Whether you've never written an SAT Essay or didn't get the score you wanted on your last test, you can benefit from knowing more: both about the essay itself, and what really matters when the graders are reading your essay.
To introduce you to what you'll have to do, we've gathered up these 15 tips to master the SAT essay. If you can reliably follow all these points, you'll be able to get at least a 6/6/6 on the SAT essay—guaranteed.
The SAT Essay is a very short assignment. You only get 50 minutes to read a 650-750 word passage, analyze the devices the author uses to structure her/his argument, and write a full-fledged essay—and it can pass in a flash if you don't have a method for attacking it.
Writing an SAT essay requires a very specific approach that's unlike the essays you've been writing for English class in school. The goal of this strategy is to cram in as many as possible of the desired components in the 50 minutes you've got. In this article, we give you 15 key tips for the SAT essay.
The first five tips in this article relate to what the College Board tells us about what's a good essay. The next five are truths that the College Board doesn't want you to know (or doesn’t make explicit). And the last five tips for SAT essay writing show you how to build an SAT essay, step by step.
What the College Board Does Tell You: 5 Tips
The College Board explains the main components of the successful SAT Essay in its scoring criteria. Here they are, condensed:
#1: Give a Clear Thesis
The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a precise central claim.”
What this means is that your essay needs to make a clear argument that the reader can easily identify. All you have to do to create your "precise central claim" is to identify the main idea of the passage and list the methods the author uses to support it.
Fortunately, the SAT provides you with the passage’s main idea, so you don’t have to go hunting for it yourself. I've bolded the claim in this (fake) sample prompt so you can see this for yourself:
Write an essay in which you explain how Sam Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters. In your essay, analyze how Lindsay uses one or more of the features listed in the box above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Lindsay’s claims, but rather explain how Lindsay builds an argument to persuade her audience.
Now, here's an example of a thesis statement for an essay responding to this prompt:
In the article “Monsters Monsters Everywhere,” Sam Lindsay uses personal anecdotes, vivid language, and appeals to emotion to persuade her audience that more works of art should feature monsters.
It's fine to copy the exact words describing the author’s central claim from the prompt into your thesis statement—in fact, this guarantees that the graders will see that your thesis is there and on-topic.
#2: Include Both an Introduction and a Conclusion
The SAT essay rubric states: "The response includes a skillful introduction and conclusion.”
Including an introduction paragraph in your essay is absolutely essential to getting a Writing score above a 4 (out of 8). The introduction paragraph introduces the reader to what you’ll be talking about and allows you to set up the structure for the rest of the essay. Plus, an introduction can be a pretty good indicator of the quality for the rest of the essay—a poorly constructed introduction is often a warning that the essay that follows will be equally discombobulated.
It's best to have both an introduction and a conclusion, but if you’re running short on time and can only have one, definitely pick the introduction. The main reason for this is that a good introduction includes your thesis statement. For the SAT essay, your thesis (or your "precise central claim") should be a statement about what devices the author uses to build her/his argument.
Introductions can be tricky to write, because whatever you write in that paragraph can then make you feel like you’re locked into writing just about that. If you’re struggling with the introduction paragraph, leave yourself 10 blank lines at the beginning of the essay and jump into writing your body paragraphs. Just make sure you remember to go back and write in your introduction before time’s up!
#3: Use Effective Language and Word Choice
There are a couple of parts of the Writing score section on the SAT essay rubric that pertain directly to style.
The SAT essay rubric states this about a perfect-Writing-score essay: "The response is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language."
For most of us, "command of language" is an area that takes a long time to develop, so unless your language skills are really rough or you're prepping at least a year ahead of time (or both), you'll probably get more out of focusing on the other components of the essay.
The SAT essay rubric also states: “The response has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.”
This basically boils down to: don't be repetitive and don't make grammar mistakes. In addition, you should avoid using first person statements like "I" or "My" in the essay, along with any other informality. You're writing the equivalent of a school paper, not an opinion piece.
Bad (Too informal):
“I think that Sam’s super persuasive in this article cause she’s just so passionate. It made me feel kinda bad that I don’t really monster it up in my everyday life.”
“Lindsay’s passionate defense of how drawing monsters 'allows us to laugh at our personal foibles' causes her audience to put themselves in her shoes and empathize with her position.”
