Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

Types and Functions of Secondary Sources

Source-Related Motives

Not all research essays use sources to establish motive. However, this is one technique you can use to ensure that your own ideas are the focus of your essay and to demonstrate that (and how) your essay contributes to a literary critical conversation rather than just reporting on it or repeating what others have already said.

In addition to the general motives described above (Beginning: The Introduction), writing expert Gordon Harvey has identified three common source-related motives:

  1. Sources offer different opinions about a particular issue, thus suggesting that there is still a problem or a puzzle worth investigating.

[A]lmost all interpreters of [Antigone] have agreed that the play shows Creon to be morally defective, though they might not agree about the particular nature of his defect. [examples]...I want to suggest [instead] that....
—Martha Nussbaum, "The Fragility of Goodness . . . " (ch. 31)

  1. A source (or sources) makes a faulty claim that needs to be challenged or clarified.

Modern critics who do not share Sophocles’ conviction about the paramount duty of burying the dead and who attach more importance than he did to the claims of political authority have tended to underestimate the way in which he justifies Antigone against Creon. [examples]
—Maurice Bowra, "Sophoclean Tragedy" (ch. 31)

  1. Sources neglect a significant aspect or element of the text, or they make a claim that needs to be further developed or applied in a new way.

At first sight, there appears little need for further study of the lovers in Far from the Madding Crowd, and even less of their environment. To cite but a few critics, David Cecil has considered the courtship of Bathsheba, Virginia Hyman her moral development through her varied experience in love, George Wing her suitors, Douglas Brown her relation to the natural environment, Merryn Williams that of Gabriel Oak in contrast to Sergeant Troy’s alienation from nature, and, most recently, Peter Casagrande Bathsheba’s reformation through her communion with both Gabriel and the environment. To my knowledge, none has considered the modes or styles in which those and other characters express love and how far these may result from or determine their attitude to the land and its dependents, nor the tragic import in the Wessex novels of incompatibility in this sense between human beings, as distinct from that between the human psyche and the cosmos.
—Lionel Adey, “Styles of Love in Far from the Madding Crowd.”
                              Thomas Hardy Annual 5 (1987): 47–62. Print.

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