Definition of Essay

An essay is a short piece writing, either formal or informal, which expresses the author’s argument about a particular subject. A formal essay has a serious purpose and highly structured organization, while an informal essay may contain humor, personal recollections and anecdotes, and any sort of organization or form which the author wants. Note that while a formal essay has a more detached tone, it can also represent the author’s personal opinions and be written from the author’s point of view. Essays are shorter than a thesis or dissertation, and thus deal with the matter at hand in a limited way. Essays can deal with many different themes, such as analysis of a text, political opinions, scientific ideas, abstract concepts, fragments of autobiography, and so on.

The word essay comes from the French word essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” A sixteenth-century Frenchman named Michel de Montaigne was the first to create the modern-day definition of essay when he called his writing exercises essays, meaning that he was simply “trying” to get his thoughts on paper.

Common Examples of Essay

Essays are a mainstay of many educational systems around the world. Most essays include some form of analysis and argument, and thus develop a student’s critical thinking skills. Essays require a student to understand what he or she has read or learned well enough to write about it, and thus they are a good tool for ensuring that students have internalized the material. Tests such as the SATs and GREs include a very important essay section. Essays also can be important for admission to university programs and even to be hired for certain jobs.

There are many popular magazines which feature intellectual essays as a core part of their offerings, such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine.

Significance of Essay in Literature

Many famous writers and thinkers have also written numerous examples of essays. For instance, the treatises of the philosophers Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca are all early forms of essay writing. Essay writing might seem dull to school children, but in fact the form has become extremely popular, often converging with a type of writing called “creative non-fiction.” Authors are able to explore complex concepts through anecdote, evidence, and exploration. An author may want to persuade his or her audience to accept a central idea, or simply describe what he or she has experienced. Below you will find examples of essays from famous writers.

Examples of Essay in Literature

Example #1

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

(“Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an essayist and poet who was a part of the Transcendentalist movement and who believed strongly in the importance of individualism and self-reliance. The above essay example, in fact, is titled “Self-Reliance,” and encourages human beings to trust themselves and strike out on their own.

Example #2

Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.

(“The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf)

Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth” describes the simplest of experiences—her watching a moth die. And yet, due to her great descriptive powers, Woolf makes the experience seem nontrivial.

Example #3

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

(“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s marvelous essay “Shooting an Elephant” tells the story of when he was a police officer in Lower Burma and was asked to deal with an elephant wandering through a market. Orwell brilliantly extrapolates his role in shooting and killing the animal to the effects of Imperialism and the British Empire.

Example #4

Not that it’s profound, but I’m struck, amid the pig’s screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat. They are unconnected, even at the fair’s self-consciously special occasion of connection. And why not?—even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materializes at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon. I don’t know how keen these sullen farmers’ sense of irony is, but mine’s been honed East Coast keen, and I feel like a bit of an ass in the Swine Barn.

(“Ticket to the Fair” by David Foster Wallace)

David Foster Wallace wrote many famous essays as well as novels; he often looks at modern life with a heightened attention to detail and different perspectives. In the essay “Ticket to the Fair,” he visits a fair and describes what he sees and feels, including the excerpt above where he considers the different way he and the farmers at the fair feel about animals.

Test Your Knowledge of Essay

1. Which of the following statements is the best essay definition?
A. A research project of many tens of thousands of words concerning a particular argument.
B. A short piece of writing that expresses the author’s opinion or perspective on a subject.
C. A strict and highly organized piece of writing that doesn’t contain the author’s own opinion.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is not likely to be featured in an example of essay?
A. A political opinion
B. An anecdote
C. A fable

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Essays are found in many intellectual magazines.
B. Essays are only used in school settings.
C. Essays are always boring.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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