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Writing about Literature

Elements of the Essay

Thesis

Interpretive versus Evaluative Claims

All the theses in the previous examples involve interpretive claims—claims about how a literary text works, what it says, how one should understand it. And interpretive claims generally work best as theses.

Yet it’s useful to remember that in reading and writing about literature we often make (and debate) a different type of claim—the evaluative. Evaluation entails judging or assessing. Evaluative claims about literature tend to be of two kinds. The first involves aesthetic judgment, the question being whether a text (or a part or element thereof) succeeds in artistic terms. (This kind of claim features prominently in book reviews, for example.) The second involves philosophical, ethical, or even socially or politically based judgment, the question being whether an idea or action is wise or good, valid or admirable. All interpretive and evaluative claims involve informed opinion (which is why they are debatable). But whereas interpretive claims aim to elucidate the opinions expressed in and by the text, the second kind of evaluative claim assesses the value or validity of those opinions, often by comparing them with the writer’s own.

The following examples juxtapose a series of interpretive claims with evaluative claims of both types:

INTERPRETIVE CLAIMS EVALUATIVE CLAIMS

"A Conversation with My Father" explores the relative values of realistic and fantastic fiction. Rather than advocating one type of fiction, however, the story ends up affirming just how much we need stories of any and every kind.

"A Conversation with My Father" fails because it ends up being more a stilted Platonic dialogue about works of fiction than a true work of fiction in its own right.

The father in "A Conversation with My Father" is absolutely right: realistic stories are more effective and satisfying than fantastic ones.

The speaker of John Donne’s "Song" is an angry and disillusioned man obsessed with the infidelity of women.

In "Song," John Donne does a very effective job of characterizing the speaker, an angry and disillusioned man obsessed with the infidelity of women.

John Donne’s "Song" is a horribly misogynistic poem because it ends up endorsing the idea that women are incapable of fidelity.

"How I Learned to Drive" demonstrates that, in Paula Vogel’s words, "it takes a whole village to molest a child."

"How I Learned to Drive" is at once too preachy and too self-consciously theatrical to be dramatically effective.

By insisting that sexual abuse is a crime perpetrated by a "whole village" rather than by an individual, Paula Vogel lets individual abusers off the hook, encouraging us to see them as victims rather than as the villains they really are.

In practice, the line between these different types of claims can become very thin. For instance, an essay claiming that Vogel’s play conveys a socially dangerous or morally bad message about abuse may also claim that it is, as a result, an aesthetically flawed play. Further, an essay defending an interpretive claim about a text implies that it is at least aesthetically or philosophically worthy enough to merit interpretation. Conversely, defending and developing an evaluative claim about a text always requires a certain amount of interpretation. (You have to figure out what the text says in order to figure out whether the text says it well or says something worthwhile.)

To some extent, then, the distinctions are ones of emphasis. But they are important nonetheless. And unless instructed otherwise, you should generally make your thesis an interpretive claim, reserving evaluative claims for conclusions. (On conclusions, see Ending: The Conclusion.)

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