Chapter Five: Reading and Interpreting Literary Works

Reading Literary Works

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“The most fantastic thing you could film is people reading. I don’t see why no one’s done it… The movie you’d make would be a lot more interesting than most of them.”

― Jean-Luc Godard

We discuss the following subjects on this page:

Reading Literary Works

Research into literature requires us to put more energy and attention into reading than we normally do for activities such as light reading or reading for enjoyment. Researchers read literary works multiple times using a variety of reading strategies in combination, such as the following:

Reading Strategies

  • Exploratory reading: or pre-reading, looking for key phrases, words, and headings to get a general sense of what the work is about
  • Skimming: looking for main ideas, topic sentences and paragraphs, and abstracts
  • Revision: rereading to test your recollection of the text and to check your understanding
  • Search: looking for specific information
  • Mastery: slow, careful reading paying attention to details
  • Critical: assessing and reviewing ideas within the text, looking for examples of reasoning, irony, satire, sincerity, etc.

A key form of reading in literary studies is interrogatory, which means asking questions of the text as you read. It may seem odd to put questions to a written text since, as Socrates once said, it “always gives one unvarying answer.” Yet asking questions of a text makes some sense because reading can be like a dialogue in which the reader brings important things to the interaction. All writing contains “gaps” that require us to fill in what’s missing. Charles Dickens begins his novel A Tale of Two Cities with the words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ” A reader might ask, “how can something be both the best and the worst when those words mean opposite things?” We then look for additional evidence in the text as well as in our own experiences, to help answer the question. For instance, maybe high school graduation comes to mind as a “best of times, worst of times”; it is a time to celebrate an achievement but also a time when key friendships might come to an end. Graduation can produce a sense of freedom and a sense of terrible uncertainty. We can read Dickens with our understanding of high school graduation in mind, but should also consider that Dickens’ text may be suggesting something quite different. Rereading a text might bring us different answers if we have changed our framework for understanding.

Beginning Your Reading

Your instructor may require a research project about a specific literary work, a body of work by a single author or authors, a comparative study of multiple literary works, or may leave the choice to you. To complete a successful literary research project, you will need to know how to read literature the way a researcher does. Reading for pleasure is good, but is not sufficient (because literary research goes beyond stating that you enjoyed – or didn’t enjoy – a text). Your goal is to understand a text. Understanding a text does not require you to like the text, agree with the text, or identify with the text. Some literary works, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” may be quite unpleasant to read. But we need to understand what a text is, what it does, and what it is telling us. To answer these questions, you should note the following

Features of Literary Works

  • Genre (poem, short story, drama, novel, creative nonfiction, comic, electronic literature, etc.)
  • Major themes
  • Primary structure (narrative, metaphor, argument, etc.)
  • Cultural context (nationality, period, culture, etc.)
  • Point of view (first person, second person, third person, omniscient)
  • Setting(s)
  • Primary characters
  • Intended audience (children, adults, students, nobility, etc.)
  • Style (playful, challenging, blunt, academic)
  • Possible functions (to entertain, educate, persuade, criticize, etc.)

In literary studies, we no longer grant the author the final word over what a piece of literature is or means or does because authors may not be fully aware of their own assumptions, blind spots, cultural conditioning, and so on. Also, authors, like everyone else, may forget, distort, omit, and misrepresent their own work. Their comments on their work are important though and we shouldn’t ignore them. Our goal as literary researchers is to capture and represent the intentions of a text, whether the author is aware of them or not. For instance, JK Rowling has disavowed transgendered people, but many readers of the Harry Potter series find that the text affirms transgender identities.


Literary critics practice various kinds of reading but one of the most important is explication. Explication involves selecting a passage of the text for a “close reading,” examining the details and nuances to see how they fit together and achieve their effects. Generally you will do a close reading on only a portion of a text, but it is possible to do a close reading of an entire text, especially if it is very brief. In general, you should do an explication of at least one passage from a literary text in your research project.

Below is a close reading of a short poem. Poetry has many things going on at once: metaphor, theme, subject, form, elements, means, images, diction, syntax, alliteration and assonance, rhyme, meter, tone, genre, paradox, etc. Poetry also makes use of narrative and argument. All of these elements are important, but usually the metaphorical structure of poetry is critically important. Poetic metaphor is not as much about people and/or things as it is about the relationships between people and/or things. We make sense of relationships by analogy to other relationships.

Let’s explicate a poem from the 9th century. We will see how complicated the central metaphor is.

