Guide to Literary Terms

Start Your Free Trial

Download Guide to Literary Terms Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Essay

Essay - a short literary composition on a particular theme or topic, usually in prose and generally thoughtful and interpretative. This type of writing is devoted to the presentation of the writer’s own ideas and generally addresses a particular aspect of the subject.

The word is directly from the Latin exagium, meaning “weighing” or “trial by weight.”

The essay is considered an invention of the European Renaissance, a product of the period’s emphasis on the individual and the exploration of one’s inner self in relation to the outside world. The term was first used by Montaigne in 1580 for informal reflections on himself and mankind in general called Essaia, which means “trying out” in French. Francis Bacon’s Essays in 1597 were written as “counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.” Since the Seventeenth Century, English writers, such as Addison, Goldsmith, Lamb, Hazlitt, Steele, Chesterton, Huxley, and Orwell, have written essays.