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A Way to Read Things

Updated on September 2, 2014

After having taught literature classes and classes that have involved literature for many years, I have seen that many students--many people, really--struggle with acts of interpretation. They rail against plumbing the depths of the works with which they come into contact, whether they be from the English-language literary canon, songs on the radio, movies on the screen, video games, or whatever else. Often, the railing is couched in such whining questions as "Why can't we just let the story be a story?" which bespeak less an earnest desire to be an empirical reader than a desire not to work or engage with the material being presented. (It is not a good thing to show to those in authority.)

While there is nothing necessarily wrong with being an empirical reader, in reading a piece for nothing more than the pleasure of the reading, there is almost always more to be found in a piece than what it shows on its surface--and rather than ruining a piece, plumbing it for that "more" can be immensely rewarding. (Does taking apart an engine diminish pleasure in the performance of the engine when it is assembled?) There are many methods for doing so; I describe a fairly easily accessible one to which I was introduced as an undergraduate below. I and the students who have been in my charge often have found it useful; others may, as well.

Note that while what follows can be applied (with some changes in nomenclature and specific qualities upon which to focus) to any work of art--indeed, to any human endeavor that has any potential aesthetic quality--I discuss it in terms of literature. I am trained in that area more than in any other, and an old adage exhorts us to write what we know.

The Basic Scheme

When the method outlined below as described to me, it was made analogous to an apple. (Any fruit will do, I suppose, but apples have associations with knowledge and schooling, so the image seems appropriate; it is why I continue to use it.) There are three main parts to the fruit as it is commonly encountered and regarded: the skin, the pulp, and the seed. Similarly, there are three main things to examine in looking at a given piece, three things whose examination will allow for a deeper understanding of the piece, much as taking apart an engine helps in understanding how it works and, in theory, offers a greater appreciation of it. Those things can be called:

  • Empiricum
  • Symbolic Systems
  • Argument

Each is considered in turn below. Each receives a brief definition and explanation, as well as commentary about how to go about looking for it and what to do with it once found.



The empiricum shares a root with the word "empirical," meaning "able to be observed" or "obtained through observation" or something to that effect. It is analogous to the skin of the apple in that it is what is first seen and what attracts attention. It is that which the empirical reader perceives upon reading, the first impression offered by an examination. And just as many people who pass through a grocery store see apples and do not pick them up to do more with them or go deeper into them, many readers leave their perusal of texts at the empiricum, pursuing them no further. There is nothing wrong with doing so, of course, although there is often reward for doing more.

For a more serious reading, such as literature classes ask students to do and the teachers of literature classes themselves do, the beginning is in the empiricum. It treats a number of factors generally easily available on a single reading or with a brief Internet search, listed below in no particular order:

  • Setting- temporal, physical, social
  • Character- primary and secondary protagonist/s and antagonist/s, foils, stock characters, ancillary characters
  • Plot- application of Freytag's Pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion) and treatment of order of presentation (chronological, reverse chronological, in medias res)
  • Genre- broadly fiction, nonfiction, verse, and drama, but also including major subgenres such as fantasy literature, autobiography, sonnets, comedy, and tragedy
  • Context of Release- when and where the work was released into the world, and in what medium
  • Context of Creation- when and where the work was written, by whom, and under what circumstances

In brief, the empiricum answers the questions of who wrote it, when, where, and how, as well as what happens, to whom, when, where, and how. It answers the basic questions to allow for understanding of what is going on in the work at its most obvious level--which can be quite entertaining and can allow a reader to find more work that is likely to also be entertaining. For those who will go on to study a work more deeply, the empiricum also allows for a place from which to ask questions about the text, the answers to which provide easy avenues for entry into that study.

