Some of the best descriptive essay examples can be found among the writings of the greatest authors. Consider a chapter in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville: every chapter of that book is like a mini-descriptive essay. Look at the way Melville uses description to create atmospheric effect in the first line of “Chapter 3: The Spouter Inn” from Moby-Dick: “Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft.” Melville uses words like “condemned” to convey a sense of foreboding and doom, and the adjectives “wide, low, straggling” produce a claustrophobic effect on the reader—one that pulls him in with force. Melville also uses consonance, assonance and alliteration to make the words flow more enjoyably and give the description a kind of musical quality. Go to any chapter in Moby-Dick and you will find a master novelist using this format at virtually every turn, which makes the perfect example.
Nordquist (2017) provides numerous descriptive essay examples from a variety of authors, ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Maxine Hong Kingston. These examples are worth a look and can help you visualize the possibilities that are open to you, whether you seek to describe a person, place, thing or experience. Read these examples and consider which approach would best be suited for your subject.
What are some other good descriptive essay examples? How about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay on shaking hands with President Lincoln during the madness of the Civil War? Hawthorne supported the Northern cause but confessed to not understanding what the war was about and even wrote “It would be too great an absurdity to spend all our Northern strength, for the next generation, in holding on to a people who insist on being let loose.” In order to better understand the situation, Hawthorne traveled south to do what any good writer should do—see with his own eyes. Hawthorne and his publisher headed to Washington prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run to get a look at the war up close. While there, a delegation had arrived to present the president with a gift—and Hawthorne was invited to join them in the presentation and meet Lincoln in the White House. It was just the sort of opportunity Hawthorne had been looking for. He arrived at the pre-arranged time and waited with the others for Abe Lincoln to come, shake hands and accept his gift.
Hawthorne’s description of Lincoln was so vivid and unabashed that The Atlantic Monthly refused to publish it. Instead, it was edited out and the rest of the description of Hawthorne’s visit to the Capitol was printed for readers, with the missing section filled in by the editors, who stated
We are compelled to omit two or three pages, in which the author describes the interview, and gives his idea of the personal appearance and deportment of the President. The sketch appears to have been written in a benign spirit, and perhaps conveys a not inaccurate impression of its august subject; but it lacks reverence, and it pains us to see a gentleman of ripe age, and who has spent years under the corrective influence of foreign institutions, falling into the characteristic and most ominous fault of Young America (Atlantic editors, 1862).
Hawthorne was, of course, upset—and he grumbled, “What a terrible thing it is to try and let off a little bit of truth into this miserable humbug of a world!” (Carlson, 2011). The truth Hawthorne had meant to establish was simply this—a description of his Commander-in-Chief: the way he walked, talked, looked, and expressed himself through his eyes. It was an honest and accurate description—neither flattering nor derisive but true: complete with both the president’s shortcomings and the president’s more admirable traits, such as his ability to show wisdom and affection in a wrinkle in his face. The publication said it lacked “reverence” and therefore was unfit for public consumption. But of course for us today it just makes us want to read what Hawthorne wrote all the more! So what was his description of Lincoln? Carlson (2011) fills us in with a glimpse at the missing sections—here is how Hawthorne described President Lincoln (whom he called Uncle Abe) upon seeing him up close for the first time:
He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still Unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb that morning, after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a nightcap, Uncle Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminacies …. The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but, withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened, by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience.
Here was an authentic vision of the president: an astute description of a man unlike others in appearance in nearly every way—tall, lanky, awkward, yet not without some wisdom and sense. Let’s look at some of the ways in which Hawthorne paints Lincoln so effectively that it frightened The Atlantic into editing it out!
