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Paragraphs - Introductions and Conclusions

This section emphasises the importance of clear and coherent introductions and conclusions, and offers advice on how they can be achieved. Students often neglect introductions and conclusions, believing that they are of secondary importance in comparison with the main body of the essay. However, it should not be forgotten that the introduction and conclusion perform vital work in framing the main body and are crucial in positioning the reader in terms of the main arguments contained within the essay. Never forget that the essays are written in order to be read!

An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a paragraph has been completed and when it a new one is needed. Examine the general guide to essay writing to get some sense of how paragraphs, or ‘idea units’ as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their ‘natural’ beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a ‘strong’ one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a ‘topic sentence’, as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘in addition’, ‘to qualify the above’, ‘however’, ‘in order to’, ‘in this connection’, ‘having established that’ etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.

Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or ‘padding’ the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by ‘signposting’, e.g. ‘this point will be picked up later’, ‘this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...’. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout.

Introductions

There are several clear things to say as far as advice for writing introductory paragraphs is concerned.

They should not be very long, generally. An introduction should be no longer than a single paragraph. You should be looking to write succinctly, and not pad out your essays with unnecessary and repetitive sentences.

One reason that introductions should not be very long is that it is not really in your introductions that you will begin to analyse or interpret the text in question; instead you will tell the reader what you will look at in the main body of the essay.

This needs reinforcing: it may be useful to think of an introduction as a way of locating the reader with a set of reference points and guidelines. Provide him/her with the co-ordinates or main landmarks of the journeys s/he is about to set off on. Imagine yourself reading an article, newspaper column, etc. What do you want from the introduction? Normally, you would expect some strong reference to the main subject , theme or problem to be discussed, maybe some idea of what will be discussed on a secondary level, and some statement of how and why the various points arising will be discussed. An essay is no different.

Remember the advice (in the guide to essay writing and elsewhere) about the need for the first sentence of any paragraph to be a strong one. It is likely that in your first sentence you will want to make some reference to the main theme of the text you are discussing, or some reference to the plot. If so, then make sure that you refer to the most important and significant details - do not start with a reference to a secondary character, a minor detail or a sub-theme.

It can be useful, although not obligatory, to start with a one sentence summary of the whole story or poem, and this is something you can and should practice doing often. You could try this with a TV programme, a film or a news story that you have seen, heard or read. Practising one sentence summaries will help you to focus on what is absolutely essential.

Although it can be absolutely essential and indispensable to use the language of the essay title or of the text you are working on, try to avoid doing this systematically. Learn how to use dictionaries and a thesaurus, and expand your vocabulary.

Conclusions

Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example: ‘Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?’, and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory, as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.

One way of looking at conclusions is to see them as a revised version of the introduction. It would be odd if there were significant differences between the two: whereas in the introduction you state what will occur in the essay, the conclusion is the place to summarise what has occurred in the work you have just produced. This might also be a useful place to remind you that you may well change your introduction whilst you are working, as your arguments develop and you change your mind as far as the main issues are concerned.

Rewrite the following "magmatic" text into a coherent series of paragraphs, reflecting the different ideas expressed

Patriarchal Society and the Erasure of the Feminine Self in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"

