RHETORIC & WRITING

Writing about Literature

Paraphrase, Summary, Description

Summary

A summary is a fairly succinct restatement or overview of the content of an entire text or source (or a significant portion thereof). Like paraphrases, summaries should always be stated in your own words.

A summary of a literary text is generally called a plot summary because it focuses on the action or plot. Here, for example, is a summary of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven":

The speaker of Poe's "The Raven" is sitting in his room late at night reading in order to forget the death of his beloved Lenore. There's a tap at the door; after some hesitation he opens it and calls Lenore's name, but there is only an echo. When he goes back into his room he hears the rapping again, this time at his window, and when he opens it a raven enters. He asks the raven its name, and it answers very clearly, "Nevermore." As the speaker's thoughts run back to Lenore, he realizes the aptness of the raven's word: she shall sit there nevermore. But, he says, sooner or later he will forget her, and the grief will lessen. "Nevermore," the raven says again, too aptly. Now the speaker wants the bird to leave, but "Nevermore," the raven says once again. At the end, the speaker knows he'll never escape the raven or its dark message.

Though a summary should be significantly shorter than the original, it can be any length you need it to be. Above, the 108 lines of Poe's poem have been reduced to about 160 words. But one could summarize this or any other work in as little as one sentence. Here, for example, are three viable one-sentence summaries of Hamlet:

A young man seeking to avenge his uncle's murder of his father kills his uncle, while also bringing about his own and many others' deaths.

A young Danish prince avenges the murder of his father, the king, by his uncle, who had usurped the throne, but the prince himself is killed, as are others, and a well-led foreign army has no trouble successfully invading the decayed and troubled state.

When, from the ghost of his murdered father, a young prince learns that his uncle, who has married the prince's mother, is the father's murderer, the prince plots revenge, feigning madness, acting erratically—even insulting the woman he loves— and, though gaining his revenge, causes the suicide of his beloved and the deaths of others and, finally, of himself.

As these Hamlet examples suggest, different readers—or even the same reader on different occasions—will almost certainly summarize the same text in dramatically different ways. Summarizing entails selection and emphasis. As a result, any summary reflects a particular point of view and may even imply a particular interpretation or argument. When writing a summary, you should try to be as objective as possible; nevertheless, your summary will reflect your own understanding and attitudes. For this reason, summarizing a literary text may help you to begin figuring out just what your particular understanding of a text is, especially if you then compare your summary to those of other readers.

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