The main focus of any essay should be your argument about the text or texts that you are studying. So, how do you form an argument about a literary text? It is important to point out that contemporary literary criticism no longer accepts that there is simply one meaning in a text, a meaning which the critic must work to uncover. Instead, it is seen as the job of the critic to uncover his or her unique interpretation of the text, which might then impact upon the interpretations of others. This is not to say, of course, that all interpretations will be equally valid, or that a critic is given complete freedom (we will get to evaluating argument validity later on). What this means is that it is your job to articulate—with the aide of certain discipline-specific principles and conventions—what you believe the text to be saying. This is your argument.
Because your argument is a unique, personal reading of the text, it is your job to communicate your argument in as clear and comprehensive a way as possible. A sophisticated argument does not begin as an abstract idea, but a clear statement of what you believe to be going on in the text. How might one go about articulating an argument about a text? There is a three step analytical model that you can follow.
The first step is selecting which one topic from the text you will be addressing. We all know that a text will concern itself with many different topics and ideas: love, death, revenge, anxiety, public vs. private, gender, sexuality, etc. In an essay or exam response it will be impossible to address all of the topics covered in any one text. Instead, you must move into the text with surgical precision by drawing out just one main topic. The first step in forming your argument about a text is to select the one topic that you will be examining. Customarily, essay titles give you a specific topic, and ask you to consider how that topic is operating in the text.
In order to form your argument, you must ask yourself what you believe the text to be saying about the topic you have selected. If you are writing on the topic of mental illness in Mrs. Dalloway, for example, your statement of theme might be: ‘the novel portrays mental illness as a feminizing force, which is feared and misunderstood by the patriarchal medical establishment.’ That is your argument. That is what you believe the text to be saying about the topic you have selected, and it will then be your duty to provide your reader with evidence and support for your argument. Why should someone agree with what you perceive to be happening in the text?
Topic: Mental Illness
Theme: In the novel, mental illness is portrayed as a feminizing force, which is feared and misunderstood by the patriarchal medical establishment.
The final step in this analytical model is to prove the validity of your argument to the reader through your own reading of the text. You must demonstrate to your reader that the text does, indeed, say what you claim it to be saying. While literary critics have an extraordinary amount of power and control in shaping texts, it is important to remember that not all arguments will be equally valid. An argument can only be perceived as valid through:
- The extent to which it takes the full text into consideration.
- The extent to which it successfully acknowledges appropriate, substantial analytical evidence.