We turn once more to advice about how to analyze literary texts provided by Joanna Wolfe and Laura Wilder, authors of Digging into Literature: Strategies for Reading, Analysis, and Writing. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016). They are interested in demystifying the traditions for responding to literary texts (fiction, film, poetry, and creative non-fiction), revealing strategies used by professionals and students alike.
Topoi: Ready Tools for Analysis
Ancient teachers of rhetoric offered their students strategies for brainstorming in order to discover points of interest and contention regarding their objects of study. In the Rhetoric, for instance, Aristotle identifies what he calls topoi for possible arguments. Topoi (the plural of topos) literally means a site or a place where a rhetor may turn for ready-made strategies for “digging into” one’s object of study. These strategies were outlined and described at a certain place on a papyrus roll, hence the notion of topos. With practice, the topoi for analyzing cultural products (literature, film, essays and other intellectual discourses) will become readily available analytic instruments in your critical toolbox. We offer three topoi that can be used to discover points of interest either independently or in combination: the surface/depth topos, the patterns topos, and the binaries topos.
The Surface/Depth Topos
We begin with the surface/depth topos, a strategy for locating deeper meanings beneath the surface interpretation of a text. To use the surface/depth strategy, the analyst points to multiple layers of meaning: the surface (the outermost, obvious meaning of the work that nearly everyone who has read the text likely sees and agrees on), and the depth (a concept not fully explicit in the text, something that requires recognition of what’s implied, suggested, or hidden). The critic’s job is to differentiate between surface and deeper meanings, which signals the critic’s sustained interest in or expertise with the text. To illustrate how the surface/depth topos works, we offer a Sylvia Plath poem:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull starts. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Step 1: Get a good grasp of the surface (literal) meaning
Though as a critical analyst, you are interested in moving beyond the obvious, it is important nonetheless to make note of what readers will recognize as the literal or surface meanings associated with the text. As you design your own written argument about the text, it will be useful to differentiate typical understandings from your own special reading of the text. In fact, writers often do that in this way: On a first reading of the poem, we see X, but on closer inspection, we find Y. This strategy not only marks out your special analysis as more studied, more critical, and more clever than a surface reading, but also lends energy to your special analysis, as if to say “Let’s dispense with the obvious and immerse ourselves in a more interesting and complex interpretation.”
Typical readers will likely perceive these surface features on “Morning Song”:
- The poem begins with a baby’s birth.
- The third stanza compares the speaker to a cloud.
- The poem ends with the baby crying or cooing.
- “Morning Song” is about a new mother and her infant.
Surface meanings will be more or less obvious depending on such factors as the level of difficulty of the language, the historical distance between the moment of the text’s production and the current moment of your reception, and the experimental nature of the text’s style.
Step 2: Dig below the surface
In order to read below the surface, many readers annotate the text: highlighting terms and phrases, underlining in special ways, circling terms, and writing notes to themselves in the margins. As you reread the text, these annotations will likely grow more complex as you enrich and revise notes from previous readings. Successful analysis will come, in part, from successive rereadings of the text under consideration. There simply is not way to perform critical analysis without this. Many readers, especially of poems, find that reading the text aloud allows it to resonate with associations and meanings signaled through sound. Reading dialogues and dramatic literature also benefits from this technique. If available, you may want to listen to a recording of the text you’re analyzing.
One of the best techniques for digging below the surface is to ask yourself questions about possible meanings, to speculate and to keep things tentative as you run through these potential ideas. Aspects of the text may remind you of other texts you’ve encountered, texts written in a comparable form or texts that use similar language or texts that represent analogous situations. Texts may also be filled with references–either oblique or transparent–to cultural, historical, political, or social events, and may treat these ironically or twist standard meanings to suit the occasion of the literary discourse.
In their textbook, Joanna Wolfe and Laura Wilder offer a transcript of a reader making surface/depth interpretations as she thinks aloud (italicized words indicate the professor reading directly from the poem). The following transcript and its analysis are theirs:
Here we see the reader attempting to plausibly link terms in the open to meanings and concepts technically “outside” the text. . .She wonders if the morning song is for (or addressed to) the person who has to care for the baby. Further, she observes that the phrase “swallows its dull stars” shows the morning swallowing up the night and that the morning might be portrayed as “good” (hopeful) or as “greedy.” Note that this reader has worked to uncover at least three interpretations of morning in the poem: it can represent birth and a new day, morning sickness, and a greedy swallowing up of the night.
The transcript excerpt shows that this process can appear messy to others. The reader whom we quote went on to produce several lists of words from the poem, producing separate lists for words that she associated with the infant in the poem and those she associated with the mother. She also read the poem a second time and began to flesh out and write down some of the claims she began to make about the poem’s possible meanings. One of these claims eventually became the thesis statement (or central claim) for her essay on the poem.
Moving from Surface to Depth in Central Claims
To use the surface/depth topos, try to link a surface reading (or a literal line from the text) to a concept, idea, or a thought that is not explicitly stated in the text, that is, a layer of meaning beneath the surface reading. Consider these examples (the surface is represented in red; the link is represented in blue; the depth is represented in green):
- The birth at the beginning of the poem seems both happy and unpleasant.
- The phrase “I’m no more your mother” (7) suggests that the narrator feels uncomfortable around her baby.
- In “Morning Song,” motherhood is represented through images of emptiness that indicate a loss of the mother’s self.
- The speaker dehumanizes her role as mother by associating it with impersonal and increasingly distant images such as “walls” (6), “cloud” (8), and “dull stars” (16).
- At first “Morning Song” seems to be a loving tribute to motherhood. However, a closer reading suggests that the speaker is significantly troubled by the baby.
Common Verbs Used to Link Surface to Depth
In general, the more surprising and nonobvious the interpretation, the better it is for literary analysis. However, critics must also provide plausible reasons that can effectively persuade an open-minded reader to accept the new and different interpretation. To persuade a reader to accept a surface/depth interpretation, critics provide good reasons and textual evidence in the form of quotations and paraphrases of the text. Consider how the claim “The birth at the beginning of the poem seems both happy and unpleasant” might be supported by the following textual evidence:
The birth at the beginning of the poem seems both happy and unpleasant. Words such as “love” (1), “gold” (1), and “new statue” (4) all suggest that the baby is loved and valuable. However, the first two stanzas also contain unpleasant images such as “slapped” (2), “bald” (2), “drafty” (5), and “blankly” (6). These words imply someething unpleasant about the baby’s arrival.
Note that this example uses multiple quotations taken from several different lines and stanzas of the poem to support its argument. More complex arguments would require even more textual support, often creating a pattern of evidence, which is considered more persuasive than a single instance of support.
In addition to providing textual evidence as support, effective surface/depth arguments must be faithful to the surface meaning of the text. In other words, you need to clarify how your deeper meaning connects to and enhances the surface meaning that most readers will agree on.
A Note on Persuasive Interpretations
You may have heard someone in class say, “Well, that’s my interpretation” or “It’s a poem, so I can read into it whatever I want.” Such comments indicate that the speaker does not understand the goal of a literary analysis, which is to persuade other readers to accept a complex interpretation. These comments suggest the speaker rejects the communal nature of literary analysis because he expresses no interest in retracing the steps of interpretive thinking so that others might be able to share in an understanding of a text. In other words, the interpretation remains closed and singular to others and wholly personal and, as a result, has no obligation to the text or to other readers to be credible and persuasive.