Short, Thematic War and Peace Essay Guidelines

As you read War and Peace, you’ll be required to write four short, themed essays dealing with these topics. Let's call them "little papers." Naturally these essays are at some level a check to make sure that you are doing your reading (which is, of course, substantial), but they are also intended to be a useful tool for you to make use of as your prepare for your final essay. There are a few guidelines pertaining to these essays:

  • Since you’ll be reading W&P over the course of something like seven weeks (plus Spring Break), you will not be required to turn in an essay every single week. However, that doesn’t mean that you can wait until the last week of the novel to turn in all four. You can turn in no more than one paper per week. So, don’t wait until week five to start turning them in.
  • The essays will be around 3-4 pages long – if they’re a little over or a little under, that’s ok. We don’t want full-on research papers and we don’t want two-paragraph responses. You need to write enough to convey whatever idea you are addressing.
  • Much of the time in small group discussions will be used to discuss possible topics for these essays; your essays themselves, of course, must be your own work.

This is an informal assignment (which isn't to say it's an easy or unimportant one). Don't worry about cover pages, bibliographies, etc. (But do offer me page numbers so I can find the passages in question.) Feel free to reference Poe, Lieven, or Tolstoy's "A Few Words " essay… or make comparisons with the Sevastopol stories. But don't go too far afield from the texts we have used in class. I want this to be creative, analytical work.

Here is the assessment rubric I will use for each little paper.
Here are a whole lot of ideas for your papers…

What follows is stolen more or less from David Foster Wallace’s "Papers for 102: Rules, Guidelines, and Topics"…

What all good short papers for this seminar have to do: Your paper must have a thesis. A thesis is a central claim you’re making. Thus these little papers are basically argumentative. Your paper consists of asserting, explaining, and supporting your thesis. Your thesis always has to do with a story’s theme or meaning. Your thesis could be that a given chapter in War and Peace has some basic theme or meaning Z. Or that the symbolism of the Andrei’s oak tree plays such and such a role in getting across this theme Z or A or such.

No matter what you do, it’s impossible to avoid having to make CLAIMS about themes and meanings. And your claim must be interesting. Something I have not thought of. Asserting a claim that Natasha is beloved because she’s beautiful might not be wrong, but it’s so boring that nobody’s going to want to read your paper, least of all me. And no one is going to be persuaded by it, since it’s self-obvious. Aim to persuade with argument and evidence.

The trick to coming up with a good thesis is that you have to find some middle ground between a wacko thesis that you can’t defend (Pierre is actually a zombie) and a boring one that doesn’t have anything in it to argue about.
There are three ways to support your thesis, and to a certain degree, you’ll need all of them. The first is “reading” various parts of the story and interpreting them in such a way that they seem to indicate that your thesis is sound. The second is by showing that your thesis, your personal way of understanding the story, makes the rest of the story make sense. It “gets its arms around” the bulk of the story so far. The third is to anticipate and disarm any obvious objections to your thesis.

Finally, Paul Radenhausen, the Teaching Assistant from 2012, offers the following advice:

War and Peace is a long, challenging, dense, and long book. Tolstoy plays with many themes throughout the novel, but we’ve highlighted just a few that we feel are more important (and probably easier to tackle) than others: community, war, history, and literary devices (we could say “artistry”).

Since you’ll be reading W&P over the course of something like six weeks, you will not be required to turn in an essay every single week. However, that doesn’t mean that you can wait until the last week of the novel to turn in all four. You can turn in no more than one paper per week. So, don’t wait until week five to start turning them in.

The essays will be around 3 pages long – if they’re a little over or a little under, that’s ok. We don’t want full-on research papers and we don’t want two-paragraph responses. You need to write enough to convey whatever idea you are addressing.

These essays are not merely summaries of your theme in the section that you read that week. What you write about specifically is up to you, but it needs to have a point, a thesis, something that you argue and that advances an understanding of the text.

Much of the time in small group discussions will be used to discuss possible topics for these essays; your essays themselves, of course, must be your own work.

Naturally these essays are at some level a check to make sure that you are doing your reading (which is, of course, substantial), but they are also intended to be a useful tool for you to make use of as your prepare for your final essay.

Our hope is that the writing that you do on these shorter essays will give you a head start on your final essays and won’t simply be forgotten once you get a grade for them. They are for your benefit. As Dr. Denner likes to say, “the best essays aren’t written, they are rewritten.”

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