Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating his Christmas pie.

He stuck in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

Reading and writing about poetic texts can make you feel a lot like Jack Horner. You’ve got this big textual pie, and you know there’s much in it worth talking about, and in the past you may even have stuck in your thumb and come out with an idea, but you still don’t know how to locate such idea-plums with more precision than Jack’s random thumb-plunging method. These pages offer ways to make you better at finding things worth talking and writing about in the texts you read. Not all will be new to you, not all will be helpful to everyone. But taken together, and combined with practice, they will make you a much better and more active reader of literary texts than you now are.


Critical reading and writing about literature is all about finding "figurative" (or "metaphorical") modes of reading ostensibly "literal" texts. To manage this we look for what are in effect interpretive “triggers,” ways of kicking our attention out of the literal and into a figurative frame. One key sort of trigger is the problematic moment, a place in or about a work (or in a pair or set of works) that is odd enough, or unclear enough, or unstated enough, to require explanation. Such things we (unsurprisingly) call “problems,” and the process of locating them (even less surprisingly) we call “problematizing.” But how does one find a problem, formulate a explanation, and then develop support for it? To help you get started I offer my “Three Rules for Reading.” Each comes in the form of a question; I accompany each question with a description of what it means and how it can be used:

Question 1: What? The longer version of this question is What choices can you notice that your author has made in constructing the text in front of you?” The point of this question depends on two observations, the first of which has to do with what is implied by the very idea of “choice.” For a choice is necessarily the result of picking between various alternatives (without an alternative, we have no “choice” in the first place), and thus whatever our choice turns out to be, we nevertheless might have chosen to do something else. And that creates conceptual space for a question: why, if we might have acted differently, did we make the choice we actually made?

Sometimes the problem raised in this way is trivial (you chose to go for coffee an hour ago—why?), but it is nonetheless a problem, and as such offers a chance to weigh the alternatives we might have chosen instead, and to suggest an explanation as to why we made the choice we did. And what is true for personal choices is also true for literary choices. If a detective writer chooses to call his character “Mike Hammer,” (as did Mickey Spillane in I, the Jury), then because he could have chosen a million other names we can ask: why THIS choice and not another? Given the same choice, Agatha Christie (in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) called her detective “Hercules Poirot.” How are the two choices different? Spillane’s seems simpler, more common; “Hammer” even suggests hard, unfeeling, physical, powerful. Christie’s choice by contrast is uncommon—indeed, it’s a French name, and as such (some would say) suggests foreignness, eccentricity, even (because you have to know some French even to pronounce his name) intellectuality.

We needn’t worry here about how the choices each of these authors made fits the kind of book they each wished to write (each in fact fits its book quite well). I’m only illustrating the general point that wherever we can identify a choice like this, we have also identified a problem which takes the form: why THIS choice and not another?

That’s the first observation about why it is helpful to notice the choices authors make. The second has to do with the nature of language generally, and artistic language in particular. For it turns out that any piece of language is the result of choices—sometimes conscious, sometimes not. When we see someone we know in the street, we choose our greeting. We say “Hello,” or “Hi,” or “Hey man,” or whatever phrase seems best to us at the time. True, our choice isn’t usually a conscious one, but it IS a choice, and (this is the truly amazing part), even though we don’t consciously think it through, nevertheless it is a choice for which we can actually give reasons, should we ever stop to think about it. For we don’t say just any old thing. Rather, our greeting depends on how well we know the person we greet, their age, their gender, how much we like them—a whole range of factors.

But if just saying hello requires choices, imagine how much more complicated a series of choices is involved in the writing of a carefully constructed text! And every one of those choices—just like the choice we make in saying hello—sets up a problem, that of why this choice rather than another. To be sure, not every choice turns out to have an interesting explanation, but many in fact do, and as readers we can put ourselves in the position of having something to say by learning first to isolate the choices an author has made, and then (in step 2, described below) by going on to explain and evaluate their significances.

Noticing Whats, then, helps one get started with interpretation by imagining any text as the result of a series of choices, each one of which raises a problem for which its readers need to supply solutions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that once we’ve begun noticing in this way we may find that we have as many problems as we have words. So the real trick in this lies in separating the truly interesting choices—the “notice-worthy” ones—from all the rest, and a good place to begin that task is to look for those choices which represent any kind of departure from the ordinary or the expectable. After all, we don’t usually need to explain the expected. Rather, it’s the unexpected, the strange, the departure from the ordinary that creates a need for explanation. That departure can take a number of forms. It can be an action that we wouldn’t have predicted; it can be a surprising turn in a conversation, perhaps a topic raised for reasons that aren’t fully clear. Or it can be a stylistically noticeable use of language: a sound effect, a metaphor, a particular rhythm.

