Chapter Four: Interpretation, Analysis, and Close Reading

Interpretation

When Mad Max: Fury Road came out in 2015, it was lauded as a powerful feminist film. No longer was this franchise about men enacting post-apocalyptic violence; now, there was an important place in that universe for women. A similar phenomenon surrounded Wonder Woman in 2017: after dozens of male-fronted superhero movies, one would finally focus on a female hero exclusively.

Some people, though, were resistant to this reading of feminism in film. I found myself in regular debates after each of these releases about what it meant to promote gender equality in film: does substituting a violent woman for a violent man constitute feminism? Is the leading woman in a film a feminist just by virtue of being in a female-fronted film? Or do her political beliefs take priority?1 Does the presence of women on the screen preclude the fact that those women are still highly sexualized?

These questions, debates, and discussions gesture toward the interpretive process. Indeed, most arguments (verbal or written) rely on the fact that we each process texts and information from different positions with different purposes, lenses, and preoccupations. Why is it that some people leave the theater after Mad Max or Wonder Woman feeling empowered, and others leave deeply troubled?

Interpretation is a complex process that is unique to every reader. It is a process of meaning-making that relies on your particular position as a reader. Your interpretive position is informed by several factors.

  • Your purpose – In the same way you have a rhetorical purpose in writing, you often have a purpose in reading, either consciously or subconsciously. What are you trying to accomplish in this encounter with a text?
  • Your background – Your lived experiences have trained you to perceive texts with certain assumptions. This background is a blend of cultural, educational, geographical, familial, ideological, and personal influences, among many others.
  • Your posture – The stance you assume relative to a text will contribute to what meaning you make as you read, think about, and write about that text. This relative position might be emotional (what mood you’re in while reading) or contextual (what situation you’re reading in), and may also be impacted by your background and purpose.
  • Your lens – Related to your purpose, lens refers to the way you focus your attention on particular ideas, images, and language to construct meaning. Toward what elements are you directing your attention

It would be simpler, perhaps, to acknowledge that we will never all agree on an interpretation of a text because of these differences. But the stakes are higher here than simply, “Is Mad Max feminist?” Interpretation gets down to the very way we encounter the world; it is about all our biases and flaws; it is about truth; it is about building new knowledges and dismantling institutional oppression. In other words, analytical interpretation is not so esoteric as slotting texts into labels like “feminist” or “not feminist.” It is a practice of thinking critically, examining our sense of community and communication, and pursuing social justice.

Analysis

On a basic level, analysis refers to the conceptual strategy of “part-to-whole.” Because I grew up playing with LEGOs® (or, more often, the cheap knock-offs), I like to use this analogy: Imagine a castle built of 1000 LEGO bricks. I can look at the entire structure and say, “Oh, that’s a castle”—this is a reasonable interpretation. But to understand how that castle has actually come together, I pull a few of the LEGO bricks from various parts of the structure. I look at those bricks individually, closely examining each side (even the sides that I couldn’t see when they were part of the castle).

 

Pile of lego building blocks
“lego pile” by justgrimes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photograph: a castle built of LEGO bricks
:jovian:” by bf8done is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

When I say, “This is a castle,” I am not analyzing. But next, perhaps I ask myself, “What is each of these blocks doing to create what I can clearly interpret as a castle?” This is the process of analysis.

Which bricks to choose, though? As we discussed in Chapter One, attention is always selective: we automate most of our daily experience for the sake of efficiency and survival, so we often overlook the trees when we see the forest—or each LEGO brick when we see the castle.

Analysis, then, is a practice of radical noticing (like description): it invites you to attend to the details that add up to a complex reality. But analysis also involves conscientious focus of your attention, or a lens. Just like reading glasses can bring these words into focus, an analytical lens brings specific ideas, words, or patterns into sharper focus, making them easier to process and interpret.

Sometimes, especially in English classrooms, analysis of a text is referred to as close reading.2 Importantly, close reading as a technique is not a magical key to meaning, not a super-secret decoder ring for a deeply encrypted code. Rather, it is a means to unpack a text and construct a unique, focused interpretation. Close reading is an iterative process: by repeatedly encountering, unpacking, and discussing a text, you can develop an analytical insight through guided and focused interpretation of its meaning.

In an analytical situation, your readerly purpose might determine your focus: for example, if you’re trying to convince a friend that Wonder Woman is a feminist film, you would keep your eyes peeled for images, words, and other markers that align with such an interpretation, like situations featuring independent powerful women or an equitable ratio of dialogue spoken by female characters vs. male characters. It is important to note, though, that good analysis embraces curiosity and allows you to notice elements that might contradict, complicate, or nuance your original purpose: in addition to finding evidence in support of your interpretation, you should also be aware of characteristics that push back against your expectations.

