English Essay Devices

Definition of Essay

Essay is derived from the French word essayer, which means “to attempt,” or “to try.” An essay is a short form of literary composition based on a single subject matter, and often gives the personal opinion of the author. A famous English essayist, Aldous Huxley defines essays as, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” In simple words, we can define it as a scholarly work in writing that provides the author’s personal argument.

Types of Essay

There are two forms of essay: literary and non-literary. Literary essays are of four types:

  • Expository Essay – In an expository essay, the writer gives an explanation of an idea, theme, or issue to the audience by giving his personal opinions. This essay is presented through examples, definitions, comparisons, and contrast.
  • Descriptive Essay – As it sounds, this type of essay gives a description about a particular topic, or describes the traits and characteristics of something or a person in detail. It allows artistic freedom, and creates images in the minds of readers through the use of the five senses.
  • Narrative Essay – Narrative essay is non-fiction, but describes a story with sensory descriptions. The writer not only tells a story, but also makes a point by giving reasons.
  • Persuasive Essay – In this type of essay, the writer tries to convince his readers to adopt his position or point of view on an issue, after he provides them solid reasoning in this connection. It requires a lot of research to claim and defend an idea. It is also called an argumentative essay.

Non-literary essays could also be of the same types but they could be written in any format.

Examples of Essay in Literature

Example #1: The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (By Jeffrey Tayler)

“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae’d stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”

This is an example of a descriptive essay, as the author has used descriptive language to paint a dramatic picture for his readers of an encounter with a stranger.

Example #2: Of Love (By Francis Bacon)

“It is impossible to love, and be wise … Love is a child of folly. … Love is ever rewarded either with the reciprocal, or with an inward and secret contempt. You may observe that amongst all the great and worthy persons…there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love: which shows that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion…That he had preferred Helena, quitted the gifts of Juno and Pallas. For whosoever esteemeth too much of amorous affection quitted both riches and wisdom.”

In this excerpt, Bacon attempts to persuade readers that people who want to be successful in this world must never fall in love. By giving an example of famous people like Paris, who chose Helen as his beloved but lost his wealth and wisdom, the author attempts to convince the audience that they can lose their mental balance by falling in love.

Example #3: The Autobiography of a Kettle (By John Russell)

“I am afraid I do not attract attention, and yet there is not a single home in which I could done without. I am only a small, black kettle but I have much to interest me, for something new happens to me every day. The kitchen is not always a cheerful place in which to live, but still I find plenty of excitement there, and I am quite happy and contented with my lot …”

In this example, the author is telling an autobiography of a kettle, and describes the whole story in chronological order. The author has described the kettle as a human being, and allows readers to feel, as he has felt.

Function of Essay

The function of an essay depends upon the subject matter, whether the writer wants to inform, persuade, explain, or entertain. In fact, the essay increases the analytical and intellectual abilities of the writer as well as readers. It evaluates and tests the writing skills of a writer, and organizes his or her thinking to respond personally or critically to an issue. Through an essay, a writer presents his argument in a more sophisticated manner. In addition, it encourages students to develop concepts and skills, such as analysis, comparison and contrast, clarity, exposition, conciseness, and persuasion.

In a critical essay you should be able to write about key language features used in novels, short stories, plays and poems. Here's a reminder of what they are and how they work:

  • Alliteration

    the first letter of a word is repeated in words that follow; the cold, crisp, crust of clean, clear ice.

  • Assonance

    the same vowel sound is repeated but the consonants are different; he passed her a sharp, dark glance, shot a cool, foolish look across the room.

  • Colloquial

    language that is used in speech with an informal meaning; 'chill', 'out of this world', 'take a rain check'.

  • Dialect

    the version of language spoken by particular people in a particular area, such as Scots.

  • Dialogue

    conversation between two people; sometimes an imagined conversation between the narrator and the reader. This is important in drama and can show conflict through a series of statements and challenges, or intimacy where characters mirror the content and style of each other's speech. It can also be found in the conversational style of a poem.

  • Dissonance

    a discordant combinations of sounds; the clash, spew and slow pang of grinding waves against the quay.

  • Enjambment

    a device used in poetry where a sentence continues beyond the end of the line or verse. This technique is often used to maintain a sense of continuation from one stanza to another.

  • Hyperbole

    exaggerating something for literary purposes which is not meant to be taken literally; we gorged on the banquet of beans on toast.

  • Imagery

    similes, metaphors and personification; they all compare something 'real' with something 'imagined'.

  • Irony

    the humorous or sarcastic use of words or ideas, implying the opposite of what they mean.

  • Metaphor

    a word or phrase used to imply figurative, not literal or 'actual', resemblance; he flew into the room.

  • Monologue

    an uninterrupted monologue can show a character's importance or state of mind. Monologue can be in speech form, delivered in front of other characters and having great thematic importance, or as a soliloquy where we see the character laying bare their soul and thinking aloud.

  • Onomatopoeia

    a word that sounds like the noise it is describing: 'splash', 'bang', 'pop', 'hiss'.

  • Oxymoron

    Where two words normally not associated are brought together: 'cold heat' 'bitter sweet'.

  • Pathos

    language that evokes feelings of pity or sorrow.

  • Personification

    attributing a human quality to a thing or idea: the moon calls me to her darkened world.

  • Repetition

    the repetition of a word or phrase to achieve a particular effect.

  • Rhyme

    the way that words sound the same at the end of lines in poetry. Poems often have a fixed rhyme-scheme (for example, sonnets have 14 lines with fixed rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). Try to comment as to what contribution the rhyme-scheme is making to the text as a whole. Why do you think the poet has chosen it? Does it add control or imitate the ideas in the poem?

  • Rhythm

    a repetitive beat or metre within a poem. Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shallot uses a strong internal rhythm to build up the sense of unrelenting monotony in the poem:

    There she weaves by night and dayA magic web with colours gay. She has heard a whisper say, A curse is on her if she stay To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott.

  • Simile

    a phrase which establishes similarity between two things to emphasise the point being made. This usually involves the words 'like' or 'as'; 'he is as quick as an arrow in flight', 'as white as snow', 'like a burning star'.

  • Symbolism

    often objects, colours, sounds and places work as symbols. They can sometimes give us a good insight into the themes. So, snakes are often symbols of temptation as in the story of Adam and Eve, white usually symbolises innocence and a ringing bell can be a symbol for impending doom.

  • Tone

    the writer's tone or voice or atmosphere or feeling that pervades the text, such as sadness, gloom, celebration, joy, anxiety, dissatisfaction, regret or anger. Different elements of writing can help to create this; long sentences or verses, with assonance (repeated vowel sounds), tend to create a sad, melancholic mood. Short syllabic, alliterative lines can create an upbeat, pacy atmosphere.

  • Word choice

    sometimes called 'register', this is the common thread in an author's choice of language. Authors may use words commonly associated with religion, words describing sensory experience such as touch, smell or colour or 'mood' words that reflect a character's state of mind.

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