Defining a Critical Essay
A critical essay is an analysis of one or more works of literature. Contrary to its name, a critical essay does not express an opinion or one’s likes or dislikes about the text itself. It is a formal piece of writing that proves an assertion about the literature and requires the following:
Thesis Statement: What am I proving in this essay?
This is the main focus of the essay by which you intend to analyze the piece of literature. Thesis statements should NOT ask a question; rather, thesis statements should clearly present the argument being made in the essay in one or two sentences.
Writing an effective thesis statement can be quite challenging. First, avoid just offering a fact. For example, “Elie Wiesel wrote Night about his experience during the Holocaust” is not an effective thesis statement. Although this may be true, it does not convey an assertion about the text or any need for deeper analysis of the book. A strong thesis statement should “take a stand” of some sort. For example, “In his memoir Night, Elie Wiesel suggests that man’s silence during the Holocaust often demonstrates greater cruelty than overt acts of violence” is a stronger thesis statement because it takes a position regarding the inaction of those who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust. It also shows your specific perception about the book without giving away all of the details of the paper. Ultimately, the thesis statement is the keystone of your critical essay.
Evidence: How do I provide concrete support for my thesis?
It is essential to include citations in your essay to support your thesis statement. These can be quotes from dialogue or other pertinent passages in the book that substantiate the claims you are making about the book(s). Since these citations are not your original writing, you must properly cite them (see "Proper Citations" link for examples in MLA format).
Analysis: How do I link the evidence to my thesis?
Your citations cannot stand alone without explanation because the reader of the essay may not be able to draw the same conclusions without your clarification. The citations must be analyzed to connect back to proving the thesis statement and corroborating the arguments you are making in support of your thesis. You want to convince the reader that what you are arguing in your essay has been clearly proven as factual.
The Nuts and Bolts of a Critical Essay
Critical essays require a particular format, but there is some flexibility within that structure. The most basic and common critical essay is the 5-paragraph structure, however essays can be almost any length as long as you are effectively proving your thesis statement.
Essay Title: The title of the essay should reflect the thesis in some way. It also should not be too simple. For example, “Fahrenheit 451 Essay” is not an appropriate title because it does not demonstrate the topic of the essay. The title, “Overarching Government Power and Dystopia” is better because it shows premise of the essay. Essay titles should not be bold, italicized (except if a book title is being reflected within the essay title), in quotation marks, or in a bigger/different font than the rest of the essay.
Introduction Paragraph: This is the opening paragraph of a critical essay. It introduces the reader to the premise of the essay and what is going to be argued. It should include a hook, the arguments you plan to use in your essay and a thesis statement. The hook is the first sentence or two of the introduction and should pique the interest of the reader. Some common types of hooks are: quotations, analogies, anecdotes, and statistics. The hook does not give away the foundation of the essay but inspires the reader to greater thought related to the topic. It should connect to the argument(s) being made to prove the thesis. The introduction paragraph should also include the author’s name, title(s) of books being examined, and most importantly, the thesis statement.
Here is a sample introduction paragraph:
Benjamin Franklin in Fahrenheit 451
by Sarah Fornshell
Grade 9, 2012
“He that can have patience can have what he will” (Benjamin Franklin Wit). Benjamin Franklin was an influential individual in Colonial America who constantly worked to better himself and those around him. Franklin was a strong believer in person freedoms and was not afraid to do what was necessary to achieve them. Although life in Franklin’s time resembled life in Fahrenheit 451 and the changes that Franklin implemented rarely came without hard work, he never gave up and his legacy lives on in modern times. Bradbury includes Benjamin Franklin in Fahrenheit 451 because Franklin’s major innovations during his lifetime provide a sharp contrast to Montag’s way of thinking in the novel.
Body Paragraphs: Critical essays can have any number of body paragraphs depending on the number of arguments needed to prove one’s thesis statement. Each body paragraph should have an effective topic sentence that connects back to the thesis and shows how it will prove the thesis to be true. Within the body paragraph there should be numerous pieces of evidence (cited quotations/passages from the book(s) being examined) and analysis that directly substantiate the thesis.
Here is a sample body paragraph:
Grade 9, 2012
Just as Montag started out as a loyal enforcer of his government, Ben Franklin also considered himself a loyal Englishman in his early days in England. Both Ben and Montag became disillusioned with the injustice and corruption of their governments. Montag’s view of the status quo in his society was shattered unexpectedly with a shocking experience as a fireman. Montag’s epiphany occurred when an elderly woman in Fahrenheit 451 refused to part with her books and chose to be consumed by fire as her home burned. Ben Franklin’s break with England occurred over the Hutchinson letters, in which the duplicity of the English-appointed governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, was revealed. Ben provided these letters to American colonists, which brought the wrath of English authorities down upon him. His loyalty to England vanished and he began to work toward united the colonies (“The Electric Franklin”).
Conclusion Paragraph: The conclusion ties together the arguments that were used to prove the thesis in a neat package. You should not restate your arguments or thesis, but instead you should show their relationship and define how/why your arguments, evidence and analysis substantiated your thesis. Some simple strategies for a conclusion are to include a brief summary of the essay's main points, find a stark image or quotation to synopsize the essay, proved a warning or call to action for the reader, or suggest possible results or consequences.
Here is a sample conclusion paragraph:
Fahrenheit 451 Government Opposition
Grade 9, 2012
The government in Fahrenheit 451 teaches that Gulliver’s Travels was an “evil political book” because it contains political satire and inspires people to disagree with the government (Bradbury 150). Jonathan Swift was famous for his satire, and he inspired political rebellion in Europe thanks to his pamphlets and stories. But the government in Fahrenheit 451 does not want any type of rebellion. This is why Bradbury includes a reference to Swift: he is a rebel and strives for change in government, just as Montage, Faber, and Mr. Simmons’ group work for a revolution in Bradbury’s novel. These people show that although they may try to hide it, there are people who fight for revolution and try to inspire change, regardless of the government’s efforts to stop them.