Chapter Vocabulary

Vocabulary

Definition

the inferred or speculated intention of a writer. Must be overlooked in the process of text wrestling analysis.

the cognitive process and/or rhetorical mode of studying constituent parts to demonstrate an interpretation of a larger whole.

the associated meanings of a word, phrase, or idea beyond its ‘dictionary’ definition; the complex, subjective, and dynamic meanings of a word, phrase, or idea the shift based on interpretive position. Contrast with denotation.

a technique of reading that focuses attention on features of the text to construct an interpretation. (This is in contrast to interpretive methods that rely on research, historical context, biography, or speculation.)

the dictionary definition of a word, phrase, or idea; the standard and objective meaning of a word, phrase, or idea which, theoretically, does not vary based on interpretive position. Contrast with connotation.

the process of consuming rhetoric to create meaning. “An interpretation” refers to a specific meaning we build as we encounter a text, focusing on certain ideas, language, or patterns.

the unique position from which each of us interprets a text—necessarily different for all people at any given time, and often different for the same person at different times in their life.

literally, a repetition within a process. Analysis is iterative because it requires repeated critical encounters with a text.

a metaphor for the conceptual framework a reader applies to an analysis. A “lens” brings certain elements into focus, allowing the reader to attend to specific parts of a text to develop an interpretation.

a recurring image or phrase that helps convey a theme. Similar to a symbol, but the relationship between symbol and symbolized is more one-to-one than between motif and theme.

a notable sequence; structure or shape; recurring image, word, or phrase found in a piece of rhetoric.

a connection a text makes to another text. Can be explicit or implicit; might include allusion, allegory, quotation, or parody. Referencing text adopts some characteristics of the referenced text.

an artifact (usually something concrete) that stands in for (represents) something else (often something abstract).

Techniques

Authorial Intent

In a groundbreaking 1967 essay, Roland Barthes declared that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”3 In the fifty years since its publication, “The Death of the Author” has greatly influenced the way students, teachers, and academics conduct analysis. Most critics have come to acknowledge that the personal and historical context of the author is not entirely irrelevant, as Barthes might seem to suggest; rather, most people value Barthes’ notion that we must free ourselves from the trap of authorial intent. This is to say, what we have to work with is the text itself, so it doesn’t matter what the author wanted to say, but instead what they did say. Therefore, we should work from the assumption that every choice the author made was deliberate.

“Once the Author is gone, the claim to ‘decipher’ a text becomes quite useless.” – Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

This choice to avoid speculation about the author’s intent or personality is consistent with the theories of text wrestling analysis explored in this chapter’s introduction. Because meaning is always and only constructed through interpretation, we should let go of the idea that the author (or the “secret meanings” the author wrote into a text) is hidden somewhere beneath the surface. There is nothing “hidden” behind the text or in between the lines: there is only the text and those who interpret it.

This idea might seem to contradict one of the central frameworks of this textbook: that unpacking the rhetorical situation is crucial to critically consuming and producing rhetoric. Overlooking authorial intent does not mean that the author’s rhetorical situation is no longer important. Instead, we should simply avoid unproductive speculation: we can consider the author’s occasion, but we shouldn’t try to guess about their motives. For instance, we can say that Malcolm X’s writing was influenced by racial oppression in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S., but not by his preference for peas over carrots. It’s a fine line, but an important one.

Moreover, the choice to focus on what the author actually wrote, assuming that each word is on purpose, is part of the rhetorical situation of analysis. Your audience might also be curious about the author’s intent, but your rhetorical purpose in this situation is to demonstrate an interpretation of the text—not the author.

Radical Noticing: Seeing What’s On the Page

When we were early readers, we were trained to encounter texts in a specific way: find the main idea, focus on large-scale comprehension, and ignore errors, digressions, or irrelevant information. As Jane Gallop discusses in her essay, “The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters,” this is a useful skill but a problematic one. Because we engage a text from a specific interpretive position (and because we’re not always aware of that position), we often project what we anticipate rather than actually reading. Instead of reading what is on the page, we read what we think should be.

Projection is efficient—one e-mail from Mom is probably like all the others, and one episode of The Simpsons will probably follow the same trajectory as every episode from the last twenty-odd years. But projection is also problematic and inhibits analysis. As Gallop puts it,

When the reader concentrates on the familiar, she is reassured that what she already knows is sufficient in relation to this new book. Focusing on the surprising, on the other hand, would mean giving up the comfort of the familiar, of the already known for the sake of learning, of encountering something new, something she didn’t already know.