As an example of how one might use the notion of the unusual to isolate a notice-worthy choice, consider in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear the way Gloucester responds to Kent when Kent inquires about Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, who is even then standing right next to them:

Kent: Is this not your son, my lord?

Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to’t.

Kent: I cannot conceive you.

Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?

Kent: I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.

Gloucester: But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.

At one level this is just ordinary background conversation—Shakespeare is only setting the scene before Lear’s grand entrance and the great family fight that is to follow. But there is also a very marked strangeness about the interchange. For Gloucester here describes Edmund as a kind of inconvenience, a mistake, the result of a “fault” which (against his better judgment, he seems to say) he has grown to like.

Now, as a subject for interpretation this is noticeable because it is an unusual way to talk about one’s son, even if his mother wasn’t legally your wife when he was born. Indeed, because the tone is so insulting (he even goes on to call him his “whoreson”!), it would be an unusual way to talk about anyone at all—let alone your own son—who was standing right next to you. Because that way of talking is strange, it’s also something that invites explanation. It creates a little problem of motive: why does Gloucester talk this way? As a departure from what we might have expected someone to say, then, these lines offer an excellent What—something well worth notice.

Or, to take a different example, you might notice in Measure for Measure that in the play’s first speeches Shakespeare chooses to have the Duke and others (including Angelo himself) characterize Angelo, whom the Duke is appointing interim duke while he himself must leave his dukedom, as humble, self-doubting, even unwilling to take on the power which the Duke gives him. That’s something worth noticing, since humility isn’t his strong suit later on. So is Angelo just posing? Are others merely deceived by his apparent modesty? Or is his subsequent arrogance a genuine change, a completely new twist to his character? Much later in the play we learn that the Duke had long suspected Angelo wasn’t as humble as his outward show had suggested—so the Duke’s talk at the play’s beginning turns out to be ironic at the very least. But in any case, Angelo’s humility is so stressed at the play’s outset (the idea is repeated several times) that it is well worth notice. Why (the next question will be) does Shakespeare make such a big deal of Angelo’s modesty here?

These examples of “What’s”—choices we can see Shakespeare making to set his plays up in one way rather than another—may not surprise you. If not, then good. But do keep in mind that while we ourselves make language choices every time we say a word, and while we are also highly skilled at a kind of unconscious analysis of choices that others make when they speak or write to us, nevertheless the ability to notice in this conscious, analytic way is not God-given. Though we all have the capacity for it, actually doing it takes a lot of practice. Indeed, so unnatural is such conscious attention to what we read that new readers of imaginative literature usually look right past the language without ever noticing how writers have chosen to use one word instead of another, one idea here, but a different one there. Even though as readers each of us will (and must) be responding to the choices these writers have made (unless we simply aren’t understanding them at all!), most of us as new readers nevertheless will not know how to pay conscious attention to these choices. That is a reading skill to be learned.

Question 2: Why? That is my second question, and its full form is something like: “Why might a writer have made the particular choice you have noticed? What does that choice indicate about how he or she is thinking?” With respect to the examples above, the effect of the “Why?” question is to ask you to think about possible explanations for the “whats” you have noticed in step one.

Why, for example, does Shakespeare have Gloucester talk the way he does of Edmund? Is it to give us an initial sense that Gloucester is not very respectful of his son as a human being? to show us that for him Edmund, as an illegitimate, bastard son, will always be a little less than human? Or is it to be taken more generally to suggest that everyone in this play will have trouble understanding the feelings and emotions of others, Gloucester here being as insensitive about his son as Lear will soon show himself to be about his daughters? Or does Shakespeare have Gloucester speak this way in order to suggest ahead of time something about why Edmund will soon show himself to be a brutal, cunning, and manipulative man? Edmund is, this opening interchange suggests, only living up to his own father’s dehumanizing description of him.

