Session Two, Part B: Sample Essay with Instructional Commentary



The INTRODUCTION of a Critical Lens essay begins with the Critical Lens itself, written as a complete sentence attributing the statement directly to the author, as something he/she wrote, not said. The identification of the author comes at the beginning of the sentence:


            J.F. Clarke wrote, “The bravest of individuals is the one who obeys his or her conscience.”


Immediately after the Critical Lens, interpret the statement by discussing,  exploring, illustrating, elaborating, etc., the ideas contained in the Critical Lens. (DO NOT begin with “What this statement means is…” or anything of that nature.) The interpretation should follow intelligently and reasonably from the language of the statement, but try to avoid using the same words. It should also be “faithful to the complexity of the statement;” meaning, it should not simply repeat, re-state or re-phrase the Critical Lens. A useful approach is to look for individual ideas, explore each separately, then determine the statement’s overall meaning:


Bravery and courage take many forms, though the conventional perception of these qualities involves a lack of fear in the face of physical danger, or the willingness to confront such danger without regard for one’s own life. However, a person’s life or physical well-being need not necessarily be at stake in order for that person to be considered brave. Conscience, the ability to discern right from wrong and to act upon that, to do what is right, what is virtuous, even in the face of intellectual or emotional opposition, with or without the real or implicit threat of bodily harm, is what truly defines a brave individual.


The interpretation is followed by the THESIS STATEMENT, which needs to TAG both texts (Title, Author, Genre) and indicate specifically and directly what the texts do. It should not make an indirect reference to ideas already mentioned (e.g., “…reveal this idea”) and it should absolutely not refer to the Critical Lens itself (“the quote”). The thesis statement is the last sentence of the introduction:


Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the play Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose both reveal that a man’s conscience, his willingness to obey that conscience and do what is right despite the consequences, is what makes him brave.


Each DISCUSSION paragraph begins with an essential statement, a brief identification and summary of one text; i.e, what it is and what it’s about:


            To Kill a Mockingbird is something of a fictional memoir, narrated by the main character Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, as an adult remembering the crucial years of her childhood.


The purpose of the analysis is to demonstrate that the thesis statement is true with respect to the text being discussed. This cannot be accomplished in only three or four sentences. Any statement made about the book or any literary element thereof requires textual evidence to illustrate and support the statement. In the following passage, the writer discusses the characterization of one particular character, and the novel’s narrative point-of-view, in order to support the thesis by showing that the character is brave in the way the thesis suggests:


Prominent among her memories is that of her widowed father, Atticus, who is characterized in the novel as a true paragon of virtue; unwaveringly honest, trustworthy, level-headed, reasonable, and certainly brave; a man who always, invariably, does what he believes is right and acts according to those beliefs, and passes those virtues on to Scout and her older brother Jeremy (“Jem”). Though it may be a product of the adult Scout’s somewhat idealized memory of him, Atticus seems almost impossibly virtuous; he possesses no traditionally negative characteristics whatsoever, which is unusual for any literary character, let alone one so prominent in an individual work.


The general ideas mentioned above are supported by the specific textual evidence below, which includes references to the novel’s structure and setting:


In the main, central storyline that pervades the novel’s generally episodic structure, he defends a young black man against trumped-up rape charges, knowing that despite his client’s obvious innocence, he will lose the case in the predominantly white racist South of the 1930’s. It is revealed in the novel that Atticus volunteered for this case, knowing not only that he would lose, but also that he and his children would become the targets of racists and bigots in their small southern town.


Here the writer makes a transition to a second element of the novel, maintaining the paragraph’s focus on the idea of bravery as conscience. The plot details are presented not as mere summary for its own sake, but in support of the thesis:


One person who “targets” them is Mrs. Dubose, a seemingly vicious, mean-spirited, delirious old woman who spouts insults and racial epithets at the Finches, even the children, every time they pass her house. The impulsive pre-adolescent Jem retaliates by attacking the woman’s garden, and Atticus punishes the boy by requiring him to spend time with Mrs. Dubose, reading to her, helping her around the house and generally absorbing her relentless verbal abuse. When she dies, Atticus reveals to Jem that she had been battling a morphine addiction, that her behavior was a result of her withdrawal symptoms, and that in the end, she overcame and defeated the addiction despite the constant pain and struggle it caused her.