In fact, this all has to do with learning. Learning is very difficult; it takes a lot of effort. It is of course much easier if once we learn something we can apply what we have learned again and again. It is much more difficult if every time we confront something new, we have to learn something new.

Reading what one expects to find means finding what one already knows. Learning, on the other hand, means coming to know something one did not know before. Projecting is the opposite of learning. As long as we project onto a text, we cannot learn from it, we can only find what we already know. Close reading is thus a technique to make us learn, to make us see what we don’t already know, rather than transforming the new into the old.4

Analysis as “learning,” as Gallop explains, is a tool to help interrupt projection: by focusing on and trying to understand parts, we can redirect our attention to what the author is saying rather than what we think they should have said. In turn, we can develop a more complex, ethical, and informed understanding of a whole.

Perhaps the most important part of analysis is this attention to detail. If we assume that every word the author published is intentional (in order to avoid speculation about authorial intent), then we can question the meaning and impact of each word, each combination of words, each formal feature of the text. In turn, you should pay special attention to words or forms that surprise you or confuse you: the eye-catching and the ambiguous.

Symbols, Patterns, and References5

There is no definitive “how-to” guide on text wrestling, but I often ask my students to direct their attention to three particular elements of a text during their interpretive processes. When you draw connections through the following categories, you are actively building meaning from the words on the page.

Symbol: A symbol, as you may already know, is an artifact (usually something concrete) that stands in for (represents) something else (often something abstract). Here are a few examples in different media:

Image: Obama's 2008 campaign logo
“Obama iPhone Wallpaper” by Tony Gumbel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

  • Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign logo: the O, of course, stands in for the candidate’s last name; the red lines seem to suggest a road (implying progress), or maybe waving American flag; the blue curve represents a clear, blue sky (implying safety or wellbeing); the colors themselves are perhaps symbolic of bipartisan cooperation, or at the very least, the American color palette of red, white, and blue.
  • In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the titular black cat symbolizes the narrator’s descent into madness, alcoholism, and violence, and later his guilt for that descent.
  • The teaspoon used to hypnotize people in the film Get Out (2017) symbolizes wealth, power, and privilege (a “silver spoon [Wikipedia entry]”), suggesting that those structures are tools for control and domination.
  • In Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, the monster Grendel symbolizes a fear of the unknown and the intractability of nature.
  • In The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock symbolizes nostalgia and hope.

* A motif is closely related to a symbol, but it is different. A motif is a recurring image, word, or phrase that helps to carry a theme or other abstract idea. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” includes frequent use of the word “dust.” While the dust is not directly symbolic of anything, it certainly brings to mind a variety of connotations: reading “dust” makes you think of time passing, stagnancy, decay, and so on. Therefore, the motif of “dust” helps contribute to bigger characteristics, like tone and themes.

1. Pattern: Patterns are created by a number of rhetorical moves, often in form. Repetition of phrases or images, the visual appearance of text on a page, and character archetypes might contribute to patterns. While patterns themselves are interesting and important, you might also notice that breaking a pattern is a significant and deliberate move.

Aerial view of carton of eggs. One egg in the carton is broken, therefore breaking the pattern.
No More Breaks” by jlaytarts2090 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
  • The episode of the TV series Master of None titled “Parents” (Season 1, Episode 2) tells the respective stories of two immigrant families. By tracing the previous generation of each immigrant families through a series of flashbacks, the episode establishes a pattern in chronology: although the families have unique stories, the pattern highlights the similarities of these two families’ experiences. In turn, this pattern demonstrates the parallel but distinct challenges and opportunities faced by the immigrants and first-generation American citizens the episode profiles.
  • In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” each line of the first stanza contains ten syllables. However, the following stanzas contain occasional deviations—more or fewer syllables—creating a sense of disorder and also drawing emphasis to the pattern-breaking lines.
  • Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio and Leadbelly, painstakingly crafts patterns in his poetry. For instance, his series of sonnets on Millie and Christine McKoy [Wikipedia entry] follows not only the conventions of traditional sonnets, but are also interlocking, exemplifying the distinct but overlapping voices of conjoined twins.

2. Reference: A reference is a connection a text makes to another text. By making a reference (whether obvious or hidden), the referencing text adopts some characteristics of the referenced text. References might include allusion, allegory, quotation, or parody.

