The following materials, adapted from Joanna Wolfe and Laura Wilder’s Digging into Literature: Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Analysis (Boston: Beford/St. Martin’s, 2016), describe a technique for supporting a surface/depth claim (of the sort described in the “Literary Analysis: Surface/Depth” tab). This is a technique, in other words, for uncovering evidence that can be used to argue for the “depth” insights in your surface/depth central claim.
The patterns strategy involves pointing out multiple examples (both obvious and nonobvious) of an image, idea, linguistic feature, or other recurrent element in the text in order to support a surface/depth argument. It both provides the textual evidence for a surface/depth argument and is a strategy for discovering new surface/depth interpretations.
The patterns strategy illustrates a text’s complexity by showing that evidence for a surface/depth argument can be found throughout a text—even in small details where it is unexpected. Patterns and surface/depth go hand in hand: by showing that evidence of an interpretation is present even in small, easily overlooked details in the text, the critic persuades the reader than an interpretation is plausible.
Using Patterns to Brainstorm
The patterns strategy can be used both before and after you have developed a surface/depth claim in your textual analysis. Using it beforehand helps you come up with cogent and complex arguments; using it afterward helps you improve these arguments and locate textual evidence to support them.
Using the patterns strategy before having clear surface/depth arguments in mind
A critic uses the patterns strategy to discover surface/depth arguments by noting repetitions and recurrences throughout a text and then working to make sense of possible deeper layers of meaning of these aspects of the text by considering the reasons they recur. On a first reading, especially of a longer text, such as a novel, play, or essay, you may begin to notice multiple instances of an image, an unusual word, a concept, or even a sound. On a second reading of a text, further instances and repetitions will likely become apparent to you that you have missed the first time. On second and even third readings, you should aim to locate instances that are especially surprising to others who have not read as closely or with the pattern in mind. And bear in mind that for an image or a device to be recurrent, it need not reappear exactly the same way each time. Use plausible inferences and see if anything develops. For instance, you may begin to notice the color blue appear repeatedly throughout a text and then notice that both the title and the final image of the text refer to the sky. Though blue is not explicitly named in the title and the final image, it seems plausible to connect the sky to this color. Experienced literary scholars almost always mark the repetitions they start to see in the margins of texts. Then, they brainstorm to generate some idea about what these patterns might mean. In other words, they move from noticing a pattern to making a surface/depth argument.
The following excerpts from the transcript of a literature professor thinking aloud while reading twentieth-century American poet Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song” (reprinted below) illustrate how one experienced reader uses this strategy as she reads. Notice her inclination to look for repeated images and ideas as a way to try to make sense of the poem, even if her perception of a possible repetition doesn’t always turn out to be helpful to her.
In this transcript, we see the reader begin to note a pattern of mouth imagery in the poem. The reader connects mouths with both the baby’s hunger and cry and with the rising sun, which is described as swallowing up the stars. By the end of the passage, the reader has suggested a possible surface/depth interpretation for he pattern she has noticed—that the mother’s identity is being consumed.
In the next transcript excerpt, we see a slightly different tactic. Here, as the reader reaches the end of the poem, she remembers an earlier word—“elements”—that stood out to her. She then rereads the poem from the beginning to see if she can make sense of this word by identifying a pattern in the poem.
By the end of this excerpt. we see the reader identifying a pattern of science imagery. She tries to fit various images in the poem into this pattern, ultimately rejecting some as “too much of a stretch” to fit this pattern. By the end of this segment, she begins testing a surface/depth argument about what this pattern might signify (objectivity, distance, the mother’s feelings).
In these transcripts, the reader identifies repeated instances of an image, which leads her to try out claims about the image’s significance using the surface/depth strategy. The emphasis on the baby’s mouth suggests to her that the speaker of the poem feels swallowed up by her new role, and the recurrence of scientific terms indicates that the speaker may feel a sort of clinical regard toward or objective, disinterested distance from the baby the way a scientist regards her specimen. Thus, the patterns strategy goes hand in hand with the surface/depth strategy.
Using the patterns strategy after having brainstormed some possible surface/depth arguments
Once you have developed a tentative surface/depth argument—whether about just one word, phrase, or aspect of a text or about an emerging pattern you are noticing—you can use the patterns strategy to discover evidence that will help you support this argument. The patterns strategy also can help you refine and improve the surface/depth arguments you develop.
