How to Write an Essay About a Novel

How to Write an Essay About a Novel

Think about the last novel you read. What about it did you love or hate? The purpose of a literature essay is to examine and evaluate a work of literature in an academic setting. 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 in order to write a thorough, insightful essay.

1 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. Readers might ask questions like regarding the characters' motivations. Or 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? You may find that one or more of your responses to these questions will then become the base of your essay.

2 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.

3 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. That evidence must also 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.

4 Personal Interpretation Based on Evidence

Analysis and explanation show the reader 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 can be conveyed through the conclusions you draw about the motivations and meanings of the novel and any real-world relationships. Those related conclusions need to be based on specific evidence from the text. Options for analyzing the text include looking it through an argument, story structure and author's intent, in a social context or from a psychological standpoint.

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.