Developing a Topic and Thesis for the English Essay
- Narrowing a Topic
- Developing a Thesis
Sometimes a topic is assigned to you, sometimes you can choose from a list of topics, and sometimes you must come up with your own. In any of these cases, it is important to analyze and develop your topic. It must be broad enough to invite an analytical argument yet narrow enough that you can respond to it with depth and complexity.
Topics often emerge as you read carefully and critically; while you read, try to identify the themes in the text and note how the formal elements work.
Ask yourself questions as you read.
- Do I understand what I am reading?
- Do I understand the words?
- Do I understand any allusions? (If not, consult a dictionary or reference work, or ask question in your seminar or tutorial.)
- What formal elements do I notice?
- Why is something done in a certain way and not some other way?
- What themes are being expressed or suggested?
- Are there conflicting ideas?
- Am I interested, or am I bored to tears?
- Why? What am I appreciating? What am I missing?
Often, the first step to a good topic is investigating something you just "don't get." Put another way, a good topic is often a good question, to which there is no easy answer, and your essay will answer that question.
- Why can't Hamlet make up his mind?
- What does Kurtz mean by "the horror"?
- What does that white whale symbolize?
A good question will allow you, in addressing it, to deepen your and your reader's understanding of the work.
A good topic is a focused topic. Often, once you’ve picked a broad topic, furthering narrowing is needed. Notice how the following examples take broad thematic topics and narrow them by focusing on particular characters and smaller aspects of broader themes:
- Comedy in Romeo and Juliet: The nurse as comic figure
- Values in Romeo and Juliet: Suicide in Romeo and Juliet
- Love in Romeo and Juliet: Juliet’s love in contrast to Romeo’s
- The character of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet: How Juliet matures from child to woman
It is very important to analyze the wording of the assignment. Highlight or underline key words and ask yourself if you understand the precise meaning of these words and what they are asking you to do. For example, consider the following topic:
Explore and explain the significance of the following episode from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Huck and Jim on Jackson’s Island.
What do the words explore, explain, and significance mean? Considering their exact definitions will help to keep you on topic.
A preliminary analysis of this topic might go something like this:
“The episode must be important (or it wouldn’t be an essay topic). It follows that it may be important in understanding a theme of the novel. So I should try to identify and articulate that theme and try to show how the episode aids in the development of the theme in the story. I should also try to identify the formal elements and their function in the episode and try to determine if they help in the development of the theme.”
A thesis is your argument. It comes from your consideration of the details of the text, which is the primary source of evidence you will use to support your thesis.
A good topic leads to a good thesis.
If your topic is “Juliet’s Growth from Child to Woman in Romeo and Juliet,” then your thesis is evident already: “In Romeo and Juliet, due to . . . the character of Juliet develops, in a few weeks, from a child to a mature young woman." That is your argument about the character of Juliet, and you will go on to provide evidence from the play that Juliet does mature in this way.
Look at the assigned topic on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Explore and explain the significance of the following episode from Huckleberry Finn: Huck and Jim on Jackson’s Island.
For this assigned topic, your thesis will tell why, in your opinion, the episode of Huck and Jim on Jackson's Island is significant. Your thesis could be a completion of a statement similar to the following:
"The episode of Huck and Jim on Jackson Island is significant because ..........."
Make sure to scrutinize the wording of an assigned topic. The wording of the topic may well be the beginnings of your thesis statement. At the very least, the topic shows you what you should be thinking about and developing an argument about.
If a topic is not assigned, the questions you ask yourself as you skim and read and think about a topic for yourself are also the beginnings of a thesis.
- Why can't Hamlet make up his mind?
- Hamlet can't make up his mind because..........
- In Heart of Darkness, what does Kurtz mean by "the horror"?
- The "horror" Kurtz speaks of in Heart of Darkness refers to ...........
- In Moby Dick, what does that white whale symbolize?
- In Moby Dick, the white whale is a symbol of............
Once you have narrowed your topic and developed a thesis question or preliminary statement, reread the primary text by skimming, alert for relevant parts. Mark your text by underlining or highlighting, but also take notes as you go, writing down page numbers, so you’ll have them when you need them.
A good question to keep asking is “Why does the author choose to do it this way and not some other way? If she made a particular choice, what was the intended effect?” We can never know for sure, of course, but we can interpret what we find. What is the effect of using first-person narrative in Huck Finn? Why was this particular image used? Never stop asking why. Note patterns that emerge. Can you begin to cluster what you find?
As soon as you have a thesis, write it down. It may be one sentence, it may be more. A more complex thesis may require two or three sentences. Writing it down ensures that you have it clear enough in your head to express it clearly on paper or on the screen; it allows you to show it to someone (your prof maybe) to see if you are on the right track, and it allows you to begin to put together an outline that will show how you will adequately support it.
You don't want your thesis to be "self-evident" or descriptive; in other words, it should be arguable. For example, this is not a thesis:
"In Hamlet, Hamlet is unable to make up his mind to kill Claudius and revenge his father's murder, and this inability leads to his own eventual death."
It would be very difficult to argue with this. Although there is some slight analysis of cause and effect, the statement is mostly descriptive. Again, questions that lead to a good thesis are "why" questions: "Why is something the way it is?" and "Why does this happen this way?" rather than simple "what" questions like "What happens?"
"How" questions also lead to a good thesis: "How does the author or poet convey this theme or idea to me?" rather than "What is the theme or idea the author or poet conveys?" This is a necessary question to ask, but the point is to not just stop there but go further into the "why" and the "how".
Note that in your thesis statement you don't have to list or name your supporting points. Often that is just asking too much of one sentence. You may, if you wish, provide the supporting points in a second sentence, but it is not always necessary. You may find that providing the supporting points helps you to stay on track as you can actually check yourself to see that you haven 't rambled off on a tangent. However, a good thesis statement provides the organizing principle of the essay, and you may decide to let your supporting points appear as the reader reads through the essay. If you have given thought to logical order and flow in an outline, the essay will appear a cohesive organic whole.