Literary Argument Assignment


4-5 double-spaced pages. More is fine if you’re writing concisely (don’t pad!). If you write only two pages, you should consider whether you’ve made and substantiated an interesting point as compellingly as possible.


The purpose of this essay is for you to practice “close reading” and making a literary argument. Close reading asks you to slowly, carefully observe and analyze the details of a text or movie; through this careful reading, you will start to notice how an author or director uses formal strategies to achieve particular effects. And through this noticing, you will find the material you need to start making an argument–in this case, about how a director or fiction writer conveys states of mind.


For this essay, picture a classmate who has watched Žbanić or read Hemon and is also familiar with the film/literary concepts we’ve covered so far, but who hasn’t thought about Žbanić or Hemon as much as you have, nor in the particular way you are. So: keep plot summary to an absolute minimum. Don’t waste valuable space with that.

As you plan: 

You have two options here: Jasmila Žbanić’s Links to an external site.Quo Vadis, Aida?Links to an external site. or Aleksandar Hemon’s story “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls.” . The common ground with these two works is that both take place during the Bosnian War and depict people reacting to the horrors of that war, although Hemon’s story occurs at a distance (in the US) and Žbanić’s film is set in and outside Srebrenica.

If you write about Hemon and are not familiar with the timeline of the Bosnian War, you will want to consult Wikipedia’s overview from time to time; if you write about Žbanić, you should know that her main character is fictional, but many of the people she depicts are real, as are the events; see the Wikipedia page for the Srebrenica massacre.

Whichever work you pick, start reading/watching early. If you write about Žbanić‘s film, which is about 100 minutes long, you should watch it repeatedly—or at least go back and replay sections repeatedly—while taking notes and screenshots. If you write about Hemon’s long short story, it might help to print out a copy and mark it up, looking especially for patterns.

Option 1: Quo Vadis, Aida?

Jasmila Žbanić was about 20 during the Bosnian War, and went to school in Sarajevo. Note: this movie contains very little explicit violence, but there are many moments where it’s clear that atrocities are happening or are about to happen off-screen.

If you choose to focus on Quo Vadis, Aida?, you can tackle the movie however you think most effective, but here are three approaches that tend to work well: (a) focus on one single element of film technique, across the movie—such as setting, or costumes, or sound, or lighting, or the motions of the camera, etc. Evaluate how that technique contributes by describing and analyzing its most important instances. Or (b) focus on one single scene, a few minutes at most, and look at all the ingredients that go into it: mise-en-scene, sound, camerawork, etc.; you should make a claim about their total effect. Or (c) focus on one pattern in Žbanić—pick one recurring word or image or event and discuss what that pattern does for the movie. Whether you pick a or b or c, aim to surprise the reader by showing how much you’ve noticed. Whichever approach you take, your essay should answer the following question:

How does Žbanić use cinematic techniques to represent thinking and feeling?

Make sure your essay’s argument is attached to detailed noticing: pick concrete examples to unpack. Your essay should have a clear thesis explaining what you think Žbanić is doing through your chosen element/scene/motif; the rest of the paper should give evidence for this thesis, by “close reading” particular moments in as much detail as possible.

You’re welcome to include screenshots; write approximately the same number of words either way (if you include, say, four screenshots, that probably means your four-page paper would look like a five-and-a-half-page paper, and that’s fine).

Option 2: “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls.

This long short story is by the Bosnian-born writer Aleksandar Hemon. It depicts a situation of exile—essentially, of being an unintentional refugee—that is similar to Hemon’s own. Hemon (born in Sarajevo in 1964) first came to the U.S. in 1992; while he was visiting, the Bosnian War started, and he was effectively stranded in the US. The story begins as Pronek arrives in the US for a visit (on some kind of friendly exchange program) and while he’s in the US, the Bosnia-Serbian conflict starts; he is stranded in the US.

Obviously a lot of this story is satirical and caricatured (almost all the Americans whom Pronek meets are stereotypical caricatures of Americans: jingoistic, loud, fond of American football, not well-informed about other countries). And yet this story also gives us a sense of what Pronek’s inner life is like, and that inner life isn’t caricatured. The question your essay should answer is:

How does Hemon portray Pronek’s inner life (his mind and emotions and perceptions)?

To answer this question, start by thinking about how you would summarize Pronek as a person, and what he’s going through–how he sees himself, how he sees the rest of the world, etc. Then, think about where in the story you would go for evidence of your view.

Whatever you argue, make sure it is attached to detailed noticing: pick concrete words/phrases/sentences to quote and explain. Your essay should have a clear thesis explaining the state of mind Pronek conveys; the rest of the paper should give evidence for this thesis, by quoting from, describing, and analyzing Hemon’s language.

Cautionary note #1: about “This symbolizes __”

If you’ve taken literature classes in a high school in the US, you may have had to write a number of essays that answered the question of, “What does ___ symbolize?” And you may have been asked to have write something like, “the rose in the story represents their love,” or “the braided rug is a symbol of a yearly cycle,” or “the color green symbolizes envy.” To write a successful paper, avoid translating everything in these works into symbols; sometimes aggressive symbolism is unmistakably there, but it’s usually richer than just a rose = love equivalence, and there are more interesting things you can look at, too. This movie and this short story support multiple explanations and readings—you can go through them ten times and find different aspects. It’s somewhat like looking at an oily puddle from different angles: new iridescences will glint out at you each time, though the puddle itself hasn’t changed. 

Whether you pick Žbanić or Hemon, think about form more than you think about content–that is, think not just about what is said but about how it’s said, what techniques are used. Žbanić and Hemon could have made their points in an essay, but have chosen to unfold their ideas differently—why?

Cautionary note #2: ⚠️On plagiarism in Humanities papers:

The words used in your essay should be your own words. The ideas should be your own ideas. Do not copy and paste words from other people. That said, if you do find some helpful fact or idea or quote that you want to include (for example, if you go read a review of Hemon’s short story collection, or if you watch a video about Quo Vadis, Aida?), just make clear that you are getting that fact or idea or quote from another person. Take notes to make sure you don’t lose track of where your ideas are coming from.

If your work uses the idea or language of any other person, make that use clear to your reader. If you borrow somebody’s wording, put it in quotation marks (always!). If you borrow an idea or a fact, give the source credit. An essay that involves plagiarized portions usually gets a zero; it may involve meeting some deans.

In addition: do not use student essays found online as sources, and do not use Shmoop, Sparknotes, Rapgenius, Wikipedia, etc. as sources (Wikipedia can be a useful start, but you need to track down the original source of whatever useful material you find there).


Below are five categories; each will be worth, at most, 20 points, for a possible total of 100 points.

  1. Topic and main point. Topic: Is the topic focused and manageable? Main point: Does the essay make a clearly stated, persuasive, meaningful, interesting, and fully developed point about Quo Vadis, Aida? or “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls?
  2. Detail: Does the writer discuss specific details from their movie/story? Do they have a rationale for the details they single out (in other words, do their details strengthen the argument)? Is the essay both noticing details and analyzingthe significance of the details noticed?
  3. Organization: Is the essay’s progression meaningful and clear? In other words, has the writer developed a way of organizing the paragraphs so as to help orient and persuade the reader?
  4. Concision: Is the writer’s prose as efficient as possible? Does the writer make each of their sentences add something new to the paper, or is the language somewhat repetitive or redundant?
  5. Mechanics: Does the writer use words, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation that are appropriate for standard written English? Do they use paragraph breaks? Has the writer proofread the essay? If the author uses any other sources beyond Žbanić or Hemon, do they include clear citations appropriate for a humanities essay?

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