Constructing a Critical
first thing to note about constructing a critical essay, is that it is not
synonymous with doing a "close reading", though the two tasks are
similar. The distinction is simply that while a close reading is meant to
generate ideas and possible interpretations, a critical essay must utilize
those ideas and interpretations to make an argument about the text as
whole. Any good critical essay should arise out of one or more close
readings of particular passages from the text which can then be organized
into a coherent argument.
critical essay usually consists of the following elements, each of which is
explained in more detail below:
The Thesis: a
basic statement of the overall argument of the paper,
usually contained within the first paragraph and sometimes re-stated later in
Topic Sentences: each
paragraph should contain a statement of the main idea of that paragraph.
Taken together, these topic sentences should lay out the reasoning for the
overall thesis of the paper.
Evidence and Illustration: usually
details uncovered in a close reading that lend support to each part of the
argument. Every paragraph should contain both reasoning (topic sentences) and
evidence or illustration..
counter-arguments: used sparingly, and at critical moments
in your argument, asking and answering potentially challenging questions can
lend credibility to your paper. It lets the reader know that you aren't
ignoring obvious complications or contradictions in the text.
conclusion brings together the evidence collected and explains how your
thesis has evolved through the preceding paragraphs. It should explain the
implications of your argument for further thinking about the text or issue.
- The thesis is the single
most important element of your paper, so make sure you understand what a
good thesis is. A good thesis must make an argument about the text that
is original, complex, and arguable. That is to say, it
cannot be a simple statement of fact, an argument drawn from another
source, or an argument that is obvious from a surface reading of a text.
It must be complex enough to require further elaboration in the body of
- For example, the following is not
a good thesis:
1) "Frederick Douglass's narrative is a
heart-wrenching account of the cruelties and hardships of slavery."
--this is a statement of fact, and not one with which anyone is likely
--the body of such a paper would likely just recount the events in the
narrative, which is unnecessary. You can assume that your reader has
read and understood the text.
- This is also not a good
2) "Learning to read and write becomes
Douglass's way out of slavery and its oppression of the mind."
--this is not an original argument, and is fairly obvious from
Douglass's own statements in the text.
- Here's a thesis that might hold up:
3) "Frederick Douglass's pursuit of
knowledge and his physical resistance to his overseers arise out of his
own notions of 'manhood' and his perception of the psychological sources
of the master's power over the slave."
--this thesis is a statement of opinion, and one that might be
intelligently argued by another reader (i.e. I might say that Douglass's
resistance is driven by cultural or literary definitions of 'manhood'
and that there are other more important sources of the masters' power
like economics, religious authority, or access to technology, etc.).
--while perhaps not completely original, it does allow for some original
combination of evidence and illustration as well as individual
--it requires further elaboration in the body of the paper (see below)
- If you list your topic sentences in order
(this is called a "skeleton outline") they should lay out the
reasoning needed to support your thesis. You might try organizing
possible topic sentences before you start writing.
- For example, here are some possible topic
sentences for the "good" thesis (number 3) given above:
- "For Douglass, 'manhood'
suggests both the ability to control his own body and the ability to
communicate his thoughts through speaking and writing."
- "Douglass recognizes that
in order to have mastery over the body, one must first have mastery over
- "Douglass realizes that
once his mind has been set free, he can only suffer all the more acutely
unless he can also free himself from the physical oppression."
- Note: there would need to be more topic
sentences (and paragraphs) than this in the final paper, but these can
serve as examples. Note how each one elaborates on and refers back to
the original thesis. They are, in effect, "sub-theses" that
are needed in order to fully explain the larger argument.
Evidence and illustration
- To support each topic sentence, you will want
to utilize the details uncovered during your close reading: images,
metaphors, allusions, the use of language and multiple meanings,
interpretations of mood, tone, etc. These may come from a single passage
(which has the benefit of unifying the paper into a tight, rich reading ) or from several passages (which allows for
larger patterns of meaning that run throughout the text).
- Organizing your evidence will require culling
out things that don't add to your argument, taking a stance on
particular interpretations, and explaining to your reader why you
interpret the passage the way that you do. Don't assume
that the reader agrees with you--convince them!
- I can't provide a full listing of possible
evidence and illustrations for the topic sentences above, but here are
some suggestions as to where you might look:
- Look at both the passages where
Douglass learns to read and the passages describing his fight with
Covey. What do these passages tell us about his notions of 'manhood'?
How does he seem to define it? He seems to be talking about being
"human" and being "masculine", and maybe the two
ideas are merged? Cite passages for details.
- Particularly in the passages
about reading and writing, Douglass seems to equate "being a
man" (or just a "human"?) with the ability to think,
speak, read, and write. When he is later reduced to the state of a
"brute", he seems to lose his ability to do these things (cite
- We see that after Douglass
learns to read and write he experiences the very misery that the master
says is the inevitable fate of an educated "nigger" (cite
passage). In the scene with Covey, Douglass finds that mental freedom
alone is meaningless without physical freedom (cite passage). So in
these passages, "being a man" becomes a matter not only of
communicating but also physically resisting (cite passage).
- Make sure that in citing
passages, you make proper use of quotations and in-text citations. See
your assigned grammar and usage handbook for proper
- While you don't want to waste a lot of time
going off on tangents unrelated to your topic, you should be prepared to
answer potential questions or challenges to your thesis. Read over your
paper with a critical eye, asking yourself if you've covered all the
bases. Often, allowing a peer to read over the paper will also help
identify these potential problems.
- Once you've identified possible questions or
counter-arguments, try to answer them in your paper. You can even
include the question and then answer it, to show your reader that you're
aware of the alternate possibilities and have thought it out.
- Here are some questions one might ask about
our working thesis (see above):
- Does Douglass develop his own
sense of "manhood" apart from the society around him, or are
his ideas, in fact, the ideas that he acquires both from his own (slave)
culture, and from white society?
- Isn't there a potential conflict
between defining "manhood" in terms of "mental
freedom" and "physical freedom"? Which should be a
slave's priority? Which does Douglass find more important?
- Is there anything sexist in
Douglass's notion of "manhood"? Are the same means of
achieving "humanity" equally open to male and female slaves?
- What place do emotional and
familial bonds play in Douglass's quest for "manhood"? Are
they important to him at all?
- You needn't try to address every possible
question or counter-argument--only the ones that seem critical to your
paper. Do so sparingly and strategically.
- Your conclusion should remind the reader of
what your original thesis was and show how you've proven it. You want to
restate it, but in a way that elaborates it with the evidence that
- Here's a possible beginning to the conclusion
of the hypothesized paper above:
"I have argued that Douglass's discovery of 'the
white man's power to enslave the black man' is both a realization of the
mental oppression inherent in slavery and a recognition
of the physical subjugation that is needed to enforce it. His quest for
'manhood' involves freeing both his mind and his body from captivity, and one
cannot happen without the other."
- The conclusion may also suggest
why this argument is important to our understanding of the text as a
whole, or point out further topics or questions that might now be
important to pursue. It should convince the reader that the thesis has
been worth pursuing. For example:
"Understanding the interdependence of mental and
physical in Douglass's narrative allows us to see the true depth and extent
of slavery's effect on the individuals who suffered it. It can also help us
to recognize the importance of various forms of 'resistance' that may have
been less dramatic than Douglass's fight with Covey, but no less necessary or
Handout created by John Edward