Guide to Literary Terms

Start Free Trial

What is an essay?

An essay is a short written work in which the writer discusses a particular subject to share information, express their perspective on something, attempt to persuade readers, or tell a non-fictional narrative.

Essay

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated May 25, 2023.

An essay is a short work in which the writer discusses a particular subject. Essays are generally works of prose in which writers share information or perspective, attempt to persuade readers, or tell a non-fictional narrative.

 

Essay derives from the Middle French word essai, meaning “trial,” from the Late Latin exagium (“weighing”), from Latin exigere (“to drive out, to examine”), formed from ex (“out”) and agere (“to drive”). 

 

The modern essay traces its origins to Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century French writer who produced various written compositions exploring his thoughts and the world around him. Montaigne applied the word essai to these works to indicate that his ideas were not necessarily definitive but part of an ongoing process of self-discovery and personal development. 

 

An example of Montaigne’s early essays is the famous “Of Cannibals,” which appears in his collection Essays. In “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne highlights the hypocrisy of Europeans’ condescension toward indigenous Brazilian tribes for practicing cannibalism, even though many Europeans consumed tinctures containing powdered Egyptian mummies and engaged in forms of torture and violent warfare that Montaigne considered equally, if not more barbaric than the Brazilians’ behavior.

Explore all literary terms.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Epithet

Next

Euphemism