Literary research paper

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A literary research paper—unlike a research paper on abortion or euthanasia—focuses on critically analyzing/interpreting the meaning of literature. What’s more, the term “research” implies that you will be incorporating research from reputable secondary sources into your paper. In short, you will be analyzing/interpreting a piece (or several pieces) of literature and supporting your analysis with “research.”
The research paper must be at least ten (10) pages in length, and it must adhere to MLA standards and guidelines. Further, you must include a minimum of six (6) sources in your paper, five (5) of which must be considered “secondary sources.”


Your first step in writing the research paper is to decide which author (or authors) you would like to write about. You should feel free to choose from any of the authors we have discussed this semester, and you are more than welcome to find texts from your chosen author (or authors) that were not included on the syllabus.

After you have decided which author (or authors) you are interested in writing about, you need to decide which texts to include in your discussion; this may change as the paper progresses, but you should begin with a clear idea of which texts you would like to include in your analysis.
The next and most obvious step in the process is to read and then reread—several times—the text or texts you have chosen. In order to say something meaningful about the text, you need to know it backward and forward. As one critic relates, you need to “have a sure sense of what the work itself is like, how its parts function, what ideas it expresses, how it creates particular effects, and what your responses are.” In short, read, reread, and then when you think you are done, read some more.
After you are comfortable with your knowledge of the text (or texts), the next step is to develop an angle of analysis. In other words, you need to decide how you want to organize your paper. There are several different ways to organize a literary research paper, but more likely than not you will want to adopt one of the following organizing principles:

  1. Literary Elements: A research paper that is organized around literary elements generally includes a focused discussion on one or more of the following: setting, speaker, symbolism, irony, imagery, tone, language, etc.

  1. Themes: A research paper that is organized around a theme, such as death, life, love, race, gender, class, cultural identity, etc., generally includes a focused discussion on the role a particular theme plays in several pieces of literature.

  1. Critical Approaches: Whether you knew it or not, you adopted a specific approach to analyzing literature in both of the essays you wrote for class. In your first essay, because you focused on either a literary element (symbolism) or a literary theme (misogyny), you adopted a “formalist” approach to interpretation. For the second essay, some of you focused on how the historical, political, and/or social context informed the work; this was called an “historical” approach to interpretation. There are, of course, a number of other “critical” approaches to interpreting literature, such as feminist, Marxist, pluralist, structuralist, poststructuralist, sociological, biographical, etc. If you are interested in adopting one or more of these models of interpretation, please come talk to me.


Choosing a topic is a difficult task, but let yourself be guided by your knowledge of the text. There is a good chance that in reading the text (or texts) carefully and in choosing an angle of analysis, you will have already in a sense decided what it is you would like to write about/argue. An excellent way of making that decision more clear is to write out several possible titles for your paper. For example, a title that reads “Religion and Politics in James Joyce’s Dubliners” will likely adopt an “historical” approach to the text and discuss such issues as how the story both critiques and embodies the ideologies of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Dublin. On the other hand, a title that reads “Symbols in the Short Works of Ernest Hemingway” will adopt a more “formalist” approach to interpretation and will likely be focused around an extremely careful discussion of the text.


  1. The Thesis Statement: As you surely know by now, a thesis statement is the main point you are trying to make about the literature you are discussing. All of the information in your paper should, in one way or another, work to support your thesis statement. A good thesis statement is ARGUMENTATIVE in nature and is supported with a detailed interpretation of the text (or texts). You DO NOT want a thesis statement that is FACTUAL (Raymond Carver is a man), or that is SPECULATIVE (What if Raymond Carver is really a woman?), or that states an OPINION (Not only is Raymond Carver a bad writer, he’s also ugly).

  1. Primary Material: The text, or texts, that you choose to write about are called your primary texts. They are the main material that your thesis is organized around. In other words, “primary quotations” will serve as your primary form of support (textual evidence).

  1. Secondary Material: The research you will do ABOUT the author(s), text(s), and/or critical approach(es) is considered your secondary or “outside” material. In other words, you will be gathering information from outside sources that are relevant to your thesis and which help support your main points. Your goal is to balance your paper with your own analysis, with direct quotes from the text(s), and with quotes from others (secondary sources) who have written about the author(s) and/or text(s) you are discussing.


When conducting research on a piece of literature, you should attempt to confine your research to reputable sources. In general, books and journals are considered reputable sources, while magazines and newspaper articles are considered non-reputable sources. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, so if you find something that you would like to include in your paper as a secondary source, feel free to discuss the matter with me.

As you may or may not know, Harper's library subscribes to several academic databases, many of which contain full-text reprints of scholarly articles from reputable journals. In general, you will want to conduct your research by using these resources.
Here are a few tips for conducting research online through Harper's library:
1.) MLA, by and far, is the best resource for finding literary criticism. Here is how you access the MLA database:

  • From the library's home page, click on "Articles/Indexes Databases"

  • From this page, click on "MLA International Bibliography"

  • From this screen, enter your search terms. Also, note that there is an option to limit your search to "full-text" articles. Since some of you do not come to campus, you will want to limit your research to complete (full-text) articles

2.) The "Literature Resource Center," which can also be accessed through the "Articles/Indexes Databases" main page, is another valuable resource for finding scholarly research. Be certain, however, when you are using this resource, to click on the tab near the top of the page that reads "Literary Criticism, Articles, and Work Overviews" in order to access reprints of scholarly articles; the default category for this database is "Biographies."

3.) Books are also good. If you venture onto campus and into the Harper library, there are a number of publications in the "Reference" section of the library which may be of help. Here are a few:
Poetry for Students

Dictionary of Literary Biography

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism


  • Include the title(s) and author(s) you are discussing in the first or second paragraph of your paper.

  • Assume your reader has read the stories or poems you are discussing but does not remember them in detail. In other words, be sure to provide your readers with enough information (textual examples, etc.) so he or she can follow your analysis.

  • When you directly quote something, make sure you incorporate the quote into your own analysis. Do not simply stick the quote into the middle of your writing. You must introduce it and then comment on it. In other words, make sure the context of the quote is clear, why it is important, and what it is helping to prove.

  • If you are using a quote that is longer than four (4) lines (when you type it in your paper), indent the entire quotation and remove the quotation marks.

  • Use quotation marks around titles of stories

  • Underline titles of books

  • Don’t plagiarize. Plagiarism is grounds for failing the class and for possible dismissal from the college. Remember to cite a source even if you don’t take the sentence(s) word for word.


The “Works Cited” page gives full publication information for all of the sources you use in your paper, both primary and secondary. It is the last page of your paper, begins on its own page, and should contain the title “Works Cited” listed at the top and center of the page. The sources are listed in alphabetical order by the author’s (or authors’) last name(s). Here are examples of some of the more common entries:

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Gray, Spalding. Swimming to Cambodia. New York: Theatre Communciations Group,


---. “Spalding Gray.” Interview. With Eleanor Wachtel. Writers and Company.

Toronto: Knopf, 1993. 33-48.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New

York: Guilford Press, 1991.

Thion, Serge. “Genocide as a Political Commodity.” Genocide and Democracy in

Cambodia. Ed. Ben Kiernan. New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia

Studies, 1993. 200-215.


Demastes, William W. “Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia and the Evolution of

an Ironic Presence.” Theatre Journal 41 (1989): 75-94.
Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved." Studies

in American Fiction 17.2 (1989): 157-67. Republished in Literature Resource Center. 18 Nov. 2002.

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