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How to Write an Essay About a Novel

by Soheila Battaglia, Demand Media

    The purpose of a literature essay is to examine and evaluate a work of literature. To properly analyze a novel, you must break it down into its constitutive elements, including characterization, symbolism and theme. This process of analysis will help you to better understand the novel as a whole and to successfully write an essay about it or part of it.

    Parts of the Novel

    During and after reading a novel, the reader should ask a series of questions about aspects of the text to better understand the material. According to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in terms of characterization, the reader should ask, what are the main characters’ virtues and vices? Which of their actions or statements give insight into their morals? What do the characters desire? In terms of the novel's theme, the reader should ask, what is the story about? Are there any social problems conveyed through the novel? What messages does the author communicate regarding shared human experiences and perspectives on reality? If the story uses symbols, what do they represent? One or more of your responses to these questions will form the material on which your essay is based.

    Main Argument in the Essay

    The first step to writing an essay about a novel is to determine the main idea or argument. Millsaps College advises students, "Your essay should not just summarize the story's action or the writer's argument; your thesis should make an argument of your own." If the point you are making seems too general or too obvious, be more specific. For example, for the novel "Farenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, the following main argument is too general: "The novel talks about the dangers of technology." A more specific and effective main argument would be, "Through its depiction of a highly controlled dystopian society, the novel conveys the dangers of using technology as an escape from human emotion and relationships." This main argument is your thesis statement.

    Textual Evidence in the Essay

    The English department at California State University, Channel Islands writes that "it's fine to make a point ..., but then you must provide examples that support your points." Specific evidence to support your argument includes direct references to the novel. These can be paraphrases, specific details, or direct quotations. Remember that textual evidence should only be employed when it directly supports the main idea, and that it must be preceded or followed by analysis and an explanation of its relevance to your main point. Textual evidence must always be cited with page numbers from the novel.

    Personal Interpretation Based on Evidence

    Analysis and explanation show the reader that you have closely read and reflected on the novel. Instead of summarizing or retelling the story, the focus of a literature essay should be the development of a particular point being made about the text. Your personal interpretation of the material is conveyed through the conclusions you draw about motivations and meanings of aspects of the novel and its relationship to the real world, and those conclusions must be based on specific evidence from the text. The University of Texas at El Paso suggests analyzing the text as an argument, a structure, a product of the author's mind, in a social context and from a psychological standpoint.

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    About the Author

    Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.

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