chapter 15

Analyzing Fiction

[This page still under construction...]

What is Literature? 

For many, fiction is a mystery, but it shouldn't be. Literature is simply the oldest form of writing and thinking: storytelling.  Literature expresses not only our human creativity, but also the important truths by which we live.

Fiction derives from the Latin verb fictio, which means create, make, or form.  It is related in meaning to the ancient Greek word poiema, which meant an action, deed, or act, and is the root of the English word poetry.  The concepts of fiction and poetry refer to the fact that human consciousness is an active power.  This led to the old Latin phrase of homo faber, "man makes himself."  

Consciousness acts on experience.  Consciousness is not a passive receptor.  Consciousness forms experience with emotion, colors it with meaning, and stabilizes it with identity.  Our mind is not a “mirror of nature.”   Our subjectivity co-creates experience with the objective world.   Our minds cooperate with the world in order to produce an interaction between knower and known.   As humans we personally participate in the "act of knowing" and in the construction of our knowledge.  

This interaction creates a phenomenon, a mental object perceived by the human senses, which is distinct from the object as it exists independently of our perceptions.   The active creativity of human subjectivity does not falsify experience so much as make it meaningful and relevant. 

Fiction represents the truth as we see it. Literature is the story we use to communicate that truth.  In fact, literature is not singular.  It is plural because every culture and every person in that culture sees the truth of life somewhat differently.  Thus, literature is the myriad stories, which humans in every culture have composed over thousands of years.

Literature in its everyday usage simply means writing, or sometimes published writing.  In the 19th century scholars and critics began to use the term literature to describe the collection of the best and most profound secular texts, which were set against the declining importance of religious literature as a source of entertainment, education, and cultural values.  But this usage of literature was always arbitrary: whose work was deemed the "best" and using what criteria?  Often university professors and professional literary critics would declare a "cannon" of official texts that supposedly represented "the best" literature, and ideally every educated person was supposed to read all of the books on the list.

To understand the meaning and function of literature, I think it is more useful to reach back farther in history to use the terms "poetry" and "fiction."  I will explain both of these terms in the first three chapters of this book.  Of these two terms, poetry is the oldest and I think the most important concept to understand not only how literature works, but more importantly, the true value of literature to human beings.

I use poetry in its original and broadest sense to mean all creative writing.  The origin of the word “poetry” comes from the ancient Greek word poietes, which meant maker, shaper or former, and only gradually come to mean a maker of words and language in verse, often accompanied by music. 

In this broader sense of the word, poetry means the creative expression of human beings in various forms. Poetry is classified as “fiction” and these two words can be considered synonymous. The word “fiction” is often used to mean “false” or “something not true,” but in fact the root of this word is the Latin fictio, which means “something made” in terms of being a creative action by a human being – very similar in meaning to the Greek work poietes.

To understand creative human expression, it is also helpful to understand another ancient Greek word, mimesis. This word means representation, or the representing or translation of physical objects or beings through words, forms, or symbols. The notion of mimesis has been interpreted in different ways by different poets and philosophers over the course of human history.

One interpretation argued that mimesis should be very creative and should reflect more of the artist’s interpretation of reality and not so much what reality actually looked like. Another interpretation argued that mimesis should be “objective” and should faithfully reflect what an object actually looked like in the real world. The first definition of mimesis was associated with Romantic and Modernist poets while the second definition was associated more will Classical and Realist poets.

For our purposes we will just make a mental note that sometimes creative poets can strive for “objective” representation and sometimes they might strive for more “subjective” and “creative” representation. When we read and respond to poetry we should be thinking about these two possibilities. We should also be very aware of how the poet uses language in both a straightforward and a creative manner.

The poet can be both objective and subjective at the same time and this can be tricky for the reader to figure out. When we read creative writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, we need to be on the lookout for both literal meanings and connotative meanings for words.


Fiction & the Form of human experience

What is fiction?  Most people dismiss fiction as an unimportant luxury, but fiction is a necessary part of the human condition.  Humans are “narrative beings,” as the philosopher Loyal Rue has explained.  In our beginning as a species is mythos (story).  Only later did we learn logos (rationality).[i]   We naturally understand our experience in the form of story.[ii]  We use narratives to learn from our experience by storing meaningful events in memories, which help guide future behavior.[iii] 

This process creates consciousness and subjectivity, what neurobiologist Antonio Damasio called the “autobiographical self” or what the philosopher John Gray called the "fictive self."[iv]  But the human mind is an imperfect recorder and interpreter of experience, whether it is preserved through memory, the written word, paint, or artifacts.[v]  Yet, this does not mean that our subjective[vi] experience is false.  The equation of fiction with falsity is a modern fallacy.  It comes from the reductionist assumptions of positivist scientism.[vii]

Fiction derives from the Latin verb fictio, which means create, make, or form.  It is related in meaning to the ancient Greek word poiema, which meant an action, deed, or act, and is the root of the English word poetry.  The concepts of fiction and poetry refer to the fact that human consciousness is an active power.  This led to the old Latin moniker of homo faber, "man makes himself."[viii]  Consciousness acts on experience. 

