Prof. McMahand


English Composition


Building Thesis Statements and a Body of Evidence for Literary Analysis


     Key things to remember when composing a thesis statement about literature:


·         Make the statement(s) argumentative.  Do not plan on restating plot or what is most obvious about a character or set of characters.  Example:  Flannery O’Connor’s Southern people are full of prejudice and class-conscious attitudes.  (No duh!)


·         Center your thesis statement(s) on theme and character.  Pick out a theme you think you can write about and see how the narrative configures it, how the narrative constructs and develops it.  You may tie two smaller ideas together if you prefer, from one story or from more than one.



·         Choose themes that are not too obvious or too broad.  Bad examples: beauty, racism, sexism, slavery, evil, goodness, death, etc.  Alone, these issues are too massive. Narrow your focus.


Effective example of a structured focus (regarding the novel Beloved): reading slavery as an evil institution that continually “recreates” itself figuratively and literally through the life-force of the baby ghost and in the unsettled memories of its victims.  Notice how the second example ties together ideas from the first.  One could easily write a book about slavery, but the narrowness of the second example makes the material more manageable. 


·         An effective thesis statement doesn’t simply address a subject, topic, or theme but deals specifically with how character, symbol, and/or narrative structure elicits and shapes a theme.   A good thesis may also examine the impact of context (philosophical, social, economic, etc.)


·         Phrase your statements forcefully, academically, and with powerful action verbs.

      Examples:  The narrative complicates the notion of …     These metaphors

      reveal…             These characters belittle the idea that … 



General Advice

In all of your writing, not just in your thesis statement(s), strive to use action verbs (as against weak being verbs) to drive your ideas forward.  Exercise economy by using as few puffy adjectives as possible.  Stay in present tense and compose in active as against passive voice.


Good Thesis Statements

While a few scenes in Demme’s adaptation exaggerate the demonic element of the novel, the film mostly reiterates Morrison’s muted evocation of the supernatural. 


Kafka’s description of the filial relationship in “The Judgment,” as filtered through shifting perspectives, disrupts the reader’s expectation of a reliable narrative “truth.”


“The Enormous Radio” presents a subnarrative of music and meaning in which specific musical works highlight three otherwise marginal characters; these musical moments also further Irene’s realization of social fragmentation.


Alice Walker’s naming and characterization of Wangero (Dee) powerfully subverts the notion of a pure Afrocentric lineage, once a massive fantasy during the 1970s Black Power movement.



Example of a Not So Good Thesis

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” mounts an interesting probe into the workings of evil.


While the previous statements promise a highly focused and evocative examination of the literature, this thesis about “Good Man,” however well phrased, is ultimately too broad for a four page paper.  You could write about evil all year, every year, until the super volcano erupts.   Better that you finesse your interest in evil into a more manageable, pared down concept and application.  Try this on for size:  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” mounts an allegorical probe into the New South as a modern matrix of evil disguise, class consciousness, and duplicity.   



A Comment about Body Paragraphs

Remember, body graphs begin with topic sentences that are part and parcel of your thesis statement(s). These topic sentences, or minor claims, break the thesis down into manageable pieces and should lend focus to your individual paragraphs, allowing you further space to explore an idea or set of ideas, one paragraph at a time. 


Your body paragraphs should utilize direct quotes and references to important passages of dialogue, lines of narration, and recurrent or constitutive imagery.  Let the text guide you from start to finish. 



Getting Started

Compile on paper your ideas; link passages, and consider just how you will tie ideas and passages together. Look back through your notes, especially your textual annotations.  Class talk can only touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Go deeper.