Finally, try to use different words to describe the same idea—don't use "shows" 15 times. Take the chance to show off your vocabulary (if, and only if, the vocabulary is appropriate and makes sense). This component is the biggest reason why revising your SAT Essay is essential—it's fast and easy to change repeated words to other ones after you're finished, but it can slow you down during writing to worry about your word choice. If you're aiming for a top score, using advanced vocabulary appropriately is vital.
#4: Only Use Information From the Passage
All the relevant information is in the passage, so avoid getting drawn into the topic and using your outside knowledge—you want to be sure to show that you’ve read the passage.
In real life, there are many ways to support a thesis, depending on the topic. But on the SAT, there's one kind of correct support: specific details drawn from the passage you’re asked to analyze. We'll show you more below.
#5: Focus Your Essay on Relevant Details
You don’t have to mention every single detail that makes the argument effective. In fact, your essay will be more coherent and more likely to score higher in Analysis if you focus your discussion on just a few points. It's more important to show that you're able to pick out the most important parts of the argument and explain their function that it is to be able to identify every single persuasive device the author used.
Think about it as if you were asked to write a 50-minute essay describing the human face and what each part does. A clear essay would just focus on major features—eyes, nose, and mouth. A less effective essay might also try to discuss cheekbones, eyebrows, eyelashes, skin pores, chin clefts, and dimples as well. While all of these things are part of the face, it would be hard to get into detail about each of the parts in just 50 minutes.
And this is the eye, and this is the other eye, and this is the...other eye...and the other eye...and the other...wait...what's going on here?
What the College Board Doesn’t Tell You: 5 Secrets
Even though the SAT essay has clearly stated, publicly-available guidelines, there are a few secrets to writing the essay that most students don't know and that can give you a major advantage on the test.
#1: Read the Prompt Before the Passage
Why? Because the prompt includes the description of the author’s claim. Knowing what the author’s claim is going into the article can help keep you focused on the argument, rather than getting caught up in reading the passage (especially if the topic is one you're interested in).
#2: Your Facts Must Be Accurate…But Your Interpretation Doesn’t Have to Be
A big part of the Analysis score for the SAT essay is not just identifying the devices the author uses to build her argument, but explaining the effect that the use of these devices has on the reader. You don’t have to be completely, 100% accurate about the effect the passage has on the reader, because there is no one right answer. As long as you are convincing in your explanation and cite specific examples, you’ll be good.
Here's an example of an interpretation about what effect a persuasive device has on the reader (backed by evidence from the passage):
Lindsay appeals to the emotions of her readers by describing the forlorn, many-eyed creatures that stare reproachfully at her from old school notebook margins. The sympathy the readers feel for these forgotten doodles is expertly transferred to Lindsay herself when she draws the connection between the drawn monsters and her own life: “Often, I feel like one of these monsters—hidden away in my studio, brushes yearning to create what no one else cares to see.”
Now, you don't necessarily know for sure if "sympathy for the doodles" is what the author was going for in her passage. The SAT essay graders probably don't know either (unless one of them wrote the passage). But as long as you can make a solid case for your interpretation, using facts and quotes from the passage to back it up, you'll be good.
#3: You Should Write More Than One Page
This has always been true for the SAT essay, but for the first time ever, the College Board actually came out in The Official SAT Study Guide and explicitly said that length really does matter. Here's the description of a one-paragraph, 120-word-long student response that received a Writing score of 2/8 (bolding mine).
“Due to the brief nature of the response, there is not enough evidence of writing ability to merit a score higher than 1. Overall, this response demonstrates inadequate writing.” (source: The Official SAT Study Guide, p. 176)
You’ll have one page for (ungraded) scrap paper that you can use to plan out your essay, and four pages of writing paper for the essay—plan on writing at least two pages for your essay.
#4: Be Objective When Reading the Passage
Being able to stay detached while reading the passage you'll be writing the essay about can be tricky. This task might be especially difficult for students who were used to the old SAT essay (which pretty much made it mandatory for you to choose one side or the other). You’ll have to practice reading persuasive essays and gaining objectivity (so that you are able to write about how the argument is constructed, not whether it’s good or bad).
A good way to practice this is to read news articles on topics you care deeply about by people who hold the opposite view that you do. For instance, as a composer and violist/violinist, I might read articles about how children should not be encouraged to play musical instruments, since it holds no practical value later on in life (a view I disagree with vehemently). I would then work on my objectivity by jotting down the central ideas, most important details, and how these details relate to the central ideas of the article.
