Understanding and Addressing Your "Best Reader" in a Literature Paper

        Just as you would assume your best readers for the product purchase recommendation knew what the product was and basically how it worked, you should assume your reader has read the work of literature you are discussing. This makes the literature paper much different from the "book review" or "book report," which specifically addresses readers who have not read the work in question. The literature paper's readers, however, probably have not read the work from the point of view of your thesis. That's what you have to tell them, the work you are doing for them, the value you add to their rereading.

Starting the Introduction:

        Frequently the paper begins directly addressing the problem of "Hawthorne's readers" (in third person) because it sets up the problem to be solved as one the actual reader might be familiar with but may not have thought was important until this moment. Conventionally, academic readers are never addressed in the second person ("you") but the author may call her/himself "I."  The introduction then makes the case for why this is a problem, why we should care about it if we are to read Hawthorne well. Interdisciplinary analysis may help us see an unusual problem or pattern of evidence by bringing to Hawthorne's text evidence from history, economics, biology, art history, law, political science, or any other relevant discipline.  Often such problems arise because of a potential misreading which arises from an ambiguity in the text, or because of some historical circumstance (in plot or Hawthorne's C19 language) which the writer has discovered but the reader might not know about. Other problems to be solved for Hawthorne's readers might arise because they had not thought to compare the two or three stories which the writer has decided to consider together. Why are they useful to compare? They show us Hawthorne doing "X" in similar, though slightly different ways. The explanation for that becomes the writer's thesis.

Justifying Your Insight:

        Comparison usually would be important to any argument about "why Hawthorne did [x] in his story" because his strategy and tools in any one story might be expected to vary in others. What you're looking for are patterns of similarity that enable you to say, in effect, "he did it this way before, so that makes it more likely he's doing it this way again." Then look at the differences in the way he did it, and think about what those differences mean. For instance, his thinking about the subject might have changed, or the individual story situation might be different enough that his treatment of some part of it would have to differ. As a self-consciously "literary" author, Hawthorne is unlikely to repeat anything in a simple fashion (coyote chases roadrunner), but when he does repeat something it's likely to be significant.

        Remember that any analysis, the "taking apart of a thing" and an evaluation of its parts for functionality or quality, necessarily requires comparison and contrast. Those product purchase recommendations were a demonstration of that. Think of these stories as "Hawthorne products." How do their parts work? How well do they work and why? Are there any hidden features? What value do we get for our efforts to understand them? What dangers lurk there and what precautions should be taken?

Symbols vs. Images:

        Because K-12 teachers often treat symbol and image detection as the sum total of literary analysis, we should consider it separately here, but your pattern of evidence or problem to be solved need not involve either symbols or images.  Some students are intrigued by Hawthorne's overt (or nearly so) use of symbols like the fountain in "Rappaccini's Daughter" or the Bible in "My Kinsman Major Molineaux." These might have minor but significant meaning, but other Hawthorne stories make such symbolic elements a major issue, like the character named "Faith" in "Young Goodman Brown" or the veil in "The Minister's Black Veil."  If you really want to compare symbolism in two stories rather than just tracing the function of symbols in one, you need to restrict your focus to one or two symbols per story or the paper will become unmanageably large. Remember that not all images (or sounds or feelings etc.) are symbols. A "symbol" must "stand for something else," of course, but all words "stand for things." Symbols stand for special things, things not otherwise present, or things not otherwise detectable. A cross might be a symbol for a death, a sacrifice, or just an intersection in a highway. Context must be brought into evidence in order to say "X is a symbol of Y."

        Remember, too, that if many different things seem to "stand for" or "suggest" the same kind of thing, you probably are looking at a thematic image rather than a single "symbol." Thematic images repeat (the "theme" part) in various forms the kind of thing the image is about (e.g., images of shadow and light, images of innocence, images of animals). The repetition of the thematic image is designed to remind the reader (sometimes subliminally) that some kind of idea is repeating in varying places (disguise and revelation, purity [and the threat of corruption?], appetites or degradations of the human form, or perhaps only innocent nature vs. human sophistication). Just as in the case of the symbol, you have to provide evidence from context (e.g., perhaps, another story?) to support your relation of the image to the function you say it serves.

Rereading to Test Your Evidence:

        Once your introduction has made clear how your thesis will explain the reader's problem, work through your evidence and reasoning carefully, giving time enough to each piece to explain it thoroughly as it relates to your thesis. Don't be satisfied with a quick reference before skipping to the next point. Reread the passages your evidence comes from and make sure you've got it right (especially direct quotes, should you need to refer to the author's precise word choice). For instance, did the Bible in "My Kinsman" stand for God in the story, or was the absence of anyone reading the Bible a sign of godlessness in this New England town?  What relationship did the Bible have to the ray of moonlight falling on its open pages, given that moonlight is used so often in the story that it rises to the level of thematic imagery in itself? Interpreting the evidence carefullyis part of "telling the truth" as an academic writer.

Concluding the Paper:

        Just as the Product Purchase Recommendation had to conclude by recommending a product (or explaining why one couldn’t be recommended), a literary analysis has to recommend understanding part or all of Hawthorne’s text in a certain non-obvious way. Once you have explained that carefully, you should be in a position to see other consequences of that fact for your readers. Those consequences could relate to their actual lives, how they read other Hawthorne stories, or how they read other literature. In any case, let your conclusion do more than merely restating your thesis.