A. Here’s the problem:
This is the second of my big three lessons—eliminating clutter (2.7-2.9) was the first, you may recall. Commentary is contained in those sentences, integrated into each paragraph of a paper, which explain, interpret, or draw conclusions from the text. The quality of your commentary is crucial. It shows you’ve gone beyond cutting and pasting quotations and examples together from the text. It shows you’ve thought hard about the significance of the evidence you cite. It shows you’ve drawn logical conclusions that deepen the presentation of your central argument. Appropriate commentary reveals, perhaps more than any other element in your writing, the level of your thinking.
B. What to do:
Start by looking at sample paragraphs from papers you wrote last year. Analyze how much commentary you find, especially compared to the amount of quotation, plot summary, and transitional statements. A basic way to improve your skills at commentary is to make interpretive statements before and after each example or quotation. That way, the significance of your evidence becomes clearer and stronger.. Look at the example below for illustrations.
C. Example: Wharton shows her reader exactly how New York exerts control over its inhabitants. To accomplish this, Wharton describes New York’s cosmos in exquisite detail: “In reality they all lived in a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter’s engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having her hand forced. . .” The entire novel continues with explanations just as vivid and expressive that are meant to show the reader how the habits and formalities of Newland’s society affect him and his unhappiness.
Improved Version: Wharton shows her reader the emotional repression which characterizes New York social life. “In reality they all lived in a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter’s engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having her hand forced. . .” No real emotion is ever openly expressed, merely hinted at indirectly so that it can be understood and responded to without being acknowledged. As a result, this socially prescribed, highly symbolic behavior stifles the characters’ emotional lives, gradually makes them dishonest, and eventually strips them of their essential humanity.
D. Now you try—write an improved version of one of the following passages.
1. When Mrs. Bennet first hears Mr. Collins’ name, she starts ranting and raving about how she never wants to hear that name because he will only want to take the house and riches when Mr. Bennet has passed on. She is afraid of what will happen to her and being upset says, “Oh! My dear . . .I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think he is [sic] the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entitled [sic] away from you [sic] own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it.” Then when she hears of him coming to visit, she becomes even more distraught. Even while he had been staying with them, she only wanted him to leave, until she heard the magic word, marriage.
2. Mr. Collins has no social standing, other than his priesthood. However, this man imagines himself to be on the top of the social ladder. He arrogantly proposes marriage to Elizabeth by establishing that he is the best clergyman, he will make her happy, and he is the patron of a noble lady [sic]. He listens not to a single word Elizabeth has to say, and she does not wish to marry Mr. Collins at all. She is not attracted to him in any way, but Mr. Collins cannot accept her refusal. Arrogantly Mr. Collins assumes Elizabeth will come around to her senses and agree to marry him. Elizabeth makes it very clear that she will not marry him,
E. I also think you need to see positive models of key writing skills. This passage contains strong commentary leading up to a key quotation:
The contrast between the reflective Ishmael and the forceful Ahab dominates the story. Ishmael’s thought drives him to look beyond the world of appearances; he wants to see and to understand everything. Ahab’s drive is to prove, not to discover. He seeks to dominate nature, to impose and to inflict his will on the outside world—whether it be the crew that must jump to his orders or the great white whale that is essentially indifferent to him. As Ishmael is all rumination, so Ahab is all will. Both are thinkers. The difference between the two is that Ishmael is a passive thinker, a bystander who recognizes that he is insignificant in the eyes of Nature. Ahab, by contrast, actively seeks the whale in order to assert man’s supremacy over that unknown force which tries to overpower him: “[The whale] tasks me, he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate, and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”