Consciousness is not a passive receptor.  Consciousness forms experience with emotion, colors it with meaning, and stabilizes it with identity.  Our mind is not a “mirror of nature.”[ix]  Our subjectivity co-creates experience with the objective world.[x]  Our minds cooperate with the world in order to produce an interaction between knower and known.[xi] 

As humans we personally participate in the "act of knowing" and in the construction of our knowledge.[xii]  This interaction creates a phenomenon, a mental object perceived by the human senses, which is distinct from the object as it exists independently of our perceptions.[xiii]  The active creativity of human subjectivity does not falsify experience so much as make it meaningful and relevant.  Subjective vision is "a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty.  Its structure is at once luminous and translucent; you can see the world through it."[xiv] 

Subjectivity alters experience by adding to it, enhancing it, and making it usable.[xv]  Subjectivity is "like magic," as one sociologist put it.[xvi]  Historian William H. McNeill explained, "Men are and always have been myth makers, seizing upon the significant by leaving out the trivial, so as to make the world intelligible...For human minds imperiously demand historical experience to have shape and meaning."[xvii]  Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote an award winning book on the importance of political fictions, or what we often call "self-evident truths."  Morgan explained, "the make-believe world may often mold the real one...fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them...[they] make our world conform more closely to what we want it to be...the fiction takes command and reshapes reality."[xviii] 

And while the subjective magic of fiction could be denigrated as mere myth-making, many if not most human beings need their myths in order to survive and thrive.  As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once pointed out, "Don't part with your illusions; when they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live."[xix]

Human perception is not a direct window open to the world.  Our perception is partly constituted by the biological perceptual process and also, perhaps more importantly, as the quote by Galbraith suggested, by our subjectivity and culture.  We see with more than our eyes.  We also see with our wants, our needs, and our hopes.  We see with more than our intellect.  We also see with our emotions. 

We see with more than our own self.  We also see with preconceived social assumptions, which have been variously labeled as common sense, conventional wisdom, interpretive frameworks, habitus, gestalts, ideologies, backgrounds, paradigms, and epistemes.  These are various names for the “epistemological unconscious”[xx] that shapes our perceptual process, our personality, and our ability to communicate. 

We all inherit ways of being and thinking that are particular to our unique social and historical context.  We often call this culture.  Culture is our "social heritage,"[xxi] which includes "a pool of technological and social innovations" that help us develop and survive.[xxii]  As one philosopher explained it, "Culture is not only the condition of life, it is the condition of knowing."[xxiii]  Our epistemological unconscious shapes our subjectivity, formulates our perception, and helps us participate in our culture.  Our culture is ordered by "collective make-believe,"[xxiv] which are values or beliefs that we all take for granted as self-evidently true and right.  We all combine our biological nature with the tools and beliefs of our culture to produce a "self" through a process the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls, "the art of self-making."[xxv]

We can never escape our subjectivity, nor can we eradicate the cultural and biological influences that have shaped us since we were born.  The 16th century British philosopher Francis Bacon called these predicaments the "idol of the cave," after Plato's famous metaphor in the Republic, and also the "idol of the tribe."  He saw human subjectivity as "a corrupt and ill-ordered predisposition of mind."  Bacon believed, as have many scientists since, that we can destroy and abolish these "idols" so as the see the world with pristine and unencumbered eyes - as through "clear glass."[xxvi]  But this is a lie.  Complete objectivity is a "false ideal."[xxvii]  We can never escape the cave.  We cannot "command" our nature or the objective world.  Our minds can never be "thoroughly freed and cleansed."[xxviii]  As the philosopher David Hume famously put it, "We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all."[xxix]

But Bacon admitted, as did Hume, that as part of the natural world we were uniquely situated and endowed with a capacity to know, however flawed it may be.  Bacon said that we can "interpret" ourselves and the natural world, but this ability was grounded by the constraints of the physical world, including the limits of our own biological brain, which "must be obeyed."[xxx] 

