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An analytical essay can be defined as a writer's reaction/response to a body of work through a critical lens. That is, one must set out to explain the significance of the text by persuading the reader of a certain point regarding the text. This point or claim the writer is trying to make is not a fact, but rather his/her opinion of the text. The writer must support his/her argument by exploring the text in great depth. To do this effectively, one must use evidence from the text to explore all sides of his/her argument regarding the text and ultimately, support his/her claim.
The analytical essay is usually broken up into sections. An outline of these sections (not necessarily in this order) would usually include:
I. An abstract of the text which includes any historical background that is relevant to the understanding of the piece.
II. Using the collection of evidence gathered, the writer goes on to evaluate the text in terms of the argument he/she is making. He/she must persuade the reader of his/her point regarding the text through the interpretation of gathered evidence from the text.
III. An evaluation of the explicit and implicit assumptions the author of the original text makes and how these assumptions create other implied arguments within the text.
IV. An explanation of any inherent contradictions within the text. These contradictions can be caused by the author's unwarranted assumptions about his audience or assumptions about the world that are contradictory to that of the analyst. In both sections three and four, the writer should focus on the author's feeling toward his intended audience. The writer may also explore how the author attempts to emotionally appeal to his audience.
Traditionally, the introductory paragraph will provide a summary of the original text, otherwise known as an abstract. Here, the author and text (underlined or italicized) that will be examined throughout the essay should be introduced and the text itself should be summarized. It is important to provide any peripheral information that the reader should be familiar with. That is, any background information regarding the text that is relevant, but should not necessarily be included in the body paragraphs. Peripheral information could include, but is not limited to, the historical background of the text or some brief biographical information regarding the author. It is important to include this information because it will establish a point of view for the reader. That is, the reader will start to become familiar with the writer's interpretation of the text. Lastly, the thesis statement or argument the writer is setting out to prove should serve as the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
The thesis statement can be defined as the central argument or main idea of the essay and serves as the essay's foundation. In an analytical essay, the thesis statement is reactionary. The writer has read the original work and is establishing a solid viewpoint regarding the text. This viewpoint can be a bold statement regarding the author's intended purpose of the original text. A clear, concise thesis statement in an analytical essay would be as follows: “Matthew Arnold believes that the onset of the Industrial Revolution has proven hazardous to the human spirit. He believes that progress has left humans spiritually empty due to the ever-growing dismissive attitude toward religion.” This claim about Arnold's poem is reactionary on the part of the writer. The writer will now set to prove his/her claim using evidence from the text.
Within the body of the essay, one may focus on an aspect of the poem that serves to supports the essay's theme. For example, one may choose to describe the image of human suffering that is portrayed throughout the poem through the rise and fall of meter throughout the poem: “Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in” (Arnold, 1867). Here, the rise and fall of meter mimics the ebb and flow of the tide, which parallels the theme of the poem, the endless flow of human suffering.
The writer would now move on to discuss the inherent assumptions present in the text. “Arnold assumes that his audience, being products of the Industrial Revolution, have adopted the viewpoint of the majority, which is a rejection of religion and the adoption of Darwinism. He assumes that this spiritual change has left his audience hopeless and miserable.” Here, the quotation relates to the essay's theme and the explanation of the quotation serves to support the writer's claim or fatten the sound of his/her argument, as it were. The writer has explored the text's intended audience and certain assumptions about that audience made by the author. By and large, the paragraph, albeit critically analyzed and broken down, should ultimately serve to further support the writer's claim.
The body paragraphs that follow should take a critical eye to other aspects of the text which serve to support the essay's theme. For example, one may explore inherent contradictions within the text. One might also explicate Arnold's employment of certain types of literary devices or themes such as setting or historical references made in the text that lucidly illustrate the essay's main theme.
All the components of the essay should be centered around the writer's reaction to the text. Think of an orchestra. In an orchestra, there are not just cellists, but an array of musicians that contribute. Each musician's contribution is cohesive and harmonious, meant to enhance or to fatten the sound of a piece of music. When one listens to an orchestra, one does not hear all of the different components separately, but all components together, speaking to each other in order to produce one cohesive sound or theme, as it were. Like an orchestra, all of the components of one's essay must speak to one theme. That theme or claim must be continuously supported throughout the text.
The conclusion of an analytical essay usually consists of one to two paragraphs, depending on depth and length of the paper, which serve(s) to draw the essay to a close. The author should begin this paragraph by restating the thesis once again. From this point, the author should briefly restate the themes of the main body and broadly lead the reader to a closing statement. This statement should not be a quote, but a creative statement derived entirely by the author to leave the reader thinking positively about the argument made throughout the essay. The author's purpose is to leave the reader convinced of the thesis and satisfied with the evidence provided. A reader that is left confused or questioning the author's integrity is not desirable. The author should leave the essay with an air of poise. In so doing, the reader will respond by appreciating the author's confidence.