Essay Assignment #2:

Short Story Critique


You are to write an essay interpreting some aspect of a short story. Aim to convince readers that your understanding is insightful and can be supported by an imaginative reading of specific passages from the story.

You are asked to write a critique on a short story because writing about literature will give you insight into both the ways writers use language and the ways readers interpret meaning from language. You must be patient as you consider your critique: the tendency for students new to this assignment is to dive in and write critiques that merely skim the surface using only superficial data to explain a story. This habit probably comes from the junior high and perhaps high school exercise of writing book reports, where repeating the plot was synonymous with understanding the story.

Because critical reading is an essential step for success in this assignment, you should follow closely the reading strategies we covered in class. Marking your story, making notes, and evaluating your reactions are all extremely helpful components of a critical reading.

The skill in reading a good short story depends on several factors, one of which is your willingness to believe that in good short stories, there exists much below the superficial storyline itself. While we will discuss symbols, metaphors, and the like, consider these five categories of questions to get you started in your investigation.  After you have read the story you have been assigned, we will spend some class time working together to help formulate some assertions about the text.

Once you have critically and carefully read your short story, check to make sure you can answer all questions of fact surrounding the story (the who? what? where? when? questions). In addition, consider:

When you feel you have a handle on the details of the story, consider what I have called the questions of interpretation. These are the questions about plot, character, setting, etc. that might give you ideas for an interpretation, and therefore a thesis. As a way to begin reflections and analysis of your short story, consider these questions after first reading.

Your final draft should run at least three pages and not exceed five. You do not need to borrow from outside sources to justify your interpretation. However, if you do use sources other than the story itself, please follow the MLA guidelines from A Writer's Reference for producing a Works Cited page (or consult this page from Duke University). You should cite from the story itself! This is your evidence. When you do, simply follow any quote with a page number in parentheses, and then a period.  

I don't have the last word on how this literary analysis or critique might be composed.  So consider the advice already given in a website by another English professor who has cataloged some good advice about writing this kind of paper. I will say, I don't agree with everything she says: the "Funnel Opening"--as she calls it--isn't as awful as she makes it sound!

Above all, remember that your critique sheds some light on the story for your readers. You must be able to answer the "So what?" question for yourself whenever you make a claim about the story. If you have not asked that question, you may be writing a superficial (or merely informational) interpretation!

Other resources

I have linked to some websites that give further explanation to the terms and tasks of the short story critique assignment:

"The Problem of Meaning in Literature" from Prof. John Lye, discussing how readers understand short stories.
Categorical questions about short stories from a website at VCU.
Overview questions from a University of Hawaii website to ask as you draft an analysis

For general advice and reminders, check out the web pages from the Purdue University's Writing Center, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center.

For some basic biographical information about our short story authors, you may want to consult the following links:

Toni Cade Bambara:

"Perspectives in American Literature" provides basic biographical information and other links, as does this U of M website. Discussion of her stories can be found at Wikipedia--it's a pretty good collection for first-time readers. Our story comes from her short story collection called Gorilla, My Love published in 1972.

Sandra Cisneros:

Cisneros is still alive and maintains her own website at: http:www.sandracisneros.com. Likewise, Wikipedia has a nice collection of good information about Cisneros, her writings (our story was originally published in 1984 in a book called House on Mango Street), and her themes.

Eudora Welty:

"A Worn Path" was originally published in The Atlantic magazine in 1941, and then subsequently in her collection A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Enotes has a good website dedicated to just this story. And, the Eudora Welty Foundation maintains a website of all sorts of Welty information at http://www.eudorawelty.org.

James Joyce:

Our story comes from Joyce's collection of stories called Dubliners. Several large collections of materials on Joyce exist on the web. This is one at The Brazen Head. For a short but specific comment on the story itself, here's a website from Cliff Notes.

Here's an example of a literary critique, linked to a tutorial from the Writer Center at Olivet College in Michigan. Notice one instructor's comments about the success or failure of the analysis: not all instructors are looking for the same qualities in an interpretation. For example, I don't mind the use of "I" in analysis of this kind, but the instructor at Olivet objects to it. Neither is wrong--just be sure you understand as much as you can discover about your audience!

If you want to take full advantage of online tutorials, start here at the Olivet College Writing Center website.

If you wonder how you might lengthen a draft of two pages or so into a draft of four or five pages, take a look at this site.  One additional resource I'll offer is this link to hypothetical short story critique openings. Perhaps this list of suggestions will help you think about the specific language you may want to use to explain your interpretation.

If you are asked to (or are able to) solicit the help of a colleague or peer to review your draft one last time, make sure that reader sees your thesis and your evidence, and that your argument is plausible.  At minimum, check your draft against these proofreading checkpoints before you submit.