Writing a Thesis Statement, Part 2: Incomplete and Complete Thesis Statement(s)

So I promised to have some examples of incomplete versus complete thesis statements as a reference for you all to look at as you finish your close reading assignments, and I thought I’d use the reading I gave on “I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines,” since you won’t be able to use my argument anyway. Don’t stress if you’re writing on this poem–I will by no means cover every reading anyone could possibly give of the poem. But just to reiterate: DON’T TURN IN A CLOSE READING ASSIGNMENT THAT ARGUES THE SAME THING I DID IN CLASS, AND THAT I AM ARGUING HERE. ADDITIONALLY, DO NOT TURN IN A CLOSE READING SIMPLY PARROTS BACK WHAT PROFESSOR GRIFFIN HAS SAID IN CLASS. THIS IS CONSIDERED PLAGIARISM. Instead, focus on something either of us did not, or take a completely different stance.

Here’s the poem again, just for your reference:

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

(Keep in mind the WHAT, HOW, and WHY equation we have been discussing in section.)

“Millay uses diction and personification to describe containing Chaos in a sonnet in her poem “I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines.”

This statement has a WHAT (“to describe containing Chaos in a sonnet”), as well as a HOW (“diction and metaphors”); however, there is no WHY, leaving it as simply observation, without any personal interpretation. No reasonable person could disagree with this statement, so it is not arguable–one of the basic requirements of a thesis. Additionally, simply referring to “diction and metaphors,” without mentioning what kind of diction or metaphors, is not specific enough. Use an adjective–for instance, “violent diction”–to take the first step toward what your interpretation will focus on. Also, if you are using more than one device (in this case, if you wanted to address both diction and metaphors), you should make sure that you can argue that those two things are both related, and necessary to your argument.

“In “I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines,” Millay personifies Chaos and uses violent diction to describe his containment.”

This thesis statement is more specific than the first, but it is still simply observational–I haven’t made any move to interpret these facts. However, it is more clear which elements I am focusing on, making the next step–adding the WHY–a bit easier. Keep in mind that your WHY should be debatable. So now I have to make an argument about WHY Millay chooses violent diction, and how that relates to the poem as a whole. Additionally, while word choice is indeed important (that is all we have in a poem, after all), the word “diction” is too vague and sounds overly formal–let’s try “imagery” instead.

Remember the three positions that a thesis statement could take? (Keep in mind that these are only suggestions; your thesis does not have to take one of these positions. But they are helpful if you are unsure about how to make an argumentative statement about a text.)
a) The truth isn’t what one would expect or what it might appear to be on a first reading; b) There’s an interesting wrinkle in the text – a paradox, a contradiction, a tension; c) A seemingly tangential or insignificant matter is actually important or interesting.

I’m going to focus on “b) There’s an interesting wrinkle in the text – a paradox, a contradiction, a tension,” because I have a hunch that though Millay seems to be championing the power of the writer to overcome Chaos, she uses violent language to problematize the domination. Maybe somebody would disagree with that interpretation, but that’s the point of a thesis, right?

So my new thesis statement:

“Though Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines” seems to champion the writer’s ability to control Chaos using the sonnet form, the speaker’s use of violent imagery, coupled with her personification of Chaos, calls into question the very ethics of artistic representation.”

This is an example of a complete thesis statement–it has a clear WHAT, HOW, and WHY. Additionally, by placing a concession (“Though Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines” seems to champion the writer’s ability to control Chaos using the sonnet form”) at the beginning of the sentence, it is clear how my particular interpretation goes against (or at least problematizes) our initial understanding of the poem. And because my thesis doesn’t argue about something overly general or obvious about the poem–it in fact runs counter to a surface reading of the poem–it is debatable; someone could totally disagree with me.

I hope this is helpful! Happy close-reading and play-watching–here is some Calvin and Hobbes to lighten the mood.


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