Doesn’t he realize

Doesn’t he realize

that I am not

like the swaying kelp

in the surf,

where the seaweed gatherer

can come as often as he wants.

― Ono no Komachi, Translated from Japanese by Rexroth and I. Atsumi

How to make sense of it? We first need to fill in the metaphorical algebra: A is to B as C is to D, or He (A) is to Me (B) as the Seaweed Gatherer (C) is to the Swaying Kelp (D). To understand the relationship between the speaker and the “he” of the poem, we first have to figure out the relationship of the seaweed gatherer to the swaying kelp. The most obvious thing about this relationship is that swaying kelp is passive while the seaweed gatherer is active. The kelp (which is a form of seaweed commonly used in Japanese cuisine) can’t fight back or escape. It just sways in the surf and the seaweed gatherer can take it if he likes. The speaker seems to be saying that she is passive while he is active. Presumably, this means he can gather what he wants from her (which could be love, money, or sex) without her having any means to stop him.

People and seaweed differ in many other ways that are either less relevant or not relevant here. Seaweed is a plant while people are animals. People have legs and seaweed does not. There are probably millions of differences between people and seaweed, and many similarities too. For the sake of our reading of the poem, however, these similarities and differences are less relevant than the qualities active and passive.

But we have to change our view of the relationship between the man and the woman in the poem when we attend to the word “not.” The speaker says she is not like the swaying kelp. Her negation of the metaphor using the word “not” means we have to switch her position from passive to active, since being able to say no would make her different from the swaying kelp. In other words, she seems to be saying that she can stop him from taking what he wants from her.

But the structure of the poem makes us change our reading of the metaphor again. The speaker of the poem does not address the man directly (with “Don’t you realize . . . “), but addresses a third person. If she were truly able or willing to say “no” – to be active – she would tell the man directly, “I am not like the swaying kelp.” By asking, “doesn’t he realize?” she implies that he doesn’t realize. In the man’s mind, he is the seaweed gatherer and she is the swaying kelp and she won’t do anything to change the relationship. She will only complain to a third person, who might be herself, a friend, or you, the reader, about how she wishes she were active.

The poem is relatable because many people have been through times when they wish they could say “no” but don’t. We rehearse what we might say, knowing that we likely won’t say it to the right person at the right time. “Doesn’t he realize” does not authorize complacency. Rather, it draws our attention to the ways in which we try to convince ourselves we are standing up for ourselves without actually doing so.


Reading analytically means looking at the parts of a literary work and seeing how they relate to the whole. “Parts” can refer to different characters, plot elements, themes, or other features of a literary text. For instance, we might read “Sonny’s Blues” in terms of the relationship between language and music as different forms of communication. The narrator, Sonny’s brother, tries to communicate with Sonny through language but repeatedly fails. Though he is extremely articulate, he can’t reach his brother. Only at the end does he realize that communication goes two ways and he has not really listened to his brother. His brother communicates through music more than through language. Here is the second-to-last paragraph in which the narrator finally hears and understands his brother through his music.

Excerpt from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as every thing must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

The narrator comes to a better understanding of his brother – and even himself – through music rather than through language. But something kind of magical happens in this paragraph as well. Paradoxically, the narrator is able to transform Sonny’s music into language and to share it with us, his readers. Thus the text shows us that the gulf between language and music, just like the gulf between the narrator and his brother, is bridgeable.

Your research project should include an analysis of at least two parts of a literary work (characters, plot, themes, etc.) and explain how they relate to the whole.

Comparison and Contrast

Sometimes a literary work comes into better focus when we read it alongside another work. The other work may be by the same author, a contemporary of the author, of a similar genre, from another culture. etc. The point is that we don’t really understand a literary work in a vacuum but instead we read it in relation to other works. In your research, you should decide whether it is necessary or valuable to compare and contrast your chosen work with another.

Below is a comparison and contrast between a Biblical parable and a modern parable.


