One skill that students frequently have trouble mastering in high school is literary analysis. As we get many requests for a sample book report, we have included one here for your reference.

In this report, I tried to address the most common problems we see in book reports. For my book, I chose the novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative. I chose this book because it’s a book students are unlikely to read for their own book report.

Students who are just beginning to learn this skill should not feel intimidated by this report. I intentionally wrote it at a high level to give all students something to strive towards. I do not address formatting issues here (header, footer, page numbers, etc.). My focus is on content and style. Student reports should always include proper headers, etc.

The book report itself is in plain text; comments on the report are in italics, and paragraphs alternate between these two.

--Elizabeth Kamath

Telling Lies to Tell the Truth

[The title is not "The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts." I chose a title that would say something about my topic. Symbolism (the focus of this analysis) can be thought of as telling lies to tell the truth. I also chose a title that I hoped would catch the reader’s interest.]

In her novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah Crafts beautifully describes the experiences and eventual flight to freedom of a slave woman. Though written in the 1850s, this novel was not published until 2002, probably because it was a novel rather than a nonfiction account. Nonfiction slave narratives were in great demand by the Abolitionists prior to the Civil War, but they feared fictionalized accounts because Southerners would simply call them lies. But fiction has weapons – weapons often lacking in nonfiction – to promulgate truth even more forcefully. One of these weapons is symbolism. Hannah Crafts uses events, objects, and people symbolically in her story to drive home the evils of slavery.

[The first paragraph immediately tells the reader the type of book (novel), the title, and the author. You need not do this in your first sentence, but all this information should be in the first paragraph. In this instance, it is important to tell when the book was written and published, but that is not always the case. Use your judgment. I also give a brief synopsis of the story in the first sentence. This gives your reader enough information to orient themselves. Notice I didn’t write, "The Bondwoman’s Narrative is about. . ." This is weak, and you can find a better way to summarize the story. I lead into my topic, symbolism, by giving some pertinent background information about the book, which I will return to in my conclusion. The last sentence of the introduction is my topic statement. Topic statements don’t always need to be in introductory paragraphs, but for papers as short as this, it’s usually the best place to put them. Notice I did not write, "In this paper, I am going to discuss Hannah Crafts’ use of symbolism." This is also weak, and you can introduce your topic in a better manner. I list my three examples – events, objects, and people – in the order they appear in my paper. You must consider how you’re going to order your paper. I chose to order these from what I considered the least to most effective use of symbolism.]

In certainly the funniest moment of the story, one of Crafts’ mistresses – a vain, manipulative woman named Mrs. Wheeler – applies some face powder to make herself look younger, then immediately sniffs some smelling salts. This combination causes her face to turn black, and she suffers a severe public humiliation. The likelihood of such a chemical reaction is nearly nil, but that is unimportant. What is important is Crafts’ witty creation of this incident as a symbolic comment on skin color. Mrs. Wheeler’s unintended blackface happens immediately before she begs a job for her husband from a powerful man. She is not aware of what has happened and does not fully understand the response she receives until she arrives home and her husband informs her of her condition. Her few minutes of experience as a black woman, complete with white disdain and dismissal, do not affect her attitude, but they should provoke humor and reflection in the thoughtful reader.

[I have now introduced one character from the story. Notice that I don’t simply say Mrs. Wheeler ("In certainly the funniest moment of the story, Mrs. Wheeler applies some face powder. . ."), but I tell the reader who she is (Crafts’ mistress). I don’t go into unnecessary detail, but I do tell the reader that she is vain and manipulative. If she had been a kind mistress (there are some in Crafts’ novel), this symbolism would not have worked as well. I also tell just enough about the situation to communicate its importance. If this had happened in private, Mrs. Wheeler would not have experienced nearly the same humiliation. It is important that this story includes her interaction with whites. I refer to Crafts by her last name, though in this case I had some choice. The novel is written in the first person, so I could have said "The narrator" or "Hannah." But since Crafts used herself as the first-person narrator, it seemed easiest to refer to her as "Crafts" all through the paper. If this were a longer, more involved paper, I probably would have called her Crafts when referring to her as the writer and Hannah when referring to the character in the novel, with an explanatory note. Because this paper is meant to be brief and simple, I did not want to complicate things. Your rule of thumb: when referring to the author, always use the last name (Crafts) or last name with a title (Ms. Crafts) or full name (Hannah Crafts); when referring to a character, you normally use whatever name they’re most often called by in the book.]

Equally affecting in a different way is Crafts’ use of the linden tree, which symbolically dominates the plantation (appropriately named Lindendale) where Crafts grew up. Long ago, under an earlier master (an ancestor to Crafts’ current master), many slaves had been tied to its trunk and whipped. But the story that contributes most to the tree’s grimness is that of an old slave who was tied to it with her little dog until both died of starvation. "Such was the legend of the Linden as we had heard it told in the dim duskiness of the summer twilight or by the roaring fires of wintry nights. Hence an unusual degree of interest was attached to the tree and the creaking of its branches filled our bosoms with supernatural dread" (Crafts, 25). The creaking linden branches figure prominently in the story until Crafts leaves this plantation, and they serve as an eerie symbolic reminder of the plantation’s violent history.

