"There must have been a moment at the

"There must have been a moment at the
beginning where we could have said 'no,' but
somehow we missed it."
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" by Tom Stoppard
How to Do a Close Reading
The process of writing an essay usually begins with the close reading of a text. Of course, the writer's personal
experience may occasionally come into the essay, and all essays depend on the writer's own observations and
knowledge. But most essays, especially academic essays, begin with a close reading of some kind of text—a painting,
a movie, an event—and usually with that of a written text. When you close read, you observe facts and details about
the text. You may focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole. Your aim may be to notice all striking
features of the text, including rhetorical features, structural elements, cultural references; or, your aim may be to
notice only selected features of the text—for instance, oppositions and correspondences, or particular historical
references. Either way, making these observations constitutes the first step in the process of close reading.
The second step is interpreting your observations. What we're basically talking about here is inductive reasoning:
moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those
observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations)
and careful thinking about what these data add up to.
How to Begin:
1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text.
"Annotating" means underlining or highlighting key words and phrases—anything that strikes you as surprising or
significant, or that raises questions—as well as making notes in the margins. When we respond to a text in this way,
we not only force ourselves to pay close attention, but we also begin to think with the author about the evidence—the
first step in moving from reader to writer.
Here's a sample passage by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley. It's from his essay called "The Hidden
. . . I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider. It happened far away on a rainy
morning in the West. I had come up a long gulch looking for fossils, and there, just at eye level,
lurked a huge yellow-and-black orb spider, whose web was moored to the tall spears of
buffalo grass at the edge of the arroyo. It was her universe, and her senses did not extend
beyond the lines and spokes of the great wheel she inhabited. Her extended claws could feel
every vibration throughout that delicate structure. She knew the tug of wind, the fall of a
raindrop, the flutter of a trapped moth's wing. Down one spoke of the web ran a stout ribbon of
gossamer on which she could hurry out to investigate her prey.
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there
was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a
blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be
thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her
guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no
precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe.
All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my
way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did
not exist.
2. Look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.
What do we notice in the previous passage? First, Eiseley tells us that the orb spider taught him a lesson, thus inviting
us to consider what that lesson might be. But we'll let that larger question go for now and focus on particulars—we're
working inductively. In Eiseley's next sentence, we find that this encounter "happened far away on a rainy morning in
the West." This opening locates us in another time, another place, and has echoes of the traditional fairy tale opening:
"Once upon a time . . .". What does this mean? Why would Eiseley want to remind us of tales and myth? We don't
know yet, but it's curious. We make a note of it.
Details of language convince us of our location "in the West"—gulch, arroyo, and buffalo grass. Beyond that, though,
Eiseley calls the spider's web "her universe" and "the great wheel she inhabited," as in the great wheel of the heavens,
the galaxies. By metaphor, then, the web becomes the universe, "spider universe." And the spider, "she," whose "senses
did not extend beyond" her universe, knows "the flutter of a trapped moth's wing" and hurries "to investigate her prey."
Eiseley says he could see her "fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle." These details of language, and others,
characterize the "owner" of the web as thinking, feeling, striving—a creature much like ourselves. But so what?
3. Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed—especially how and why.
To answer some of our own questions, we have to look back at the text and see what else is going on. For instance, when
Eiseley touches the web with his pencil point—an event "for which no precedent existed"—the spider, naturally, can
make no sense of the pencil phenomenon: "Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas." Of course, spiders don't have
ideas, but we do. And if we start seeing this passage in human terms, seeing the spider's situation in "her universe" as
analogous to our situation in our universe (which we think of as the universe), then we may decide that Eiseley is
suggesting that our universe (the universe) is also finite, that our ideas are circumscribed, and that beyond the limits of
our universe there might be phenomena as fully beyond our ken as Eiseley himself—that "vast impossible shadow"—
was beyond the understanding of the spider.
But why vast and impossible, why a shadow? Does Eiseley mean God, extra-terrestrials? Or something else,
something we cannot name or even imagine? Is this the lesson? Now we see that the sense of tale telling or myth at the
start of the passage, plus this reference to something vast and unseen, weighs against a simple E.T. sort of
interpretation. And though the spider can't explain, or even apprehend, Eiseley's pencil point, that pencil point is
explainable—rational after all. So maybe not God. We need more evidence, so we go back to the text—the whole
essay now, not just this one passage—and look for additional clues. And as we proceed in this way, paying close
attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we engage in a process that is central to essay
writing and to the whole academic enterprise: in other words, we reason toward our own ideas.
Steps for Close Reading or Explication de texte:
Patterns, polarities, problems, paradigm, puzzles, perception
An explication de texte (cf. Latin explicare, to unfold, to fold out, or to make clear the meaning of) is a finely detailed,
very specific examination of a short poem or short selected passage from a longer work, in order to find the focus or
design of the work, either in its entirety in the case of the shorter poem or, in the case of the selected passage, the
meaning of the microcosm, containing or signaling the meaning of the macrocosm (the longer work of which it is a
part). To this end "close" reading calls attention to all dynamic tensions, polarities, or problems in the imagery, style,
literal content, diction, etc. By examining and thinking about opening up the way the poem or work is perceived,
writers establish a central pattern, a design that orders the narrative and that will, in turn, order the organization of
any essay about the work. Coleridge knew about this method when he referred to the "germ" of a work of literature
(see Biographia Literaria). Very often, the language creates a visual dynamic as well as verbal coherence.
Close Reading or Explication de texte operates on the premise that literature, as artifice, will be more fully
understood and appreciated to the extent that the nature and interrelations of its parts are perceived, and that that
understanding will take the form of insight into the theme of the work in question. This kind of work must be done
before you can begin to appropriate any theoretical or specific literary approach. Follow these instructions so you
don't follow what Mrs. Arable says about the magical web of Charlotte's in Charlotte's Web, "I don't understand it, and
I don't like what I don't understand."
Follow these steps before you begin writing. These are pre-writing steps, procedures to follow, questions to consider
before you commence actual writing. Remember that the knowledge you gain from completing each of the steps is
cumulative. There may be some information that overlaps, but do not take shortcuts. In selecting one passage from a
short story, poem, or novel, limit your selection to a short paragraph (4-5 sentences), but certainly no more than one
paragraph. When one passage, scene, or chapter of a larger work is the subject for explication, that explication will
show how its focused-upon subject serves as a macrocosm of the entire work—a means of finding in a small sample
patterns which fit the whole work.
If you follow these 12 steps to literary awareness, you will find a new and exciting world. Do not be concerned if you
do not have all the answers to the questions in this section. Keep asking questions; keep your intellectual eyes open to
new possibilities.
Figurative Language. Examine the passage carefully for similes, images, metaphors, and symbols. Identify
any and all. List implications and suggested meanings as well as denotations. What visual insights does
each word give? Look for mutiple meanings and overlapping of meaning. Look for repetitions, for
oppositions. See also the etymology of each word because you may find that the word you think you are
familiar with is actually dependent upon a metaphoric concept. Consider how each word or group of words
suggests a pattern and/or points to an abstraction (e.g., time, space, love, soul, death). Can you visualize the
metaphoric world? Are there spatial dimensions to the language?
Diction. This section is closely connected with the section above. Diction, with its emphasis on words,
provides the crux of the explication. Mark all verbs in the passage, mark or list all nouns, all adjectives, all
adverbs etc. At this point it is advisable that you type out the passage on a separate sheet to differentiate
each grammatical type. Examine each grouping. Look up as many words as you can in a good dictionary,
even if you think that you know the meaning of the word. The dictionary will illuminate new connotations
and new denotations of a word. Look at all the meanings of the key words. Look up the etymology of the
words. How have they changed? The words will begin to take on multistable meanings. Be careful to always
check back to the text, keeping meaning contextually sound. Do not assume you know the depth or
complexity of meaning at first glance. Rely on the dictionary, particularly the Oxford English Dictionary.
Can you establish a word web of contrastive and parallel words? Do dictionary meanings establish any new
dynamic associations with other words? What is the etymology of these words? Develop and question the
metaphoric, spatial sense of the words. Can you see what the metaphoric words are suggesting?
Literal content: this should be done as succinctly as possible. Briefly describe the sketetal contents of the
passage in one or two sentences. Answer the journalist's questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) in
order to establish character/s, plot, and setting as it relates to this passage. What is the context for this
Structure. Divide the passage into the more obvious sections (stages of argument, discussion, or action).
What is the interrelation of these units? How do they develop? Again, what can you postulate regarding a
controlling design for the work at this point? If the work is a poem, identify the poetic structure and note the
variations within that structure. In order to fully understand "Scorn Not the Sonnet," you must be
knowledgeable about the sonnet as a form. What is free verse? Is this free verse or blank verse? What is the
significance of such a form? Does the form contribute to the meaning? How does the theatrical structure of
Childress's young adult novel, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, enhance the narrative?
5. Style. Look for any significant aspects of style—parallel constructions, antithesis, etc. Look for patterns,
polarities, and problems. Periodic sentences, clause structures? Polysyndeton etc.? And reexamine all
postulates, adding any new ones that occur to you. Look for alliteration, internal rhymes and other such
poetic devices which are often used in prose as well as in poetry. A caesura? Enjambment? Anaphora?
Polysyndeton? You need to look closely here for meanings that are connected to these rhyme schemes.
6. Characterization. What insight does this passage now give into specific characters as they develop through
the work? Is there a persona in this passage? Any allusions to other literary characters? To other literary
works that might suggest a perspective. Look for a pattern of metaphoric language to give added insight
into their motives and feelings which are not verbalized. You should now be firming up the few most
important encompassing postulates for the governing design of the work, for some overriding themes or
7. Tone. What is the tone of the passage? How does it elucidate the entire passage? Is the tone one of irony?
Sentimental? Serious? Humorous? Ironic?
8. Assessment. This step is not to suggest a reduction; rather, an "close reading" or explication should enable
you to problematize and expand your understanding of the text. Ask what insight the passage gives into the
work as a whole. How does it relate to themes, ideas, larger actions in other parts of the work? Make sure
that your hypothesis regarding the theme(s) of the work is contextually sound. What does it suggest as the
polarity of the whole piece?
9. Context: If your text is part of a larger whole, make brief reference to its position in the whole; if it is a short
work, say, a poem, refer it to other works in its author's canon, perhaps chronologically, but also
thematically. Do this expeditiously.
10. Texture: This term refers to all those features of a work of literature which contribute to its meaning or
signification, as distinguished from that signification itself: its structure, including features of grammar,
syntax, diction, rhythm, and (for poems, and to some extent) prosody; its imagery, that is, all language which
appeals to the senses; and its figuration, better known as similes, metaphors, and other verbal motifs.
11. Theme: A theme is not to be confused with thesis; the theme or more properly themes of a work of literature
is its broadest, most pervasive concern, and it is contained in a complex combination of elements. In contrast
to a thesis, which is usually expressed in a single, argumentative, declarative sentence and is characteristic
of expository prose rather than creative literature, a theme is not a statement; rather, it often is expressed in
a single word or a phrase, such as "love," "illusion versus reality," or "the tyranny of circumstance." Generally,
the theme of a work is never "right" or "wrong." There can be virtually as many themes as there are readers,
for essentially the concept of theme refers to the emotion and insight which results from the experience of
reading a work of literature. As with many things, however, such an experience can be profound or trivial,
coherent or giddy; and discussions of a work and its theme can be correspondingly worthwhile and
convincing, or not. Everything depends on how well you present and support your ideas. Everything you say
about the theme must be supported by the brief quotations from the text. Your argument and proof must be
convincing. And that, finally, is what explication is about: marshaling the elements of a work of literature in
such a way as to be convincing. Your approach must adhere to the elements of ideas, concepts, and
language inherent in the work itself. Remember to avoid phrases and thinking which are expressed in the
statement, "what I got out of it was. . . ."
12. Thesis: An explication should most definitely have a thesis statement. Do not try to write your thesis until
you have finished all 12 steps. The thesis should take the form, of course, of an assertion about the meaning
and function of the text which is your subject. It must be something which you can argue for and prove in
your essay.
Conclusion. Now, and only now are you ready to begin your actual writing. If you find that what you had thought
might be the theme of the work, and it doesn't "fit," you must then go back to step one and start over. This is a trial and
error exercise. You learn by doing. Finally, the explication de texte should be a means to see the complexities and
ambiguities in a given work of literature, not for finding solutions and/or didactic truisms.
When you try to understand a piece of writing you can use three methods, usually together:
research secondary sources or, in other words, read what others say about the work;
read for pleasure to see what emotional effects the work has on you;
and do close reading of the work itself to see how it creates those effects.
Do not do these in any particular order. In fact, ideally, you will mix all three methods.
Close reading, the way I do it, means that you read the work with a pen in your hand and writing paper beside you.
You read a line, stanza, or paragraph, and then you think about it. You write down your questions and observations.
You read on.
Close reading is very different from reading for pleasure. Your mind should be active, probing, wondering. You do not
suspend disbelief. Instead, you examine the words, sentences, symbols, characters, and plot, as well as anything else
that interests you. And you remember that to analyze something means to pull it into pieces. Strangely, good writing
not only survives this treatment, but your respect for it and your pleasure in it increases afterwards.
To show you how close reading works, I have reproduced Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" below, together with
my thoughts about each section of it, just as they occurred to me. If I were writing an essay on the poem, these would be
my rough notes.
You could read straight through this article, but you would get more from it by pausing after every section of the
poem to think about it and write down your own thoughts about it. Remember that your thoughts are not "wrong" and
mine are not "right." My thoughts are just to show some of the kinds of questions you can ask about a work.
Part 1
ON either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
Most of this stanza describes the countryside and the local people. Only two lines are indented. The first
question to ask, then, is if these lines describe things that are different from the rest. The first indented line
certainly does: Camelot is different because it is a city, the seat of government, and filled with heroes and at
least one wizard. The other indented line is about the island of Shalott. The indentation hints that it is
equally set apart from ordinary life, but we don't yet know why.
Camelot is described as "many-tower'd," which (if my memory serves) is how Homer described Troy. A hint
about its future death?
Shalott is surrounded by lilies, the flower of innocence and death. Later in the poem we see that both
innocence and death are appropriate for the Lady on the island because she experiences a type of death in
But, with those two exceptions of Camelot and the island, both sides of the river are clothed with the
makings of bread ("the staff of life") and beer. People there "gaze" at Shalott, which you would think is nonintrusive, but forshadows the lethal gaze later in the poem.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
Once again, Camelot is set apart by indentation. This time, however, it is the lady, not the island, who is
equally set apart. Also, this time, a single tower is mentioned - contrast with "many-tower'd" Camelot. The
single tower is simple in design and surrounded by flowers. From the first verse, can we assume that they are
lilies? Notice, no mention of people, or even animals: it is all inanimate or plant on the "silent" island.
If you look at it in terms of the four elements that the Greeks believed in, we have air in the first and second
lines, water in the second and following, then earth. No "fire" (the symbol of life). The Wordsworth Dictionary
of Symbolism by Hans Biederman says that fire is "the apparently living element, which consumes, warms,
and illuminates, but can also bring pain and death." (pg. 129). Intuition: let's keep an eye out for fire imagery
later on.
There is a low barrier of water (the river) surrounding the island on all sides. There is a high barrier of earth
(the tower) with four walls, symbolizing the four directions. The completeness of the isolation is emphasized
in this verse, although the one hole in the defences, the window, is mentioned later.
What is the symbolism of the willow tree? It is feminine, not masculine. According to The Wordsworth
Dictionary of Symbolism (pg. 91), the weeping willow was a popular symbol of death during the Romantic
period. On pg. 381 it says:
In the ancient Mediterranean world it was generally believed that the seeds of this tree [willow] were
dispersed before they matured, and that the willow therefore did not reproduce 'sexually.' This belief made
it an image of chastity and an ideal first ingredient for preparations to promote sexual continence.
In China, for whatever it is worth, the willow represents female eroticism. Hmm.
The words "whiten" "shiver" and "quiver" make the island sound like a nervous maiden on her wedding night.
"White" is a symbol of virginity (bridal gown) and I think, here, of death. (Again, like in the orient. Probably
not a significant correlation, though).
By the margin, willow-veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?
OK, now let's see how successful water and earth have been in protecting this woman. "By the margin,
willow veil'd" slide heavy work boats. Note the magic, virginity-protecting tree species again, keeping her
unseen. And the shallop (a small, open boat using sails or oars, designed for shallow waters) skims right by
without being hailed. So the senses of sight and sound cannot pierce the island's secret. This is made explicit
in the second half of the verse, along with the fact that the girl WANTS to be seen and spoken to, standing
and waving at the window.
She is not seen, and she is not widely known, but some few people know of her...
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ''Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.'
Locals don't know her, but know of her, and think that there's something "otherworldly" and magical about
In contrast to the the willow trees on the island, the plants on either bank are male ("bearded") and support
life, as bread.
Barley was also important for the ancient religious mysteries at Eleusis because it sometimes has
hallucinogenic fungi growing on it like "beards," but I don't want to take the religious symbolism too far! You
can take that tack, if you want.
Part I has set the scene. And notice how lifeless it is: we know nothing about any individual yet. Part I is like
a landscape painting: There's a tower on an island of lilies and willows in the middle of a river which has
agriculture on either side and boats going by...
Part 2
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
What is the symbolism of weaving? First of all, it is the essence of female work, and has been for a long time.
(Have a look at the book Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times
by Elizabeth Wayland Barber). Whenever you see cloth, even in the most masculine associations, it
represents the presence of women.
More importantly, it is a symbol of fate. The three fates span, measured, and cut people's lives to weave them
into the cloth of past time. This weaving is mentioned as a "magic" web. And web, of course, has associations
with both spiders and possibly shrouds.
She has a premonition that some "bad thing" will happen if she looks at Camelot, the other pole of this
circumscribed universe, but has no idea what it is.
Camelot is a city, and she's alone. Camelot is "many tower'd" and diverse, she is cloistered and simple. I'd
have to say that Camelot is the male side of life and she, the female. Yang and yin, if you prefer the Chinese
Isn't it interesting that virginity and death are sharing symbols, but also sex and death are combined?
Robertson Davies' novel The Cunning Man discusses paintings of young women and skeletons standing
together, called "Death and the Maiden". Apparently, this was a popular theme. Andrew Marvell's poem "To
His Coy Mistress" also associates virginity and death in the lines "then worms will try/That long preserved
And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.
The way that I think of "mirror" images, especially when paired with the phrase "shadows of the world" is
similar to Plato's "Myth of the Cave."
o We are in an enclosed space, a cave, in Plato's story. There is a source of light, a fire, and there are
real objects between the fire and our backs. However, we cannot turn to see the real objects; we
can only infer their existence and nature from their shadows, cast upon the cave wall in front of us.
o If we apply this idea to the poem, what does that say about the lady? That she sees not the
highway, but an image of the highway from which she infers that a highway must exist, and a
destination for said highway. Thus, she can make a pretty good guess that there's a "real"
destination for the highway, Camelot, of which she knows nothing directly.
Mirrors have associations with femininity (look at the biological symbol for females). On the other hand, the
dictionary of symbolism (pp. 222-223) mentions several other associations:
o mirrors allow the life force to be held in a room, which is why mirrors in a room must be covered
when someone dies in it;
o mirrors are also amulets, offering protection against evil forces.
o Mirrors are instruments of augury (thus, seeing your fate) and analogues to the eyes,
o but mirrors can also capture and hold your soul (like Narcissus).
o Seeing yourself in a mirror is like stepping outside of your body to look at it, so Jungians link it to
o Others think of it as a route to self-knowledge.
A very ambiguous symbol! So the way to interpret it is not in one way or the other, but in all ways. It
represents safety, and confinement, knowledge of the world, but partial knowledge only, a partial wisdom,
and a means to her death, all simultaneously with reinforcing the entirely feminine nature of her little room.
By the way, although I don't go much for this kind of analysis, draw a little map of an island (convex sides
and pointed ends) in a river. Draw crops over both banks of the river. You have just drawn a pretty
acceptable image of the female genitals surrounded by pubic hair. (The "secret garden" surrounded by walls
is a common symbol of this. Tennyson's "island" is just a more anatomically correct version). This is an example
of imagery that is so heavy-handed that you either have to love it, the way that you can enjoy a really bad
movie, or hate it. Almost certainly, it was not intended.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower'd Camelot;
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.
Hey, there are NO heterosexual couples that show up in her mirror! A group of female virgins, OR a young
boy (rich and poor versions mentioned) OR a group of men. She realizes that there is some connection that
she's not making ... "She hath no loyal knight and true..." but I doubt that she knows what is involved.
The mirror is blue. (Is that water or air's colour? Both, probably). The young man in red is the first mention of
the colour of fire/sexual desire. Just a hint of it, though. He's not old enough to affect her much.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
'I am half sick of shadows,' said
The Lady of Shalott.
Ah, now she sees couples and says the first thing that we hear directly from her in this whole poem: "I am half
sick of shadows"! Pretty unambiguous, although plumes, representing flight (birds) and freedom are an
interesting touch. The mirror, it is repeated, is a "magic" one. The moonlight often represents madness -- look
up the word "lunatic".
So, part I painted the scene. Part II introduced what the lady is waiting for. Part III will bring it onstage...
Part 3
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
OK, I knew that red would show up here. Blazing masculinity steps up. And it is available to women, too,
since it (in the person of Lancelot) has been known to "kneel to a lady." However, although the Lady of
Shalott has excellent taste in men (choosing to be impressed by the best knight in the world), anyone who
knows the King Arthur stories knows that this isn't going to turn out well. Lancelot is big-time in love with
another: Queen Guinevere.
Notice that, rather than "Camelot" being set apart in the verse, the representation of the masculine pole has
focussed narrowly on a single human being: "Of bold Sir Lancelot."
In Europe, there used to be a harvest ceremony where a sheaf would be dressed up in women's clothing and
treated as the personification of the harvest. A female goddess of the earth's fertility. Notice that Lancelot
doesn't bump into any sheaves, but rides between them.... His lack of availability is reinforced in that line.
The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.
I wonder if there's a pun between "bridle bells" and "bridal bells"? And though "blazon'd" has a special
meaning of decorated with a heraldic design, it is close enough to "blaze" (fire, again) to be meant to suggest
that, too.
Anyway, like the previous verse, all the words and images associated with Lancelot are martial, male, or
metallic. Summary: he's a man's man, and a real hunk.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
Fire and phallic symbols on his head! The meteor image represents impending and foretold doom. It is a "disaster" (a bad star). There's something in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR about there being no comets when
poor people die, but "the skies themselves cry out the deaths of princes."
