Literature Topics and Research
This handout provides examples and description about writing papers in literature. It discusses research topics, how to begin to research, how to use information, and formatting.
Contributors:Mark Dollar, Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2013-09-28 12:15:24
What kinds of topics are good ones?
The best topics are ones that originate out of your own reading of a work of literature, but here are some common approaches to consider:
- A discussion of a work's characters: are they realistic, symbolic, historically-based?
- A comparison/contrast of the choices different authors or characters make in a work
- A reading of a work based on an outside philosophical perspective (Ex. how would a Freudian read Hamlet?)
- A study of the sources or historical events that occasioned a particular work (Ex. comparing G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion with the original Greek myth of Pygmalion)
- An analysis of a specific image occurring in several works (Ex. the use of moon imagery in certain plays, poems, novels)
- A "deconstruction" of a particular work (Ex. unfolding an underlying racist worldview in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness)
- A reading from a political perspective (Ex. how would a Marxist read William Blake's "London"?)
- A study of the social, political, or economic context in which a work was written — how does the context influence the work?
How do I start research?
- The Internet
Once you have decided on an interesting topic and work (or works), the best place to start is probably the Internet. Here you can usually find basic biographical data on authors, brief summaries of works, possibly some rudimentary analyses, and even bibliographies of sources related to your topic.
- The library
The Internet, however, rarely offers serious direct scholarship; you will have to use sources found in the library, sources like journal articles and scholarly books, to get information that you can use to build your own scholarship-your literary paper. Consult the library's on-line catalog and the MLA Periodical Index. Avoid citing dictionary or encyclopedic sources in your final paper.
How do I use the information I find?
The secondary sources you find are only to be used as an aid. Your thoughts should make up most of the essay. As you develop your thesis, you will bring in the ideas of the scholars to back up what you have already said.
For example, say you are arguing that Huck Finn is a Christ figure; that's your basic thesis. You give evidence from the novel that allows this reading, and then, at the right place, you might say the following, a paraphrase:
According to Susan Thomas, Huck sacrifices himself because he wants to set Jim free (129).
If the scholar states an important idea in a memorable way, use a direct quote.
"Huck's altruism and feelings of compassion for Jim force him to surrender to the danger" (Thomas 129).
Either way, you will then link that idea to your thesis.
When it comes to English Literature, there's no end to the topics that you can research on that novel or other piece that you've been reading. The easiest way to get an idea for that next research topic on English literature for your essay is to start broad and then work toward making it more specific and interesting for your readers. Here are a few examples of research topics in literature to get you started (for a more extensive list of research topics in literature, please check out the link that can be found at the bottom of this article):
1. Gender roles
How are the roles of men and women portrayed in the novel? Are they distinctly different? Do they have equal rights? What gender expectations do they follow or fight against?
2. Comparisons between genres
How does each genre tell its story? What are the differences and similarities between the two? Is one more effective than the other?
3. Historical background
Who is the author and what is their story? Were there controversies associated with him/her or their work? What is the significance of this novel in the time it was written? How does it reflect the society and beliefs of its time?
What issues in politics does this novel address? Discrimination? Rights? Equality?
How is this novel religious? What beliefs is it promoting or questioning?
6. Comparisons between two characters
This can be between characters in the same novel or two different ones. How are their differences and similarities important to the novel?
7. Comparisons between two novels
If the novels seem completely different but represent the same genre or come from the same time period, this may be something you want to explore.
8. Allusions within the novel
What are some significant allusions within the novel? These could be religious, refer to other novels or authors, etc. How is this important to understanding the novel and its place in English Literature?
What are some of the most notable criticisms out there? What is your response and how does it compare to other critics out there?
What are important symbols in the novel? How are they significant?