  • C.S. Lewis’ classic young adult series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a Christian allegory. The imagery used to describe the main hero, Aslan the lion, as well as a number of the other stories and details, parallel the New Testament. In turn, Aslan is imbued with the savior connotation of Jesus Christ.
  • The TV show Bob’s Burgers makes frequent references to pop culture. For instance, the fictional boy band featured in the show, Boyz 4 Now, closely resembles One Direction, *NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys—and their name is clearly a reference to Boyz II Men.
  • “Woman Hollering Creek,” a short story by Sandra Cisneros, deals with the dangers of interpersonal violence. The protagonist refers frequently to telenovelas, soap operas that set unrealistic and problematic assumptions for healthy relationships. These references suggest to us that interpersonal violence is pervasive in media and social norms.
Sociocultural Lenses6

In addition to looking for symbols, patterns, and references, you might also focus your analytical reading by using a sociocultural critical lens. Because your attention is necessarily selective, a limited resource, these lenses give you a suggestion for where you might direct that attention. While it is beyond the scope of this book to give in-depth history and reading practices for different schools of literary criticism or cultural studies, the following are common lenses applied during textual analysis. (Free resources from the Purdue OWL introduce students to some of these schools of criticism.)

As you engage with a text, you should look for touchstones, tropes, or symbols that relate to one or more of the following critical perspectives.

  • Gender and sexuality
    • How does the text portray the creation and performance of gender? How many people of different genders are included in the story? Do the characters in the text express gender according to traditional standards? How do characters resist the confines of gender? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to women, men, and non-binary or genderqueer characters?
    • What sorts of relationships—familial, friendly, romantic, sexual, etc.—are portrayed in the text? How do these relationships compare to the relationships of the dominant culture? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to LGBTQIA2S+ people?
  • Disability
    • How does the text represent people with disabilities? Does the text reveal damaging stereotypes or misconceptions about people with disabilities or their life experiences? Does the text illuminate the social/environmental construction of disabilities? How does the text construct or assume the normative body?
  • Race, ethnicity, and nationality
    • How does the text represent people of color, of minority status, and/or of different nationalities? What does it suggest about institutionalized racism and discrimination? How does the text examine or portray cultural and individual identities? How do the characters resist racism, xenophobia, and oppression? How do they reproduce, practice, or contribute to racism, xenophobia, or oppression?
  • Social class and economy
    • How does the text represent differences in wealth, access, and resources? Do people cross the divisions between socioeconomic statuses? Are characters of greater status afforded more power, agency, or freedom—in the plot events or in the text more generally? How do exploited people resist or reproduce exploitation?
  • Ecologies and the environment
    • Does the setting of the text represent a ‘natural’ world? How does the text represent nature, ecosystems, non-human animals and other living organisms? Does the text, its narrative, or its characters advocate for environmental protection? Does the text speak to the human impact on global ecological health?
  • (Post)colonialism
    • What is the relationship of the characters and the setting, historically and culturally? Does the text take place in a currently or formerly colonized nation? Which of the characters are from that place? How have the effects of colonialism and imperialism influenced the place and its indigenous people? How have subjected, enslaved, or exploited people preserved culture or resisted colonialism? How does the text represent patterns of migration—forced or voluntary?

Some texts will lend themselves to a certain lens (or combination of lenses) based on content or the rhetorical situation of the author or reader. Bring to mind a recent movie you watched, book you read, or other text you’ve encountered; by asking the italicized questions above, determine whether that text seems to be asking for a certain sociocultural perspective.

Activities

Personal Photo Analysis

For this activity, find a photograph (digital or printed) that has some sort of emotional gravity for you: it could be a picture of a loved one, a treasured memory, a favorite place, anything that makes you feel something.

On a clean sheet of paper, free-write about the photo in response to the following prompts for three minutes each:

  1. Describe the photograph as a whole. What’s happening? Who is in it? Use vivid description to capture the photo in writing as best you can.
  2. Zoom in on one element of the photo—one color, shape, object, person, etc. How does this part relate to the greater whole?
  3. Zoom out and describe what’s not shown in the photo. What’s happening just out of frame? What’s happening just before, just after? What are the emotions you associate with this moment?

Now, trade photos with a friend or classmate who’s also working on this activity. Repeat the same free-write prompts and compare your responses. What do the differences indicate about the interpretive process? About context? About the position of the reader and the limitations on the author (photographer)?

Unpacking Advertisements: Analyzing Visual Rhetoric

One of the most common forms of visual rhetoric we encounter on a daily basis are advertisements; indeed, advertisements are more and more prominent with the growth of technology, and increasingly tailored to the target audience. The ads we encounter often blend language, images, sound, and video to achieved their intended purpose—to convince you to buy something.

To practice analysis, you can close read an advertisement or advertising campaign.

