16 Sep 2009 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 1: Pro/Con

Use your close reading skills to examine more than one side of a complex argument about one or more of the literary works we have studied. (Choose a different work than the one you discussed for Ex 0.) Length: 3 pages minimum (about 700 words).


The paper should avoid plot summary

  • X "This is a story about..."
  • X "After the protagonist discovers the truth, he gets a real shock: his wife is just as dishonest as he was!").

The same goes for character description. Assume your reader knows the story well, and has a copy within reach.

The paper should avoid gratuitous personal responses

  • X "This exciting passage makes me think of the time I was climbing a mountain with my friend Sally, who..."
  • X "When I first read this passage, I thought..."
  • X "People should be judged by what they can do, not by who their parents are."

The paper should make a claim about the literary text, not about life or faith or politics or women or anything else in general. (Literature is the study of a particular artist's representation of reality, not the study of reality itself.)

Your thesis should be a claim about the specific work in particular

no.gifThe harsh faith of the Puritan fathers perpetuated misery, forcing imperfect people to choose between keeping up the external appearances of moral perfection, or risk being rejected by the society they needed in order to survive.

The above thesis is unacceptable because it makes a claim about the Puritan faith, and refers to the nature of moral perfection and the social needs of the human individual for support. That way lies chaos.

no.gifSometimes religious authorities are corrupt. One example of such a corrupt society can be found in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, where [plot summary begins here].

A different kind of problem. This one makes a claim about religious societies, and uses The Scarlet Letter as a handy example. If you swapped out this text for a different text that showed a corrupt religious society, or a news article about corruption in religion, the points the author wants to make will pretty much be the same.

Consider instead the following:

yes.gifWhile Hawthorne is deeply critical of the Puritan society he represents in The Scarlet Letter, the story does not advocate the complete rejection of moral authority. Rather, it illustrates, through Dimmesdale's demise, the destructive power of moral irresponsibility, and through Hester's eventual triumph, the healing power of accepting responsibility for one's own weakness.

The revision makes a claim about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and refers to specific incidents from the novel for support.


In your high school English class, if you read a short story about tension between a mother and daughter, your teacher probably rewarded you for writing an essay in which you described parallels between the story and your own life. Your teacher wanted evidence that you had read and understood the story, and so your teacher rewarded you for summarizing the plot, for describing how you felt while reading it, and for explaining what you might have done if you were in a similar situation.

In a college literature class, your instructor expects that you already know how to summarize a work of literature and relate it to your own life experience. You wouldn't have passed high school English if you hadn't mastered that skill.

One-sided claims such as "Adolph Hitler was evil," "People should be judged by what they can do, not by the color of their skin" or "Women in the 1800s had fewer freedoms than they do now" are not good topics for a pro/con paper, because you will find little credible evidence to support an opposing view.

You might even think of this as a pro/pro paper -- that is, you present all the best arguments for a claim, then you shift gears completely and present all the best arguments for a competing claim.

Avoid making a claim about faith, government, women, sin, how things are different today, or otherwise trying to use a creative literary work to prove a point about the real world.

Sample Outline

While a college essay shouldn't be broken up with labels like the ones I give below, the following outline will give you some sense of how to order your pro/con paper. A paper doesn't need to have exactly three supporting points. It may be necessary to introduce a paragraph that defines terms or provides background. One of your supporting points may have sub-points that may need to be treated separately. You should feel free to modify the following outline to suit your needs, but it's a good starting point as you plan your paper.

  • Thesis (your "pro" argument)
    • Supporting Point 1-1
    • Supporting Point 1-2
    • Supporting Point 1-3
  • Antithesis (your "con" argument; not simply a negation of your "pro" argument, but one of the many possible alternative ways of looking at the situation)
    • Rebuttal of Point 1-1
    • Rebuttal of Point 1-2
    • Rebuttal of Point 1-3
    • New supporting point 2-1
    • New supporting point 2-2
      • Rebuttal of 2-1 and 2-2
  • Synthesis (a new claim, accounting for the weaknesses of the "pro" argument and the strengths of the "con" argument)
    • Supporting Point 3-1
    • Supporting Point 3-2
  • Conclusion (not just a restatement of your thesis) Now that you have looked at the pro and the con arguments and proposed a synthesis, what new insights can you draw from the text? Where has the whole journey of this paper taken you?

Remember that your thesis and conclusion should be about the text, not about love, women, guilt, race, America, or any other "real" thing that the text discusses. In a literature class, you are not studying reality -- you are instead studying an individual artist's representation of reality.

Keeping the Focus on the Literary Work

Here is another sample thesis statement, written in such a way that it does not focus on the literary work.

no.gifThroughout history, men have oppressed women, especially when they feel threatened by a woman's unusual accomplishments. In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's beauty, independence, and refusal to conform to social norms all attract the disapproval of the male-dominated society.
Revise this thesis to focus squarely on the literary work.
yes.gifIn The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne places Hester Prynne on the borderline of many groups. As a newcomer to Salem, she retains her European beauty. As a married woman who lives alone, she is not under the control of her husband. As a sinner who does not hide her guilt, she is the model of the redeemed Christian, whose behavior shows far more Christ-like mercy and charity than she herself received from the community leaders. While the male authorities of Salem punish her for her failings, Hawthorne presents a complex, admirable woman whose moral courage more than makes up for her moral failings.