As reflective and critical beings we can become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture influence our perception and behavior.  We can also become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture can be influenced and modified in turn – how they can be changed, not commanded.  Our ability to alter our selves and our environment produces the conditions of true freedom and moral responsibility.[xxxi] 

But in order to produce social and personal change, we must analyze and understand our biology, our psychological self, and our culture - what Robert Nozick has called "the whole of our being":[xxxii] how we subjectively experience life, what we experience, how we know our experience, and how we can communicate our experience.  This is the domain of knowledge that we call the arts and humanities, and in particular it was the foundation for the classical notion of philosophy.[xxxiii] 

If we can gain this type of knowledge, then we can learn how to actively participate in the construction of truth.  Truth is not a verbal abstraction of some idealized and unchanging notion of reality.  Instead, truth is a pragmatic conceptual construction anchored to the physical world, which allows us to order and understand our various sensory perceptions so that we can live more meaningful and effectively.[xxxiv]  Wisdom is the ability to use truth to make meaningful, productive, and sustainable choices that lead to individual and cultural flourishing. 

How do we act upon the world we see?  And what does it mean to create truth?  When we see the world through direct experience or through memory, we do not simply see, as if looking through a window.  Instead we see the external world through the stained glass of our consciousness, which has been shaped by our parents, our culture, our language, but also by our own experience, our goals, and our unique personality. 

The visionary English poet William Blake once said that we all see the world, but we do not all see it the same way.  Blake believed that he could see strange things: angels dancing around the sun and the dead walking around his garden.  During his lifetime most people thought Blake to be eccentric, if not completely crazy.[xxxv]  But Blake’s experience was very real to him, and he lived his life according to his subjective vision, producing profoundly beautiful poetry, paintings, and deep insights into the human condition.  Blake understood that the perceptual process was a creative activity and he actively created the contours of his own life. 

When we see the world through subjective experience, we make the objective world part of our unique consciousness.  One sociologist has called this process "the art of living."[xxxvi]  We cognitively organize and verbally express our subjective experience in order to give it form and meaning.  These verbal constructs become personal and social artifacts of experience, like memories, narratives, or art, and these artifacts objectify our subjective experience of the world so that others may share in our vision.[xxxvii]

After the living moments of our life pass away, we carry the most important as memories in a fictional place we call the past, imperfectly stored in the subconscious netherworld of our biological brain.  When we go to recollect a memory, we reconstruct it through narrative,[xxxviii] reconstituting our experience into a recognizable and meaningful form.[xxxix] 

For much of human history the process of education was simply memorization of all the important stories that contained the knowledge and wisdom of a particular culture.[xl]  As Michael Polanyi explained, "Man lives in the meanings he is able to discern.  He extends himself into that which he finds coherent and is at home there."[xli]  Some scholars have crafted a professionalized method to analyze and synthesize recorded memories in order to reconstitute a collective memory of the past.  We call this method history. 

But the act of memory and the formal practice of history have always been plagued the paradox of fiction.[xlii]  Paul Ricoeur explained how memory always "operates in the wake of the imagination."[xliii]  In an ironic critique of historiography, Hermann Hess sardonically made this same judgment, “The writing of history – however dryly it is done and however sincere the desire for objectivity – remains literature.  History’s third dimension is always fiction.”[xliv]

For much of human history there was never a clear line between history as "what really happened" and history as "myth."[xlv]  They were largely one and the same until the development of writing and critical modes of thinking.[xlvi]  Myths blended cultural meanings with social rituals and grounded them both in "the enduring realities of human life."[xlvii]  Up until the 19th century, most historians blended actual events with subjective flourish and mythic narratives, relying more upon traditional beliefs than empirical evidence.  William H. McNeill called this "mythistory."[xlviii] 

It wasn't until 18th century that scholars, like Giambattista Vico in his New Science (1725), really began to distinguish between secular facts (factum - what humans have created) from religious myths to determine the truth (verum).[xlix]  Clarifying a precise distinction between "fact" (factum) and "fiction" (fictio) was not even a subject of concern until the 19th and 20th centuries, when scientists began to formalize empirical and experimental tests for truth, while at the same time writers began using new realistic prose techniques to tell stories. 

But these developments did not abolish myth and subjectivity.[l]  Rather these older forms of knowing were combined with new "technologies of truth."[li]  But the problem of cultural relativity remains acute, as William H. McNeill acknowledged, "The same words that constitute truth for some are, and always will be, myth for others."[lii] 

The blurring of fact and fiction are not just the province of history.  This predicament can also be seen in other literary forms, like the biography, the novel, and journalism.  The first "novels" published in Europe utilized a traditional autobiographical form so as to present a made-up story as a true memoir. 