In pursuing “Whys” you need to be imaginative and playful, casting your net wide in order to come up with claim-worthy hypotheses. But you must also keep in mind that these “whys” are, indeed, only hypotheses. We don’t know for sure what Shakespeare really meant to do in the examples I’ve given you—and what Shakespeare intended (and how much any author fully understands of his or her intentions is yet another question we could ask) isn’t always the best measure of a reading anyway. In explaining the problems we locate in a text all we have to work from are probabilities and inferences made from our past experiences with the ways people have used the language code with us.

Still, the fact is that we do make inferences of this sort quite regularly in our ordinary lives, and we do so fairly reliably. So (I’ll stress this one more time) though you are working with a literary text, you are really only using in a self-conscious and reflective way skills and knowledge which you already possess and which you often use in other dimensions of your life.

Question 3: So What? My third rule-question turns to the most challenging part of interpretive reading: the process of locating and then developing arguments about a work’s meaning or significance. For after you’ve done all this noticing and exploring with Whats and Whys, what do all those words and lines of text end up meaning? So What?!

In my experience the best way to answer the So What question is to frame it in terms of what we decide the work we're reading sets out to accomplish. We need to ask: “What does this poem (novel, story, drama) set out to do?” or, “what is its project?”

This is what could be called a functional, or action-based, theory of interpretation. From its point of view, art works are actions, the results of human will, and as such can be analyzed like other actions we human beings take. As a “thing done,” we can ask about a given work of art—what was it done for? What was its inventor’s projected goal in making it?

One advantage of this approach is that we’re actually already pretty skilled at this sort of analysis. Indeed, for most of the actions we observe in ourselves and in other people, we do such analysis more or less automatically. I go to the refrigerator, get out a beer, pop the top and take it back to the ballgame, and nobody needs to think hard to interpret my action. At a very basic level it’s obvious to anyone watching what my goal is, and both why and how I’m doing it. I have a very specific project (go get a beer), and a pretty clear motive for having launched it (I'm thirsty).

To be sure, there may be more to my motives than just my being thirsty, so there may be more to say about the significance of my action than that I went to the refrigerator in order to satisfy my thirst. I will, for example, very likely have had unconscious motives for getting a beer in the first place (I may even be responding to an ad I’ve just seen!). And maybe there are other special circumstances as well. Maybe my older brother is visiting, and maybe my getting a beer is a passive-aggressive way of getting back at how domineering he’s always been, for although he loves beer, he is also on a diet and can’t drink. All he can do is sit there and salivate as I luxuriate in the taste of a fine IPA. In life as in art, the more you know about the circumstances that surround actions, the more you can say as an active reader about the work those actions do in a given situation.

So, to restate in slightly different terms: if we want to make a “so what” claim about the significance a given work of art has, it helps to think of that work as something that sets up for itself, as it were, a project--something to accomplish. What, for example, is the project of Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”? What is this piece of literature working to do? We know that Wordsworth often expressed a wish that his poems represent to us his theory of poetic making. With this in mind as one of the things Wordsworth might well want his poem to do, we can then go to the poem itself to see if it actually seems to be doing it. If our hypothesis that Wordsworth is trying to explain his theory of poetry makes sense of the noticings (the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’) we’ve already done, then we can go on to put together our understanding of how the choices we have noticed Wordsworth making serve to accomplish that project. (And this is indeed one way people often explain what Wordsworth wanted his poem to do.)

You may notice that one can make a distinction here between Wordsworth’s own project in writing his poem and the poem’s project as we determine it from our readings of it. Though it may seem weird at first, in fact that’s a distinction well worth making. As I suggested earlier, not all of an author’s motives are conscious. Art often does what an author wants it to do, but it also often does other things as well. Sometimes it fulfills unconscious intentions; at other times it may do things that the author didn’t even dream of.

Shakespeare’s plays, for example, now do things in the 21st century that Shakespeare himself could never have imagined. He might well in King Lear have wanted to give his audience a way to think about the limits of human power or what it is that makes us fully human, for example; but he certainly didn’t intend to create a piece of cultural capital that has for the past two hundred years been one of the primary means by which England and the English define themselves. Yet it’s true that that is something Shakespeare’s plays unquestionably have done—and it would be an interesting critical task to ask how the choices Shakespeare made in writing his plays have so reverberated with subsequent generations of readers that they have had that unplanned, unimagined, effect.

