Literary Analysis Research essay Guidelines

As part of the course requirements, you will write a 8-10-page (not counting the works cited page) literary analysis research paper that explores a theme or idea in one Dickens novel we've read (will read) this semester or perhaps in two novels--but here you'll have to have a specific, narrow focus.  Although you may use biographical and/or historical information in your essay, its focus should be on the novel or novels you choose. It is also possible to focus your essay on one novel but discuss other novels briefly in your essay. Oliver Twist or Dombey and Son may be immediate choices since you will finish reading these novels by spring break. This will allow you to focus on writing the paper during the second half of the course. However, you should consider David Copperfield since we will be reading this novel right after spring break.  If you have read A Tale of Two Cities before, or can read it ahead of our reading schedule, you might consider this novel. 

You will complete an essay topic proposal and annotated working bibliography (see the syllabus for due dates) before drafting your essay, and you will write an outline to help you draft your final essay.

Paper Topic

As we begin our discussion of Dickens and the Victorian period, we will note many issues/ideas that can be used for paper topics. Explore these in your research essay topic journal as you think about a topics you might like to wrtie about in one of the novels. I will try to mention topics in class, but feel free to see me to discuss possible topics.

Once you choose your topic, you may refine or adjust it as you conduct research and think about your ideas. You should begin a quick preliminary search for secondary source pertinent to your topic.  Consult reference librarians in the library if you need help finding potential sources.

Paper Topic Proposal (10 pts)

In your topic proposal, indicate what novel or novels you are writing about and your topic.  You should include the main issue or question(s) relevant to your topic and how you plan to explore your topic in your essay.  Share some of your initial ideas about your topic from your reading and our class discussion.  If possible, give your working thesis and initial evidence that seems to support it. 

Finally, include ONE preliminary source that you've read--MLA citation, 8th ed.--and briefly indicate how this source may be helpful.

You will submit this in the body of an email.  Think about how long this should be and how you might format it.  Use a current and specific subject line in your email.  See the syllabus for the due date.

Formatting:  12pt, TNR, single space

Note: It's ok to refine your topic, but you should not radically change your topic.  If you feel there is a need to do so, please see me first so we can discuss this.

Annotated Working Bibliography (15 pts)

The final research paper will require a minimum of 4 secondary sources. (The primary sources--the novels--do not count here even though you will cited them too.) Although you can use the introductions in the Penguin editions as sources, they do not count as sources here.

Your working bibliography must contain a minimum of 4 sources. (You can, of course, include more.) It should consist of 2-3 journal articles and 1-2 books or book chapters. Individual essays from essay collections count as a book chapter, but be sure to consider books.  If you wish to include additional sources (e.g., website), that is fine. (A website could count as one source for your annotated working bibliogrpahy.) Based on your paper topic, choose the most appropriate sources for your paper. The purpose of the working bibliography is to obtain an understanding of sources you might use for your paper. These sources will help you think about your topic and complement your ideas. They will also let you see how other writers approach a topic. Begin by conducting a search for articles (see below) and books (library stacks). Then find these sources and preview them. If they will be fruitful, then read them carefully and take notes.

As part of the working bibliography, you will list the sources you will use for your paper (using MLA 8th ed citation form) and give a 3-5 sentence summary of each source. Summaries should indicate the main point(s) or idea(s) of the source and offer a few main examples. Avoid being too general or vague. You also might indicate the connection of the source to your topic. Copies of the MLA Handbook (8th ed.) for our course is on reserve in the library.

Format: Hard copy: Typed, one-inch margins, double spaced, 12pt. font (in Word), Times New Roman

***You an example of an annotated bibliography to use as a model.  Note the differences in MLA citation style and summary length.

Conducting Research

Be sure to search the library book catalogue as well as the all of UW-System libraries. See me or a librarian for help. You can also request articles using universal borrowing, but this will take some time, so plan ahead.

Some sources should be current (last two-three years) but older sources will also be appropriate.
Look for sources that cover the topic/novels you are writing about as well as sources that provide information about the Victorian Age (historical and social context) and perhaps Dickens's life (biographies).

Academic websites can also be used. Here, though, credibility is very important. Check authors and sponsoring organizations of sites (-edu? -org? -com?). See the websites I have listed on the course website (under "British Literature" link). Remember, an effective bibliography achieves balance in terms of the currency of sources and the variety and types of sources.

See me early in the semester if you have questions.

Outline (10 pts)
  1. You will write an informal outline of your entire essay before you begin drafting your essay.  The outline will be due with the final essay, although we will most likely share your outline in class. This outline will help you solidify the content and structure of your essay before you start drafting.  It will also help you envision what quotations you will use and where in the essay they will go.
  2. Use the handout I gave you as an example of the type of outline you will construct.  Do not just make up your own type of outline.  As we went over in class, indicate quotations from the novels you will use and from secondary sources.  While you do not need to write out full quotations, briefly describe the quotation and indicate source/pg #.
  3. Your outline might be 2-4 pages.  The outline can be handwritten or typed.
  4. There is a benefit to writing a formal, sentence outline if you wish to do this.  This type of outline takes more time to complete, but it gives better focus/structure and specificity than an informal outline
Research Paper

Based on your topic, you will develop a specific thesis about how a novel explores and develops that topic. In essence, your paper is an argument intended to convince readers that your thesis is a valid one, that your interpretation of the novel is a valid way of reading it.

You will support your thesis with:

  1. your analysis of the novel(s)/examples
  2. quotations from the novel, and
  3. secondary sources

You will use the MLA citation style (humanities) for parenthetical citations and for your works cited page. A copy of the MLA Handbook (8th ed.) for our course is on reserve in the library.


