Definition of Argument

Originally, an argument in literature was a brief prose summary of the poem or section of the poem that was to follow. Argument examples could be found in many Renaissance works as ways to orient the reader to the text and let the reader know what to expect. Renaissance arguments were generally a product of the author, though some publishers and printers added arguments to a work of literature. More recently, the definition of argument has grown and been used to describe some opening lines of novels which present the main theme of the work. We will see two examples of each of these types of arguments below.

The word argument comes from the Latin word argumentum, which meant “evidence, ground, support, proof; a logical argument.” Thus, the idea of argument did not originally carry the negative connotations of quarrel and dissent that it does now; indeed, it was just a manner of presenting evidence. Thus, the literary understanding of argument is closer to its original meaning than in contemporary usage.

Common Examples of Argument

The most obvious analogue to the literary argument is the abstract in academic writing. Just as with the argument, an abstract explains briefly what the coming pages will elaborate on, and presents a short form of the hypothesis and conclusions. Here are some examples of academic abstracts that play the same role as an argument in literature:

This program was designed to address the prevalent issues of teen parenthood and poverty. The idea was to introduce and reinforce the importance of obtaining a post secondary education to teen mothers in their junior or senior year of high school. The program ran for eight weeks during the summer of 2003. Participants met once a week to participate in group building activities, get insights to what it will take to finish school, and receive information on services that are available to help them along the way. The young women also had the opportunity to tour the UW and MATC campuses. The participants walked away from the program with a sense of hope that they are able to pursue their dreams despite their difficult situations.

—“Fostering H.O.P.E.: Helping Overcome Poverty through Education for Teen Moms” by Angela Cunningham and Sherrill Sellers

The purpose of this study is to identify relationships between the physical and genetic characteristics of bones in mice. The physical characteristics include size, density, and the force required to break the bone, while the genetic ones are the genes of the marker loci associated with the genes that affect these qualities. This study uses strains of mice with reduced genetic variation. The two strains of mice that are the most phenotypically extreme, meaning those with the strongest and weakest bones, are crossed. The F2 generation from that cross is then analyzed. The results of this analysis can be used to find which genotypes correlate with specific bone properties like size, density, and failure load. The anticipated outcome of this lab is the identification of the genotypes that affect bone strength in mice. The findings may be useful in treating medical conditions that are related to bone strength.

—“The Genetics of Bone Strength in Mice” by Jonathan Vu and Robert Blank

Significance of Argument in Literature

Argument in the Renaissance era was important for readers to be able to quickly reference what type of literature they were about to read. In this way, the argument had a very similar role to book jacket copy in the present day, where we can read a quick summary of the setting, characters, and main problems in the book. The main difference, however, is that the book jacket does not reveal the ending or major plot twists of the novel, while the Renaissance argument did indeed summarize every occurrence in the plot. During the Renaissance there was no way to have that kind of reference besides consulting the argument. In contemporary times, the argument at the beginning of a novel serves as a kind of framework to understand the rest of the text. Thus, it colors the reader’s viewpoint in the way the author wants, and sets the tone for the narrative.

Examples of Argument in Literature

Example #1

The angel Michael continues from the flood to relate what shall succeed; then, in the mention of Abraham, comes by degrees to explain who that seed of the woman shall be which was promised Adam and Eve in the fall; his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension; the state of the church till his second coming. Adam, greatly satisfied and recomforted by these relations and promises, descends the hill with Michael; wakens Eve, who all this while had slept, but with gentle dreams composed to quietness of mind and submission. Michael in either hand leads them out of Paradise, the fiery sword waving behind them, and the cherubim taking their stations to guard the place.

(Argument before “Book XII” from Paradise Lost by John Milton)

John Milton included argument examples before each of the twelve books of his masterpiece Paradise Lost. The above argument comes before the final book, and explains exactly what is to come in the conclusion of the epic poem. Published in 1667, Paradise Lost came at the end of the Renaissance period, and thus readers of John Milton would have more or less expected to find arguments in his work.

Example #2

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake)

Published in 1790, William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell came several decades after the end of the Renaissance. However, he still includes an example of argument in the text. Interestingly, the book is written in prose while the majority of the argument is written in verse; usually, the opposite is true of an argument. However, it is an argument in that Blake clearly sets out the chief tenets that he will address throughout the rest of the text.

Example #3

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

(Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

The opening line to Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, shown above, is one of the most famous in all of literature. And indeed, it is a contemporary example of argument. This question of family and happiness, or lack thereof, will be present and play a key role in the rest of the narrative.

Example #4

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The above excerpt are the opening lines to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. It is a subtler argument example in that the main idea is spoken by such a minor character that he does not even show up in any present-day scenes. However, the idea of advantage and those that have it and do not have it is one of the most central themes of the novel.

Test Your Knowledge of Argument

1. Which of the following statements is the best argument definition as a literary term?
A. A bitter dispute between two characters.
B. A misunderstanding that cannot be resolved.
C. A short statement or opening line that gives a brief summary of the text to follow or sets the tone.

Answer to Question #1 Show

Consider the following literary argument. Do you think this is a Renaissance or contemporary argument example?

Adam inquires concerning celestial motions, is doubtfully answered, and exhorted to search rather things more worthy of knowledge. Adam assents, and still desirous to detain Raphael, relates to him what he remembered since his own creation: his placing in Paradise, his talk with God concerning solitude and fit society, his first meeting and nuptials with Eve; his discourse with the angel thereupon, who, after admonitions repeated, departs.

A. Renaissance
B. Contemporary
C. Neither

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. What is a literary argument similar to?
A. An academic abstract
B. Book jacket copy of a contemporary novel
C. Both

Answer to Question #3 Show

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