Getting the Most Out of Literary Quotations

Quotation Marks

Quotations are an invaluable tool for essay writing, particularly if you’re writing an argumentative paper, or a paper for (basically) any English class. But do you really know HOW to use quotes adequately?  I would guess that most students who are not avid writers do not. They stick a quote into a paper because they HAVE to, not knowing why they have to, or how they have to. So today’s post will teach you to use quotes like a pro, or at least teach you how to quote like you’ve read the book. 😛

Quotations are direct phrases and ideas copied from another individual. If you wanted to quote me, you could say, “Quotations are direct phrases copied from another individual.” Because they’re not your own ideas, there are very particular ways to use them. You don’t want to use the author’s words out of context, or manipulate what the author was attempting to say. For example, if I say “the sky is blue,” you cannot say, “Kelly’s favorite color is ‘blue.'” Just because I used the word blue, doesn’t mean it’s my favorite color.

Quoting from Literary Sources

By “literary quotations” I mean excerpts from novels and poetry. The example I will use today is from a book entitled Passing by Nella Larsen. This book discusses a friendship between two African-American women in the 1920s and how their relationship is strained because one of them attempts to “pass” as a white woman, while the other adheres to her African-American roots. Personally, I enjoyed the book, and ended up doing a 10 pg. midterm paper on it for my Senior Seminar course.

Literature, as I’m sure you know, can have multiple meanings. Sometimes a rose is a rose, and other times it can be the symbol of temperance and how eventually all beauty dies. Because of this, literary quotes shouldn’t only be used to support your argument, but to push your argument forward. How do you do this? Take apart the quote, and forcibly show the reader how it supports your argument. Let’s look at a quote:

“It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so” (Larsen 61).

In this quote, the protagonist Irene is thinking about her husband, a doctor named Brian. Now let’s say our argument is that Irene doesn’t love Brian. How do you think this quote would support the argument? Perhaps by showing that Irene didn’t care about Brian’s happiness unless his happiness fit into her plan of things. That supports your argument–because if you truly love someone, you want them to be happy no matter what, right? But…so what? Where would you go after this quote? A common mistake students make is that they summarize the scene that takes place instead of discussing the importance of that scene. Why is THIS particular quote important to the argument that she doesn’t love Brian?

This is where we do a “close reading” of the quote. Close reading is where you look at words and phrases of the sentence and take them apart to discern more meanings. If you take apart this quote, you will see that the narrator says, “It was only in her own way and by some plan of hers” (my emphasis). Irene is planning things out, including what makes her husband happy. Doesn’t that sound a little–I don’t know–psychotic? What would happen if you said to your significant other (or friend, or family), “You’re going to do this and you’re going to be happy about it.” That’s more than not loving her husband–that’s controlling him and preventing his free will. You can then move your argument to that.

Let’s go back to the rule I mentioned earlier–you can’t take quotes out of context. You’re probably sitting there wondering how what I did is not out of context. I view literature like clay or play-dough. You can shape it to whatever you want it to be, but at the end of the day, it’s still clay (or play-dough). You can stretch the text you’re working with, as long as you don’t break the text’s boundaries. Remember the synopsis I gave you about Passing? Well what if I said my thesis was that the protagonist functioned as a symbol for the extinction of dinosaurs?

Yeah, WTF is right.

Summary plz?

Basically make sure you don’t just summarize scenes from the book. Don’t take the quote completely out of context, but don’t be afraid to stretch the text a bit. Make your argument, use the quote to support your argument, then analyze the quote to push your argument to the next level.

Posted in Academic Advice.