An explication of a student essay in critical analysis.
Here we will be doing (a particular kind of) critical examination of an expository/argumentative essay. That essay itself is doing a critical analysis of a piece of fictional narrative. (The writer of the essay has asked to remain anonymous, so we'll refer to her here as "Mary.")
[Keep in mind that criticism, in the sense in which we are using the term, is not synonymous with "fault-finding." See the general discussion of critical analysis.]
In the left-hand column below you will see how Mary notices what some of the moves are by which Katherine Mansfield went about setting up the situation we are confronted with in her story “Miss Brill.” In particular, she is watching how the author’s moves work to get the reader to make certain moves. In the course of her calling attention to the features of the story that “work” to produce certain effects, she has occasion as well to call attention to the conventions the author takes for granted that readers will be working under if they are to produce these effects (infer these meanings, have these reactions) on the basis of the facts she chooses and arranges to construct what the narrator explicitly conveys.
In the right-hand column you will see me doing a particular kind of critical analysis (in the most general sense of the term) of Mary’s essay. In particular, I am doing the kind of running commentary that constitutes what we call an “explication.” Notice that the order of my points there is dictated by the order in which the features commented upon unfold in the essay that is their subject. This is the mark of explication. Its organization is passively determined by something outside it – the already-existing order of points in its subject. In writing an explication we don’t have to confront the problems of organization that “higher forms” of exposition must solve: I just took over (followed) the organization that was already embodied in Mary’s essay. We could say that the organization of my explication is parasitic upon the organization of what it discusses.
This is not the case with Mary’s essay itself. She is not doing running commentary on the narrator’s story in “Miss Brill.” She is showing how the point of view by which the story is disclosed to the reader contributes to the overall theme of the piece. This confronts her with three basic tasks. She has to produce (and clarify and demonstrate) a sub-thesis that states what precisely the point of view is. She has to commit herself to a statement (another sub-thesis) about what the story’s theme is (or at least about what some essential part of it is). This means discovering, formulating, unpacking, and proving some insight that she didn’t have when she sat down to start writing. And she has to shape the particular way in which she develops each of these theses in such a way that we can see how the features of point of view that she’s calling attention to make possible the features of the theme she’s calling attention to. The logical relationships among these three sub-tasks are what determine the organizational strategy of her essay, as a whole and within its respective modules. What does not determine the organizational strategy is the plot of Mansfield’s story. Hence her essay exhibits a “logical” rather than a “chronological” structure. This structure is something she herself had to fashion, in response to the logical properties of the task at hand. She had to assume the responsibility for actively making it.
Before getting into the detailed explication provided below, read the essay itself all at one go. Ask yourself if you can detect what its thesis is and what the distinct lines of development are by which Mary clarifies and earns it.
When you are done, return here, and work through the frames carefully. Always read all the way through a box on the left-hand side before proceeding to the corresponding. comments in the right-hand column. When you turn your attention to the right-hand column, you'll make best use of the comments if you don't read them all at once, but instead work carefully back and forth, refreshing your sense of exactly what each comment points to before thinking your way through it.
When you come to the comment following the first paragraph, you'll need to have a fresh sense of what was said both in the original paragraph and in the comments upon it. Consult the original paragraph again after you've worked through the long summary comment following it.
This is rather dense stuff, so you may want to take a rest from time to time.
ç When you’ve finished writing your essay, give some careful thought to fashioning an appropriate title. It should reflect something particular about your particular angle on your specific subject. Just one example: “Inside an Outsider: The Pathos of Loneliness in Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’”.
This short story is narrated in the third person from the point of view of the limited omniscient narrator who primarily acts as the voice of the story’s protagonist, Miss Brill. By telling the story through the eyes of the protagonist, Mansfield is able to convey to the reader the protagonist’s loneliness and the lack of self-awareness. She offers no explanation as to the Miss Brill’s past, leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. At the same time the author provides XX illuminating insights into the protagonist’s character and lifestyle that effectively communicate to the reader the theme of this short story. The central theme of “Miss Brill” is the pain of loneliness, and inadvertent attempts to experience life through the experiences of total strangers.
ç Right on. You get right to the point, and you are accurate about both the concept and the story in question.
ç Now you’ve turned your opening insight to account by posing & answering the question “So what?” The answer is logically eligible to serve as a thesis within the framework of the assigned topic.
ç You point out how the author’s adoption of these means to that end affects the activities the reader is called upon to undertake – i.e, how it defines the reader’s task. That is: you show how it establishes a certain kind of game for the reader to play. (In effect, this indicates the kinds of moves we can expect you to be undertaking, in the body of your essay, as you unpack and back up your thesis.)
