Thesis statements are hard to write. There, I said it. As an English major people usually assume that I have some sort of internal thesis generator that spits out finely tuned arguments instantly. This is not true. I often spend an embarrassing amount of time wading through poorly drafted theses (yes, that is the plural) before I finally land on something that works.
That being said, your thesis is important and it deserves a lot of time and attention. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what a good thesis looks like, especially because many professors seem to be unable to present a good definition of what a thesis is. Basically, a thesis statement is a sentence (or several sentences) that outlines the argument you will be defending in your paper. This can seem like a bit of a vague definition, but if you break up the goals of your thesis, it becomes a lot more manageable.
A good thesis statement accomplishes three purposes:
- It introduces the topic at hand and gives a reader an idea of what to expect out of the paper.
- It presents your argument.
- It demonstrates the importance of your argument, giving the reader more reason to be invested in your essay.
Let’s look at some examples of possible thesis statements, and see whether or not they accomplish these goals.
- This is a paper about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.
This thesis accomplishes goal number 1, but it doesn’t accomplish the other two goals. For a thesis to successfully present the argument of your paper, someone needs to be able to disagree with it. Because there is no opposing viewpoint to this statement, it does not function as a successful thesis. Your thesis should be a strong argument, which the reader can choose to agree or disagree with.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional.
This thesis is better, in that it does present an argument. A potential reader could disagree with the idea that Confessions defined the confessional genre, so this thesis accomplishes both of the first two goals of a successful thesis. However, this thesis does not accomplish the third goal. There should be some sort of importance to your argument; maybe your thesis has implications outside of the specific argument that you’re making, or maybe there is a specific benefit to thinking about the topic in the way that you advocate. In argumentative essays, an easy way to demonstrate the importance of your argument is to provide a “call to action”, in which you ask the reader to do something with your information, such as advocate a change in policy. In literary critiques, it can be helpful to pull your thesis outside of the text and talk about broad implications of your arguments. It is difficult to create a thesis that accomplishes all three of your goals, but it is crucial for having a successful essay.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions introduced several conventions to the field of autobiography, which helped to create and define the genre of the confessional. Because many of these conventions persist within the confessional genre to this day, gaining an understanding of the devices used within Confessions can provide valuable context to contemporary confessional novels.
Although this thesis is a bit wordy, it does accomplish all three of the goals of a successful thesis. The reader knows what you plan to discuss in the paper, what you are going to argue about your topic, and why it is important. Presenting a fully developed thesis, such as this one, will allow you to write a strong essay.
Writing a thesis with this much depth is tricky. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to break through to a thesis that accomplishes more than the first two goals right away. Something that I have often noticed in my own writing is that I will write an entire paper on what I think is my thesis, only to find that a more in-depth, well-developed thesis appears in for the first time in the conclusion. If you’re having trouble with your thesis, it may be a good idea to begin writing your paper, and only finalize your thesis once you have already started analyzing your topic. Not only does this take the pressure off of you in the beginning, it allows you plenty of time to truly develop your ideas before you draft your actual thesis.