Being able to understand the central ideas in the passage and details without being sidetracked by rage (or other emotions) is key to writing an effective SAT essay.
"Always Wear a Helmet." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.
Don't let the monster of rage distract you from your purpose.
#5: Memorize and Identify Specific Persuasive Techniques
Once you’re able to read articles objectively (as discussed in point #4 above), the next step is to be able to break down the essay passage's argument. To do this successfully, you'll need to be aware of some of the techniques that are frequently used to build arguments.
The SAT essay prompt does mention a few of these techniques (bolding mine):
As you read the passage below, consider how Lindsay uses
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
It’s certainly possible to wing it and go into the test without knowing specific names of particular persuasive devices and just organically build up your essay from features you notice in the article. However, it's way easier to go into the essayknowing certain techniques that you can then scan the passage for.
For instance, after noting the central ideas and important details in the article about how more works of art should feature monsters, I would then work on analyzing the way the author built her argument. Does she use statistics in the article? Personal anecdotes? Appeal to emotion?
I discuss the top persuasive devices you should know in more detail in the article "6 SAT Essay Examples to Answer Every Prompt".
How to Get All the Necessary Components in 50 Minutes: 5 Step-By-Step Strategies
When you write an SAT essay, you only have 50 minutes to read, analyze, and write an essay, which means that you need a game plan going in. Here's a short step-by-step guide on how to write an effective SAT essay.
#1: Answer the Prompt
Don’t just summarize the passage in your essay, or identify persuasive devices used by the author—instead, be sure to actually analyze the way the author of the passage builds her argument. As The Official SAT Study Guidestates,
"[Y]our discussion should focus on what the author does, why he or she does it, and what effect this is likely to have on readers."
College Board makes a point of specifying this very point in its grading rubric as well—an essay that scores a 2 (out of 4) or below in Analysis "merely asserts, rather than explains [the persuasive devices'] importance." If you want to get at least a 3/4 (or a 6/8) in Analysis, you need to heed this warning and stay on task.
#2: Support Your Points With Concrete Evidence From the Passage
The best way to get a high Reading score for your essay is to quote from the passage appropriately to support your points. This shows not only that you’ve read the passage (without your having to summarize the passage at all), but also that you understand what the author is saying and the way the author constructed her argument.
As an alternative to using direct quotations from the passage, it’s also okay to paraphrase some of what you discuss. If you are explaining the author's argument in your own words, however, you need to be extra careful to make sure that the facts you're stating are accurate—in contrast to scoring on the old SAT essay, scoring on the new SAT essay takes into account factual inaccuracies and penalizes you for them.
#3: Keep Your Essay Organized
The SAT essay rubric states: “The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.”
The main point to take away from this is that you should follow the standard structure for an SAT essay (introduction-body-body-conclusion). Using a basic four- to five-paragraph essay structure will both keep you organized and make it easier for the essay graders to follow your reasoning—a win-win situation!
Furthermore, you should connect each paragraph to each other through effective transitions. We'll give you ways to improve your performance in this area in the articles linked at the end of this article.
#4: Make Time to Read, Analyze, Plan, Write, and Revise
Make sure you allocate appropriate amounts of time for each of the steps you’ll need to take to write the essay—50 minutes may seem like a long time, but it goes by awfully quick with all the things you need to do.
Reading the passage, analyzing the argument, planning your essay, writing your essay, and revising are all important components for writing an 8/8/8 essay. For a breakdown of how much time to spend on each of these steps, be sure to check out our article on how to write an SAT essay, step-by-step.
"Watch Yourself." ©2015-2016 by Samantha Lindsay. Used with permission.
The more you practice analysis and writing, the better you’ll get at the task of writing an SAT essay (as you work up to it a little at a time).
It's especially important to practice the analysis and writing components of the essay if you are a slow reader (since reading speed can be difficult to change). Being able to analyze and write quickly can help balance out the extra time you take to read and comprehend the material. Plus, the time you put into working on analysis and writing will yield greater rewards than time spent trying to increase your reading speed.
But don't forget: while it’s okay to break up the practice at first, you also really do need to get practice buckling down and doing the whole task in one sitting.
This is just the beginning of improving your SAT essay score. Next, you actually need to put this into practice with a real SAT essay.
