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 Evaluating A Literary Work

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PostSubject: Evaluating A Literary Work   Wed Feb 18, 2009 3:25 pm

What is Evaluation?

An evaluation of a literary wok is a judgement about its value or quality. The following statements, for example, is an evaluation;

    The dismal setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an excellent vehicle for his portrayal of the psychology of vengeance.

Notice that the statement expresses an opinion. An evaluation always represents someone's opinion about a work, not a fact about the work. However, the opinion expressed in an evaluation must be based on facts. In other words, it must be supported by evidence from the work being evaluated. Consider, for exmple, the following evaluation:

    The cheerful setting of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" os inappropriate to a story about vengeance and shows thoughtlessness on the part of the author.

The facts of the story contradict this opinion. The setting, in fact, is not cheerful. ecause the evaluation is not based on facts, it is unsound.

Criteria for evaluation

There are many different criteria, or standards, by which a literary work can be judged. The following are some of the most common criteria for evaluating literature:

1. Originality or inventiveness: One quality often found in great literature is originality. If an author explores a topic that has never been explored in a new and imaginative way, the work is likely to e evaluated favorably. On the other hand, if the work is like a lot of other works and if the writer has nothing new or original to say, then the work is likely to be evaluated unfavorably. Such a wrk, one that lacks originality, is said to be trite or a cliche.

2. Consistency or completeness of effect: In a literary work , the author tries to achieve certain effects. For example, in "Casey at the Bat," the author tries to achieve the effect of humor. In "The Raven," the author tries to achieve an effect of growing horror. A work will be evaluated favorably if the effect is achieved. However, if something happens to spoil the effect, the work will be evaluated unfavorably. Consider, for example, the following limerick:

    There was on old man of Peru
    Who dreamed he was eating his shoe.
    He woke in the night
    In a terrible fright.
    You see, what happened was that when he woke up he found that what he was dreaming about was really happening.

The last three lines of limerick break the rhythmical pattern and spoil the effect. The limerick should end with the line"And found it was perfectly true!"

3. Importance: Some literary works are judged to be better than others because the deal with matters of great importance. For example, Sara Teasdale's poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" might be considered a greater work than the limerick quoted above because Teasdale's poem deals with a subject of greater significance- the possibility of war destroying the human race.

4 Moral or ethical message: Sometimes literary works are judged according to the moral or ethical messages they convey. A person who agrees with the message of the work will judge the work favorably. A person who disagrees will judge the work unfavorably. A person who disagrees will judge the work unfavorably. For example. a person who believes that people should be willing to make sacrifices for their loved ones might look favorably on O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi."

5. Clarity: Some works are most difficult to read than others. However, difficulty should not evoke a negative evaluation. If a work is difficult to read but is finally worth the effort, then the work will be judged favorably. However, if the work is simply unclear- if the author hasn't taken care to express well what he or she intends to express- then the work will be judged unfavorably.

Case Study: Evaluating A Literary Work

In Kevin's English class all the students save their writing in folders. From time to time, they go back to pieces of writing that they've done in the past to revise them or to see how much their writing has changed or grown. When Kevin's English teacher asked the class to write a paragraph evaluating some aspect of a literary work, Kevin decided to write an evaluation of one of the pieced from his old writing folder. Looking through the folder, Kevin fond this poem that he had written several months before, entitled "All Things Pass And Return Again."

    I walked along the lonely beach
    And saw the sets of footprints where each
    Of the last vacationeers had tread.
    I heard a voice inside my head.
    It said
    "Despair not, for soon
    It will be June.
    Again it will be June"


When Kevin first wrote this poem, he thought it was pretty good. Now, however, it seemed cliched and silly. Kevin decided to write about why he felt the poem didn't work. Its major problem he thought, was lack of originality. He would write his paragraph about this lack of originality. The following are Kevin's prewriting notes:

  • Topic: lack of originality in the poem "All Things Pass and Return Again"
  • Audience: my classmates
  • Purpose: to support the opinion that the poem lacks originality
  • Evidence from the poem:
      Unoriginal themes, that things happen in cycles- has been dealt with before in countless literary works.
      Poem contains several cliches, including its title the "lonely beach," the footprints on the sand, the voice inside the head.
      Unoriginal rhymes: "head" and "said," "soon" and "June"

  • Conclusion: Poem should be rewritten or discarded.

Drafting and Revising

Based on his prewriting notes, Kevin wrote a draft of his paragraph. However, after the draft was finished he realized that his readers wouldn't know the poem that he was writing about. Therefore, he added an introduction in which he quoted the entire poem.

Proofreading and Publishing

After proofreading his paper carefully, Kevin shared it with the members of his discussion group. The other students were impressed that Kevin could be so objective about his own work.

Activities and Assignments

A. Using Kevin's prewriting notes, write a paragraph evaluating his poem. Write the paragraph from your own point of view, not from Kevin's. Follow these steps:

1. Write a rough draft and then revise it carefully. Make sure that your quotations are verbatim, or word for word.
2. Proofread your revised draft and then share it with other students in a discussion group. Consider the similarities and differences between the paragraphs written by the members of the group.
    B. Choose a work from the text that you particularly like or dislike and write a paragraph evaluating some element of this work. Base your evaluating on the criteria discussed in the lesson; that is, deal with one of the following aspects of the work: its originality, its consistency or completeness of effect, its moral or eithical message, or its clarity. Follow these steps:

1. Choose the work you wish to evaluate and the aspect of the work you wish to focus on.
2. Write a topic sentence stating your opinion about that aspect of the work.
3. Gather evidence from the work to support your opinion.
4. Write rough draft presenting your topic sentence and supporting evidence. Make sure that the draft has a concluding sentence.
5. Revise the draft. Proofread it carefully. Then share it with your teacher and with your classmates.


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