The argument of a piece of literature is a statement, towards the beginning of a work, that declares what it’s going to be about. It can also be known as the thesis statement and often falls in the introduction. It helps to orient the reader as to what the work is going to be about or what they should expect from it.
In novels, the argument can appear as an opening line, such as at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, as will be discussed below. In poetry, the same thing can be true. Although a reader should not look only to the opening line for an argument. Plus, not all works of literature have them!
Examples of Arguments in Literature
Example #1 Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This poem is most certainly Coleridge’s best-known. It was written between 1797 and 1798 and first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. It is a frame narrative focusing on the story of a mariner who wants to tell his story. Broadly, it is based around one man’s choice to shoot down an albatross and the bad luck that strikes the ship afterward.
A reader can look to the opening lines from this famous poem for an example of a poetic argument. In fact, the poem begins with the “argument” as a kind of epigraph. These lines read:
How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.
Coleridge briefly summarizes the poem in these lines. In amongst the navigational information, there is the short line “of the strange things that befell” that speaks to the more complicated and interesting aspects of the mariner’s story.
Example #2 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
One of the most popular classic novels, Jane Austen’s opening lines in Pride and Prejudice are iconic. The “argument” in this book is somewhat factious as it seeks to expose the pin holing of all men and women into the same pattern of wants and needs. The line reads:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Here, Austen is alluding to the eventual connection made between the initially unwilling Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
Example #3 Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
Undoubtedly Thomas’ best-known work, ‘Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ was first published in 1951. Thomas wrote the poem after his father’s death and used it as an opportunity to address the universality of death and encourage the reader to remain strong until the end. The poem opens with its famous lines, and a great example of an argument:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
Through powerful and skillfully composed language, Thomas encourages his father, and the larger population, to realize the importance of their own lives, by fighting back against the dark.
Example #4 The Character of a Happy Life by Sir Henry Wotton
‘The Character of a Happy Life’ is a simple, straightforward poem in which Sir Henry Wotton sets out the principles of a good life and what a man should avoid at all costs. The poem addresses themes of happiness, joy, simplicity and religion. Take a look at the first lines of this poem as an example of an argument:
How happy she born and taught
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill!
These lines, which outline Wotton’s main themes, are rephrased and restated throughout the rest of the poem. The initial argument very clearly sets out a roadmap for what the reader will discover as they progress through the lines. For example, later in the text, he says:
—This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall:
Lord of himself, though not of lands,
And having nothing, yet hath all.
This final stanza is a mirroring, almost, of the first. It wraps up the subject and declares, definitively, that man must be free of ambition or fear to be happy.