Assignment: Critical Essay on Poetry, Film, or a Novel

Instructor: James Donelan

Due date: Draft: December 9, 1999; Final Copy, December 10, 1999

Critical Humanities Essay

Purpose and Requirements: This essay should interpret a work of literature or film that we have read for an educated audience. It should explain the meaning, significance, and formal characteristics of the work in four or five pages, with at least three references to secondary sources. It should be complete, but not exhaustive. To write the essay successfully, take the following steps:

Close Reading: Read (or view) the work in question carefully, slowing down when you reach a hard passage and looking up words and names you do not recognize in a dictionary. As you read, ask yourself: What kind of work is this? What purpose does it serve? What are its elements? How does it resemble or contrast with other works I have read?

Research: Acquaint yourself with the basic facts of the author’s (or director’s) life and with several in-depth critical interpretations of the work itself. Write brief summaries of anything you might find useful to cite in your essay, making sure to record the relevant bibliographical information. (Do not use Cliff’s or Monarch Notes; they are too simplistic to be helpful.)

Outline: Armed with others’ responses, factual information, and above all, close examination of the work itself, formulate your own thesis concerning the work and arrange the structure of the essay in an outline. Use a central point to organize your observations, secondary sources, and interpretations so that they will convince your readers to see the work as you do. Remember that good interpretation generally moves from pure observation to critical judgment in a series of logical steps. Your job is not only to express your insight into the work, but to convince your readers by explaining how you arrived at it.

Drafts and Revision: Write a first draft, and proofread it carefully. Exchange your draft with a classmate (or a helpful friend) and find out where it can be strengthened or improved.

Revise the draft again, and proofread not only for spelling and mechanical errors, but also for smoothness of style and clarity of reasoning.

Topic Suggestions for Particular Genres and Works:

Poetry: Almost all poetry uses the sound as well as the sense of its words as a means of artistic expression. How can you describe what you hear in the poem as well as what it says, and how can you explain how these two elements fit together? What relation do the formal conventions (or the lack of them) in the poem have to other poems or the history of poetry? Let your ears guide your mind, and let your memory place this poem in its context. Ask yourself questions about the poems like these:

The Novel: Novels are narratives that involve a sequence of events, however convoluted, and the representation of people, things, places, and states of mind. What tricks does the narrative of Woolf’s Jacob’s Room play on its readers? What are the effects of the subtle and complex shifts in the novel’s point of view? Follow the narrative carefully, and remember that narrative lines rarely run straight.

The Film: Although Jean Renoir based this film on his (and others’) direct experience of World War I, the film rarely shows any elements of the war itself, and frequently depicts civility and decency in its characters. How do these actions relate to what you know about the war itself, and what point does Renoir make with these scenes? Is there any particular scene, piece of dialogue, or image that can form the basis for an overall interpretation of the film? If so, choose an element of the film and interpret it carefully by describing it in detail, explaining how it works, and examining its significance for the film as a whole.

Final Notes: Above all, remember that you are interpreting, not evaluating the work, that is, you are telling your readers how to understand it, not telling them whether it is good or bad. Keep to your point, and avoid wild excesses in language, diction, tone, and style.

Strongly Recommended: Purchase either A Short Guide to Writing about Literature or A Short Guide to Writing about Film. Both should be available in the reference section of the UCen Bookstore, through, or in any good bookstore.