Looking to get even deeper into the essay prompt? Read our complete list of SAT essay prompts and our detailed explanation of the SAT essay prompt.
Hone your SAT essay writing skills with our articles about how to write a high-scoring essay, step by step and how to get a 8/8/8 on the SAT essay.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points?
Check out our best-in-class online SAT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your SAT score by 160 points or more.
Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this SAT Essay lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get your SAT essays hand-graded by a master instructor who will give you customized feedback on how you can improve. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.
Check out our 5-day free trial:
This section emphasises the importance of clear and coherent introductions and conclusions, and offers advice on how they can be achieved. Students often neglect introductions and conclusions, believing that they are of secondary importance in comparison with the main body of the essay. However, it should not be forgotten that the introduction and conclusion perform vital work in framing the main body and are crucial in positioning the reader in terms of the main arguments contained within the essay. Never forget that the essays are written in order to be read!
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a paragraph has been completed and when it a new one is needed. Examine the general guide to essay writing to get some sense of how paragraphs, or ‘idea units’ as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their ‘natural’ beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a ‘strong’ one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a ‘topic sentence’, as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘in addition’, ‘to qualify the above’, ‘however’, ‘in order to’, ‘in this connection’, ‘having established that’ etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or ‘padding’ the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by ‘signposting’, e.g. ‘this point will be picked up later’, ‘this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...’. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout.
There are several clear things to say as far as advice for writing introductory paragraphs is concerned.
They should not be very long, generally. An introduction should be no longer than a single paragraph. You should be looking to write succinctly, and not pad out your essays with unnecessary and repetitive sentences.
One reason that introductions should not be very long is that it is not really in your introductions that you will begin to analyse or interpret the text in question; instead you will tell the reader what you will look at in the main body of the essay.
This needs reinforcing: it may be useful to think of an introduction as a way of locating the reader with a set of reference points and guidelines. Provide him/her with the co-ordinates or main landmarks of the journeys s/he is about to set off on. Imagine yourself reading an article, newspaper column, etc. What do you want from the introduction? Normally, you would expect some strong reference to the main subject , theme or problem to be discussed, maybe some idea of what will be discussed on a secondary level, and some statement of how and why the various points arising will be discussed. An essay is no different.
Remember the advice (in the guide to essay writing and elsewhere) about the need for the first sentence of any paragraph to be a strong one. It is likely that in your first sentence you will want to make some reference to the main theme of the text you are discussing, or some reference to the plot. If so, then make sure that you refer to the most important and significant details - do not start with a reference to a secondary character, a minor detail or a sub-theme.
It can be useful, although not obligatory, to start with a one sentence summary of the whole story or poem, and this is something you can and should practice doing often. You could try this with a TV programme, a film or a news story that you have seen, heard or read. Practising one sentence summaries will help you to focus on what is absolutely essential.
Although it can be absolutely essential and indispensable to use the language of the essay title or of the text you are working on, try to avoid doing this systematically. Learn how to use dictionaries and a thesaurus, and expand your vocabulary.
Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example: ‘Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?’, and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory, as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.
One way of looking at conclusions is to see them as a revised version of the introduction. It would be odd if there were significant differences between the two: whereas in the introduction you state what will occur in the essay, the conclusion is the place to summarise what has occurred in the work you have just produced. This might also be a useful place to remind you that you may well change your introduction whilst you are working, as your arguments develop and you change your mind as far as the main issues are concerned.
