LIT 3015 Essay 1:  Responding to Short Fiction

Assignment:   At this point we have discussed many short stories in detail in class and hopefully these discussions have led you to some unique perspectives about the meaning/cenral ideas of these texts.  Hopefullly these discussions have also facilitated your understanding of the basic fictional elements you will need to examine.

For this assignment you will be writing about a theme found in a story from Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar.  This may be one that we have read together as a class or another of your choosing.  You may also write about "Babette's Feast."   In this critical analysis essay of the story, you should trace the development of a theme through the author’s use of characterization, setting, and/or symbolism and discussion its connection to the metaphor of food.


What is Literary Criticism and How Do I Write a Paper of This Nature?

At its very basic definition, literary criticism is a written evaluation of a work of literature that attempts to enlighten a reader about the underlying meaning of the text, whether it is a play, poem, short story, or novel.


In this type of paper a writer is forming an academic argument.  As the writer you are arguing that your interpretation of the text is a valid - not the only interpretation - in an attempt to aid the reader in “seeing” the text in a new light or from a different perspective that perhaps may be different from their own. 


Your audience is made up of academics, scholars, literary critics, professors, and students (who are academics, scholars, and literary critics).  You should assume that they have read the text and are familiar with its contents.  Because of this you would never merely retell the story because your audience is already familiar with it.  This would also conflict with the purpose of this type of paper.  You are to discuss underlying meaning, not retell the events of the story.

Because your audience is a scholarly one, your paper must be presented in a formal manner.  You should use high diction and avoid first person, personal pronouns, and contractions.


The focus of your paper should be what you feel is an important idea or theme found in the work.  Although there are multiple theories and methods that a writer may explore when examining a text, we will concern ourselves only with the methods of the Russian Formalist and New Critical approaches, which emphasize close readings of the text, elevating this practice far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author's psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response.


Consider, for instance,  Alice Walker's "Everyday Use":

In developing your ideas, you should concern yourself with three important steps.  First you must make a writerly assertion about the content of your text.  For instance, when considering Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”, one might assert that Dee’s plans to display her mother’s quilts on her wall illustrate a disconnectedness from her heritage, which is ironic when one conisiders that Dee views this as an act of embracing her culture.  As your second step, to “prove” this assertion as a valid one, a writer would then need to provide evidence from the text to support that assertion.  A writer could then quote Mama’s lines from the story explaining that she had attempted to give Dee these same quilts when she left for college, but Dee found them to be “old faishioned” and “out of style.”  Keep in mind, however, that you cannot stop here.  Providing a quote and then moving on to another idea is not acceptable.  As your last step, you must explain how the quote from the text illustrates the assertion that you are attempting to make.  For instance, one could explain that because Dee has recently embraced the Black Power Movement’s idea of returning to one’s African roots she is merely interested in these quilts because it is the fashionable and sylish thing to do among her peers.

You will need to develop your own ideas in a similar manner:

1)  Make an assertion about the text.
2) Support this assertion with evidence (a quote from the text).
3) Explain how the evidence you have provided illustrates the assertion.
4) Cite your quote.

Organization/Shaping Your Essay

Organization is sometimes quite difficult for writers who are just beginning to write a literary critical analysis.

An effective method for oraganizing an essay examining a play, short story or novel might look like this (NOTE:  This is only a suggestion; organize your essay in the manner you feel is best for your topic):

An outline for your essay might look like the one below.  This is a suggested outline only.  You may have other ideas about the organization of the body of your essay.

I.Intro (Identify the central idea or thematic thread that can be traced throughout the story and briefly discuss its connection to the idea of food and why that is significant; state your claim and preview your main points that will be discussed in your essay.)
A.  Character 1 (protagonist)
  1.  Explain how the idea of food is connected to this the theme and this character.
        2.    Discuss how your theme is revealed in this character’s actions
        3.    Discuss how it is revealed in this character’s dialogue.
        4.    Discuss how this idea is revealed by any objects or places closely associated with this character (here you are looking at the function of setting and symbols within the setting and story).