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
'Tirra lirra,' by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
OK, so we get only the second oh-so-profound statement by a character in this poem. The lady is definitely
ripe for a change from her routine: it just takes a "tirra lirra" from the right guy to make her go crazy for him.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me!' cried
The Lady of Shalott.
She is no longer really a maiden, having looked upon Lancelot with desire. After that, she is no longer suited
for her former, confined, and innocent life. Her life will change, in one way or another! Part IV tells how...
Part 4
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;
Air and water (the boundaries) are violently disturbed.
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.
Um, she's riding in something that looks vaginal. It was found beneath the female-and-death symbolic tree.
And down the river's dim expanse-Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance-With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
Comparing the Lady to a bold seer is an ironic pun. It is a pun because "seer" has two meanings. One is a
person who "sees" something, as the Lady has just seen Camelot for the first time. The more common meaning
is someone who foretells the future. All that she "sees" of her future, however, is her own death. The irony is
that the Lady spent much of her life seeing only reflections in a mirror, rather than the things themselves, so
she was not much of a "seer" at all.
Part III was very exact about what she saw, by the way. Events get fuzzy here, just like in Part I: "Did she ...?"
Or didn't she? Tennyson would rather just hint at it. The world is becoming inexact again after her one
moment of clear sight.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right-The leaves upon her falling light-Thro' the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Bridal dress or shroud or both? Air and water again around her, but light is fading, and there are those
willows again. It is as though they are trying to maintain her former state by killing her. SOMETHING is
killing her, anyway, rather than let her join life, which it is her wish to do.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot;
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
How useless and weak this exemplar of sheltered femininity is! She can't even survive a simple excursion to
the city, where coarser types like us can go every day. She's like one of those laboratory rats who have never
been exposed to any disease organisms, and who therefore have no immune defences. Take them into the
world, and they die.
There's a hymn for the dead being sung for, and by, this dying woman. Even in this, her loneliness is intact.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
Pretty self-explanatory, unless you want to get into the wharfs being phallic symbols, filling up in tribute to
the passing female body... Sort of hard to explain the dames' presence, in that case.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, 'She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.'
Just like a man! A pretty useless comment from Lancelot.
Why was everyone afraid? Knights know all about death, but there's something strange about the
circumstances of this one. They sense a mystery. Is it the mystery of her fate? Is it the strangely intimate
relationship between Death and the Maiden? (Either the presence of death in the midst of life, or a suspicion
that death and womanhood share a common nature: passive and dangerous to right-thinking males, but
unavoidable). To put it another way, is it simply that the female must be forever a mystery to the male? (You
will find that thought in Freudian and Jungian analysis, and a lot of religions).
A student might say "How can I analyze a poem or story like this? I don't know what things symbolize." There are a
couple of answers to that. First, a book of symbolism, like The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans
Biedermann, translated by James Hulbert, is a cheap investment. Second, if you read literary criticism, you will pick
up on what symbols literary critics talk about. You will eventually know all you need.
It will also help you if you feel free to be free-ranging and even disrespectful about the work you are reading, just as I
was. (You may have suspected that I am not a big fan of this poem because it lays on symbolism with a very full
trowel). The tone can be corrected to a more impartial one in your essay. The notes, however, are for your eyes and your
convenience; they can be as irreverent as you like, as long as they are accurate, detailed, and many. The process of
close reading is similar to brainstorming in that your goal is to put down as many questions and insights as you can, not
just a few "good" ones.
My last advice is to use whatever associations you have with events and objects in the poem. My comments are based
on my knowledge; yours will be based on yours.
The humorous book 1066 and All That has a question in one of its "Chapter Tests" that was something like "Discuss X
with special reference to anything you happen to know." That is less of a joke than it seems. In fact, it's all that we ever
My purpose is to teach the skill of close reading, not to provide information on a particular poem. There are two
exercises that can strengthen the skill:
Two exercises:
Choose another poem of about the same length as "The Lady of Shalott" and do your own close reading of it.
Select one topic out of all the ones in your close reading and write an essay on that topic. For example, I
could write an essay on the symbolism of the four Greek elements in the poem, or the balancing of male and
female symbols, or the plant symbols in "The Lady of Shalott." Writing about all of them would be too much
for an essay.
Close Reading of a Literary Passage
To do a close reading, you choose a specific passage and analyze it in fine detail, as if with a magnifying glass. You
then comment on points of style and on your reactions as a reader. Close reading is important because it is the
building block for larger analysis. Your thoughts evolve not from someone else's truth about the reading, but from
your own observations. The more closely you can observe, the more original and exact your ideas will be. To begin
your close reading, ask yourself several specific questions about the passage. The following questions are not a
formula, but a starting point for your own thoughts. When you arrive at some answers, you are ready to organize and
write. You should organize your close reading like any other kind of essay, paragraph by paragraph, but you can
arrange it any way you like.
I. First Impressions:
What is the first thing you notice about the passage?
What is the second thing?
Do the two things you noticed complement each other? Or contradict each other?
What mood does the passage create in you? Why?
II. Vocabulary and Diction:
Which words do you notice first? Why? What is noteworthy about this diction?
How do the important words relate to one another?
Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why?
Do any words have double meanings? Do they have extra connotations?
Look up any unfamiliar words. For a pre-20th century text, look in the Oxford English Dictionary for
possible outdated meanings. (The OED can only be accessed by students with a subscription or from a
library computer that has a subscription. Otherwise, you should find a copy in the local library.)
III. Discerning Patterns:
Does an image here remind you of an image elsewhere in the book? Where? What's the connection?
How might this image fit into the pattern of the book as a whole?
Could this passage symbolize the entire work? Could this passage serve as a microcosm--a little picture--of
what's taking place in the whole work?
What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long and flowing? Does it build on itself or stay at an
even pace? What is the style like?
Look at the punctuation. Is there anything unusual about it?
Is there any repetition within the passage? What is the effect of that repetition?
How many types of writing are in the passage? (For example, narration, description, argument, dialogue,
rhymed or alliterative poetry, etc.)
Can you identify paradoxes in the author's thought or subject?
What is left out or kept silent? What would you expect the author to talk about that the author avoided?
IV. Point of View and Characterization:
How does the passage make us react or think about any characters or events within the narrative?
Are there colors, sounds, physical description that appeals to the senses? Does this imagery form a pattern?
Why might the author have chosen that color, sound or physical description?
Who speaks in the passage? To whom does he or she speak? Does the narrator have a limited or partial
point of view? Or does the narrator appear to be omniscient, and he knows things the characters couldn't
possibly know? (For example, omniscient narrators might mention future historical events, events taking
place "off stage," the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, and so on).
V. Symbolism:
Are there metaphors? What kinds?
Is there one controlling metaphor? If not, how many different metaphors are there, and in what order do
they occur? How might that be significant?
How might objects represent something else?
Do any of the objects, colors, animals, or plants appearing in the passage have traditional connotations or
meaning? What about religious or biblical significance?
If there are multiple symbols in the work, could we read the entire passage as having allegorical meaning
beyond the literal level?
The following has been Adapted From Albert Sheen's site at: http://www.sit.wisc.edu/~aesheen/Eng208-21999/closeread1.htm
The skill called "close reading" is fundamental for interpreting literature. "Reading closely" means developing a deep
understanding and a precise interpretation of a literary passage that is based first and foremost on the words
themselves. But a close reading does not stop there; rather, it embraces larger themes and ideas evoked and/or
implied by the passage itself. It is essential that we distinguish between doing a close reading and writing one. Doing
a close reading involves a thought process that moves from small details to larger issues. Writing a close reading
begins with these larger issues and uses the relevant details as evidence.
I. Doing a close reading
Getting Started: Treat the passage as if it were complete in itself. Read it a few times, at least once aloud.
Concentrate on all its details and assume that everything is significant. Determine what the passage is
about and try to paraphrase it. Make sure that you begin with a general sense of the passage’s meaning.
2. Word meaning: Determine the meanings of words and references. Also, note (and verify) interesting
connotations of words. Look up any words you do not know or which are used in unfamiliar ways. (Laziness in
this step will inevitably result in diminished comprehension.) Consider the diction of the passage. What is
the source of the language, i.e., out of what kind of discourse does the language seem to come? Did the
author coin any words? Are there any slang words, innuendoes, puns, ambiguities? Do the words have
interesting etymologies?
3. Structure: Examine the structure of the passage. How does it develop its themes and ideas? How is the
passage organized? Are there climaxes and turning points?
4. Sound and Rhythm: Acquire a feel for the sound, meter, and rhythm; note any aural clues that may affect
the meaning. Even punctuation may be significant. Be alert to devices such as alliteration, assonance,
rhyme, consonance, euphony, cacophony, onomatopoeia. See a dictionary of poetics or rhetoric for precise
definitions of these and other terms. Examine the meter of the passage in the same way. Is it regular or not?
Determine whether the lines breaks compliment or complicate the meanings of the sentences.
5. Syntax: Examine the syntax and the arrangement of words in the sentences. Does the syntax call attention to
itself? Are the sentences simple or complex? What is the rhythm of the sentences? How do subordinate
clauses work in the passage? Are there interesting suspensions, inversions, parallels, oppositions,
repetitions? Does the syntax allow for ambiguity or double meanings?
6. Textual Context: In what specific and general dramatic and/or narrative contexts does the passage
appear? How do these contexts modify the meaning of the passage? What role does the passage play in the
overall movement/moment of the text?
7. Irony: How does irony operate in the passage, if at all?
8. Tone and Narrative Voice: What is the speaker’s (as distinct from the narrator’s and author’s) attitude
towards his or her subject and hearers? How is this reflected in the tone? What does the passage reveal
about the speaker? Who is the narrator? What is the relationship between the narrator and the speaker?
Is there more than one speaker?
9. Imagery: What sort of imagery is invoked? How do the images relate to those in the rest of the text? How do
the images work in the particular passage and throughout the text? What happens to the imagery over the
course of the passage? Does the passage noticeably lack imagery? If so, why?
10. Rhetorical Devices: Note particularly interesting metaphors, similes, images, or symbols especially ones that
recur in the passage or that were important for the entire text. How do they work with respect to the themes
of the passage and the text as a whole? Are there any other notable rhetorical devices? Are there any
classical, biblical or historical allusions? How do they work?
11. Themes: Relate all of these details to possible themes that are both explicitly and implicitly evoked by the
passage. Attempt to relate these themes to others appearing outside the immediate passage. These other
themes may be from the larger story from which the passage is excerpted; or from other tales; or from
knowledge about the narrator; or from the work as a whole.
12. Gender: How does the passage construct gender? What issues of gender identity does it evoke? How does
it represent women’s issues? Does it reveal something interesting about women’s writing?
13. History: How does the passage narrate history? How does it present "facts" versus observations?
14. Construct a Thesis: Based on all of this information and observation, construct a thesis that ties the details
together. Determine how the passage illuminates the concerns, themes, and issues of the entire text it is a
part of. Ask yourself how the passage provides insight into the text (and the context of the text). Try to
determine how the passage provides us a key to understanding the work as whole.
Note that this process moves from the smallest bits of information (words, sound, punctuation) to larger groupings
(images, metaphors) to larger concepts (themes). Also, the final argument is based on these smaller levels of the
passage; this is why it is called a close reading. Of course your thought processes may not follow such a rigid order
(mine usually don’t). Just don’t omit any of the steps.
II. Writing it
The paper should begin with a closely argued thesis, which is the result of the last step above. Include a
general orientation to the passage to be analyzed, explaining the text of origin and the author.
The thesis depends on the analysis already done, and the point is to relate all of the relevant details to that
thesis. This means that some details may be omitted in the paper because they do not support or concern the
thesis being argued. Too much detail about unimportant features will draw attention from your thesis.
However, you must be careful that you do not ignore details that contradict your thesis; if you find these, this
means that you need to reevaluate your thesis and make it more complex (in other words, you don’t
necessarily have to abandon it altogether).
Note that the order of the evidence presented should not follow the order of the passage being discussed.
Rather, the order of the evidence depends on how it relates to your central argument. Don’t let the passage
walk you through your analysis; instead, re- organize the passage to suit your discussion of it.
The body of the paper presents relevant textual evidence in a meaningful order. Avoid being overly
mechanical in the organization of your paper. That is, don’t write one paragraph on diction, one on sound,
one on metaphor, etc. Instead try to bring these observations together on the same words or phrases together.
Organize the paragraphs around issues of meaning rather than of technique.
Make sure you don’t read so closely that you transform a clear though complex passage into a bundle of
If you relate the passage to text outside it, make sure your emphasis remains on the passage itself; do not
neglect it in favor of external textual evidence.
Getting an A on an English Paper
Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark
Close Reading
An English teacher's heart will go pitter-pat whenever he or she sees close engagement with the language of the text.
That means reading every word: it's not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few
people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren't
about the real world; they're about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and
you have to pay attention to them.
The problem's most acute in poetry. Here, for instance, is the opening of Gray's famous "Elegy Written in a Country
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The surface-level meaning is something like this: "At evening, when the curfew bell rings, the cows and the plowman
go home and leave me in the dark." Many students read passages like this, "decode" them into something they can
understand, and then ask, "Why didn't he just say that?"
That's usually a dismissive rhetorical question, with the implication, "Why is that nasty old author making my life
difficult when he could have said it simply?" But in fact "Why didn't he just say that?" can be a great question, and
you should learn to take it seriously. Why did he say it in the denser way? Answer that, and you're on your way to a
good thesis. (Hint: with good writers, the answer is almost never "Because he had to rhyme" or "Because he couldn't do
it any better.")
An incomplete list of things to look for:
Diction. Diction means word choice. In English, we usually have a choice of several ways of saying more or
less the same thing: see and observe and notice and spot; overweight and portly and fat; have intercourse
with, make love to, and fuck. Notice that they're never perfectly interchangeable: some are formal, some are
euphemistic, some are clinical, some are vulgar. Pay attention to similar words authors might have used, and
try to figure out why they chose as they did.
Word Order. Most declarative sentences and clauses in Modern English (since about 1500) follow the word
order subject — verb — object. Adjectives tend to come before nouns, adverbs usually come before verbs or
adjectives. You know all that. If a poet departs from standard English word order, consider whether it's
important. (It's not always, but usually.)
Verb Forms. Most narratives are told in the past tense, active voice, and are usually in either the first person
("I") or the third ("he," "she," "they"). But not always, and not consistently. What might it mean if an author
relies on the passive voice? Why is this narrative written in the present tense? Teach yourself to look for
these things. (Pay particular attention when they change. If a work suddenly switches from the past tense to
the present, or if a work filled with the active voice begins to rely on the passive, or a third-person narrative
changes to first, it's almost certainly important.)
Point of View. Narratives have to be told from some point of view: the narrator might be the central
character in the work (as in David Copperfield, narrated by David himself); he or she might be a secondary
character in the work (as in The Great Gatsby, narrated by Nick Carraway); or the narrator may be
"omniscient" (as in Pride and Prejudice, narrated by someone not in the story and able to tell what happened
to all the characters). Some works mix things up, telling different things from different points of view (as in
As I Lay Dying, where different chapters are told from the point of view of different characters.) Narrators
might also be reliable — readers are expected to take their word for everything — or unreliable — readers
have reasons to doubt the narrator is telling the story "straight." Try to stay conscious of these things. Often
there's nothing to say about them, but sometimes they really pay off. Look especially for changes in the
point of view: if a narrative has been described from the point of view of one character all along, and it
suddenly shifts to someone else, that's almost certainly worth thinking about.
Metaphors. Metaphors — the likening of one thing to another — are much more common than most casual
readers realize. Here's a passage from chapter 12 of The Scarlet Letter: "It was an obscure night in early May.
An unwearied pall of cloud muffled the whole expanse of sky from zenith to horizon." The word pall here
means "covering" — he's just talking about cloud-cover. But a pall is actually a piece of velvet used to cover
a coffin: think about the implications, then, of likening clouds to a shroud. Metaphors are often lurking in the
literal meanings or etymological origins of common words that don't seem metaphorical at all. Disaster, for
instance, comes from the words for "bad star," on the assumption that the heavens influence things on earth:
it's a metaphor from astronomy. Ardent, meaning "passionate," comes from the Latin word ardere, "to burn,"
and therefore originally meant something like "burning with passion." Most people who use ardent aren't
thinking of fire, but some — including many good poets — are. Pay attention to such things.
Here's a useful exercise: take an important sentence or two in the work you're analyzing, and look up every word in the
Oxford English Dictionary. (Okay, if you're in a hurry, you have my permisison to skip the and is.) Paradise Lost uses
the word individual: what did it mean when Milton wrote? What does Frances Burney mean when she writes, "We
have been a shopping, as Mrs. Mirvan calls it"? Is the name of the prodigiously endowed "Dick" in the pornographic
novel Fanny Hill (1759) a dirty joke, or just a coincidence? The OED will let you know.
Learning to read closely, with attention to the history of words and the meanings lurking in their etymologies and
connotations, will go a long way toward making your paper solid. For starters, it helps you avoid the awful problem of
generalization. And individual words aren't the only thing to study carefully. Unusual word-order, for instance, is
almost always significant. Shifts in person, number, or tense may be loaded with meaning.
The deeper you dig into the text, the more things you'll find. So keep digging, and don't be content with a surfacelevel reading.
How to Mark a Book
By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
from The Radical Academy
You know you have to read "between the lines" to get the most out of anything. I want to persuade you to do
something equally important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to write between the lines. Unless
you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading.
I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love. You shouldn't mark up a book
which isn't yours.
Librarians (or your friends) who lend you books expect you to keep them clean, and you should. If you decide that I am
right about the usefulness of marking books, you will have to buy them. Most of the world's great books are available
today, in reprint editions.
There are two ways in which one can own a book. The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as
you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only
when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it. An
illustration may make the point clear. You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher's icebox to your own. But
you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am
arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your blood stream to do you any good.
Confusion about what it means to "own" a book leads people to a false reverence for paper, binding, and type -- a
respect for the physical thing -- the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author. They forget that it is
possible for a man to acquire the idea, to possess the beauty, which a great book contains, without staking his claim by
pasting his bookplate inside the cover. Having a fine library doesn't prove that its owner has a mind enriched by
books; it proves nothing more than that he, his father, or his wife, was rich enough to buy them.
There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the standard sets and best sellers -- unread, untouched. (This
deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books -- a few of them read
through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would
probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a
few books or many -- every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked
and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.)
Is it false respect, you may ask, to preserve intact and unblemished a beautifully printed book, an elegantly bound
edition? Of course not. I'd no more scribble all over a first edition of 'Paradise Lost' than I'd give my baby a set of
crayons and an original Rembrandt. I wouldn't mark up a painting or a statue. Its soul, so to speak, is inseparable from
its body. And the beauty of a rare edition or of a richly manufactured volume is like that of a painting or a statue.
But the soul of a book "can" be separate from its body. A book is more like the score of a piece of music than it is like a
painting. No great musician confuses a symphony with the printed sheets of music. Arturo Toscanini reveres Brahms,
but Toscanini's score of the G minor Symphony is so thoroughly marked up that no one but the maestro himself can
read it. The reason why a great conductor makes notations on his musical scores -- marks them up again and again
each time he returns to study them--is the reason why you should mark your books. If your respect for magnificent
binding or typography gets in the way, buy yourself a cheap edition and pay your respects to the author.
Why is marking up a book indispensable to reading? First, it keeps you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I
mean awake.) In the second place; reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words,
spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing helps you remember the
thoughts you had, or the thoughts the author expressed. Let me develop these three points.
If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it must be active. You can't let your eyes glide across the
lines of a book and come up with an understanding of what you have read. Now an ordinary piece of light fiction, like,
say, "Gone With the Wind," doesn't require the most active kind of reading. The books you read for pleasure can be
read in a state of relaxation, and nothing is lost. But a great book, rich in ideas and beauty, a book that raises and tries
to answer great fundamental questions, demands the most active reading of which you are capable. You don't absorb
the ideas of John Dewey the way you absorb the crooning of Mr. Vallee. You have to reach for them. That you cannot
do while you're asleep.
If, when you've finished reading a book, the pages are filled with your notes, you know that you read actively. The
most famous "active" reader of great books I know is President Hutchins, of the University of Chicago. He also has the
hardest schedule of business activities of any man I know. He invariably reads with a pencil, and sometimes, when he
picks up a book and pencil in the evening, he finds himself, instead of making intelligent notes, drawing what he calls
'caviar factories' on the margins. When that happens, he puts the book down. He knows he's too tired to read, and he's
just wasting time.
But, you may ask, why is writing necessary? Well, the physical act of writing, with your own hand, brings words and
sentences more sharply before your mind and preserves them better in your memory. To set down your reaction to
important words and sentences you have read, and the questions they have raised in your mind, is to preserve those
reactions and sharpen those questions.
Even if you wrote on a scratch pad, and threw the paper away when you had finished writing, your grasp of the book
would be surer. But you don't have to throw the paper away. The margins (top as bottom, and well as side), the endpapers, the very space between the lines, are all available. They aren't sacred. And, best of all, your marks and notes
become an integral part of the book and stay there forever. You can pick up the book the following week or year, and
there are all your points of agreement, disagreement, doubt, and inquiry. It's like resuming an interrupted
conversation with the advantage of being able to pick up where you left off.
And that is exactly what reading a book should be: a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows
more about the subject than you do; naturally, you'll have the proper humility as you approach him. But don't let
anybody tell you that a reader is supposed to be solely on the receiving end. Understanding is a two-way operation;
learning doesn't consist in being an empty receptacle. The learner has to question himself and question the teacher.
He even has to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. And marking a book is
literally an expression of differences, or agreements of opinion, with the author.
There are all kinds of devices for marking a book intelligently and fruitfully. Here's the way I do it:
Underlining (or highlighting): of major points, of important or forceful statements.
Vertical lines at the margin: to emphasize a statement already underlined.
Star, asterisk, or other doo-dad at the margin: to be used sparingly, to emphasize the ten or twenty most
important statements in the book. (You may want to fold the bottom comer of each page on which you use
such marks. It won't hurt the sturdy paper on which most modern books are printed, and you will be able
take the book off the shelf at any time and, by opening it at the folded-corner page, refresh your
recollection of the book.)
Numbers in the margin: to indicate the sequence of points the author makes in developing a single
Numbers of other pages in the margin: to indicate where else in the book the author made points relevant to
the point marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong
Circling or highlighting of key words or phrases.
Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page, for the sake of: recording questions (and perhaps
answers) which a passage raised in your mind; reducing a complicated discussion to a simple statement;
recording the sequence of major points right through the books. I use the end-papers at the back of the book
to make a personal index of the author's points in the order of their appearance.