Remember the function of an introduction--introduce your subject, raise key questions, situate your topic within the existing scholarship, and/or define your parameters (choice of texts). Your intro. does not necessarily have to include all of these. Finally, your introduction should include your thesis statement.

Thesis Statement

As you know, your thesis is the main point or idea of your essay. If you think of a literary analysis as an argument, then your thesis is the main point your are trying to prove. This "point" comes from your reading, thinking, and writing about the novel or novels you have chosen. Consider this introductory paragraph comparing Dickens's OT and Roman Polanski's adaptation of the movie.  The thesis is in italics:

As seen in both the novel and Polanski's movie adaptation, Oliver Twist is portrayed with innocence as a major personal trait; however, this picture of innocence varies throughout these two sources, therefore altering the audiences' image of Oliver as a whole.  These sources show Oliver remaining pure in a corrupt place, but these images go about different ways to create his character.  In Dickens's novel, Oliver is described as being unaware of his surroundings, therefore giving the reader the image of Oliver as a small, meek child, but Polanski ultimately reinterprets the character of Oliver.  The movie adaptation works as a translation of Dickens's novel by changing the way in which the audience views his character.  While the novel merely portrays Oliver as a meek child who is unaware of his surroundings, the movie's actual visual sources show Oliver as innocent, yet independent at the same time, giving the audience two different understandings of the character of Oliver as whole.  (**There is a specific point here, but the writer's thesis might further specifiy what these two different understandings are.  What is the significance of showing Oliver as independent?  Why reinterpret the novel this way?**)


Assume readers, who are students taking a 200- or 300-level English literature course, have experience reading literature and literary criticism as well as basic knowledge of the novel's plot, although the plots in Dickens's novel can be complicated. What would this audience expect to learn from your essay? What would be their reason for reading it? What writing style would they expect? Keep these questions in mind as your draft and revise.


Organize your essay by developing and linking supporting points/ideas. Move logically and clearly from supporting idea to supporting idea, each, in turn, supporting the thesis. Use clear topic sentences that focus each paragraph as well as clear paragraph transitions. Also, be sure paragraphs are not too long (overloaded) or too short (underdeveloped). An outline is an effective way to visualize the entire structure of your essay.


For a short essay, choose your supporting ideas carefully. Do not focus on plot summary. You should only use plot summary briefly to contextualize points/ideas. Be sure to defend supporting ideas clearly and specifically using concrete examples. You may, for example, define key terms/words, interpret dialogue and actions, assess characters, explain the meaning/significance of key ideas/concepts. 

See sample paragraphs below from OT essay on game playing. Note the topic sentence (yellow) that focuses the paragraphs and connects to previous paragraphs.   Also, novel quotations (blue) are introduced and punctuated clearly.  The secondary source (purple) in the second paragraph helps to support the analysis just as the novel quotations do.  Finally, quotations are interpreted to support the writer's analysis.

          In addition to a defined purpose and demarcated boundaries, the contest the thieves construct needs rules to provide structure and direction for their contest.  The center of the game, Fagin, both their leader and referee, limits play by assigning and monitoring their activities, keeping track of their heists (while pocketing valuables for himself), and doling out rewards and punishment, based on merit.  Finding new recruits is also necessary to sustain the contest by balancing losses.  Members must do their "work" by delivering their share of goods and performing needed tasks, competing against society and each other to obtain distinction and favor from Fagin.  Because maintaining secrecy about their location and activities is crucial to their survival, peaching by gang members is the lowest form of betrayal and, as Nancy's death reveals, has severe repercussions.  Fagin, though, explains the game's most important “number one” rule to Morris Bolter (formerly Noah Claypole):  "'In a little community like ours [. . .] we have a general number one; that is, you can't consider yourself as number one without considering me too as the same, and all the other young people.' [. . .] 'You see [. . .] we are so mixed up together, and identified in our interests, that it must be so" (Dickens 360; bk. 3, ch. 6).
          When Noah fails to comprehend how both he and Fagin can be "number one," Fagin clarifies his meaning by noting that in order to avoid hanging, Noah depends on him and, likewise, he depends on Noah.
Fagin then adds, "'The first [avoiding hanging] is your number one, the second [running his "business"] my number one.  The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so we come at last to what I told you at first--that a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so unless we would all go to pieces in company'" (361; bk. 3, ch. 6). For now, Noah's self-interest gives way to his desire for survival and a sense of belonging to a team and community.  Fagin's artful method of explaining his preservation rule is, as David Paroissien observers, a parody of a utilitarian (Benthamite) catechism (247).  Of course, the inherent, contradictory tensions encapsulated in this rule will become manifest when the game breaks down, but at this point in the narrative, Fagin has a secured a new recruit who offsets the news of the Dodger's capture.  In their game, inevitable loses must be offset by wins, a tricky balance to maintain.

Using/Integrating Quotations

Quotations emphasize and highlight important ideas/points that would be lost or muted with paraphrase or summary. They also allow readers to experience the language of the text. Remember, however, that quotations are not a substitute for your thinking, so they must be interpreted and explained. Don't overuse quotations and be careful about using long (block) quotations. Choose quotations judiciously. Check the MLA Handbook (8th ed/) for advice about integrating and punctuating quotations and citing page numbers.

Works cited page will contain a minumum of five or six sources, depending on whether you use one novel or two.

Grammar and Mechanics

The essay length is 8-10 pages, double-spaced, one-inch margins, 12pt (in Word), Times New Roman.  Since you are indenting paragraphs, you do not also need extra spaces between paragraphs.  Please use page numbers.  Include a title (not "Dickens Research Essay") Use a paper clip for your essay and outline rather than stapling.

Feel free to see me if you have any questions. I'll also be glad to look at drafts as you write them. Throughout the semester I will guide you through the writing process and add information to this page.