Finding Meaning in Literature Help

Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Finding Meaning in Literature

Literature (novels, poems, stories, and plays) can be quite intimidating to many readers. In literature, meanings are often implied, and messages and themes are not conveniently housed in a topic sentence. However, no matter what you are reading, you can feel confident that the author has left behind clues that will help you to find the theme (the main idea). As an active reader, you are now well-equipped to read between the lines to find meaning in anything you read.

Throughout these pages, you have spent a great deal of time locating the main ideas in various pieces of writing. Finding the theme of a work of literature is similar to finding the main idea in an article, passage, or memo. Just as the main idea is more than the subject of a given article, passage, or memo, the theme of a work of literature is also more than just its subject: It is what the text says about that subject. Theme, in other words, is the overall message or idea that a work of literature conveys. For example, you can probably figure out from the title that the subject of John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud" is death. However, the theme is not merely "death," but what the poem says about death, which happens to be that death is a gift if one believes in God.

There isn't room in this short lesson to look at theme in a short story, novel, or play. So this lesson will introduce you to a few poems. But don't be frightened: Reading poetry is really just like reading anything else. You just have to read a little more carefully and rely a little more on your sense of observation. You find themes in poetry the same way you do in other kinds of writing: by looking for clues in what happens and in the words the writer uses to describe what happens.

How Action Conveys Theme

First, look at an example of how the action of a poem—what happens in it—leads you to understand the theme.

Finding Meaning in Literature Practice and Answers

Read the following poem by William Blake from his book Songs of Experience, published in 1794. Read it out loud, because poetry is meant to be heard as well as read. Then read it again with your pen in hand: Read actively, making your observations and comments in the margins. Then answer the questions that follow.

    A Poison Tree

      I was angry with my friend;
      I told my wrath, my wrath did end.        wrath = anger
      I was angry with my foe:                          foe = enemy
      I told it not, my wrath did grow.
      And I water'd it in fears,
      Night & morning with my tears;
      And I sunned it with smiles,
      And with soft deceitful wiles.    wiles = trickery, deceit
      And it grew both day and night,
      Till it bore an apple bright;
      And my foe beheld it shine,
      And he knew that it was mine.
      And into my garden stole
      When the night had veil'd the pole:   veiled = concealed
      In the morning glad I see
      My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.
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