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How to talk about context in your literature essay: 4 powerful examples of 1 (essay-changing) sentence

Student: Sir, I just don’t get it. How do I include context in my essay? It’s so hard. And pointless. Why do I have to do this?

Me: Have you got any hair putty?

Student: [confused] I’m sorry?…

Me: Never mind. OK, so you want to talk about context in your literature essay? Try this….

I’ve had this question (or ones like it) plenty of times – usually from students who know they’re supposed to ‘include’ context in their essays.

And I get it:

it’s kind of hard.

Unless…

… you’re genuinely quite widely read, and you’re fluent in the activity of joining the dots between different texts.

Often, that’s not the case with younger people – who still want to do well in their exams. And that’s fair enough.

What’s more, including context in your essay can feel terribly artificial. You know what I mean…

… Like a hoop-jumping exercise.

And it doesn’t have to feel that way, but it can do.

So – I came up with an approach to dealing with this question. An approach which I hope you will find both accessible and meaningful.

And I’m going to share it with you and show you how it works.

But it boils down to this:

I’m going to give you a couple of sentence templates.

These are templates that you can (and should) edit, tweak, and adjust to your heart’s desire. And then…

… you drop them into your essay and bed them in.

This will enable you to talk about context in your literature essay in an effective and unforced way. You’ll be able to:

  • Better fulfil those success criteria or assessment objectives that ask you to talk about context
  • Offer new insights that will make your essay seem fresher, more original, and more informed
  • Impress your teachers
  • Boost your grades

Sound good?

Excellent. Let’s go.

I call this strategy…

The Hairstyle Thesis

The Hairstyle Thesis is all to do with recognising the old (your hair) and identifying what’s new (the style).

Put another way, it’s to do with reworking. I’ll explain:

Go and find yourself a pot of branded hair wax or hair putty, and it’ll tell you that it’s perfect for reworking hair into a range of different styles.

And when you’re writing a literature essay, you’re going to pretend that:

  • The author of your text is the barber or hairdresser
  • The theme / trope / motif is the hair
  • The text itself is the new hairstyle

Under this arrangement:

The author reworks the theme / trope / motif…

… into something that is stylistically new

… and worthy of comment, appreciation – and even admiration.

The End.

Why use the Hairstyle Thesis?

In just a second, I’m going to give you my sentence templates.

But first…

Let’s just double check what the point of all of this is:

Learning to use this thesis can work wonders for your essay-writing because…

… it starts to show how the old has been made new.

That might mean shedding light on:

  • Why the text you are studying is ‘classic’ or has a place in the canon.
  • Why the author of your text is admired for his/her innovation or craftsmanship or playfulness in dealing with literary form.
  • The capacity of art and artists in general to take things that are ‘old’ and make them ‘new’.

More than just a ‘thesis’

Now, I’ve called it ‘The Hairstyle Thesis’ because…

… it’s catchy, memorable, and because you can use it as a thesis.

(i.e. It can go at the beginning of an essay or paragraph – and you then go on to try and prove it.)

But:

You don’t have to use it this way. It’s more versatile than that!

In fact, there are some very effective alternative ways of deploying it.

So here are some other options. You could use it:

  • As a sparkling conclusion or development at the end of a paragraph
  • As a pleasing flourish at the end of your essay.

You have to find what works for you in your essay!

Why the Hairstyle Thesis is so cunning

We are walking the tightrope.

By saying that an author has reworked, readapted, or repurposed something, we are treading the line between:

  • being too vague (and therefore not saying anything at all) and
  • being too specific (and therefore making a claim that can too easily be challenged and picked apart).

How it works

OK, here are two versions of the template you’re going to use:

The Templates

[The author/text] reworks / readapts / repurposes the theme / trope / motif found in texts such as [insert text here].

This [thing you’ve identified in the text] represents a reworking / readaptation / repurposing of the kind of theme / trope / motif found in texts such as [insert text here].

That’s basically it.

We can take things a little further – and some of you should.