To use the patterns strategy to locate textual evidence and develop your thinking about surface/depth arguments you have brainstormed, it is a good idea to think of your first surface/depth claims as provisional and rough. You should be open to revising and refining these claims in light of what further reading of the text you are analyzing reveals. Don’t worry about whether your first surface/depth strategy arguments are “right” or far-fetched: your use of the patterns strategy should help you determine whether these claims can be supported or need to be changed or abandoned. Once you have a provisional surface/depth interpretation in mind, you can use the patterns strategy to take notes listing all the places in the text that might support this interpretation.
For instance, the reader who thought aloud for us while reading “Morning Song” made an initial surface/depth argument that the poem had to do with the mother’s feelings of emptiness upon her child’s birth. Emptiness here is a surface/depth argument because it is a concept that is not immediately obvious and is not explicitly stated in the poem itself. To develop this interpretation, the reader re-read the poem and began underlining all the words she thought might possible support her “emptiness” interpretation. Then she made a list of the images in the poem that she had underlined:
Patterns of Imagery of Emptiness
These notes show that the reader organized her observations into two lists: one detailing all the empty imagery associated with the baby and the other detailing empty imagery associated with the speaker or other people in the poem. After revising these notes, the professor came up with an argument that the poem uses empty imagery to equate motherhood with a loss of self. This surface/depth argument eventually went on to form part of the professor’s central claim about the poem. Thus, by tracing in her notes a pattern related to one of her surface/depth arguments, then organizing these notes, and then reflecting on them, the reader was able to brainstorm an even deeper interpretation of the poem.
Using patterns to write persuasively
The patterns located during reading and brainstorming should next be used as textual evidence to persuade readers to accept your interpretive claims. Here again patterns and surface/depth go hand in hand. A persuasive use of the patterns strategy not only presents multiple examples of a pattern, image, or theme but also connects them to a clear surface/depth interpretation. (Note: patterns are akin to the quality of “a preponderance of the evidence” used to determine guilt in a court of law. In other words, two instances of something do not constitute a pattern. Patterns emerge with at least three examples of a repetition or similarity.) Notice how one writer supported her surface/depth argument with a pattern of evidence (key terms and phrases associated with using the patterns strategy are underlined; phrases referring to the pattern the writer is tracing are italicized):
Many phrases and images throughout “Morning Song” equate motherhood with a loss of identity. Early in the poem, the mother tells the baby that “your nakedness / Shadows our safety” (5-6), suggesting that her former, secure self feels threatened by the vulnerable infant. The speaker goes on to compare herself to a “cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand” (8-9). These lines compare a mother producing new life to a cloud raining to produce a puddle or a lake. This image implies that just as rain means the end of the cloud’s life, so a newborn means the end of the mother’s former life. Near the end of the poem is another image suggesting that new life brings loss: “The window square / Whitens and swallows its dull stars” (15-16). These lines literally mean that it is dawn and the sun is rising., but morning here “swallows” and “whitens” out the stars that were previously shining. Thus, again, we see new life (morning) erasing old life (the stars). Even the title of the poem—“Morning Song”—could be heard as “Mourning Song,” suggesting that the speaker is mourning her old life.
This paragraph begins with a surface/depth argument equating the images of motherhood in “Morning Song” to a loss of identity or self. The paragraph then cites four different examples, offered in the form of direct quotations, of this image. Each quotation is followed by a surface/depth claim. Thus, the passage moves back and forth between presenting evidence and making an argument. Such movement between evidence and argument is characteristic of a a persuasive use of the patterns strategy.
Note also that the paragraph moves from the most obvious examples of loss of identity to the last obvious examples. The last example—the discussion of the title—is the most clever and helps illustrate the complexity of the text. If the title were the only example the critic had cited of loss of identity, we would not find it persuasive. However, given that it appears at the end of a list of other examples of loos of identity, we find this analysis persuasive.
To use the patterns strategy effectively, a writer:
- provides multiple pieces of evidence—quotations, paraphrases, or summaries—to illustrate a pattern
- connects the evidence illustrating the patter to a surface/depth argument
- shuttles back and forth between evidence and argument
- usually begins with the most obvious example and moves to the least obvious