Looking at John Donne's "The Flea" on Anniina Jokinen's website, Luminarium, offers an easy example of an empiricum. The setting would appear to be some intimate location in early modern England, given the author and his language. Characters are the narrator and a presumed interlocutor, and the narrator is attempting to talk his--since the narrator speaks of the interlocutor's maidenhead and yielding, the presumption is that the interlocutor is feminine and thus that the narrator s masculine, given the heteronormative strictures of Donne's time--way into the interlocutor's physical affections. The genre would seem to be light verse; it is too brief to be truly serious, and its subject matter smacks of the adolescent. Initially, it was written for private distribution among the courtly by John Donne, who soon found himself a favorite. It is a simplified view, yes, but a useful point from which to begin further inquiry.

Symbolic Systems

If the empiricum is the skin of the apple, the symbolic systems are its pulp--the bulk of the work. The pulp of the apple can be eaten as it is, or made into sauce, jelly, pie, or cider; in no case is it lessened, but put to gainful use. The same is true of the symbolic systems; they are pulled out and employed, which makes them of greater value to the reader than simply allowing them to pass by does.

The symbolic systems of a given piece of work are the means through which it makes meaning. The denotations of the words themselves are thus part of the symbolic systems, meaning that the empiricum is subsumed by them; the skin of the apple is often eaten by those who eat apples. But even in the denotations, it is possible to move beyond the simple "what is happening in the story" of the text; many words have multiple denotations, and picking apart the conflicting and countervailing meanings is one thing that can be done to analyze a text. Connotations also play into the symbolism, as to arrangements and repetitions of sounds and structures. The symbolic systems include all of these things, working from and with the empiricum to afford the text multiple layers of meaning which can be explicated and with which more can be done.

Broadly, there are two types of symbols for which to look in considering symbolic systems: those of form and those of content. Both influence what meanings are present and potentially present in a text and so both offer means through which to get at what is going on beneath the empiricum surface of a text.

Symbols of Form

Symbols of form have less to do with the meanings of the individual words and more to do with how the words are arranged relative to one another and to the page upon which they appear. Primary concerns come in the rhythm the words create, the coincidence of similar sounds, the order and repetition of words, and the physical layout on the page. (The last runs into what are called paratextual concerns, which will vary with the edition and medium of a given text. For that reason, paratextual concerns will not be treated here.)


The rhythm of words on the page is determined by the pattern of their stressed (or emphasized) and unstressed (not emphasized) syllables--their feet; it can also be referred to as cadence or prosody. Typically, among those works which deploy consistent rhythm, the patterns are used to unify the work. Among those works which only intermittently deploy such patterns in predictable sequences, those parts which follow the sequences can be understood as linked and potentially emphasized.

Poetry tends to show up rhythm (and the related meter, which is simply a given number of repetitions of a given rhythmic pattern within a line) more easily than prose, but prose can also display powerful cadence. Those who make speeches, for example, will make use of rhythm to highlight and emphasize points they wish to make, varying the speed of their delivery to make some items stand out or maintaining a solid pattern to bring their audiences along with them more easily.

There are a number of common feet that show up in writing; being able to identify them and to note when they appear in particular groupings or with consistency does much to help see what the text highlights and how it works upon the mind of the reader. Among the most common in English are, per the fourth edition of Penguin's Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory:

  • Iamb- an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed ("hello")
  • Trochee- a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed ("howdy")
  • Dactyl- a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ("thunderbolt")
  • Anapest- two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed ("go away")
  • Spondee- two stressed syllables ("back off")

On their own, of course, the common patterns do not indicate much. In repetition, however, they can call attention to the words over which they run--and feet other than these five should attract particular attention when they appear. They are uncommon, so where they show up should stand out as something emphasized, something important.

