Essay: Definition and Characteristics

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      Essay, which is originated from a French word essayer meaning ‘to attempt’, or ‘to try’, means a short and informal prose composition. English literature is immensely rich in this type of writing, and its bewildering varieties leave no scope for a hard-and-fast definition to it. Still, it is to be said that an essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument. An essay is a piece of writing that methodically analyses and evaluates a topic or issue. It is a short prose composition with a centrality of design, on any subject, that might have roused the feeling of the essayist. The work should in some way bear the stamp of the writer’s mind and exhibit his point of view and should be written in familiar style which should not degenerate into a vulgar or too much colloquial manner.

      Fundamentally, an essay is designed upon an academic opinion on a particular matter. Writing a great essay is not about simply surveying and re-telling existing ideas. Instead, a good essay takes into account various opinions and points of view and puts forward an argument that reflects the writer’s informed opinion. Oxford Dictionary defines essay as “a short piece of writing on a particular subject”. Samuel Johnson (1709-1734) who was himself an essayist of no mean a stature, defined essay as a loose sally of the mind, an irregular undigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance. He was guided by the essays of his times. These notions, continued for many years, even today after nearly two hundred years from Johnson’s times, they hold the floor which is very clear from the definition given in The Oxford English Dictionary which runs thus “A composition of moderate length on any particular subject or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, an irregular, indigested piece but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style though limited in range”.

      This definition fits not all but a majority of the essays appearing here and there. For example, David Hume’s (1711-1776) A Treatise of Human Nature or John Lock’s (1632-1704) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding are examples of serious, systematic and profound essays. According to English essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), an essay is “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”. Huxley also adds that “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied, most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference”. These three poles are — personal and the autobiographical objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular, and lastly the abstract-universal. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, essay is an analytic, interpretative, or critical literary composition usually much shorter and less systematic and formal than a dissertation or thesis and usually dealing with its subject from a limited and often personal point of view.

Characteristics of Essay

      Essays are non-fictional but often subjective; while expository, they can also include narrative. Essays can be literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Essay was not necessarily in prose. The Essays on Criticism or Essay on Mind are both in verse written respectively in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘About the content’ it can be convincingly stated that there is no subject from stars to the dust-heap and from amoeba to man, which has not been dealt with in an essay. The range with respect to manner of treatment is also very wide; there is lightness and superficiality on one hand, and reality and seriousness on the other. Along with light, airy and graceful trifles we find lyrical intensity, passionate outburst, suggestions of deeps unfathomed plum net. Length of the essay also oscillates between too short and too long or moderate. Essays may be called complete and comprehensive (e.g. Essay on Human Understanding) and telegraphic and extra brief (like Bacon’s 10-12 line essays).

      The essay differs from a treatise or dissertation (which is research report usually critical and fact based) in its lack of pretension to be systematic and complete exposition, and is being addressed to a general rather than a specialized audience. In other words essay discusses its subject in non-technical fashion and with liberal use of devices like anecdotes, illustration and humor.

      Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length”, whereas the informal essay is characterized by “the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme”, etc. The formal essay is impersonal, authoritative, highly knowledge saturated and ordered. In the informal essay the author assumes a tone of intimacy with the audience, tends to be concerned with everyday things rather than with public affairs or specialized topics, the writer is relaxed, self-revelatory and often whimsical.

      Carlyle’s Hero and Hero Worship is the best example of formal essay. The informal essay, as also called true essay, includes brief instructive essays such as Bacon’s periodical essays. Addison’s and Lamb’s essays are mostly personal essays. T. S. Eliot has written such essays in the modern times. Swift, Pope, Johnson, Goldsmith, Stevenson and Newman are his notable predecessors.

      The genre also became the favored tool of traditionalists of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who looked to the short provocative essay as the most potent means of educating the masses. Whereas in several countries the essay became the chosen vehicle of literary and social criticism, in other countries the genre became semi-political, earnestly nationalistic, and often polemical, playful, or bitter. Essayists such as Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) and Willa Cather (1873-1947) wrote with grace on several lighter subjects, and many writers including Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), and Charles du Bos (1882-1939) mastered the essay as a form of literary criticism.

Famous Essayists

      The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as ‘attempts’ to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplace ideas. Montaigne used the essay as a means of self-discovery. He was also inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch (Euvres Morales or Moral Works). Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572. His first edition, entitled Essais, was published in their final form in 1588, and still considered among the finest of their kind. For the rest of his life, he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) first used the word essayist in English in 1609.

      Later writers who most nearly recall the charm of Montaigne include, in England, Robert Burton (1577-1640), Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), and Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), and in France, with more self-consciousness and pose, Andre Gide (1869-1951) and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). Other important essayists in literature include Virginia Woolf, Voltaire, Adrienne Rich, Alanigir Hashmi, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Natalia Ginzhurg, Sara Suleri, Annie Dillard, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Charles Lamh, Leo Tolstoy, William Hazlitt, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Walter Bagehot, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, John D’Agata, Gore Vidal, Marguerite Yourcenar, J.M. Coetzee, Gaston Waringhien and E.B. White.

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