The front end-papers are to me the most important. Some people reserve them for a fancy bookplate. I reserve them
for fancy thinking. After I have finished reading the book and making my personal index on the back end-papers, I
turn to the front and try to outline the book, not page by page or point by point (I've already done that at the back),
but as an integrated structure, with a basic unity and an order of parts. This outline is, to me, the measure of my
understanding of the work.
If you're a die-hard anti-book-marker, you may object that the margins, the space between the lines, and the endpapers don't give you room enough. All right. How about using a scratch pad slightly smaller than the page-size of the
book -- so that the edges of the sheets won't protrude? Make your index, outlines and even your notes on the pad, and
then insert these sheets permanently inside the front and back covers of the book.
Or, you may say that this business of marking books is going to slow up your reading. It probably will. That's one of the
reasons for doing it. Most of us have been taken in by the notion that speed of reading is a measure of our intelligence.
There is no such thing as the right speed for intelligent reading. Some things should be read quickly and effortlessly
and some should be read slowly and even laboriously. The sign of intelligence in reading is the ability to read
different things differently according to their worth. In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of
them you can get through, but rather how many can get through you -- how many you can make your own. A few
friends are better than a thousand acquaintances. If this be your aim, as it should be, you will not be impatient if it
takes more time and effort to read a great book than it does a newspaper.
You may have one final objection to marking books. You can't lend them to your friends because nobody else can
read them without being distracted by your notes. Furthermore, you won't want to lend them because a marked copy
is kind of an intellectual diary, and lending it is almost like giving your mind away.
If your friend wishes to read your Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare, or The Federalist Papers, tell him gently but firmly, to
buy a copy. You will lend him your car or your coat -- but your books are as much a part of you as your head or your
How to Read Literature Like a Professor:
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines
by Thomas C. Foster
In Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Red-Headed League," Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John
Watson both observe Jabez Wilson carefully, yet their differing interpretations of the
same details reveal the difference between a "Good Reader" and a "Bad Reader." Watson
can only describe what he sees; Holmes has the knowledge to interpret what he sees, to
draw conclusions, and to solve the mystery.
Understanding literature need no longer be a mystery -- Thomas Foster's book will help
transform you from a naive, sometimes confused Watson to an insightful, literary
Holmes. Professors and other informed readers see symbols, archetypes, and patterns
because those things are there -- if you have learned to look for them. As Foster says, you
learn to recognize the literary conventions the "same way you get to Carnegie Hall.
Practice." (xiv).
Note to students: These short writing assignments will let you practice your literary
analysis and they will help me get to know you and your literary tastes. Whenever I ask
for an example from literature, you may use short stories, novels, plays, or films (Yes,
film is a literary genre). If your literary repertoire is thin and undeveloped, use the
Appendix to jog your memeory or to select additional works to explore. At the very least,
watch some of the "Movies to Read" that are listed on pages 293-294. Please note that
your responses should be paragraphs -- not pages!
Even though this is analytical writing, you may use "I" if you deem it important to do so;
remember, however, that most uses of "I" are just padding. For example, "I think the wolf
is the most important character in 'Little Red Ridinghood'" is padded. As you compose
each written response, re-phrase the prompt as part of your answer. In other words, I
should be able to tell which question you are answering without referring back to the
Concerning mechanics, pay special attention to pronouns. Make antecedents clear. Say
Foster first; not "he." Remember to capitalize and punctuate titles properly for each
Literary Criticism:
An Overview of Approaches
Prepared by Skylar Hamilton Burris
Literary Criticism: Map
prepared by Skylar Hamilton Burris
This map shows loosely where the critical approaches fall. I originally designed it as an assignment for Dr. Lewis's
Literary Criticism class at the University of Texas at Brownsville. An explanation of the map follows.
Map Explanation:
The work itself is placed in the center because all approaches must deal, to some extent or another, with the text itself.
Formalism and deconstruction are placed here also because they deal primarily with the text and not with any of the
outside considerations such as author, the real world, audience, or other literature. Meaning, formalists argue, is
inherent in the text. Because meaning is determinant, all other considerations are irrelevant. Deconstructionists also
subject texts to careful, formal analysis; however, they reach an opposite conclusion: there is no meaning in language.
A historical approach relies heavily on the author and his world. In the historical view, it is important to understand
the author and his world in order to understand his intent and to make sense of his work. In this view, the work is
informed by the author's beliefs, prejudices, time, and history, and to fully understand the work, we must understand
the author and his age.
An intertextual approach is concerned with comparing the work in question to other literature, to get a broader
Reader-Response is concerned with how the work is viewed by the audience. In this approach, the reader creates
meaning, not the author or the work.
Mimetic criticism seeks to see how well a work accords with the real world.
Then, beyond the real world are approaches dealing with the spiritual and the symbolic--the images connecting
people throughout time and cultures (archetypes). This is mimetic in a sense too, but the congruency looked for is not
so much with the real world as with something beyond the real world--something tying in all the
worlds/times/cultures inhabited by man.
The Psychological approach is placed outside these poles because it can fit in many places, depending how it is
(1) Historical if diagnosing the author himself
(2) Mimetic if considering if characters are acting by "real world" standards and with recognizable psychological
(3) Archetypal when the idea of the Jungian collective unconscious is included
(4) Reader-Response when the psychology of the reader--why he sees what he sees in the text--is examined.
Likewise, Feminist, Minority, Marxist, and other such approaches may fit in:
(1) Historical if the author's attitudes are being examined in relation to his times (i.e. was Shakespeare a feminist for his
times, though he might not be considered so today?)
(2) Mimetic--when asking how well characters accord with the real world. Does a black character act like a black
person would, or is he a stereotype? Are women being portrayed accurately? Does the work show a realistic economic
picture of the world?
The Purpose of Criticism:
Literary criticism has at least three primary purposes.
(1) To help us resolve a difficulty in the reading.
The historical approach, for instance, might be helpful in addressing a problem in Thomas Otway's play Venice
Preserv'd. Why are the conspirators, despite the horrible, bloody details of their obviously brutish plan, portrayed in a
sympathetic light? If we look at the author and his time, we see that he was a Tory whose play was performed in the
wake of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Bill Crisis, and that there are obvious similarities between the Conspiracy
in the play and the Popish Plot in history. The Tories would never approve of the bloody Popish Plot, but they
nonetheless sympathized with the plotters for the way they were abused by the Tory enemy, the Whigs. Thus it makes
sense for Otway to condemn the conspiracy itself in Vencie Preserv'd without condemning the conspirators
(2) To help us choose the better of two conflicting readings.
A formalist approach might enable us to choose between a reading which sees the dissolution of society in Lord of the
Flies as being caused by too strict a suppression of the "bestial" side of man and one which sees it as resulting from too
little suppression. We can look to the text and ask: What textual evidence is there for the suppression or indulgence of
the "bestial" side of man? Does Ralph suppress Jack when he tries to indulge his bestial side in hunting? Does it
appear from the text that an imposition of stricter law and order would have prevented the breakdown? Did it work
in the "grownup" world of the novel?
(3) To enable us to form judgments about literature.
One of the purposes of criticism is to judge if a work is any good or not. For instance, we might use a formalist approach
to argue that a John Donne poem is of high quality because it contains numerous intricate conceits that are well
sustained. Or, we might use the mimetic approach to argue that The West Indian is a poor play because it fails to
paint a realistic picture of the world.
Historical / Biographical Approach:
Historical / Biographical critics see works as the reflection of an author's life and times (or of the characters' life and
times). They believe it is necessary to know about the author and the political, economical, and sociological context of
his times in order to truly understand his works.
This approach works well for some works--like those of Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Milton--which are
obviously political in nature. One must know Milton was blind, for instance, for "On His Blindness" to have any
meaning. And one must know something about the Exclusion Bill Crisis to appreciate John Dryden's "Absalom and
Achitophel." It also is necessary to take a historical approach in order to place allusions in there proper classical,
political, or biblical background.
New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic's belief that the meaning or value of a work may be
determined by the author's intention as "the intentional fallacy." They believe that this approach tends to reduce art
to the level of biography and make it relative (to the times) rather than universal.
Motivation in Cisneros's "Never Marry a Mexican"
A Historical-Biographical Critical Approach
© Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
Note: This is an academic exercise that takes a historical / biographical critical approach to Sandra Cisneros’s short
story, "Never Marry a Mexican." This is not intended to be a well-developed critical paper, but it should prove a useful
tool for examining one aspect of Cisneros’s work. It should also serve to help students learn more about the use of the
historical / biographical critical approach to literature.
In "Never Marry a Mexican," the narrator, Clemencia, admits that she is "vindictive and cruel" (68). But the critic must
explain why. The critic also needs to address Clemencia's motivation for fleeing her middle-class home, because it is
by no means clear that she was prohibited from living there. A look at Sandra Cisneros's own life and words can help
elucidated both of these questions. Sandra Cisneros shares with her narrator a sort of "schizophrenia" that develops
from "straddling two" cultures (Aranda 66). Clemencia, as a Mexican-American, witnesses her latino culture mixing
with anglo culture, and she herself engages in miscegenation with Drew. She is motivated by a fear of anglicanization
that expresses itself in her decision to move to the barrio and in her vindictive treatment of Drew's wife.
The latino and anglo cultures mix when Clemencia's mother marries a white man. Clemencia reacts by fleeing from
her home and attempting to cling to her latino culture. Sandra Cisneros describes her own hatred for the term
"Hispanic" by declaring that it is an "upwardly mobile type word" (Interviews Part I). The implication of this statement
is that latinos are not "upwardly mobile," or middle-class, types. By fleeing to the barrio, Clemencia attempts to regain
her latino culture which was compromised by her mother's miscegenation with a middle-class white man.
At first, Clemencia thinks living in the barrio is "all romantic," perhaps because she connects it with her latino culture,
the barrio being a place where there were "more signs in Spanish than in English" (72). She romanticizes the barrio,
saying it "looked cute in the daytime, like Sesame Street" (72). Cisneros has decried this view of the barrio (Satz 2), and
Clemencia learns its falsity soon enough. Yet she does not return to her home, but remains in the barrio, because it is a
way of escaping anglicanization:
Ximena would say, Clemencia, maybe we should go home. And I'd say, Shit! Because she knew as well as I did that
there was no home to go home to. Not with our mother. Not with that man she married . . . My half brothers living in
that house that should've been ours . . . When she married that white man, and he and his boys moved into my father's
house, it was as if she stopped being my mother. Like I never even had one. (72-3)
There is no indication that the sisters were driven out of the house or asked to leave. The implication is rather that they
felt out of place, that they could not bear the fact that their mother had married a white man, and that they did not
care to share their home with their half-white, half-brothers.
So Clemencia clings to the barrio like Sandra Cisneros to her purple house. Cisneros may have had some of the same
fears about becoming anglicized when she chose to live in San Antonio's King William District. But instead of
clinging to her culture via a return to the barrio, she painted her house purple and declared that consequent
objections to the color were "not about [her] little purple house," but "about the entire Tejano community" (Lowry 2).
Reporters "didn't ask why someone renowned for chronicling life in the barrio, a champion of her fellow Tejanos, chose
instead to live in King William" (Lowry 3), but Cisneros may have asked herself that very question, and in a fear of
appearing anglicized, she may have turned the objections to her purple house into an opportunity for insisting on her
affinity with other latinos. Her romanticization of the issue of the purple house is not far flung from Clemencia's initial
romanticization of the barrio. Clemencia does not really believe the barrio to be like Sesame Street, but she remains
because the alternative is to return home to her mother and white step-father and to risk anglicanization. Likewise,
Sandra Cisneros wasn't really concerned with painting her house a traditional Mexican color; after all, the purple
"didn't even exist until Sherwin-Williams created it thirty years ago" (Lowry 3). Rather, Cisneros's true motivation
seemed to be her desire to make a point that she had not deserted her culture by becoming anglicized, as this excerpt
from the homeowners' board meeting reveals:
"Okay then," Cisneros came back. "If my house can't be purple, can I paint it another traditional Tejano color? Like the
bright pink house at 312 Madison Street?"
Gossen looked at a fellow board member, who nodded. "Yes," he told Cisneros. "You can."
She looked startled, as if she were not prepared to dismount her soapbox so soon. "Okay," she answered in a tiny voice.
She paused and, summoning up her combativeness, said, "But I won't be happy until the board expands its vision to
include the history and color palette of the Tejano people. My battle won't end until that happens." (Lowry 3)
Clemencia has more than one "purple house." First, in reaction to her mother's miscegenation, she flees to the barrio.
Then, in order to deal with her own miscegenation, she assumes a vindictive attitude towards Drew's wife. An
interracial relationship with Drew, especially when Clemencia has already condemned the miscegenation of her
mother and Owen Lambert, is likely to create a sense of guilt. "I felt great guilt betraying that culture," says Sandra
Cisneros. "Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break [the cultural] norms, you are becoming
anglicized . . . influenced and contaminated by these foreign influence and ideas" (Satz 3). Clemencia, fearing to
appear anglicized through her relationship with Drew, downplays the influence of his anglo culture and draws a clear
line of separation between Drew's wife and herself.
Clemencia does not dwell long on Drew's anglo features. Although his skin is pale, at least his "hair [is] blacker than a
pirate's" and he "look[s] like a Cortez with that beard of" his (74). He may speak English, but he speaks to her in
Spanish, and she says, "I liked when you spoke to me in my own language" (74). She insists that she is not being
influenced and contaminated by Drew's anglo culture. Rather, it is she who influences him. "You're just a smudge of
paint I chose to birth on canvas," Clemencia says of Drew. "And when I made you over, you were no longer a part of
her, you were all mine" (75).
Clemencia probably feels the need to insist that Drew is not a part of his white wife in order to distinguish herself from
the white woman. If Drew were influenced by his wife, then Clemencia's relationship with him might mean her own
anglicanization. But if she can claim Drew as a sort of creation of her own, she can separate herself from the white
woman. Indeed, Clemencia insists on their differences. "While [Drew's wife] lay on her back laboring [in] birth,
[Clemencia] lay in [her] bed making love to" Drew (75). This vindictiveness on Clemencia's part is in direct opposition
to the white woman's polite nature. When Clemencia calls Drew in the middle of the night, and his wife answers
politely, Clemencia laughs about it for weeks. It seems to give her pleasure, because she knows that "[n]o Mexican
woman would react like that" (77). Clemencia can be reassured that she is not becoming like a white woman even
though she loves a white man, because she herself would never have reacted like Drew's wife.
Clemencia, like Cisneros, claims no "allegiance with upper-class white women" (Interviews Part II). She insists that she
can not relate to this "redheaded Barbie doll in a fur coat" (79). Just as Cisneros confesses that in Texas she "started
getting racist toward white people" and had no "white women friends"(Interviews Part II), Clemencia admits that if the
wife were "a brown woman like me, I might've had a harder time living with myself, but since she's not, I don't care"
(76). Indeed, since the woman is white, since she is not, as Clemencia says, "my sister," Clemencia not only fails to regret
her cruelty, but she relishes it (76). "It's always given me a bit of crazy joy," she says, "to be able to kill those women like
that, without their knowing it" (76-7).
Clemencia experiences another sort of "crazy joy" by committing a strange and seemingly inexplicable act. She goes
around the house and leaves a trail of gummy bears in places she is sure Drew's wife will find them (81). This may seem
a silly action on the surface, but for Clemencia, it is very meaningful. She is diverting her guilt, her fear of
anglicanization, into a bizarre attack on the white wife. True, the gummy bears may seem silly to the reader, but they
satisfy a need in Clemencia much as the crusade for the purple house seemed to do for Cisneros. The mysterious
placement of the gummy bears is perhaps no sillier than Cisneros's dressing entirely in purple and sitting in a purple
lawn chair, declaring before TV cameras, "It's not about my house . . . It's about history!" (Lowry 3). Likewise,
Clemencia's action isn't about hiding gummy bears for Drew's wife; it's an expression of her fear that she is becoming
anglicized, and it is her way of lashing out against that anglicanization. "I got a strange satisfaction," she says,
"wandering about the house leaving them in places only she would look" (81). It gives her a sense of power and selfassurance to replace the baby in the wife's Russian baby doll with a gummy bear: "All through dinner I kept reaching
in the pocket of my jean jacket. When I touched [the baby], it made me feel good" (82). This may be akin to the sense
of importance Cisneros herself felt when she shouted: "It's not about my house. It's about history!"
According to Cisneros, "many of [her] stories come from dealing with straddling two cultures" (Satz 3). "And it's very
strange," remarks Cisneros, "to be straddling these two cultures and to [find] some middle ground so you don't selfexplode" (Aranda 66). In "Never Marry a Mexican," Clemencia has trouble finding that middle ground. She seems to
feel guilty about her interracial relationship, but instead of surmounting that guilt, she displaces it into a hatred for
Drew's wife. She insists on her own latinoness by moving to the barrio and by using cruelty to create a chasm between
herself and Drew's polite, white wife. Her story is an example of the hatred that can breed within someone if she
doesn't, as Cisneros says Mexican-Americans must, find "some way . . . to say: 'Alright, the life I'm leading is alright. I'm
not betraying my culture. I'm not becoming anglicized'" (Aranda 66). Cisneros may have used this story as a way of
confessing and dealing with her own fear of anglicanization. By writing, she says, "you make your peace with those
ghosts. You recognize . . . [t]hey're part of you and you can talk about them" (Aranda 67).
Works Cited:
Aranda, Pilar E. Rodríguez. "On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview
with Writer Sandra Cisneros." The Americas Review. 18.1 (1990): 65-75.
Cisneros, Sandra. "Never Marry A Mexican." Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House,
1991. 68-83.
Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Mississippi: Oxford UP, 1992. Online. Internet. 26 January 1999.
Available http://ww.smpcollege.com/experience_literature/fiction/cisneros.htm
Lowry, Kathy. "The Purple Passion of Sandra Cisneros." Texas Monthly. 25 (1997): 154-50. Online. Wilsonweb.
Internet. 1 February 1999. Available http://vweb.hwwilsonweb.com/cgi-bin/webspirs.cgi
Satz, Martha. "Returning to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros." Southwest Review. 82 (1997): 166-85.
Online. Wilsonweb. Internet. 1 February 1999. Available http://vweb.hwwilsonweb.com/cgi-bin/webspirs.cgi
Moral / Philosophical Approach:
Moral / philosophical critics believe that the larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and to probe
philosophical issues.
Matthew Arnold -- argued works must have "high seriousness"
Plato -- insisted literature must exhibit moralism and utilitarianism
Horace - felt literature should be "delightful and instructive"
This approach is useful for such works as Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," which does present an obvious moral
philosophy. It is also useful when considering the themes of works (for example, man's inhumanity to man in Mark
Twain's Huckelberry Finn). Finally, it does not view literature merely as "art" isolated from all moral implications; it
recognizes that literature can affect readers, whether subtly or directly, and that the message of a work--and not just
the decorous vehicle for that message--is important.
Detractors argue that such an approach can be too "judgmental." Some believe literature should be judged primarily
(if not solely) on its artistic merits, not its moral or philosophical content.
Mimetic Approach:
This can be closely related to the moral / philosophical approach, but is somewhat broader. Mimetic critics ask how
well the work of literature accords with the real world. Is it accurate? Is it correct? Is it moral? Does it show how
people really act? As such, mimetic criticism can include some forms of moral / philosophical criticism,
psychological criticism, and feminist criticism.
Formalism / New Criticism
A formalistic approach to literature, once called New Criticism, involves a close reading of the text. Formalistic critics
believe that all information essential to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself; there is no
need to bring in outside information about the history, politics, or society of the time, or about the author's life.
Formalistic critics (presumably) do not view works through the lens of feminism, psychology, mythology, or any other
such standpoint, and they are not interested in the work's affect on the reader. Formalistic critics spend much time
analyzing irony, paradox, imagery, and metaphor. They are also interested in the work's setting, characters, symbols,
and point of view.
Terms Used in New Criticism:
tension - the integral unity of the poem which results from the resolution of opposites, often in irony of
intentional fallacy - the belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author's
affective fallacy - the belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by its affect on the
external form - rhyme scheme, meter, stanza form, etc.
objective correlative - originated by T.S. Eliot, this term refers to a collection of objects, situations, or events
that instantly evoke a particular emotion.
I.A. Richards, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and others.
This approach can be performed without much research, and it emphasizes the value of literature apart from its
context (in effect makes literature timeless). Virtually all critical approaches must begin here.
The text is seen in isolation. Formalism ignores the context of the work. It cannot account for allusions. It tends to
reduce literature to little more than a collection of rhetorical devices.
(1) A formalistic approach to John Milton's Paradise Lost would take into account the physical description of the
Garden of Eden and its prescribed location, the symbols of hands, seed, and flower, the characters of Adam, Eve, Satan,
and God, the epic similes and metaphors, and the point of view from which the tale is being told (whether it be the
narrator's, God's, or Satan's). But such an approach would not discuss the work in terms of Milton's own blindness, or in
terms of his Puritan beliefs. Therefore when the narrator says "what in me is dark / Illumine," a formalistic critic could
not interpret that in light of Milton's blindness. He would have to find its meaning in the text itself, and therefore
would have to overlook the potential double-meaning.
(2) A formalistic approach to the short story "Silence of the Llano" by Rudolfo Anaya might force us to see the
incestuous relationship that is established at the end of the story as a positive alternative to loneliness. If we were to
take into account external things, such as morality, we could not help but be horrified at such a conclusion. But in
studying the symbols, setting, and structure of "The Silence of the Llano," we get an opposite picture. The setting of the
llano, its isolation and desolation, make its loneliness the primary evil of the story, in contrast to the town where
people can escape the loneliness, where Rafael can find love, and where men can talk. The only way to survive the
llano is to make it more like the town--to fill it with love and words and anything to escape the loneliness. "Words" are
positively contrasted to "silence," as is "winter" to "spring" and "growth" to "death." The silence of the llano is constantly
referred to, and Rafael's parents die in winter. But when Rafael marries, his wife makes a garden to grow in the
desolate llano, and he can hear her voice. When Rafael establishes the incestuous relationship at the close of the
story, he finally speaks to his daughter, and words break the long silence. He tells her that the "spring is the time for
the garden. I will turn the earth for you. The seeds will grow." (182). Growth, spring, and words--the primary symbols
which are positively contrasted to death, winter, and silence--are all combined in the close. The disadvantage of this
formalistic approach is that it does not allow us to account for most readers' natural (and appropriate) response of
disgust to the incestuous relationship or to examine how that affects the ability of the author to communicate his story.
Some would argue that an understanding of the text is where criticism should begin, and not where it ends. We should
also relate the text to life, ideas, and morality.