ç See how your point would be more accurate if you were to insert here a phrase like details from which the reader can derive or specific facts about Miss Brill’s mental experience the reader can use to infer?
ç At the climax of your introduction you sharpen your thesis still further. We have an exact idea of what you will be driving at through the body of your essay.
|From the beginning of the narrative
it becomes apparent that Miss Brill is starving for warmth and
companionship. She tenderly caresses her fur
as if it were a beloved pet when she rubs “the life into the dim
little eyes” (p.50) of the old fox boa. Another
sign of Miss Brill’s need for companionship is evident in her
perception of the music which the band is playing at the Jardins
Publiques: “It was like some one playing with only the family to
listen (p.50).” Despite of her loneliness, she is considering herself
a part of this family that the band is entertaining with its music. But
in reality she is more of an observer, a voyeur, and not an active
participant in life as it unfolds at the Jardins Publiques. She
is looking forward to eavesdropping on other people’s conversations,
believing herself to be quite an expert in remaining unnoticed. Miss
Brill adopts a more critical, at times even hostile, attitude toward the
women that she observes in the park than toward their male companions:
she views the man who shares her “special” seat as “a fine old
man,” while the woman is “a big old woman (p.50).” When she
recollects the events of the previous Sunday at the park, she remembers
a patient Englishman with the difficult to please wife, whom “Miss
Brill wanted to shake (p.50).” These observation of the women
carry perhaps a note of envy that she feels
toward the women who have male companionship.
ç Here you give a restatement of your thesis, but you do it in a way that advances it beyond mere repetition. “Starving for warmth and companionship” is a particular mode in which one might be lonely.
ç You then back this up with an example. And, in fact, the one you feature at just this juncture is a gesture on Miss B’s part that speaks especially to the “warmth” idea (“fur”) in connection with the companionship idea (“pet”), intensifying each in that the “pet” is not only not a real person but dead, an effigy.
ç You proceed to give an additional example. This one requires to be developed in steps, and you undertake each. You promise something more and anchor it in a specific fact. Then you provide a citation to anchor that characterization in turn. Then you explain, in two parts (“Despite….But….”), how this detail establishes the point you promised.
ç Now you set out to give still a third example. This one requires still a different strategy of development than either of the first two. Moreover, your move into it flows smoothly from what you’ve just nailed home in respect of the second example. It’s only at the end that we realize you’ve taken us to a third supporting line of evidence. Your second sentence in this section ups the ante, since it raises the anxiety in us that you may be wandering from the point (or that we may not be getting your drift). This drives us forward to look for clues as to how this might be on-point after all. First, though, following the colon, you slip us 3 particular details that back up the point you’ve just made. And then you serve up the confirmation we’ve been looking for è
ç You show us what ties all these together (a disposition to feel envy).
ç And then you show how this (envy) in turn can be turned to account on behalf of the thesis you started out the paragraph with.
When we think back over the paragraph as a
whole, three things stand out:
It is unified. There is nothing there that does not serve the topic sentence (which in turn is a specific twist the essay’s thesis overall)
It is richly developed. Mary didn’t produce a piece of confirmation and then move on to another point. She showed how to get to the same point from two additional other sorts of starting points (the last of which, in fact, is a “staging area” she gets to from three distinct particular points in turn)
It is coherent. We don’t lose our way in the trees as we go through the forest. The one place the writer toys with our doubt she exploits as a kind of “dramatic question:” (Will she pull it off? Or will she drive over the cliff?”) This suspense she then proceeds directly to resolve in a way that provides us the satisfaction of reassurance as an underlining of the point she makes that recoups the venture. Part of what serves this coherence is a pleasing overall strategy of deployment of the evidence that she has discovered she is able to give. We notice that she begins with the shortest subtask to get through, then takes up the next longest, and concludes with the one that takes the most elaboration to pull off
This has the effect of communicating the thoroughness of her thesis’ grounding in the facts of the story: we appreciate that it not only runs close to the surface but also runs more widely and deeply through (behind) the explicit facts of Miss Brill’s consciousness that the narrator directly acquaints us with.
The fact that we can confirm the notions we start with suspecting only by going deeper into the texture of the facts’ implications connects with the fact that the point of view of the story is so contrived as to afford us a double vision: we get to participate “directly” in Miss Brill’s consciousness of the scene; and, on reflection, we are enabled to understand some aspects of what that signifies that Miss Brill herself is screening out of that experience, because they are too painful — namely the intensity of the pain of loneliness that is driving her to these delightful attempts to “connect.” We are thus invited to become aware of an irony: what motivates (and thus explains) her conscious experience is something that is not a part of this conscious experience, something that that experience excludes (until the epiphany at the story’s end). (Note, by the way, that there are some points here that Mary could have explicitly incorporated into her analysis.)
