How should I structure my essay?

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When it comes to structuring an English literature essay, I found the most important element to be that the writing has a flow and a strong drive that keeps it structured around your thesis. Whereas at University I felt there was much more freedom in how this tempo is achieved, throughout the IB I found a helpful way to maintain the essay's structure and drive were to conceptualise the essay's points in the following way; 

1. Introduction - Thesis; Sign-posts to points A, B and C

2. Point A 




3. Point B




4. Point C




Conclusion - Summation of points A, B and C and an overall driving point

For example, writing about the linguistic battle between the protagonist, Prospero, and the island's native, Caliban, within Shakespeare's The Tempest, my thesis states that Caliban acts like a mirror to the other characters within the play on multiple levels. My introduction is essentially a compilation of sign posts - I state my thesis, and then go on to explain the direction my essay will take;

1. Introduction - Thesis: Caliban's character functions like a fallible mirror in the play in order to reveal the underlying imperfections within the other characters.

            “Caliban, a salvage and deformed slave,” is the character description following Caliban’s name in the 1623 Folio of The Tempest. As literature professor Paul Franssen writes in his essay ‘A Muddy Mirror’, Caliban “is providing a mirror for the other characters” in The Tempest, but he does not merely reflect their behaviour; he disrupts the performance of the characters’ “construction” of their “own desires and obsessions” that they “impose” on him. 

Point A: Linguistic mirroring

Point B: Psychological mirroring - characters such as Miranda and Prospero project parts of their character they cannot integrate within their identity and endow Caliban with the characteristics of a "monster" they cannot accept within themselves

Point C: Beyond the text - cultural mirroring; the global significance of Caliban's mirroring function

My first main point within my essay is how Caliban stands up to linguistic challenges against Prospero.

2. Point A - Mirroring Prospero's Language - proves Caliban is just as capable of using language and using its medium to express great self-awareness of his position on the island , and that he also has a more subtle power in being able to break out and disrupt the mirroring of the characters who impose their fears on him;

      a) Challenging and re-interpreting Prospero's "I"

      b) Metrical mirroring 

      c) Miranda, Prospero, Ariel and Caliban's uses of language

As you will see, all these points demonstrate how Caliban is defying the the labels he is given by others on the island, such as Prospero, who call him 'slave' and paint his character as unintelligent. I suggest there is much more going on here, and that in debasing Caliban, the characters are really projecting their own internal fears and need for domination, stemming from a source of insecurity, that Caliban reflects and disrupts in standing up for himself in these situations. 

Example: Point A - Linguistic Mirroring

a) Prospero uses the self-reflective pronoun “I” the most frequently throughout the entire play, suggesting his self-perception as egotistical and self-absorbed, especially since the “I” frequently occurs with verbs demonstrating his agency in association to doing, punishing and rewarding[1] other characters such as Caliban, whom he aims to deprive of agency through addressing them with objective possessives that dehumanize and objectifies them, such as frequently using the possessive “my”(I. ii. 315). Therefore it is through his interaction in this register with Caliban that Prospero aims to fortify his own identity as master and “king” (I. ii. 343) of “The Island”. However, Caliban meets Prospero at the same linguistic level, in the same register with which he is addressed when he answers Prospero in verse form, thereby resisting the linguistic structures that aim to place Caliban beneath Prospero’s perceived position. What is more, Caliban returns Prospero’s “thou” with multiple of his own when he responds with,  “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first/Thou strok’st me and made much of me […] ” (I. ii. 332-34). Even more boldly, Caliban is not afraid to directly insert himself into the conversation by using the first-person pronoun “I” just, like Prospero. In response to Prospero’s end-stopped line in the stanza cursing Caliban with “cramps” and “Side-stitches” (I. ii. 326-27), Caliban metrically completes Prospero’s unfinished line, “Than bees that made ‘em”, by directly addressing a personal need that he has; “I must eat my dinner” (I. ii. 331). In his simple response, Caliban dismisses Prospero’s threats by articulating his own internal state and feelings of betrayal within the linguistic constructs Prospero establishes. Unlike Prospero’s self-important “I” that externally pressures the other characters such as Ariel and Caliban, imperatively commanding them in exclaiming, “Come forth, I say”, Caliban meets this self-important, egotistical “I” of Prospero by proclaiming and developing his own in saying, “I must eat my dinner”. Unlike Prospero, Caliban’s “I” demonstrates greater inner depth when he reflects on his emotions of how  “I had loved thee” (I. ii. 337), evolving and demonstrating the dimensions of his inner self that Prospero denies of agency when he addresses Caliban as a dehumanized, objectified “slave” that belongs to him (I. ii. 320).

[1]     Franssen, Paul. A Muddy Mirror. Chapter 2 in Editors: Lie, Nadia and D’haen, Theo. Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1997. Print.

The essay is comprised of all these points that build on one another, driving toward the thesis. Ultimately, you want to arrive to the conclusion through points A, B and C (you may or may not have more points - that depends on what you feel your argument needs. For example, if you are comparing two texts, you may set up your essay in parts A and B. As long as you state what your argument is, and how you will get to the points you stated in the introduction, you should have no problem with diving straight into the essay!). 

Your conclusion should not just sum up your essay - have at least one point that, by summarising your argument, also adds another point that is logical within the essay's context, but may highlight something that could not have been added in earlier on. For instance, I ended my essay with:


In conclusion, although characters such as Prospero and Miranda try to force Caliban into conforming to their portrayals of an empowered version of themselves through attempting to subordinate him, these attempts ultimately result in reflecting their own imperfections in Caliban’s resistance to the pressures of conformity. Prospero, in his god-like view of himself, tries to form another Adam, but ultimately fails as he, and all the other characters, inevitably finds their own fallible reflection in Caliban’s resistance.

I hope this gives you an idea on how to structure your English literature essay! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me :) 

Mulan H. IB Chemistry tutor, IB Economics tutor, IB English tutor, IB...

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