Essay And Letters As Literary Forms Definitions

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.

There was a review recently on the Publisher’s Weekly blog on a couple of new collections of letters. I love reading collections of letters, there is something thrilling about snooping through other people’s mail. While I am not so very interested in the collections reviewed, the reviewer makes some interesting comments about letters as their very own genre:

Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally ‘to try.’ They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category ‘Letters & Correspondence,’ a subset of ‘Essays & Correspondence.’ Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.

I like the idea of letters as being a literary genre. Perhaps letter writing is the most democratic of all genres, something anyone can do and is guaranteed at least one reader. But while letters can certainly be essayistic, I wouldn’t call them a subset of the personal essay. A letter is its very own thing, encompassing many genres really if you want to get right down to it. Essay, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, diary even, they can all be there in letters.

I do love writing letters and reading them too. That might explain why I am excited about a new book by Simon Garfield, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. I disagree that letter writing is a lost art, there are still a good many people who do it and do it regularly. Nonetheless, Garfield’s book sounds like great fun, filled with anecdotes, letters and historical interest. The review of the book indicates Garfield takes a bit of an alarmist stance on the demise of the letter but it doesn’t sound so very off-putting that it detracts from the pleasure of the book as a whole. Which I hope is really the case because I requested a copy from the library. They are on order, I am number eight in line and the library system is buying 13 copies so as soon as they are received and cataloged, one will be making its way to me. I think the book will make for pleasant reading in what is already shaping up to be a very cold and snowy month.

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