Patriarchal Society and the Erasure of the Feminine Self in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
Critical readings of Chopin's works often note the tension between female characters and the society that surrounds them. Margaret Bauer suggests that Chopin is concerned with exploring the "dynamic interrelation between women and men, women and patriarchy, even women and women" (146). Often, critics focus on the importance of conflict in these works and the way in which Chopin uses gender constraints on two levels, to open an avenue for the discussion of feminine identity and, at the same time, to critique the patriarchal society that denies that identity. Kay Butler suggests that "entrapment, not freedom, is the source of Chopin's inspiration, for she is primarily concerned with exploring the way in which gender roles deny identity"; she continues: "yet without the entrapment, the question of identity, even the inspiration to write about identity, wouldn't exist" (18). Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" most poignantly balances the dual focus of her work, describing the incipient awakening of Mrs. Mallard, and thus exploring the possibility of feminine identity, even while, ultimately, denying the fruition of such an experience. Like all of her works, this short story reacts to a specific historical framework, the Cult of True Womanhood, in its indictment of patriarchal culture. As Barbara Welter notes, in the nineteenth century, "a women judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society" by the attributes of a True Woman which included, especially, "purity" and "domesticity" (372). The concept of purity, because it suggested that women must maintain their virtue, also, paradoxically, denied their status as emotional and affectionate beings. Similarly, the concept of domesticity, because it relegated women to the home, denied their intellectual and professional capabilities (Papke 12). "The Story of an Hour" describes the journey of Mrs. Mallard against the Cult of True Womanhood as she slowly becomes aware of her own desires and thus of a feminine self that has long been suppressed. While this journey begins with the news of her husband's death, Mr. Mallard's unexpected return at the very end of the tale tragically cuts short the journey towards feminine selfhood. Yet the tale is tragic from beginning to end, for the very attempt to create an identity against the gender constraints of patriarchal society is riddled with a sense that such an attempt can only end in defeat. "The Story of an Hour" demonstrates that the patriarchal society that defines gender roles which control and delimit women's experiences deny them a self founded on true feminine desires. Ultimately, Mrs. Mallard's journey towards selfhood only serves to reveal the erasure of identity, indeed of being, that women experienced in the nineteenth century. Through symbolically and ironically suggesting that gender definitions delimit the feminine self, the opening of "The Story of an Hour" hints of the tragedy that pervades the tale. Because of Mrs. Mallard's "heart trouble," her sister and her husband's friend rush to her side to break the news of her husband's death in a gentle manner (644). On a literal level, Louise Mallard's condition suggests that she has a congenital weakness that demands some care; Michelle Angeline suggests that this condition is "biologically fated" and thus that Chopin introduces the idea of biological determinism into the story (61). Yet, on a more complex level, Chopin is demonstrating the way in which society perceives women, and wives in particular, as weak creatures who need to be handled very carefully, almost like children. Ironically, on a deeper level, Chopin demonstrates symbolically the true nature of the problem: patriarchal definitions of the feminine role of wife denies, and thus causes trouble with, the heart, a favorite symbol of the emotions and of love. Ultimately, the fact that society fails to perceive the true nature of Louise Mallard's trouble, the lack of emotion and affection in her marriage and in her life, suggests that any attempt to create a self, in this tale, will only end in tragedy. Indeed, Chopin demonstrates that Louise Mallard must react against the patriarchal society that constricts her to specific gender roles and confines her to certain behaviors if she is to define a self. Mrs. Mallard's initial response to the news of her husband's tragic death suggests that this tale may not progress as expected: she "did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her" (644). Chopin foreshadows Mrs. Mallard's awakening in her resistance to traditional modes of behavior and suggests that if she is going to create a self, she will need to define her identity outside of the roles and codes that she has adhered to previously. When Mrs. Mallard retreats to her room, alone, she suspends "intelligent thought," leaving behind the codes that restrict her, and begins to contemplate the "open square" of window before her, exploring her new consciousness (644). Yet Mrs. Mallard's conditioning within the Cult of True Womanhood has created a standard of behavior that fosters the suppression of her own unique desires and thus denies the creation of a self. When the freedom that Louise Mallard sees out the open window finally reaches her, she does not know how to react: "There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air" (645). Louise Mallard's oppression, her lack of identity, ensures an inability to understand her experiences, a necessary precondition to creating a fully realized identity. Nevertheless, the experiences are very real and very powerful: "She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will-as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been" (645). Mrs. Mallard's resistance to the freedom that is approaching her is a result of her diminished condition, which is reflected in her powerless hands. Angeline