Evidence of the New Orthodoxy:
Sound in William Shakespeare's The Tempest
(A Formalist Critical Approach)
© Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
Please Note: This is an academic exercise that takes a formalistic approach (focusing specifically on the use of sounds)
to William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. This is not intended to be a well-developed critical paper, but it should
prove a useful tool for examining one aspect of Shakespeare’s work. It should also serve to provide an example for
students of the formalistic critical approach to literature.
Critics have offered varying evaluations of the characters in William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Some consider
Prospero to be magnanimous for forgiving his enemies, for freeing Ariel from the confines of a tree, and for treating
Caliban with great sympathy until the monster's attempted rape of Miranda. Others view Prospero as an oppressive
colonizer and consider both Caliban and Ariel to be his innocent and mistreated subjects. In his article "Reading The
Tempest," Russ McDonald argues that the new orthodox interpretation of The Tempest, "which exalts the colonized, is
as narrow as the old, which idealizes and excuses the colonizer" (117). He argues that the actual status of the characters
is considerably more ambiguous, and he supports his view by analyzing the rhetorical devices present in the play.
However, a close examination of the various sounds disbursed throughout the work--including speech, silence, and
music--tends to support a less ambiguous view of the characters. Indeed, it tends to lend support to the new orthodox
view that Prospero is an oppressive colonizer, for he often threatens his enemies and servants with unpleasant sounds
and demands silence from others, including his daughter.
The play begins with a ship's crew being subject to terrifying sounds that Prospero has ordered Ariel to produce. The
sounds are all loud: "whistle," "storm," "cry," "thunderclaps," "fire and cracks," and "roaring" (1.1.7, 14; 1.2.203-5; 2.1.2). The
terror that these sounds and the accompanying storm inflict upon the mariners is evidenced by their cries: "All lost! To
prayers! To prayers! All lost!" (1.1.52). The infliction of these sounds is also made to appear unjust when Miranda pleads
with her father: "If . . . you have / Put these wild waters in this roar, allay them. / . . . O, the cry did knock / Against my
very heart. Poor souls, they perished!" (2.1.1-9).
Indeed, Prospero often refers to unpleasant sounds as a means of threatening others. "I will plague them all, / Even to
roaring," he says of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano (4.1.188-214). When Prospero believes Ariel is not providing an
eager and willful service, he threatens the spirit with imprisonment in a tree, reminding Ariel that when he was
previously trapped, his "groans / Did make wolves howl" (1.2.289-90). Prospero also tells him, "Thou hast howled
away twelve winters" (1.2.298). Similarly, Prospero threatens Caliban, carrying out his threats and subjecting the
monster to tortures accompanied by unpleasant sounds. Caliban describes them thus:
For every trifle are they set upon me,
Sometimes like apes, that mow and chatter at me
. . . Sometimes am I
All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness. (2.2.4-14; emphasis added)
Indeed, it seems that Prospero is fascinated with sounds that represent his power, his ability to control others. He
reflects on his work, and in this short speech, he repeatedly employs sounds that emphasize its serious and powerful
Ye elves of the hills . . .
. . . that rejoice
to hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
. . . I have . . .
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake . . . (5.1.33-47; emphasis added).
Interestingly, this sound-filled speech of Prospero's contrasts sharply with Caliban's own most sound-filled speech.
Caliban refers to a number of sounds in his famous speech about the island:
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again . . . (3.2.137-42; emphasis added).
Caliban's sensitivity to these sounds, his ability to appreciate their beauty, and the fact that they affect him very
deeply makes Prospero's authoritative claim that "stripes may move" him, but "not kindness" highly questionable
In addition to using unpleasant noises to threaten others, Prospero also asserts his authority by demanding silence.
When Ariel requests his liberty, Prospero demands silent obedience instead. "If thou murmurst," he tells Ariel, "I will
rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails" (1.2.296-97). Prospero's angry insistence on Ariel's silence,
accompanied with numerous reminders of the groans and howlings Ariel once endured and might endure again,
suggests a tyrannical personality.
Prospero demands this constant silent submission even of his own daughter. "Ope thine ear," he tells Miranda (1.2.37).
"Dost thou hear?" he asks (1.2.106). Miranda replies, "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness," which not only suggests the
amazing nature of the tale but also hints at the tyrannical manner in which Prospero demands an attentive audience
for it (1.2.106). He also tells Miranda to "cease more questions." Later he orders her, "Speak not you for him [Ferdinand]"
and again "Speak not for him" (1.2.185, 506). Even more forcefully, he commands her, "Silence! One word more / Shall
make me chide thee . . . Hush!" (1.2.479-81). At the masque for Ferdinand and Miranda's wedding, when his work is not
being afforded the respect he apparently believes it deserves, he orders them both, "No tongue! All eyes! Be silent!"
and "Sweet now, silence! / . . . Hush and be mute" (4.1.125-27, 59). His insistence on their silence seems to be an
assertion of his own importance and a demand that they be subject to him and recognize his work as crucial (much as a
colonizer might wish to receive gratitude for the good he has done his subjects).
Prospero's insistence on silence contrasts sharply with Caliban's humble request for it. Caliban asks Stephano and
Trinculo, "Pray you, tread softly" and "Good my lord, give me thy favor still . . . speak softly. / All's hushed at midnight
yet" (4.1.194, 204-7). "Prithee, my king," he pleads, "be quiet . . . No noise, and enter" (4.1.215-16). Caliban does not even
ask for complete silence, only that all be done "softly," and he prefaces his requests with "pray" and "prithee." He is not
demanding and, unlike Prospero, makes no threats.
Prospero's assertions are more like Stephano's, who says, "Be you quiet, monster" (4.1.236). Prospero also resembles the
morally dubious Stephano in they way he orders others to speak. Stephano orders Caliban, "Mooncalf, speak"" (3.1.21).
Likewise, Prospero orders Caliban, "Thou earth, thou! Speak" (1.2.317). Both preface their commands with a derogatory
epithet. Prospero also commands Ariel, "Speak. Tell me" (1.2.262). He tells Ferdinand to "talk with her [Miranda]. She is
thine own" (4.1.33). Prospero demands speech in much the same way that he demands silence. He expects others to
remain silent and subject before him, speaking only when spoken to.
It is not true that there are no ambiguities about the issue of Prospero as the oppressive "colonizer" or of Caliban and
others as the sympathetic "colonized." But an in-depth analysis of sounds in The Tempest does tend to support the new
orthodox view of Prospero as a somewhat tyrannical colonizer. He threatens others with unpleasant sounds and
demands silence of them. Of course, there are other issues that a formal analysis of sounds alone does not allow us to
address. If Caliban is really an attempted rapist, might not Prospero's treatment of him be justified, perhaps even
lenient? Might Prospero's treatment of his enemies, considering that they usurped his authority and set him adrift, be
considered merciful? And yet, can it be considered just that Prospero allows Ferdinand to believe his father dead,
when Ferdinand himself has played no role in the usurpation? These are questions worth examining in depth. A
formal analysis of sounds merely allows us to scratch the surface of this ragging debate. But such an analysis does at
least allow us to suggest that it is perhaps too early to dismiss even extreme interpretations, and far too early to
determinantly conclude that the character of Prospero can only be considered ambiguous.
Psychological Approach
Psychological critics view works through the lens of psychology. They look either at the psychological motivations of
the characters or of the authors themselves, although the former is generally considered a more respectable approach.
Most frequently, psychological critics apply Freudian psychology to works, but other approaches (such as a Jungian
approach) also exist.
Freudian Approach:
A Freudian approach often includes pinpointing the influences of a character's id (the instinctual, pleasure seeking
part of the mind), superego (the part of the mind that represses the id's impulses) and the ego (the part of the mind that
controls but does not repress the id's impulses, releasing them in a healthy way). Freudian critics like to point out the
sexual implications of symbols and imagery, since Freud's believed that all human behavior is motivated by sexuality.
They tend to see concave images, such as ponds, flowers, cups, and caves as female symbols; whereas objects that are
longer than they are wide are usually seen as phallic symbols. Dancing, riding, and flying are associated with sexual
pleasure. Water is usually associated with birth, the female principle, the maternal, the womb, and the death wish.
Freudian critics occasionally discern the presence of an Oedipus complex (a boy's unconscious rivalry with his father
for the love of his mother) in the male characters of certain works, such as Hamlet. They may also refer to Freud's
psychology of child development, which includes the oral stage, the anal stage, and the genital stage.
Jungian Approach:
Jung is also an influential force in myth (archetypal) criticism. Psychological critics are generally concerned with his
concept of the process of individuation (the process of discovering what makes one different form everyone else). Jung
labeled three parts of the self: the shadow, or the darker, unconscious self (usually the villain in literature); the
persona, or a man's social personality (usually the hero); and the anima, or a man's "soul image" (usually the heroine). A
neurosis occurs when someone fails to assimilate one of these unconscious components into his conscious and projects
it on someone else. The persona must be flexible and be able to balance the components of the psyche.
Ernest Jones, Otto Rank, Marie Boaparte, and others
It can be a useful tool for understanding some works, such as Henry James The Turning of the Screw, in which
characters obviously have psychological issues. Like the biographical approach, knowing something about a writer's
psychological make up can give us insight into his work.
Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a
piece of art. Critics sometimes attempt to diagnose long dead authors based on their works, which is perhaps not the
best evidence of their psychology. Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Finally,
some works do not lend themselves readily to this approach.
(1) A psychological approach to John Milton's Samson Agonisties might suggest that the shorning of Samson's locks is
symbolic of his castration at the hands of Dalila and that the fighting words he exchanges with Harapha constitute a
reassertion of his manhood. Psychological critics might see Samson's bondage as a symbol of his sexual impotency, and
his destruction of the Philistine temple and the killing of himself and many others as a final orgasmic event (since
death and sex are often closely associated in Freudian psychology). The total absence of Samson's mother in Samson
Agonisties would make it difficult to argue anything regarding the Oedipus complex, but Samson refusal to be cared
for by his father and his remorse over failing to rule Dalila may be seen as indicative of his own fears regarding his
(2) A psychological approach to "The Silence of the Llano" would allow us to look into the motivations of Rafael--it
would allow us to examine the effects of isolation and loneliness on his character and provide some reasoning for why
he might chose to establish an incestuous relationship with his daughter. A specifically Freudian approach will tune
us in to the relevant symbolism which will enable us to better understand the conclusion. For instance, with such a
mind frame, we can immediately recognize that Rafael's statement to his daughter "I will turn the earth for you. The
seeds will grow" is the establishment of a sexual relationship that will result in children. We can see the water in
which she bathes as symbolic of that birth that is to come.
A Freudian Analysis of Erin McGraw's "A Thief"
© Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
Note: This is an academic exercise that takes a psychological critical approach to Erin McGraw’s short story, "A Thief."
This is not intended to be a well-developed critical paper, but it should prove a useful tool for examining one aspect of
McGraw’s work. It should also serve to help students learn more about the use of the psychological (particularly
Freudian) critical approach to literature.
Erin McGraw's short story, "A Thief," is susceptible to a Freudian interpretation. The main character of the story,
Evelyn, suffers from an inactive or perhaps wholly absent ego. The superego and the id, without the ego to mediate
between them by regulating "the instinctual drives of the id so that they may be released in nondestructive
behavioral patterns" (Guerin 121), inevitably clash. Because Evelyn's superego represses her sexual desires, her id
strains against it and seeks release through thievery, which eventually becomes a complete substitute for sex.
At the beginning of the story, Evelyn clearly suffers from an excessively powerful superego. In Freudian psychology,
the superego "serves to repress or inhibit the drives of the id, to block off and thrust back...those impulses toward
pleasure that society regards as unacceptable." (Guerin 120). Evelyn unconsciously regards sex as unacceptable, and
her superego will not allow her to experience such pleasure. Her dress and mannerisms reveal her inhibited nature.
The "crease in her trousers [hangs] sharp and specific;" she speaks with "unflagging diction and meticulous
pronunciation;" she even folds her dirty blouse before "placing it in the laundry basket" (18). She obviously cannot
allow herself to engage in any behaviors which might break or disturb this fastidious routine.
Yet, despite the seeming predominance of her superego at the start of the story, Evelyn's id soon begins to strain
against it. When she sees the cats copulating under the bed, she says, "It is difficult to ignore this" (18). It is difficult for
her to ignore her sexual urges. And although she technically concedes to her superego's sexual inhibition by
abstaining from sex, ironically her id leads her to find an even less morally acceptable outlet: thievery.
At first, the thievery is not a complete substitute for sex. "It [is] scarcely even thrilling" (19). However, Evelyn does
manage to escape the guilt her superego would inevitably attach to an actual sex act. "She [does] not hurry. She
behave[s] as if this were an everyday activity, something that was moral, clean," and she does at least feel "a sharp
sting of satisfaction" (19). The thievery soon becomes more sexual. When she steals the bracelet, "she [is] warm with
seamless, liquid pleasure" (19). She feels "heightened, as if charges were racing inexhaustibly over her nerve endings"
(20). Her id begins to exert itself more forcefully. "What had once been pure order had become defiance" (21). She feels
"bold and daring," and, perhaps most importantly, she escapes both the guilt and reservation that her superego had
attached to actual sex because she no longer fears "detection" (21).
Although her id becomes more apparent as the story progresses, the only evidence which can be found of the
existence of Evelyn's ego appears in her statement about the watch she steals: "One must be careful," she says, "not to
leave the watch open for long periods, since the smallest particles of dust can cause malfunction. But it is a pleasure,
from time to time, to look at a well-crafted piece of machinery" (22). Here, moderation, and not repression, is urged. If
her ego were stronger, Evelyn could handle her id when it began to assert itself. But because this is the only time the
ego even seems to make an appearance, the superego and the id are left to battle one another.
This battle is allegorized when Evelyn walks her dogs. The id strains violently against the superego, as the dogs tug "at
their leashes so hard that Evelyn [veers] acutely to the left" (22). Her superego attempts to reign in the id: "She [gives]
a sharp snap, and [the dogs slouch] back onto the sidewalk." (22). But the superego's attempt is futile; the assertion of
her id through the thievery is "not just a fluke...The order of her life [has] opened up like huge jaws," and soon the dogs
(her id) are "straining again, intent and urgent" (22-23). Motivated by her superego's concern that if she continues to
indulge them (the dogs and her passions), they will "dig until [they] hang [themselves]," she calls them twice, "the
second time so sharply that they [slink] back to her as one penitent body" (23). But soon the dogs straining again, this
time in three directions, and she indulges her id, flaring "her own nostrils experimentally" like the dogs and feeling
that "she wanted to pound the softest flesh of her body against stone and sand for the pure pleasure of touch" (23). She
yearns to completely indulge her id, engaging in fierce sex, going down with the dogs "until she was shoulder deep,
deeper" (23).
Finally, the id releases itself in an orgasmic frenzy. With a stolen pen, Evelyn engages in an act which is clearly sexual.
The pen is phallic, "full between her fingers" with a "barrel" and a "nib narrowed to a point of such tense delicacy that
Evelyn could hear as well as see the ink flow" (24). In her unoccupied guest house, she writes with the pen, bearing
"down until the pen quivers] in her hand and its tip rip[s] through the page," an obvious metaphor for sexual
penetration (27). However, after the orgasmic experience, when the ink (representative of semen) puddles on the
"clean floor," Evelyn's superego reasserts itself, and she stops, "dropping the pen" and realizing that if "she didn't hurry,
she would have to spend hours scrubbing at the blue stain on her floor" (27). The superego reintroduces guilt into the
sex act, and she quickly scurries to catch the ink on paper. Having achieved orgasm, she is able to relax; she lays "her
cheek to the page and" sleeps (27).
Despite this orgasmic experience, the id has not yet found a complete substitute for sex. Evelyn's sexual urges are
motivated partly by her unconscious desire to have a baby. The narrator makes repeated references to children. The
art teacher to whom Evelyn rented the guest house calls her students her children and herself has a baby boy (25-26).
Evelyn's sister stays with her baby boy in the guest house (25). Indeed, it is the emptiness of the guest house which
motivates Evelyn to engage in the orgasmic writing experience, because it is "a shame that such a house should
remain unoccupied" (27). It is a shame that Evelyn herself cannot have a baby. Sex is the logical way to obtain a baby.
Earlier, she had realized that "Digging [sex] was the way to find treasures [babies]" (23). But the id's substitute for sex,
thievery, has not yet brought Evelyn that treasure.
The id finally finds a complete substitute for sex when Evelyn actually steals a baby. She tells the baby the house, the
house that was shamefully empty, is "a good house for babies" (30). She confesses that she can not overcome her
desires. "People will tell you," she say to the baby, "that you outgrow desires, but they're wrong" (30). Unconsciously,
she has long desired not just sex, but the product of sex, a baby. "We aren't meant," she says, "we never were, to live
alone" (30).
The stealing of the baby is the climax of the story because it at last represents the id's triumph. Without an ego to
release her desire in a healthy manner, Evelyn must give in either to her id or to her superego. In a sense, she fools her
superego to indulge her id. Because her superego does not permit her to have sex, the id enables her to find a
complete substitute, and the end result, ironically, is far worse than any illicit sex; it is kidnapping. Evelyn looks "down
at the child" and waits "for it, the wave of exhilaration that would come crashing down on her with the force of a
lifetime" (30). At last, all her desires are fulfilled, if not through the sex act, then at least through thievery.
Works Cited
Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
McGraw, Erin. "A Thief."
Mythological / Archetypal / Symbolic
Note: "Symbolic" approaches may also fall under the category of formalism because they involve a close reading of
the text. Myth criticism generally has broader, more universal applications than symbolic criticism, although both
assume that certain images have a fairly universal affect on readers.
A mythological / archetypal approach to literature assumes that there is a collection of symbols, images, characters,
and motifs (i.e. archetypes) that evokes basically the same response in all people. According to the psychologist Carl
Jung, mankind possesses a "collective unconscious" that contains these archetypes and that is common to all of
humanity. Myth critics identify these archetypal patterns and discuss how they function in the works. They believe
that these archetypes are the source of much of literature's power.
Some Archetypes (See A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature for a complete list):
archetypal women - the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother, and the Soul Mate (such as the Virgin Mary)
water - creation, birth-death-resurrection, purification, redemption, fertility, growth
garden - paradise (Eden), innocence, fertility
desert - spiritual emptiness, death, hopelessness
red - blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder
green - growth, fertility
black - chaos, death, evil
serpent - evil, sensuality, mystery, wisdom, destruction
seven - perfection
shadow, persona, and anima (see psychological criticism)
hero archetype - The hero is involved in a quest (in which he overcomes obstacles). He experiences
initiation (involving a separation, transformation, and return), and finally he serves as a scapegoat, that is, he
dies to atone.
Maud Bodkin, Bettina L. Knapp, and others.
Provides a universalistic approach to literature and identifies a reason why certain literature may survive the test of
time. It works well with works that are highly symbolic.
Literature may become little more than a vehicle for archetypes, and this approach may ignore the "art" of literature.
(1) In Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner, for example, we might view Isaac McCaslin's repudiation of the land as an
attempt to deny the existence of his archetypal shadow--that dark part of him that maintains some degree of
complicity in slavery. When he sees the granddaughter of Jim, and can barely tell she is black, his horrified reaction
to the miscegenation of the races may be indicative of his shadow's (his deeply racist dark side's) emergence.
(2) In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Fedallah can be seen as Ahab's shadow, his defiant pagan side wholly
unrestrained. Numerous archetypes appear in Moby Dick. The sea is associated both with spiritual mystery (Ahab is
ultimately on a spiritual quest to defy God because evil exists) and with death and rebirth (all but Ishmael die at sea,
but Ahab's death as if crucified is suggestive of rebirth). Three is symbolic of spiritual awareness; thus we see numerous
triads in Moby Dick, including Ahab's three mysterious crew members and the three harpooners.
(3) In "The Silence of the Llano" by Rudolfo Anaya, a mythological / archetypal approach would allow us to examine
the archetypes that illicit similar reactions in most readers. We can see how Anaya is drawing on the archetype of
water to imply purification (when Rita bathes after her period) and fertility and growth (when Rita washes before the
incestuous relationship is established). The red blood Rita washes away calls up visions of violent passions, which will
be evidenced in the rape. The garden conjures up images of innocence, unspoiled beauty, and fertility. Thus, the
reader can sense in the end that a state of innocence has been regained and that growth will ensue. This approach,
however, is limited in that by assuming it, the critic may begin to view the story not as a work within itself, but merely
as a vessel for transmitting these archetypes . He may also overlook the possibility that some symbols are not
associated with their archetype; for instance, the sun, which normally implies the passage of time, seems in its intensity
in the llano to actually suggest a slowing down of time, a near static state in the llano.
A Catalogue of Symbols in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
© Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
Note: This is an academic exercise that takes a symbolic approach to Kate Chopin’s novelette. My conclusions, drawn
from the symbolism, amount to an anti-feminist reading of the text. This is not intended to be a well-developed
critical paper, but it should prove a useful tool for examining one aspect of Chopin’s work. It should also serve to help
students learn more about the use of symbols and archetypes in literature and criticism. (Source Used: The Penguin
Dictionary of Symbols ed. Jean Chevalier and Alian Gheerbrant, Trans. John Buchanan-Brown, London: England,
Generally, Edna's "awakening" has been viewed positively by feminist critics and has been described as a sort of
intellectual maturing or liberation. However, although some of the symbols catalogued below represent Edna and/or
her "awakening" in a positive light, a great many of them imply that her "awakening" may be little more than a selfish
delusion that causes her to lose a valuable, if conventional, life:
BLUE--Adčle Ratignolle eyes are described as "blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires" (527). According to
The Dictionary, blue, at once the coldest and purest of colors, is "insubstantial in itself [and] disembodies whatever
becomes caught in it." It is associated with calm, eternity, potentiality, and emptiness. This symbolism mirrors the
ambiguity with which Madame Ratignolle is presented. On the one hand, she experiences "blind contentment"; she is
utterly free from "anguish" and realizes, with her husband, the potential of "the fusion of two human beings." On the
other hand, Edna sees her existence as "colorless" and as a "hopeless ennui." (552).
RED--Adčle's lips are red (527). The Dictionary says that dark red (and since Adčle's lips are described as being like
cherries, they are probably dark red) is "nocturnal, female, secret," representative of the "mystery of life" and the color
of the fire that burns within the individual. This tends to offset the negative aspect of the blue symbolism and to
suggest that perhaps Edna is misjudging Adčle when she thinks of her as "colorless." Her domestic bliss, which Edna
considers "hopeless ennui," may in fact be a manifestation of the "mystery of life."