Jesus’s “Sower of Seeds” Parable from The Gospel of Mark

Once again he began to teach beside the seashore. And the greatest multitude gathered to hear him, so that he went aboard the ship and was seated out to sea, and all the multitude was on shore facing the sea. He taught them a great deal in parables, and said to them in his discourse: Listen. Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened as he sowed that some of the grain fell beside the way, and birds came and ate it. Some fell on stony ground where there was not much soil, and it shot up quickly because there was no depth of soil; and when the sun came up it was parched and because it had no roots it dried away. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and stifled it, and it bore no fruit. But some fell upon the good soil, and it bore fruit, and shot up and increased, and yielded thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. And he said: He who has ears, let him hear. When they were alone, his followers along with the twelve asked him about the parables. He said to them: To you are given the secrets of the Kingdom of God; but to those who are outside all comes through parables, so that they may have sight but not see, and hear but not understand, lest they be converted and forgiven. And he said to them: You did not read this parable? Then how shall you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones beside the way where the word is sown, and as soon as they hear it Satan comes and snatches the word that has been sown among them. And there are some who are as if sown on stony ground, who when they hear the word accept it with joy; and they have no roots in themselves but are men of the moment, and when there comes affliction and persecution, because of the word, they do not stand fast. And others are those who were sown among thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, and concern of the world and the beguilement of riches and desires for other things come upon them and stifle the word, and it bears no fruit. And the others are those who were sown upon sixtyfold and a hundredfold. Then he said to them: Surely the lamp is not brought in so as to be set under a basket or under the bed rather than to be set on a stand; for there is nothing hidden except to be shown, nor anything concealed except to be brought to light. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. And he said to them: Consider what you hear. Your measure will be made by the measure by which you measure, and more shall be added for you. When a man has, he shall be given; when one has not, even what he has shall be taken away from him. And he said: The Kingdom of God is as when a man sows his seed in the ground, and sleeps and wakes night and day, and the seed grows and increases without his knowing it; for of itself the earth bears fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain gives its yield, he puts forth the sickle, for the time of harvesting is come. And he said: To what shall we liken the Kingdom of God, and in what parable shall we place it? It is like the seed of mustard, which when it is sown in the ground is smaller than all the seeds on earth, but when it has been sown, it shoots up and becomes greater than all the other greens, and puts forth great branches, so that the birds of the air may nest in its shadow. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, according to what they could comprehend; but he did not talk with them except in parables; but privately with his own disciples he expounded all.

― Mark 4.11-30, translated by Richmond Lattimore

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” parable from The Trial

Before the law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

― Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

Both Jesus’ and Kafka’s parables are about gateways. Jesus’s parable is about the gateway separating foolishness from wisdom. Kafka’s parable is about the gateway separating injustice from justice. In The Trial, Joseph K. has been accused of a crime, though the details of the supposed crime are never explained. Joseph K. is told that to be accused is also to be condemned (his guilt is already certain), but that he should review his life to understand what he might have done wrong. He seeks access to legal officials to whom he can plead his case. Here a priest, who is an employee of the court, introduces himself to Joseph K. and tells him this parable. Following the parable, Kafka provides a discussion between Joseph K. and the priest about its proper interpretation, just as Jesus and his disciples discuss the proper interpretation of the “Sower of Seeds” parable.

Each part of Jesus’ parable has a single meaning that links elements of horticulture to spiritual teachings. By contrast, in Kafka’s parable, the priest and Joseph K. discuss numerous possible interpretations of the parable. Unlike Jesus, the priest who presents “Before the Law” did not create the parable and he is not an ultimate authority on its meaning. It’s unclear if there is any ultimate authority on its proper interpretation.

Also by contrast, Jesus’ parable offers a clear way to cross the gateway to wisdom, though it is highly contingent. If a man is given the seed (the divine word) and it lands in fertile soil (a receptive soul) it can grow and he can harvest the fruit (wisdom). Wisdom is contingent because certain people may not want wisdom or may have souls that are not prepared for it or may be in an environment not conducive to it. Jesus even says he doesn’t want everyone to understand his message: “To you are given the secrets of the Kingdom of God; but to those who are outside all comes through parables, so that they may have sight but not see, and hear but not understand, lest they be converted and forgiven.” The Kafka parable also shows us a gateway ― to justice ― but it is quite unclear whether it can be crossed at all or what justice will be on the other side. It is unclear whether the parable is meant for one person, for some people, or for everyone.

Jesus compares something difficult to understand (how to spread wisdom) to something well-understood (that plants grow from seeds). The complicating factor in Jesus’ parable is that he presents different kinds of people with different kinds of souls to explain why wisdom grows in some but not in others. Kafka’s parable is less straightforward because he is comparing something difficult to understand (access to justice) to something that is strange and only partially known – a guard at a door meant only for one person. We understand the parable as being relevant to Joseph K., who belongs to a category (the accused), but why is he in that category? What is beyond the door? What other choices did the petitioner have?

A major difference between the two parables is that Jesus limits interpretation while Kafka invites us to consider multiple interpretations and to continually speculate about what is unknown (and perhaps even unknowable).


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Strategies for Conducting Literary Research Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer & John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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