7.4: The Literature-Based Essay
Write a literature-based essay utilizing the Six Traits as a guide and assessment tool.

Identify a specific thesis you want to prove and then write a literature-based essay discussing and proving the thesis after you read the Literature-based Essay Writing Instructions. (You will submit this writing assignment in your portfolio.)

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Literature-based Essay Video
Writing Assignment: The Literature-Based Essay

The majority of the writing that we have done thus far in the course has been more on the creative end of the writing spectrum. In this lesson you will have the opportunity to write a much more academic type of paper. Nevertheless, you are still going to apply the Six Traits, and hopefully you can even enjoy this assignment.
If you follow directions carefully, and do what is asked, you should do quite well.

Introduction To The Literature-Based Essay

The first step in writing a literature-based essay is to read and analyze literature. (You have definitely done that already in the course). After you have analyzed the literature, you then need to come up with a specific idea or focus that you want to talk about in your essay. (If you took the response journals seriously, then you have already done quite a bit of analysis of the literature.

Your response journals are an excellent place to look for a topic for your literature-based essay.) Then, in your essay you explore that topic, and you use the literature as evidence to support your view.
Really, this is just a type of persuasive writing (as is most writing).

The best analogy I’ve found to help explain any kind of persuasive writing is to compare writing to a court case. Look at the following comparisons, and hopefully the explanation that follows will help you understand your task when you are asked to do this type of writing.
Judge/Jury—Reader (your audience)
Lawyer pleading the case—You (writer)
The Case on Trial—Your topic or thesis
Evidence/witnesses—Your specific supporting arguments, details, examples, quotes from the literature

Ruling/verdict—Your grade/Assessment

Now if you want to be a successful lawyer, the first thing you need to do is define exactly what you are defending or prosecuting. You need to know the case well, so that you can then determine what evidence you are going to use to help you in your case. Obviously, you want to stick specifically to your case. You don’t want to start bringing up evidence for other cases that are unrelated to the case you are working on.

The next thing you do, after you know what case you will be arguing, is to decide what evidence is going to be most beneficial and persuasive to your audience—the judge and/or jury. Remember that everything you say or present in the courtroom should point toward persuading them to see your side of the case.

Once you have all your evidence, then you need to decide how you are going to present it.

What order, and in what ways will the evidence be most effective? Then comes the final part of actually going through the trial. When you are done with the arguments, and you have presented the court with the evidence and witnesses, then you will be done with your part. Last, the case goes to the judge or jury, and they assess your job and give you a verdict.

Persuasive writing is incredibly similar. The first thing you want to do as a writer is define exactly what the topic (case) is. After you know what your topic is, then you want to determine what passages/quotes/examples you will use to support the topic. And, remember to use only the literature examples that will further your topic.

After you have the quotes/examples, etc. (evidence) you need to decide what order you will present it, and in what manner it will be presented. Finally, you actually write the paper. When you are done, you turn it in to be assessed.
Note: The one place where this analogy breaks down is that in writing you get to revise and change your arguments as much as you want before you turn it in.

If the first draft is terrible, you get the opportunity to fix it, or even start over. In the courtroom, you get one chance to do it right. So, take advantage of the revision process.
Hopefully you have a little better idea of what your task is on this writing assignment. The following will help guide you through the process of writing the literature-based essay.

Choosing Your Topic (Case)

The first thing you want to do is choose your topic. I am giving you complete freedom in your topic for two reasons. First, if you choose something that interests you, then you will write a better paper than if I gave you a very specific question that does not interest you.

The second reason that I am letting you choose your essay is that it makes you really think about the different pieces of literature in a way that you wouldn’t if I just assigned you a topic.

The third reason is selfish—I don’t want to read the exact same response a thousand times every year.
The first suggestion I have in your selection of a topic is to review your response journals and some of the literature and decide what pieces of literature interested you, and then think about why they interested you.
Once you have done that, then you want to create a thesis statement that defines what your paper is going to be discussing. Below I will give good and bad examples of thesis statements.