Mary's organizational strategy is thus not only pleasing (from small to big, from the easier to pull off to the harder to pull off) but implicitly supports in a subtle way the overall thesis of her essay, about how the point of view serves the story’s theme.
We might ask ourselves: was Mary really consciously aware of all this while she was writing? She may well have been. This is a pretty deft piece of writing, and there's no reason we shouldn't suppose that the author of it was not deliberately working with these factors in mind. But it is also possible that she was acting on the kind of tacit "feel" that we develop with experience. The organizational strategy works for any reader who is responding to the overall structure of the paragraph as a whole, and it's hard to imagine a writer being able to craft a paragraph like this without working from a sense of how the entire paragraph unrolls. Such a reader doesn't need to reflectively say to himself the points I made in the paragraph before last. The "feel" of the paragraph can communicate those ideas to us "tacitly."
But it is crucial that we be the kind of reader that can register such a progression (small to large, obvious to subtle) in the deployment of successive pieces of evidence on behalf of a claim. If we are the kind of reader who can only attend to one thing at a time, we are not yet ready even to register structure. Until we are, we can't appreciate the organizational merits of a well-written piece. Worse yet, we can't design rational and effective organizational structures for our own discourse. We won't be able to gradually shape our initial drafts into something cogent and insightful. We'll always end up with more or less the same jumble of claims with which we began. More on this later on.
point in the story the reader still does not know much about the
protagonist, except that she is a lonely voyeur.
Then one of her observations about the “odd,
silent, nearly all old people, and from the way they stared they looked
as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even – even
cupboards! (p.51)” whom she sees every Sunday at the park hints to the
reader that she might be one of those people. The pieces of the puzzle,
of course, fall into place at the end of the story, when the protagonist’s
room is described as “the little dark room-her room like a cupboard
(p.52).” This is the conclusion of the story, when Miss
Brill is able to see herself and her surroundings in the new light. Her
new self-awareness is brought about by disparaging remarks of
the young lovers who refer to Miss Brill as “that stupid old thing (p.52),”
and to her precious fur as “a fried whiting (p.52).” This is Miss
Brill’s moment of epiphany. She is as
old as the other park-goers, her fur is a pitiful necklet, and she
foregoes her usual Sunday slice of honeycake.
In spite of her newly found
self-awareness, Miss Brill still denies some of her own emotions when
“she thought she heard something crying (p.52)” at the very end of
the story. The tears are obviously her own.
ç This turns out to be an effective transition. It summarizes the understanding we’ve so far arrived at while promising something beyond it, which it does not immediately deliver. It tells us what sort of thing to be on the look-out for, and thus shapes our attention in a relevant way for what’s down the pike. [Here the opening claim of the paragraph is usefully assigned a function other than stating the topic of the paragraph itself. Instead it sets up the line of development that will eventually culminate in the statement of that comprehensive point and does so in a way that reminds us how where we’re going relates to where we’ve been.]
ç Fine job of making connections (here, between the facts of one moment, seen from the protagonist’s initial point of view, and the facts of another moment, seen from the protagonist’s changed point of view). And in each node (between which the connection runs) the writer provides the concrete details that establish her specific point. Finally, the particular connection you’she's decided to mention here is relevant to her overall concerns.
ç Now the writer shifts gears to a different line of development of her point — from “what shows this?” to “how did it come to be?” (What, in the plot, makes this changed vision plausible for the character? That’s a concern we have since we’re playing under the rules of “realism..” Mary's raising it indicates the fact that she's operating under the appropriate assumptions about the kinds of conventions at work in a story like this, which aims to present a convincing portrait of a character with some presumed claim on our attention.)
ç [Minor point of mechanics: when giving a parenthetic page reference for textual citation presented in quotation marks, the parenthetical material goes outside the terminal quotation mark.]
ç The writer now shifts to still another line of development: you spell out specific implications of what you have established. (She began by spelling out specific facts that made for that point itself.) That is: she now asks “So what?”
ç She concludes her characterization of Miss Brill’s final state of awareness by noting its limitations –– a point of connection with, a hold-over from, where the protagonist was at the beginning.
· Mary is thus striving both for precision in capturing the state of affairs itself and for relationship to what it developed out of.
