Writing about Literature

Elements of the Essay


Ending: The Conclusion

In terms of their purpose (not their content), conclusions are introductions in reverse. Whereas introductions draw readers away from their world and into your essay, conclusions send them back. Introductions work to convince readers that they should read the essay. Conclusions work to show them why and how the experience was worthwhile. You should approach conclusions, then, by thinking about what sort of lasting impression you want to create. What precisely do you want readers to take with them as they journey back into the "real world"?

Effective conclusions often consider three things:

  1. Implications—What picture of your author’s work or worldview does your argument imply or suggest? Alternatively, what might your argument imply about some real-world issue or situation? Implications don’t have to be earth-shattering. For example, it’s unlikely that your reading of O’Connor’s "Everything That Rises Must Converge" will rock your readers’ world. Moreover, trying to convince readers that it can may well have the opposite effect. Yet your argument should in some small but significant way change the way readers see O’Connor’s work; alternatively, it might give them new insight into how racism works, or how difficult it is for human beings to adjust to changes in the world around us, or how mistaken it can be to see ourselves as more enlightened than our elders, and so on.

  2. Evaluation—What might your argument about the text reveal about the literary quality or effectiveness of the text as a whole or of some specific element? Alternatively, to what extent and how do you agree and/or disagree with the author’s conclusions about a particular issue? How, for example, does your own view of how racism works compare to the viewpoint implied in "Everything That Rises Must Converge"? (For more on evaluative claims, see Interpretive versus Evaluative Claims.)

  3. Areas of ambiguity or unresolved questions—Are there any remaining puzzles or questions that your argument and/or the text itself doesn’t resolve or answer? Alternatively, might your argument suggest a new question or puzzle worth investigating?

Above all, don’t repeat what you’ve already said. If the essay has done its job to this point, and especially if the essay is relatively short, your readers may feel bored and insulted if they get a mere summary. You should clarify anything that needs clarifying, but go a little beyond that. The best essays are rounded wholes in which conclusions do, in a sense, circle back to the place where they started. However, the best essays remind readers of where they began only in order to give them a more palpable sense of how far they’ve come.

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