Journal: making arguments about literature

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This is a hybrid lecture in that I have posted it in the form of a journal activity in which you answer questions. Completion of this journal is essential to your success on the next paper, so I highly recommend that you study and actively engage this material and make it your own!

Copy/paste the questions in your journal below and then answer them based on the material provided here. Once you are done, you will be able to comment on the material in this week's discussion forum.


Section I: Equipment for Living

Scholar Kenneth Burke has called literature "equipment for living." What does this mean? In answering here, many students often refer to holy texts such as The Bible or The Koran. Holy texts can indeed serve as equipment for living; if you consider a text to be holy, then you most likely view it as helpful and even necessary guidance for your life. By all means mention any holy texts you consider helpful guidance for you if you’re so inclined, but then be sure to push further to answer the following:

QUESTION 1: Can a person find a modern fictional short story or novel or poem or play (of a non-religious nature) such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein “equipment for living”? Explain how Frankenstein the novel might be helpful, might provide guidance in your life. Try not to judge the question even if you think it's silly. Just go with it and explore your thoughts on Frankenstein as "equipment for living."


Section II: Issues and Claims

Before you write an argument about a work of literature such as Frankenstein, you've got to have an issue to write about. John Schilb and John Clifford in their excellent text Making Arguments about Literature define an issue as "something about which people have disagreed or might disagree" (16). They go on to say that the most useful way for you as a literary scholar is to consider an issue as "a question with no obvious, immediate answer" (17). What great advice!

As you read a work of literature, jot down big questions as they occur to you. This is the best way to identify possible issues you might write about later in a literary argument.

Case in point: for the purpose of this course, I have created a huge study guide for Frankenstein. Basically, I created this document by jotting down big, open-ended questions that came to me, such as "Is Victor himself guilty of murder?" or "Is Victor acting honorably?" or "What are the main causes of the creature's rebellion from society and from Victor?" These types of big, open-ended questions that allow you to discuss and consider and hypothesize possible answers are really just issues posed as questions!

Here's one directly from the study guide. The issue is responsibility in science :

153: On this page, Victor states, “I called myself the murderer of William, of Justine, and of Clerval.” Later, on page 155, he states, “I considered whether I should not declare myself guilty, and suffer the penalty of the law, less innocent than poor Justine had been.” Do you agree? Should Victor be held accountable as the murderer? Should scientists take ultimate responsibility for their work along with it’s intended AND unintended consequences? What is the role of ethics/responsibility/morality in science? This big question resonates throughout this novel and could fuel an essay!

Ask yourself big, resonating questions that lead you to possibilities, to musings, to ponderings, to big answers. Such is the fuel of interesting literary argumentation.

QUESTION 2: What is the best way to come up with possible issues to write about as you read a work of literature? 

A helpful acknowledgment to make when coming up with questions is the acknowledgment that the novel didn't have to be written the way that it was, that the author made specific decisions for specific reasons. For instance, Frankenstein didn't have to be structured the way it was, with letters and framed by a North Pole explorer. Victor didn't have to make the decisions he made, choosing instead to complete the monster's female companion. The monster could have acted differently and blown up supermarkets in Geneva. This or that person could have survived. We could have ended in the Sahara rather than the North Pole. Possibilities are endless. But Shelley chose her way as the way of the novel. Why does the novelist make the decisions she does? Why does Shelley choose to decorate her novel with ice and frigidness? with deep waters? with snow-capped peaks? Why does she decide to inhabit that little cottage with the specific people she does? Why does Shelley make things so hard on the monster? Acknowledge that the author has taken a specific path and passed others for specific and interesting reasons. Start a question off with, "Why does Shelley choose to ..." and see what comes of it.

QUESTION 3: How might acknowledging that an author has choices and has made specific choices over others help you to generate issue-based questions?

A claim is a statement that is spoken or written in the hope that it will be considered true. We previously defined issue as a question with various debatable answers. Well, a claim is one of those debatable answers!

