Historical and Literary Analysis

Writing About Literature

The objective of this assignment is improving your communication and analytical thinking skills by crafting an essay (1500-1750 words) that: 1) offers a scholarly interpretation of one of Chaucer’s shorter poems, and 2) engages the interpretations of the text offered previously by other literary scholars. This project will also provide the textual material for the Modern Manuscript and Digital Edition projects. During the first stage of this project, we will build a collaborative annotated bibliography in Zotero that can then be integrated into the final project, and as a class, we will select the best 7-10 final essays for inclusion in the manuscript and the online edition.

Historical and Literary Analysis Project Description

Start with the text and your research. Any literary essay should first begin with the text itself and with your own ideas about how it should be interpreted as a literary and/or historical artifact. Before doing anything else, first examine your poem in detail and develop your own original reading. Then, conduct research in order to learn about the historical and critical context of the poem. Again, before you even begin writing, you should be well-informed about the historical context in which your text was written as well as what other literary scholars have had to say. Sherri Brown, the LMC librarian has created a very useful library guide for our class that provides research tips and links to important resources; use it.

Develop your essay around a thesis.  A literary essay is more than a summary of the poem and what others have had to say about it. The thesis of your essay will be specific. It will present your interpretation of the text and your ideas about its meaning in a historical and/or literary context. This is an example of a good thesis: “In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, Chaucer examines in detail how female desire was shaped by and channeled through male-dominated political, social, and literary structures in late-medieval society. In the process of doing so, he also demonstrates how a primarily secular, Middle English literary tradition might empower women and other marginalized groups by providing them with new tools for appropriating power for themselves.” This is an example of a bad thesis: “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale are about female desire in the Middle Ages.”

The good thesis is specific about both the topic that the essay is going to discuss–medieval female desire as portrayed in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale–as well as what the essay’s author has to say about that topic–Chaucer shows how female desire was constructed by male-dominated political, social, and literary structures. The bad thesis really just offers up an overly-general topic of discussion without giving the reader any insight into what the essay’s author thinks about that topic. The good thesis also goes even one step further, and connects the author’s interpretation of Chaucer and female desire back into the “bigger picture” discussion of the development of a Middle English literary tradition.

Your essay should have a logical and coherent organizational structure. Do not fall back on the five-paragraph theme; that structure is too simplistic to provide you with the organizational clarity a project of this nature requires. Ideally, your essay should comprise one or two introductory paragraphs that set out your thesis and provide an overview/preview/roadmap of your argument. The introduction should be followed by several body paragraphs, each of which develops an important point supporting your thesis using appropriate evidence drawn from the primary text(s) and your secondary sources. The essay should also offer a conclusion of one or two paragraphs that goes beyond the introduction and suggests how your analysis of the text(s) helps to place it(them) within a larger historical, critical, or literary tradition. You should use transition sentences strategically to demonstrate how the idea in one paragraph flows from the idea in the preceding paragraph, so that paragraphs are connected to one another as well as to the thesis. If the five paragraph theme is like a wheel, a set of spokes only connected by the thesis and the conclusion, the essay you produce for this project should be more like a stair, proceeding from one foundation to another in a set of well-placed and articulated steps.

Use the prior work of other scholars well and wisely. Imagine you are in a conversation with the other literary scholars who have written about the poem you have chosen. When incorporating criticism and other information from secondary sources you should make sure of two things. First, you should clearly differentiate between your own ideas and opinions and those offered by other scholars. Second, you should avoid simply summarizing what other people have had to say about the text about which you’re writing. In general, most literary scholars adopt one of two possible strategies when engaging the work of other scholars. They may choose to build upon the work of others, setting out what most critics have had to say before them and then incorporating that work as the foundation for a new and original argument.

So, to use the example thesis stated above, you might describe how other literary critics have looked at how the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale construct medieval female identity, and then you would go on to explain how you are building upon that work to show how the work is really about female desire in particular and how it is constructed through male-dominated political, social, and literary forms. The second way to engage criticism is to imagine you are in a debate with the other literary scholars. So, again using the thesis from above as an example, if you adopted this strategy, you might summarize how a number of other scholars who have looked at the issue have pretty much agreed Chaucer is ultimately critical of the Wife of Bath’s appropriation of her anti-matrimonial source material, and then go on to show how, based on your reading of the text, rather than critiquing the Wife of Bath, Chaucer instead offers her up as a rhetorical model for building a more inclusive Middle English literary tradition.

Integrate multimedia (images, video, hyperlinks, sound files, etc.) into your final essay where it will help to support or illustrate your argument. Stage 4 of the essay will be posted to the class blog. So as you are working, collect multimedia content from the web and elsewhere that will help you build and illustrate your argument. The end result should be visually engaging and linked to useful resources as much as possible.

Project Stages

Remember all assignment stages must be completed in order to avoid receiving an unsatisfactory grade for an incomplete assignment.

You will complete this project in four stages, with one in-class draft workshop and one peer review:

Rather than working with incomplete drafts and outlines during the workshop and peer review, try to have a “complete” working draft of your essay from Stage 1 onward.


Points for each essay will be awarded based on a holistic evaluation of whether your essay responds and attempts to follow the guidelines listed above in the description, complies with or effectively manipulates the standard conventions of academic writing, and takes advantage of the digital medium by integrating relevant multimedia content drawn from the class blog and/or other online sources. I will use the following criteria in assessing your blog essays:

  • Response to the rhetorical situation: Does the does the essay follow the guidelines identified above, take into consideration the needs of a public audience, and present a persuasive and coherent interpretation of the poem under consideration?
  • Effective use of medium/media: Does the essay make effective and strategic use of the unique affordances of blogging as a medium forscholarly communication?
  • Careful presentation and design: Does the essay either comply with, or strategically manipulate the standard conventions (diction, syntax, grammar, spelling, tone, etc.) of professional communication? Does it exhibit careful attention to detail and craftsmanship?
Posted in Historical and Literary Analysis, Projects, Uncategorized