A. Here’s the problem:
Jane Shaffer, the teacher from whom I learned the term commentary, defines it as “your comments or opinion about something: not concrete detail. Synonyms include opinion, insight, analysis, interpretation, inference, personal response, feelings, evaluation, explication, and reflection.” As we’ve already seen from the examples on worksheet 3.7, occasionally I receive papers that don’t contain enough commentary relative to the amount of plot summary, quotation, and other forms of concrete detail (evidence) from a literary text.
B. What to do:
Look especially at the body paragraphs in your essay. Ask yourself—and your editing partner—some tough questions:
• Have I included appropriate commentary in addition to evidence from the text?
• Is my commentary phrased in vague general terms or does it draw specific inferences from the examples I use?
• Where could I either add useful commentary or replace vague statements with more specific commentary?
• What is the balance between commentary and textual evidence in the paragraph? Keep in mind this important principle: in order for your paragraphs to show depth of thought, the balance should favor commentary over evidence. A five-line quotation, for example, deserves more than five lines of commentary.
C. Exercise I—How could the following passage be improved either by adding commentary or by making existing commentary more specific?
Austen portrays “proper” behavior in a humorous light. Although she shows the significance of these prim standards, she does not portray them as life-dictating matters. Austen uses foil characters to compare the appropriate behavior of Jane and Elizabeth with the socially embarrassing actions of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia. On many occasions, Elizabeth is terribly ashamed of her mother’s imprudence. She pleads with her mother to speak more quietly; however, “her mother would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone. Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation.” The Bennet women create such a scene, that Miss Bingley attempts to attack them when she speaks to Darcy.
D. Exercise II— Consider the following passage. Is its commentary general or specific? Is there a reasonable balance between evidence and commentary?
Ahab cannot let go of his monomaniacal notion that somehow the whale acted against him with malicious intent, that vengeful exactitude must be brought upon the white whale. He is given one final opportunity to leave his quest, to accept his fate and to return within his own realm. Starbuck’s appeal upon seeing the whale swimming away from Ahab’s boat presented Ahab’s choice: “Oh! Ahab!. . . not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick sees thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” But Ahab can never accept this reality, and this in the end is the essence of his character. His fate can be seen as meaningless, his quest arrogant and ultimately futile, but the dedication with which he pursues the impossible seems to give him the nobler quality that all men strive to attain. “Great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of these shallow pangs kindly diffused through feebler men’s whole lives. And so, such hearts . . .if the gods decree it, in their life-time aggregate a whole age of woe, wholly made up of instantaneous intensities; for even in their pointless centres, those noble natures contain the entire circumference of inferior souls.”