Essay 2: Synthetic or Dialectical

In brief:

  • Who: All students of GN 265, spring semester 2012
  • What: a 500-900 word (maximum) essay in a “synthetic” or “dialectical” style relating to the primary literary works we’ve discussed so far, with an emphasis on (1) Hesse’s Steppenwolf or (2) Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” or The Trial.
  • When: By Friday the 20th
  • Where: Posted to this website (as a separate post — click ‘New Post’, give it the title of your essay)

Overview: Recall our in-class discussions of the analytic, synthetic, and dialectical 3-part essay styles. If you need a review, please see the page on “Three-part Essay Styles“. In class on Thursday April 12th we discussed a handful of synthetic and dialectical argument proposals for works such as Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Kafka’s The Trial and “In the Penal Colony,” and Mann’s Death in Venice. Choosing one of the discussed topics/theses or coming up with your own, appropriate synthetic or dialectical theis, write a short (500–900 word, min/max) essay. You may discuss both [a] arguments and [b] essay styles below. Post your essay (already proofread, etc.) by the end of business hours on Friday the 20th as a new post on this website (while logged in, click ‘+New’ and ‘Post’ from the toolbar).

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4,247 Responses to Essay 2: Synthetic or Dialectical

  1. Steve Krause says:

    Synthetic Examples

    Thursday morning (the 12th) before class I came across a couple posts online that fit the synthetic essay style we’ve been discussing.

    [1] “My Goal to be M.I.A.
    [2] “Surviving ‘Immobility’ and End Times

    [2] follows the ‘hourglass’ model classically. It is six paragraphs, but the first two go together and are the broad introduction to the topic of end-of-the-world scenarios, primarily ‘fact’ (1945, atomic bombs). Then the book reviewer uses the middle three paragraphs to focus specifically on the novel—Immobility—at hand (first the plot, then the author, and then the writing [style]). Finally the review returns to a broad level, bringing up other, somewhat similar works, and mentioning other aspects of the novel, concluding with how this work is unique and/or worthwhile.

    [1] begins specifically, with an anecdote, and in the final two paragraphs returns to the level of the ‘personal’ to wrap things up. In the middle—the paragraphs beginning “In the article,” “Matt goes on,” and “As Matt says”—the discussion shifts focus to an analysis of sorts of an article the author read; the anecdote at the beginning is a gentle and personal introduction to the topic.

    When writing your own “synthetic” essays, you will want to begin and end either with the specific (anecdotes, quotes from texts) or with broader overviews. In the middle of the essay (which itself can be synthetic, analytic, or dialectical) you will shift gears and deal either with a specific text, theme, etc. Looking at the examples above, the meat of the 2nd link is a ‘book review’ and it deals concretely with the book and author (though in a cursory fashion); it is bookended by general considerations. In the first the central concern is ‘external’ and ‘objective,’ and even ‘general’ … the idea of being ‘M.I.A.’ as discussed in a separate article by a different author; but the blog post’s author wraps it up before and after with a personal story that makes it ‘internal,’ ‘subjective’ and even ‘specific.’

  2. Steve Krause says:

    Dialectical Examples

    If you have a pro-and-con, one-way-or-the-author, binary-opposition type setup, then it’s likely you can make a dialectical argument out of it. Here are a couple examples, some perhaps more trite than the others.

    [1] Think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. We have porridge that is too hot and porridge that is too cold; we have a bed that is too hard and a bed that is too soft. In each of these opposites a mean/middle is found; this is a “weak” dialectical situation because it’s a matter of finding a “compromise” between (meaning, too, “within”) the existing extremes/limits (and, thus, existing system).

