Mining literature for deeper meanings – Amy E. Harter

Mining literature for deeper meanings – Amy E. Harter

Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Jessica Ruby We often hear that studying literature involves finding a deeper meaning to a text. When writing about literary works, we’re expected to mentally dive below the surface in order to come back up with big ideas. But you may find yourself looking at the flat page of a book, wondering how deep it can really go? How do we reach those ideas that turn into great essays? Well, there are two crucial thinking steps that can lead us in the right direction: practicing insight and acknowledging complexity. Insight is the ability to arrive at an intuitive understanding of a big idea using only small clues to get there. If you’re practicing insight, you’ll able to use observations about character behavior to figure out their true emotions and motivations. Pay attention to little things because they add up to what is really meaningful. For example, if you consider a character like Mr. Darcy fromPride and Prejudice, who openly declares his dislike for Miss Lizzy Bennet, you might, at first, assume he’s just a mean guy. But, using your powers of insight, you’re noticing other smaller things – how Darcy’s eyes linger on Lizzy’s face and how he seems all flustered when she’s around. Add to the mix your knowledge that Mr. Darcy is in a much higher social class than Lizzy, and your sense of insight should be telling you that there’s something more here. In this case, it will tell you that Darcy’s surface behavior is in conflict with his true feelings of attraction because the difference in wealth between himself and Lizzy makes him feel that it’ll never work. Thinking about all those small clues gives us insight about some of the big, abstract ideas within the novel that we can approach in an essay: appearances versus reality, the power of wealth and social stratification, and the unpredictable nature of love and attraction. Look at that! Deeper meaning. The second step to a sophisticated analysis is acknowledging complexity. Let’s face it. In both life and literature, situations are complicated due to social forces like relationships, moral codes, personal desires, and power structures. This means that there are, at any given time, multiple factors that shape what is true. In order to acknowledge complexity in your writing, refrain from making broad generalizations about a text or establishing quick, simple judgements about a character. Explore each facet of your subject carefully and make sure to consider multiple influences on events. Explain the tension of multiple forces that create the story. For example, a basic analysis of Toni Morrison’sBeloved, where the protagonist has killed her own child rather than allow her to grow up in slavery, might sound like this, “Sethe murdered her own daughter. This act was wrong, and causes the ghost of the child to haunt her throughout the novel.” These observations are simplistic. They don’t acknowledge all the different forces that contribute to what the character has done. Try something like this instead, “A culture of slavery disturbs the ability to determine what is morally right. Sethe’s past experiences with violence reinforce the fear she has for her child’s fate, and transform the murder into a protective act. As the novel progresses, Sethe is haunted both by the angry spirit of her daughter and by the memories of everything else slavery took from her.” Here, we see those influential forces at work, and we’ve shown off our ability to understand the complicated nature of the human experience, which, again, allows us to access those big ideas that reveal the deeper meaning of a story, ideas, in this case, like the parameters of maternal instinct, the consequences of injustice, and the question of whether or not ethics can even exist in a corrupted moral system. It’s impossible to sit down and write an amazing essay about literature without first thinking about it. Before you hit the keys, go back to the text and fish out the small moments, the complicated moments in the story. Line them up in your mind, practice insight, acknowledge complexity, arrive at some big ideas. Before you know it, the deeper meaning will be close at hand.

53 thoughts on “Mining literature for deeper meanings – Amy E. Harter

  1. As a writer myself I can safely say that many of the Ideas, deeper meanings and symbols people try to read into literature are just plain wrong.
    Its nice to try finding those, but its all guesswork until the author confirms it.

  2. I've often wondered if that was the case. Truly being able to intuit the text on the paper is also putting yourself in the writer's shoes and trying to get an understanding if the author actually has deeper meaning between two people's interactions or if their characters calling each other bad names is just them calling each other bad names in lieu of assigning special meaning to it as a reader.
    Kinda like when avg ppl psychoanalyze someone else's mood if they are being quiet. Very misleading

  3. That's way too vague to be meaningful…

    Sometimes characters, settings, or whatever have descriptive traits that don't have meaning. A character can have a red shirt, but it doesn't have to be meaningful, it could just be the author filling out descriptive space or pushing the story along. That could arguably be the "meaning" of the description, but from a narrative perspective it has absolutely none, and looking for it can be greatly misleading and distracting from the intended story.