And I’ll show you how – in just a minute. But:

For many of you, simply adapting these sentences (and finding a good home for them in your essay) will be enough of a challenge for now.

See my examples below to get a better idea of how you can do this.

Some Examples

You don’t need to have read these texts to get the idea:

Example 1 – Macbeth (William Shakespeare, c.1606)

“… Shakespeare therefore reworks the popular theme of witchcraft found in texts such as James I’s Daemonologie (1597).”

Imaginary essay on Macbeth

Example 2 – Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)

” … Brontë therefore reworks the ‘damsel in distress’ trope commonly found in gothic novels such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764).”

Imaginary essay on Wuthering Heights

Example 3 – Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

” … Austen therefore readapts the trope of ‘virtue rewarded’ commonly found in the romance novel, exemplified in earlier texts such as Pamela (1740) and Evelina (1778).”

Imaginary essay on Pride and Prejudice

Example 4 – A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens, 1843)

” … Dickens therefore repurposes motifs common to the popular ghost story tradition / the tradition of morality tales such as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).”

Imaginary essay on A Christmas Carol

These are my simple examples – I’m sure you can do better!

NB. You will probably sense that there is an invisible ‘BUT’ hanging at the end of each of these statements. That’s because on their own, they are a bit ‘pat’. They’re not completely satisfying. They leave us thinking “OK… so did Charles Dickens actually do anything fresh and new?” And we’ll come to that in a minute.

But first:

You still have to support your statement

Now, I’m sorry to state the obvious, but…

… if you’re going to use the Hairstyle Thesis, you’ll still need to gather support for the claim you are making.

That’s why my examples above include the word ‘therefore’ – I’m imagining that I’ve already demonstrated the presence of the theme / trope / motif earlier in the paragraph.

So if you haven’t already formed and substantiated some sort of argument in your essay, then you’ve probably come to my guide on how to include context in your literature essay a little ahead of schedule. You might want to try out my guide to writing paragraphs in a literature essay first.

If you’ve already got your argument in place, then let me show you how to put the finishing touches to your Hairstyle Thesis.

We’ll begin by looking at what the feedback might be if we just stuck with something like one of my examples above.

Feedback you might get from your teacher / professor

For some readers of this blog, simply having a good stab at using the kind of expressions I’ve provided (above) will have your teacher dancing in the street.

But for those working at a more advanced level, your teacher or professor may come back saying:

What do you mean by this exactly?
OK – can we have some more detail, here?
Reworked it in what way? With what effect? With what implications?
Repurposed it to what end?
Readapted it to what purpose?
Why is this significant?
Yes, but was Austen just repeating what everyone else had done before?

Things your teacher / professor might say

Recognising the new style

This is why your Hairstyle Thesis needs to recognise the new style that the author has created. OK, so you’ve identified what’s old. So what’s new? What’s fresh? What’s interesting?

Let’s start with my Macbeth example:

Example 1 – Macbeth (c.1606)

Reworked from John Henderson as Macbeth (George Romney, c. 1787) – sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Here’s what we had originally:

Shakespeare therefore reworks the popular theme of witchcraft found in texts such as James I’s Daemonologie (1597).

First attempt at a thesis on Macbeth

Currently, all we’re saying is that Shakespeare took some material from James I’s book and stuck it in his play.

What we haven’t said is that…

nobody had really done this before.

Or if they had, they hadn’t done it as well as Shakespeare.

Neither had they used that material as part of a compelling story about a respectable man being psychologically torn apart.

Daemonologie was a sort-of textbook – it wasn’t a novel or a play with a story to tell.

So we could write something like :

Macbeth: Shakespeare therefore reworks the popular theme of witchcraft found in texts such as James I’s Daemonologie (1597) into a psychological drama of self-destruction.

Improved, more meaningful thesis on Macbeth.

Or something like that.

Make sense? Let’s try another one – let’s look at Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights.

Example 2 – Wuthering Heights (1847)

Originally we had:

Brontë therefore reworks the ‘damsel in distress’ trope commonly found in gothic novels such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764).