Critical readings of Chopin's works often note the tension between female characters and the society that surrounds them. Margaret Bauer suggests that Chopin is concerned with exploring the "dynamic interrelation between women and men, women and patriarchy, even women and women" (146). Often, critics focus on the importance of conflict in these works and the way in which Chopin uses gender constraints on two levels, to open an avenue for the discussion of feminine identity and, at the same time, to critique the patriarchal society that denies that identity. Kay Butler suggests that "entrapment, not freedom, is the source of Chopin's inspiration, for she is primarily concerned with exploring the way in which gender roles deny identity"; she continues: "yet without the entrapment, the question of identity, even the inspiration to write about identity, wouldn't exist" (18). Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" most poignantly balances the dual focus of her work, describing the incipient awakening of Mrs. Mallard, and thus exploring the possibility of feminine identity, even while, ultimately, denying the fruition of such an experience. Like all of her works, this short story reacts to a specific historical framework, the Cult of True Womanhood, in its indictment of patriarchal culture. As Barbara Welter notes, in the nineteenth century, "a women judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society" by the attributes of a True Woman which included, especially, "purity" and "domesticity" (372). The concept of purity, because it suggested that women must maintain their virtue, also, paradoxically, denied their status as emotional and affectionate beings. Similarly, the concept of domesticity, because it relegated women to the home, denied their intellectual and professional capabilities (Papke 12). "The Story of an Hour" describes the journey of Mrs. Mallard against the Cult of True Womanhood as she slowly becomes aware of her own desires and thus of a feminine self that has long been suppressed. While this journey begins with the news of her husband's death, Mr. Mallard's unexpected return at the very end of the tale tragically cuts short the journey towards feminine selfhood. Yet the tale is tragic from beginning to end, for the very attempt to create an identity against the gender constraints of patriarchal society is riddled with a sense that such an attempt can only end in defeat. "The Story of an Hour" demonstrates that the patriarchal society that defines gender roles which control and delimit women's experiences deny them a self founded on true feminine desires. Ultimately, Mrs. Mallard's journey towards selfhood only serves to reveal the erasure of identity, indeed of being, that women experienced in the nineteenth century. Through symbolically and ironically suggesting that gender definitions delimit the feminine self, the opening of "The Story of an Hour" hints of the tragedy that pervades the tale. Because of Mrs. Mallard's "heart trouble," her sister and her husband's friend rush to her side to break the news of her husband's death in a gentle manner (644). On a literal level, Louise Mallard's condition suggests that she has a congenital weakness that demands some care; Michelle Angeline suggests that this condition is "biologically fated" and thus that Chopin introduces the idea of biological determinism into the story (61). Yet, on a more complex level, Chopin is demonstrating the way in which society perceives women, and wives in particular, as weak creatures who need to be handled very carefully, almost like children. Ironically, on a deeper level, Chopin demonstrates symbolically the true nature of the problem: patriarchal definitions of the feminine role of wife denies, and thus causes trouble with, the heart, a favorite symbol of the emotions and of love. Ultimately, the fact that society fails to perceive the true nature of Louise Mallard's trouble, the lack of emotion and affection in her marriage and in her life, suggests that any attempt to create a self, in this tale, will only end in tragedy. Indeed, Chopin demonstrates that Louise Mallard must react against the patriarchal society that constricts her to specific gender roles and confines her to certain behaviors if she is to define a self. Mrs. Mallard's initial response to the news of her husband's tragic death suggests that this tale may not progress as expected: she "did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her" (644). Chopin foreshadows Mrs. Mallard's awakening in her resistance to traditional modes of behavior and suggests that if she is going to create a self, she will need to define her identity outside of the roles and codes that she has adhered to previously. When Mrs. Mallard retreats to her room, alone, she suspends "intelligent thought," leaving behind the codes that restrict her, and begins to contemplate the "open square" of window before her, exploring her new consciousness (644). Yet Mrs. Mallard's conditioning within the Cult of True Womanhood has created a standard of behavior that fosters the suppression of her own unique desires and thus denies the creation of a self. When the freedom that Louise Mallard sees out the open window finally reaches her, she does not know how to react: "There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air" (645). Louise Mallard's oppression, her lack of identity, ensures an inability to understand her experiences, a necessary precondition to creating a fully realized identity. Nevertheless, the experiences are very real and very powerful: "She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will-as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been" (645). Mrs. Mallard's resistance to the freedom that is approaching her is a result of her diminished condition, which is reflected in her powerless hands. Angeline notes that, "While freedom is an innate desire for all creatures, patriarchal society conditions women to suppress and to repress their desire for freedom, so much so that the possibility of freedom, when available, is frightening" (62). In addition, as a significant aspect of the Cult of True Womanhood, the institution of marriage, which was founded on the objectification of women, leads to a denial of self and thus of feminine desires. While Brently Mallard is likely a typical, kind husband, for he "had never looked save with love upon her" (645), Mrs. Mallard will only escape the confinement of the institution of marriage, and thus have an avenue opened for her own definition of self, in his death. Chopin decries the oppression of the institution of marriage in her dramatization of Mrs. Mallard's growing awareness of her freedom: "There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination" (645). Chopin demonstrates that even within the confines of a loving and supportive marriage, the woman as wife lacks identity and voice. In Mrs. Mallard's briefly illuminated condition, she understands that any institution, whether kind or cruel, that suggests the suppression and repression of individual feminine desires denies the identity of women (Angeline 63). After accepting her new found identity, Mrs. Mallard exits from her room to join her sister and her husband's friend; yet the conclusion of the story reiterates that the patriarchal system that creates and expects certain codes of behavior denies feminine idenitity-denies, in fact, that such an identity might exist. When he enters the front door, Mr. Mallard "stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife" (646). Josephine's and Richards' reactions reflect their expectation that Louise Mallard, with her weak heart, would experience an overwhelming joy at the sight of her husband. Again, such a belief not only demonstrates their inability to comprehend Mrs. Mallard's new sense of self but also delimits the feminine self within certain prescribed gender boundaries. The doctor's determination that she died of "joy that kills" ironically reinforces Chopin's critique of the patriarchal system that defines women as things: the joy that Louise Mallard experienced, the joy of establishing an identity, meant that she could not live within her society (646). Louise Mallard's self is erased not only in her death but also in the inability of those around her to comprehend the true nature of the joy that she experienced. Mary Papke notes, in her introduction to Verging on the Abyss, that "patriarchal cultures reveal the well-promoted conceptualization, objectification, and institutionalization of woman as lesser beings, as 'other,' as secondary adjunct to man" (9). In "The Story of an Hour" Chopin explores not only the way in which patriarchal society, through its concepts of gender, its objectification of women in gender roles, and its institutionalization of marriage, constrains and oppresses women but also the way in which it, ultimately, erases women and feminine desires. Because women are only secondary and other, they become the invisible counterparts to their husbands, with no desires, no voice, no identity.