  4. This kind of stupid attitudes toward art is what makes many people, specially kids, to reject it, because they see how stupid it is. Instead if you just give them the books to read they will find and appreciate all those things you are trying to teach about.

  5. Stuff is always so open to interpretation I ragequit before a few chapters trying to analyze literature. It takes all the joy of reading out of me.

  6. I disagree, I have never been able to find the deeper meaning in literature. However, I have always enjoyed when people discuss the symbolism and meaning behind parts of books that I took at face value. Videos like this give me another way to think about what I am reading, and they help me find the deeper meanings of a text when I read it.

  7. I have never find anyone who thought like you before, but not many people think like you, most of the kids when you talk the about books and art this way they will only find it borring and will never be interested in art or books again

  8. It's best to have an epiphany about cruel reality before conceiving children

  9. There is no empirical right or wrong when one talks about the ideas a text can implicitly convey to a reader, even if those ideas were not directly intended by the writer. A text can say many different things to many different people.

    "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things." Ernest Hemingway

  10. There's a weakness in her argument when it comes to the Beloved reference. When she writes that Sethe is haunted by the spirit of her daughter, did she meant that figuratively or realistically? If it's the latter then it all falls down because ghosts don't exist, it's all in her head – a manifestation of her guilt.

  11. Humans are very good at rationalising any belief; this tool of mining for meaning and finding connections should also be used for finding logical errors e.g. racism. Show learners how this can have positive and negative affects on life

  12. last i checked beloved is a work of fiction. As such the writer can create whatever 'reality' they choose, and in that reality ghost can exist.

  13. wow, no wounder why i was good at essay but with this I can improve upon what i know XD.

    Thank you for the video

  14. For me the beauty of writing comes from the unambiguous sentences which spell out the writers opinion in a lucid manner, making it hard for people to twist it suit their own preconceived notions. Sometimes it is the depth of the essay that makes the reading effortless. Sometimes it is not. Nonetheless this video was quite illuminating for me

  15. IOW, looking for something that is not there.
    It is not aboout complexity, it is about preexisting written directives in organisms that no thing in nature is able to compose.
    Evolution is a disgrace to human existence.
    It corrupts and polutes everything.

  16. While most of the message is good and correct…"How do we reach those ideas that turn into great essays?"…ouch. The purpose of reading is to improve your understanding of life/the world/human experience, etc. Not to write essays.

  17. This is why I pretty much lost a significant focus on writing and critical analysis. Much of the following is due to bad memory, but, everything I would say and write as my own point of view on the understanding of a character's situation, I would "get it wrong". Maybe I needed to grow up from such a sheltered environment and know first hand what the characters in the novels, essays, were going through. I was only a kid.

  18. Thank you SOSOSOSOSO much for this video! My school is crap and doesn't teach us these things, but I want to be able to analyze books and I've sort of been trying to, but videos like these are always a good reminder! Thank you!

  19. Both of you take things not to extremes, imho, but in very different directions. Symbolism in a story and what that story means to you are two different things–I'd say symbols are a device that lead to you discovering something special in a story. Symbols like Mercerism in Electric Sheep or the monsters in Silent Hill 2 can be debated but ultimately have one interpretation that fits with everything in the narrative. What they eventually give to the audience, however, is much more dynamic.

  20. A middle ground, and I think more circumspect assertion, between 2442MTS and @Talon3000:
    I would think that the author almost always intends some meaning in the writing, and also that, independently of the author's intent, readers make interpretations, and their interpretations can be consistent or inconsistent with the author's intent. agree?

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  22. That is the whole point of reading, you don't want the writer to explain the meaning of his writes. Of course there aren't always any latent meanings, and but if you will not search for them, why would you read a story in the first place? And may I ask dear writer, what have you written so far? Maybe there is a page about you in Wikipedia?

  23. kind of sad how if i do something like that, i am wrong if i break it down and make the connections and explain thoroughly…. when it comes to a literature class.

  24. I don’t agree with the complexity, it only tangles things together.

    If you are able to explain something simply and efficiently, it’s better comprehended than someone writing 8 long pages of “complexity.”

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