Similarly it’s quite possible that in creating Goneril and Regan, King Lear’s two thankless daughters, Shakespeare never intended to create a misogynistic argument against conferring power upon women. Yet that, too, is one thing that some critics have argued the play functions to do.

All those complications granted, how does a reader come up with a sense of a work’s possible function(s)? Much of your success in function-finding will come from accumulating a stock of likely suspects. Some of these are general to literature—literature at any time and in any culture will engage its readers/hearers in what are in effect tacit conversations about issues they are likely to care about. Many of those conversations recur—some (like love, sex, and/or power) are so common that many have even thought them “universal.” That’s not really true—even concepts without which much human life couldn’t even be imagined, like “love” or “childhood,” have varied a great deal over time. But even with that conceded, the topics that underlie literary conversation are still remarkably long-lived. (There is at the end of this essay a list of common poetic-cultural themes; at some point you might read through them and think about which of them arise in the works we read in this course.)

Then in addition to those general topics, different historical periods and movements also offer their own themes and emphases—which is just a way of saying that Renaissance writers or Romantic Age writers had their own particular sorts of projects to accomplish, many of which surface in the works they produce, and most of which differ in important ways from those of their poetic predecessors or followers. Many Romantic-age poets, for example, engage issues like that of a need for profound social change, or of the privileged nature of the poetic imagination, or of the restorative power of nature.

Finally, in addition to providing a kind of intellectual space for these theme-based conversations, most works will have also have one or more quite general functions to perform—like the following:

The Personal Function. One thing literature can do is work to effect a range of psychological functions, creating effects that people locate with words like beauty, amusement, “entertainment,” or escape. We take a certain sort of pleasure from each of these effects, or fulfill some kind of very deep need. Sometimes it’s simply a need to feel a sense that there in fact is, in spite of its confusions, a completeness in the world; sometimes it is to intuit powerful patterns that are in some sense bigger and deeper than anything we ourselves can create. Or maybe the work a poem does appeals to a need we may have to divert ourselves from the reality we struggle with each day and to spend time in a parallel universe that can with its successes re-inspire us when we return to the real world we left as we first opened the book or entered the theatre.

Each of these effects seems to be in some sense quite simple, though each can also be further investigated. Why, for example, does the display of order so please us? What is it about the way we navigate our existence that makes moments of beauty so pleasurable? Not every literary work asks us to think about these issues; indeed many (like the musical Mamma Mia, for example) seem to urge us not to think much at all. But whatever we are thinking consciously, our minds are busy nevertheless, even if at a level well below (or beyond) our conscious thought.

The Teaching Function. This function includes the way literature can attempt to inform us about life’s various experiences or issues. A novel or a play may offer insight into a particular sort of character, for example, suggesting what a person of such and such a type would do under this or that set of circumstances. Or it may attempt to unveil what it takes to be truths about the way we live, or the way the world is structured. Maybe it will make an argument about social or political power and how it is distributed.

Or maybe it wants to teach us about how the world might be, or how it should be. In The Apology for Poetry Shakespeare's contemporary Sir Philip Sidney talks about the “Golden World” that art creates—that which has never before been seen or thought of, something to aim for, to model ourselves upon and work towards. Other writers, by contrast, may give you an anti-world, a kind of model of what we fear or shun, or seek blindly to our own detriment. In any of these cases, the function of such art is to inform us, warn us, move us, always to be teaching us something, and it is our job in such circumstances to evaluate the work literature does—to ask into its motives. Do we really learn something of value here? What? or are this work’s “truths” mere sentimentality or (worse) propaganda?

The Forum Function. This is the mode we discussed briefly above, the mode in which literature creates space for conversation and argument about issues that writers or their audiences feel to matter. The Forum Function is related to the Teaching function, but with an important difference. For here the job is not so much to make an argument about the world as to raise a question in a provocative way, to invite or tease or incite in us a will to engage. David Mamet’s play Oleanna, of the 1990's, was such a work. It represented a teacher-student relationship that veered suddenly before our very eyes into a charge of sexual harassment. Who was right? Did the teacher really do what the student said he did? Did the student really do what the teacher said she did?! In a big way, Oleanna’s success depended precisely upon its ability to engage its audience in reflection and conversation about the ethical issues of the problematic situation it staged. If people didn’t leave the theatre talking and arguing, the performance had failed.

