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Literary Essays Definition

Definition of Essay

Essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means “to attempt,” or “to try.” An essay is a short form of literary composition based on a single subject matter, and often gives the personal opinion of the author. A famous English essayist, Aldous Huxley defines essays as, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” In simple words, we can define it as a scholarly work in writing that provides the author’s personal argument.

Types of Essay

There are two forms of essay: literary and non-literary. Literary essays are of four types:

  • Expository Essay – In an expository essay, the writer gives an explanation of an idea, theme, or issue to the audience by giving his personal opinions. This essay is presented through examples, definitions, comparisons, and contrast.
  • Descriptive Essay – As it sounds, this type of essay gives a description about a particular topic, or describes the traits and characteristics of something or a person in detail. It allows artistic freedom, and creates images in the minds of readers through the use of the five senses.
  • Narrative Essay – Narrative essay is non-fiction, but describes a story with sensory descriptions. The writer not only tells a story, but also makes a point by giving reasons.
  • Persuasive Essay – In this type of essay, the writer tries to convince his readers to adopt his position or point of view on an issue, after he provides them solid reasoning in this connection. It requires a lot of research to claim and defend an idea. It is also called an argumentative essay.

Non-literary essays could also be of the same types but they could be written in any format.

Examples of Essay in Literature

Example #1: The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (By Jeffrey Tayler)

“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae’d stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”

This is an example of a descriptive essay, as the author has used descriptive language to paint a dramatic picture for his readers of an encounter with a stranger.

Example #2: Of Love (By Francis Bacon)

“It is impossible to love, and be wise … Love is a child of folly. … Love is ever rewarded either with the reciprocal, or with an inward and secret contempt. You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons…there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love: which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion…That he had preferred Helena, quitted the gifts of Juno and Pallas. For whosoever esteemeth too much of amorous affection quitted both riches and wisdom.”

In this excerpt, Bacon attempts to persuade readers that people who want to be successful in this world must never fall in love. By giving an example of famous people like Paris, who chose Helen as his beloved but lost his wealth and wisdom, the author attempts to convince the audience that they can lose their mental balance by falling in love.

Example #3: The Autobiography of a Kettle (By John Russell)

“I am afraid I do not attract attention, and yet there is not a single home in which I could done without. I am only a small, black kettle but I have much to interest me, for something new happens to me every day. The kitchen is not always a cheerful place in which to live, but still I find plenty of excitement there, and I am quite happy and contented with my lot …”

In this example, the author is telling an autobiography of a kettle, and describes the whole story in chronological order. The author has described the kettle as a human being, and allows readers to feel, as he has felt.

Function of Essay

The function of an essay depends upon the subject matter, whether the writer wants to inform, persuade, explain, or entertain. In fact, the essay increases the analytical and intellectual abilities of the writer as well as readers. It evaluates and tests the writing skills of a writer, and organizes his or her thinking to respond personally or critically to an issue. Through an essay, a writer presents his argument in a more sophisticated manner. In addition, it encourages students to develop concepts and skills, such as analysis, comparison and contrast, clarity, exposition, conciseness, and persuasion.

Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature

Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written.  To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance. 

Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective.  Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.  You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.

Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.

  • William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
  • District 9- South African Apartheid
  • X Men- the evils of prejudice
  • Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”

Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character - A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.  

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.

  • confidence/ arrogance
  • mouse/ rat
  • cautious/ scared
  • curious/ nosey
  • frugal/ cheap

Denotation - dictionary definition of a word

Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition  

Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves

  • Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as  
    • You are the sunshine of my life.
  • Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as  
    • What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
  • Hyperbole - exaggeration
    • I have a million things to do today.
  • Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
    • America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.

Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem

  • Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
    • Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
      • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
  • Spondee - stressed stressed
    • Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
      • Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
  • Trochee - stressed unstressed
    • Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
      • While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
  • Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
    • Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
      • Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
  • Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
    • Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
      • Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
        With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.

Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.

Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem

Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.

Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.

  • Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)

Setting - the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.

Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems  are not necessarily formless.

Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.

  • Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
  • Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
  • Owl - wisdom or knowledge
  • Yellow - implies cowardice or rot

Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.

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