FOUNTAIN--A fountain can be heard at Edna's party (570). The Dictionary calls springs "symbols of motherhood." In
traditional cultures, "springs are well known as symbols of the beginning of life and . . . of all beginnings, of genius,
power, grace, and all good fortune." It is interesting to note, however, that the fountain's splash is described as
"monotonous." This might imply that motherhood has become monotonous for the newly awakened and liberated
Edna; but it may also suggest that her new beginning (which feminist critics consider to possess more genius, power,
grace, and good fortune than her old, conventional life) is in reality simply monotonous, and that she deceives herself
when she considers the domestic bliss of Adčle to be a "hopeless ennui," because the greater monotony is found in
Edna's self-absorption.
YELLOW--Edna is repeatedly associated with the color yellow. Her hair is yellowish brown (524). At her party, the
table has a pale yellow satin cover; the candles are burning under yellow silk shades; there are yellow roses; and Edna
is wearing a gown described as having both a "golden shimmer" and a "yellow shimmer" (569-71). The Dictionary
describes yellow as the most powerful of all the colors in its intensity and violence and says that it always overflows
"the limits with which one tries to confine it." This is descriptive of Edna's awakened personality, which overflows the
conventions of Creole society in an intense and, ultimately, violent way. Yellow, being a herald of death, may
foreshadow Edna's suicide. Negatively, yellow is associated with adultery, overweening pride, an intellect which will
feed only upon itself, cruelty, deceit, and cynicism. Thus, it may signify that Edna's "awakening" is really little more
than a cruel, selfish rejection of the family she should instead cherish.
VASE--Edna breaks a vase (550). Significantly, The Dictionary tells us that to "break a vase is to destroy, through
ignorance, the treasure for which it stands." Edna's shattering of the vase, then, could conceivably symbolize that she is
throwing away a perfectly good life with a decent husband because of her misguided feminist notions.
CAT--Edna finds a "drowsy cat" and spends time stroking it (578). Although The Dictionary concedes that the cat is
viewed in a positive light by some cultures (such as the Egyptian), to the Kabbalist and Buddhist, it is an "emblem of
'sin and the misuse of the good things of this world.'" Edna's association with the cat may (like her breaking of the vase)
symbolize her misuse (her ignorant rejection) of her life as a wife and mother.
LEAVES--A Far Eastern symbol of good fortune and prosperity, a bunch of leaves, says The Dictionary, "denotes a
group as a whole in joint action or common purpose." The fact that Edna is picking "dead, dry leaves" may symbolize
her bad fortune (i.e. her eventual suicide), which results from her rejection of the group, that is, the community of
Creoles (561).
MOON--Edna is very often associated with the moon or with moonlight (536, 537, 538, 539,541). The moon, The
Dictionary tells us, makes no light of its own and changes shape as it goes through its regular phases. "This is why it
symbolizes dependence and, invariably, the female principle, as well as periodical change and renewal." It is a symbol
of growth, life-rhythms, cold knowledge, fertility, sexual laxity (Mayan), dreams, and the unhealthy imaginings which
that from the subconscious. Thus, Edna's "awakening" may be seen as something artificial; not a bird soaring high, as
Madame Reisz desired her awakening to be, but an "unhealthy imagining," a self-deception, which grows out of her
sexual laxity.
RINGS--Edna had given her husband her rings; when she returns from the beach, she "silently reache[s] out to him,
and he, understanding, t[akes] the rings from his vest pocket and drop[s] them into her open palm" (524). Rings,
according to The Dictionary, simultaneously bind and isolate. Therefore, the rings may symbolize Edna's feeling of
isolation within the Creole community to which she is bound by marriage. "In Christian tradition, rings symbolize
faithful affection freely given." But Edna's affection is not freely given; she does not marry for love. So her wedding
ring becomes a lie, and she takes it off, flinging it to the carpet and stomping on it (550). But in Irish poetry, the force or
bond of a ring could not be broken, even if the ring were lost. And Prometheus's ring "symbolized the fate from which
no human can escape." Thus, the ring may symbolize that Edna can not free herself from the bonds she has formed, and
her only escape, if she must insist on escape, is suicide.
DOG--Edna hears the "barking of an old dog" as she drowns in the suicide scene (584). The Dictionary describes
several aspects of the symbolism of the dog: "culture-hero, mythic ancestor, symbol of sexual potency . . . seducer,
lacking chastity, overflowing with vitality . . .or fruit of unlawful marriage." The dog, "the sage - or saint - purifies
himself by devouring himself; in other words, by an act of self-sacrifice he finally reaches the last stage of spiritual
self-mastery." The barking of the dog might symbolize Edna's purification; by devouring herself through suicide, she
wisely escapes a conventional life, and thus becomes master of herself through death. However, it may also conversely
symbolize her refusal to allow herself to be devoured for the sake of her children; she may be dying to escape that very
self-sacrifice, and the barking dog may be a reminder of her selfish choice, which she makes because she lacks
chastity and the will power to live as a faithful wife and mother.
BEE--When she dies, Edna also hears the hum of bees (584). This is one symbol that does not seem to fit the negative
symbolic pattern. For The Dictionary calls the bee the symbol of the soul, of the afterlife, of resurrection, eloquence,
poetry, and the mind. This implies that Edna's "awakening" is indeed a positive intellectual experience. On the other
hand, the hum of the bees may be a cruel irony; for "bees collectively ensure the survival of their species," and Edna,
having removed herself from the community, can now no longer survive.
BIRD/WING--When Edna goes to commit suicide, a bird with a broken wing flutters above (583). The bird, which
stands in opposition to the serpent, can represent (according to The Dictionary) the soul or intellect escaping from the
body, a forewarning or message from heaven, lightness and freedom from heaviness, or fate ( Koran). "Those who offer
sacrifice...are often described . . . as 'birds flying skywards.'" Negatively, birds might be seen as symbols of "distraction."
Thus, it is possible that the bird with the broken wing in the suicide scene may symbolize either Edna's mental
distraction and consequent inability to sacrifice for her children or her failure to liberate her soul and free herself
from convention by continuing to live an awakened life. The latter view may be supported by the symbolism of
WINGS, which are "an expression of rising to the sublime and of striving to transcend the human condition." But again,
if "the human condition" is viewed as innately sinful, and pride is the original sin, then the broken wing could
represent Edna's failure to transcend her pride by sacrificing herself for her husband and children.
WAVES--Edna tells Robert that she has been seeing the "waves and white beach of Grand Isle" while he was gone
(576). Waves, says The Dictionary, may "be stirred to violence by external forces and their passivity is as dangerous as
their uncontrolled activity. They stand for all the power of massive inertia." In the Old Testament they symbolize
dangers of both the physical and moral order. In The Awakening, they may symbolize that rebellion against a
conventional lifestyle ("uncontrolled activity") is just as dangerous as complete subjection to it ("passivity"). The waves'
"massive inertia" may represent the inability of Edna to stop (and return to a conventional life) after once starting
down the path of rebellion. They may also symbolize the moral danger she must face: the temptation to chose selfindulgence and individuality over self-sacrifice and community.
CITY--The city is a fitting symbol for Madame Reiz (548). "Contemporary psychoanalysis," says The Dictionary, "
regards the city as one of the symbols of the MOTHER in her dual aspect of protectress and controller. In general the
city is akin to the female principle." Madame Reiz attempts to play this role of protectress and controller for Edna.
PARASOL--Edna can be found with a parasol (555). The Dictionary describes it as a symbol of heaven and an
emblem of kingship. "The parasol attracts attention, not to the Sun above it, but to the Sun below it, that is to the
individual concerned. It tends towards interiorization." This is appropriate for Edna, who begins a process of
internalization, which leads her to withdraw from society and her husband, consequently drawing attention to herself
by this unusual and unexpected behavior.
UMBRELLA--While Edna is associated with the parasol, Robert is associated with an umbrella (540). Unlike the
parasol, it is associated with darkness, withdrawal, and protectiveness, according to The Dictionary. "Symbolically, it
is more inclined to reveal a timid refusal of the principles of fecundation, either in physical or spiritual shape." This is
fitting for Robert, who suppresses his desire for Edna for some time.
HORSE--Edna and Arobin go to the horse races together. Afterward, when she is alone with him, Edna finds that he
"repel[s] the old, vanishing self in her, yet [draws] all her awakening sensuousness." This is appropriate considering
that the horse is, according to The Dictionary, a carrier of both death and life and a symbol of "the onrush of desire."
FAN--Edna uses a fan (524). The Dictionary calls the fan a symbol of ritual sacrifice, an emblem of kingship, an
instrument of bodily liberation, and a screen against evil influence. If Edna's awakening is viewed in a positive light,
we might say that the fan symbolizes how her sexual liberation and awakening, which results in a ritual sacrifice (her
suicide), manages to protect her from evil (a conventional life).
Feminist Approach
Feminist criticism is concerned with the impact of gender on writing and reading. It usually begins with a critique of
patriarchal culture. It is concerned with the place of female writers in the cannon. Finally, it includes a search for a
feminine theory or approach to texts. Feminist criticism is political and often revisionist. Feminists often argue that
male fears are portrayed through female characters. They may argue that gender determines everything, or just the
opposite: that all gender differences are imposed by society, and gender determines nothing.
Elaine Showalter's Theory:
In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter argued that literary subcultures all go through three major phases of
development. For literature by or about women, she labels these stages the Feminine, Feminist, and Female:
(1) Feminine Stage - involves "imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition" and "internalization of its
(2) Feminist Stage - involves "protest against these standards and values and advocacy of minority rights...."
(3) Female Stage - this is the "phase of self-discovery, a turning inwards freed from some of the dependency of
opposition, a search for identity."
Ellen Mores, Sandra Gilbert, Elaine Showalter, Nina Baym, etc.
Women have been somewhat underrepresented in the traditional cannon, and a feminist approach to literature
redresses this problem.
Feminist turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider
"patriarchal." When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style, they tend to relegate women's literature to a ghetto
status; this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary cannon. The feminist
approach is often too theoretical.
Showalter's three stages of feminine, feminist, and female are identifiable in the life of Cleófilas in Sandra Cisneros's
"Woman Hollering Creek."
Cleófilas begins to internalize the paternalistic values of the society in which she lives at least as early as the ice
house scene. She "accompanies her husband," as is expected of her (48). Since women should be seen and not heard in a
paternalistic society, she "sits mute beside their conversation" (48). She goes through all of the motions that are
expected of her, laughing "at the appropriate moments" (48). She submits, if unhappily, to the rule of her husband, "this
man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come" (49).
Yet Cleófilas gradually begins to emerge from the feminine stage into the feminist stage, where she begins to revolt
and advocate for her own rights. It begins with "[a] doubt. Slender as a hair" (50). When she returns from the hospital
with her new son, something seems different. "No. Her imagination. The house was the same as always. Nothing" (50).
This is true because the house is not different; it is Cleófilas who has begun to change. Perhaps giving birth to a child
has made her aware of the power and importance women possess. She begins to think of returning home, but is not
ready for the possibility yet. It would be "a disgrace" (50). She begins to internally protest against the society, thinking
about the town "with its silly pride for a bronze pecan" and the fact that there is "nothing, nothing, nothing of interest"
(50). The patriarchal society, with its ice house, city hall, liquor stores, and bail bonds is of no interest to her. She is
upset that the town is built so that "you have to depend on husbands" (51). Though her husband says she is
"exaggerating," she seems to be becoming convinced that her society is a bad one, where men kill their wives with
impunity. "It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one
pushed from a moving car . . ." (52). Although she does nothing when he throws a book at her, Cleófilas does (if only
meekly) insist that he take her to the doctor. And there she solidifies her internal rebellion with actions: she leaves her
husband with Felice to return to Mexico.
Felice is actually more representative of the third, female, stage than Cleófilas, but the fact that Cleófilas enjoys her
company suggests that when she returns to Mexico, she may seek to enter that third stage herself. Felice is not
phalocentric--she is not interested in revolting against men, she simply does not need them. She doesn't have a
husband and she owns her own car. "The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it" (55).
Felice is most likely a part of a community of women; she is certainly friends with the nurse Graciela. Cleófilas is
attracted to Felice, who "was like no woman she'd ever met" (55). At home, in Mexico, Cleófilas recounts the story of
Felice's yelling when they crossed the creek. "Just like that. Who would've thought?" (56). Cleófilas seems to have
enjoyed her company and has kept the experience in her mind. Felice's laughter, "gurgling out of her own throat, a
long ribbon of laughter, like water" suggests that Felice had completed the self-discovery stage. (Water is often
symbolic of rebirth.) Cleófilas has witnessed the third stage in Felice, and it is up to her whether she will enter it or
regress to the feminine stage and internalize the paternalistic values of her father and brothers with whom she is now
Reader Response Criticism
Reader response criticism analyzes the reader's role in the production of meaning. It lies at the opposite end of the
spectrum from formalistic criticism. In reader response criticism, the text itself has no meaning until it is read by a
reader. The reader creates the meaning. This criticism can take into account the strategies employed by the author to
elicit a certain response from readers. It denies the possibility that works are universal (i.e. that they will always mean
more or less the same thing to readers everywhere). Norman Holland argues that "each reader will impose his or her
'identity theme' on the text, to a large extent recreating that text in the reader's image." Therefore, we can understand
someone's reading as a function of personal identity.
I.A. Richards, Louise Rosenblatt, Walter Gibson, Norman Holland, and others.
It recognizes that different people view works differently, and that people's interpretations change over time.
Reader Response criticism tends to make interpretation too subjective. It does not provide adequate criteria for
evaluating one reading in comparison to another.
For instance, in reading the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament, different readers are likely to have
different responses. Someone who has lived a fairly straight and narrow life and who does not feel like he has been
rewarded for it is likely to associate with the older brother of the parable and sympathize with his opposition to the
celebration over the prodigal son's return. Someone with a more checkered past would probably approach the
parable with more sympathy for the younger brother. A parent who had had difficulties with a rebellious child would
probably focus on the father, and, depending on his or her experience, might see the father's unconditional
acceptance of the prodigal as either good and merciful or as unwise and overindulgent. While the parable might
disturb some, it could elicit a feeling of relief from others, which, presumably, is what Christ intended it to do, and a
more skillful critic might be able to analyze the strategies Christ employed to elicit those responses.
Aristotle (Augustine) - reality in concrete substance vs. Plato (Aquinas) - reality in abstract ideal forms
dramatic unities - rules governing classical dramas requiring the unity of action, time, and place (The idea was based
on a Renaissance misinterpretation of passages in Aristotle's Poetic.)
pathetic fallacy - Ruskin - attributing human traits to nonhuman objects
fancy - Coleridge -- combining several known properties into new combinations
imagination - using known properties to create a whole that is entirely new
Pater: Aesthetic experience permits the greatest intensification of each moment - "Of such wisdom, the poetic passion,
the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most."
Longinus: emphasis on greatness of sentiments - the sublime
Goethe: "The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses."
Howells: "Our novelists..concern themselves with the more smiling aspect of life, which are the more American." also
"When man is at his very best, he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel."
Morris: "Art was once the common possession of the whole people..today..art is only enjoyed...by comparatively few
persons...the rich and the parasites that minister to them."
Sweetness and Light: Delight and Instruction (in reference to the Ancients)
Newman: "I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every
Other Approaches
Structuralism: Structuralists view literature as a system of signs. They try to make plain the organizational codes that
they believe regulate all literature. The most famous practitioner is Michael Foucault.
Deconstruction: This approach assumes that language does not refer to any external reality. It can assert several,
contradictory interpretations of one text. Deconstructionists make interpretations based on the political or social
implications of language rather than examining an author's intention. Jacques Derrida was the founder of this school
of criticism.
Sources and Further Reading
Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
This resource is a superb overview of the major schools of literary criticism. After providing a history and explanation
of each method, Guerin provides multiple applications to works of literature. The handbook is thorough, but not
overly technical.
Encyclopedia of Literature. Phillipines: Merriam-Webster, 1995.
Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia is one of the most affordable literature references on the market. Although it can
not be completely exhaustive, the encyclopedia provides entries on most major works and authors, as well as literary
terms. Entries are available for the major schools of criticism. Numerous pictures are included.
A fallacy is a component of an argument that is demonstrably flawed in its logic or form, thus rendering the argument
invalid (except in the case of begging the question) in whole. In logical arguments, fallacies are either formal or
informal. Because the validity of a deductive argument depends on its form, a formal fallacy (or logical fallacy) is a
deductive argument that has an invalid form, whereas an informal fallacy is any other invalid mode of reasoning
whose flaw is not in the form of the argument.
Beginning with Aristotle, informal fallacies have generally been placed in one of several categories, depending on
the source of the fallacy. There are fallacies of relevance, fallacies involving causal reasoning, and fallacies resulting
from ambiguities. A similar approach to understanding and classifying fallacies is provided by argumentation theory.
In this approach, an argument is regarded as part of an interactive protocol between individuals who are attempting
to resolve a disagreement. The protocol is regulated by certain rules of interaction and violations of these rules are
Recognizing fallacies in actual arguments may be difficult since arguments are often structured using rhetorical
patterns that obscure the logical connections between assertions. As we illustrate with various examples, fallacies
may also exploit the emotions or intellectual or psychological weaknesses of the interlocutor. Having the capability
of recognizing logical fallacies in arguments will hopefully reduce the likelihood of such an occurrence.
Aristotelian fallacies
Material fallacies
The classification of material fallacies widely adopted by modern logicians and based on that of Aristotle, Organon
(Sophistici elenchi), is as follows:
Fallacy of Accident (also called destroying the exception or a dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid) meaning to
argue erroneously from a general rule to a particular case, without proper regard to particular conditions that vitiate
the application of the general rule; e.g. if manhood suffrage be the law, arguing that a criminal or a lunatic must,
therefore, have a vote.
Converse Fallacy of Accident (also called reverse accident, destroying the exception, or a dicto secundum quid ad
dictum simpliciter) meaning to argue from a special case to a general rule.
Irrelevant Conclusion (also called Ignoratio Elenchi), wherein, instead of proving the fact in dispute, the arguer seeks
to gain his point by diverting attention to some extraneous fact (as in the legal story of "No case. Abuse the plaintiff's
attorney"). The fallacies are common in platform oratory, in which the speaker obscures the real issue by appealing to
his audience on the grounds of
purely personal considerations (argumentum ad hominem)
popular sentiment (argumentum ad populum, appeal to the majority)
fear (argumentum ad baculum)
conventional propriety (argumentum ad verecundiam)
This fallacy has been illustrated by ethical or theological arguments wherein the fear of punishment is subtly
substituted for abstract right as the sanction of moral obligation.
Begging the question (also called Petitio Principii or Circulus in Probando--arguing in a circle) consists in
demonstrating a conclusion by means of premises that pre-suppose that conclusion. Jeremy Bentham points out that
this fallacy may lurk in a single word, especially in an epithet, e.g. if a measure were condemned simply on the ground
that it is alleged to be "un-English".
Fallacy of the Consequent, really a species of Irrelevant Conclusion, wherein a conclusion is drawn from premises that
do not really support it.
Fallacy of False Cause, or Non Sequitur (L., it does not follow), wherein one thing is incorrectly assumed as the cause of
another, as when the ancients attributed a public calamity to a meteorological phenomenon (a special case of this
fallacy also goes by the Latin term post hoc ergo propter hoc; the fallacy of believing that temporal succession implies
a causal relation).
Fallacy of Many Questions (Plurium Interrogationum), wherein several questions are improperly grouped in the form
of one, and a direct categorical answer is demanded, e.g. if a prosecuting counsel asked the prisoner " What time was it
when you met this man? " with the intention of eliciting the tacit admission that such a meeting had taken place.
Another example is the classic line, "Is it true that you no longer beat your wife?"
Verbal fallacies
Verbal fallacies are those in which a false conclusion is obtained by improper or ambiguous use of words. They are
generally classified as follows.
Equivocation consists in employing the same word in two or more senses, e.g. in a syllogism, the middle term being
used in one sense in the major and another in the minor premise, so that in fact there are four not three terms ("All fair
things are honourable; This woman is fair; therefore this woman is honourable," the second "fair" being in reference to
Amphibology is the result of ambiguity of grammatical structure, e.g. of the position of the adverb "only" in careless
writers ("He only said that," in which sentence, as experience shows, the adverb has been intended to qualify any one
of the other three words).
Fallacy of Composition is a species of Amphibology that results from the confused use of collective terms. e.g. "The
angles of a triangle are less than two right angles" might refer to the angles separately or added together.
Division, the converse of the preceding, which consists in employing the middle term distributively in the minor and
collectively in the major premise.
Proof by verbosity, sometimes colloquially referred to as argumentum verbosium - a rhetorical technique that tries to
persuade by overwelming those considering an argument with such a volume of material that the argument sounds
plausible, superficially appears to be well-researched, and it is so laborious to untangle and check supporting facts
that the argument might be allowed to slide by unchallenged.
Accent, which occurs only in speaking and consists of emphasizing the wrong word in a sentence. e.g., "He is a fairly
good pianist," according to the emphasis on the words, may imply praise of a beginner's progress, or an expert's
depreciation of a popular hero, or it may imply that the person in question is a deplorable violinist.
Figure of Speech, the confusion between the metaphorical and ordinary uses of a word or phrase.
Logical fallacies
The standard Aristotelian logical fallacies are:
Fallacy of Four Terms (Quaternio terminorum)
Fallacy of Undistributed Middle
Fallacy of Illicit process of the major or the Illicit minor term;
Fallacy of Negative Premises.
Other systems of classification
Of other classifications of fallacies in general the most famous are those of Francis Bacon and J. S. Mill. Bacon (Novum
Organum, Aph. 33, 38 sqq.) divided fallacies into four Idola (Idols, i.e. False Appearances), which summarize the
various kinds of mistakes to which the human intellect is prone. With these should be compared the Offendicula of
Roger Bacon, contained in the Opus maius, pt. i. J. S. Mill discussed the subject in book v. of his Logic, and Jeremy
Bentham's Book of Fallacies (1824) contains valuable remarks. See Rd. Whateley's Logic, bk. v.; A. de Morgan, Formal
Logic (1847) ; A. Sidgwick, Fallacies (1883) and other textbooks.
Fallacies in the media and politics
Fallacies are used frequently by pundits in the media and politics. When one politician says to another, "You don't
have the moral authority to say X", this could be an example of the argumentum ad hominem or personal attack
fallacy; that is, attempting to disprove X, not by addressing validity of X but by attacking the person who asserted X.
Arguably, the politician is not even attempting to make an argument against X, but is instead offering a moral rebuke
against the interlocutor. For instance, if X is the assertion:
The military uniform is a symbol of national strength and honor.