  1. Choose a brand, product, or corporation that you find interesting. One that I’ve found especially engaging is Levi’s 2009 “Go Forth” advertising campaign.7
  2. Try to identify the subject, occasion, audience, and purpose of the advertisement. Often, there is an obvious or declared answer for each of these (the subject of the Levi’s campaign is “Levi’s jeans” and the purpose is “to make you buy Levi’s jeans”), but there are also more subtle answers (the subject is also “American millennial empowerment” and the purpose is also “create a youthful, labor-oriented brand”).
  3. Identify what parts of the advertisement contribute to the whole: what colors, shapes, words, images, associations, etc., does the ad play on in order to achieve its purpose? Do you notice symbols, patterns, or references?
  4. Interpret the observations you collected in number three. How do the parts contribute to the whole? What might you overlook if you weren’t paying close enough attention?
Radical Noticing Promenade

This exercise encourages you to focus on details, rather than the big picture, as a way to better understand the big picture. You will need a notebook and a camera. (If you have a cell phone with a camera, it will do the trick.)

Take about twenty minutes to wander around an area that you often spend time in: your house, your neighborhood, the halls of your school, etc. Walk slowly and aimlessly; this exercise works best when you don’t have a destination in mind.

As you wander, look around you and focus on small details—a piece of garbage on the sidewalk, the color of that guy’s shoes, the sound of a leaf blower in the distance. Record (using your camera, notebook, or both) these small details. When you return to your desk, choose three of these details to meditate on. Using descriptive writing (see Chapter One), spend a few minutes exploring these details in writing. Then, consider what they might reflect about the place where you promenaded—the piece of garbage might indicate that neighborhood is well-maintained but not pristine; the leaf blower might reflect a suburban American commitment to both manicured lawns and convenience.

Poem Explication8

Practice analyzing a text using your choice of one of the following poems. First, read a poem through once silently and once aloud. Then read the poem again, this time annotating words and phrases that strike you. Look for patterns (and breaks in patterns) in language, rhyme, meter, and form. Look for potential symbolism, concrete objects that seem to suggest something more abstract. Look for references, connections to other texts you know. You can also consider whether the poem speaks to any analytical lenses and how it compares to your experiences.

Next, develop several questions that the poem raises. What is ambiguous about the content or language? What might it suggest about our lives, our society?

Finally, synthesize your observations and questions into a brief essay driven by a thesis statement. Use specific parts of the text to support your insight.

Drag the River9 by Ryan Mills

Reproduced with permission from the author. Originally published online and available via 1001 Journal.

On our way to the river

the gist of American storytelling

dragged along like a dog

leashed to the back of the car.

I had to pull over.

You said, “I hope

We switched seats.

Parked at milepost 6, the grease fire night

pulled the river toward the delta.

The water ran low;

the trees performed their shakes.

We removed our hats then went down to the banks.

Richard Cory10

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Model Texts by Student Authors

Annotation: “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”11

(Image of the annotated text)

image

Original text:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

 And whisper to their souls to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

The breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;

‘Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did, and meant;

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love

(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,

That our selves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

 And makes me end where I begun.

Endnotes
1 Of particular note are claims that Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman has supported Israeli imperialism, and therefore her claims to feminism are contradicted by different social justice imperatives: The wonder of imperial feminism [Al Jazeera Article]
2 Although this term originated in the New Critical literary movement, it has permeated most other schools of critical theory and cultural studies. In most settings, it is generalized to refer to the attentive reading practices and philosophies discussed in this chapter; however, it does have additional connotations in New Criticism.
3 Barthes 148; 147. Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, 1977.
4 Gallop 11. Gallop, Jane. “The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters.” Journal of Curriculum and Theorizing, Vol. 16., No. 3, 2000, pp. 7-17.
5 This framework was inspired by Thomas C. Foster’s in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Harper, 2003.
6 Keep in mind that each of these critical lenses has a broad school of theory behind it. Your teacher might encourage you to do a bit of background research on a certain perspective before applying it.
7 Read more about this campaign and its rhetorical strategies via the New York Times: Levi’s Courts the Young With a Hopeful Call [New York Times Article]
8 For more on poetry explication, consult the UNC Writing Center’s web page
9 Ryan Mills, orig. published in 1001, issue 2, by IPRC. Reproduced with permission from the author.
10 Edwin Arlington Robinson. “Richard Cory.” 1897. Reproduced through the Public domain.
11 Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” 1633. Reproduced through the Public domain.
12 This video features Kamiko Jiminez, Annie Wold, Maximilian West, and Christopher Gaylord. It was produced and is included here with their consent. Special thanks to Laura Wilson and Kale Brewer for their support in producing this video.