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ENG 236 African American Literature - Short Story Research Paper

This guide is designed to help you complete a research paper about an African American short story in Ms. Suber's English 236.

1. Getting Started

Before you begin work on any research paper, examine the assignment closely for all of the requirements.             

Assignment: You are to develop a thematic literary analysis for one of the stories below using well-documented research from your primary and secondary sources.

"Uncle Wellington's Wives" by Charles W. Chesnutt

 "The Wife of His Youth" by Charles W. Chesnutt

"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker

"The City of Refuge" by Rudolph Fisher

Answer the following question: Which element(s) of fiction (listed below) contribute most to understanding the theme of the story, that is, the author’s overall message across time to us?

  • Plot (includes conflict, crisis, and resolution)
  • Characterization 
  • Setting (physical, spatial, and/or historical)
  • Point of view
  • Symbolism
  • Language (style, tone, and irony) 

Q. How long is the paper? 

Your assignment asks for a 4-5 page essay. It should include 4 full pages with some on the 5th page not including the Works Cited page.

Q. How many sources?

You are to use both the primary source (short story in the textbook) and secondary sources.

Q. What kind of sources?

Most of your secondary sources will come from the library databases included in the Find Sources section of this research guide.  However, there are also several print sources available at the Downtown Campus and Central Campus libraries. Links to these sources are also included in the Find Sources section.

Q. How do you cite sources?

Your paper should be documented in MLA format and have a Works Cited page. You may want to remind yourself what information you need to create the MLA Works Cited page and in-text citations.

Q. What is due?

Are there other pieces like a rough draft, outline, summary, reading response, a tutorial, etc.  Make note of all the parts of the assignment and create a checklist to make sure you don't leave anything out.

Q. When is it due?

How long do you have to work on this paper? Is there one due date for everything or are there multiple due dates for different parts of the assignment?  Plan out your time, so you don't get stuck doing all the work at the last minute. Plan extra time in case you have problems or get stuck.

Q. What other requirements should you make note of? 

Your instructor has included special requirements regarding the organization of the paper including the utilization of quotes and description of introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs.  Read these instructions carefully (below) and ask your instructor for clarification on any parts you're not sure about.


  • In the introduction, offer background information on the author and the work (Make sure to introduce readers to the title, and state the author’s name. Include any information related to the text) Then, present the thesis of your essay.

    *You may include a brief discussion on plot in the introduction, but do not just strictly write a plot summary.

  • In the body paragraphs, present your analysis of each element of fiction in a separate paragraph. In each paragraph, quote from the story—your primary source—to support your ideas as well as secondary sources. Explain the quotes and paraphrases and why they are important. Use terms from the textbook to analyze the story. (Remember to use verbs in the present tense when you discuss the action of the story.)
  • In the conclusion, re-emphasize the thesis, restating the author’s name and title of the story; then, consider what the story adds to our knowledge of the human condition. Does the story live today? What is the possible “truth” inherent in your work of short fiction”? This is the author’s theme.

Selecting a Short Story

Probably the first thing you need to do when beginning work on a research paper is to select the short story or topic that you're going to write about. Consider the following:

Q. Do you have a choice?

Your instructor has given you four stories to choose from.

Q. Do you have a favorite?

If you have a choice on what short story you write about, consider which one you enjoyed the most or found the most interesting.  Which story do you think would be the easiest to write about? Which story would have the most to say about?

Q. Are there sources?

Before you totally commit to a short story, you'll want to make sure that there are enough outside sources on the story for your assignment. Not every short story is going to have literary criticism or analysis written about it. Newer stories or stories that aren't as well known may be harder to find sources for. Do some searching in the library's literary criticism databases to make sure there are sources, and Ask-A-Librarian to double-check if you're not sure there are enough sources for a story you're really interested in.

Re-Read the Story!

Once you've selected a short story, re-read the story very closely, looking for themes, symbols, imagery, etc. Use a highlighter or a pen to mark interesting parts of the story that you want to use in your paper. Write notes in the margins. (If you can't write in your book, take notes on a separate sheet of paper). And of course, consider any themes or elements your instructor has directed you to look at - as you re-read the story, be on the look out for them.