Daniel Defoe, the first English novelist, structured his "new" literary form on the testimonial confession of St. Augustine of Hippo and the mystical narrative of the Muslim philosopher Avicenna.  Defoe began his epistolary-confessional novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) with a by-line presented through the persona of Crusoe, "Written by HIMSELF."  The English public actually believed the story was true until Defoe finally admitted that he invented both the story and the main character.  Defoe also wrote A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which was a first-person journalistic account of London's great plague of 1665 published under a pseudonym.  But while many commentators later criticized Defoe's account of the plague as "fiction masquerading as fact," later scholars exonerated Defoe.  Watson Nicholson found that there was not "a single essential statement in the Journal not based on historical fact."  Anthony Burgess later claimed that "Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist."[liii]  

The blending of objective reality with subjective fiction has been the modus operandi of various written genres, including personal memoirs, environmental writing, journalism, novels, and poetry.  As Henry Adams explained in his famous autobiography, "This was the journey he remembered.  The actual journey may have been quite different, but the actual journey has no interest for education.  The memory was all that mattered."[liv]  The subjectively crafted story allows the individual to "transform itself" and "self-create," as philosopher Robert Nozick explained: "I want to say that you are your reality.  Our identity consists of those features, aspects, and activities that don't just exist but also are (more) real...Our reality consists partly in the values we pursue and live by, the vividness, intensity, and integration with which we embody them."[lv]  

Acknowledging the importance of subjectivity in the creation of self and society enabled the development a new form of journalism in the 1960s.  Tom Wolf, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion pioneered what Thompson humorously referred to as Gonzo journalism, or the art of subjective reporting.[lvi]  Norman Mailer went so far as to sub-title his classic history of the Civil Rights movement, "history as a novel, the novel as history."[lvii]  These writers were reacting against the false claim of objectivity that old-school journalists had hid behind.  Mailer claimed that journalists "wrenched and garbled and twisted and broke one's words...action was distorted...words were tortured."[lviii]  Thus, this new type of journalist flaunted "egotism" and made their own persona the protagonist of the story, anchoring reality to the eyes of a flawed and subjective personality who not only observed the story, but lived through it.[lix]  Joan Didion explained, "however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable 'I'."[lx] 

Harkening back to these journalistic pioneers of subjective prose, Maureen Tkacik recently argued that journalism cannot ever know the truth "at the expense of the personal" because "storytelling" does not "exist in a vacuum."  Instead, journalists must "humanize" journalism and establish "trust" with the reader, which would entail "letting down the old guard of objectivity and letting go of illusions of unimpeachability."  Tkacik pondered, "Rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience?  Allow their humanity to shape their journalism?"[lxi]  In the early 21st century, journalists are quickly abandoning the false hope of objective news.  They are instead trying to humanize the new through transparently subjective reporting, which means openly acknowledging their subjectivity and cultural bias, while still trying to be accurate, fair and intellectually honest.[lxii]

The wartime experiences of Tim O’Brien provide a great example of this difficulty.  In his work O'Brien "humanized" his direct experience of the objective world through fictionalizing a subjective narrative.  He has written memoirs, novels, and short stories all of which cover the same lived experience as an American soldier during the Vietnam War. 

As a writer, O’Brien was faced with a difficult predicament.  How to explain his experience of Vietnam and the after-affects of the war on his life?  O’Brien admitted that he had to fictionalize his wartime experience in order to truthfully express its significance and explain its meaning.  He tried to clarify this paradox, saying the “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” because the “spell of memory and imagination” produce a more meaningful explanation of lived experience than a simple recounting of objective facts. 

O'Brien makes the case that fiction can be an important way to produce truth: “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience.  You separate it from yourself.  You pin down certain truths.  You make up others.  You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.”[lxiii]  The complex reality of a phenomenon like war, especially the lived significance for a human being, cannot be simply conveyed through disembodied data.  As the philosopher John Gray has pointed out, "Some truths cannot be told except as fiction."[lxiv] 

The reconstituting process of subjective narrative does mean that fiction falsifies the meaning of experience,[lxv] although our memory does change experience by adding, subtracting, rearranging, or revising certain parts.[lxvi]  Fiction, more to the point, brings the subjective truth of being into words, creating an imaginative artifact inspired from our phenomenological experience of a meaningful reality.[lxvii] 