[Notice the transitional phrase ("Equally affecting") that ties this paragraph to the previous one. Try to transition smoothly from one paragraph to the next. Most of this paper is written in present tense. Literature is considered to be alive, always happening, so we write about it in the present tense. But this is the end of the first sentence: ". . . where Crafts grew up." Here I’ve used past tense. My reason for this is that the book begins after Crafts is already grown up. She only shares one event from her childhood: learning to read. And, by this event, she is already a working slave, so in a very real sense has already grown up by the standards of her time. Crafts’ childhood happened before this book’s beginning, so I can speak of it in the past tense. I included a quote here. Usually, you can choose to summarize from the book or quote. Quotes are necessary if your topic is the author’s writing style. In any case, it’s good to include a quote or two, to give a feeling for the author’s writing. I follow the quote with a citation. Once again, I’ve only told what’s pertinent about the story of the slave and her dog (in the novel this story runs to over five pages). It is important to choose the vital details so you won’t bog down your reader. As you’ll see, I only have two quotes in this whole paper. While it’s good to quote, it’s important not to quote too much. Your thoughts are the meat of the paper; the quotes are to illustrate. As a rule of thumb, your paper should contain at least twice as much of your own writing as quotes.]

But the most far-reaching of Crafts’ symbolic devices is the character of Mr. Trappe. The name is an immediate clue that this character means more than he first seems, and indeed, Mr. Trappe’s appearances in the book herald calamity for the heroine. When Crafts first meets Trappe, he is the attorney and guardian for her kind new mistress (whom the master of Lindendale Plantation has married), and he knows an unfortunate secret: the mistress is actually the daughter of a slave. His use of this information will eventually kill the mistress and her husband. At this stage, Trappe does have an important role in the plot, as he is the motivation for Crafts to flee her first home. But after this, Trappe pops up in unlikely places, always right before or right after Crafts has been sold to another household. In his last appearance, Crafts sees him in Washington D.C., but only for a moment on the street, right after her purchase by the Wheelers. By now, he has absolutely no plot function. If this is not clear enough to indicate his symbolic role, immediately after attaining her freedom Crafts learns that Trappe has been murdered. Trappe is the trap of slavery.

[Once again, the most important thing here is to notice that I don’t bog down the reader with too much information. There is a long storyline, spanning several chapters, about the mistress and Hannah running away together. They lose their way and survive in a run-down cabin for months, though the mistress goes insane. They are caught, given to Trappe for a reward (the master has committed suicide), and sold again, but the mistress dies. None of this matters to my point – it neither proves nor disproves it. Therefore, I give readers enough information to orient them (and information pertinent to my point), but not so much that it’s overwhelming. I do need to say that Trappe originally has a plot function; to not say so would imply that he is only symbolic, which is not true. Therefore, I tell the reader enough to get that information across. I also need to communicate that Trappe is a bad man, and linking his actions to the deaths of two people accomplishes that.]

Unquestionably, The Bondwoman’s Narrative could not have stood up to antebellum Southern nitpicking for absolute fact. It could, and does, stand up to scrutiny for emotional honesty and truthfully describing slavery and its effects. The cold-hearted Mr. Trappe – "dressed in seedy black," with "large white fingers," a "keen black eye," and "sharp angular features" (Crafts, 37 and 63) – creates a visceral reaction in the reader with an efficiency which an essay on slavery would be hard-pressed to equal. The same is true of the creaking, moaning linden tree, a voice for all those who suffered at it, and Mrs. Wheeler’s accident with its visual irony. Crafts uses symbolism beautifully to encapsulate broad, abstract ideas in concrete images the reader can easily picture. In doing so, she brings us closer to the world of one slave woman, and could have opened the eyes of many people to slavery, if only she had been read so long ago.

[In my conclusion, I bring the reader back to some points in my introduction. I distinguish again, though differently, between " facts" and "truth" or "honesty." I point out how Crafts’ use of symbolism gives this novel more punch than a nonfiction account might have. I also redefine symbolism in a different way – noting that it gives concrete images to abstract ideas. I return to the publication history in my last line, hoping to give the reader one more thing to think about ("What if. . .").]

In this paper, I concentrated on the book rather than spending a lot of time talking about symbolism in general. This is very important to note, as a problem I often see in student reports is a tendency to focus on the chosen issue outside of the book. I could have written a paper on the importance and uses of symbolism in literature with barely a reference to this book, but that would not be a book report. Remember, whatever you choose to analyze about the book you’ve read (symbolism, character, conflict, author’s style, theme, etc.), you must keep your focus on the book as well as your topic.

Some general stylistic things to note about this report: I include some words that would probably be new vocabulary to me (if I were a high-school student) such as "promulgate," "antebellum," and "visceral"; I use a combination of simple, complex, and compound sentences and a variety of short, medium-length, and longer sentences; I never use an exclamation point, nor do I underline or use bold words to emphasize something (your argument should stand on its own without these aids); I never begin several sentences in a row with the same word or group of words; every paragraph has a single topic, each sentence relates to its paragraph, and each paragraph relates to the main topic; I include an introduction and a conclusion; my paper is five paragraphs long and, if printed without these explanations, would be two and a half pages long.

One last note on formality: I never use the word "I," nor do I use contractions. When you use "I" (to refer to yourself) or use contractions, you lower the level of formality. (My comments probably sound less formal than the paper.) In high school, you can usually get away with this, even in a book report. The examples in high school writing handbooks frequently include the use of "I" and contractions. In college, however, more formality is usually required, so it’s good practice to write such papers as book reports, research reports, etc. in a more formal style.

 

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