As you create your thesis statement, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Keep the topic narrow and focused.
  • Avoid vague topics.
    Go beyond the obvious by exploring the topic just past the surface information.
  • Don’t create a vague, boring thesis like these three examples—
  1. Some of the literature in this course teaches interesting lessons.
  2. Victor Frankl was incredibly strong to survive the concentration camps.
  3. Steven Covey’s and Hyrum Smith’s excerpts were very inspiring.

These three examples are lousy because they violate both of the considerations that I mentioned above. They are all vague, and none of them go beyond the obvious.
Look at the next three examples of literature thesis statements. They take the same lousy example above and turn them into topics that are focused and interesting. I expect you to come up with a topic at least this good.
Several characters in the literature show us with powerful realism the importance of education, and they show that education is much more than going to school.
It was Victor Frankl’s moral strength and view of life that allowed him to survive the concentration camps.
Steven Covey’s and Hyrum Smith’s excerpts are inspiring because they give real life applications that we understand and relate to.

Finding the Support for Your Paper (Evidence)

Once you have your topic, you will then want to come up with the evidence to support what you are claiming in your topic. For example, I will show you some of the examples and quotes that I would pick to support topic 1 above. Since I have decided to talk about education, I would first go back through any literature that I think might have characters that will help me prove my thesis.

The ones that I think could work in this paper are:
excerpt from Kaffir Boy
excerpt from The Autobiography of Helen Keller
excerpt from Black Boy
the short story “The Bet”

Next I want to paraphrase what it is specifically about each of these that relates to education and how education goes beyond school.
Kaffir Boy shows how education opens up opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be there, and it shows how education is sometimes the only way to escape from poverty or other undesirable circumstances.

Helen Keller shows the power that teachers have to open up new worlds, and she also shows that through education life has more meaning.
Richard Wright in Black Boy shows how important it is to understand how to relate what we learn to our own lives and situations.
The character in “The Bet” shows that even though you can learn everything there is to know, if it is not used then it is no better than not ever learning it in the first place.

Hopefully you can see that my paper is already beginning to take shape. Basically the four items above are the beginnings of paragraphs in the body of the paper. The thesis is the beginning of the introductory paragraph, so really all I am missing is a conclusion. Of course, we’ve still got a way to go before we’re done.

The two things I want to accomplish before we move on are to find specific quotes from each piece that help support the thesis, and then I want to organize the different examples into an order that is logical and persuasive. I am only going to go step-by-step through one paragraph, but you’ll get the idea.
These are the quotes that I think I can use from Kaffir Boy:
“They, like myself, had grown up in an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.”
The lady they saw in the street said of her son, “he shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife.

And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.”
He asked his mother, “Why do you want me to go to school, Mama?”
She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.”
“Education will open doors where none seem to exist. It will make you soar, like a bird lifting up into the endless blue sky, and leave poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
Once you have the quotes you think support the thesis well, then you want to write them into your paragraph so that they flow smoothly into your paper. Be sure to embed the quotes, or give them context.

It is very awkward if you don’t. The following is an example of how I would embed the above quotes into a paragraph.
In Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane gives us a glimpse of how important education is in an environment where his mother had to go to great lengths to even be allowed to have him go to school. Mathabane grew up in “an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.”

He always thought that going to school was a waste of time, but several experiences changed that. First, a lady in the street saw him trying to run away from having to go to school. She told him about her own son. She said, “He shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life.

That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.” Later, after his father beat his mother for taking him to school, he asked his mother why she wanted him to go to school. She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.” Through these experiences, Mark Mathabane realized that there really is more to education than just going to school.

