A thesis statement is a sentence that articulates the primary point of an academic paper. The thesis is not the topic -- it is what an author wants to tell his or her readers about a topic. The thesis is part of the larger argument of a paper. You can think of the argument as the thesis statement in addition to all of the reasons and evidence that support the thesis.
Here is an example of a thesis statement:
"This paper argues that Chaucer uses several key characters in The Canterbury Tales to undermine the idea that outer appearances are always reflective of one's inner character."
You can think of the thesis statement as similar to the main idea in a text, but ideally, a thesis statement should be speculative and hypothetical -- in other words, a thesis statement is often subject to opinion, and while a good thesis statement should be provable in theory, it might not be possible to prove with 100% certainty.
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Image Credit: Argument by A M from the Noun Project