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kheredia's avatar

Is starting an essay with a quote a bad idea?

Asked by kheredia (5543 points ) December 6th, 2011

I have a term paper due in a week and in doing my research I found a quote that I think would be a great way to start my paper but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea. My paper will be on Don Delillo’s novel White Noise which deals with the fear of death. I want to use a quote from a Wallace Stevens poem called Sunday Morning. The quote reads, “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams.”

I will then explain the quote and ask the reader if this is true then why do we fear death. Then I will go on to Don Delillo’s work and whatnot. I’m just not sure if starting a paper with a quote is acceptable. I’d appreciate any advice or opinions.

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18 Answers

HungryGuy's avatar

You should probably ask your professor.

Aethelflaed's avatar

It seems like a great way to grab attention. Go for it.

harple's avatar

I once started an essay with a cartoon, which was very relevant, and I was not penalised for it. BUT, I had made the judgement call on whether my professor would accept it or not.

If there’s one thing being at uni does for you, it’s make you realise that you have to adapt your work to please the person who is doing the marking. So, if you think your prof will like/accept it, then go for it!

kheredia's avatar

Thanks guys, I’ll shoot him an email and hope he replies, but I think he’s going to be okay with it. He’s a very flexible and creative guy. I just wanted to get some feedback from other people to see if it’s a good idea or not.

blueberry_kid's avatar

Absolutely not!!! My English class is doing 10-paragraph essays on “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and she said it would be clever to start it with a quote. From the book of course.

gailcalled's avatar

I like the quote but I would not start by asking the readers anything. Your job is to explicate and then defend your interpretation of Delillo’s text.

Here,you are not interested in whether or not the readers fear death but what DeLillo’s views are. He certainly provides plenty of material.

JLeslie's avatar

Seems ok with me if it is a great attention grabber.

lloydbird's avatar

The idea of using an epigraph to suggest the direction of your response is by no means uncommon. Whether you want to choose that particular quote is another matter. Might you be accused of glorifying death, and encouraging the suicidal? Something that indicates the naturalness of death might be more suitable.

janbb's avatar

Sounds like a fine idea to me although I agree with @gailcalled about not querying the readers after that.

kheredia's avatar

@gailcalled, thanks! I didn’t of that.

@lloydbird, I understand what you mean but the quote isn’t really glorifying death, it’s really just saying that knowing that we are all going to die someday, enables us to enjoy the beauty in life more than if we thought we were immortal.

lloydbird's avatar

@kheredia Death as ”..the mother of beauty; ..” and that ”..from her, alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams.” seems to be casting a favorable light on it to me.

Death : scourge of the young and reward of the long lived.

You can quote me on that. ;-)

wundayatta's avatar

No problem starting with a quote. You don’t even have to explain the quote right away. You may want to introduce the problem be describing the major issue you see in the novel and the ramifications that has for plotting and characterization and style and whatnot.

Then you describe all that shit. In the end, you can bring back the quote and by then, hopefully, you will have earned the right to say that the quote encapsulates the entire focus of your essay.

I don’t know if you have ever read a book review in the New Yorker, but you should try to find one if you can. They generally don’t start with the book. Instead they start with the context of the book or other relevant information and it’s not until four or five paragraphs in that they mention they are looking at this specific book.

I’m not suggesting you do that, but I think it would be helpful for you to see how to introduce other material from other authors into an essay about a different author. It’s a good hook. You start with the quote and leave the reader wondering why the hell you did that. You build the tension for a while, and only in a bit do you you tell the reader what is really going on. It’s a more sophisticated technique, but I think it works really well.

TheIntern55's avatar

I find it fine. I start papers with quotes all the time and my teachers love them.

Sunny2's avatar

It’s a good quote and you like it, so use it. I liked @wundayatta‘s first 2 paragraphs describing another way of presenting it.

gravity's avatar

I like the quote and leading with it. I also like the question too, it seems it would be more engaging of your audience. Good luck and happy writing!

everephebe's avatar

Epigraphs are a hoot. Do it.

vine's avatar

I (personally) would refrain from giving advice until I’d read the introduction and had seen how you put the quotation to use.

However: one generally uses epigraphs without commenting on them in the essay that follows. The epigraph’s relevance to your essay should be self-evident by the time you’ve presented your thesis.

By the looks of it, you’d like to explain the quotation to initiate a conversation directly with the reader re: death, which means it wouldn’t be an epigraph but a citation in the body of your essay used to support/develop an argument. The line would be an effective way of starting a conversation, but it’s a kind of conversation you’ll want to engage with after you’ve presented your thesis. Er, in my opinion…

Because if your first sentence is the Stevens quotation then that means you’ll have to write several sentences explaining the already complex line, then even more explaining the relevance to DeLillo’s novel, et cetera, and it takes up precious space in the intro paragraph whose only purposes should be a) presenting the general topic of death in White Noise and b) then very quickly sharpening an argument/thesis.

So I guess you could use the quotation in a body paragraph, where you’ll have more room to explain its importance, or you could slip it into the intro without commenting too much on it initially and then returning to it later in a body paragraph, or you could use it as an epigraph and sidestep the need for explanation altogether (but maybe you want/need to explain it, in which case the epigraph’s not really an option), or you could use it in the conclusion to, like, backwardly illuminate the considerations of your essay.

How’d you like White Noise, by the way? I’m a big fan, myself.

kheredia's avatar

@vine thanks for the advice. I’ve decided to give the epigraph a shot and I already got the okay from my teacher so it’s all good to go. I’ve finished my intro and started the first body paragraph so i’ll be working on the rest of the essay for the remainder of the week and into the weekend.

And to answer your question, I really enjoyed the novel. It’s easy to read but very deep at the same time. It’s a very good read.

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