Narrative expresses the "connectedness of life."[lxviii]  It expresses the thoughts, dreams, feelings, wishes, wonders, and fears of the individual or community – in short, it expresses the subjective experience of being human.  It expresses a "vision of the world," a "cosmos," that brings coherence and order to the world grounded in our subjectivity.[lxix]  Paul Ricoeur described this subjective cosmos as "the living present of the phenomenological experience of time...'here,' as the place where I am."[lxx]  Alasdair MacIntyre argued that narrative brings "unity" and meaning to life that is often fragmented and meaningless.[lxxi]  We cannot live without brining assigning order and meaning to the overwhelmingly complex and chaotic objective world.  Narrative is the primary tool for this task.

But our narrative visions of the world are often highly idiosyncratic and difficult to communicate to others.  This notion is expressed in perfect irony by Hermann Hess in his mock biography of a fictional character.  Hess explained, “Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable.”[lxxii]  This is the reason why many autobiographical narratives are labeled “fiction” by publishers.  As the anthropologist Pascal Boyer noted, “The boundary between a fictional story and an account of personal experience is often difficult to trace.”[lxxiii]  To guard against the literal minded, writers often barb their experience behind word magic, cautioning this is but a "fiction," which is a slight of hand warning the wary of the paradoxical netherworld between human experience and objective truth.  Kurt Vonnegut opened his famous novel-memoir with the frank admission, “All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”  And so it goes.[lxxiv]  C’est la vie.

Our subjective perception, conception, and verbalization of the world, whether through lived experience or through memory, whether completely factual or not, has definite phenomenological reality – our experience seems real to us even if we don’t understand it or reproduce it in accurate detail.  Our perception and knowledge of the world are just tools, flawed but useful.[lxxv]  As Paul Ricoeur explains, "It is precisely because of the elusive character of real life that we need the help of fiction to organize life retrospectively, after the fact."[lxxvi]  We use our subjective narratives to understand life and make it meaningful.  Our subjective reality combined with the "conventional wisdom" of our society is often more important to us then the larger, impersonal, “objective” world that surrounds us, co-constitutes us, and constrains us.[lxxvii]  Walter Benjamin pointed out that our storytelling is a form of "practical wisdom" that enables a measure of control over an objective world that is often unknowable and uncontrollable.[lxxviii]   


 How to read Fiction


1. The Literal Meaning of Fiction

The literal meaning of a word is the explicit, surface meaning, which you can find in a dictionary. This is the generally accepted meaning of the word. Poets will always be aware of the literal meanings of words, but you need to be aware that poets are a crafty and creative bunch and they will often play on your assumption of the accepted meaning of words. When you are reading or responding to the literal meaning of words you should be looking at several areas.


a)  Word choice

b)  Standard meaning of words (found in a dictionary)

c)  Keywords or repeated words

d)  Context (textual, social, historical)

e)  Speaker

f)  Voice


When examining the literal meaning of a creative work you need to pay close attention to the words that a poet uses. You need to have a good vocabulary and know the standard definition of words as found in a dictionary because poets will often use familiar words in new ways, and you need to be able to distinguish between the common meaning of words and how a poet might be using a particular word.

You should also be on the lookout for keywords or repeated words as these might be a clue to get a firmer sense of the author’s purpose or explicit meaning. A word is never repeated by accident and if you see a word repeated, especially more than twice, you know that there is some deeper significance and it may be a sign of some type of organizing structure.

You also need to be aware of is the context of the text, which might give you some clues about the meaning of words or images. Understanding the context can be tricky if you don’t know much about the author and the time and place she lived in. The context might refer to the social or political context that the writer was working within. It might also refer to the social context within the text itself, like how the characters of a story will talk to each other from their own points of view.

It is always important to situate the meaning of words within the wider social, political, or historical context in which they take place. So in order to get a firm grasp of the literal meaning of a creative text you need to be on the lookout for different social, political, or historical contexts, both outside of and in the text, so as to be able to situate the meaning of words within these contextual points of reference.

The speaker in a work of fiction (and also non-fiction) is another important convention. When we read a work of fiction we must never assume that the speaker or main character of the work is speaking for the author or mouthing the author’s views. We must treat the speaker or main character as separate from the author and an individual entity in their own right.

Voice is an ambiguous, yet important concept for writers. Many people can identify voice when they read it, but cannot explain what it is. Generally voice is the creation of a “persona” through writing. A writer uses specific words in an authentic way to make the reader think that a unique person is talking. A writer uses voice to sound like an authoritative human being who is speaking knowledgeably about an issue.