First attempt at a thesis on Wuthering Heights

OK, now: those of you who know Wuthering Heights will know that Catherine Earnshaw is not exactly your typical damsel in distress.

You know what I mean…

… all meek and innocent… just waiting for the hero to arrive and scoop her up in his arms.

No – Catherine is a proper firebrand.

And this ‘reworking’ of the role is interesting, effective, and significant in more ways than we can count – but one thing we could say is this:

Catherine’s fieriness owes partly to the Romantics.

I mean, it is difficult to imagine this kind of character playing this kind of role 50, 30, or even 10 years earlier. So…

… we could say:

Brontë therefore offers a Romantic reworking of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope commonly found in gothic novels such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) through Catherine Earnshaw’s wild and fiery temperament.

Improved, more meaningful thesis on Wuthering Heights

Let’s go again:

Example 3 – Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Austen therefore readapts the trope of ‘virtue rewarded’ commonly found in the romance novel, exemplified in earlier texts such as Pamela (1740) and Evelina (1778).

First attempt at a thesis on Pride and Prejudice

If you don’t know Pride and Prejudice, then know this: there is a big ‘but’ at the end of this statement.

Yes, Elizabeth Bennet (the protagonist) gets ‘rewarded’, if you like, with a fairytale ending – she marries a man she has come to love and admire.

BUT:

Elizabeth’s virtue is different from the ‘virtue’ displayed by heroines in earlier, 18th-century, novels. In these earlier novels, we might expect ‘virtue’ in a woman to mean:

honesty, modesty, obedience, sensitivity (but the right kind – and not too much) chastity, and a certain amount of resilience in the face of [sexual] temptation.

But this is not a description of Elizabeth Bennet.

Rather, Elizabeth is intelligent, intuitive, mirthful, critical, balanced, emotionally in-touch, prone to anger (just like everyone), knows her own mind…

I could go on. Or as Jane Austen herself put it:

“As delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.”

Oh, and her crowning achievements in the novel include:

  • Refusing an offer of marriage by an eligible but foolish clergyman – when economically it made sense for her and her family;
  • Telling an aristocrat called Lady Catherine de Bourgh to get stuffed and mind her own business.

Readers punch the air for Elizabeth at these moments because of the sympathy she tends to draw: we are on her side. But these moments do not display ‘virtues’ in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, there emerges a new kind of virtue.

Now, the point is this:

No female character so three-dimensional, so assertive, and so possessing, had been landed with the ‘virtue rewarded’ role before – not in a novel, anyway. But rather, Jane Austen created something new and special.

So we could write:

Austen therefore readapts the trope of ‘virtue rewarded’ commonly found in the romance novel, exemplified in earlier texts such as Pamela (1740) and Evelina (1778) to accommodate a more complex heroine whose ‘virtue’ lies partly in her intellect and assertiveness.

Improved, more meaningful thesis on Pride and Prejudice

Or something like that!

Time for one more:

Example 4 – A Christmas Carol (1843)

Dickens therefore repurposes motifs common to the popular ghost story tradition / the tradition of morality tales such as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

First attempt at a thesis on A Christmas Carol

Let’s say we’re going with the ‘ghost story’ version. The story of A Christmas Carol is so well-known that it’s easy to forget that it is…

… a ghost story.

A particular type of genre or literary form, if you like.

And we normally have different expectations of ghost stories – from what we get in A Christmas Carol.

In fact, Dickens does with his ghost story something which had not been done before – or which had not been done as well.

He uses his ghost story to comment on the injustice and unfairness he saw around him – the misery of urban poverty in the context of wealth and greed.

Dickens therefore repurposes motifs common to the popular ghost story tradition to offer a story with direct moral implications for the oppressive and unfair Victorian society he saw around him.

Improved, more meaningful thesis on A Christmas Carol

Final thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, I salute you. I’ve tried to give you – and demo – a brief but powerful way of talking about context in your literature essay –

And doing so in a meaningful way!

But what do you think? How can I make this guide better? I welcome your comments below.

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