As his mother told him, “Education will open doors where none seem to exist.” He realized that an education was what would allow him to become that bird that lifts into the sky, leaving “poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
After you have finished developing all of your paragraphs like that, or before you develop them, it is crucial to put them in the order that you think will be the most persuasive. This is the order that I would put my different evidence.
Introduction with thesis
Helen Keller
Kaffir Boy
Richard Wright
“The Bet”
Conclusion
As you write your paper, put all of these different pieces of evidence together. Be sure to use smooth transitions that lead from one topic to the next and tie all evidence back to the thesis.
In addition to that, keep in mind that you want to make your introduction interesting so that it catches the attention of the reader. And, make your conclusion interesting. Try to leave the reader something that will make him continue to think about your topic. The following is my example. The transitions are bolded to help you see how easy it can be to tie all the different support together.
Ferris the Fraud
We live in a society that glorifies Ferris Beuhler. Granted, I remember pretending to have a sore throat so that I didn’t have to go to school. I was actually lucky, because it seemed that I had a condition on my tonsils that made it look like my throat was always sore. Therefore, when I got the urge to stay home I pulled out the flashlight and opened my mouth for my mom. It worked every time. I remember watching the movie Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, in which Ferris is the hero for creating an elaborate scheme to avoid going to school. The teachers in the movie drone on, and are portrayed as barely more than tape recorders with low batteries, and all the students consequently hate school. It was funny, and unfortunately too many students in our culture want to be like Ferris, but in actuality, Ferris is a fraud. There are several characters in the literature that show us the power of education, and they show that education goes beyond school. Movies like Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off may be funny and entertaining, but they lie about what education is all about.
One person that definitely portrays the truth about the power of education is Helen Keller. Keller grew up deaf and blind and lived in a world that was dark both literally and intellectually. At the age of almost seven she was incredibly ignorant because she didn’t have the ability to learn with her handicaps. She says that her existence was like being in a “dense fog . . . it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in.” Then her teacher, Anne Sullivan came to her and gave her the light of learning. She taught her how to learn language, and Keller says it “awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.” Education gave meaning to Keller’s life, and made it worth living.
Mark Mathabane was also denied education until about the same age as Keller, but for different reasons. In his book Kaffir Boy, he describes how hard it was to get an education as a black boy in the face of apartheid South Africa. Mathabane gives us a glimpse of how important education is in an environment where his mother had to go to great lengths to even be allowed to have him go to school. Mathabane grew up in “an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized; where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell but how to fight and steal and rebel.” He always thought that going to school was a waste of time, but several experiences changed that. First, a lady in the street saw him trying to run away from having to go to school. She told him about her own son. She said, “he shunned school and, instead, grew up to live by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini.” Later, after his father beat his mother for taking him to school, he asked his mother why she wanted him to go so badly. She replied, “I want you to have a future, child . . . school is the only means to a future.” Through these experiences, Mark Mathabane realized that there really is more to education than just going to school. As his mother told him, “Education will open doors where none seem to exist.” He realized that an education was what would allow him to become that bird that lifts into the sky, leaving “poverty, hunger, and suffering behind.”
Like Mathabane, Richard Wright also had a difficult time getting a formal education because of his racial background. Nevertheless, Wright did all he could on his own to learn. He got library books on someone else’s card so that he could read H.L. Mencken. When he started reading the book, he realized Mencken “was fighting, fighting with words . . . He was using words as a weapon.” The most important lesson that Wright points out, though, is not that reading was fun, or learning was neat. The lesson he seems to be teaching in Black Boy is that when we apply what we learn, and take education beyond school, then the real power of education is manifest. He says, “Could words be weapons? Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon.” Way too often it seems students learn information for a test, and then as they leave the testing room, all the information leaks out both ears never to be touched again. Richard Wright does just the opposite. He takes what he learns from his reading and tries to apply it. It opens up new worlds to him.
