How to Write an Explication Essay

Similar to an analysis essay, an explication essay examines sentences, verses or passages pulled from longer literary works, to interpret and explain on a detailed level. These mini-essays, typically a single page or less, require a close reading of the text to perform a proper interpretation of the quotation. The form of an explication essay requires a clear thesis presented in the introduction, a concise conclusion and supported analysis that interprets the meaning of the passage and the author’s intent.

Word Choice

Examinations of short passages should always cover an author’s choice of words. While a thesaurus may compile lists of similar words, each one provides a slightly different tone and context that would alter the meaning of the passage had the writer selected alternative phrasing. Note how the words “a woman sobbing” creates a contemporary expression of grief, whereas “a lady weeping” paints a more elegant picture, and “a girl bawling” a childish one. For example, examine the first sentence of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” Note the author’s choice of words, such as “probably,” “lousy” and “crap,” indicate Holden Caulfield’s sarcastic, teenage persona before the character has been introduced.

Rhythm and Beat

An explication essay must also examine how the selected words are strung together to give the passage a distinctive tempo or flow. Examine the writer’s word organization to analyze how it works to create rhythm and tone. For example, note how the phrases in this passage from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost create a distinctive rhythm and an almost audible beat: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”

Structure and Punctuation

A close reading of a passage must also pay attention to how punctuation and sentence length affect the message and intent of a passage. In “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain, note how the short sentences and sparse phrasing gives the text a crisp, hard quality: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep.” On the other hand, the lengthy passage that ends “Ulysses” by James Joyce -- one of the longest sentences in literature -- omits punctuation and instead uses the repetition of the word “yes” to create a cadence.

Symbols and Themes

Explication essays should also consider how the examined passage represents and affects the theme of the entire work. Consider a passage from “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s novel of the barren poverty during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” The author chose the grapes and wine-making as symbols to represent the hard bitterness growing within the impoverished people amid the barren, desolate setting.

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