For example, if you want to argue that Arthur Dimmesdale is a hypocrite, your paper would begin with a thesis paragraph, that specifies the topic, your precise opinion, and your main supporting points (the "blueprint").

yes.gifTopic: Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

yes.gifOpinion: He is a hypocrite

yes.gifBlueprint: He lets Hester take all the punishment while he accepts none of the responsibility; he continues to preach to his congregation despite his state of sin; and by his silence he participates in and supports the unjust rule of a society that expects perfection, yet has no productive means for rehabilitating sinners (and forgiving sins).

Your paper would continue with a paragraph that supports each of your main points, in the order in which they were introduced.

Support your points not by drawing on personal examples from your own life or general statements about what you feel people "should" do. Rather, quote brief passages (with page numbers) from the literary work you are studying.

Begin with your strongest points, and move towards your weakest ones. But because this is a pro/con paper, instead of jumping right from your supporting points to the conclusion, you need to bring in an alternative view. You may do this in many ways.

You may return to the items you previously listed in your "pro" blueprint, and identify the weaknesses in each claim.

Counter-argument (following the same order in which the "pro" points were presented: yes.gifWhile Hester accepts the public punishment, Dimmesdale suffers intensely in private; while Dimmesdale preaches, he is literally sick to death with guilt; While the members of his congregation think he is simply being humble in order to give them a good model to follow, and while Dimmesdale doesn't correct their misconceptions by stating the precise nature of his sin, he is untruthful without actually telling a lie.

There isn't much good evidence against the claim that Dimmesdale is perpetuating the status quo in Salem, because he does keep his job. If you can't find good evidence against one of your "pro" points, it's acceptable to concede the point -- that is, admit that you won't be able to knock it down. But now that you have rebutted each of the "pro" arguments, it's time to launch an original set of claims that support your alternative viewpoint.

What if you want to argue that in order to be a hypocrite, you need a malicious, "holier than thou" attitude? While Dimmesdale does hide his sin, perhaps you want to argue that it's not hypocrisy, but weakness, that guides his actions.

The "con" part of your paper would introduce new ideas -- ones that didn't appear in the "pro" part of the paper. For instance, the idea that it is not hypocrisy but weakness that motivates Dimmesdale's actions. You would try to support that claim with two or three supporting points, then -- and here's the difference between an adequate paper and an excellent paper -- you would rebut the "con" arguments just as thoroughly as you rebutted the "pro" arguments.

Ultimately, this paper might conclude that Hawthorne very carefully planned his novel to show the difference between the healing value of owning up to your sins (and facing consequences which are unpleasant but ultimately redeeming, as we see from Hester's charitable acts and the accomplishments of Pearl as an adult) and the effects of hiding your sin (which is equally unpleasant yet ultimately destructive). You might conclude that Dimmesdale's intimate knowledge of sin makes him a more sympathetic preacher, and that while he is slow to take responsibility for his crime, and you might examine his final action (which I won't give away here) in order to determine whether Hawthorne presents enough evidence for the reader to see Dimmesdale as condemned or redeemed.

When Is a Claim Too Obvious?

Instructors who assign pro/con papers expect students to be able to demonstrate the ability to present and analyze the best evidence for -- and the best evidence against -- a non-obvious claim. An argument without a credible opposing veiw is not really worth arguing.

The following claims are all too obvious. A reasonable person would have a hard time finding support for the opposing view, so these are not worthwhile thesis statements.

  • no.gifAdolph Hitler was evil.
  • no.gifPeople should get over their racist fears.
  • no.gifHester Prynne is a strong, resilient heroine in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Here is a non-obvious claim, that takes a nuanced stand on a complex issue.

yes.gifAdolph Hitler rose to power not because he was an evil man who attracted evil followers, but because he was a master communicator, a brilliant political strategist, and an economic reformer whose domestic successes earned the respect of German citizens.The true nature of his evil was that he used his talents in order to convince millions of ordinary people to participate in heinous activities.

  • The "pro" section of this paper might continue with a paragraph on Hitler's skill as a communicator, a paragraph on his skill as a political strategist, and a paragraph on his domestic successes. It might wrap up with an assessment of how his speeches, his political strategy, and his economic reforms revitalized postwar Germany and gave hope to the masses.
  • The "con" section would not need to be a perfect mirror image of the "pro" section, but it would need to address the same general points, in the same order, for the convenience of the reader.  The paper in question might suggest that because Hitler's followers participated in evil actions of their own free will, then they, too, must share the moral burden, and hence, the followers, too, are evil. Like the "pro" section, the "con" section would require several paragraphs.

The original sample thesis ("Adolph Hitler was evil") leaves no possible alternative viewpoint besides a binary inversion ("Adolph Hitler was not evil.") You won't find much rational evidence to defend such a perspective. A pro/con paper with such a simplistic thesis will simply collapse.



What is the information for turn-itin? I can't find it on the syllabus...

Jeremy Barrick said:

Yes, do we need not a code to put EL 266 in there?

I see that Jeremy and Heather have both found the information already. For anyone else who might be looking, I sent it in an e-mail titled:

[EL266] Turnitin.com Details

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