Often a writer creates a clear “I” speaking to “you,” the reader. But different writers can create different types of voices, and not all writers use this concept honestly. Some writers use voice like an actor playing a role: The voice is faked in order to give the writer more credibility. This can make the writer seem insincere or manipulative. However, the power of voice can be used honestly and usefully. A unique or forceful voice can not only increase the power of a text, but it can also be used by writers to better understand themselves, and to better understand the unique circumstances in which they live and write.



2. Irony:  The Connotative Meaning of Fiction

Irony describes the whole conception of connotative meaning; however, it privileges the deeper meaning by superseding the literal meaning of a word.

Irony is when the literal meaning is not the actual or intended meaning. The connotative meaning is the deeper meaning that may lie underneath, sometimes far below, the surface (literal) meaning. We must always be on the look out for deeper connotative meaning, but we should expect it – a lot of it – when we read poetry.

Connotative meaning can take many different forms and one could spend several semesters just trying to learn to identify all the different forms of connotative meaning. Sarcasm is a very common and the simplest form of irony, albeit it is more of an oral version rather than a textual version. When someone is being sarcastic they mean the opposite of the literal meaning.

Irony is much more richly textured and when irony is in play you cannot assume any definite meaning, although you can assume that the literal meaning is not the actual or most important meaning that you should be grasping. Given that we are only introducing college level reading and writing, we will just touch on some of the major forms of deeper meaning.


a)  Metaphor

b)  Personification

c)  Paradox

d)  Hyperbole

e)  Allusion

f)  Symbol

g)  Tone or Mood


Metaphors are verbal comparisons. A metaphor describes one thing (usually unfamiliar) in terms of something else (usually familiar). By comparing or contrasting two things, the author can create a deeper meaning for the unfamiliar term, which can help the reader see the world in a new way.


Example: The fictional character Forest Gump said, “Life is like a Box of Chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.” 


Personification verbally applies human characteristics to non-human beings or things. This connotative tool can help make unfamiliar beings or things more human, recognizable, or sympathetic to a human audience. It can also be a way to address serious human issues by deflecting the subject matter onto strange or comic characters.


Example: The novel Animal Farm by George Orwell discusses the very serious philosophical and political matter of the Russian Revolution through a book on barnyard animals.


Paradox is often a short, cryptic statement or word puzzle that seems nonsensical, self-contradictory, or absurd on the surface, but which contains, under the literal meaning, a profound principle or truth. Paradox is used frequently in religious texts and teachings.


Example: Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”


Hyperbole is a dramatic over-exaggeration. It can be used to emphasize a point or to provide some comic relief.


Example: The dog is as big as a house


Example: Homer Simpson is a hyperbolic lampoon of the typical American working class male.


Allusion is a very old technique that is related to the oral traditions of story telling. An allusion is a reference to another story or text. The reference can be any number of things like a character or character’s name, a famous quote, an object in the text, or a title. The allusion provides an added layer of depth as the audience can make a mental comparison by linking the alluded text to the present text.


Example: The movie Apocalypse Now makes many allusions to the novel on which it was loosely based, Heart of Darkness.


A symbol can be many things. A symbol is an object, word, action, or person that represents something beyond itself. A symbol can often have a very superficial literal meaning because its real meaning is its symbolic meaning.


Example: Skull and crossbones can symbolize pirates, death, or poison depending on the context.


Example: A living tree in a run down urban city could symbolize the fragility and importance of life.


Tone or mood refers to the overall emotional feeling of a text, which can be reflected in the characters (how they look or what they say), the environment (how it looks or feels), or in the general tone of the narrator’s or author’s voice.


Example: The tone of Hunter S. Thompson’s narration in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reflects the drug induced, fractured, and cynical meaning of the novel’s description of American life.





[i] Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge, UK, 1986); Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, UK, 1977).

[ii] Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (Oxford, UK, 1996).

[iii] Loyal Rue, Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature (New Brunswick, 2005), 86, 38-39; Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society; Turner, The Literary Mind.

[iv] Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens (New York, 1999); John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (New York, 2003), 77.

[v] David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford, 1997); Pascal Boyer and James V. Wertsch, Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge, UK, 2009).

[vi] I am using the words "subjective" and "objective" in the basic way that Karl Popper used these terms.  While Popper admitted that these words were "heavily burdened with a heritage of contradictory usages and of inconclusive and interminable discussions," I hope that my usage of these terms are clear.  Subjective is the internal experience of the individual while objective refers to the world of physical objects that we inhabit.  Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London, 2002), 22-23.

