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Meaning in Literature: Reading Comprehension Review Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 24, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Meaning in Literature: Reading Comprehension Review Practice Exercises

When it comes to literature, the features of writing that we've been talking about may seem a lot less obvious. It's much more common to read a poem, short story, novel, or play and think to yourself, "I don't get it!" Well, "getting it" is definitely what you want to do. Things might not be as obvious as in nonfiction, but those same features are there in fiction, or literature. And we're going to discover how to identify them!

Just for a minute, let's review stuff we know you know, like the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is writing short stories, novels, plays, and poems. Nonfiction is newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, textbooks, and cookbooks. Sometimes there may be fiction, like a poem or short story, in a nonfiction magazine, so it helps to know some characteristics of each:

PACE YOURSELF

FIND A POEM you once read but didn't understand. After reading this chapter, reread the poem. See if you can find its theme. Then, identify its subject.

MAIN IDEA VERSUS THEME

In literature, there's a main idea, but it isn't called a main idea, it's called the theme. Just like the main idea in nonfiction is different from the subject, the theme in fiction is different from the subject. The subject of a poem might be love, but the theme would be what the author is saying about love.

Literature is often long. Even short stories are usually many pages, so because we don't have that much room in this lesson, we're going to use poetry as an example of fiction. Poems can be very intimidating. Even more often than novels, poems can illicit that dreaded "I don't get it" from readers. But we're going to be active readers. We're going to dive right in and dissect poetry so you'll know how to do it yourself!

FUEL FOR THOUGHT

A SHORT STORY is usually anywhere between 1,000 and 20,000 words long.

Remember  to find out all the basic information.  Well, once you extract the basics from a poem, you then can ask, "What does it mean?"

CAUTION!

DON'T LET THE length of a poem intimidate you. Finding the theme is the same whether the poem is one stanza or ten.

FUEL FOR THOUGHT

A STANZA IS a part of a poem made up of a series of lines arranged together, sometimes with a repeating pattern of meter and rhyme. (In other words, it's sort of like a paragraph for poems.)

Let's read the following poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth and first see if we can distinguish its subject from its theme:

      I wandered lonely as a cloud
      That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
      When all at once I saw a crowd,
      A host, of golden daffodils;
      Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
      Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
      Continuous as the stars that shine
      And twinkle on the milky way,
      They stretched in never-ending line
      Along the margin of a bay:
      Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
      Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
      The waves beside them danced; but they
      Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
      A poet could not but be gay,
      In such a jocund company:
      I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
      What wealth the show to me had brought:
      For oft, when on my couch I lie
      In vacant or in pensive mood,
      They flash upon that inward eye
      Which is the bliss of solitude;
      And then my heart with pleasure fills,
      And dances with the daffodils.

INSIDE TRACK

IF THERE ARE words you don't know in a poem or story, look them up in a dictionary. It'll be easier to understand the writing if you're sure of what the words mean.

The subject of this poem is daffodils. But clearly there's more to it than that. What about the daffodils? What's being said about the daffodils that could be the theme of the poem? The first step is to figure out the action of the poem, then to discover the tone. The action and the tone are going to lead us to the theme. Here's a little equation to help you remember how to find theme:

action + tone = theme

So, first let's figure out what the action of the poem is. The narrator is wandering around (I wandered lonely as a cloud) and sees a lot of daffodils (I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils). The breeze is blowing (fluttering and dancing in the breeze), and the narrator thinks about the flowers later (when on my couch I lie . . . they flash upon that inward eye). All that is action in the poem, but we still don't know the theme. We still don't know what it is that Wordsworth is trying to say about those daffodils! Keep in mind what's going on in the poem while we turn our attention to the language.

Always pay close attention to the words a poet uses. The words are a clue to the emotion of the text. And that emotion can, in turn, help you discover the theme.

Look at the poem again. Notice the words Wordsworth uses to refer to the flowers and what they're doing. In the first stanza, he uses the words fluttering and dance. In the second stanza, he uses sprightly, and in the third stanza, glee to describe the emotion of the flowers themselves. What do the words have in common? They all express a kind of happiness and joy. The daffodils seem to be acting out of joy. In contrast, Wordsworth describes the narrator in the last stanza as being in vacant or in pensive mood. Vacant and pensive are not generally associated with happiness, but when the narrator pictures the daffodils dancing in his mind, his heart fills with pleasure.

So, what does this all mean? What theme do the action and the tone equal? The narrator sees this sea of happy flowers dancing, and doesn't think much about it right then, but later pictures it in his mind and is happy. So we could say that the poem's theme is:

    Memories can bring us joy.
    or
    Nature is not fleeting. It brings us joy through memories.

Either theme fits the poem. One isn't more right than the other. That's the thing about literature; it can be interpreted in many ways. Sometimes there is no one right answer. Only in fables—short stories such as Aesop's The Tortoise and the Hare—is the theme, or moral, interpreted for you by the author. (The moral of that fable is slow and steady wins the race.) It's always important, however, to make sure the theme encompasses the action and tone of the poem.

PACE YOURSELF

WRITE A POEM with the theme "Kindness is contagious."

Let's look at another poem and extract its theme. This one is called "To You" by Walt Whitman.

      Stranger! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me,
      why should you not speak to me?
      And why should I not speak to you?

Because we know that action + tone = theme, first we need to figure out what the action of the poem is. The narrator asks a stranger two questions. Okay, so now we know the action, but we need to know the tone. Well, some words that Whitman uses (like desire and speak) seem to indicate some level of formality, because he could have chosen other, less formal words. But the formality seems less important than the fact that the poem is only three lines long, yet manages to ask two questions! What do you notice about the questions? It might help to read "To You" out loud. Here it is again:

      Stranger! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me,
      why should you not speak to me?
      And why should I not speak to you?

Doesn't it seem that the narrator already has an answer in mind when he asks the questions? He seems to indicate that the stranger should speak to him. He doesn't ask why the stranger would not speak to him, he asks why the stranger shouldn't. Also notice that the stranger doesn't answer the questions in the poem. He or she doesn't need to. The questions are rhetorical, or symbolic, and that's the tone. The tone of the poem is rhetorical.

Okay, so now we know the action and the tone. So, what's the theme? The narrator is asking a stranger in a rhetorical manner why they shouldn't speak to each other if they want to. From this, we can assume that the theme is something like we should all get along, or we're all just people or everyone is equal. Maybe you can think of a different way to phrase it, but the sentiment is the same. The poem is saying that there really isn't any reason why people shouldn't talk to one another. Any differences we may have aren't great enough to keep us apart.

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