Thesis statements are hard, but they are important, and they are certainly writeable. If you have a good understanding of your topic and its importance, your thesis is in there somewhere. The only real obstacle is teasing it out and refining it so that it best reflects your thoughts. Good luck.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics from “The Autobiography of My Mother” by Jamaica Kincaid that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Autobiography of My Mother” 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 offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but 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 at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Genre-Bending in The Autobiography of My Mother
The Autobiography of My Mother is not actually an autobiography at all; it is a novel. Furthermore, while the narrator’s mother’s phantom presence haunts the novel, she is not the main character; in fact, she is dead. How, then, is the reader of “The Autobiography of My Mother" by Jamaica Kincaid to understand the title and its indication of the novel’s contents, and what might Kincaid be trying to do by challenging some of the strict notions of genre that governed late 20th century literature? Is “The Autobiography of My Mother" also an autobiography of Xuela, the narrator, and if so, how?Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Anger in “The Autobiography of My Mother" by Jamaica Kincaid
In “The Autobiography of My Mother" Xuela is an angry child, an angry woman, and is also, despite her assertion that she has attained a certain degree of peace, still bitter in her old age. What are the reasons for Xuela’s anger, and is she justified to hold onto her rage for so long? Make an argument, citing textual evidence, for Xuela’s anger as a survival mechanism, or, alternately, as an obstacle to a better life.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Colonialism in “The Autobiography of My Mother" by Jamaica Kincaid
The Autobiography of My Mother is set on the island of Dominica, which is portrayed as Xuela portrays herself: victimized and abandoned, with hidden and unappreciated beauty. Xuela’s circumstances and her anger are personal and reflect her family history, but they also mirror the larger social dynamics experienced by Dominica, which was a colonized nation for much of its history. The relationship between Xuela and Dominica in “The Autobiography of My Mother", then, is an important one, and the setting gains significance when the complex dynamics of colonialism are understood. Drawing from postcolonial theory is particularly helpful in approaching this topic. Why does Xuela marry a man whom she describes, for all practical purposes, as a colonizer? What are her motives? Is she successful? How are Xuela and Dominica alike? How are they different?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Is Xuela a Sympathetic or Unsympathetic Character in The Autobiography of My Mother?
Protagonists in novels are often likeable characters, whom the authors develop in such a way that the characters elicit certain emotions in the reader. Characters may be considered likeable or worthy of loathing, but they rarely inspire ambivalence. What is your reaction to Xuela? Is she a sympathetic character or an unsympathetic one? Does your opinion change over the course of the novel? If you initially felt empathy for her, did that emotion become subject to more complex considerations? Establish your own point-of-view and defend it: Should the reader “like" Xuela? Why or why not?
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Dreams in The Autobiography of My Mother
The Autobiography of My Mother is full of references to dreams. Xuela is able to invoke her mother’s spirit, though she never glimpses her in full, through her dreams, which she seems to be able to direct at will. What is the function of dreams in “The Autobiography of My Mother" and does that role/purpose change as Xuela becomes older? Identify the recurring images and symbols of Xuela’s dreams and analyze their significance. What do the dreams indicate about Xuela’s own identity?
This list of important quotations from “The Autobiography of My Mother” by Jamaica Kincaid will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Autobiography of My Mother” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “Autobiography of My Mother” they are referring to.
“My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” (3)
“Everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain.” (7)
“Night after night I saw her heels, only her heels coming down to meet me, coming down to meet me forever." (19)
“I lay down to sleep and to dream of my mother—for I knew I would do that, I knew I would make myself do that, I needed to do that." (31)
“Roseau could not be called a city, because it could not embody such noble aspirations—center of commerce and culture and exchange of ideas among people…. [I]t was no such thing as a city, it was an outpost, a way station for people for whom things had gone wrong, either because of their own actions or through no fault of their own, and there were many places like Roseau, outposts of despair, for conquered and conqueror alike…. (61)
“My own name is her name, Xuela Claudette, and in the place of the Desvarieux is Richardson, which is my father’s name; but who are these people Claudette, Desvarieux, and Richardson? To look into it, to look at it, could only fill you with despair; the humiliation could only make you intoxicated with self-hatred. For the name of any one person is at once her history recapitulated and abbreviated, and on declaring it, that person holds herself high or low…." (79)
“I felt I did not want to belong to anyone, that since the one person I would have consented to own me had never lived to do so, I did not want to belong to anyone; I did not want anyone to belong to me.” (104)
“The man to whom I was married, my husband,…drew on the noisiness of the world into which he was born, conquests, the successful disruption of other peoples’ worlds, peoples whose reality he and those he came from could not understand…. (223-224)
“This fact of my mother dying at the moment I was born became a central motif of my life.” (225)
“I refused to belong to a race, I refused to accept a nation. I wanted only, and still do want, to observe the people who do so….” (226)
Reference: Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1997.