Richard Wright is an excellent example of applying what you learn, and realizing that education goes beyond school. The last example “The Bet” shows in a negative way that there is much more to education than just learning. In this story, two men make a bet in which one agrees to spend the next fifteen years in solitary confinement. If he stays the full fifteen years, the other man must pay him two million dollars. While he was in solitary confinement, he “read the classics,” and many other books. He studied “languages, philosophy, and history.” In four years he read more than 600 volumes. Despite all the learning he did, he hated life and was extremely lonely. He was unable to apply anything that he had learned for the good of others. At the end of the fifteen years he said, “your books have given me wisdom.” Yet, he goes on to say, “I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world.” When put in a situation in which he could learn anything, but not be able to use it for anything, it seems that he became miserable and depressed. Therefore, it shows how important it is to apply what we know, and not just learn things for no other purpose.
From these, and many other examples, we realize how crucial education is to our existence. It opens opportunities, and makes our lives better, especially when we apply what we know. Our culture will still be full of kids with the attitude of Ferris Beuhler, and there will likely be other movies that portray and promulgate that attitude, but the truth is that education is powerful and important. I bet Ferris Beuhler would even have a change in attitude if he had the opportunity to meet Mark Mathabane or Richard Wright.
Hopefully this example is useful to you. Notice a couple of things in this example.
First, remember to always put direct quotes from the text in quotation marks. Also, if you use a quote longer than five lines the whole thing should be indented. I would discourage you from using gigantic quotes, unless the entire thing is absolutely necessary to your paper. Huge quotes in a paper like this can be distracting. Instead, you can paraphrase parts, and then quote the really important words.
Second, give your paper an interesting title. It serves as a “hook” to get your reader interested in what you have to say.
There are a thousand different topics for you to choose for this paper. Don’t think you have to copy my idea, or the idea that follows in the student example that I give you. Come up with something original that interests you.
One more thing—I haven’t given you a length for this paper. Make it complete. If you can do a great job in two pages double spaced, that is great. If you need four pages to make it complete, that is fine also.
Word of Warning: Don’t even dream about turning in a paper that you wrote last year about some other literature. You must use the literature from this course, and if you don’t, you will not pass lesson eight. You will be given an “E” or an “I” and you will be asked to redo the paper to pass the class.
The following essay is a good student example of what I expect you to do. The reason I chose this one was because it follows pretty well the criteria I describe above. It also happened to follow the theme of journeys that the course follows. This essay was actually written before this course was rewritten, so it refers to other literature that you didn’t read for the course, so don’t get confused by that.
“The Moral Journey”
Life is full of journeys, from physical travels around the globe, to mental excursions in the world of literature, and beyond. But the most important journey through life is life itself. Through the literature in this course I have come to see that all the journeys through life are related to the moral journey of life. All the reading I have done has shown me that virtue is the best way to live. Whether it gives pain or not, the end will be for the best.
The story of The Persian Letters by Montesquieu is a wonderful example of life with, and without, virtue. This story gives excellent examples of what simply being virtuous can do to people. The story begins with a tribe, the Troglodytes, who based their lives on themselves, total and complete selfishness. They had no government, and the few times that one was there, the people simply got tired of it and killed the ruling people. They would do nothing for anyone else. They would not share, or help the needy. Even if the hungry die of starvation, it is none of their concern. The Troglodytes were even unwilling to pay a doctor who came from a distant foreign country to save their lives from a dreadful illness. Then, after the doctor had left, the illness sprang up once again, and they came pleading to him for help. The doctor would not help them, due mostly to the fact that they had treated him so poorly before.
You have seen, my dear Mirza, how the Troglodytes perished by their wickedness and became victims of their own injustice. Only two families in the entire nation escaped its ruin. For there were in this country two remarkable men, who were humane, just, and lovers of virtue.
