Asking Research Questions for Literature Essays

Literature students should start asking research questions once they have a specific topic for their term papers. It can be any question that relates to a topic, but not all kinds of them will ultimately produce a good thesis.

A general topic for a high school or university literature essay might be “The Imagery of Hell in Paradise Lost.”

If you were an essay writer interested in writing about John Milton’s epic, you would have to think of some compelling questions raised by this topic, which your essay’s thesis would then answer. So what kinds of research questions does this topic suggest?

The Types of Research Questions for Essay Writing

There are many different kinds of them you can ask about a literature essay topic. These can include:

  • Contextual: How does the topic fit into literature as a whole? In the case of Milton, you could consider what predecessors might have influenced Milton, and what kind of literature followed him. What, moreover, has the role of Hell been in literature, and what did it mean for Milton and his contemporaries? What historical or sociological events shaped the literature of Milton’s time? What scientific knowledge informed Milton’s depiction of Hell?
  • Compositional: How does the topic relate to the work(s) under discussion? What role does Hell play in Paradise Lost? What are the didactic or artistic goals that are achieved by setting scenes there? How much detail is given to Hell’s geography, or how are its inhabitants depicted? How much of the poem is taken up by action in Hell?
  • Generic: How can the topic be grouped or contrasted? What kind of poem is Paradise Lost, and what are other examples of that kind? Do they have a similar audience or mode of publication/distribution? How does Paradise Lost treat Hell differently or similarly to other poems, such as the Aeneid or the Divine Comedy?
  • Counter-factual: Can the topic be examined from another point of view? How might Milton have described Hell differently if he were an Anglican or a Catholic? Why is Jesus seemingly not as important to the narrative as Satan?

Research Questions Unsuitable for Literature Essays

Not all of them that can be asked of a particular literature topic are productive. For example, many are questions of fact that have long been settled. “Did John Milton read Virgil’s Aeneid?” is a valid one, but the answer is simple (yes) and lacks any greater significance without further investigation.

On the other hand, some of them are too speculative for effective custom writing. “Would Dante have appreciated Milton’s depiction of Hell?” cannot be answered: there are not enough hard facts to answer a “what-if” question like this.

Students should also be wary of those that are irrelevant. “What was John Milton’s diet like during the composition of Paradise Lost?” may be an interesting question, and one which can be answered with a little detective work, but it is not relevant in a literature essay.

Generally, analytical questions (answering “how?” or “why?”) make better research than descriptive ones (answering “who, what, where, when?”).

Find A Literature Essay’s Most Significant Research Questions

Before moving to the next step of your literature research, identify the most significant questions about your topic – because their answers may be the basis of an excellent essay.

For example, a good one to ask about “The Imagery of Hell in Paradise Lost” might be “How did John Milton reconcile Puritan theology with the classical imagery of Hell in Paradise Lost?”

Of course, the significance of it depends on context. It is perfectly acceptable – and most likely – that a student literature essay will not add to world knowledge, or even to an instructor’s knowledge.

It’s enough if the questions that you ask would be of interest not just to you, but to a hypothetical reader with a general familiarity with the topic.

Using Research Questions to Start a Literature Essay

Once you have one or more compelling, focused questions, you can use them to begin researching your topic. At this point, you may start to think about a research problem – a cluster of related points – and a thesis, or argument, which you could solve in your finished literature essay.

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