seeks to escape from the social conventions of her class in The House of Mirth, but her competing desires for a place in Selden's "republic of the spirit" and in the social world of New York cause her to gamble away her chances for a place in either world. [You could then mention the specific scenes that you will discuss.]

2. It must be limited enough so that the paper develops in some depth.

    Bad thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry are alike in some ways, but different in many others. [What ways?]

    Better thesis: Lily Bart and Clare Kendry share a desire to "pass" in their respective social worlds, but their need to take risks and to reject those worlds leads to their destruction.

3. It must be unified so that the paper does not stray from the topic.

    Bad thesis: Lily Bart gambles with her future, and Lawrence Selden is only a spectator rather than a hero of The House of Mirth. [Note: This is really the beginning of two different thesis statements.]

    Better thesis: In The House of Mirth, Lawrence Selden is a spectator who prefers to watch and judge Lily than to help her. By failing to assist her on three separate occasions, he is revealed as less a hero of the novel than as the man responsible for Lily's downfall. [Note: Sometimes thesis statements are more than one sentence long.]

4. Statements such as "In this essay I will discuss " or "I will compare two stories in this paper" or "I was interested in Marji's relationship with God, so I thought I would talk about it in this essay" are not thesis statements and are unnecessary, since mentioning the stories in the introduction already tells the reader this.

Topic Sentences

Good topic sentences can improve an essay's readability and organization. They usually meet the following criteria:

1. First sentence. A topic sentence is usually the first sentence of the paragraph, not the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

2. Link to thesis. Topic sentences use keywords or phrases from the thesis to indicate which part of the thesis will be discussed.

3. Introduce the subject of the paragraph. They tell the reader what concept will be discussed and provide an introduction to the paragraph.

4. Link to the previous paragraph. They link the subject of the present paragraph to that of the previous paragraph.

5. Indicate the progression of the essay. Topic sentences may also signal to the reader where the essay has been and where it is headed through signposting words such as "first," "second," or "finally."

Good topic sentences typically DON'T begin with the following.

1. A quotation from a critic or from the piece of fiction you're discussing. The topic sentence should relate to your points and tell the reader what the subject of the paragraph will be. Beginning the paragraph with someone else's words doesn't allow you to provide this information for the reader.

2. A piece of information that tells the reader something more about the plot of the story. When you're writing about a piece of literature, it's easy to fall into the habit of telling the plot of the story and then adding a sentence of analysis, but such an approach leaves the reader wondering what the point of the paragraph is supposed to be; it also doesn't leave you sufficient room to analyze the story fully. These "narrative" topic sentences don't provide enough information about your analysis and the points you're making.

Weak "narrative" topic sentence: Lily Bart next travels to Bellomont, where she meets Lawrence Selden again.

Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: A second example of Lily's gambling on her marriage chances occurs at Bellomont, where she ignores Percy Gryce in favor of Selden. [Note that this tells your reader that it's the second paragraph in a series of paragraph relating to the thesis, which in this case would be a thesis related to Lily's gambling on her marriage chances.]

3. A sentence that explains your response or reaction to the work, or that describes why you're talking about a particular part of it, rather than why the paragraph is important to your analysis. 

Weak "reaction" topic sentence: I felt that Lily should have known that Bertha Dorset was her enemy.

Stronger "topic-based" topic sentence: Bertha Dorset is first established as Lily's antagonist in the train scene, when she interrupts Lily's conversation with Percy Gryce and reveals that Lily smokes.


Once you've read the story or novel closely, look back over your notes for patterns of questions or ideas that interest you. Have most of your questions been about the characters, how they develop or change?

For example:
If you are reading Conrad's The Secret Agent, do you seem to be most interested in what the author has to say about society? Choose a pattern of ideas and express it in the form of a question and an answer such as the following:

Question: What does Conrad seem to be suggesting about early twentieth-century London society in his novel The Secret Agent?
Answer: Conrad suggests that all classes of society are corrupt.

Choosing too many ideas.
Choosing an idea without any support.

Now that you're familiar with the story or novel and have developed a thesis statement, you're ready to choose the evidence you'll use to support your thesis. There are a lot of good ways to do this, but all of them depend on a strong thesis for their direction.

For example:
Here's a student's thesis about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

In his novel, The Secret Agent, Conrad uses beast and cannibal imagery to describe the characters and their relationships to each other. This pattern of images suggests that Conrad saw corruption in every level of early twentieth-century London society.

This thesis focuses on the idea of social corruption and the device of imagery. To support this thesis, you would need to find images of beasts and cannibalism within the text.

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