notes that, "While freedom is an innate desire for all creatures, patriarchal society conditions women to suppress and to repress their desire for freedom, so much so that the possibility of freedom, when available, is frightening" (62). In addition, as a significant aspect of the Cult of True Womanhood, the institution of marriage, which was founded on the objectification of women, leads to a denial of self and thus of feminine desires. While Brently Mallard is likely a typical, kind husband, for he "had never looked save with love upon her" (645), Mrs. Mallard will only escape the confinement of the institution of marriage, and thus have an avenue opened for her own definition of self, in his death. Chopin decries the oppression of the institution of marriage in her dramatization of Mrs. Mallard's growing awareness of her freedom: "There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination" (645). Chopin demonstrates that even within the confines of a loving and supportive marriage, the woman as wife lacks identity and voice. In Mrs. Mallard's briefly illuminated condition, she understands that any institution, whether kind or cruel, that suggests the suppression and repression of individual feminine desires denies the identity of women (Angeline 63). After accepting her new found identity, Mrs. Mallard exits from her room to join her sister and her husband's friend; yet the conclusion of the story reiterates that the patriarchal system that creates and expects certain codes of behavior denies feminine idenitity-denies, in fact, that such an identity might exist. When he enters the front door, Mr. Mallard "stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife" (646). Josephine's and Richards' reactions reflect their expectation that Louise Mallard, with her weak heart, would experience an overwhelming joy at the sight of her husband. Again, such a belief not only demonstrates their inability to comprehend Mrs. Mallard's new sense of self but also delimits the feminine self within certain prescribed gender boundaries. The doctor's determination that she died of "joy that kills" ironically reinforces Chopin's critique of the patriarchal system that defines women as things: the joy that Louise Mallard experienced, the joy of establishing an identity, meant that she could not live within her society (646). Louise Mallard's self is erased not only in her death but also in the inability of those around her to comprehend the true nature of the joy that she experienced. Mary Papke notes, in her introduction to Verging on the Abyss, that "patriarchal cultures reveal the well-promoted conceptualization, objectification, and institutionalization of woman as lesser beings, as 'other,' as secondary adjunct to man" (9). In "The Story of an Hour" Chopin explores not only the way in which patriarchal society, through its concepts of gender, its objectification of women in gender roles, and its institutionalization of marriage, constrains and oppresses women but also the way in which it, ultimately, erases women and feminine desires. Because women are only secondary and other, they become the invisible counterparts to their husbands, with no desires, no voice, no identity.
Click here to compare your version with the original essay.
The following examples, good and bad, are taken from actual student essays, written under timed conditions for the 1ére candidature exam in May, 2000. The question the students were asked to respond to was the following:‘What decision does Mrs. Carnavon make during the story? How and why does she arrive at the decision, and how does the title of the story reflect her state of mind?’. The key points here are what decision is made, how and why it is made, and the title.
The focus below is on paragraph construction in general, given that paragraphs connected in proper sequence are the building blocks of an essay, and on introductions and conclusions in particular. Each sentence of the paragraphs is numbered in order that you can easily see why we think it is or is not a successful sentence in the context of the paragraphs. Obviously when you are writing essays there is no need to number the sentences. You will find it useful to read the accounts of the general principles of essay writing and paragraph construction in other sections of the website.
(1) In this story, there are many images that can explain how and why Mrs. Carnavon, the heroine of the story, decides to put an end to her bereavement. (2) As far as adjectives are concerned, I think that they can also give us some clues about the changes in her mind. (3) I shall first take ‘adjectives’ into account and then I shall explain the four images that I find the most important.
There are several things wrong with this introductory paragraph, but the most important is that it is not ‘strong’ enough. Whilst there is nothing too contentious about each sentence, as a combination they do not add up to much: we have no real idea of what the student thinks of the story or what s/he finds important. A brutal one sentence paraphrase of the introduction might be: ‘This is a story in which something happens and the author has used adjectives and images, some of which are more important than others’. Well, it would be hard to think of a story to which one could not apply the same paraphrase. One of the problems is that the introduction says nothing specific about the story. There is some reference to death, in the word 'bereavement', but this is not made specific.
The introduction is not strong, clear or bold enough; there is nothing about the specific characteristics of the story, the reader has no real idea of what to expect from the essay to follow. In other words the content of the essay is not signalled or signposted, and there is insufficient statement of how the various elements of the story are to be handled. To add to these weaknesses there is also some repetition creeping into the first three sentences of an essay.
