Dr. McMahand

 

English Composition

 

This document instructs you on how to compose a literary critique of short fiction.  What follows is a series of suggestions and examples (the latter taken from a student essay). 

 

Creating a Title

 

After you have properly positioned your heading, using MLA guidelines, posit your title.  It should include your thesis idea, the author’s name, and the title of the source text.  Here is Steve Downing’s exemplary title:

 

Gap-Toothed and Heavy: Perspectives of Exclusion

in Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story”

 

Here the reader can clearly see that Steve’s essay will address point-of-view and the theme of exclusion.  Rightly, Steve does not embolden his title, nor does he underline or italicize it.  He only puts quotation marks around the title of the source text, and he centers his title with a good balance of words on each line.

 

Constructing the Opening (or Introductory) Paragraph

 

Begin with general remarks about the themes or ideas you will be tracking throughout your essay.  Or, you could begin with contextual remarks that frame your angle of analysis.  Introduce the author, the title of his or her work, and then mention the characters and elements of fiction you will be addressing in your body paragraphs. These elements can be internal and external conflict, context, tone, symbolism, perspective, and so on.  Finally, conclude your introduction with a thesis that shows the author’s use of a fictional element in expressing the theme.  In the following paragraph by Steve Downing, the student writer accomplishes all the needed points of his task: introduce themes, mention element/technique, and lastly, acknowledge both the author’s full name and the title of the story.  The last sentence presents his thesis.  (I have italicized his work only to separate it further from my instructions). 

 

An example:     

Appearance and class are two primary indicators of success and as such are also the determinants of social superiority and the qualifiers for acceptance into the illusive mainstream.  In “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” Russell Banks develops a singular example of inequality among individuals from opposite ends of their social and economic spectrums.  Of these two characters, Ron is unquestionably more successful and Sarah less fortunate.  Accordingly, Ron has the upper hand in the relationship from the beginning and Sarah follows a step behind.  However, this interpretation, obvious as it may seem, is written nowhere in the text.  Banks, instead, makes it apparent to the reader by playing with our perception.  His method of shifting the story’s point-of-view creates our awareness of the exclusion in Ron and Sarah’s relationship.

 

 

Constructing Body Paragraphs

 

All body paragraphs must conform to the following pattern: The Three I-s: Identify, Illustrate, and Interpret.  Several variations of this pattern are possible, once you identify a claim and illustrate with a quote.

 

Identify claim: Begin with an argumentative statement (a smaller claim) that refers back to a part of the thesis.

 

An example:

Following the introductory physical descriptions, a first person account of the developing relationship more accurately captures Ron’s feelings and inappropriate intentions.     

 

Illustrate: Provide examples (textual evidence from the story) to support the claim you have just made.

 

An example:

Describing his specific drive in pursuit of Sarah, Ron says:

My concern then, when I was first becoming involved with Sarah, was merely with the moment, holding it, grasping it wholly, as if its beginning did not grow out of some other prior moment in her life and my life separately, and at the same time did not lead into future moments in our separate lives.  … I did not know cruel this this was.  When you have never done a thing before and that thing is not simply and clearly right or wrong, you frequently do not know if it is a cruel thing, you just go ahead and do it. (155)

 

In this case, Steve uses a block quote to illustrate his point about the muddy motivations Ron has for talking to Sarah. Steve also exemplifies the point that Banks places Ron’s thoughts in first person to show Ron’s attempts at generating sympathy for his contemptible motivation. For this assignment you must use a quoted passage from the text in each body paragraph.

 

Interpret: Offer an analysis of the quoted passage.  Here you want to explain how the passage reinforces theme, character, conflict, perspective, symbolism, irony, foreshadowing, and/or tone—whatever focus you are taking in your thesis.  Complicate the claim by looking at the subtleties and intricacies of the story and the way it demonstrates the claim you are making about it.  How does the theme change?  How does the character reveal unsuspected depths?  What does the image or dialogue or the character’s action say about him or her or about the themes, conflicts, etc.?  Your analysis “fleshes out” your claim, which furthers your thesis.  You will have as many body paragraphs as you deem necessary; I do not prescribe the five paragraph rule and leave the number of body paragraphs up to your discretion and to the dictates of your argument.       

