Essay Matters … Structural Unity and Internal Coherence


Writing a literary analysis is like any form of academic writing you will do in college: it must posit a clear sense of purpose in the introduction, maintain unity of purpose in the body paragraphs, and organize all points in a coherent, logical way. In short, it must have an argument, thematic unity (all ideas are logically interrelated), and finally, structural coherence (body paragraphs posit an arguable claim, contain sufficient textual evidence to back that claim, and interpret the significance of evidence in relationship to larger ideas and meanings explored in the paper).


While there is not necessarily one “right” answer to the sorts of theoretical questions we put to a literary work (such as there would be with a math equation), there are plausible readings. It’s your job—as a literary critic—to formulate a plausible, defensible, and compelling reading in lucid, structured, logical terms. To achieve cohesion through the paper, paragraphs must have structural and thematic unity. In this handout, let’s example the concrete criteria by which to judge and evaluate our paragraphing, its effectiveness and persuasiveness.


Some of the common pitfalls:


1)       Lack of Unity and Structural Coherence: Ideas either do not cohere to the thesis concept, or they do not cohere to the claim introduced in the topic sentence. Look at following body paragraphs below, extracted from random student essays.


# 1:

Chris McCandless changes his name to Alex Supertramp to help him get away from what he knows and to have a clean start. When we think of the word “wild,” we think of the untamed and uncivilized. But, throughout the story, Alex still has several friends and morals. “The wild” (3) is a place for freedom and anarchy, a place where rules do not apply. There are no signs of civilization and human technology in the wild. As Alex begins his journey into the wild he gets rid of almost everything he has; however, he keeps his camera, his car, and quite a few other things from his “previous life.” These are just a few signs that reveal that McCandless was indeed not prepared to be entirely free from society. If he truly wanted to be completely free from “civilized” life and its trappings, he would have abandoned everything and tried to stay alive with whatever he found.


# 2:

Chris changes his name to Alex to make himself feel like he had more control over his new lifestyle. Chris would occasionally use his real name for information just to let a little bit of society back into his life. For example, when Chris filled out Wayne Westerberg’s papers so he could get a job, he used his real social security number instead of making one up. Chris also wanted to live off the land and tried not to accept help from many people. He was stubborn and knew what he wanted to do with his life. Chris let people see this side of him and they all thought he was either crazy or becoming crazy. Chris uses his newfound identity to rid himself of his past life.


Exercise: Consider the following questions for each paragraph:

a)       Can you identify an arguable claim in the topic sentence?

b)      If so, do ideas throughout the paragraph cohere to the claim posited in the topic sentence?

c)       What new ideas do the writers introduce that compromise the structural and thematic unity of each paragraph? What solutions would you offer to these writers about accommodating these various ideas in the paper?


2)       Abstractions and generalizations: These only weaken the impact of your argument and do not establish a credible analysis grounded in a close reading of the text.



“It should not be denied…that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west,” said Wallace Stegner in The American West as Living Space (15). This statement is very bold and foolish. Even though when you’re out on your own and away from civilization you may feel like you have more freedom because there is no human laws for you to live by, you’re actually more constrained. In the wild and on your own, you have to face the laws of nature which are much harsher than the ones we live by. In the wild, one mistake may cost you your life. You don’t even have to make a mistake to lose your life to keep an animal from attacking or killing you, or for you to get hurt and not be able to find help. In civilization, on the other hand, you can make mistakes and still walk away unshaved and with your still intact. Therefore, the idea of having more freedom in the wild is just a silly imagination of a hopeless romantic wanting to escape the reality of civilization.


Ř      The following paragraph provides a solid model for identifying the elements of a strong analytical paragraph: structural and thematic unity, textual support, analysis of significance.


During the majority of Chris’s life, he states that he wants to live on his own in the Alaskan wilderness; however, the steps Chris takes in achieving his goal show that his ultimate desire cannot be fully realized. [m1] Chris often insists his step into the wild will be without the help of other people and that he will continue his path completely on his own. However, as Chris comes closer to stepping into the wild, it becomes more evident that his path to success will neither be without the trappings of civilization nor without the help of other people. For instance, in preparation for his trip into Alaska, Chris makes sure he has guns, a knife, books, and rice to take with him.[m2]  Some of these items, such as the knife, where given to him by friends, but all of them come ironically from the civilized life to which Chris desperately claims he does not want to belong.[m3]  When Chris arrives at Stampede Trail, instead of finding a place to build a shelter for himself, he takes refuge in an abandoned bus left behind by minors. As he enters this bus, Chris finds more civilized tools, such as a stove, that he does not hesitate to use. [m4] When Chris steps into the wilderness, he is bringing parts of society with him. This connection between the two—between the “wild” and civilization—is inevitable and Chris cannot see this truth. [m5] 





Paragraph Diagramming


Organization Chart

 [m1]Topic sentence assigns a clear argumentative claim.

 [m2]Illustration: notice the phrase “For instance,” a verbal cue that an example is forthcoming.

 [m3]Analysis of significance. Rather than assume this example is “self-explanatory,” this writer is conscious of the necessity of making the connection between the example cited and the claim introduced in the topic sentence.

 [m4]More examples/illustrations

 [m5]Again, reinforcement of main point. This is a place I think the writer could reinforce, more explicitly, the larger “so what” questions. For example, what argument is Krakauer making about the real possibility of completely abandoning the trappings and creature comforts of civilized life in the 20th century? In other words, reinforce the link to the paper’s broader argument(s) about the author’s views on this subject.