[vii] Philosopher Loyal Rue, in Religion Is Not About God, defines scientism as “a set of philosophical beliefs about science, not a set of tested beliefs about nature.  Scientism says that science is the sole authority on all claims about the natural order; that the limits of science are the true limits to what can be said about how things really are; that scientific claims are the only ones that warrant realist attitudes” (316).  Scientism can be attacked from two directions.  Theists attack scientism because they want to make space for a transcendent reality, thus, supporting the existence of a deity.  But scientism can also be attacked by scientists.  The later is where I stand, and my critique of scientism represents a critique of the overly narrow definition of what does or does not count as science.  There is a longstanding debate within the scientific community over diverse scientific methods, and physical scientists have traditionally defined science in terms of reductionist physical-science methods that often distort the complex reality of psychological, social, and cultural phenomena.  See: George Steinmetz, ed., The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others (Durham, 2005).  For an example of scientism by a scientist see Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, 2006).  For an example of pop-scientism by science propagandists see the magazine Wired and the work of literary agent John Brockman, especially “The New Humanists,” The Hew Humanists: Science at the Edge (New York, 2003) and The Third Culture (New York, 1996).   

[viii] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958); Philip Selznick, The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (Berkeley, 1992), 14-15. 

[ix] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979).  Michael Polanyi also acknowledged "the power which we exercise in the act of perception."  Science, Faith and Society: A Searching Examination of the Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry (Chicago, 1964), 16.

[x] For a history of this idea within the “Romantic” tradition of European literature and philosophy see: M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford, 1971).

[xi] This foundational insight was philosophically explored by Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason (1781).  The notion of “interaction” was more concretely tied to subjectivity and society by George Herbert Mead, which can be found in the collection of essays Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago, 1967). See also Marchand, "Making Knowledge."

[xii] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, 1962), vii, 17; Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.

[xiii] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.  Kant’s insight lead to a distinct school of philosophy called Phenomenology.  See Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge, 2000).

[xiv] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York, 1989), 56.

[xv] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York, 1997) and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York, 2003).  On the specific role of the emotions in subjectivity see: N. H. Frijda, The Emotions (Cambridge, 1986); Richard Lazarus, Emotion and Adaptation (Oxford, 1991).

[xvi] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK, 2010), 195.

[xvii] William H. McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays (Chicago, 1986), 91.

[xviii] Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York, 1988), 14.

[xix] John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash, 1929, qtd. in Kim Phillips-Fein, "Countervailing Powers: Review of The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952-1967," The Nation (May 30 2011), 43.

[xx] These concepts refer to the ideological, discursive, and institutional social forces or powers that constitute and constrain the intellectual and experiential vocabulary of an individual.  For "interpretive framework" see Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 60.  For "common sense" see Clifford Geertz, "Common Sense as a Cultural System," Local Knowledge (New York, 2000); For "conventional wisdom" see John Kenneth Galbraith, "The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom," The Essential Galbraith (New York, 2001), 18--30; For "habitus" see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK, 2010), 72; For “background” see John R. Searle, Consciousness and Language (Cambridge, 2002).  For “paradigm” see Stephen Toulmin, Foresight and Understanding: An Inquiry into the Aims of Science (New York, 1961), 57, 81, 100; Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962).  For “episteme” see Michele Foucault, The Order of Things (New York, 1970).  For “epistemological unconscious” see Steinmetz, “Introduction: Positivism and Its Others in the Social Sciences,” The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences.  For "ideology" see J. M. Beach, Studies in Ideology: Essays on Culture and Subjectivity (Lanham, 2005) and Clifford Geertz, "Ideology as a Cultural System," The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 2000).  See also: Jerome Bruner, "Myth and Identity," On Knowing (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 32.

[xxi] Roy D'Andrade, "Cultural Darwinism and Language," American Anthropologist 104, no. 1 (2002), 223.

[xxii] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York, 2002), 65-66.

[xxiii] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Touchstone, 1988), 307.

[xxiv] Morgan, Inventing the People, 202.

[xxv] Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves (New York, 2003), 277, 281.

[xxvi] Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy (Cambridge, UK, 2001), 122; "Francis Bacon," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University (Dec 29 2003) <>; Charles E. Lindblom, Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (New Haven, 1990), 153.

[xxvii] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 18.

[xxviii] Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy; "Francis Bacon," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[xxix] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford, 1888), 268.

[xxx] Francis Bacon, The New Organon, qtd. in Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York, 1995), 312.

[xxxi] Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 1, 162.

