Thesis Statements

A thesis statement controls an essay.  A strong thesis is necessary in order to build strong arguments and support your position on a topic.

A good structure that you can follow for constructing a strong thesis statement is thinking about the WHAT and the WHY…

The WHAT is where you point out a pattern, a clever observation, a symbolic interpretation, a significant moment, character, or action… in other words, you start by indicating WHAT the author did in the story – what did he or she write or insert? These will hopefully be interesting, but they also might not be debatable in and of themselves. You’re on your way… now you have to add…

…the WHY of the thesis – this is the part that requires you to get more abstract, and argue what you think the author’s goal was in adding that clever element, plot point, symbol, character, etc. This element of your thesis is essential, as it is where you are adding YOUR THOUGHTS to what the author has included in the book.

NB: A well-written thesis connects the WHAT to the WHY using a strong ANALYTICAL VERB as in: Golding uses the glasses as a symbol of intellectualism to contradict the notion that mankind desires to be philosophically elevated.

To write a strong thesis, keep the following in mind:

  • A thesis has to be something you can ARGUE: A thesis reflects an opinion.  You are not doing a book report or offering a summary.  So your thesis statement CANNOT BE A FACT. You need to be thinking critically about events that happened in the work that you read. A fact simply is indisputable.
  • A thesis has to be something you can PROVE: You must prove a THEORY using evidence from the text and careful explanation. The difference between the first and the second point here is this: You could argue that The Pearl is the greatest story of all time, or that the conch shell represents civilization in Lord of the Flies, but you could not truly PROVE either point. You could, however, prove what aspects of Kino’s life are meant to be respected according to Steinbeck’s The Pearl, or what Golding’s purpose is in using a conch shell to represent civilization. Notice how both of these two better examples make an effort to state what you think the author’s intent was in writing each story.
  • A thesis does not list the arguments you’ll be making (though sometimes this is an effective way to start thinking about your opinion on the matter).  You have to prove ONE POINT. A good thesis is an “umbrella” statement that finds a common thread in upcoming arguments. If you have three entirely different characters or symbols or plot points that you are dissecting, and you are dedicating a new paragraph to each, you do not have a WHAT and WHY, you have a WHAT, WHAT, WHAT!
  • You need to be absolutely specific. This mistake is maybe the most frequent offender. DO NOT presume that your thesis should stay vague, because you will clarify your point later. Leave NO mystery, and avoid blurry, indistinct phrasing such as “a great impact,” as in The discovery of the dead soldier has a great impact on the boys in Lord of the Flies. I have no idea what impact was made. A great one? A better example would be: The discovery of the dead soldier forces the boys to confront their own mortality
  • REMINDER: A thesis does not use “I”, “we” or “you” anywhere in its contents.  No 1stor 2nd person pronouns.  

Here are some examples of POOR thesis statements you need to avoid:

1.  Loneliness is displayed in the novel Of Mice and Men.

Comment:  Yes it is.  So what?  Why do I care?  And stop using the passive voice. This thesis is not something that can be PROVEN – it is merely a truth about the book. This is a WHAT without a WHY.  To make this thesis stronger, you would have to consider: What does loneliness cause?  How does loneliness impact the characters? Or what creates this loneliness?  What does Steinbeck want us to learn or see or think about loneliness?

2.  I think discrimination is the most destructive force in the book.

Comment:  “I think”?  I know you think.  No need to tell me.  WHY is discrimination the most destructive force? And how could you PROVE that the author intended this point?  How does discrimination affect characters?

3.  The conch shell, Piggy’s broken glasses and the burning of the island all symbolize the destruction of civilization in Lord of the Flies

Comment:  WHAT WHAT! You’re listing your arguments.  It’s an ok first step to thinking critically, but now look at what is COMMON between those arguments.  Develop an “umbrella” thesis that incorporates the common points without listing the arguments you’ll be developing in the body.  Try this: Golding repeatedly uses fragile items, like eyeglasses and the leaves on a tree, to symbolize civilization in order to suggest how thoroughly a self-centered leader can ruin a sense of order. 

Now, some better thesis statements:

1.  In Lord of the Flies, by using savage diction to depict the death of Simon, who stays out of the rival factions, Golding criticizes the desire to associate oneself with a group or society. 

a.  What’s the topic? (What is the WHAT?)

b.  What’s going to be argued? (What is the WHY?)

c.  What are some other moments that might support this argument?

2.  The ending scene of Steinbeck’s The Pearl asserts that dreams can provide hope and a reason to live, but can also become dangerous when they are destroyed, leaving people empty and hopeless. 

a.  What’s the topic? (What is the WHAT?)

b.  What’s going to be argued? (What is the WHY?)

c. What are some other moments that might support this argument?

3.  In Life of Pi, Martel uses the Pacific Ocean as a symbol of Pi’s subconsciousness to contradict the concept that a person’s development is a result of his exterior surroundings.    

a.  What’s the topic? (What is the WHAT?)

b.  What’s going to be argued? (What is the WHY?)

c. What are some other moments that might support this argument?

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