Coincidence of Similar Sounds

As with repeated feet, repeated sounds can signify unity of lines in poetry or points of emphasis in prose. Unlike repeated feet, they align to words fairly neatly and so are relatively easy to spot on a first reading

The most common forms of coincidence of similar sounds are rhyme, which repeats sounds at the ends of words, and alliteration, which repeats sounds at the beginnings. (In its strictest sense, alliteration refers only to repeated consonantal sounds; in practice, it refers to vowels as well as consonants, as exemplified in discussions of Old English poetry.) Rhyme tends to appear at the ends of lines or phrases rather than at the end of each word, while alliteration occurs within them. Both indicate unity; what rhymes together goes together, as does what alliterates. Generally, they are applicable only locally; rarely do rhyme and alliteration track across a whole work. When they do, though, it is *very much* worth attention.

Similar in function but less common are assonance, the closely placed repetition of vowel sounds meant to produce euphony, and consonance, which acts as alliteration and rhyme at once ("ship shape" is an example). Similar in function also are such things as slant-rhyme and near-rhyme, which use similar but not repeated sounds; while they unify, they also show that the unity is not secure. As such, they are worth more attention than their purer counterpart.

Order and Repetition of Words

If the repetition of sounds and stresses within words is important to note, the repetition of those words is more so. When repeated in order--in anaphora--the words indicate importance of a central idea. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech displays anaphora remarkably well, both in the titular "I have a dream" and the repeated calls to "Let freedom ring." But the repetition does not always have to be in order; it can be in reversal, as in chiasmus. Chiasmus still serves to unify, but it works to emphasize the juxtaposition of the reversal. That is to say that it highlights the distinctions more than simply placing the unlike things together will.

Applying the ideas to "The Flea," we can see that there are some twenty-seven lines grouped into three stanzas of nine lines each; the stanzas operate in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four feet) and pentameter (five feet) with an extra line of pentameter at the end. They also rhyme in three couplets and a triplet; in each stanza, the first and second lines, third and fourth, fifth and sixth, and seventh through ninth rhyme with each other. Note that the groups that rhyme together and display common metrical groups also work as individual sentences; they go together. Their unity and distinctness is reinforced by their rhythm and rhyme, and so when looking into their meaning, that unity and distinctness should be considered.

There are, of course, other concerns of form (not only the paratextual). Any reputable introduction to literary study will have a working discussion of them. What appears above, however, should offer a useful beginning, particularly in conjunction with the symbols of content discussed below.

Symbols of Content

Symbols of content concern the meanings belonging to and associated with the words that are used. The previously mentioned interplay of denotations, formal dictionary definitions, is a prominent such symbol, allowing for ambiguity as well as for certain types of puns. The connotations, meanings not belonging to but associated with the words, also come into play; indeed, it is in connotation that much of the symbolism of a work functions. It is responsible, in whole or in part, for the effects of such devices as metonymy, which is reference to a thing by a quality or associated quantity of a thing is used to refer to the thing, and synecdoche, in which part of a thing is used to refer to the whole of the thing. Euphemism, a "pleasant" way of discussing the objectionable, also works through connotation, although perhaps at some remove. Examples of each appear below:

  • Connotation- Upon seeing a man staggering down a sidewalk, Bob thought "He's drunk." Staggering is associated with drunkenness, but denotatively, the two do not necessarily correspond.
  • Metonymy- Reading Shakespeare is dreaded as a task and celebrated as a privilege. What is read is not the man, but what he wrote.
  • Synecdoche- "Here are the keys" permits the use of the car the keys come with or the locks they open, rather than being just a gift of the keys.
  • Euphemism- "He cut the cheese" instead of "He farted."

Related insofar as they provide meaning through association are the many literary, historical, and cultural references that can be found in most any given work. Names copied over or only slightly adapted from other sources connect those who bear them with their earlier holders. Common items in depictions create associations when they are seen in the hands of others. Repeated patterns of speech and specific invocations connect those who have made them, as well. There are any number of ways in which they can function, more than can be listed here. What can be noted here, though, is that the setting and the authorial context will tend to limit the available associations. Something set in medieval Northern Europe will not likely attribute chrysanthemums to imperium, for example, while something set in pre-Columbian North America will not typically have much to say about the Middle East, and an author cannot speak of 9/11 specifically in 1999.

