Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like bacon essays. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one.
Or at least, how I write one. The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.
How did things get this way? To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years. Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call “the classics. The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system. During this period the study of ancient texts acquired great prestige. It seemed the essence of what scholars did.