[xxxii] Robert Nozick, The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York, 1989), 17.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays, 18.

[xxxv] Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake (London, 1907); David Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, 3rd ed. (Princeton, 1977); J. M. Beach, “William Blake,” Studies in Poetry: The Visionary (Lanham, 2004).

[xxxvi] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK, 2010), 88.

[xxxvii] Jerome Bruner, "Myth and Identity," On Knowing (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 32.

[xxxviii] The anthropologist Webb Keane has explained the narrative as “crystallized contextual moments of explicitness, discursive actions that turn other actions, other contexts, into texts recognizable within genres.”  Webb Keane, “Anthropology: Estrangement, Intimacy, and the Objects of Anthropology” (Durham, 2005), 82. See also Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, 78; Turner, The Literary Mind; David Deutsche, The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes - and Its Implications (New York, 1997), 264-65.

[xxxix] David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford, 1997); Pascal Boyer and James V. Wertsch, Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge, UK, 2009).

[xl] Walter J. Ong, Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Chicago, 2004), 194.

[xli] Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago, 1975), 66.

[xlii] Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 3rd ed. (Chicago, 2007).

[xliii] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago, 2004), 5.

[xliv] Hermann Hess, The Glass Bead Game (1943; New York, 1990), 48.  Hess’ novel is an ironic critique of historiography, objectivity, and the search for truth.

[xlv] Jack Goody and Ian Watt, "The Consequences of Literacy," Comparative Studies in History and Society, 5 (1963): 304-345.

[xlvi] Ibid., Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, 7; Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind.

[xlvii] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (New York, 2007), 206.

[xlviii] McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays, ch 1 and 2; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity’ Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK, 1988).

[xlix] Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 203-4.

[l] Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity’ Question and the American Historical Profession.

[li] The quote comes from Daniel Dennett, “Why Getting It Right Matters: How Science Prevails,” Science & Religion: Are They Compatible (Amherst, 2003), 156.  See also Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 6.  The notion of combining old and new forms of knowing comes from Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 148.

[lii] McNeill, Mythistory and Other Essays, 19.

[liii] Nicholson Baker, "The Greatest Liar," Columbia Journalism Review (July-Aug 2009); "Dissembling Defoe," The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 2009), 74-75; Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley, 1957); Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl's Influence on Modern Western Thought (Lanham, 2007); G. J. Toomer, Eastern Wisdom and Learning : The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1996).

[liv] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston, 1961), 43.

[lv] Nozick, The Examined Life, 128, 132.

[lvi] See Tom Wolf, The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test (New York, 1999); Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York, 1998); Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York, 2008).

[lvii] Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (New York, 1994).

[lviii] Ibid., 65.

[lix] Ibid., 3, 54.

[lx] Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 136.

[lxi] Maureen Tkacik, "Look at Me!  A Writer's Search for Journalism in the Age of Branding," Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 2010), 33-40.

[lxii] "The Foxification of News," Bulletins from the Future: Special Report on the News Industry, The Economist (July 9 2011), 14-15.

[lxiii] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York, 1990), 179, 245, 158. O’Brien’s National Book Award winning novel was Going After Cacciato and his memoir was If I Die in a Combat Zone.

[lxiv] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (New York, 2003), 131.

[lxv] David Carr, “Narrative Explanation and Its Malcontents,” History and Theory 47 (Feb 2008): 19-30; Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago, 1992).

[lxvi] David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford, 1997); Pascal Boyer and James V. Wertsch, Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge, UK, 2009); Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, 7.

[lxvii] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another.

[lxviii] Wilhelm Dilthey, "The Construction of the Historical World in the Human Studies," Dilthey: Selected Writings (Cambridge, UK, 1976), 238.

[lxix] Polanyi and Prosch, Meaning, 107, 163.

[lxx] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 53.

[lxxi] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, 2007), 205-258; Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 158.

[lxxii] Hermann Hess, The Glass Bead Game, 9.

[lxxiii] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York, 2001), 326.

[lxxiv] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter-House-Five (New York, 1969), 1.

[lxxv] William James, Pragmatism, Writings 1902-1910 (New York, 1988); Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology.

[lxxvi] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 162.

[lxxvii] John Kenneth Galbraith, "The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom," In The Essential Galbraith (New York, 2001).

[lxxviii] Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," qtd. in Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 163-64.  The quote is actually Ricoeur's summary of Benjamin.


Beach, J. M.  (2013).  Title of chapter.  In 21st century literacy: Constructing & debating knowledge.  Retrieved date from


© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016