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Working on John O’Hara’s short story ‘The Cold House

The following examples, good and bad, are taken from actual student essays, written under timed conditions for the 1ére candidature exam in May, 2000. The question the students were asked to respond to was the following: ‘What decision does Mrs. Carnavon make during the story? How and why does she arrive at the decision, and how does the title of the story reflect her state of mind?’. The key points here are what decision is made, how and why it is made, and the title.

The focus below is on paragraph construction in general, given that paragraphs connected in proper sequence are the building blocks of an essay, and on introductions and conclusions in particular. Each sentence of the paragraphs is numbered in order that you can easily see why we think it is or is not a successful sentence in the context of the paragraphs. Obviously when you are writing essays there is no need to number the sentences. You will find it useful to read the accounts of the general principles of essay writing and paragraph construction in other sections of the website.

Student Example 1

(1) In this story, there are many images that can explain how and why Mrs. Carnavon, the heroine of the story, decides to put an end to her bereavement. (2) As far as adjectives are concerned, I think that they can also give us some clues about the changes in her mind. (3) I shall first take ‘adjectives’ into account and then I shall explain the four images that I find the most important.

General Comments

There are several things wrong with this introductory paragraph, but the most important is that it is not ‘strong’ enough. Whilst there is nothing too contentious about each sentence, as a combination they do not add up to much: we have no real idea of what the student thinks of the story or what s/he finds important. A brutal one sentence paraphrase of the introduction might be: ‘This is a story in which something happens and the author has used adjectives and images, some of which are more important than others’. Well, it would be hard to think of a story to which one could not apply the same paraphrase. One of the problems is that the introduction says nothing specific about the story. There is some reference to death, in the word 'bereavement', but this is not made specific.

The introduction is not strong, clear or bold enough; there is nothing about the specific characteristics of the story, the reader has no real idea of what to expect from the essay to follow. In other words the content of the essay is not signalled or signposted, and there is insufficient statement of how the various elements of the story are to be handled. To add to these weaknesses there is also some repetition creeping into the first three sentences of an essay.

Detailed Comments

(1) The sentence is not strong enough. We are not told what kind of images are important, and we are not given enough information about the decision in question. There are problems, at the level of language, in saying ‘put an end to her bereavement’: ‘put an end to her grieving’ would be better, but this still does not really address the issue. Mrs. Carnavon does not want to forget her son, or to stop missing him; rather she wants to discover an appropriate response which would allow her to face the future. (2) A particular Francophone weakness is the overuse of ‘can’ or ‘could’ in English. Here it creates a weak ‘idea unit’ by qualifying with too much of a conditional sense a sentence which should be strong and forceful. An introduction should give us a clear expression of what the writer thinks is important. Are the adjectives important or not? One could say this or that, but does the writer actually say so? This weakness is compounded by the use of the word ‘clues’ which, together with the conditional tense, suggest that the writer is not fully confident of the ideas s/he is expressing. Why should the reader carry on reading? An introduction, to any piece of writing, should be more attention grabbing. Also, it is not particularly clear why adjectives have been separated from images here, given that in the story imagery partly works through the cumulative effect of motifs equally carried by adjectives. This means that in effect that the 2nd sentence merely repeats the same idea of the 1st one. The cardinal sin of repetition is committed early here! (3) Again, it is not clear why adjectives and images have been separated in this way. Furthermore, the sentence is a little empty - it repeats the fact that the writer finds the imagery important, but gives the reader no idea of the particular form or texture of the supposedly vital imagery.

