He who understands also loves, notices, sees…the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love. (Paracelsus 1493-1541)
First of all, what is a text? For our purposes, a text is any statement you run into in this class. Anything you read, of course. But a lecture is also often a text. Even a discussion can be, if people have prepared their arguments. You should be thinking about texts, analyzing them all the time. Don’t passively accept what you’re told or what you read. Ask questions, compare what you’re reading or hearing with things you’ve heard before, things you’ve read, things you believe. And write your thoughts down – because they will be the foundations of your essays.
Analyzing a text is the same as analyzing anything else: you take it apart so you can see what it’s supposed to do and how it does its job. Author W.H. Auden demystified both literature and criticism when he said, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”
By now you’ve probably learned in an English class how authors use plot, imagery, symbolism, and allusion to express ideas and values in literature. We often forget that authors of nonfiction do this too, using pretty much the same set of language tools. This is how reporters write the news. Historians tell stories. Even physicists, when they leave equations behind and try to describe their discoveries to the rest of us in plain English, find themselves using analogies, metaphors, and the other language tools we all use. We’re really doing two related things in this handbook: showing you how to analyze someone else’s writing and showing you how to write yourself. Writing an interpretive essay uses a subset of these language tools, so as you’re learning to recognize how authors do it, remember that you’re going to be doing it too.
When you take lecture notes, you’re beginning the writing process. Yes, you’re recording information that might be on the exam. But you are also hearing an argument – the lecturer isn’t just reciting some random set of facts. Most lectures are built around a central question or idea. If the lecturer doesn’t come right out and tell you what that is (clue: does the syllabus have lecture titles? Are they in the form of questions?), try to figure it out. If it doesn’t come to you in class, review your notes later and try to boil the lecture’s theme down to a sentence or two. If you’re really stumped, ask.
You’ll want to take notes when you read, too. We are going to show you how writers work: how they generally organize arguments, how they generally use setting and point of view to create atmosphere and mood; how they generally present narrators and characters to engage problems, etc. These are valuable clues to help you determine what a text might “mean” – in general. Your task is to analyze them in the specific context of the text you are reading and interpret how they make that contraption work. You might find once you get used to it, that such active reading doesn’t diminish, but actually increases the pleasure of reading.
Your reading notes should explore both the “facts” in the text (who did what, when, where, how, and, if indicated, why?) and what they might suggest. But don’t be too surprised if “facts” and “interpretations” are sometimes hard to distinguish. Discussions will go more smoothly and productively if you’ve already read the assignment and have begun a dialogue with the text before you come to class. If you’ve underlined interesting passages and written questions and comments in the margins of your book and if you’ve jotted down your thoughts about the reading, then you’ll be coming to class as an active member of an exploratory party and not as a passive fellow traveler. This will prevent the discussion leader from having to give you yet another lecture and will improve your understanding of the material and your participation grade. And there’s a reason why we discuss this material in groups, rather than each pondering it on our own. We’re all looking for the “truth” of our subject. As Franz Kafka noted in his diary, “one person cannot express the truth, but a host of perspectives might come close to this goal.”
So what should you write down, when you’re taking notes on a reading? Begin with anything at all that you’re not sure about, that you don’t understand, that you’d like explained. Start with basic questions that clarify facts, then move on to interpretations. Compare the reading with other readings you’ve done, or with lecture and discussion notes. Add questions that reflect your interests and concerns – they’re usually the issues that lead to good discussions and essays.
Here are some questions, divided between fiction and nonfiction. Use what fits:
For Fiction (mostly)
- If it’s a narrative, who is telling the story? Is the narrator reliable? Unreliable? Biased? Recognizing the narrator’s point of view will help you evaluate the “facts” of the story.
- What is the setting and tone? What are you allowed to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel – both physically and emotionally? Is there a sense of comedy, tragedy, irony?
- Who are the major and minor characters? What are their concerns? What motivates them? Who are you supposed to identify with?
- What kind of language is being used? What level of diction? What might that indicate?
- How is the plot structured? How are the issues and problems organized? Are there challenges and responses? Is there a recognizable archetype (hero’s journey, classical tragedy, etc.)?
- What images and motifs recur? What kinds of terms, images, patterns are repeated? Can you recognize metaphors? To what do they point?
- How does it end? What is resolved? What is the significance of the ending? Why does it end where it does?
For Non-fiction (mostly)
- Who is the author? What is the author’s background? Is the author qualified to be the authority on the material in the piece?
- Who is the original audience for the text? How does the author feel about the audience? Are they allies? Opponents? Neutral readers the author is trying to convince of something?
- What is the author’s intention? Is the piece explanatory? Polemical? Celebratory? Why was it written?
- How is the argument structured? Does the author appeal to logic or emotion? What type of argument does the author use?
Humans have been writing and reading for thousands of years, so it shouldn’t surprise you that people have been trying to work out the details of these processes for a long time. The most famous writer on writing was Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who was a student of Plato in Athens and later a teacher of Alexander the Great in Macedon. Aristotle analyzed statements and identified some characteristics of argument that we still use today.
Aristotle found that logic was a main ingredient of many (but not all) arguments. You might recognize the logical sequence: All rabbits are mammals; Spots is a rabbit; therefore Spots is a mammal. Aristotle called this a syllogism and recognized it as the most powerful type of argument. You can see how it’s impossible to argue with the conclusion once you’ve accepted the premises. If you can organize an argument this way, moving from agreed-on premises to an irrefutable conclusion, you’re likely to convince a lot of people.
Of course, most of the time we don’t have the advantage of being able to argue from premises that are incontrovertible facts. Sometimes our job is to show our readers new facts in order to lead them to our conclusion. Other times, what we’re really arguing about is the truth of our premises. We live in a world of uncertainty, after all. So many of our arguments are based on premises that are tentative, leading to probable rather than absolute conclusions. Sometimes we go to great lengths to pretend our premises are sound and our conclusions irrefutable. More on that later.
This may all seem ridiculously abstract. We don’t spend much time these days, taking apart the way we think and looking at the parts. But stick with it – it’s important. When a political leader makes a claim such as “Markets should be unregulated,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, there’s usually a trail of argument behind it. If you want to understand (or challenge) the claim, the best place to look is at the premises that lead to the conclusion.
The form of argument we’ve been looking at above is called deduction. It builds from accepted facts to a specific conclusion. There are two other forms you should know. Induction goes more or less in the opposite direction. Induction starts with observations or evidence (like data in a scientific experiment) and ends with a general conclusion. Since in the real world we never have a chance to look at all the data, these conclusions are, strictly speaking, tentative. But in life we often take inductive ideas as facts. We know what’s going to happen when we throw a ball, not because we’ve studied physics and calculus, but because we’ve done it before and experienced the results. Even so, careful scientists still talk about the theory of evolution. They don’t do this because they aren’t convinced that evolution is correct, but because there’s always the possibility that new evidence will be found that will require them to adjust the theory. The point is, inductive reasoning is supposed to follow where the data leads it.
Aristotle identified a third form of argument that may surprise you: narrative. Historian Hayden White defined history as a verbal artifact that we use to “combine a certain amount of data, theoretical concepts for explaining these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation.” Stories and anecdotes persuade us because we identify with the people and situations of the story. A good story can even sometimes take the place of data (induction) or even agreed-on facts (deduction) in an argument. The most powerful stories can reach past the logical appeal to reason, bringing the emotions of the audience into play. Fear, pride, contentment, resentment, love, and moral outrage are all powerful elements of argument, so it’s important to be able to recognize whether a writer is appealing to reason or to emotion. And then to ask why.