ELA Regents: Session Two, Part B

This could be the easiest, yet is perhaps the most difficult, writing task on the Regents. It's the easiest in that it allows for infinite possible responses, giving you a great deal of latitude as far as how you interpret the statement and what texts you choose for support, but is also the most difficult in that it requires real, high-level thinking skills to construct an insightful, meaningful response. Memorization, repetition, recognition and recall will do you no good on this essay.

This is a difficult task, so I'll try to illustrate one paragraph at a time, using the June 1999 Critical Lens statement as an example. (Please forgive the small text; try using your browser's Text Size option [View-Text Size] if you find it hard to read.) The statement was:

"In literature, evil often triumphs, but never conquers."

introduction should consist of one paragraph. You need to restate the Critical Lens in a complete sentence, attributing it to the author in an appropriate way. Since no author was indicated on this exam, we will attribute it to "an anonymous author"; it is also preferable to cite it as something which was written, not said. You then need to interpret the statement by explaining what the author seems to be suggesting in clear, specific terms. More importantly, you need to interpret it as being about literature in general; what literature is or does, or something specific that authors do. Try to avoid using the same words as the statement itself; clarify, elaborate, but don't recycle the language.

Try not to refer to the Critical Lens as "the quote," or put in unnecessary phrases like "What this quote means is…" or "What I think he was trying to say is…" As with any essay,
DO NOT refer to yourself or phrase your interpretation as a personal opinion ("I think…" "I believe…" etc.) The following paragraph clearly establishes the criteria for analysis:

      An anonymous author wrote, "In literature, evil often triumphs, but never conquers." Any good story needs a conflict, and throughout history, the most basic literary conflict has been a struggle between forces of good and evil. Though the forces of evil must prevail at times in order to further the plot and develop the conflict, they can never triumph in the end. Ultimate victory for the forces of good becomes that much more effective when it has had to overcome smaller victories for the opposing, evil forces. Evil may win the battle from time to time, but good will always win the war.

Now that you have established what the author seems to have meant by the statement, you must decide if you agree with it or not.  The Regents instructions tell you to do this, but those instructions are misleading; you should not state "I agree/disagree with this quote…" or "I think/don't think this is true…" or even "This quote is true/not true." I really think this should be taken out of the instructions for this task; what they're really assessing is whether you can develop a thesis about literature, based on the critical lens, and then support that thesis using two texts. The reality is they want you to agree, and it's easier to agree. You need merely cite the two works and state that they do what the critical lens says they should do; that plus your interpretation implies your agreement. The thesis statement, which goes at the end of the introduction, might look like this:

In To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel by Harper Lee, and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, evil forces challenge, threaten and even subdue the good, but cannot and do not ultimately prevail.

If you honestly and seriously disagree with the critical lens statement, or if the texts you want to write about suggest the opposite conclusion, you can certainly go that way, but you will need a second introductory paragraph to establish new criteria for analysis. As a point of logic, you can't prove a negative; you can't prove what something isn't; you can only prove what it is. If the texts don't do what the critical lens says they should do, you need to establish something else specific that they do which precludes the idea suggested by the critical lens. For this sample essay, you'd still need the above discussion/interpretation, but you'd leave off the above thesis statement and continue with the following:

       However, many authors present the ultimate triumph of evil over good. Just as in real life, the "good guys" don't always win; in fact, some of our greatest works of literature make far stronger and more effective thematic points by having the forces of evil win out over good in the end, even after leading the reader to believe that good will ultimately prevail. An author can use such a work as a cautionary tale, as a reflection of a grim or uncomfortable reality, or simply to surprise the audience. Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural and 1984 by George Orwell both reveal how evil does, in fact, often conquer good.

For your two discussion paragraphs, what you need to do is demonstrate that each text does what the critical lens says it does (or the opposite, as established by new criteria above), through its literary elements such as character, setting, conflict, theme, etc. DO NOT simply summarize the plot; concentrate on what the author does; use the literary elements to show that the text does what the critical lens says it does (or, in this case, the opposite as established in your thesis statement):

       Malamud's main character, a middle-aged baseball star named Roy Hobbs, is presented as a prototypical American sports hero: talented, good-looking, a darling of the fans and media, who comes out of nowhere to lead the second-division New York Knights into pennant contention in a single season. Yet he is also shallow, vain, shortsighted, and hungry for fame and glory while unmindful of the responsibilities and consequences that go with them, which reinforces Malamud's theme that heroes aren't all that we expect them to be. The story, largely based on the tale of Sir Perceval from Arthurian legend, along with elements of classical myth and Greek tragedy, is structured very much like a myth. As with any mythic hero, Hobbs must overcome external obstacles in order to succeed and fulfill his destiny: a mysterious, scandalous past; the seduction of a dangerous woman; a crippling mid-season batting slump; and most of all, the machinations of a corrupt team owner, who attempts to fix the climactic play-off game by bribing Hobbs and others. The tragedy of Hobbs, and Malamud's departure from the mythology, lies in his utter failure to overcome those obstacles and make good, sound decisions based on any sort of fundamental morality; he is driven instead by his immature, selfish appetites for women, wealth and fame. Though he accepts the aforementioned bribe, Hobbs later resolves to win and thwart the owner's plans, but by then it is too late and he fails, striking out in his final at-bat. The Knights lose, the scandal hits the papers, Hobbs' career is over, and he finishes the story a crushed and broken man, weeping "many bitter tears" as the forces of evil, coupled with his own tragic flaws, conquer him and any good he may have done in his life.

As you can see, the paragraph provides only enough of the novel's plot to make its point, referring to literary devices such as character, theme, structure, and conflict, building its case thoroughly and effectively with details that lead logically to the conclusion that The Natural is a story where evil conquers good. The writer would then have to do the same thing for 1984 in the second body paragraph. Remember you must use TWO texts for support; if you have only one, you WILL NOT PASS.

conclusion needs to reinforce your controlling idea without repeating what you wrote in your second introductory paragraph. You can make reference to the texts here, but don't introduce anything new and don't go into too much detail; the details belong in the body paragraphs. This might be an effective conclusion:  (Click here to read the entire essay)

     All of us would like to believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil, but as we see every day, on the news, in our lives, and in literature, we know that things don't always turn out that way. Authors of great novels have a way of reminding us about things we sometimes forget, or that we'd like to forget; thanks to Malamud and Orwell, we remember that sometimes evil is stronger, and realize that it will take that much more of good to conquer it.

Click here for another example of a complete Critical Lens essay, using the Spring 2002 Regents Exam.
Click here to read the same essay, with step-by-step instructions and commentary.

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