Lincoln’s attire is described first—which makes sense: after all, the way a man presents himself to the world is most evident in the manner that he clothes himself. A vagrant is easily distinguishable from a gentleman by the garments that garb him. So it is with the president—the august dignitary, whom Hawthorne no doubt expected to see in finer threads and with more consideration for his appearance that was evident. Hawthorne’s first descriptive word is “rusty”—a word that carries both denotative and connotative meaning. Denotatively, rusty refers to something that is old, brittle, eaten through, corroded, exposed too long to the elements. Connotatively, rusty conveys a sense of carelessness, neglect, disregard, and a lack of use. To say that Lincoln’s black frock-coat is rusty is to suggest that the president’s appearance is not in top form to say the least. Hawthorne moves on to Lincolns’ pants, calling them “unbrushed”—meaning, they are wrinkled and unkempt: the president has taken no care to tend to his accoutrements but has rather felt all right within himself to wear the same pair of pants day in and day out without concern for wearing them out. Instead of saying that Lincoln’s suit was worn out, however, Hawthorne says this: it was “worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure.” Hawthorne’s eyes then reach Lincoln’s feet where he finds that the president is not wearing shoes but rather “shabby slippers.” The portrait thus far is of a man who seems to be unaware of the dignity of his office, of his person, of his place, and of his general appearance. For a publication seeking to support the president in all his aims, perhaps it is no wonder that The Atlantic chose to edit out this description!
Hawthorne then sends his eyes up to the top of Lincoln’s frame and describes the man’s head of hair—“black, still unmixed with gray”—indicating that the signs of wisdom and old age had yet to show themselves in the hairs on head. Hawthorne goes on to comment on the appearance of the hair by way of personification—giving the reader the impression that the hair was like a person who had acquaintances and that, unfortunately, the hair had not met Mr. Brush or Mr. Comb that morning “after the disarrangement of the pillow.” This is a humorous aside from Hawthorne that gives to the reader the impression that the president has just entered the room to greet the visiting delegation with “bed head”—i.e., as though he has just rolled out of bed and perhaps even had slept in his clothes. Hawthorne does not tell us this but rather shows us this through his use of imagery and other literary devices.
Having identified a number of negative aspects of the president’s appearance, Hawthorne now moves on to saying something nice about Lincoln’s looks: he notes the “illuminated, softened, and brightened” aspect of the president’s “kindly” but “serious” eyes. Hawthorne describes it as “an expression of homely sagacity, that seems weighted with rich results of village experience.” The compliment is somewhat backhanded: “homely sagacity” means unattractive wisdom—as though the depth of Lincoln’s knowledge and understanding is not reflected well in his face, which is still far from appealing in many ways. And Hawthorne continues the backhanded compliment with the qualification of Lincoln’s wisdom as being formed by the “rich results of village experience”—meaning that Lincoln is really just a country bumpkin—exactly as his clothes and manners suggest. Yet, in spite of these details, Hawthorne retains some respect for the man—if only because he is able to look deeply into his eyes and see the soul through these windows. Hawthorne does not go on to describe the soul of the president—their meeting was too brief to allow Hawthorne the opportunity to probe more deeply into the president’s presentation—but the description of the outward appearance of Lincoln is certainly one that stands up and has the ring of truth in it. For a writer of a descriptive essay, this ring of truth is all that really matters: so long as the details are accurate and the humorous asides made without too much snarky spirit, the writer will keep the essay within the bounds of propriety.
About the Beach – Surfing and Sitting
What is the beach like? As in life, timing is everything—and so it is with the beach. Today, the beach hits you in the face with a fine mist caught off the breaking waves and hurled across the sand by the sharp wind. A storm is coming. The gray overcast and the surging sea couple with the cold air to make you wonder whether this is really a good day to go to the beach. But to catch the best waves, sometimes you need to take advantage of days like this. Not every surfer waits for sunshine. The waves are the prelude to a storm that will be here soon. On days like this, the beach is good for one thing only: surfing.
The sand is not hot underfoot. It is cold and its chill is like a warning to turn back! It hollers at the hollow pit in your stomach, attempting to discourage you from diving into the ocean and contesting with the current. The current, indeed, is strong—much stronger than you are. Yet, it also relents and turns and rushes you back to the shore even as you fear you are being swept out.
A giant wave emerges like an iron fist. This is one that you can ride. Your board goes out flat and cuts into the surface of the wave like a knife into warm butter. The wave has such tremendous force: it chugs ahead like a steam engine, plowing towards the surface of the earth with such raw power, force, and animosity—as though it were challenging the land to come out and engage in a battle for supremacy of the Earth. The waves are taunting.
Finally, the waves crest…and recede. The sky has brightened. The storm has passed. Such is nature—one minute ready to wreak havoc and the next ready to shine with joy. The sun is now out, the sea calmer, the sand hotter. Now it is no longer a perfect opportunity for surfing—but it is a perfect opportunity for sitting, enjoying the sun, and having a soda!