Then ostensibly, the politician is not trying to prove the contrary assertion. If this is the case, then there is no logically
fallacious argument, but merely a personal opinion about moral worth. Thus identifying logical fallacies may be
difficult and dependent upon context.
In the opposite direction is the fallacy of argument from authority. A classic example is the ipse dixit—"He himself
said it" argument—used throughout the Middle Ages in reference to Aristotle. A modern instance is "celebrity
spokespersons" in advertisements: a product is good and you should buy/use/support it because your favorite
celebrity endorses it.
An appeal to authority is always a logical fallacy, though it can be an appropriate form of rational argument if, for
example, it is an appeal to expert testimony. In this case, the expert witness must be recognized as such and all parties
must agree that the testimony is appropriate to the circumstances. This form of argument is common in legal situations.
By definition, arguments with logical fallacies are invalid, but they can often be (re)written in such a way that they fit
a valid argument form. The challenge to the interlocutor is, of course, to discover the false premise, i.e. the premise that
makes the argument unsound.
General list of fallacies
The entries in the following list are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive; that is, several distinct entries may
refer to the same pattern. As noted in the introduction, these fallacies describe erroneous or at least suspect patterns of
argument in general, not necessarily argument based on formal logic. Many of the fallacies listed are traditionally
recognized and discussed in works on critical thinking; others are more specialized.
Ad hominem (also called argumentum ad hominem or personal attack) including:
ad hominem abusive (also called argumentum ad personam)
ad hominem circumstantial (also called ad hominem circumstantiae)
ad hominem tu quoque (also called you-too argument)
Amphibology (also called amphiboly)
Appeal to authority (also called argumentum ad verecundiam or argument by authority)
Appeal to emotion including:
Appeal to consequences (also called argumentum ad consequentiam)
Appeal to fear (also called argumentum ad metum or argumentum in terrorem)
Appeal to flattery
Appeal to pity (also called argumentum ad misericordiam)
Appeal to ridicule
Appeal to spite (also called argumentum ad odium)
Two wrongs make a right
Wishful thinking
Appeal to the majority (also called Appeal to belief, Argumentum ad numerum, Appeal to popularity, Appeal to the
people, Bandwagon fallacy, Argumentum ad populum, Authority of the many, Consensus gentium, Argument by
Appeal to motive
Appeal to novelty (also called argumentum ad novitatem)
Appeal to probability
Appeal to tradition (also called argumentum ad antiquitatem or appeal to common practice)
Argument from fallacy (also called argumentum ad logicam)
Argument from ignorance (also called argumentum ad ignorantiam or argument by lack of imagination)
Argument from silence (also called argumentum ex silentio)
Appeal to force (also called argumentum ad baculum)
Appeal to wealth (also called argumentum ad crumenam)
Appeal to poverty (also called argumentum ad lazarum)
Argument from repetition (also called argumentum ad nauseam)
Base rate fallacy
Begging the question (also called petitio principii, circular argument or circular reasoning)
Conditional probability fallacy
Conjunction fallacy
Continuum fallacy (also called fallacy of the beard)
Correlative based fallacies including:
Fallacy of many questions (also called complex question, fallacy of presupposition, loaded question or plurium
False dilemma (also called false dichotomy or bifurcation)
Denying the correlative
Suppressed correlative
Definist fallacy
Dicto simpliciter, including:
Accident (also called a dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid)
Converse accident (also called a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter)
Engineering Fallacy
Fallacies of distribution:
Ecological fallacy
Fallacies of Presumption
False analogy
False premise
False compromise
Faulty generalization including:
Biased sample
Hasty generalization (also called fallacy of insufficient statistics, fallacy of insufficient sample, fallacy of the lonely
fact, leaping to a conclusion, hasty induction, secundum quid)
Overwhelming exception
Statistical special pleading
Gambler's fallacy/Inverse gambler's fallacy
Genetic fallacy
Guilt by association
Historian's fallacy
Homunculus fallacy
If-by-whiskey (argues both sides)
Ignoratio elenchi (also called irrelevant conclusion)
Inappropriate interpretations or applications of statistics including:
Biased sample
Correlation implies causation
Gambler's fallacy
Prosecutor's fallacy
Screening test fallacy
Incomplete comparison
Inconsistent comparison
Invalid proof
Judgmental language
Loki's Wager
Lump of labour fallacy (also called the fallacy of labour scarcity)
Meaningless statement
Middle ground (also called argumentum ad temperantiam)
Misleading vividness
Naturalistic fallacy
Negative proof
Non sequitur including:
Affirming the consequent
Denying the antecedent
No true Scotsman
Package deal fallacy
Perfect solution fallacy
Poisoning the well
Potent directors fallacy - a common example would be any popular press article on Macroeconomics which asserts or
(more often, merely) assumes that the US Fed has learned to control our money and our economy.
Proof by assertion
Proof by verbosity (also called argumentum verbosium)
Questionable cause (also called non causa pro causa) including:
Correlation implies causation (also called cum hoc ergo propter hoc)
Fallacy of the single cause
Joint effect
Post hoc (also called post hoc ergo propter hoc)
Regression fallacy
Texas sharpshooter fallacy
Wrong direction
Red herring (also called irrelevant conclusion)
Reification (also called hypostatization)
Relativist fallacy (also called subjectivist fallacy)
Retrospective determinism (it happened so it was bound to)
Shifting the burden of proof
Slippery slope
Special pleading
Straw man
Style over substance fallacy
Sunk cost fallacy
Syllogistic fallacies, including:
Affirming a disjunct
Affirmative conclusion from a negative premise
Existential fallacy
Fallacy of exclusive premises
Fallacy of four terms (also called quaternio terminorum)
Fallacy of the undistributed middle
Illicit major
Illicit minor
General examples
Fallacious arguments involve not only formal logic but also causality. Others involve psychological ploys such as use
of power relationships between proposer and interlocutor, appeals to patriotism and morality, appeals to ego etc., to
establish necessary intermediate (explicit or implicit) premises for an argument. Indeed, fallacies very often lay in
unstated assumptions or implied premises in arguments that are not always obvious at first glance. One way to
obscure a premise is through enthymeme.
We now give a few examples illustrating common errors in reasoning. Note that providing a critique of an argument
has no relation to the truth of the conclusion. The conclusion could very well be true, while the argument itself is not
valid. See argument from fallacy.
In the following, we view an argument as a dialogue between a proposer and an interlocutor.
Example 1: Material Fallacy
James argues:
1. Cheese is food.
2. Food is delicious.
3. Therefore, cheese is delicious.
This argument claims to prove that cheese is delicious. This particular argument has the form of a categorical
syllogism. Any argument must have premises as well as a conclusion. In this case we need to ask what the premises are,
that is the set of assumptions the proposer of the argument can expect the interlocutor to grant. The first assumption is
almost true by definition: cheese is a foodstuff edible by humans. The second assumption is less clear as to its meaning.
Since the assertion has no quantifiers of any kind, it could mean any one of the following:
All food is delicious.
Most food is delicious.
To me, all food is delicious.
Some food is disgusting.
In all but the first interpretation, the above syllogism would then fail to have validated its second premise. James may
try to assume that his interlocutor believes that all food is delicious; if the interlocutor grants this then the argument is
valid. In this case, the interlocutor is essentially conceding the point to James. However, the interlocutor is more likely
to believe that some food is disgusting, such as a sheep's liver white chocolate torte; and in this case James is not much
better off than he was before he formulated the argument, since he now has to prove the assertion that cheese is a
unique type of universally delicious food, which is a disguised form of the original thesis. From the point of view of the
interlocutor, James commits the logical fallacy of begging the question.
Example 2: Verbal Fallacy
Barbara argues:
1. Andre is a good tennis
2. Therefore, Andre is 'good',
that is to say a morally good
Here the problem is that the word good has different meanings, which is to say that it is an ambiguous word. In the
premise, Barbara says that Andre is good at some particular activity, in this case tennis. In the conclusion, she says that
Andre is a morally good person. These are clearly two different senses of the word "good". The premise might be true
but the conclusion can still be false: Andre might be the best tennis player in the world but a rotten person morally.
However, it is not legitimate to infer he is a bad person on the ground there has been a fallacious argument on the part
of Barbara. Nothing concerning Andre's moral qualities is to be inferred from the premise. Appropriately, since it
plays on an ambiguity, this sort of fallacy is called the fallacy of equivocation, that is, equating two incompatible
terms or claims.
Example 3: Verbal Fallacy
Ramesh argues:
1. Nothing is better than
eternal happiness.
2. Eating a hamburger is better
than nothing.
3. Therefore, eating a
hamburger is better than
eternal happiness.
This argument has the appearance of an inference that applies transitivity of the two-placed relation is better than,
which in this critique we grant is a valid property. The argument is an example of syntactic ambiguity. In fact, the first
premise semantically does not predicate an attribute of the subject, as would for instance the assertion
A potato is better than eternal happiness.
In fact it is semantically equivalent to the following universal quantification:
Everything fails to be better than eternal happiness.
So instantiating this fact with eating a hamburger, it logically follows that
Eating a hamburger fails to be better than eternal happiness.
Note that the premise A hamburger is better than nothing does not provide anything to this argument. This fact really
means something such as
Eating a hamburger is better than eating nothing at all.
Thus this is a fallacy of composition.
Example 4: Logical Fallacy
In the strictest sense, a logical fallacy is the incorrect application of a valid logical principle or an application of a
nonexistent principle:
1. Some drivers are men.
2. Some drivers are women.
3. Therefore, some drivers are
both men and women.
This is fallacious. Indeed, there is no logical principle that states
1. For some x, P(x).
2. For some x, Q(x).
3. Therefore for some x, P(x) and
An easy way to show the above inference is invalid is by using Venn diagrams. In logical parlance, the inference is
invalid, since under at least one interpretation of the predicates it is not validity preserving.
A Glossary of Literary Terms
Copyright 1997 by Robert Harris. Used by permission
Version Date: May 22, 1997
Adventure novel. A novel where exciting events predominate over characterization and sometimes theme. Examples:
H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines
Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Allegory. "A form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative, either in prose or verse, are
equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. Many works contain allegories or are allegorical in part,
but not many are entirely allegorical. A good example of a fully allegorical work is
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
Alliteration. The recurrence of initial consonant sounds. The repetition is usually limited to two words.
Ah, what a delicious day!
Yes, I have read that little bundle of pernicious prose.
Done well, alliteration is a satisfying sensation.
This two-word alliteration calls attention to the phrase and fixes it in the reader's mind, and so is useful for emphasis as
well as art. Often, though, several words not next to each other are alliterated in a sentence. Here the use is more
artistic. I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not
spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. --Samuel Johnson
Do not let such evils overwhelm you as thousands have suffered, and thousands have surmounted; but turn
your thoughts with vigor to some other plan of life, and keep always in your mind, that, with due submission
to providence, a man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. --Samuel Johnson
I conceive therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers, as with wells; a person with
good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there; and that often, when there is
nothing in the world at the bottom, besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a half underground,
it shall pass, however, for a wondrous deep, upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark. -Jonathan Swift
Allusion. A causal and brief reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event:
You must borrow me Gargantua's mouth first. 'Tis a word too great for any mouth of this age's size. -Shakespeare
If you take his parking place, you can expect World War II all over again.
Plan ahead: it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark. --Richard Cushing
Notice in these examples that the allusions are to very well known characters or events, not to obscure ones. (The best
sources for allusions are literature, history, Greek myth, and the Bible.) Note also that the reference serves to explain
or clarify or enhance whatever subject is under discussion, without sidetracking the reader.
Allusion can be wonderfully attractive in your writing because it can introduce a variety and energy into an
otherwise limited discussion (an exciting historical adventure rises suddenly in the middle of a discussion of chemicals
or some abstract argument), and it can please the reader by reminding him of a pertinent story or figure with which he
is familiar, thus helping (like analogy) to explain something difficult. The instantaneous pause and reflection on the
analogy refreshes and strengthens the reader's mind.
Anadiplosis. A rhetorical trope formed by repeating the last word of one phrase, clause, or sentence at or very near
the beginning of the next. It can be generated in series for the sake of beauty or to give a sense of logical progression:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,/ Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace
obtain. . . . --Philip Sidney
Most commonly, though, anadiplosis is used for emphasis of the repeated word or idea, since repetition has a
reinforcing effect:
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out of cisterns, broken cisterns that
can hold no water. --Jer. 2:13
The question next arises, How much confidence can we put in the people, when the people have elected Joe
This treatment plant has a record of uncommon reliability, a reliability envied by every other water
treatment facility on the coast.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. --John 1:1
Notice how the main point of the sentence becomes immediately clear by repeating the same word twice in close
succession. There can be no doubt about the focus of your thought when you use anadiplosis.
Analogy. The comparison of two things, which are alike in several respects, for the purpose of explaining or clarifying
some unfamiliar or difficult idea or object by showing how the idea or object is similar to some familiar one. While
simile and analogy often overlap, the simile is generally a more artistic likening, done briefly for effect and emphasis,
while analogy serves the more practical purpose of explaining a thought process or a line of reasoning or the abstract
in terms of the concrete, and may therefore be more extended.
For answers successfully arrived at are solutions to difficulties previously discussed, and one cannot untie a
knot if he is ignorant of it. --Aristotle
You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a
bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables. --Samuel Johnson
And hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are
sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." --Mark 2:17
He that voluntarily continues ignorance is guilty of all the crimes which ignorance produces, as to him that
should extinguish the tapers of a lighthouse might justly be imputed the calamities of shipwrecks. --Samuel
Notice in these examples that the analogy is used to establish the pattern of reasoning by using a familiar or less
abstract argument which the reader can understand easily and probably agree with. Some analogies simply offer an
explanation for clarification rather than a substitute argument:
Knowledge always desires increase: it is like fire, which must first be kindled by some external agent, but
which will afterwards propagate itself. --Samuel Johnson
The beginning of all evil temptations is inconstancy of mind, and too little trust in God. For as a ship without
a guide is driven hither and thither with every storm, so an unstable man, that anon leaveth his good
purpose in God, is diversely tempted. The fire proveth gold, and temptation proveth the righteous man. -Thomas a Kempis
When the matter is complex and the analogy particularly useful for explaining it, the analogy can be extended into a
rather long, multiple-point comparison:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.
So it is with Christ. [And so forth, to the end of the chapter.] --1 Cor. 12:12 (NIV)
The importance of simile and analogy for teaching and writing cannot be overemphasized. To impress this upon you
better, I would like to step aside a moment and offer two persuasive quotations:
The country parson is full of all knowledge. They say, it is an ill mason that refuseth any stone: and
there is no knowledge, but, in a skillful hand, serves either positively as it is, or else to illustrate
some other knowledge. He condescends even to the knowledge of tillage, and pastorage, and
makes great use of them in teaching, because people by what they understand are best led to
what they understand not. --George Herbert
To illustrate one thing by its resemblance to another has been always the most popular and
efficacious art of instruction. There is indeed no other method of teaching that of which anyone is
ignorant but by means of something already known; and a mind so enlarged by contemplation
and enquiry that it has always many objects within its view will seldom be long without some near
and familiar image through which an easy transition may be made to truths more distant and
obscure. --Samuel Johnson
Anaphora. The repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences,
commonly in conjunction with climax and with parallelism:
To think on death is misery,/ To think on life it is a vanity,/ To think on the world verily it is,/ To think that
here man hath no perfect bliss. --Peacham
In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set
forth; from books come the forth laws of peace. --Richard de Bury
Finally, we must consider what pleasantness of teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely
we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! --Ibid.
The wish of the genuine painter must be more extensive: instead of endeavoring to amuse mankind with the
minute neatness of his imitations, he must endeavor to improve them by the grandeur of his ideas; instead of
seeking praise, by deceiving the superficial sense of the spectator, he must strive for fame by captivating the
imagination. --Sir Joshua Reynolds
Slowly and grimly they advanced, not knowing what lay ahead, not knowing what they would find at the
top of the hill, not knowing that they were so near to Disneyland.
They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions;
not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and
consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account. --Samuel Johnson
Anaphora can be used with questions, negations, hypotheses, conclusions, and subordinating conjunctions, although
care must be taken not to become affected or to sound rhetorical and bombastic. Consider these selections:
Will he read the book? Will he learn what it has to teach him? Will he live according to what he has
Not time, not money, not laws, but willing diligence will get this done.
If we can get the lantern lit, if we can find the main cave, and if we can see the stalagmites, I'll show you the
one with the bat skeleton in it.
Adverbs and prepositions can be used for anaphora, too:
They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. -Richard de Bury
She stroked her kitty cat very softly, very slowly, very smoothly.
Antimetabole. Reversal of the order of repeated words or phrases (a loosely chiastic structure, AB-BA) to intensify
the final formulation, to present alternatives, or to show contrast:
All work and no play is as harmful to mental health as all play and no work.
Ask not what you can do for rhetoric, but what rhetoric can do for you.
Antithesis. Establishing a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by joining them together or juxtaposing
them, often in parallel structure. Human beings are inveterate systematizers and categorizers, so the mind has a
natural love for antithesis, which creates a definite and systematic relationship between ideas:
To err is human; to forgive, divine. --Alexander Pope
I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil. --Romans 16:19b
That short and easy trip made a lasting and profound change in Harold's outlook.
That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. --Neil Armstrong
Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures. --Samuel Johnson
Antithesis can convey some sense of complexity in a person or idea by admitting opposite or nearly opposite truths:
Though surprising, it is true; though frightening at first, it is really harmless.
If we try, we might succeed; if we do not try, we cannot succeed.
Success makes men proud; failure makes them wise.
Antithesis, because of its close juxtaposition and intentional contrast of two terms or ideas, is also very useful for
making relatively fine distinctions or for clarifying differences which might be otherwise overlooked by a careless
thinker or casual reader:
In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it. -Samuel Johnson
The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what
they do; for they preach, but do not practice. --Matt. 23:2-3 (RSV)
I agree that it is legal, but my question was, Is it moral?
The advertisement indeed says that these shoes are the best, but it means that they are equal; for in
advertising "best" is a parity claim and only "better" indicates superiority.
Note also that short phrases can be made antithetical:
Every man who proposes to grow eminent by learning should carry in his mind, at once, the difficulty of
excellence and the force of industry; and remember that fame is not conferred but as the recompense of
labor, and that labor, vigorously continued, has not often failed of its reward. --Samuel Johnson
Apostrophe. The direct address of a person or personified thing, either present or absent. Its most common purpose in
prose is to give vent to or display intense emotion, which can no longer be held back. Thus an apostrophe often
interrupts the discussion:
O value of wisdom that fadeth not away with time, virtue ever flourishing, that cleanseth its possessor from
all venom! O heavenly gift of the divine bounty, descending from the Father of lights, that thou mayest exalt
the rational soul to the very heavens! Thou art the celestial nourishment of the intellect. . . . --Richard de
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies! --Sidney
O books who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you
faithfully! --Ibid.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to
gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! -Luke 13:34 (NASB)
Apostrophe does not appear very often in argumentative writing because formal argument is by its nature fairly
restrained and intellectual rather than emotional; but under the right circumstances an apostrophe could be useful:
But all such reasons notwithstanding, dear reader, does not the cost in lives persuade you by itself that we
must do something immediately about the situation?
Assonance. The use of similar vowel sounds repeated in successive or proximate words containing different
A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. --Matthew 5:14b (KJV)
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in
heaven. --Matthew 5:16 (KJV)
Blank Verse. Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Burlesque. A work designed to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a
trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity). Burlesque concentrates on derisive
imitation, usually in exaggerated terms. Literary genres (like the tragic drama) can be burlesqued, as can styles of
sculpture, philosophical movements, schools of art, and so forth. See Parody, Travesty.
Caesura. A pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry. The pause may or may not be
typographically indicated.
Canon. In relation to literature, this term is half-seriously applied to those works generally accepted as the
great ones. A battle is now being fought to change or throw out the canon for three reasons. First, the list of
great books is thoroughly dominated by DWEM's (dead, white, European males), and the accusation is that
women and minorities and non-Western cultural writers have been ignored. Second, there is pressure in the
literary community to throw out all standards as the nihilism of the late 20th century makes itself felt in the
literature departments of the universities. Scholars and professors want to choose the books they like or
which reflect their own ideas, without worrying about canonicity. Third, the canon has always been
determined at least in part by political considerations and personal
Chiasmus. A crossing parallelism, where the second part of a grammatical construction is balanced or paralleled by
the first part, only in reverse order. Instead of an A,B structure (e.g., "learned unwillingly") paralleled by another A,B
structure ("forgotten gladly"), the A,B will be followed by B,A ("gladly forgotten"). So instead of writing "What is
learned unwillingly is forgotten gladly," you could write, "What is learned unwillingly is gladly forgotten." Similarly,
the parallel sentence, "What is now great was at first little," could be written chiastically as, "What is now great was
little at first." Here are some examples:
He labors without complaining and without bragging rests.
Polished in courts and hardened in the field, Renowned for conquest, and in council skilled. --Joseph
For the Lord is a Great God . . . in whose hands are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are his
also. --Psalm 95:4
Chiasmus is easiest to write and yet can be made very beautiful and effective simply by moving subordinate clauses
If you come to them, they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them, they do not withdraw themselves;
they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. --Richard de Bury
Prepositional phrases or other modifiers can also be moved around to form chiastic structures. Sometimes the effect is
rather emphatic:
Tell me not of your many perfections; of your great modesty tell me not either.
Just as the term "menial" does not apply to any honest labor, so no dishonest work can be called "prestigious."
At other times the effect is more subdued but still desirable. Compare the versions of these sentences, written first in
chiastic and then in strictly parallel form. Which do you like better in each case?
Coming-of-age story. A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge,
experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions,
a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence. Some of the shifts that take place are
ignorance to knowledge
innocence to experience
false view of world to correct view
idealism to realism
immature responses to mature responses
Jane Austen Northanger Abbey
Conceit. An elaborate, usually intellectually ingenious poetic comparison or image, such as an analogy or metaphor
in which, say a beloved is compared to a ship, planet, etc. The comparison may be brief or extended. See Petrarchan
Conceit. (Conceit is an old word for concept.) See John Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," for example: "Let
man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this, / The Intelligence that moves, devotion is."
Diacope. Repetition of a word or phrase after an intervening word or phrase:
We will do it, I tell you; we will do it.
We give thanks to Thee, O God, we give thanks . . . . --Psalm 75:1 (NASB)
End-stopped. A line that has a natural pause at the end (period, comma, etc.). For example, these lines are end
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.
