There are few concepts in essay-writing more important—and confusing, to the uninitiated—than the thesis statement. Let's start out with what it's not:
-It's not your personal reaction to the text.
-It's not a summary, synopsis, or main idea, of the text.
The good news is, both of these things—your personal reaction, and the main idea of the text—are great starting-points on the road to crafting a strong thesis.
So, now that we're clear on what a thesis isn't, let's come up with a simple working definition of what it is. Here's my best stab: It an argument stating how the text does what it does.
We know that novels, stories, poems do a lot of things, in a lot of ways—the point of a thesis is not to cover all the bases. The narrower your focus, the better. If you look closely, our definition implies two halves to a thesis: the how half, and the what half.
Remember when we said that your personal reaction can help you think your way to a strong thesis? Here's where to pay close attention to how some aspect (think narrow—one scene, a few lines) of the text made you feel. Confused? Amused? Bored? Chances are, all these reader reactions can be accounted for by techniques the author has used. Let's look at the famous last lines of Katherine Mansfield's story, The Garden Party.
“Isn't life,” she stammered, “isn't life—” But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn't it, darling?” said Laurie.
The End. Feel lost, like you're missing something? What is life? Why won't Mansfield tell us? And why does Laurie seem to know exactly what she is talking about, when we don't? Let's translate our befuddlement into authorial technique. How about: Mansfield leaves things out in order to... More specific: Mansfield uses omission within dialogue in order to... Or, with regard to Laurie: Mansfield privileges character comprehension above reader comprehension in order to...
In order to what? Now we come to the second half of the thesis: what is our chosen technique accomplishing in the text? Here's where your main idea skills come in handy. What is the text about? For The Garden Party we might say: It's about a young girl's first exposure to death. How can we link the how half to the what half? How about: Mansfield uses omission within dialogue to depict a young girl's first exposure to death. Now check your claim: does it make sense? Is that really what omission is doing here? Or is it doing something more specific? How about: Mansfield uses omission within dialogue in order to depict the mystery of death for a young girl. Notice how much narrower this claim is than the previous one. But it also seems to make more sense: omission does create mystery. The next question is: can you find more textual evidence to support your claim? If so, great! If not, try another statement. Thesis-making is a trial-and-error process. But eventually, crafting one hypothetical statement after another, testing it for logic, searching the text for supporting evidence, you'll come up with a convincing, narrow argument about how the text does what it does.
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