Writing about Literature

Elements of the Essay

Conventions That Can Cause Problems


Essays about literature tend to function almost wholly in the present tense, a practice that can take some getting used to. The rationale is that the action within any literary work never stops: a text simply, always is. Thus yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Ophelia goes mad; "The Lost World" asks what it means to grow up; Wordsworth sees nature as an avenue to God; and so on. When in doubt, stick to the present tense when writing about literature.

An important exception to this general rule is demonstrated in the following example. As you read the excerpt, pay attention to the way the writer shifts between tenses, using various past tenses to refer to completed actions that took place in the actual past, and using the present tense to refer to actions that occur within, or are performed by, the text.

In 1959 Plath did not consciously attempt to write in the domestic poem genre, perhaps because she was not yet ready to assume her majority. Her journal entries of that period bristle with an impatience at herself that may derive from this reluc-tance....But by fall 1962, when she had already lost so much, she was ready.... In "Daddy" she achieved her victory in two ways. First,...she symbolically assaults a father figure who is identified with male control of language.
—Steven Gould Axelrod, "Jealous Gods" (ch. 25)

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