Coral is far more red than her lips red. --Shakespeare
Enjambed. The running over of a sentence or thought into the next couplet or line without a pause at the end of the
line; a run-on line. For example, the first two lines here are enjambed:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove. . . . --Shakespeare
Epistrophe. The repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. Epistrophe
(also called antistrophe) is thus the counterpart to anaphora.
Where affections bear rule, there reason is subdued, honesty is subdued, good will is subdued, and all things
else that withstand evil, for ever are subdued. --Wilson
All the night he did nothing but weep Philoclea, sigh Philoclea, and cry out Philoclea. --Philip Sidney
You will find washing beakers helpful in passing this course, using the gas chromatograph desirable for
passing this course, and studying hours on end essential for passing this course.
Epistrophe is an extremely emphatic device because of the emphasis placed on the last word in a phrase or sentence.
If you have a concept you wish to stress heavily, then epistrophe might be a good construction to use. The danger lies
in this device's tendency to become too rhetorical. Consider whether these are successful and effective or hollow and
The cars do not sell because the engineering is inferior, the quality of the materials is inferior, and the
workmanship is inferior.
The energies of mankind are often exerted in pursuit, consolidation, and enjoyment; which is to say, many
men spend their lives pursuing power, consolidation power, and enjoying power.
Epithet. An adjective or adjective phrase appropriately qualifying a subject (noun) by naming a key or important
characteristic of the subject, as in "laughing happiness," "sneering contempt," "untroubled sleep," "peaceful dawn," and
"life-giving water." Sometimes a metaphorical epithet will be good to use, as in "lazy road," "tired landscape," "smirking
billboards," "anxious apple." Aptness and brilliant effectiveness are the key considerations in choosing epithets. Be
fresh, seek striking images, pay attention to connotative value.
A transferred epithet is an adjective modifying a noun which it cannot logically modify, yet which works because the
metaphorical meaning remains clear:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth of thieves and murderers. . . . --George Herbert
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold/ A sheep hook . . . --John Milton
In an age of pressurized happiness, we sometimes grow insensitive to subtle joys.
The striking and unusual quality of the transferred epithet calls attention to it, and it can therefore be used to
introduce emphatically an idea you plan to develop. The phrase will stay with the reader, so there is no need to repeat
it, for that would make it too obviously rhetorical and even a little annoying. Thus, if you introduce the phrase,
"diluted electricity," your subsequent development ought to return to more mundane synonyms, such as "low voltage,"
"brownouts," and so forth. It may be best to save your transferred epithet for a space near the conclusion of the
discussion where it will be not only clearer (as a synonym for previously stated and clearly understandable terms) but
more effective, as a kind of final, quintessential, and yet novel conceptualization of the issue. The reader will love it.
Epizeuxis. The repetition of a word (for emphasis):
The best way to describe this portion of South America is lush, lush, lush.
What do you see? Wires, wires, everywhere wires.
Euphemism. The substitution of a mild or less negative word or phrase for a harsh or blunt one, as in the use
of "pass away" instead of "die." The basic psychology of euphemistic language is the desire to put something
bad or embarrassing in a positive (or at least neutral light). Thus many terms referring to death, sex, crime,
and excremental functions are euphemisms. Since the euphemism is often chosen to disguise something
horrifying, it can be exploited
Flashback. A device that allows the writer to present events that happened before the time of the current narration or
the current events in the fiction. Various methods can be used, including memories, dream sequences, stories or
narration by characters, or even authorial sovereignty. (That is, the author might simply say, "But back in Tom's youth. .
. .") Flashback is useful for exposition, to fill in the reader about a character or place, or about the background to a
Foot. The basic unit of meter consisting of a group of two or three syllables. Scanning or scansion is the process of
determining the prevailing foot in a line of poetry, of determining the types and sequence of different feet.
Types of feet: U (unstressed); / (stressed syllable)
Iamb: U /
Trochee: / U
Anapest: U U /
Dactyl: / U U
Spondee: / /
Pyrrhic: U U
Frame. A narrative structure that provides a setting and exposition for the main narrative in a novel. Often, a narrator
will describe where he found the manuscript of the novel or where he heard someone tell the story he is about to
relate. The frame helps control the reader's perception of the work, and has been used in the past to help give
credibility to the main section of the novel. Examples of novels with frames:
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
Free verse. Verse that has neither regular rhyme nor regular meter. Free verse often uses cadences rather than uniform
metrical feet.
Heroic Couplet. Two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. Most of Alexander Pope's verse is written in heroic couplets.
In fact, it is the most favored verse form of the eighteenth century. Example:
u / u /u /u /u /
'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
u/ u/ u /u/ u /
Appear in writing or in judging ill. . . .
--Alexander Pope
[Note in the second line that "or" should be a stressed syllable if the meter were perfectly iambic. Iambic= a two
syllable foot of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, as in the word "begin." Pentameter= five feet. Thus, iambic
pentameter has ten syllables, five feet of two syllable iambs.]
Humanism. The new emphasis in the Renaissance on human culture, education and reason, sparked by a revival of
interest in classical Greek and Roman literature, culture, and language. Human nature and the dignity of man were
exalted and emphasis was placed on the present life as a worthy event in itself (as opposed to the medieval emphasis
on the present life merely as preparation for a future life).
Humours. In medieval physiology, four liquids in the human body affecting behavior. Each humour was associated
with one of the four elements of nature. In a balanced personality, no humour predominated. When a humour did
predominate, it caused a particular personality. Here is a chart of the humours, the corresponding elements and
personality characteristics:
blood...air...hot and moist: sanguine, kindly, joyful, amorous
phlegm...water...cold and moist: phlegmatic, dull, pale, cowardly
yellow bile...fire...hot and dry: choleric, angry, impatient, obstinate, vengeful
black bile...earth...cold and dry: melancholy, gluttonous, backward, lazy, sentimental, contemplative
The Renaissance took the doctrine of humours quite seriously--it was their model of psychology--so knowing that
can help us understand the characters in the literature. Falstaff, for example, has a dominance of blood, while Hamlet
seems to have an excess of black bile.
Hyperbole. Exaggeration used for emphasis. Hyperbole can be used to heighten effect, to catalyze recognition, or to
create a humorous perception. Example:
It is a maxim among these lawyers that whatever hath been done before may legally be done again: and
therefore they take special care to record all the decisions formerly made against common justice and the
general reason of mankind. These, under the name of precedents, they produce as authorities, to justify the
most iniquitous opinions; and the judges never fail of decreeing accordingly. --Swift
Invective. Speech or writing that abuses, denounces, or vituperates against. It can be directed against a person, cause,
idea, or system. It employs a heavy use of negative emotive language. Example:
I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that
nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. --Swift
Irony. A mode of expression, through words (verbal irony) or events (irony of situation), conveying a reality different
from and usually opposite to appearance or expectation. A writer may say the opposite of what he means, create a
reversal between expectation and its fulfillment, or give the audience knowledge that a character lacks, making the
character's words have meaning to the audience not perceived by the character. In verbal irony, the writer's meaning
or even his attitude may be different from what he says: "Why, no one would dare argue that there could be anything
more important in choosing a college than its proximity to the beach." An example of situational irony would occur if
a professional pickpocket had his own pocket picked just as he was in the act of picking someone else's pocket. The
irony is generated by the surprise recognition by the audience of a reality in contrast with expectation or appearance,
while another audience, victim, or character puts confidence in the appearance as reality (in this case, the pickpocket
doesn't expect his own pocket to be picked). The surprise recognition by the audience often produces a comic effect,
making irony often funny.
An example of dramatic irony (where the audience has knowledge that gives additional meaning to a character's
words) would be when King Oedipus, who has unknowingly killed his father, says that he will banish his father's killer
when he finds him.
Irony is the most common and most efficient technique of the satirist, because it is an instrument of truth, provides wit
and humor, and is usually at least obliquely critical, in that it deflates, scorns, or attacks.
The ability to detect irony is sometimes heralded as a test of intelligence and sophistication. When a text intended to
be ironic is not seen as such, the effect can be disastrous. Some students have taken Swift's "Modest Proposal" literally.
And Defoe's contemporaries took his "Shortest Way with the Dissenters" literally and jailed him for it. To be an
effective piece of sustained irony, there must be some sort of audience tip-off, through style, tone, use of clear
exaggeration, or other device.
Juvenalian Satire. Harsher, more pointed, perhaps intolerant satire typified by the writings of Juvenal. Juvenalian
satire often attacks particular people, sometimes thinly disguised as fictional characters. While laughter and ridicule
are still weapons as with Horatian satire, the Juvenalian satirist also uses withering invective and a slashing attack.
Swift is a Juvenalian satirist.
Lampoon. A crude, coarse, often bitter satire ridiculing the personal appearance or character of a person.
Literary quality. A judgment about the value of a novel as literature. At the heart of this issue is the question of what
distinguishes a great or important novel from one that is less important. Certainly the feature is not that of interest or
excitement, for pulp novels can be even more exciting and interesting than "great" novels. Usually, books that make us
think--that offer insight into the human condition--are the ones we rank more highly than books that simply titillate
Metaphor. A comparison which imaginatively identifies one thing with another dissimilar thing, and transfers or
ascribes to the first thing (the tenor or idea) some of the qualities of the second (the vehicle or image). Unlike a simile
or analogy, metaphor asserts that one thing is another thing, not just that one is like another. Very frequently a
metaphor is invoked by the to be verb:
Affliction then is ours; / We are the trees whom shaking fastens more. --George Herbert
Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life." --John 6:35
I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. -John 10:9
But I will sing of your strength, / In the morning I will sing of your love; / For you are my fortress, / My
refuge in times of trouble. --Psalm 59:16
Their works are worthless; / Their molten images are wind and emptiness. --Isaiah 41:29
The name of the Lord is a strong tower; / The righteous run to it and are safe. --Proverbs 18:10
Thus a mind that is free from passion is a very citadel; man has no stronger fortress in which to seek shelter
and defy every assault. Failure to perceive this is ignorance; but to perceive it, and still not to seek its refuge,
is misfortune indeed. --Marcus Aurelius
The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be
continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter. --Joshua Reynolds
Another common method of constructing a metaphor is to use the possessive, where the image is expressed as being a
part of the idea, usually in the form of "the x of y":
A writer's river of words will dry up unless it is continuously replenished by streams of new learning.
The first beam of hope that had ever darted into his mind rekindled youth in his cheeks and doubled the
lustre of his eyes. --Samuel Johnson
The furnace of affliction had softened his heart and purified his soul.
[I] therefore determined to gratify my predominant desire, and by drinking at the fountains of knowledge,
to quench the thirst of curiosity. --Samuel Johnson
Stand firm, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of
righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all,
taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. --Eph. 6:14-17
The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her
immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. . . . I had gazed upon the fortifications and
impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and
ignorantly I had repined. --Mary Shelley
In fact, there is a whole range of different degrees of direct identification between image and idea (vehicle and tenor).
There is fully expressed:
The eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not
sound, your body is full of darkness. --Luke 11:34
There is semi-implied:
And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow,
and the third day I finish my course.'" --Luke 13:32
There is implied:
. . . For thou hast been my help, and in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy. --Psalm 63:7
And there is very implied:
For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? --Luke 23:31
Like simile and analogy, metaphor is a profoundly important and useful device. Aristotle says in his Rhetoric, "It is
metaphor above all else that gives clearness, charm, and distinction to the style." And Joseph Addison says of it:
By these allusions a truth in the understanding is as it were reflected by the imagination; we are
able to see something like color and shape in a notion, and discover a scheme of thoughts traced
out upon matter. And here the mind receives a great deal of satisfaction, and has two of its
faculties gratified at the same time, while the fancy is busy in copying after the understanding,
and transcribing ideas out of the intellectual world into the material.
So metaphor not only explains by making the abstract or unknown concrete and familiar, but it also enlivens by
touching the reader's imagination. Further, it affirms one more interconnection in the unity of all things by showing a
relationship between things seemingly alien to each other.
And the fact that two very unlike things can be equated or referred to in terms of one another comments upon them
both. No metaphor is "just a metaphor." All have significant implications, and they must be chosen carefully,
especially in regard to the connotations the vehicle (image) will transfer to the tenor. Consider, for example, the
differences in meaning conveyed by these statements:
That club is spreading like wildfire.
That club is spreading like cancer.
That club is really blossoming now.
That club, in its amebic motions, is engulfing the campus.
And do you see any reason that one of these metaphors was chosen over the others?
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. --Luke 10:2
The pile of dirt is high, but we do not have many shovels.
The diamonds cover the ground, but we need more people to pick them up.
So bold and striking is metaphor that it is sometimes taken literally rather than as a comparison. (Jesus' disciples
sometimes failed here--see John 4:32ff and John 6:46-60; a few religious groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses
interpret such passages as Psalm 75:8 and 118:15 literally and thus see God as anthropomorphic; and even today a lot
of controversy surrounds the interpretation of Matthew 26:26.) Always be careful in your own writing, therefore, to
avoid possible confusion between metaphor and reality.
Metaphysical Poetry. The term metaphysical was applied to a style of 17th Century poetry first by John Dryden and
later by Dr. Samuel Johnson because of the highly intellectual and often abstruse imagery involved.
Chief among the metaphysical poets are John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and
Henry Vaughan. While their poetry is widely varied (the metaphysicals are not a thematic or even a structural
school), there are some common characteristics:
1. Argumentative structure. The poem often engages in a debate or persuasive presentation; the poem is an
intellectual exercise as well as or instead of an emotional effusion.
2. Dramatic and colloquial mode of utterance. The poem often describes a dramatic event rather than being
a reverie, a thought, or contemplation. Diction is simple and usually direct, inversion is limited. The verse is
occasionally rough, like speech, rather than written in perfect meter, resulting in a dominance of thought
over form.
3. Acute realism. The poem often reveals a psychological analysis; images advance the argument rather
than being ornamental. There is a learned style of thinking and writing; the poetry is often highly
4. Metaphysical wit. The poem contains unexpected, even striking or shocking analogies, offering elaborate
parallels between apparently dissimilar things. The analogies are drawn from widely varied fields of
knowledge, not limited to traditional sources in nature or art. Analogies from science, mechanics,
housekeeping, business, philosophy, astronomy, etc. are common. These "conceits" reveal a play of intellect,
often resulting in puns, paradoxes, and humorous comparisons. Unlike other poetry where the metaphors
usually remain in the background, here the metaphors sometimes take over the poem and control it.
Metaphysical poetry represents a revolt against the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry and especially the typical
Petrarchan conceits (like rosy cheeks, eyes like stars, etc.).
Meter. The rhythmic pattern that emerges when words are arranged in such a way that their stressed and unstressed
syllables fall into a more or less regular sequence; established by the regular or almost regular recurrence of similar
accent patterns (called feet). See feet and versification.
Metonymy. Another form of metaphor, very similar to synecdoche (and, in fact, some rhetoricians do not distinguish
between the two), in which a closely associated object is substituted for the object or idea in mind:
The orders came directly from the White House.
In this example we know that the writer means the President issued orders, because the "White House" is quite closely
associated with "President," even though it is not physically a part of him. Consider these substitutions, and notice that
some are more obvious than others, but that in context all are clear:
You cannot fight city hall.
This land belongs to the crown.
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. . . . --Genesis 3:19
Boy, I'm dying from the heat. Just look how the mercury is rising.
The checkered flag waved and victory crossed the finish line.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with
singing. --Psalm 100:1-2 (KJV)
The use of a particular metonymy makes a comment about the idea for which it has been substituted, and thereby
helps to define that idea. Note how much more vivid "in the sweat of thy face" is in the third example above than "by
labor" would have been. And in the fourth example, "mercury rising" has a more graphic, physical, and pictorial effect
than would "temperature increasing." Attune yourself to such subtleties of language, and study the effects of
connotation, suggestion, substitution, and metaphor.
Mock Epic. Treating a frivolous or minor subject seriously, especially by using the machinery and devices of the epic
(invocations, descriptions of armor, battles, extended similes, etc.). The opposite of travesty. Examples:
Alexander Pope, The Dunciad
Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock
Novel. Dare we touch this one with a ten foot pole? Of course we dare, provided that you accept the caveat that
novels are so varied that any definition is likely to be inadequate to cover all of them. So here is a place to start: a
novel is an extended prose fiction narrative of 50,000 words or more, broadly realistic--concerning the everyday
events of ordinary people--and concerned with character. "People in significant action" is one way of describing it.
Another definition might be "an extended, fictional prose narrative about realistic characters and events." It is a
representation of life, experience, and learning. Action, discovery, and description are important elements, but the
most important tends to be one or more characters--how they grow, learn, find--or don't grow, learn, or find.
Novella. A prose fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. There is no standard definition of length,
but since rules of thumb are sometimes handy, we might say that the short story ends at about 20,000 words, while the
novel begins at about 50,000. Thus, the novella is a fictional work of about 20,000 to 50,000 words. Examples:
Henry James, Daisy Miller
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Henry James, Turn of the Screw
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Novel of manners. A novel focusing on and describing in detail the social customs and habits of a particular social
group. Usually these conventions function as shaping or even stifling controls over the behavior of the characters.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
Onomatopoeia. The use of words which in their pronunciation suggest their meaning. "Hiss," for example, when spoken
is intended resemble the sound of steam or of a snake. Other examples include these: slam, buzz, screech, whirr, crush,
sizzle, crunch, wring, wrench, gouge, grind, mangle, bang, blam, pow, zap, fizz, urp, roar, growl, blip, click, whimper, and,
of course, snap, crackle, and pop. Note that the connection between sound and pronunciation is sometimes rather a
product of imagination ("slam" and "wring" are not very good imitations). And note also that written language retains
an aural quality, so that even unspoken your writing has a sound to it. Compare these sentences, for instance:
Someone yelled, "Look out!" and I heard the skidding of tires and the horrible noise of bending metal and
breaking glass.
Someone yelled, "Look out!" and I heard a loud screech followed by a grinding, wrenching crash.
Onomatopoeia can produce a lively sentence, adding a kind of flavoring by its sound effects:
The flies buzzing and whizzing around their ears kept them from finishing the test at the swamp.
No one talks in these factories. Everyone is too busy. The only sounds are the snip, snip of scissors and the
hum of the sewing machines.
But I loved that old car. I never heard the incessant rattle on a rough road, or the squeakity-squeak
whenever I hit a bump; and as for the squeal of the tires around every corner--well, that was macho.
If you like the plop, plop, plop of a faucet at three in the morning, you will like this record.
Oxymoron. A paradox reduced to two words, usually in an adjective-noun ("eloquent silence") or adverb-adjective
("inertly strong") relationship, and is used for effect, to emphasize contrasts, incongruities, hypocrisy, or simply the
complex nature of reality. Examples: wise fool, ignorantly learned, laughing sadness, pious hate. Some others:
I do here make humbly bold to present them with a short account of themselves and their art. . . . --Jonathan
The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, With loads of learned lumber in his head. . . . --Alexander Pope
He was now sufficiently composed to order a funeral of modest magnificence, suitable at once to the rank of
a Nouradin's profession, and the reputation of his wealth. --Samuel Johnson
Oxymoron can be useful when things have gone contrary to expectation, belief, desire, or assertion, or when your
position is opposite to another's which you are discussing. The figure then produces an ironic contrast which shows, in
your view, how something has been misunderstood or mislabeled:
Senator Rosebud calls this a useless plan; if so, it is the most helpful useless plan we have ever enacted.
The cost-saving program became an expensive economy.
Other oxymorons, as more or less true paradoxes, show the complexity of a situation where two apparently opposite
things are true simultaneously, either literally ("desirable calamity") or imaginatively ("love precipitates delay").
Some examples other writers have used are these: scandalously nice, sublimely bad, darkness visible, cheerful
pessimist, sad joy, wise fool, tender cruelty, despairing hope, freezing fire. An oxymoron should preferably be yours
uniquely; do not use another's unless it is relatively obvious formulation (like "expensive economy") which anyone
might think of. Also, the device is most effective when the terms are not common opposites. So, instead of "a low high
point," you might try "depressed apex" or something.
Parody. A satiric imitation of a work or of an author with the idea of ridiculing the author, his ideas, or work. The
parodist exploits the peculiarities of an author's expression--his propensity to use too many parentheses, certain
favorite words, or whatever. The parody may also be focused on, say, an improbable plot with too many convenient
events. Fielding's Shamela is, in large part, a parody of Richardson's Pamela.
Persona. The person created by the author to tell a story. Whether the story is told by an omniscient narrator or by a
character in it, the actual author of the work often distances himself from what is said or told by adopting a persona-a personality different from his real one. Thus, the attitudes, beliefs, and degree of understanding expressed by the
narrator may not be the same as those of the actual author. Some authors, for example, use narrators who are not very
bright in order to create irony.
Personification. The metaphorical representation of an animal or inanimate object as having human attributes-attributes of form, character, feelings, behavior, and so on. As the name implies, a thing or idea is treated as a person:
The ship began to creak and protest as it struggled against the rising sea.
We bought this house instead of the one on Maple because this one is more friendly.
This coffee is strong enough to get up and walk away.
Even the cypress trees rejoice over you, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, / "Since you were laid low, no
tree cutter comes up against us." --Isa. 14:8
Ideas and abstractions can also be personified:
Wisdom cries aloud in the streets; in the markets she raises her voice. . . . --Prov. 1:20
Men say they love Virtue, but they leave her standing in the rain. --Juvenal
Love and faithfulness meet together;
Righteousness and peace kiss each other. --Psalm 85:10
While personification functions primarily as a device of art, it can often serve to make an abstraction clearer and
more real to the reader by defining or explaining the concept in terms of everyday human action (as for example
man's rejection of readily available wisdom is presented as a woman crying out to be heard but being ignored). Ideas
can be brought to life through personification and objects can be given greater interest. But try always to be fresh;
"winking stars" is worn out; "winking dewdrops" may be all right.
Personification of just the natural world has its own name, fictio. And when this natural-world personification is
limited to emotion, John Ruskin called it the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin considered this latter to be a vice because it was
so often overdone (and let this be a caution to you). We do not receive much pleasure from an overwrought vision like
The angry clouds in the hateful sky cruelly spat down on the poor man who had forgotten his umbrella.
Nevertheless, humanizing a cold abstraction or even some natural phenomenon gives us a way to understand it, one
more way to arrange the world in our own terms, so that we can further comprehend it. And even the so-called
pathetic fallacy can sometimes be turned to advantage, when the writer sees his own feelings in the inanimate world
around him:
After two hours of political platitudes, everyone grew bored. The delegates were bored; the guests were
bored; the speaker himself was bored. Even the chairs were bored.
