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

Note: this advice was originally developed for readers writing about three Hawthorne short stories, but the strategies would be the same for those writing about some Breton lais, a section of Malory, or an issue in Chaucer's Troilus.

            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. It's more like a spirited conversation among friends who all have seen the same movie and who bring differing interpretive skills and perspectives to the task of understanding it.  Plot summary would not be necessary, so don't start with it or fall into it for more than a few sentences--you're just reminding us about the evidence, not being so boorish as to dominate the discussion by telling us what we all know perfectly well.  The literature paper's readers, however, probably have not read the work from the point of view of your thesis, grounded in your original insight. That's the "news" 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. 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. Often such problems arise because of a potential misreading which originates in an ambiguity in the text which the writer has read closely, 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.

What you're doing for the reader:

        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 intentional and, therefore, significant.

Focus in Analytical Writing:

        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. It's very like the kind of thinking necessary before writing an evaluation of three kinds of car you're thinking about buying--they're complex, but they can be understood as machines composed of sub-systems and given certain aesthetic "features."  You can't reasonably talk about such things in total without comparing and evaulating the sub-systems or features.  Think of these three stories as three "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?

        Since you will be doing your own primary research, and since the stories deal with complex intangibles (e.g., ideas), you shouldn't attempt to do too much in only a few pages. Concentrate your attentions on some thing or group of things which seem especially important to you. Remember that you can discuss characters, scenes, image patterns, or unusual choices of language, among other common topics. Don't be afraid to sketch a few ideas before deciding on the one you'll choose. When you have a few possible ideas, try talking to or emailing your teacher for advice--email is especially good since it gives you something in writing that might even be useful in the eventual paper.  It also allows the teacher to conveniently direct you to web-based resources like George Landow's Victorian Web, located at http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/victov.html and maintained by Professor Landow and his students.

Being thorough in the body paragraphs:

        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 Young Goodman Brown say "My faith is gone!," "My Faith is gone!," or "Faith is gone." The first is an exclamation about an abstract belief. The second is either an exclamation about an abstract belief made allegorical, or about his wife. The third is a statement, either about that allegorical abstract belief or that wife. Getting it right is part of telling the truth, which (as Professor Landow taught me many years ago) is the cardinal virtue in scholarship.  Providing this kind of thorough evaulation and presentation of evidence is what makes papers grow, not summarizing random passages because they sound great (of course they do; it's great literature!) or quoting at length from famous critics because their ideas make a lot of sense (of course they do; that's why the editors accepted the piece for publication!).   Learning how to improve your ideas' support by careful discussion of evidence is probably the hardest and most important practical skill you can learn in the English major.