B.  Character 2 (antagonist)
      1.  Explain how the idea of food is connected to this the theme and this character.
        2.    Discuss how your theme is revealed in this character’s actions
        3.    Discuss how it is revealed in this character’s dialogue.
        4.    Discuss how this idea is revealed by any objects or places closely associated with this character (here you are looking at the function of setting and symbols within the setting and story).
III.   Conclusion:  Summarize the ideas discussed the ideas in the body of your essay as well as the validity or force of the theme/central idea; restate your claim and the significance of how your theme is connected to the idea of food.

NOTE:  The title of your essay should reflect the entire content of your essay.  Your intro should preview the entire content of your essay.  When read together your intro and conclusion should form one idea.

NOTE:  When relating events in the story use words such as, "Vapnyar  develops the major characters in the story..."  Notice the use of the active verb "develops." Try to stick with using active verbs as you analyze the story.  This is also known as “the literary present tense.”  You should also note that sometimes a narrator can be directly involved in a story. Sometimes the narrator is not named and is not directly involved in the story's development.

Questions for Discovering Ideas:
What ideas do you discover in the work? How do you discover them (through action, character depiction, scenes, language?)
To what do the ideas pertain? To the individuals themselves? To individuals and society? To religion? To social, political, or economic justice?
Are the ideas limited to members of any groups represented by the characters (age, race, nationality, or personal status)? Or are the ideas applicable to general conditions of life? Explain.
Which characters in their own right represent or embody ideas? How do their actions and speeches bring these ideas out?
What ideas seem particularly important in the work? Why? Is it asserted directly, indirectly, dramatically, ironically? Does any one method predominate? Why/
How pervasive in the work is the idea (throughout or intermittent)? To what degree is it associated with a major character or action? How does the structure of the work affect or shape your understanding of the idea?
What value or values are embodied in the idea? Of what importance are the values to the work’s meaning?
How compelling is the idea? How could the work be appreciated without reference to any idea at all?

Your essay should have a title.  It should also be typed, double-spaced, with one inch margins all around, Times New Roman Font, & 12 pt.  Refer to your handbook:  Rules for Writers for other questions about format.  Your essay should be a minimum of 4 pages and no more than 6.  You must include a Works Cited Page in proper MLA style, including in-text citations.  Generally, an in-text citation looks like this -- (Vapnyar 5). Notice that the end punctuation, that is the period, generally goes after the end parenthesis. The number five indicates on what page the material is taken.
See for Modern Language Association variations on this style. You must include a copy of each source with all information used, paraphrased, or quoted highlighted.  Each copy of a source must be clearly identified as to author, publication, and clear page numbers. 

Please see Harmon's Hall of Fame for example student essays.  See essays listed under the heading "Responding to Fiction."

These techniques are the most important for your essay:
Discovering and focusing on a single clearly defined interpretation.  Your thesis statement should not be a statement of fact, essentially your goal is to explain, evaluate, and argue your individual point of view.
  • Your interpretation must be supported with evidence from the text (quotes from the story).  You must show which specific characters, events, conflicts, images, or themes prompted your response.  Do not merely retell the major events of the story—your readers have already read it.
  • Remember that literary criticism is formal academic writing.  The first person, personal pronouns, and contractions should be avoided.

Your grade for this assignment will be determined as follows:

Total Possible Points:  50/

Final Draft, evaluated on the following criteria:

Focus (14 points):  Does essay have a clear purpose? Overall claim stated? Focus on a single idea or aspect of the literature? Does the writer explain the broader implications of this claim to the text as a whole? Are the subclaims clearly related to the claim? When read together, do the intro and conclusion form one idea?

Development (14 points):  Does writer support interpretation with evidence from text? Avoid giving a plot summary? Does writer explain for the reader how the evidence supports interpretation?  Does writer quote accurately from the source, including citing specific page numbers?

Organization (14 points):   Do first few sentences arouse the reader’s interest and focus their attention on the subject? Are readers expectations set and clearly met? Do paragraphs have clear focus, unity and coherence? Effective transitions? Does the writer guide the reader from beginning to end?

Style (4 points):  Is language clear direct and readable? Are sentences clear, concise, and easily read by intended audience? Is word choice appropriate for audience? Do sentences reveal and sustain appropriate voice and tone? Does writer use the literary present tense to describe events in the story?

Mechanics (4 points):  Are there obvious errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Are there patterns of error?






Grading scale:

A 45-50
B 40-44
C 35-39
D 30-34
F   0-29