Essay In Literature

Definition of Essay

Essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means “to attempt,” or “to try.” An essay is a short form of literary composition based on a single subject matter, and often gives the personal opinion of the author. A famous English essayist, Aldous Huxley defines essays as, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” In simple words, we can define it as a scholarly work in writing that provides the author’s personal argument.

Types of Essay

There are two forms of essay: literary and non-literary. Literary essays are of four types:

  • Expository Essay – In an expository essay, the writer gives an explanation of an idea, theme, or issue to the audience by giving his personal opinions. This essay is presented through examples, definitions, comparisons, and contrast.
  • Descriptive Essay – As it sounds, this type of essay gives a description about a particular topic, or describes the traits and characteristics of something or a person in detail. It allows artistic freedom, and creates images in the minds of readers through the use of the five senses.
  • Narrative Essay – Narrative essay is non-fiction, but describes a story with sensory descriptions. The writer not only tells a story, but also makes a point by giving reasons.
  • Persuasive Essay – In this type of essay, the writer tries to convince his readers to adopt his position or point of view on an issue, after he provides them solid reasoning in this connection. It requires a lot of research to claim and defend an idea. It is also called an argumentative essay.

Non-literary essays could also be of the same types but they could be written in any format.

Examples of Essay in Literature

Example #1: The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (By Jeffrey Tayler)

“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae’d stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”

This is an example of a descriptive essay, as the author has used descriptive language to paint a dramatic picture for his readers of an encounter with a stranger.

Example #2: Of Love (By Francis Bacon)

“It is impossible to love, and be wise … Love is a child of folly. … Love is ever rewarded either with the reciprocal, or with an inward and secret contempt. You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons…there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love: which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion…That he had preferred Helena, quitted the gifts of Juno and Pallas. For whosoever esteemeth too much of amorous affection quitted both riches and wisdom.”

In this excerpt, Bacon attempts to persuade readers that people who want to be successful in this world must never fall in love. By giving an example of famous people like Paris, who chose Helen as his beloved but lost his wealth and wisdom, the author attempts to convince the audience that they can lose their mental balance by falling in love.

Example #3: The Autobiography of a Kettle (By John Russell)

“I am afraid I do not attract attention, and yet there is not a single home in which I could done without. I am only a small, black kettle but I have much to interest me, for something new happens to me every day. The kitchen is not always a cheerful place in which to live, but still I find plenty of excitement there, and I am quite happy and contented with my lot …”

In this example, the author is telling an autobiography of a kettle, and describes the whole story in chronological order. The author has described the kettle as a human being, and allows readers to feel, as he has felt.

Function of Essay

The function of an essay depends upon the subject matter, whether the writer wants to inform, persuade, explain, or entertain. In fact, the essay increases the analytical and intellectual abilities of the writer as well as readers. It evaluates and tests the writing skills of a writer, and organizes his or her thinking to respond personally or critically to an issue. Through an essay, a writer presents his argument in a more sophisticated manner. In addition, it encourages students to develop concepts and skills, such as analysis, comparison and contrast, clarity, exposition, conciseness, and persuasion.

Essay, an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view.

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nonfictional prose: The essay

In modern literatures, the category of nonfictional prose that probably ranks as the most important both in the quantity and in the quality of its practitioners is the essay.

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Some early treatises—such as those of Cicero on the pleasantness of old age or on the art of “divination,” Seneca on anger or clemency, and Plutarch on the passing of oracles—presage to a certain degree the form and tone of the essay, but not until the late 16th century was the flexible and deliberately nonchalant and versatile form of the essay perfected by the French writer Michel de Montaigne. Choosing the name essai to emphasize that his compositions were attempts or endeavours, a groping toward the expression of his personal thoughts and experiences, Montaigne used the essay as a means of self-discovery. His Essais, published in their final form in 1588, are still considered among the finest of their kind. Later writers who most nearly recall the charm of Montaigne include, in England, Robert Burton, though his whimsicality is more erudite, Sir Thomas Browne, and Laurence Sterne, and in France, with more self-consciousness and pose, André Gide and Jean Cocteau.

At the beginning of the 17th century, social manners, the cultivation of politeness, and the training of an accomplished gentleman became the theme of many essayists. This theme was first exploited by the Italian Baldassare Castiglione in his Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier). The influence of the essay and of genres allied to it, such as maxims, portraits, and sketches, proved second to none in molding the behavior of the cultured classes, first in Italy, then in France, and, through French influence, in most of Europe in the 17th century. Among those who pursued this theme was the 17th-century Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián in his essays on the art of worldly wisdom.

Keener political awareness in the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, made the essay an all-important vehicle for the criticism of society and religion. Because of its flexibility, its brevity, and its potential both for ambiguity and for allusions to current events and conditions, it was an ideal tool for philosophical reformers. The Federalist Papers in America and the tracts of the French Revolutionaries are among the countless examples of attempts during this period to improve the human condition through the essay.

The genre also became the favoured tool of traditionalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who looked to the short, provocative essay as the most potent means of educating the masses. Essays such as Paul Elmer More’s long series of Shelburne Essays (published between 1904 and 1935), T.S. Eliot’s After Strange Gods (1934) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), and others that attempted to reinterpret and redefine culture, established the genre as the most fitting to express the genteel tradition at odds with the democracy of the new world.

Whereas in several countries the essay became the chosen vehicle of literary and social criticism, in other countries the genre became semipolitical, earnestly nationalistic, and often polemical, playful, or bitter. Essayists such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote with grace on several lighter subjects, and many writers—including Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos—mastered the essay as a form of literary criticism.

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