How to Find Deeper Meaning in Literature

Two Parts:Before ReadingWhile Reading

Open your mind and change how you see the world - or maybe get good grades on your advanced English course. Whatever the reason, a great skill is finding the deep meanings woven into a piece of literature. What makes literature remembered for decades, even centuries, is typically something more than a good story. Often it is references to other stories, symbols to larger ideas, and life lessons. But these can be difficult to find. This article will give you advice on uncovering those reasons for yourself.

Part 1
Before Reading

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    Understand why authors weave deeper meaning into stories. Authors often present deeper meanings in subtle ways, leaving the reader to have to really think about the story to discover the full meaning of the story. This is not done to be annoying; it is done to let the reader follow the story like a detective story, in which the meaning comes clear only after some thought and reflection.
    • This is not only in books, but in movies, music, and some television as well. And not just "classics" but in current media. This also happens throughout literature, from simple fairy tales to long adult novels.
    • How do authors present deeper meaning? Authors usually are subtle in how they do this, but there are some typical ways:
      • Symbolism. An object, person, character, or idea in a book has a deeper meaning. For example, in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the Lion is a figure representing Jesus Christ. (This is typically what teachers in junior high school and high school first help teach students to recognize).
      • The Hero's Journey. The hero of the book undergoes a trial and transformation. Harry Potter, for instance, grows as an individual through his adventures in Hogwarts.
      • Commentary. Often in a science fiction or fantasy world, the author presents a world that comments on ours. For example, "The Hunger Games" looks at high-stakes testing for children in a world in which a privileged class is the one that really benefits.
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    Do a little research. Before beginning, try to find a context in which you can place the book, whether it is the 1600s, the 1980s, or 200 BC. Do some research on the culture and current events of the time, as well.
    • Geography matters. The world can be very different in technology, culture, and so on from one region of the world to another. What is true in 1940s Japan is not necessarily so in 2015.
    • Understand race, gender, and ethnicity in your time period. It may be difficult to understand why characters act the way they do if you do not know how factors such as these play out in a novel's setting. For example:
      • A woman in 1960's America would not report sexual harassment in a company. Things such as a boss saying overly sexual things to a secretary would not be unusual and often was expected.
      • A homosexual person only 30 years ago would likely be labelled mentally ill.
    • A little knowledge of the Jazz Age is essential to understanding The Great Gatsby, for instance. The Depression in America has to be understood to understand a story set in the 1930s.
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    Do some research on the author. Learning about the author helps shed some light on his or her world-view. While the writing of an author often echoes the writer's "truth", knowing his or her biography will help make it clear. Typically, a quick Wikipedia search will turn up a lot of information.
    • For example, learning that J.R.R. Tolkien served in the armed forces in World War I will shed some light on how he understood the horrors of war.
    • Much of William Shakespeare's life is unknown. However, we do know he lived in an age where both Christianity and magic (such as ghosts and magic spells) were accepted realities. His writings reflect this.
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    Mature. Understanding the deeper meaning of literature through higher thought processes such as symbolism requires a certain amount of brain development. This does not typically occur until age 12 or so. While younger readers can and do make connections, this higher-level thinking is typically not consistent until the junior high or high school.

Part 2
While Reading

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    Look at the first sentence(s). Not always, but most often, the first sentence is crucial in understanding the story. Take a look at these two introductions, for instance: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." gives an entirely different impression than "Mother died today." Think about a few things when you are examining the first sentence:
    • How does this statement make me feel?
    • What sort of person must be saying this?
    • What kind of mood does this evoke?
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    Note any strong responses you have. If something in the book disgusts you, it was probably intended to do so. Take a look at your emotional responses, if you have any. Were you offended by something in the book? Why might the author have included that? Are they criticizing someone? Are they criticizing society's attitude toward the thing?
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    Pay attention to what seems strange, unexpected, or otherwise "off" to you. Why would you insult someone while proposing marriage to them? Why would a church, which should be pristine, be described as grimy? Why is the ugly hunchback the one with the most deep statements? Often when an author challenges expectations, they mean to draw attention to something. They might be foreshadowing or taking a close look at what society has already labeled.
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    Look at symbolism. Using symbols, authors often get messages across that give a deeper message than is seen at the surface. These are typically along themes, such as good versus evil, nature versus mankind, maturing into adulthood, or the like.
    • Not everything in a piece of writing is necessarily a symbol. Sometimes a dog is white because the author had a childhood dog that was white, for instance, without any deeper meaning.
    • Symbols are different from culture to culture. For example, in much of Europe, bats are traditionally considered evil beings of the night, while in China they are considered good luck.
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    Names are often Important. Authors are often (although not always) very significant.
    • Example: In "The Great Gatsby" the name Daisy signify apparent purity (white petals) hiding a corrupted heart (center of the flower is yellow)?
    • In the "Harry Potter" series, J.K. Rowling often makes names important. Sirius Black's name indicates his dark canine nature. (The star "Sirius" is nicknamed "The Dog Star").
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    Look for themes. Are certain words, ideas, or imagery coming up repeatedly?
    • In Macbeth, time is referenced repeatedly.
    • In The Stranger, light is mentioned many times. Usually themes will contribute to the greater meaning.
    • In the "Narnia" series, Christian themes are throughout the books, mostly good versus evil, but also the idea of a savior of the world.
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    Piece the clues together. Once you've read through a piece of literature, look at all the things you noted and try to see how they might fit together to create a deeper meaning. Then you can try to match what you've come up with to the author's own life story and see if they parallel somehow. Take your time. There are really no wrong answers so long as you can reinforce your conclusion with details from the work.experienced, you will likely be able to pick up on things more quickly.
    • It is OK if you cannot do this yourself, as that is what book discussion and a good literature moderator is for. Even expert readers do not always pick up on everything.
    • This often takes practice, especially if you are just starting out. As you get more


  • Develop thoughts of your own. You can incorporate the ideas of others, if they seem right, but copying ideas off the Internet won't broaden your understanding of anything.
  • If you feel particularly offended or upset by the book, put it down. If you want, you can stop reading the book entirely (provided it isn't an assignment, of course). That's your choice, but finishing it could help you as a person.

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Categories: Studying Literature