· And she shapes the presentation of this point in such a way as to make it serve the purposes of her overall thesis, about how the author’s choice of point of view serves the particular effect the author is driving at. Here: once again, the reader is able both to share Miss Brill’s experience, and to go beyond it to an understanding of it that is not a part of it. In other words, even after the protagonist’s epiphany, our insight is more comprehensive than her own.
· [Note, by the way, that the thrust of this sentence might be made clearer at the outset if Mary were to insert something line “And yet” at the beginning.]
· Another thing Mary's final sentence accomplishes: in a different (and more sharply focused) way than at the outset of this paragraph, the reader is shown how where we’ve just arrived relates to where we’d been before.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss
Brill.” An Introduction to Fiction. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana
Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999. 50-52
[Don’t forget the period at the end of the page references.]
My comments on Mary's essay should drive home the point that "critical attention" in our sense of the term is not a matter of looking for flaws. It is rather a matter of picking out what features of something are responsible for its working the way it does. (If something is not working well, we come to notice that, too, of course. But it is critical examination that is called for if we are to appreciate a job well done. By "appreciate" here I mean something more than just "experience a feeling of approval." I mean to have a clear rational understanding of why something works.)
Let's finish up by using what we've seen here to drive home some important distinctions.
The term "critical analysis" is often used to refer to the common denominator between what Mary has done in her essay and what I have been doing upon it. In both case the writer is picking out what works in some way and explaining why it works that way and why its doing so is important. But among ourselves we will foster clarity on an important point if we reserve the term "critical analysis" to refer to the sort of thing that Mary has been up to, and use some other term to refer to the kind of thing you have just seen me do. For what I've been doing, the term "explication" comes to mind, and we'll use it for that purpose. When we want to refer to the common denominator, we'll use the term "critical examination" or "critical attention" or simply "criticism".
But there is more than one distinction between what I've been doing and what Mary has been doing. Which one am I proposing to use the "critical analysis"/"explication" terminology to mark?
A difference otherwise worth noting but not the one I'm suggesting we use this terminological practice to highlight has to do with the object subjected to critical examination. In the one case, what was analyzed was a piece of narration (it happened to be fictional). In the other, what was under commentary happened to be an essay. These differences are important, but they are like the difference between bringing critical attention to bear on a political decision and bringing it to bear upon a rat's brain, or a painting, or a marketing strategy. In each case the things it makes sense to notice -- to select for attention -- and the kinds of functions one wants to explain are obviously different. (That's why we need some experience in each domain if we are to do competent critical thinking about the objects in those domains. [At the same time, the more experience we have doing either explication or critical analysis of football or poems, the more quickly we'll get the hang of doing critical thinking in regard to essays in philosophy or anthropology or in business.])
The distinction I'm proposing we use "explication" and "critical analysis" in this particular way to keep ourselves clear upon has rather to do with the kind of overall organizational strategy at work.
Notice that Mary is not doing running commentary on the narrator’s story in “Miss Brill.” In accordance with the assignment, she is showing how the point of view by which the story is disclosed to the reader contributes to the overall theme of the piece. This confronts her with three basic tasks. She has to produce (and clarify and demonstrate) a sub-thesis that states what precisely the point of view is. She has to commit herself to a statement (another sub-thesis) about what the story’s theme is (or at least about what some essential part of it is). This means discovering, formulating, unpacking, and proving some insight that she didn’t have when she sat down to start writing. And she has to shape the particular way in which she develops each of these theses in such a way that we can see how the features of point of view that she’s calling attention to make possible the features of the theme she’s calling attention to. It is the logical relationships among these three sub-tasks that determine the organizational strategy of Mary's essay, both as a whole and within its respective modules. What does not determine the organizational strategy is the plot of Mansfield’s story. Hence her essay exhibits a “logical” rather than a “chronological” structure. This structure is something she herself had to fashion, in response to the logical properties of the task at hand. She had to assume the responsibility for actively making it.
In contrast, though my comments do exhibit logical structure individually and internally, nevertheless the order by which one comment follows another is given not by any comprehensive hierarchy of tasks of my own, but by the order in which Mary’s moves happened to emerge, as determined by the necessities under which they were governed. My overall structure thus has no inherent logic of its own. Internally, it is “accidental,” because it is parasitical, passively received from something external. If Mary had done the equivalent, she would have organized her points strictly according to the order in which the details with which they are associated happen to emerge in Mansfield’s story. But that would not have been a proper means to adopt for the end in view. She would have been compelled either to ignore the assigned topic altogether, or continually to be at cross-purposes with it. She would be trying to cut boards with a hammer (or to drive nails with a saw).