The paragraph’s concluding sentence makes a direct and explicit connection to the thesis, explaining what the above details have to do with the idea of bravery:


Atticus sought to teach his son that true bravery is not a man with a gun; Jem had seen Atticus shoot a rabid dog earlier in the story, and Atticus wanted to make sure Jem realized, much as Clarke suggested, what bravery truly meant.


Here is the second DISCUSSION paragraph, which begins with a transition from the previous one, referring to one of the key literary devices, characterization:


Characterization takes on even greater importance in Twelve Angry Men, a drama about not only the virtues and pitfalls of the jury system, but about group dynamics, character interaction, prejudice, and of course, conscience. The twelve jurors, none of whom are named in the play, all have distinctly different personalities, backgrounds, ideas and ideals with regard not only to the particular defendant whose fate they must decide, but to the jury system and judicial process, their responsibilities as jurors, and the meaning of such legal principles as reasonable doubt and burden of proof.


The textual details discussed below support the general ideas above, and make an implicit connection to the bravery-as-conscience thesis:


The play’s two most prominent characters are Juror Eight, a thoughtful, reasonable, enlightened, patient man who is determined to do what is right regardless of what that might be, and Juror Three, an angry, hostile, emotionally scarred bully of a man whose fierce, single-minded determination to convict the defendant overrides any and all other considerations and betrays his innate cowardice.


Further discussion of the characters and story, with additional literary analysis (character, conflict, parallelism, dramatic symmetry, irony). Again, plot details are provided not for their own sake, but to illustrate the connection between bravery and conscience which is the main point of the essay:


At the start of deliberations, Juror Eight is the sole dissenter as the jury votes 11-1 to convict; he dissents only because he feels they ought to at least discuss the matter before condemning the defendant to a death sentence. As a result, he is derided by some of the other jurors, particularly Three, Seven (impatient to leave because he has theatre tickets for that night) and Ten (an angry bigot who sees the defendant only as a poor slum kid of unspecified ethnicity), but Eight maintains his ground, even offering to change his vote if, after some discussion, the other eleven still find the boy guilty.  “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone,” says Juror Nine, an old man worn down and defeated by life, as he rewards Eight’s courage by becoming the first to change his vote. Juror Eight’s loyalty to his own conscience pays off in the end as the boy is ultimately acquitted, but not before Juror Three’s cowardice is similarly revealed. Much as Eight stood alone at the beginning, Three stands alone at the end, and in a neat bit of dramatic symmetry, is told, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand alone.” This line here carries with it a bit of irony, however, as Three’s solitary stance is not the result of any real conviction, conscience or integrity on his part, unlike that of Eight, who in the end turned out to be the only juror never to change his vote. Whether due to a lack of courage to stand alone, a realization of the vacuity of his position, a genuine acknowledgement of the correctness of the not-guilty verdict, or simply pressure from the other jurors, Three chooses not to stand alone and changes his vote to not guilty to end the play.


The concluding sentence brings us back to the thesis once again:

Ultimately, though, it was Eight’s brave adherence to his own conscience that saved the defendant from a wrongful conviction.


The CONCLUSION of a Critical Lens essay can take a great many forms. As with the Response essay, it is often effective to read everything you’ve written and ask “OK, so what?” The answer thus becomes the conclusion:


In times such as these, when bravery is often measured by a person’s willingness and ability to either inflict or endure physical harm, we must turn to literature to be reminded that bravery exists in the soul, not the body. A man doesn’t have to rush toward burning office towers or charge into enemy fire in the deserts of Iraq to be brave. Were the hijackers who flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center brave? They probably thought they were, others may still think they were, but according to Clarke, they were not; neither brave enough to realize that what they were doing was profoundly wrong, nor to stop themselves from doing it. Atticus Finch and Juror Eight showed, by obeying their own conscience above the beliefs and objections of others, that they were truly brave and admirable men.