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Reading Analytically

10.2.5 Symbols, Patterns, and References

There is no definitive “how-to” guide on text wrestling, but I often ask my students to direct their attention to three particular elements of a text during their interpretive processes. When you draw connections through the following categories, you are actively building meaning from the words on the page.
Symbol: A symbol, as you may already know, is an artifact (usually something concrete) that stands in for (represents) something else (often something abstract). Here are a few examples in different media:

Obama Campaign logo

  • Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign logo: the O, of course, stands in for the candidate’s last name; the red lines seem to suggest a road (implying progress), or maybe waving American flag; the blue curve represents a clear, blue sky (implying safety or wellbeing); the colors themselves are perhaps symbolic of bipartisan cooperation, or at the very least, the American color palette of red, white, and blue.
  • In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the titular black cat symbolizes the narrator’s descent into madness, alcoholism, and violence, and later his guilt for that descent.
  • The teaspoon used to hypnotize people in the film Get Out (2017) symbolizes wealth, power, and privilege (a “silver spoon”), suggesting that those structures are tools for control and domination.
  • In Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, the monster Grendel symbolizes a fear of the unknown and the intractability of nature.
  • In The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock symbolizes nostalgia and hope.

* A motif is closely related to a symbol, but it is different. A motif is a recurring image, word, or phrase that helps to carry a theme or other abstract idea. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” includes frequent use of the word “dust.” While the dust is not necessarily symbolic of anything, it certainly brings to mind a variety of connotations: reading “dust” makes you think of time passing, stagnancy, decay, and so on. Therefore, the motif of “dust” helps contribute to bigger characteristics, like tone and themes.

aspirin shapes of multi color to simulate pattern

Pattern: Patterns are created by a number of rhetorical moves, often in form. Repetition of phrases or images, the visual appearance of text on a page, and character archetypes might contribute to patterns. While patterns themselves are interesting and important, you might also notice that breaking a pattern is a significant and deliberate move.

  • The episode of the TV series Master of None titled “Parents” (Season 1, Episode 2) tells the respective stories of two immigrant families. By tracing the previous generation of each immigrant families through a series of flashbacks, the episode establishes a pattern in chronology: although the families have unique stories, the pattern highlights the similarities of these two families’ experiences. In turn, this pattern demonstrates the parallel but distinct challenges and opportunities faced by the immigrants and first-generation American citizens the episode profiles.
  • In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” each line of the first stanza contains ten syllables. However, the following stanzas contain occasional deviations—more or fewer syllables—creating a sense of disorder and also drawing emphasis to the pattern-breaking lines.
  • Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio and Leadbelly, painstakingly crafts patterns in his poetry. For instance, his series of sonnets on Millie and Christine McKoy follows not only the conventions of traditional sonnets, but are also interlocking, exemplifying the distinct but overlapping voices of conjoined twins.

Reference: A reference is a connection a text makes to another text. By making a reference (whether obvious or hidden), the referencing text adopt some characteristics of the referenced text. References might include allusion, allegory, quotation, or parody.

  • C.S. Lewis’ classic young adult series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a Christian allegory. The imagery used to describe the main hero, Aslan the lion, as well as a number of the other stories and details, parallel the New Testament. In turn, Aslan is imbued with the savior connotation of Jesus Christ.
  • The TV show Bob’s Burgers makes frequent references to pop culture. For instance, the fictional boy band featured in the show, Boyz 4 Now, closely resembles  One  Direction, *NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys—and their name is clearly a reference to Boyz II Men.
  • “Woman Hollering Creek,” a short story by Sandra Cisneros, deals with the dangers of interpersonal violence. The protagonist refers frequently to telenovelas, soap operas that set unrealistic and problematic assumptions for healthy relationships. These references suggest to us that interpersonal violence is pervasive in media and social norms.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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