Writing essays is challenging enough, but when you are asked to write a French essay, you are not only being asked to write in a foreign language, but to follow the conventions of another linguistic and literary tradition. Like essay-writing in any language, the essential part of writing a French essay is to convey your thoughts and observations on a certain topic in a clear and concise manner. French essays do come out of a certain tradition that is part of the training of all students who attend school in France – or at least secondary school – and when you are a French essay, it is important to be aware of this tradition.
The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is credited with popularizing the essay form as a literary genre. His work, Essais, first published in 1580, and undergoing several subsequent publications before his death in 1592, covers a wide breadth of topics, ranging from “amitié” to “philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir”, and includes many literary references, as well as personal anecdotes. The name for this genre, essai, is the nominal form of the verb essayer, “to attempt”. We have an archaic English verb essay, meaning the same thing. The limerick that includes the phrase, “... when she essayed to drink lemonade ...” indicates an attempt to drink a beverage and has nothing to do with writing about it. But the writing form does illustrate an attempt to describe a topic in depth with the purpose of developing new insights on a particular text or corpus.
French instructors are very specific about what they would like when they ask for an essay, meaning that they will probably specify whether they would like an explication de texte, commentaire composé, or dissertation. That last essay form should not be confused with the document completed for a doctorate in anglophone countries – this is called a thèse in French, by the way. There are different formats for each of these types of essay, and different objectives for each written form.
L’explication de texte
An explication de texte is a type of essay for which you complete a close reading. It is usually written about a poem or a short passage within a larger work. This close reading will elucidate different themes and stylistic devices within the text. When you are completing an explication de texte, make sure to follow the structure of the text as you complete a close examination of its form and content.
The format for an explication de texte consists of:
i. An introduction, in which you situate the text within its genre and historical context. This is where you can point out to your readers the general themes of the text, its form, the trajectory of your reading, and your approach to the text.
ii. The body, in which you develop your ideas, following the structure of the text. Make sure you know all of the meanings of the words used, especially the key terms that point to the themes addressed by the author. It is a good idea to look words up in the dictionary to find out any second, third, and fourth meanings that could add to the themes and forms you describe. Like a student taking an oral examination based on this type of essay writing, you will be expected to have solid knowledge of the vocabulary and grammatical structures that appear in the text. Often the significance of the language used unfolds as you explain the different components of theme, style, and composition.
iii. A conclusion, in which you sum up the general meaning of the text and the significance of the figures and forms being used. You should also give the implications of what is being addressed, and the relevance of these within a larger literary, historical, or philosophical context.
NB: If you are writing about a poem, include observations on the verse, rhyme schemes, and meter. It is a good idea to refer to a reference work on versification. If you are writing about a philosophical work, be familiar with philosophical references and definitions of concepts.
Caveat: Refrain from paraphrasing. Instead show through careful analysis of theme, style, and composition the way in which the main ideas of the text are conveyed.
Le commentaire composé
A commentaire composé is a methodologically codified commentary that focuses on themes in a particular text. This type of essay develops different areas of reflection through analytical argument. Such argumentation should clarify the reading that you are approaching by presenting components of the text from different perspectives. In contrast to the explication de texte, it is organized thematically rather than following the structure of the text to which it refers.
The format for a commentaire composé consists of:
i. An introduction, in which you present the question you have come up with, often in relation to a prompt commenting on a thematic or stylistic aspect of the text, such as “Montrez en quoi ce texte évoque l’amour courtois” or “Qu’apporte l’absence de la ponctuation dans ce texte ?” In this section, you will be expected to delineate your approach to the text and illustrate the trajectory of your ideas so that your readers will have a clear idea of the direction these ideas will take.
ii. A tripartite body, in which you explore the question you have come up with, citing specific examples in the text that are especially pertinent to the areas of reflection you wish to explore. These citations should be explained and connected to the broad themes of your commentary, all the while providing details that draw the readers’ attention to your areas of inquiry. These different areas of inquiry may initially seem disparate or even contradictory, but eventually come together to form a harmonious reading that addresses different aspects of the text. The more obvious characteristics of the text should illuminate its subtler aspects, which allows for acute insight into the question that you are in the process of exploring.
iii. A conclusion, in which you evaluate your reading and synthesize its different areas of inquiry. This is where you may include your own opinions, but make sure that the preceding sections of your commentaire remain analytical and supported by evidence that you find in the text.