By McDougall Littell’s definition, “Virtue is general moral excellence, right action and thinking.” These families lived virtuously and raised their kids the same way. They created a whole new race essentially. This new race created its own community, but they had no government, because they had no need. Their ruling body, so to speak, consisted of their virtues. The new community built itself up and was a nearly perfect community, as opposed to the early Troglodytes who created their own destruction. These two examples are extremely different, due to one little thing, virtue. It just goes to show you how much one thing can matter on life’s journey.
Another sample of literature is “The Tale of the Anklet” from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a Cinderella story. This simple, but well known, story is about how devastating jealousy can be, if left unchecked. The main character, Delilah, has two older stepsisters who are jealous of her natural outer, and inner, beauty, but mostly the outer beauty. One day Delilah bought a “magic” vase from an old merchant. The vase turned out to be truly magical. One day Delilah decided to dress up, with the vase’s help, and visit the castle. She wandered through the castle and chanced to see the prince. Delilah fell in love with him at first sight. But before she could meet him, Delilah saw her sisters heading for home, so she took off to get there first. When she was running away, she dropped her anklet in a watery ditch. The anklet was later found in the ditch. The Prince saw it, as well as the king. Then the Prince vowed to marry the girl who could fit the little anklet over her foot. They searched the kingdom for her. The Prince found Delilah eventually, and she started preparations to marry the Prince. Delilah gave the vase to her sisters so that they, too, could enjoy its magic, but the sisters, in their jealousy, used the vase to create three hairpins to turn Delilah into a dove. Delilah went and visited the Prince in that form everyday. Eventually he found the hairpins in the dove’s head. He removed them and Delilah returned to herself. She then proceeded to relate how she became a dove. When the sisters found out Delilah was back, they hid in the magic vase. Delilah left them there to whatever fate might befall them.
“Shall I order the vase to give up your sisters so that they can be beaten soundly and turned into jackdaws?” asked the Prince. “No,” said Delilah. “Place the vase on the highest shelf in the palace, and if someone should discover its secret in the years to come, that person can decide what to do with two big-footed girls and enough envy to fill a barn.”
The extreme jealousy of the stepsisters ended up leading to their entrapment, and thus the end of their reign of terror over Delilah. If they had but treated Delilah with the respect that she deserved as their sister, she would never have bought the vase, which brought about the destruction of the stepsisters. Alas, their jealousy prevented that from happening. So you see, jealousy can be nearly as bad as an overall lack of virtue on the journey of life.
The next selection of literature was “How Much Land Does a Man Need” by Leo Tolstoy, a story of what greed can to do a simple farmer in the country. The story starts with two sisters having a chat over tea. The elder sister is boasting about how good life in the city is. The younger sister is satisfied with country living. Her family can provide itself with everything it needs to survive. The younger sister’s husband is listening to this conversation. He becomes boastful to himself about how good their lives are, but they could use some more land. The whole while, the devil is there, listening. He sets his sights on bringing the husband under his power, by giving him more land. As the story progresses, they acquire more and more land. Eventually the man’s greed costs him not only the love and respect he received from his neighbors and associates, but his life, prematurely ending his journey.
The section of Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour, required for this segment on moral journeys had an excellent lesson about happiness in life, whether now or later, whether momentary or eternal. Elias is in school at this time, but it is about to end. He has to decide whether or not to go back home and be with his family and help people now, or continue with his education. If he continues with his education he will be more able to help the people of Biram, as well as the rest of his country, with the greater knowledge and wisdom he would gain from going to extended schooling. He decides in the end to continue his education so that he may better serve God. He also has a friend, Faraj, go with him through all his schooling. This friend helps Elias determine his destiny. Elias finishes school and ends up going home for a time before his ordination ceremony in Nazareth. Later he would receive his calling to help his people. It became very apparent to Elias, and the reader, that it was extremely beneficial for him to have continued his education. He would certainly be a better person because of it, and he would be much more helpful in the journey to come.
With all this literature showing the effects of morals on life’s journey, it is obvious that they can empower or destroy. It all depends on how I, or anyone, decide to use it on our journey through life.