Three Common Thesis Traps

Common Pitfalls of Scholars’ Close Reading and Textual Analysis Arguments

1-Beyond the Scope of the Text: One of the common traps for young and old scholars is making claims about the text that ultimately go beyond the scope of what we could ever prove with that one text.

Examples:  This book shows that black people can make communities outside of U.S. racism.  OR  The ending of the poem proves that black women are vital parts of American life.  OR This book proves that women’s writing is always addressing issues of sexism in different ways.  OR  After reading the end of this novel, I argue that racism can only be ended by cooperative grass roots organizing.

The problem with these arguments is that you can’t prove any of these statements just by analyzing a portion of one text.  One novel (regardless of whether it’s based on a true story or not) cannot prove that black people are capable of making a community free of U.S. racism outside the U.S.

However the novel can function as a call to think about the possibility that black people could achieve such a community.   The novel can present a scenario that critiques and/or praises the lived historical endeavor(s) to do so.  Similarly, the novel cannot prove anything about the necessity of black women to america.  The novel may aim to illustrate (represent) various ways in which black women have been, are, and/or may be vital to America, but one narrative does not prove that necessity.   Unless the argument is that black women’s value to the nation lies precisely on their production of novels like this one. Even still though if you were making such an argument, you would need a lot more novels and a method of assessing exactly how those novels fulfill a distinct and necessary function for some key part of the U.S. culture, governance, etc.

Note:  Claims that go beyond the scope of the texts tend to happen most when people are discussing a text that deals with complicated issues that are urgent and important to us and perhaps hard to talk about.   Often we feel a sense of the urgency in the text and in ourselves that leads us to one to trump up the stakes.  When we do so though not only do we make an argument that does not hold water, we also underestimate the value of what artistic and cultural texts can do, as well as the value of carefully listening and attending the details of what the text is trying to do.

2- Evaluative Claims:  An evaluative claim is one that makes a value judgement about the work.

Examples: The author does a good job.  OR The text successfully shows human emotion.  OR This poet fails to present this idea.  OR These images capture city life perfectly.

It’s not inherently wrong if you have an evaluative judgement, bu your post, paper, or project should not center on illustrating your evaluative claim.  Your job as scholars and thinkers in this class is not to make evaluative claims. Your job is to make an interpretive claim.   An interpretive claim is a claim that posits an idea about how we should understand (i.e. the way you think we should interpret) some aspect how the text works.  Interpretive claims are illustrated (i.e. supported or argued) by providing a clear and thorough explanation of how you see the content and formal choices in this portion of the text as allowing (if not encouraging) us to understand (interpret) the text in the particular way you say it does. And as part of your overall argument, a strong interpretive analysis argument will also articulate the potential stakes of reading this portion of the text in this way.  For example, instead of The photo captures black life in the city perfectly, consider the following claim: In the photo of a young black boy cleaning out trash in a narrow alley between two affluent upper west side residences, the play between a blurring gray scale and a sharp black white contrast highlights both the carefulness of the black boy’s work and the incredibly small space in which he must do it. 

This claim is strong, and in a post it would be enough to posit it and begin to support it with an explanation of how you’re reading some quoted parts of the text.  In a longer and more formal analysis in which you need a full thesis statement, you would want to elaborate upon this claim by offering an explanation of the stakes.  For example, one might explain the stakes of this claim by saying: By highlighting these aspects the photograph by way of blur and binary plays of light and dark (white and black), the photo captures something of the irony of black life in the city as being at once geographically invisible and functionally vital to the maintenance of the city’s alluring appearance. 

The interpretive claim + relevant stakes = text based analytical argument.  now is no longer about how perfectly the photo captures or does not capture black life.  In fact the claim itself isn’t even about the fact that the photo captures black life. The claim is about how photograph captures. It is about how one of the artistic (formal) elements employed shapes the way we understand the image (content) portrayed in the photo.  Only as the statement goes on and articulates the stakes of thinking about how this formal choice shapes the way we read do we see the thesis statement making any claim about how the photo captures black life.  And here again it is about the nature of what it captures not about how well it captures.  Thus the stakes are specifically about how if we read those formal choices in the way that the claim posits we can understand the image as making a commentary on this aspect of black life in the city.

Of course you might have evaluative judgement as well, which is fine, but in this class the only person who will make evaluative claims is me, because that is my job as a professor to provide an evaluative judgment along with feedback and recommendations on your work.

-The Symbolism  (or Decoding) Game:  A common route I see students take is to identify and or offer a possible decoding of the text’s symbols.  Some of these arguments sound a little like:  The rosebush has a lot of symbolism for the author and the characters.  OR  The trees are symbolic for nature.  OR The house could be a symbol for togetherness and thus the windows symbolize the disruption to the family.   OR The last scene is symbolism for race violence and sexism.  I call this tendency to think of close reading or engaging literature as a matter of identifying and decoding symbols, the Symbols Game.

There are many problems with all the above examples, and indeed the symbol game typically sets you up for more than one argumentative faux pas.  Perhaps the biggest problem with arguments that center around identifying symbols and symbolism is that everything is symbolic.  Words and even letters are merely symbolic characters that gesture to something other than themselves. To identify something as a symbol tells us nothing.   It as if you are claiming that it is part of the text, which is not an arguable claim.  Indeed every interpretive argument is about trying to understand how the text is structuring and restructuring and playing with the various symbolic registers that govern our lives.  Thus rarely does one ever need to identify or prove symbolism in a text.

After this main conceptual problem,  playing the symbol game often tempts people to invest in many analytically weak modes of arguing.

1- People using this type of analysis often treat literature (or any work of art) as a collection of stable and discrete signs with meanings that the reader need only decode.  Once the signs have been decoded, we need only plug in the meaning.  The house now is no longer a constructed and material structure that shapes and is shaped by the characters and the environment.   The house is now a concept.  House equals unity such that the destruction of the house must mean the end of unity.  Even if everything else about the narrative suggests that the family is more unified with each other and their community without the house.

2-Often the symbol game lures people into projecting their own cultural meaning onto what they then identify as the text’s symbols.  In this case, they are not even working with the reductive reading that comes from trying to decode the text.  Instead they are mapping the text onto their own prescribed structures of meaning.

3-The analytical looseness that plagues the symbol game type of arguments is often reflected in the language used to articulate the claim.  Symbol game arguments lend themselves to vague and/or incomplete sentences, to unclear pronoun usages, and appeals to sweeping and not always well-fitting idiomatic expressions.