About a Place – The Tree House
The tree house is a secret place where only you can go. But you need the password to get inside! You climb the planks nailed to the trunk of the tree—one, two, three, four—and knock on the underside of the door in the floor. If the sentry is on guard you say the password three times loudly! If not, you must do the Indian dance before entering. Make sure no one has followed you, though. The backyard isn’t huge and there’s only a little bit of cover between the tree house and the prying eyes of the house where everyone lives. Check back over your shoulder—there!—now in side! You’re in the special secret place where only kids can go. This is your tree house and it has a long, great history that goes back to a time before you were even born.
It is told in the Book of the Tree House—which is kept in the old blue trunk that sits in the corner of the tree house between the small round wooden table and the small wooden chair—that this Tree House was built by giants who came to the neighborhood one day to call a meeting among the children. The giants came from a far away land but they knew that this neighborhood needed a tree house so that is why they came. They worked all morning, hammering and sawing wood that they brought with them from the magical forest where they lived. If you look at the wood of the tree house you can see where the giants wrote the magic words to protect the tree house from harm. The words are in their own language and only they understand it—but you can see it there—burned into the wood over the trunk.
The tree house has three windows—one in each of the three walls. The fourth wall has no window, so instead there hangs a picture of you: you’re the proud owner of the tree house. The trunk is your ark, where all the important things are kept—the Book of the Tree House, the tree house slippers, the tree house books, the tree house records, the tree house wand, the tree house mug, and the tree house crackers. When a meeting of the neighborhood kids is called, the crackers come out and the mug is passed around and the invisible tree house potion is poured out of the invisible tree house tap. There are a lot of invisible tree house things, actually: there’s your invisible tree house cat Sparkles, your invisible tree house TV, your invisible tree house lasers that are only used when the neighborhood is under attack from vampire bats that streak across the sky and breathe fire out their foul-smelling nostrils. (That was a lot of fun—slaying those monsters).
The tree house is the best place in the whole world. It sits up in the trees and is protected by the branches and limbs and leaves: hardly anyone knows it is here. That is a good thing because you and your friends often retreat to the tree house whenever the neighborhood is in danger: you hatch your plans to battle the different invaders who threaten your parents’ homes. Once, there was a big debate among the kids about whether or not you all should let the monsters destroy the school—but eventually you ran out of time before the debate could be settled (everyone had to go home for dinner), so you just zapped the monsters (these were giant slithering, walking eels that came up out of the creek in back of everyone’s property) and called it a day. If the invaders ever knew where your hideout was, they’d surely have tried to stop you by now. Still, you never know: you’ve heard there are evil giants out there who know that the good giants have built you this special tree house—and they are on the lookout for it! That’s why you have your sentry—except, he’s hardly ever on the job. It might be time to fire him…
In conclusion, your tree house is the best. It was built by giants, has three windows and all the things needed to hold meetings—including the Book of the Tree House, which tells the history of the tree house. Finally, it is obviously the best place in the world because it is secret from all the adults and whenever they need saving, all the kids know that the tree house is the place to go to plan how you will do just that. The tree house is full of so many secrets, you’d never have time to tell them all—not even if you lived for a thousand years! That’s why everyone wants to know about the tree house and the adults always ask, “What do you do there?”—but you don’t tell: if they only knew how many times you and your friends have literally saved the neighborhood thanks to your secret tree house!
These examples of descriptive essays should help you to see all the different ways you can approach your own. Every writer has a perspective, so don’t be afraid to let yours show. The descriptive essay is exactly the type of writing that encourages you to reveal your perspective. In fact, that is the whole point. Notice in the essay about the tree house, how it is written in the 2nd person, putting you the reader in the place of a young child who believes in magic and adventure, never once questioning the unreality of these ideas. That is how your descriptive essay should be: put the reader into a place, a room, the company of a new person—someone you have met before—and give the reader the impressions he is supposed to have.
Atlantic editors. (1862). Chiefly about war matters. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1862/07/chiefly-about-war-matters/306159/
Carlson, P. (2011). Nathaniel Hawthorne disses Abe Lincoln. American History, 46(4):”16″ Retrieved from http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/uhic/AcademicJournalsDetailsPage/DocumentToolsPortletWindow?jsid=5695e7d082f14b46ea38ec334e313ee8&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CA264270626&userGroupName=tricotec_main&zid=449b4c01cf5ddab365960c7a1fd856f6