Major American Novels

Course Description

In this class, we will be reading and considering a number of the most important or most critically lauded moments in the development of the American novel.

Assignment #1—Analyzing Themes

This paper is the most traditionally “English class” assignment we will be completing this semester. You will be asked to pick an important theme or repeated image in one of the texts we have read so far (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and “Bartleby the Scrivener”). This kind of analysis is very heavily dependent on the critic (in this case you) and your opinions regarding what counts as “important” within the text. We are doing this assignment at this point because we will be looking at more objective ways of analyzing texts in coming assignments, but this assignment will serve as a baseline for how criticism has been done in the past.

What You Will Be Doing

I’m hoping this is an assignment that is similar to one you have completed at some point in your career (be it in high school or in other English classes), but in case not (or if you just want a refresher) here’s an outline of what you need to be doing to complete this paper.

Step 1: Choosing a Theme

Before beginning this assignment, you want to choose a repeated theme or image from one of the texts we’ve read. For instance, you could talk about instances where the color red in The Scarlet Letter is meant to suggest hypocrisy. This theme or image can be anything, of course, but given that this analysis of a repeated theme or image is going to be driven by a hypothesis, you need to pick something that gives you some kind of critical perspective on the book.

The idea behind this thesis-driven approach is not so much to show whether or not the book is good or bad (which is irrelevant), but to reveal a way in which the book works to make meaning or provide enjoyment (or fails to make meaning or fails to provide enjoyment). As such, you need to also be thinking about how your theme works to prove a larger point about society, life, philosophy, textuality, whatever. This larger point is going to be your thesis.

Step 2: Write an Introduction

Having picked a theme that in some way reveals a text’s meaning-making apparatuses, you need to introduce and situate this theme for your audience. As a general rule, your introduction should be a paragraph or series of paragraphs arguing for the importance of your topic that concludes with a statement of your thesis as the final sentence. Recently, though, I’ve been experimenting with stating a broad idea of the thesis as the first sentence of anything I write. I find this has the effect of focusing my writing and I think it might help you, as well. After you’ve broadly introduced what you’re doing, you can explain more slowly about why you are doing this, but this gets you out of being too broad in the introduction (e.g. “The Scarlet Letter is an important philosophical novel written in 1854 by Nathaniel Hawthorne” (because, duh)). So, for instance:

In this paper, I analyze the usage of the color red in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and reveal how this color usage comments on the hidden hypocrisy underpinning Hawthorne’s conception of Puritan society. In Hawthorne’s nostalgic depiction of colonial-era society in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he describes a society of men and women who spend their days in “in sad-colored garments,” but the novel is also marked by the titular red letter. Moreover, the public and colorful shaming of Hester Prynne by the scarlet “A” bleeds into other characters who also, while not publicly marked, bear a red stain that allows Hawthorne to comment on these characters’ hidden sin. This association between the color red and secret sin provides the backbone for Hawthorne’s commentary on secret hypocrisy amongst the puritans at the dawn of America’s history.

By telling your readers at the beginning what you plan to do, you focus your own introduction and keep extraneous or overly broad claims out of your essay. Feel free not to do this if you find yourself wanting to organize your paper differently, but I’ve found introductions to be a weak point in student writing in the past.

Step 3: Write the Body

Now that your topic has been introduced, it’s time to get to specifics. For each body section (and you need at least three), you will be analyzing an example quote from the text in which your theme or image appears. Between each section (as well as the first section and the introduction), you need to have a transition sentence or phrase that illustrates how you want your ideas to relate. For instance, one quote could intensify the theme from the previous (“Even beyond the association depicted in the previous quote, later in the novel …”), one quote could continue from the the previous (“Continuing this association between red and secret sin, …”), one quote could contrast with the previous (“Unlike the previous quote, … “), or a whole host of other relationships. In any case, these transitions do a lot of work toward making your argument make sense for readers. As you move from one point to another, you need to tell your readers how and why you’re moving between your points.

After the transition, provide a little bit of context to the quote. Who’s talking? What are they talking about? What is happening at this moment in the text? This should not take more than two to three sentences. Given that we all actually have read (and that these texts are canonical, anyway), you can assume that the reader has read the book you are discussing (if you were writing about something more obscure, you would provide more context), so don’t overwhelm with context.

Next, you need to state the quote. If the quotation is longer than three lines, it needs to be included as a properly formatted block quote. Otherwise, it will be included as an in-line quote. Do not worry about a page number, but do mention the chapter # in introducing the quote.

After including the quote, you will talk a little about how the quote makes meaning in its specific context but also in the broader context of the discussion you are making. This point also suggests the issue of order: you are not bound to go in page order in this essay. It is more important that you build up the case in the way that makes the most sense. Often, however, as authors like to develop or enrich their use of symbols as a novel progresses, you will end up going in page order but you do not have to.

Step 4: Write the Conclusion

Having provided all of your examples and built up a case that this theme matters, you will spend the remainder of this paper (i.e. the conclusion) discussing the broader meaning-making done by this theme. If, for instance, all your examples of the color red in The Scarlet Letter show characters as having a hidden sin, in contrast to Hester’s public shame, what do you think this means for the context of the novel? You would explain this here. The idea behind a conclusion is that it brings together all the threads you’ve been spinning in the body sections of the essay.

What You Will Turn In

You will be turning in the above-described essay as either a Word Document (.doc or .docx) or a PDF file to the drop box on Blackboard. Your essay will be 6-10 pages of double-spaced text (think 0.5 page for introduction, 1.5 pages for each quote, 1 page for conclusion). You do not need to provide a title for this essay beyond something basic (“The Color Red in The Scarlet Letter”) unless you want to be more creative. The assignment is due by midnight on the 24th of September.