How to construct a literary thesis statement

academics expository writing

Before dive in, here are a few things that will hopefully make the whole process of writing a thesis a bit less stressful. First of all, it’s important to remember that your thesis will change throughout the writing process and that’s perfectly fine (even good!). Second, your thesis doesn’t have to be just one sentence; two, or even three, sentences is just fine. And finally, I prefer to use the French word for thesis statement: problématique. You can see in the word that it implies “raising problems,” noting clearly there's an issue or problem at stake. This idea of posing questions or problems is helpfully logical in the context of a literary essay. Writing about literature is not usually scientific, so writing about literature is more about “showing” using examples and interpretation, rather than being about demonstrating how a premise is absolutely true. 

Step 1: Reflecting on the prompt through gathering examples

You may have a prompt to respond to, or you might be tasked with coming up with something you personally found interesting in the text. Prompt or no prompt, the first step is seeing how the text can help you think through and approach the question at hand. This means going back through the text and looking for moments that stick out in a particular way. This can be thematic (a literal discussion or reflection on the topic) or formal (use of specific literary devices, syntax, etc). Go through the text and pick out the thematic and formal examples that interest you and spark a discussion as it relates to your prompt. 

Step 2: Drafting a thesis or problématique: linking the how to the why

Let's first define problématique:

An ensemble of questions and issues that put the text in perspective... it’s most often a question on the aesthetics, the construction, the elaboration of the text, in relation to an issue with an important theme. The problématique thus attempts to work out a how through questioning that can eventually end up in a why. The progression and revelation are justified and announced. 

There are three things I like about this definition:

  1. The emphasis on construction. You are putting together the ideas and examples to actively construct something specific and new!
  2. The inclusion of having a “why.” Why does this matter? What are the stakes? What does the text actually do and why is it doing that? Having a real "why" makes your thesis dynamic.
  3. The problématique itself should, as the author writes, “impose” its own “levels of reflection." In other words, if you have a complex enough thesis statement, the organization of the paper should follow from it.

So, in writing your thesis statement, you should think about a way you can say: “the text does X through Y in order to Z.” 

Let's look at an example:

Here's a strong, clear thesis statement utilizing theme and a formal element from a former student of mine. The text in question is book of poems called Notebook of a Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire: 

Césaire uses repetitive motifs of colors to poignantly describe the social inferiority that Black people are confronted with daily. His repetition and usage of colors in his poem are not only for creating a more vivid experience for the reader, but also create a strong social criticism and underline racial injustice.

The book itself speaks about racial injustice, so that theme is relatively easy to hone in on. But this student chose to link this theme to the poet’s usage and repetition of color. This thesis is strong because you know what to expect from the rest of the paper: a discussion of specific examples of literary elements that will be linked to the theme through the student’s interpretation. It’s both precise and open-ended enough to provoke the reader’s curiosity to read the rest of the paper. 

Step 3: Writing and revising

You’re going to have to revise the first version of your thesis. You might not have a perfectly clear version of a thesis the first time: you know you just want to write about colors and racial injustice, for example, but you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say. That’s totally fine! As you move through writing your body paragraphs, check back in with your thesis periodically, adjusting it as needed and as your involvement in your essay deepens.

Penelope attended the University of Chicago, where she graduated with a major in Comparative Literature. She then completed a Master 1 at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Comparative Literature. She is currently a PhD candidate in Romance Studies - French at Cornell University.


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