    [2] Think of the 1999 film The Matrix. Neo visits the home/apartment of the Oracle and first must wait, during which time he speaks with a monk-like child who bends a spoon. On the one hand Neo saw the spoon bend (level of sense perception, experience, the empirical). On the other hand the spoon is made of metal and metal, by definition, does not floppily bend or twist at a whim without external influence (mechanical force, magnetism, etc.; all a matter of definitions and logical inferences). A “weak” dialectical solution to this problem (on the one hand it’s impossible for the spoon to bend as it did, yet Neo saw it bend …) does not present itself (it is not an [optical] illusion, there are no ‘strings,’ Neo is not on drugs and hallucinating [in the traditional sense], and it is not a ‘trick spoon’ made, say, of putty); a “strong” dialectical solution, however, does: “There is no spoon.” While the thesis (the spoon bent) and the antithesis (it was impossible for the spoon to bend [so it didn’t]) are in opposition, they are at the same time based on the same assumption: there was a spoon to bend (and, by extention, Neo and the boy were in a ‘world’ in which there really were spoons). The “synethesis” here rejects and transcends both thesis and antithesis.

    We might want to apply similar methods to binary structures in the literature we’ve read, either within a given work or between multiple works.

    Examples to consider:
    (a) The Apollonian and Dionysian (T. Mann’s Death in Venice)
    (b) The Rational vs. the Irrational (we have Fr. Else, Death in Venice, and even Steppenwolf here, along with Fr. Else and In the Penal Colony as, perhaps, examples of extreme rationality leading to irrationality …)
    (c) The two sides of artistic creativity or of the human psyche, as explored in Death in Venice and Steppenwolf; how are they the same or different, and how might we explain this difference (why one works, and one doesn’t).
    (d) We have the matter of “literal” vs. “allegorical” readings of, say, In the Penal Colony; we also have the matter of how “realistic” Death in Venice is vs. it being mainly “symbolic.”

  3. Steve Krause says:

    Analytic Examples

    For the sake of completeness I offer a basic and banal example of an analytic structure. We also call these “TS123C” (Topic [sentence], 3 pieces of support, conclusion) essays. As an English teacher once told me: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”

    [1] The (perfect) omelet. TS = I’m going to describe what an omelet is and how to make one. 1 = Ingredients (eggs, brought to room temperature or warmer, dash of salt, perhaps some fillings or herbs, some butter or other oil). 2 = Tools/Utinsils (non-stick pan, shallow, about 10″ across but about 7.5″ across the bottom, a gas or electric range, fork, and spatula [the last is optional]). 3 = Preparation/Cooking (crack eggs, beat with a fork until foamy, add salt and herbs, pour into pan, stir 10-20 seconds … and so on). C = we’ve prepared and omelet by doing x-y-z, and you may also want to …

    This corresponds well to just about any essay in which you are asked to (a) defend a given thesis or (b) respond to a specific question (preferably with a definite answer). For example, in trying to show that Death in Venice is a mainly realistic novella, one would begin with a thesis paragraph, perhaps outlining our framework for what “realism” entails and perhaps giving the briefest of introductions to the work at hand before stating the thesis and, broadly, outlining the thrust of the argument. Then in three paragraphs or subsections the argument that Death in Venice is realistic is supported, preferably with concrete examples from the text, perhaps measured against accepted definitions of realism that can be cited. The conclusion then restates the thesis, perhaps mentions what is at stake in the question or how else we might look at the question, etc. We would do the same arguing that Fr. Else is ill or that it is the society in which she finds herself that is sick. In explaining the relevance of “the Chinaman” in Effi Briest we would employ the same structure, but we might not have a “strong thesis,” we might just be “describing.”

    Your first 5-page essay for the final project probably follows a model like this. In the first half page or so you would introduce the author and work you are considering, and lay out the three subcategories you wish to explore. Then in about a page each you would provide overviews of those categories. Finally you would conclude with a half page or so that not only sumarized the main points from the categories above, but listed further topics of discussion, etc. For example, in a plot-heavy historical novel it would make sense to dedicate one section to the plot / goings-on of the story. Another might discuss the novel in its context. The third section might wrap up loose ends, covering the briefest of author biographies, interesting stylistic devices, and that there is a film adaptation. In another instance, a stylistically quirky, character-centric novel with an interesting story of how the author wrote it might get a page each for background (author and novel), content (mainly characterization) and style (structure, figurative language).