Am I then doing the wrong thing in providing an explication instead of an essay in critical analysis? No, because my purposes here are different from Mary’s. My job here is a particular sort of coach’s job. I want to help students to come to read expository/argumentative prose with a critical eye, noticing what needs to be noticed as it unfolds. Why is that? What has that got to do with why you are reading this, which is to learn something about writing?
Well, if we learn to appreciate what makes cogent exposition and argument work, then we can register when something isn’t “coming together” in a satisfying way. We can trouble-shoot any emerging draft we are writing so as to figure out how to make it work better — to bring it to the next stage, to tinker it into a superior draft. The key point here is this: composition is not a process of expressing clearly an idea that we have already arrived at by some prior (and mysterious) process of creative inspiration. Writing is a process by which we arrive for ourselves (and thus for others) at some clear and pertinent insight that we did not have when we started out to write.
Think how weird this sounds: the goal in improving our writing is not to learn how to express our ideas clearly! I am denying here what most people think writing courses are all about. Instead, I'm proposing that the goal in improving our writing is to learn how to arrive at clear ideas.
But isn't that the job of "subject-matter courses"? Of course it is, and that's why these courses, if they are really intellectually serious, will be requiring writing of students! (The fact that even higher-level university courses -- to say nothing of large-enrollment lower-level courses -- try to dispense with requiring essay writing from students only means that society as a whole is not willing to provide the resources it would take to offer students a real education. Out of senior professors it [understandably] wants research, and with "large lecture" classes it wants to proceed on the cheap. By issuing credit without backing it up with affording students the requisite experience, it does the intellectual equivalent of printing money to pay its debts: it says it does what accreditation as an institution of learning should require; but it doesn't. [Somewhat like the U.S. in Vietnam, it declares a victory and gets out.)
Why do we have to set aside the idea that good writing is clear expression of our ideas, and take on instead the idea that writing is a process of arriving, by stages, at clear ideas? Let's first get a little clearer about what this latter idea contains.
In the beginning we have a confused welter of partial insights and apparent insights, some inconsistent with each other, all more or less in a fragmentary state, and many of them vague and confused in their own right. We begin, that is, with a muddle. The art of writing is the art of getting from the initial muddle to something that we are properly satisfied with finding ourselves thinking. And this means: the art of writing boils down to skill in revising. Revising — good news! – is something that we can learn. In fact anyone can learn it. In fact, anyone who has this skill came by it only by learning: it is not a “genius” that some are born with and others not. That’s encouraging, because it means there is hope. Everyone starts with muddle. The difference between those who end up with a muddle and those who end up with a clear and cogent piece of writing in support of an interesting idea relevant to some purpose is not that some people have a mysterious capacity to conceive bright ideas and also the knack for finding the words to say them. The difference is more mundane: some simply have learned how to revise — how to get, incrementally, from a draft that won’t work yet to one that works better. The paradox is that insight — we can call it “vision” — comes out of revision. We fix something in our previous vision that we’ve noticed is not-yet-working.
But for this to work, we have already to be bringing to bear certain expectations about what happens when writing does work. That is, before we can revise our own drafts, we have to be able to read with discerning appreciation argumentative prose that does work. Explication of effective writing is well-suited to helping others see what makes a working piece work because it demonstrates in action the mind of a reader who is making the sorts of moves you have to make in order to do that.
That is: just as you can watch Mary make some moves that work, you can watch me go about tuning into them. And that means you can rip off not only Mary’s moves, but mine. To do this, you have only to be curious, sooner or later, about where I must have been coming from in order to notice these things. What sort of “standing curiosities” must I always be bringing to bear? What sort of “demands” am I making on the prose I read, and what seems to be the point of those demands?
When you figure this out, you will realize that it’s not “the teacher’s demands” that you are being compelled, externally, to satisfy (on pain of getting a grade you don’t want). It is the demands of your own logical equipment. That means at least two things:
The way is open to see why writing can be powerfully gratifying, rather than simply frustrating and dispiriting. (There will be frustrations aplenty, but they won’t be dispiriting!) Arriving at a good final draft is actually a process of satisfying some of the deepest demands of your own human nature, your inborn rational equipment, and the pleasure we take in discovery of truth through the trial and error recognition and rectification of error. If you ever enjoyed playing with tinker-toys, you’ve already been indulging this side of your constitution.
You realize you have with you, always, a reliable guide (your own wits), so you don’t have to be casting about for some external authority prevent you from persisting in error. Sooner or later, you can figure it out yourself.
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This page last updated 25 October 2000 .