“Face your essay with the fearlessness of an adorable kitten.”
-Me, just now.
A few of you have voiced interest in taking a look at what an introductory paragraph for an undergraduate literary essay might look like. Let’s begin with what an intro paragraph does, how it works, and some strategies for creating a successful one.
Your introduction does just that: introduces your chosen topic. Assume your reader is familiar with the text; your job is then not to summarize what happens, but to give your own spin on it, or point out something that you think is interesting, overlooked, and worth saying.
The first sentence of a successful literary essay will grab the reader’s attention: it might do so by making a controversial or bold (but always pertinent) statement, asking an intriguing question, or by incorporating a particularly interesting quote from the text (one that relates to what you will be talking about). The paragraph then proceeds to build on that opening sentence, introducing the topic you will be writing on (the subject) and the approach you will be taking (your interpretive lens) in the rest of the essay. The introduction culminates in your thesis, a succinct (one-sentence) statement that makes an interpretive claim about a text. (For more on the thesis statement, see https://myenglishta.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/start-writing-a-thesis-statement-with-or-without-a-prompt/, and https://myenglishta.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/writing-a-thesis-statement-part-2-incomplete-and-complete-thesis-statements/.) The author’s name should appear somewhere in your introduction, and the name of the work should appear in your thesis statement.
Tom Doran, one of my colleagues in the department, was kind enough to pass on a sheet that he uses when teaching introductions (by the way, Tom says that you should think of essay writing as deer body-slamming, not kitten-dog confrontation (or more likely, kitten-dog intersubjectivity) Tom’s GIF). You can download it here: Bad Introductions. This PDF has examples of some common introduction “types” that you should avoid at all costs, as well as information on what those paragraphs did wrong. Take a look at what it has to say before moving on in this post.
For your own reference (and perhaps amusement), I’ve decided to give you a glimpse into my own endeavors at essay writing as an undergraduate English student. The following intros were all for 8-10 page assignments (with various prompts, and for various classes), but it might be helpful for you all to take a look at what they do successfully, and where they fall short. In any case, this seems the easiest way for me to give you an idea of how a literary essay’s introductory paragraph situates the reader so that s/he has an idea of what your argument will be focusing on. Enjoy!
Paper 1: The Role of the Roman Public in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra
In both Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare demonstrates a keen interest in defining the “public” of the Roman Republic. A “Respublica”—Latin for “the common good”—is a state in which all citizens participate in some capacity, and carries with it a connotation of freedom (as opposed to tyranny). Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra both record defining moments in the lifespan of the Roman Republic: Coriolanus, its beginning, and Antony and Cleopatra, its demise. Coriolanus is burdened by the memory of former tyranny; as a participant in the expulsion of the last Tarquin king, Coriolanus himself literally bears the scars of political violence on his body. The Roman public also shows its psychological scarring, as the mere accusation of Coriolanus’ tyrannical ambition enrages both the people and Coriolanus himself. In contrast, Antony and Cleopatra records the definitive end of the Republic, as Octavius Caesar (his uncle’s successor in name, ambition, and deed) skillfully dismembers the Triumvirate, consolidating his own political power and ushering in the age of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare describes the Roman “public” in collective, anthropomorphized terms, depicting the public as a key component of the Roman body politic. By figuratively attributing parts of the human body to the Roman public, Shakespeare creates a collective Roman “character”—an entity that his central political figures must consider and to which they must respond, emphasizing the power and expansiveness of the Roman people as a whole.
Paper 2: The Vindication of Eve: Unveiling the Goddess in Howards End
“When four men agree, what’s a girl to do?” This sentiment, voiced by Forster’s own “rubbishy little creature”, becomes laughably absurd in a novel like Howards End, where dim-witted Dolly exists chiefly for her insipidity and comedic appeal (68). But her statement’s irony resounds so profoundly because it is precisely Forster’s men who fail, time after time, to think, feel, or accomplish anything of great moral significance in the novel, thus opening a philosophical power vacuum that Forster must somehow fill. To compensate for his men’s inadequacy, he endows his elect women—Meg, Helen, and Mrs. Wilcox—with a mystical ability to perceive and piece together fragments of the fractured universe. By juxtaposing these idealized women beside various aspects of goddess symbolism, Forster asserts the female’s spiritual importance as an instrument more keenly attuned to the pattern of the universe. This harmonious female presence rejoins Man with Nature and past with present, reflecting spiritual wholeness when men prove deficient.
Paper 3: Kubla Can (But I Can’t): The Problem With Mediation in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”
One might assume that an introduction will guide an audience in their approach to the work it introduces—essentially, telling a reader how to read. But what if an author subtly insists that you approach the introduction with the same careful discernment required to unlock the piece it introduces? Coleridge prefaces “Kubla Khan” with a lengthy note explaining his poetic process in the creation of his iconic poem. Taking the speaker at his word, one might assume that the introductory note merely gives autobiographical context to an otherwise psychedelic, and rather frenetic, poem; in effect, anchoring an imaginative vision to reality. However, the note also seems to express the same frustration—the inability of the speaker to fully convey his poetic vision—that the poem itself does. This implies that both the note and the poem address precisely the same idea; that the poem itself is a poetic re-visioning of its prose counterpart, and vice versa. The marriage of the poetic and prosaic under the same title further implies that they are complementary sides of the same coin. Coleridge stitches these two pieces together in order to more wholly re-capture his vision. But despite these two different approaches, the speaker ultimately acknowledges his inability to fully “recollect” his fragmented vision, implying that the limitations of written form prevent both prose and poetry from completely conveying the speaker’s imaginative experience.
What do you think these introductions do well? Where do they need improvement? Are these examples helpful to you when trying to think about how an introduction works?