(1) The sentence is not strong enough. We are not told what kind of images are important, and we are not given enough information about the decision in question. There are problems, at the level of language, in saying ‘put an end to her bereavement’: ‘put an end to her grieving’ would be better, but this still does not really address the issue. Mrs. Carnavon does not want to forget her son, or to stop missing him; rather she wants to discover an appropriate response which would allow her to face the future. (2) A particular Francophone weakness is the overuse of ‘can’ or ‘could’ in English. Here it creates a weak ‘idea unit’ by qualifying with too much of a conditional sense a sentence which should be strong and forceful. An introduction should give us a clear expression of what the writer thinks is important. Are the adjectives important or not? One could say this or that, but does the writer actually say so? This weakness is compounded by the use of the word ‘clues’ which, together with the conditional tense, suggest that the writer is not fully confident of the ideas s/he is expressing. Why should the reader carry on reading? An introduction, to any piece of writing, should be more attention grabbing. Also, it is not particularly clear why adjectives have been separated from images here, given that in the story imagery partly works through the cumulative effect of motifs equally carried by adjectives. This means that in effect that the 2nd sentence merely repeats the same idea of the 1st one. The cardinal sin of repetition is committed early here! (3) Again, it is not clear why adjectives and images have been separated in this way. Furthermore, the sentence is a little empty - it repeats the fact that the writer finds the imagery important, but gives the reader no idea of the particular form or texture of the supposedly vital imagery.
This is a strong, clear paragraph which immediately introduces the reader to the key elements of the story: s/he is quickly and economically told the writer’s main opinion of the story, what else s/he finds important, and a brief outline of what to expect in the rest of the essay. The status of particular images is clearly identified and stated. Note that it is assumed that the adjectives will be looked at in conjunction with the main image clusters. An additional important point here is that whilst the essay question mentions the title the introduction does not. Whilst the guide to essay writing states that you should state what you will do in an essay, it is also advisable not to be too systematic, dogmatic and mechanical about this. The model introduction mentions the importance of images of cold and heat, so there is no need to mechanically add a sentence such as: ‘The title of the story, ‘The Cold House’, is important and will be referred to in the course of the essay.’
The story takes place during Winter in a cold house inhabited only by some servants. (2) The householder, Mrs. Carnavon comes earlier than expected for a visit. (3) She comes back from a trip. (4) The atmosphere is rather cold because something happened. (5) The text is structured into paragraphs with short dialogues between Mrs. Carnavon and her maid. (6) They have an employer-employee relationship.
This introduction never really gets going. It includes details which are not relevant for an introduction, and probably for the main analysis itself. This is particularly the case with the mention of servants. There is nothing to suggest that Mrs. Carnavon’s son has died, and no acknowledgement that the story deals with the particular decision she comes to. In other words the student has not demonstrated that s/he has identified the key aspects of the story, nor what is being asked by the exam question.
(1) The first sentence is not as strong as the first sentence of an essay should be. The reference to servants is irrelevant, and as Winter has connotations of coldness to mention both Winter and cold is unnecessary. (2) The second sentence demonstrates an error of understanding: Mrs. Carnavon is not expected at all. (3) The third sentence does not follow logically from the second - if Mrs. Carnavon is coming for a visit she cannot also be coming back from a trip. (4) The fourth sentence is unnecessarily vague about the main event triggering the story, and does not mention the death of Mrs. Carnavon’s son. It is an empty sentence, and even the reference to the cold says very little. (5) The fifth sentence is also empty: most literary texts do, after all, contain dialogue and paragraphs. It also ignores the fact that Mrs. Carnavon makes her decision when she is alone. (6) The final sentence is redundant for two reasons: the information is already contained in the previous sentence, and the student does not suggest why the formal link between the two is important or significant.
(1) The story tells us about a woman, Mrs. Carnavon, who comes up to her country house after her son’s death. (2) During her very short visit, she will make the decision of emptying her son’s room, which may be the only way for her to love the memory of her son and keep it alive.(3) In this essay, I shall try to explain how and why she finally arrives at this decision.
Despite a number of language errors this is on the whole a pretty good introduction. It demonstrates that the student has clearly grasped the kernel of the story, and also understands what has been asked from her/him. Mrs. Carnavon’s decision is clearly stated, and reasons for it briefly summarised. Perhaps the final sentence could suggest a little more what else the essay will contain.
There are a couple of errors in the second sentence (2). It should read: ‘During her very short visit, she makes the decision to empty her son’s room, which may be the only way for her to love the memory of her son and keep it alive.’ To stress: make sure you keep the tenses consistent, and ‘to make a decision’ needs an infinitive afterwards.
Write introductions sparked by the following essay titles:
1. Discuss the links made between hunting and photography in Clanchys 'The Natural History Museum'.
2. Discuss the style and imagery of Auden's 'Song'by focusing on the idea of grief.
3. Philip Roth's 'The Conversion of the Jews' seems to link religious belief and father figures. How is this done?