Suggested Model

In this story, after some reflection and a visit to the family summer house, Mrs. Carnavon decides how she should adjust to the death of her son: she should not treat the house as a mausoleum. She reaches this decision after observing several key objects. I think that the imagery, and the particular use of important adjectives, is the key to a full understanding of the story. Accordingly, after outlining how and why the decision is made, I shall focus on the following image clusters: heat and cold, images dealing with misunderstanding, and the imagery of framed objects, such as photographs.

This is a strong, clear paragraph which immediately introduces the reader to the key elements of the story: s/he is quickly and economically told the writer’s main opinion of the story, what else s/he finds important, and a brief outline of what to expect in the rest of the essay. The status of particular images is clearly identified and stated. Note that it is assumed that the adjectives will be looked at in conjunction with the main image clusters. An additional important point here is that whilst the essay question mentions the title the introduction does not. Whilst the guide to essay writing states that you should state what you will do in an essay, it is also advisable not to be too systematic, dogmatic and mechanical about this. The model introduction mentions the importance of images of cold and heat, so there is no need to mechanically add a sentence such as: ‘The title of the story, ‘The Cold House’, is important and will be referred to in the course of the essay.’

Student Example 2

The story takes place during Winter in a cold house inhabited only by some servants. (2) The householder, Mrs. Carnavon comes earlier than expected for a visit. (3) She comes back from a trip. (4) The atmosphere is rather cold because something happened. (5) The text is structured into paragraphs with short dialogues between Mrs. Carnavon and her maid. (6) They have an employer-employee relationship.

General Comments

This introduction never really gets going. It includes details which are not relevant for an introduction, and probably for the main analysis itself. This is particularly the case with the mention of servants. There is nothing to suggest that Mrs. Carnavon’s son has died, and no acknowledgement that the story deals with the particular decision she comes to. In other words the student has not demonstrated that s/he has identified the key aspects of the story, nor what is being asked by the exam question.

Detailed Comments

(1) The first sentence is not as strong as the first sentence of an essay should be. The reference to servants is irrelevant, and as Winter has connotations of coldness to mention both Winter and cold is unnecessary. (2) The second sentence demonstrates an error of understanding: Mrs. Carnavon is not expected at all. (3) The third sentence does not follow logically from the second - if Mrs. Carnavon is coming for a visit she cannot also be coming back from a trip. (4) The fourth sentence is unnecessarily vague about the main event triggering the story, and does not mention the death of Mrs. Carnavon’s son. It is an empty sentence, and even the reference to the cold says very little. (5) The fifth sentence is also empty: most literary texts do, after all, contain dialogue and paragraphs. It also ignores the fact that Mrs. Carnavon makes her decision when she is alone. (6) The final sentence is redundant for two reasons: the information is already contained in the previous sentence, and the student does not suggest why the formal link between the two is important or significant.

Student Example 3

(1) The story tells us about a woman, Mrs. Carnavon, who comes up to her country house after her son’s death. (2) During her very short visit, she will make the decision of emptying her son’s room, which may be the only way for her to love the memory of her son and keep it alive.(3) In this essay, I shall try to explain how and why she finally arrives at this decision.

General Comments

Despite a number of language errors this is on the whole a pretty good introduction. It demonstrates that the student has clearly grasped the kernel of the story, and also understands what has been asked from her/him. Mrs. Carnavon’s decision is clearly stated, and reasons for it briefly summarised. Perhaps the final sentence could suggest a little more what else the essay will contain.

Detailed Comments

There are a couple of errors in the second sentence (2). It should read: ‘During her very short visit, she makes the decision to empty her son’s room, which may be the only way for her to love the memory of her son and keep it alive.’ To stress: make sure you keep the tenses consistent, and ‘to make a decision’ needs an infinitive afterwards.

Exercises

Write introductions sparked by the following essay titles:

1. Discuss the links made between hunting and photography in Clanchy’s 'The Natural History Museum'.

2. Discuss the style and imagery of Auden's 'Song' by focusing on the idea of grief.

3. Philip Roth's 'The Conversion of the Jews' seems to link religious belief and father figures. How is this done?

 

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