Your thesis (main point) in any argument is the issue plus the claim. Usually, the thesis appears at the tail end of your introduction. Here's a handy little equation: THESIS = ISSUE (question) + CLAIM (answer)

EXAMPLE THESIS: For social creatures who are spurned and cast out and afforded no room in society, rebellion and terrorism are final and effective recourses for demanding natural rights. But why does Frankenstein's monster rebel and terrorize his maker and humanity? Primarily, the creature resorts to terror and rebellion [Here's the issue stated clearly! I posed it as a question first just for clarity. You can do this as well if it helps add clarity.] because both Victor and society are guilty of denying him the companionship and loving-kindness he as a social creature requires in order to live [and here's the claim stated clearly!].

QUESTION 4: What is an issue, and what is a claim? In an argumentative essay, what do these two items have to do with your thesis?


Section III: Audience (Your Implied Reader)

When you read scholarly interpretations of literature in literary journals, you’ll notice that the writers of these pieces write for a fairly specific audience: in general, these scholarly writers assume that their audience is interested in literary study, is intelligent and well-read, and has at least a cursory familiarity with the work and author in question (for instance, maybe they have read the piece once or twice but haven’t given it or the author the amount of time required for a full interpretation). This kind of audience will appreciate relevant background information and will definitely appreciate quotes placed into context for them but will probably lose interest if you spend lots of time on easy encyclopedia-ish background information they already know (“William Faulkner grew up in Oxford Mississippi, the oldest of four sons, blah blah blah…”). When you write for this course, you can imagine your general audience in the same way. This is definitely good news for you!

QUESTION 5: What assumptions should you make about your audience for this literary based paper? How would your job change if you had to assume that your audience knew absolutely nothing about the piece in question and had never even heard of the author?


Section IV: Evidence (Support for Claims!)

So you have an issue and you have a claim about that issue. Now you need evidence to support your claim. Evidence is just that! It is support that you give your claims so that others will accept them as true or at least plausible.

When you make an argument about a work of literature, evidence most valued by your audience is likely to be details of the work itself (your primary source).

In order to prove your part of the claim that the monster is denied companionship, for instance, quote words and phrases, directly from the novel, that shows this to be true, that show the monster repeatedly rejected.

But don't be willfully selective, including only certain quotes that help you and avoiding others that might complicate or challenge your assertion. Quote from various parts of the text to establish yourself as thorough and fair rather than simply quoting from one part of the text--whenever possible.

How much should you quote? Schilb and Clifford explain succinctly:

Arguments about literature are most compelling when supported by quotations, but be careful not to quote excessively. If you constantly repeat other people's words, providing few of your own, your readers will hardly get a sense of you as an author. Moreover, a paper full of quotation marks is hard to read. Make sure to quote selectively, remembering that sometimes you can simply paraphrase. When you do quote, try to cite only the words you need. You do not have to reproduce a whole line or sentence if one word is enough to support your point. (52)

More evidence may come from outside sources (your secondary sources). For instance, if you would like to further establish that in the world, rebellion and terrorism are indeed directly linked to rejection, find psychology or criminal science essays on InfoTrac or another source that directly support this correlation. Then use these findings to further enlighten our understanding of the monster.

Another important aspect of supplying evidence is your ethos. This is the Greek word for the image of you that your audience gets when they read your argument. Do they consider you pompous? Over-sure of your case? Manipulative? Unfair? A slacker? Careful and methodical? Conscientious? A scholar who takes pride in considering multiple viewpoints? A person who has carefully studied the issue and come to the main claim through much thought and weighing of the evidence? Establish your ethos early for maximum effectiveness.

QUESTION 6: According to Schilb and Clifford, how much/little should you quote in a literary argument? and why?

QUESTION 7: What are secondary sources, and how might you use them in an argumentative essay on literature?

QUESTION 8: What is ethos, and why is it important in an essay?

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