Petrarchan Conceit. The kind of conceit (see above) used by Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch and popular in
Renaissance English sonnets. Eyes like stars or the sun, hair like golden wires, lips like cherries, etc. are common
examples. Oxymorons are also common, such as freezing fire, burning ice, etc.
Picaresque novel. An episodic, often autobiographical novel about a rogue or picaro (a person of low social degree)
wandering around and living off his wits. The wandering hero provides the author with the opportunity to connect
widely different pieces of plot, since the hero can wander into any situation. Picaresque novels tend to be satiric and
filled with petty detail. Examples:
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild
Pseudonym. A "false name" or alias used by a writer desiring not to use his or her real name. Sometimes called a nom
de plume or "pen name," pseudonyms have been popular for several reasons.
First, political realities might make it dangerous for the real author to admit to a work. Beatings, imprisonment, and
even execution are not unheard of for authors of unpopular works.
Second, an author might have a certain type of work associated with a certain name, so that different names are used
for different kinds of work. One pen name might be used for westerns, while another name would be used for science
Lastly, an author might choose a literary name that sounds more impressive or that will garner more respect than the
author's real name. Examples:
Samuel Clemens used the name Mark Twain
Mary Ann Evans used the name George Eliot
Jonathan Swift used the name Lemuel Gulliver (once)
Pulp fiction. Novels written for the mass market, intended to be "a good read,"--often exciting, titillating, thrilling.
Historically they have been very popular but critically sneered at as being of sub-literary quality. The earliest ones
were the dime novels of the nineteenth century, printed on newsprint (hence "pulp" fiction) and sold for ten cents.
Westerns, stories of adventure, even the Horatio Alger novels, all were forms of pulp fiction.
Modern pulp fiction consists of the racy, sometimes soft-core pornographic novels seen everywhere on paperback
racks. Examples:
Danielle Steele
John Le Carre
Regional novel. A novel faithful to a particular geographic region and its people, including behavior, customs, speech,
and history. Examples:
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native
Rhyme. The similarity between syllable sounds at the end of two or more lines. Some kinds of rhyme (also spelled rime)
Couplet: a pair of lines rhyming consecutively.
Eye rhyme: words whose spellings would lead one to think that they rhymed (slough, tough, cough, bough,
though, hiccough. Or: love, move, prove. Or: daughter, laughter.)
Feminine rhyme: two syllable rhyme consisting of stressed syllable followed by unstressed.
Masculine rhyme: similarity between terminally stressed syllables.
Ridicule. Words intended to belittle a person or idea and arouse contemptuous laughter. The goal is to condemn or
criticize by making the thing, idea, or person seem laughable and ridiculous. It is one of the most powerful methods of
criticism, partly because it cannot be satisfactorily answered ("Who can refute a sneer?") and partly because many
people who fear nothing else--not the law, not society, not even God--fear being laughed at. (The fear of being
laughed at is one of the most inhibiting forces in western civilization. It provides much of the power behind the
adolescent flock urge and accounts for many of the barriers to change and adventure in the adult world.) Ridicule is,
not surprisingly, a common weapon of the satirist.
Roman a clef. [French for "novel with a key," pronounced roh mahn ah clay] A novel in which historical events and
actual people are written about under the disguise of fiction. Examples:
Aphra Behn, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Romance. An extended fictional prose narrative about improbable events involving characters that are quite
different from ordinary people. Knights on a quest for a magic sword and aided by characters like fairies and trolls
would be examples of things found in romance fiction. Examples:
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Sir Philip Sidney, The Arcadia
In popular use, the modern romance novel is a formulaic love story (boy meets girl, obstacles interfere, they overcome
obstacles, they live happily ever after). Computer software is available for constructing these stock plots and
providing stereotyped characters. Consequently, the books usually lack literary merit. Examples:
Harlequin Romance series
Sarcasm. A form of verbal irony, expressing sneering, personal disapproval in the guise of praise. (Oddly enough,
sarcastic remarks are often used between friends, perhaps as a somewhat perverse demonstration of the strength of the
bond--only a good friend could say this without hurting the other's feelings, or at least without excessively damaging
the relationship, since feelings are often hurt in spite of a close relationship. If you drop your lunch tray and a stranger
says, "Well, that was really intelligent," that's sarcasm. If your girlfriend or boyfriend says it, that's love--I think.)
Satire. A manner of writing that mixes a critical attitude with wit and humor in an effort to improve mankind and
human institutions. Ridicule, irony, exaggeration, and several other techniques are almost always present. The satirist
may insert serious statements of value or desired behavior, but most often he relies on an implicit moral code,
understood by his audience and paid lip service by them. The satirist's goal is to point out the hypocrisy of his target in
the hope that either the target or the audience will return to a real following of the code. Thus, satire is inescapably
moral even when no explicit values are promoted in the work, for the satirist works within the framework of a widely
spread value system. Many of the techniques of satire are devices of comparison, to show the similarity or contrast
between two things. A list of incongruous items, an oxymoron, metaphors, and so forth are examples. See "The Purpose
and Method of Satire" for more information.
Sequel. A novel incorporating the same characters and often the same setting as a previous novel. Sometimes the
events and situations involve a continuation of the previous novel and sometimes only the characters are the same
and the events are entirely unrelated to the previous novel. When sequels result from the popularity of an original,
they are often hastily written and not of the same quality as the original. Occasionally a sequel is written by an
author different from that of the original novel. See series. Examples:
Mark Twain, Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad
Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Detective
Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
Alexandra Ripley, Scarlett
Setting. The environment in which the action of a fictional work takes place. Setting includes time period (such as the
1890's), the place (such as downtown Warsaw), the historical milieu (such as during the Crimean War), as well as the
social, political, and perhaps even spiritual realities. The setting is usually established primarily through description,
though narration is used also.
Simile. A direct, expressed comparison between two things essentially unlike each other, but resembling each other in
at least one way. In formal prose the simile is a device both of art and explanation, comparing the unfamiliar thing (to
be explained) to some familiar thing (an object, event, process, etc.) known to the reader. There is no simile in the
comparison, "My car is like your car," because the two objects are not "essentially unlike" each other.
When a noun is compared to a noun, the simile is usually introduced by like:
I see men, but they look like trees, walking. --Mark 8:24
The soul in the body is like a bird in a cage.
After such long exposure to the direct sun, the leaves of the houseplant looked like pieces of overcooked
The princes of Judah have become like those who move a boundary; / On them I will pour out my wrath
like water. --Hosea 5:10
But I am like an olive tree / Flourishing in the house of God. . . . --Psalm 52:8
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside
appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. --Matthew 23:27
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; / . . . They will be like a well-watered garden, / And
they will sorrow no more. --Jeremiah 31:12
(In these last two examples especially, notice how powerfully the thing to be described, called the tenor, is colored by
the thing it is compared to, called the vehicle. Calling the scribes and Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" creates a very
striking, negative image. This power is one of the advantages of the simile.)
When a verb or phrase is compared to a verb or phrase, as is used:
They remained constantly attentive to their goal, as a sunflower always turns and stays focused on the sun.
Here is your pencil and paper. I want you to compete as the greatest hero would in the race of his life.
Often the image (the simile itself or vehicle) precedes the thing likened to it (the tenor, the thing you want
to clarify or explain). In such cases, so usually shows the comparison:
The grass bends with every wind; so does Harvey.
The seas are quiet when the winds give o're;
So calm are we when passions are no more. --Edmund Waller
But sometimes the so is understood rather than expressed:
As wax melts before the fire, / May the wicked perish before God. --Psalm 68:2b
Whenever it is not immediately clear to the reader, the point of similarity between the unlike objects must be
specified to avoid confusion and vagueness. Rather than say, then, that "Money is like muck [manure]," and "Fortune is
like glass," a writer will show clearly how these very different things are like each other:
And money is like muck, not good except it be spread. --Francis Bacon
Fortune is like glass--the brighter the glitter, the more easily broken. --Publilius Syrus
Like a skunk, he suffered from bad publicity for one noticeable flaw, but bore no one any ill will.
Many times the point of similarity can be expressed in just a word or two:
The pitching mound is humped too much like a camel's back.
Yes, he is a cute puppy, but when he grows up he will be as big as a house.
Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance. . . . --1 Kings 4:20
He was as lazy as Ludlam's dog, that leaned his head against a wall to bark. --Proverb
And occasionally, the simile word can be used as an adjective:
The argument of this book uses pretzel-like logic.
This gear has a flower-like symmetry to it.
Similes can be negative, too, asserting that two things are unlike each other in one or more respects:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. . . .--Shakespeare
John certainly does not attack the way a Sherman tank does; but if you encourage him, he is bold enough.
Other ways to create similes include the use of comparison:
But this truth is more obvious than the sun--here it is; look at it; its brightness blinds you.
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, / And smoother than oil is her speech; / But in the end she is bitter
as wormwood, / Sharp as a two-edged sword. --Proverbs 5:3-4
Or the use of another comparative word is possible:
How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and
you were unwilling.--Matt. 23:37b
His temper reminds me of a volcano; his heart, of a rock; his personality, of sandpaper.
His speech was smoother than butter. . . .--Psalm 55:21
Microcomputer EPROM (Erasable, Programmable, Read- Only Memory) resembles a chalk board in that it
is used for semi-permanent consultation rather than temporary storage, and shows at each glance the same
information unless erased and rewritten.
So a variety of ways exists for invoking the simile. Here are a few of the possibilities:
x is like y
x is not like y x is the same as y
x is more than y x is less than y x does y; so does z
x is similar to y x resembles y
x is y like z
x is as y as z
x is more y than z x is less y than z
x does y the way z does a
But a simile can sometimes be implied, or as it is often called, submerged. In such cases no comparative word is needed:
The author of this poem is almost in the position of a man with dozens of tree ornaments, but with no tree to
decorate. He has lots of imagery but no ideas. The "sense" he does locate is obscured; the ivy hides the
building completely.
When I think of Professor Krunk's final exam, I think of dungeons and chains and racks and primal screams.
Sonnet. A fourteen line poem, usually in iambic pentameter, with a varied rhyme scheme. The two main types of
sonnet are the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean. The Petrarchan Sonnet is divided into two main
sections, the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines). The octave presents a problem or situation which is
then resolved or commented on in the sestet. The most common rhyme scheme is A-B-B-A A-B-B-A C-D-E C-D-E,
though there is flexibility in the sestet, such as C-D-C D-C-D.
The Shakespearean Sonnet, (perfected though not invented by Shakespeare), contains three quatrains and a couplet,
with more rhymes (because of the greater difficulty finding rhymes in English). The most common rhyme scheme is AB-A-B C-D-C-D E-F-E-F G-G. In Shakespeare, the couplet often undercuts the thought created in the rest of the
Spenserian Stanza. A nine-line stanza, with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the last line in iambic
hexameter (called an Alexandrine). The rhyme scheme is A-B-A-B B-C-B-C C. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene is
written in Spenserian stanzas.
Style. The manner of expression of a particular writer, produced by choice of words, grammatical structures, use of
literary devices, and all the possible parts of language use. Some general styles might include scientific, ornate, plain,
emotive. Most writers have their own particular styles.
Subplot. A subordinate or minor collection of events in a novel or drama. Most subplots have some connection with the
main plot, acting as foils to, commentary on, complications of, or support to the theme of, the main plot. Sometimes two
opening subplots merge into a main plot.
Symbol. Something that is itself and yet also represents something else, like an idea. For example, a sword may be a
sword and also symbolize justice. A symbol may be said to embody an idea. There are two general types of symbols:
universal symbols that embody universally recognizable meanings wherever used, such as light to symbolize
knowledge, a skull to symbolize death, etc., and invested symbols that are given symbolic meaning by the way an
author uses them in a literary work, as the white whale becomes a symbol of evil in Moby Dick.
Synecdoche. A form of metaphor in which the part stands for the whole, the whole for a part, the genus for the species,
the species for the genus, the material for the thing made, or in short, any portion, section, or main quality for the
whole thing itself (or vice versa).
Farmer Jones has tow hundred head of cattle and three hired hands.
Here we recognize that Jones also owns bodies of the cattle, and that the hired hands have bodies attached. This is a
simple part-for-whole synedoche. Here are a few more:
If I had some wheels, I'd put on my best threads and ask for Jane's hand in marriage.
The army included two hundred horse and three hundred foot.
It is sure hard to earn a dollar these days.
Then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul. --Genesis 2:7
And notice the other kinds of substitutes that can be made:
Get in here this instant or I'll spank your body. [Whole for the part--i.e. "body" for "rear end"]
Put Beethoven on the turntable and turn up the volume. [Composer substituted for record]
A few hundred pounds of twenty dollar bills ought to solve that problem nicely. [Weight for amount]
He drew his steel from his scabbard and welcomed all comers. [Material for thing made]
Patty's hobby is exposing film; Harold's is burning up gasoline in his dune buggy. [Part for whole]
Okay team. Get those blades back on the ice. [Part for whole]
Take care to make your synecdoche clear by choosing an important and obvious part to represent the whole.
His pet purr was home alone and asleep.
His pet paws [whiskers?] was home alone and asleep.
One of the easiest kinds of synecdoche to write is the substitution of the genus for the species. Here you choose the
class to which the idea or thing to be expressed belongs, and use that rather than the idea or thing itself:
There sits my animal [instead of "dog"] guarding the door to the henhouse.
He hurled the barbed weapon [instead of "harpoon"] at the whale.
A possible problem can arise with the genus-for -species substitution because the movement is from more specific to
more general; this can result in vagueness and loss of information. Note that in the example above some additional
contextual information will be needed to clarify that "weapon" means "harpoon" in this case, rather than, say, "dagger"
or something else. The same is true for the animal-for-dog substitution.
Perhaps a better substitution is the species for the genus--a single, specific, representative item symbolic of the whole.
This form of synecdoche will usually be clearer and more effective than the other:
A major lesson Americans need to learn is that life consists of more than cars and television sets. [Two
specific items substituted for the concept of material wealth]
Give us this day our daily bread. --Matthew 6:11
If you still do not feel well, you'd better call up a sawbones and have him examine you.
This program is for the little old lady in Cleveland who cannot afford to pay her heating bill.
Tone. The writer's attitude toward his readers and his subject; his mood or moral view. A writer can be formal, informal,
playful, ironic, and especially, optimistic or pessimistic. While both Swift and Pope are satirizing much the same
subjects, there is a profound difference in their tone.
Travesty. A work that treats a serious subject frivolously-- ridiculing the dignified. Often the tone is mock serious and
heavy handed.
Understatement. Expressing an idea with less emphasis or in a lesser degree than is the actual case. The opposite of
hyperbole. Understatement is employed for ironic emphasis. Example:
Last week I saw a woman flay'd, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. -Swift
Verisimilitude. The semblance to truth or actuality in characters or events that a novel or other fictional work
possesses. To say that a work has a high degree of verisimilitude means that the work is very realistic and believable.
Versification. Generally, the structural form of a verse, as revealed by scansion. Identification of verse structure
includes the name of the metrical type and the name designating number of feet:
Monometer: 1 foot
Dimeter: 2 feet
Trimeter: 3 feet
Tetrameter: 4 feet
Pentameter: 5 feet
Hexameter: 6 feet
Heptameter: 7 feet
Octameter: 8 feet
Nonameter: 9 feet
The most common verse in English poetry is iambic pentameter. See foot for more information.
Zeugma. Any of several similar rhetorical devices, all involving a grammatically correct linkage (or yoking together)
of two or more parts of speech by another part of speech. Thus examples of zeugmatic usage would include one subject
with two (or more) verbs, a verb with tow (or more) direct objects, two (or more) subjects with one verb, and so forth. The
main benefit of the linking is that it shows relationships between ideas and actions more clearly.
Format for "5" Essays
Includes thesis – usually the first or last sentence
Paragraph contains more than forty words
Has three or more sentences including the thesis
Has two or more paragraphs
Each paragraph contains on the average of 11 sentences
Each paragraph contains 125 or more words
Concluding Paragraph
Has 40 or more words
Shows insight
Does not repeat the thesis
Gives a finished feeling (draws a conclusion)
Each paragraph is generally structured in the following way
1. Topic sentence – refers to thesis found in introduction
2. Concrete detail sentence #1 shows support for the topic sentence (For Example…)
3. Commentary
4. Commentary
5. Concrete detail sentence #2 shows support for the topic sentence (In addition…)
6. Commentary
7. Commentary
8. Concrete detail sentence #3 shows support for the topic sentence (Furthermore…)
9. Commentary
10. Commentary
11. Concluding sentence – sums up the paragraph
Advanced Placement Essays: Helpful Hints
1. Don’t present yourself as an immature writer
 AP readers see beyond handwriting to the larger issues of style and content, but handwriting can reflect
 Is the handwriting so excessively large or small that it is difficult to decipher?
 Is the handwriting excessively florid?
 If you have poor, difficult to read handwriting, strive to be certain the writing is clear enough to read.
 AP readers must grade 20+ essays an hour and your handwriting may affect attentiveness. Don’t make it
difficult for the reader to “see” your thinking
 Brief, scant responses are the worse error you can make as the AP reader is left with no way to evaluate your
2. Avoid those serious errors, which will mark you as an unprepared writer.
 A very serious error is repeated comma splices – running two independent clauses together without a
conjunction and with only a comma. (Run-on sentences omit the comma and present the same problem.)
 Another serious error is repeated occurrences of sentence fragments.
 Spelling errors are serious, but a few are acceptable; too many may cost you points. Spelling errors
combined with a lack of sentence control are more apt to count against you.
 Errors of usage – e.g., affect/effect – affect how the readers evaluate your language competence.
3. Write sentences that are smooth, flowing, clear, sensible; avoid short, choppy sentences.
 Proofread to ensure that you have not omitted words that render sentences unclear or nonsensical.
 Proofread to make sure that your wording is not so confused, awkward, or ineffective that the reader cannot
figure out what you are saying.
 Sentences which are sharp, precise, and clear but which at the same time show complexity characterize the
best writing. Sentences whose structures enable you to express intricate, layered understandings effectively
will mark you as a mature and capable writer.
 A fluent, clear style is a primary characteristic of higher level writing.
Use sentence variety to develop a more sophisticated style.
Pay attention to organization and content: THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUES.
Respond exactly to the question asked. The literature and questions are logical and focused. Your answer is
in the question. Accept that guidance; interpret and illustrate the question
Keep your focus clear throughout your essay; make certain the thoughts are in a logical sequence that is
continually connected to the focus, thus yielding a unified essay.
Use specific details both to offer commentary and interpretation about the literary piece and to support and
illustrate your points.
Explain through examples and comments on the details of the text.
Plan to spend about five minutes brainstorming, and structuring your response; then write from your outline
or list of ideas. Think through you whole answer before you begin.
Once you begin writing, try to maintain a continuous, logical, and focused flow. You may have new insights
as you proceed, but try to connect continually where you began, where you are, and where you are going
with your central idea.
Figurative Language
Alliteration is the practice of beginning several consecutive or neighboring words with the same sound, e.g.,
The twisting trout twinkled below.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in a series of words, e.g., the words "cry" and "side" have the same
vowel sound and so are said to be in assonance.
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound within a series of words to produce a harmonios effect, e.g.,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down on blinds. The "d" sound is in consonance. as well, the "s" sound is also
in consonance.
Simile is a comparison of two different things or ideas through the use of the words like or as. It is definitely
stated comparison, where the poet says one thing is like another, e.g., The warrior fought like a lion.
Metaphor is a comparison without the use of like or as. The poet states that one thing is another. It is usually
a comparison between something that is real or concrete and something that is abstract, e.g., Life is but a
Personification is a kind of metaphor which gives inanimate objects or abstract ideas human characteristics,
e.g., The wind cried in the dark.
Onomatopoeia (Imitative Harmony) is the use of words in which the sounds seem to resemble the sounds
they describe, e.g., hiss, buzz, bang. when onomatopoeia is used on an extended scale in a poem, it is called
imitative harmony.
Hyperbole is a deliberate, extravagant, and often outrageous exaggeration. It may be used either for serious
or comic effect; e.g., The shot that was heard 'round the world.
Understatement (Meiosis) is the opposite of hyperbole. It is a kind of irony which deliberately represents
something as much less than it really is, e.g., I could probably manage to survive on a salary of two million
dollars per year.
Paradox is a statement which contradicts itself. It may seem almost absurd. Although it may seem to be at
odds with ordinary experience, it usually turns out to have a coherent meaning, and reveals a truth which is
normally hidden, e.g., The more you know, the more you know you don't know (Socrates).
Oxymoron is a form of paradox which combines a pair of contrary terms into a single expression. This
combination usually serves the purpose of shocking the reader into awareness, e.g., sweet sorrow, wooden
Pun is a play on words which are identical or similar in sound but which have sharply diverse meanings.
Puns may have serious as well as humorous uses, e.g., When Mercutio is bleeding to death in Romeo and
Juliet, he says to his friends, "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man."
Irony is the result of a statement saying one thing while meaning the opposite. Its purpose is usually to
criticize, e.g., It is simple to stop smoking. I've done it many times.
Sarcasm is a type of irony in which a person appears to be praising something while he is actually insulting
the thing. Its purpose is to injure or hurt, e.g., As I fell down the stairs headfirst, I heard her say "Look at that
Antithesis - involves a direct contrast of structurally parallel word groupings generally for the purpose of
contrast, e.g., Sink or swim.
Apostrophe is a form of personification in which the absent or dead are spoken to as if present, and the
inanimate as if animate. These are all addressed directly, e.g., The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Allusion is a reference to a mythological, literary, historical, or Biblical person, place, or thing e.g., He met
his Waterloo.
Synecdoche (Metonymy) is a form of metaphor. In synecdoche, a part of something is used to signify the
whole, e.g., All hands on deck. Also, the reverse, whereby the whole can represent a part, is synecdoche, e.g.,
Canada played the United States in the Olympic hockey finals. Another form of synecdoche involves the
container representing the thing being contained, e.g., The pot is boiling. One last form of synecdoche
involves the material from which an object is made standing for the object itself, e.g., The quarterback tossed
the pigskin. In metonymy, the name of one thing is applied to another thing with which it is closely
associated, e.g. I love Shakespeare.
Tone Words
A list of tone words is one practical solution for providing a basic tone vocabulary. An enriched vocabulary enables
students to use more specific and subtle descriptions of an attitude they discover in a text. Include such words as:
Students need to use dictionaries for definitions of the above tone words. Students need explicit dictionary meanings
to establish subtle differences between tone words. Keeping a list of precise tone words, and adding to it, sharpens
students' articulation in stating tone
Words That Describe Language
Students often need to develop a vocabulary that describes language. Different from tone, these words describe the
force or quality of the diction, images, and details. These words qualify how the work is written, not the attitude or