  4. Steve Krause says:

    Student / In-Out of Class Examples

    Here, mostly unedited, are some notes from topics supplied in class or in out-of-class discussions:

    Death in Venice & Steppenwolf (outside)
    –> duality (inside)

    Obsession (outside)
    –> Fr. Else & Death in Venice and …? inside
    something outside
    [diamond? hourglass?]

    Rationality – Irrationality
    –> rationality leading to irrationality
    Fr. Else & In the Penal Colony
    –> Dialectical, perhaps

    Amber Marks and the ‘missing’ parts of The Trial
    Thesis: stuff missing!
    want to know about family, girlfriend, etc.
    passages added back later
    Antithesis: the TEXT is what we have, not the IDEA of
    the text (it makes sense linearly, etc.)
    Synthesis: The REAL *GAPS* are the spaces BETWEEN
    chapters … it’s a F***ING YEAR but we
    get only a few days …

    Steppenwolf & The Trial … stories that are A YEAR
    in the life of our protagonist
    –> about change or redemption or judgment
    –> J. K. has a year to work things out, fails,
    and dies / is killed
    –> H. Haller ~50th b-day, thinks of suicide
    but LEARNS, so continues …

    –> could also be the internal content, comparing
    and contrasting the two
    (a Thesis, Antithesis, and a ‘synthesis’
    of how they are the same)
    –> then need to WRAP in something else?

    –> also, it MAKES SENSE to connect
    The Trial to In the Penal Colony, The
    Judgment, Before the Law … Kafka’s
    stories about law, judgment, etc., but
    REALLY a better way to understand The
    Trial is to go “outside it” to Steppenwolf
    … a contemporary work with similar
    content but a different resolution
    –> TS. The Trial & Steppenwolf, as above
    –> Overview
    –> Difference
    –> Similarities
    –> C. they *INFORM* each other!
    (this is sort of an analytic structure)

    Else & Effi
    –> young girls, similar social classes
    –> parents vs. suitors
    –> propriety
    –> sad fates
    –> one in a day, one over years

    Death in Venice & Steppenwolf
    Apollonian / Dionysian vs. Man / Wolf
    –> SEE ABOVE

    Fr. Else & Hamlet
    Ophelia (frame)
    Else’s mental state, development
    –> SEEMINGLY more like Ophelia (hysterial?)
    but REALLY more like Hamlet? (calculating but
    indecisive … problem being that Hamlet-the-
    indecisive-guy trope is a bit out of fashion)
    –> Comes from one of Lucy’s ideas
    –> informs our reading of Hamlet
    –> expands our reading of Else!

  5. Matt says:

    I plan to possibly do a synthetic essay revolving around the issue of helplessness in both The Trial and “In the Penal Colony”. I want to develop my essay in the concrete-abstract-concrete method, while discussing possible reasons for why this theme seems to be portrayed across several of his works, including tuberculosis and/or eating disorders.

  6. Matt says:

    Also, I used the e-books to read Kafka’s works, since I’m apparently too cheap to buy the actual paper copies. How would one cite these? Are citations going to be strictly monitored in this particular paper?

  7. Steve Krause says:


    Citations are not ‘strictly’ monitored, but you’ll want to check this page on citing books and ebooks MLA style. You’ll probably only need “In the Penal Colonly” and The Trial.

    As for a concrete-abstract-concrete (or example/instance – general theme – example/instance) format, I think that would work. It works best if the types of ‘helplessness’ are similar but also a little different, and if one is a bit less obvious than the other. You would then use, perhaps (just my thoughts here), the first section, up to a third of the paper, to discuss that first work and its example. Then you transition to the general topic of helplessness … but you have to figure out, what do you have to say about helplessness in general? What others have said (‘secondary works’)? real-life examples (that are perhaps different than those in Kafka)? Other works of (pop-)culture? … The you use the last section, perhaps up to a third of the paper, to do the second Kafka work and example; what you ‘learned’/’explored’ in the middle now ‘informs’ this latter/last reading.

    I hope that helps.

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