NB: Looking at verb tenses, figures of speech, and other aspects that contribute to the form of the text will help situate your reader, as will commenting on the register of language, whether this language is ornate, plain, reflects a style soutenu, or less formal patterns of speech.
Caveat: Quotations do not replace observations or comments on the text. Explain your quotations and situate them well within your own text.
The dissertation is a personal, organized, and methodical reflection on a precise question that refers to a corpus of writing. Referring to this corpus, you may be asked questions along the lines of “Que pensez-vous de l’équivalence entre l’amour et la chanson exprimée dans ces textes ?” or “Est-ce que la sagesse et la folie ont les mêmes sources?” This type of essay allows for an exploration of a question through knowledge of a corpus as well as through an individual’s cultural knowledge.
The format for a dissertation consists of:
i. An introduction, in which you present the topic addressed, the significance of your argument, and the trajectory of your ideas.
ii. The body which, like a commentaire composé, consists of a tripartite development of your argument. This can follow any one of the following structures: a dialectical schema, organized into thèse, antithèse, and synthèse – an argument, its counter-argument, and its rebuttal; an analytical schema, consisting of the description of a situation, an analysis of its causes, and commentary on its consequences; a thematic schema, which consists of a reflection on a topic which you proceed to examine from different angles in an orderly fashion.
iii. A conclusion, in which you address the different ways in which you have approached the question at hand and how this deepens your insights, while placing the question within a broader context that shows room for expansion. The conclusion can open up the topic addressed to show its placement within a literary movement, or in opposition to another literary movement that follows it, for example.
NB: Approach the question at hand with as few preconceptions as possible. If you are writing on a quotation, gather all of your knowledge about its author, the work in which it appears, and the body of literature with which it is associated.
Caveat: Even for a personal reflection, such as a dissertation, avoid using the first person pronoun je. Nous or on are preferable. It is advisable not to switch from one to the other, though.
For each of these essay forms, it is a good idea to make an outline to which you can refer as you write. As your writing progresses, things may shift a bit, but having a structure on which you can rely as you gather your various ideas and information into a coherent argument provides solid foundation for a clear and well-developed essay. This also facilitates smooth transitions from one section of your essay to the next.
During your reading, you may encounter a problem, a contradiction, or a surprising turn of phrase that is difficult to figure out. Such moments in a text give you the opportunity to delve into the unique characteristics of the text or corpus to which you are referring, to propose different solutions to the problems you encounter, and to describe their significance within a larger literary, philosophical, and historical context. Essay writing allows you to become more familiar with French works, with their cultural significance, and with the French language. You can refer to the following resources to guide you in this endeavor:
Auffret, Serge et Hélène. Le commentaire composé. Paris: Hachette, 1991.
Dufau, Micheline et Ellen D'Alelio. Découverte du poème: Introduction à l'explication de textes. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
Grammont, Maurice. Petit traité de versification française. Paris: A. Colin, 2015.
Huisman, Denis et L. R. Plazolles. L’art de la dissertation littéraire : du baccalauréat au C.A.P.E.S. Paris : Société d’édition d’enseignement supérieur, 1965.
The French newspaper Le Monde also has good articles on these essay forms that prepare French students for the baccalauréat exam: CLICK HERE
This is also a website with thorough information on essay writing techniques that prepare students for the baccalauréat exam: CLICK HERE
In addition, the University of Adelaide has tips for general essay writing in French: CLICK HERE