Thesis statements are tricky. Maybe that’s because there’s so much pressure riding on them. I have heard that a thesis statement should distill all of the ideas of an essay into one or two sentences. It has also been said that the thesis statement is a road map, marking the path of an essay and guiding the reader through the points of the body paragraphs.
I think that intimidates the heck out of students.
A Better Way to Approach Thesis Statements
A thesis statement, in its simplest terms, is a statement. That’s a nice starting point. Instead of conveying all the implications above, and scaring them, just start by saying, I want you to make a statement.
They can handle that.
They like to make statements with their clothes or their taste in music. In doing so, they express something about who they are and how they see things. This isn’t that much different. They are going to express something, an opinion.
That’s the next step… to have an opinion.
If our goal as writing instructors is to teach our students how to write, not what to write, then we must preach that they express their own ideas. And it all starts with the thesis. They must make a statement that comes from their own thinking and understanding. They must write for themselves. Unfortunately, most student write based on what they think their teacher wants to hear.
Years of experience back this up. Each spring I spend a week grading the AP Literature exam essays. Over the course of the seven days, I typically grade 1,100-1,300 essay. The ones that stand out check off the same boxes — insightful and original thesis, perceptive analysis, well-appointed textual support, and a strong and confident voice. The lower-half essays do just the opposite.
What a Thesis Should Do
A more advanced, but still not intimidating, way to think about the thesis is to view it as engine of the essay. That’s something that can all understand and relate to. After all, high school kids want to drive everywhere. With a car, the engine converts energy into power, making all the other parts move. The engine propels it forward. The same is true of a good thesis. It moves the argument or opinion forward. It makes all the other parts of the essay turn.
Our students have the keys to a powerful engine that will move the reader.
They are in control.
And they get to decide where the reader is going.
That’s different than a roadmap with landmarks and coordinates already plotted and submissively followed. An engine gives them the freedom to go where they want.
The Finer Qualities of a Thesis
- It moves from the general to the specific
- It has insight
- It is original
- It answers the prompt
An Example of a Rock-Solid Thesis
Here’s a prompt I gave my students this week:
Chapter 26 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor questions, “Is He Serious? And Other Ironies.” Using Foster’s text as a guide, analyze the use of irony in 1984 and connect its purpose to the meaning of the work as a whole.
A Sample Weak Thesis
Here is a formulaic, superficial thesis that our students need to avoid.
In George Orwell’s futuristic novel, 1984, irony plays a major part and affects many of the novel’s plot twists, contributing to the development of the story and the meaning of the work as a whole.
Let’s poke some holes for a second. There are two glaring weakness with this thesis statement:
1. It basically repeats the prompt, hiding the true voice of the writer.
2. There no insight, and perhaps worse, there is no demonstration that this writer has read 1984.
A Stronger Thesis
In the novel 1984, Winston recognizes the strong incongruity between appearance and reality in this supposed utopia, but as he crusades against the psychological manipulations of the party he ultimately is doomed to conform to its power.
What makes this better?
- It start with general ideas — in the novel 1984 — but it quickly identifies specific elements by naming a character, mentioning the utopia, and identifying the goals of the party.
- It has insight because it argues that Winston is aware of the irony that exists between the party’s propaganda and reality, but it sets up the bigger irony of the crusader that is doomed to love Big Brother.
- It answers the prompt by identifying the irony — the supposed utopia — and connects that irony to the meaning of the work as a whole — psychological manipulation as a tool to maintain power.
Writing a Killer Thesis Statement
That thesis statement was drafted by my class this week during a mini lesson (Never Underestimate the Importance of Mini Lessons) that resulted from their summer reading test on 1984 and How to Read Literature Like a Professor.
Writing a good thesis statement is the result of two simple actions:
- understanding what the prompt is asking
- asking questions of yourself to develop insightful responses to the prompt
This prompt had two parts:
- The role of irony in 1984
- How that irony factors into the work as a whole
Here are the questions we asked in class during the mini lesson:
- What are some of the examples of irony in 1984? — The party slogans, the utopia/dystopia disconnect, the ministries, doublethink, the acts of betrayal.
- Are these examples limited or pervasive? They are pervasive
- Why has the party created a society in which these things are pervasive? Because it feeds their purpose, which is to have psychological control over its citizens. The more the party slogans are repeated and the more doublethink occurs, the more a person loses their humanity and becomes part of a herd mentality.
- Why does the party want to strip people’s humanity and exert psychological control? It is how they can maintain totalitarian power.
When you progress through a sequence of questions that feed upon each other, you arrive at insightful conclusions that can be pieced together to form an outstanding thesis.
Below you will find four outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for 1984 by George Orwell that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Orwell's 1984 and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for offer a short summary of 1984 in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from 1984 by George Orwell, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Forced Repression of Natural Impulses in 1984Nearly every aspect of the society presented in 1984 by George Orwell is controlled, including the most natural impulses of sex and love. The suppression of these innate urges is encouraged through a program instituted by various forms of media in society in 1984 by George Orwell that propagates mistrust so severe that even mothers and fathers cannot trust their own offspring—another supposedly natural bond and impulse. Throughout the novel there are many examples of oppression of natural reactions and they cause a number of problems, not just for the main characters, but for the society at large. For this essay, you could provide detailed examples of how natural impulses are stifled and what consequences there are.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Lack of Privacy and The Effect of No IndividualismPersonal privacy and space is never granted throughout 1984. Every person is always subject to observation, even by their own family members and friends. Furthermore, since Big Brother is always watching and the Thought Police are always on the lookout, it is impossible for any kind of individualism to flourish. For this essay you can look at the ways this occurs and how various characters attempt (successfully or not) to subvert it. Then move out to consider how this lack of privacy (and by proxy, individualism) influences individuals and society as a whole.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Role and Representation of Women in 1984
Although it's often considered to be an “easy” topic choice for a paper, examining the role of women would make for an excellent essay, especially since many of things that make women what they are in many novels (adhering to ideas of romantic love, sex, femininity, marriage, etc) are subverted by the totalitarian society. For this essay, look at the depictions of women, keeping in mind such issues as the Junior Anti-Sex League, Winston's Wife who is the “human soundtrack,” and others. All of the women or groups of women presented offer a very twisted view of all of the things typically associated with women in literature. Look at why this is and offer numerous examples.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Power of Words and Rhetoric in 1984
Rhetoric, words, and language have enormous power in this society. Consider the phrase, “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” as well as the fact that the state of war and who it is with is constantly shifting. In this society (much like ours) reality is based on information and Orwell's novel, the information is all related by words. The power of language in this novel (just as in Animal Farm, another novel by George Orwell) is one of the most potent forces that exists and as a result, the state goes through great lengths to influence and control language. For this essay, find a number of examples of contradictory, misleading, or otherwise bad rhetoric and how it is used to manipulate the population. A good essay might include three examples and then use one paragraph for each to fully pick apart the language and discuss the effects it has.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: 1984 in Historical Context: How Current Events Shaped the Themes in the Novel
In some cases, it is not always feasible or worth it to consider too heavily the time period during which a novel was written. This is not the case in 1984. In fact, the historical context is of the utmost importance as the threat of totalitarianism, fascism, and domination based on skilled rhetoric was at the forefront of public fears during Orwell's time. Written in 1949, 1984 reflects the period as fascist empires were growing and the effects of others were becoming more clear with each passing day, such as was the case Germany. For this essay, make sure you include some biographical information about Orwell and what he witnessed during his lifetime and make reference to the many fascist regimes that are reflected in the novel.
* For an excellent article on the influence of the media on the society in 1984, click here *