A claim (KLAYM) in literature is a statement in which a writer presents an assertion as truthful to substantiate an argument. A claim may function as a single argument by itself, or it may be one of multiple claims made to support a larger argument.
Nonfiction writers use claims to state their own views or the views of others, while fiction writers and playwrights use claims to present the views of their characters or narrators. Claims are more than opinions; you can back a claim up with evidence, while an opinion is simply something you feel is truthful or accurate.
The literary definition of the word claim—as maintaining something to be true—was first utilized in the 1860s, though the Century Dictionary of 1895 called it an “inelegant” term. The word comes from the Latin clamare, meaning “to cry, shout, or call out.”
Types of Claims
There are several types of claims. These are some of the most common that appear in literature:
An evaluative claim, or value judgement, assesses an idea from either an ethical or aesthetic viewpoint.
An ethical evaluative claim comments on the morality or principles—or lack thereof—of a person, idea, or action. For example, in East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes, “As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.” This is a value judgement about the lack of ethics that plague the character of Cathy.
An aesthetic evaluative claim judges the artistic merits of the claim subject. Critics often make these types of claims when writing reviews and analyses of creative works.
An interpretative claim explains or illuminates the overall argument the writer is attempting to make. On a basic level, a simple book report is a type of interpretative claim; you present your own understanding of the text, how it conveys meaning, and your interpretation of the larger points the author makes.
A factual claim argues an accepted truth about reality. Verifiable information can support these claims. In A Quick Guide to Cancer Epidemiology, authors Paolo Boffetta, Stefania Boccia, and Carlo La Vecchia write, “Tobacco smoking is the main single cause of human cancer worldwide and the largest cause of death and disease.” This is a factual claim backed up by years of research and scientific evidence.
A policy claim tries to compel a reader—usually, a politician or governing body—to take a specific action or change a law or viewpoint. These types of claims are common in politically and socially focused nonfiction. For instance, in the book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean reflects on her friendship with a death-row inmate and other pivotal events that shaped her opposition to the death penalty; the book relies on policy claims to challenge the government’s position on capital punishment.
The Function of Claims
The purpose of a claim is to convince a reader of something. The reader may not initially agree with the statement the author makes or may require more information to reach their own conclusion, and claims point them in the direction of a specific answer. If a reader already agrees with an author’s claim, the information presented only underscores the reader’s conviction and supports their viewpoint. All kinds of literature depend on claims to keep stories engaging, add complexity and depth to characterizations, and establish the author’s unique perspective on the subjects addressed.
Claims in Rhetoric
A claim in rhetoric is a statement that the speaker asks the audience to accept. A claim, by nature, is arguable, meaning listeners could conceivably object to the claim the speaker makes. Rhetorical claims reside somewhere between opinions and widely accepted truths. They are more substantial than mere beliefs, but they typically aren’t universally understood as facts.
Claims Outside of Literature
The advertising and marketing worlds rely heavily on claims to sell products and services. Claims are largely concerned with persuasion, convincing target audiences to respond in certain ways, so they go hand in hand with advertising. For instance, Trident gum once used the factual claim that “four out of five dentists recommended sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum,” which compelled viewers to purchase Trident.
Claims are also common in academia. A professor might use a claim to explain a subject in more detail. A student undertaking an academic writing assignment will utilize a claim as the main argument of their essay or a series of claims to back up a larger argument.
Public speakers often use claims to persuade and inspire audiences. They typically make dramatic claims to rouse emotion in the listener and paint vivid mental imagery, all in service of a greater argument. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, King imagines a bleak future if Black Americans do not obtain basic civil rights and liberties:
One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Examples of Claims in Literature
1. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee’s classic novel charts Scout Finch’s coming of age amid racial tensions in the Deep South. Scout’s father, Atticus, makes the claim that killing a mockingbird is a sin, a claim that Scout’s friend Miss Maudie further substantiates:
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This is an evaluative claim, as it highlights an ethical argument suggesting that mockingbirds only contribute good to the world and do not deserve killing.
2. Roxane Gay, “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help”
Gay’s 2011 essay, which originally appeared on The Rumpus and was later included in her essay collection Bad Feminist, includes numerous evaluative claims about the aesthetic value of the movie The Help:
The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and were “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in.
Gay also offers interpretative claims by discussing the key events in the movie and how the filmmakers present these events.
3. Maggie Smith, “Good Bones”
In her 2016 poem, Smith grapples with how she will present a broken world to her children and how she will inspire them to improve it:
…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real sh*thole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Smith makes several evaluative claims of an ethical nature, such as the world being “half-terrible” and the existence of strangers “who would break you.” She also makes a factual claim in the simple statement that “Life is short”; though lifespans grow with each passing generation, in the grand scheme of planetary time, life is, indeed, short.
Further Resources on Claims
The Odegaard Writing & Research Center at the University of Washington examines claims and counterclaims in academic writing.
Jeffrey Schrank delves into the language of advertising claims.
W.W. Norton offers insights into interpretative versus evaluative claims in literary essays.