Perhaps the most commonly cited forms of content symbol are the direct comparisons of the simile and the indirect comparison or equation of the metaphor. In both, a thing is described as akin or equivalent to another thing, which helps to make the unusual accessible. Similar is the analogy, which compares the relationships among things rather than the things themselves.

Seeking them and other symbols of content in "The Flea" reveals that the narrator makes the flea, with the blood of both himself and his interlocutor in its belly, equivalent to pregnancy, itself metonymy for the two having sexual intercourse. It is not the only chain of association that can be found in considering the symbols of content in the poem--not by any means, as the myriad essays explicating Donne's work indicate. It is, however, an easy one that illustrates the point to be made: symbols of content do much to embed meaning into the text.

It may at times seem tedious to parse a piece of writing for its symbols of form and content, just as it may at times seem tedious to remove every bolt and screw from an engine or peel apple after apple. Yet doing so is needed to delve deeply into the writing, to maintain and repair the engine, or to make the tasty pie--and it can as easily be the case that the parsing works as a puzzle to solve or a way to marvel at the intricacies of an artist's work that would not otherwise be seen. Approaching a piece of writing from such a perspective makes the work of untangling its symbolic systems far more enjoyable, and it allows for easier entry into the work's argument.

Of note: One of the problems that arises in the symbolic system is that it is where study of literature begins in many classrooms. The skin is disregarded utterly, and the pulp picked apart such that none of it may be eaten. This is bad teaching, and it is no wonder that many students and many who have been students shy away from the exercise of peeling the literary apple. They miss out on the tasty pie that can result.


If the empiricum is like the skin of an apple and the symbolic systems like its pulp, the argument is like the seeds; the other parts exist to make it grow, however pleasing they may be in other ways. The argument is like the thesis of an essay; it is the point that the rest of the work seeks to support. It differs from a thesis, however, in several ways:

  • The argument of a work is rarely openly stated. This differs from a thesis in that the thesis benefits from being made clear--and being stated plainly aids clarity. Part of the effect of a work of art is that it takes work to find its meaning. The work produces more engagement, deepening the effect.
  • The argument of a work may not be known to the artist. Linked to its generally not being stated is the idea that the point of the piece may be hidden even from its maker. More goes on in the mind than conscious awareness recognizes.
  • The argument of a work is rarely singular. Indeed, it has been asserted that one of the factors to consider in determining if a work has artistic value is whether or not it will reasonably sustain multiple arguments.

The argument of a work is indicated through the interaction of its empiricum and symbolic systems; to be an argument, it has to be supported from the words on the page and the meanings of them available to artist and audience. This means that the argument of a work is additive; while arguments may be in place at the time of the work's creation, others will become available as words take on new meanings through historical occurrence and the deepening cultural backgrounds of new and developing audiences. This does not mean that the earlier arguments become invalid; it does mean that old works remain relevant even now, saying different things in different ways to later years than earlier but speaking to them nonetheless.

One way in which this manifests can be shown by "The Flea." Following from the earlier discussions of empiricum and symbolic systems, the poem argues for the particular extravagance of the narrator's amorous feeling. Early modern England praised wordcraft, certainly, and the equation of a full-bellied flea to sex is a marked stretch of common conceptions. The narrator couches it well, in a regular verse that indicates control of concept and thus a vigor of mind that is undeniably compelling. That he is able to spin out the line of reasoning he does, adapting it to suit the actions and unheard words of his interlocutor, suggests that it accompanies an intense focus, one that is far-reaching in its attempts to persuade others to its desires, one that is extravagant in its passion. It makes other arguments, of course, including religious ones that other scholars have explicated, but uncovering any of its arguments takes care and attention.

Uncovering any of its arguments, or any that any work of literature--or of art more broadly--has to offer serves to highlight the skill of the artist. It serves to indicate what humanity can do and thus what it can be--and at root is. In doing so, it awakens us to who we are, and that is surely well worth doing.


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