Steps for writing a Literary Studies essay

First brainstorm

The first step once you know your essay topic is to brainstorm what you already know about the topic, drawing from your classes and course material.

Sample essay question:

Discuss how the narrative structures of Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall work to critique contemporary Victorian society.

Brainstorming can be done however you want to do it - whiteboard, post it notes, images, etc. The following example is a mind map that covers what is currently known about the primary texts (Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) in terms of their narrative structures and what they say about Victorian society. Consider the key terms and concepts and how they relate to each other.

This map is a first attempt to brainstorm for this topic.

Wuthering heights, 1st level topics: Women's narratives are embedded/marginalised, Male narrator, Gender inequality in victorian england

Second Brainstorm

Now consider the topic in terms of your own ideas of the primary source and the knowledge you might not have to answer the question.

  • What do you already know?
  • What do you need to find more about?

Start to think a little bit deeper. Your second brainstorm should have more detail. This brainstorm will form the basis of your essay plan and draft.

2nd level topics: Women's narratives are embedded/marginalised e.g. Catherine's voice only appearing as narrated by Lockwood. This links to 'Male narrator'. Male narrator examples, blase attitude towards domestic violence, educated gentleman, naive and unreliabe, pompous. Blase attitude towards domestic violence is also connected to gender inequality in Victorian England.

When developing your plan, follow these two sub-steps:

  1. First reflect on your research and readings to arrive at a position on the essay topic or question. This will be the contention for your essay – what you’re going to try to convince the reader.
  2. Next, using your earlier brainstorm and what you’ve learned from your research, develop some key arguments to support your contention. Think about how you would support each of these arguments with evidence from the text and from your scholarly readings. Also consider the best way to order your points so that you can link your paragraphs and make sure your argument flows.

Take a look at the plan below, which could have been used for the example essay. Note that the body of the essay is made up of several arguments that relate to an overall contention.

Example essay plan

Introduction

Rephrase essay question: essay will consider how Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall critique Victorian society

Provide context for argument: narrative structures and proto-feminist themes have been discussed by many scholars

Clearly state main contention/position of the essay: the male narratives of these novels demonstrate the Brontës’ dissatisfaction with the patriarchal structures of Victorian England

Body

Point 1: Lockwood as gentleman (language, character), presented subversively by Emily Bronte.

Evidence: Lockwood’s pompous language (p. 2); Lockwood as naïve and unreliable (p. 5)

Point 2: Gilbert is likewise a caricature of Victorian masculinity. Lockwood and Gilbert both demonstrate the ridiculousness of Victorian society.

Evidence: Gilbert’s childishness (p. 128 & pp. 45-49)

Point 3: Lockwood’s passive acceptance of restrictive gender roles and violence against women.

Evidence: Tanner quote (p. 112) & Jacobs quote (215); Lockwood ignoring Heathcliff’s threats of violence (p. 34); Lockwood’s violence against a child (p. 30) & McCarthy’s analysis of this scene (p. 54)

Point 4: Marginalisation of female voices and men’s domination of narratorial authority.

Evidence: Kreps on women’s legal status in Victorian England (p. 84); Catherine’s voice embedded in Lockwood’s narrative (p. 14); Helen’s diary (158-168); Eagleton quote.

Conclusion

Summarise main points: Lockwood and Gilbert, the male narrators, are fallible and unreliable, becoming critiques of Victorian masculinity; women’s narratives are marginalised in both novels.

Restate thesis: the Brontës’ narrative structures expose the gender inequality of Victorian society

Note

Remember that your plan is flexible. If you start writing and it’s not working, don’t be afraid to revisit your plan and revise accordingly.

Your essay will be much easier to write if you have a clear essay plan to follow. Consider the standard essay structure below. Click on the plus icons to learn more about each section.

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