In cases like this the fact that art works by indirection (we are given a story about a pair of people who don’t actually exist, and not a story about our very own lives) offers a great advantage over more direct modes of argument. For there are many things—and gender issues are among them—many of us are not comfortable talking about publicly. We have taboos, restrictions, fears about offending others when we mention matters related to such topics as sex, class, gender, race, politics, or religion. When we try to talk about these things directly we may too quickly lose our tempers—so we often avoid discussing them at all. But when we put the same issue into story we can talk about it in a more distanced and careful way. By discussing Hamlet’s abusive rejection of Ophelia, or how he seems sexually attracted to his mother, we can approach these subjects much more easily than if we were to talk about our own gender issues, or our own mothers. Similarly, we can often discuss issues of race much more easily as they are represented in a novel like Ellison’s Invisible Man than many of us can when discussing our own thoughts and actions.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for the conversational liberty literary discourse gives us: because it is only indirectly related to real life, literary conversation is a relatively weak form of action. We who can agree that Lear treats his children badly may not see how that applies to the ways that we treat our own children. This weak linkage doesn’t make literary conversation useless, since it may very often be the ONLY form of action available to us. That may be because direct political conversation is prohibited--as it was in Ovid's Rome, or in Hitler's Germany, or in Kundera's Czechoslovakia. Or it may be because we are so afraid of expressing our deepest emotions publically that we can do so only by telling stories.

The Community Function. Here the role of literature is to define, invoke, celebrate, rehearse the common wisdom or vision or history of a culture. When doing this kind of work a literary text may not say anything either new or different, but instead works to affirm or celebrate what already is. In this mode literature helps to build or shape a culture, to produce coherence, even solidarity. Its capacity for this is not always positive—one reason art can be used as propaganda is precisely its capacity to bring minds together in a particularly powerful way. But rightly used it can contribute to the sense of well being any community needs if it is to grow and prosper. (See “Cultural Conversations” below for a more complete description of literature’s Forum and Community Functions.)

Obviously, these four general functions are not mutually exclusive. Literature can very easily please us as it teaches (probably better had, in fact!), or establish community as it preaches, or offer escape in such a way as to lead us to think new thoughts about how things might or should be. But you can rest assured that any literary work must be doing SOMETHING if it’s going to be even trivially successful, and as a sophisticated reader it’s your task to sort that “something” out.

There are other things I could add to all of this, but enough for the time being may be enough. So I’ll simply leave you with the observation that the same questions we ask about the work a whole poem or novel or play does can also be asked of any texts smaller parts. For as soon as you’ve seen how a whole poem can have a particular project in view, you can next ask, “within the project (or projects) of the larger poem, what does this single stanza (or line, or word) do? What role in the overall project does it play?”

Life versus Literature

As I describe the What-Why-So What problem-recognition-and-solution process, it all may seem rather strange and artificial. But as I’ve already suggested, it’s not all that different from processes we undertake in more or less unconscious ways all the time. For the lives we lead and the cultural situations we inhabit are full of narratives and metaphors—just as literature is—and we are constantly involved in a kind of quasi-literary problem solving simply in order to understand the people we deal with and to decide what we will do about them. Art really does have genuine similarities to life.

Yet there are also real differences. Literature usually foregrounds its problems more clearly than do our day to day lives, often intensifying them as well. And it offers them to us in a format (a story, a play) that, because it is about what are only imaginary people in imaginary situations, also introduces an element of distance between what’s going on in the work, and what’s going on in our own lives. That can be good—we are likely to find it easier to talk rationally about Hamlet’s problem, or Dorothea Brooke’s (in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), than about our own. But it can be bad, too, since that very distance may also make the kind of thinking you do for a good paper seem just an abstract or even pointless task. Nobody really cares about Hamlet the Prince of Denmark, after all. He never really existed, and nowadays there isn’t one anyway. Obviously, your claim about him will finally only be interesting if at some level and in some way that claim is like claims you might make about people you really do know in real life.

So good literary analysis shouldn’t seem completely divorced from reality. At the same time, to say that reading interpretively is in some way like defining and solving problems in your own life doesn’t mean that questions about Hamlet are really only questions about you. Rather, it’s to say that the kind of recognition and analysis you do when thinking about Hamlet is very much like the kinds of recognition and analysis you are likely to find possible in other dimensions of your existence. It is the claim of literary study only that the two are similar, and that the more clearly you can think about literature, the better chance you will have of thinking consciously and carefully about life.