 

An example of the Interpretation within the paragraph: 

Ron is not attracted to Sarah; on the contrary, he is fascinated by the novelty of her appearance.  He aims not to connect with her emotionally but only to prolong this instance of experiencing such an oddity, and he reveals this to the reader directly in first person.  Similarly, both he and Sarah are interested in the appropriateness of their relationship—Sarah as a rare opportunity to date someone out of her league and Ron as a fetish for her grotesque appearance.  Ron is well aware of the panoptic gaze when he explains, “They were lawyers, and I knew them slightly.  They were grinning at me.  I grinned back and got into my car” (157).  Although he’s seemingly not bothered by the onlookers, Ron’s preoccupation with Sarah is wholly fueled by their opinion.  Consequently, he relates in first person his pursuit of “the moment” during his conversations with Sarah—an obsession straight from the mouth of the obsessed (155).

 

In the interpretation above, Steve mentions differences in appearance, the panoptic gaze, Ron and Sarah’s motivations, and an obsession with oddity.  He says all this—rather brilliantly—to further his discussion of the story’s treatment of social exclusion, the primary theme he is addressing in his essay.  And he addresses this theme through comments about point-of-view (perspective), the primary technique in his analysis of the story.  Remember, your analysis must combine a look at any given technique (or element of fiction) with an examination of a chosen theme. 

The Entire Paragraph:

Following the introductory physical descriptions, a first person account of the developing relationship more accurately captures Ron’s feelings and inappropriate intentions. Describing his specific drive in pursuit of Sarah, Ron says:

My concern then, when I was first becoming involved with Sarah, was merely with

 the moment, holding it, grasping it wholly, as if its beginning did not grow out of some other prior moment in her life and my life separately, and at the same time did not lead into future moments in our separate lives.  … I did not know cruel this this was.  When you have never done a thing before and that thing is not simply and clearly right or wrong, you frequently do not know if it is a cruel thing, you just go ahead and do it. (155)

Ron is not attracted to Sarah; on the contrary, he is fascinated by the novelty of her appearance.  He aims not to connect with her emotionally but only to prolong this instance of experiencing such an oddity, and he reveals this to the reader directly in first person.  Similarly, both he and Sarah are interested in the appropriateness of their relationship—Sarah as a rare opportunity to date someone out of her league and Ron as a fetish for her grotesque appearance.  Ron is well aware of the panoptic gaze when he explains, “They were lawyers, and I knew them slightly.  They were grinning at me.  I grinned back and got into my car” (157).  Although he’s seemingly not bothered by the onlookers, Ron’s preoccupation with Sarah is wholly fueled by their opinion.  Consequently, he relates in first person his pursuit of “the moment” during his conversations with Sarah—an obsession straight from the mouth of the obsessed (155).

 

Constructing the Concluding Paragraph

 

Your concluding paragraph should re-articulate your thesis, your major points, and a little nuance (perhaps a different angle of interpretation or the mention of a different literary text or a call for further discussion on the story and the discourse you have created).

 

An example:

            Ron says he loves Sarah; he also calls her a “disgusting, ugly bitch” (175).  Sarah comes to believe that she deserves “friendship and respect;” she also returns to a husband who beats her (168).  Banks’s story presents a biting example of exclusion dependent upon the social qualifiers of inequality: class and appearance.  He accomplishes this by shifting the story’s point-of-view, thus forcing the reader to recognize the separation in Ron and Sarah’s relationship.  But might not there be another reason for his telling of Ron and Sarah?  Perhaps Banks is insistent also in defying the paradigm of physiognomy.  Even Chaucer’s 14th century characterizations portrayed people as we do today—they who look good are good—yet Ron is a beautiful man of deplorable action and Sarah a homely woman undoubtedly more deserving of Ron’s beauty.  Indeed, Banks seems to be questioning the validity of those qualifications that merit acceptance into the mainstream as well as our perception of the exclusion that follows.

 

Exemplary here is Steve’s avoidance of a perfunctory conclusion.  He does not write “In summation…” Instead, the paragraph begins as any paragraph would.  Also, note Steve’s clever way of returning to his focal points: exclusion, class, appearance, and point-of-view.  Note his comment about Banks’s possible interest in attacking physiognomy and—for illustration—the veiled reference to the “Wife of Bath” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The point and reference veer off slightly into new territory but are similar enough to the main discussion so as to prevent a loss of focus.  In all, the mention of Chaucer gives the conclusion freshness and depth, signifying Steve’s intellectual curiosity.  You would do well to follow his lead.