See It In Writing and Basic Principle

Literary evidence is typically open to multiple interpretations. As a result, finding interesting textual evidence is only the first step in producing a compelling literary analysis. Even more important is how you persuasively analyze that evidence.

In a Nutshell<

Literary evidence can be interpreted in many different ways. That means that when you provide a quotation from a text as evidence, you need to be sure to explain clearly how that evidence supports your interpretation. Although there are many ways to explain literary evidence, most people writing about literature make the following moves:

  1. Introduce a quotation in a way that helps readers recognize what you want them to see in it.
  2. After you quote a text, take the time to explain exactly how the language of that quotation and the form of the passage supports the point you’re making.

What to Look For:<

Read the following paragraph from a paper on Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Robert Frost traditionally writes poems about an individual isolated in nature. Yet this is not always the case. For instance, in his most famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he writes:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (1-4) <

Therefore, this poem is not just about the “Snowy Woods” of the title.

Done<

You might think that merely quoting from the text means you are presenting evidence to support your argument. However, quotations from the text only count as evidence if they are framed within the context of your argument and linked to your claim. Quotations are never self-explanatory. You always have to interpret their place in your argument. Here are three strategies for productively presenting and interpreting evidence:

  1. You can present a common reading of the text and complicate and/or disagree with it.
  2. You can address ideas discussed in class, and push them further or complicate their assumptions.
  3. You can bring in outside evidence from scholarly resources that back up a more daring interpretation of the text.

Let’s start with option 1 above—present a common reading of the text and complicate and/or disagree with it—and see how it could be used to make a more convincing and compelling point. Your class has thoroughly discussed the issue of the isolation of the individual in nature as seen in Frost’s poem and so you want to push against this interpretation a little. Click on the highlighted sections of text for our analysis.

Robert Frost traditionally writes poems about an individual isolated in nature. Yet in spite of this recurring theme, many of Frost’s poems actually focus on the kinds of social engagements that individuals have with one another. This is the case in Frost’s most famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. In this poem’s opening stanza, Frost’s speaker seems more concerned with the owner of these woods than he is with the woods themselves:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (1-4) <

As the opening words announce, this stanza focuses primarily on the question of “whose woods” these are.< While the speaker is ostensibly alone in a natural setting, he frames this piece of nature as belonging to some owner, much like “his house” located in the village.< Therefore, the speaker must reassure himself that this unnamed owner “will not see me” trespassing on his land.< At the close of this stanza, then, the reader is very much aware that the forest is not some idealized natural environment; it is very much “his woods”—that is, the private property of someone else.< Therefore, this poem is not just about the “Snowy Woods” of the title. It is openly about someone trespassing on private property and thus transgressing social boundaries.

A good portion—but not all—of this stanza deals with questions of ownership and property. As the writer shows, according to her interpretation the narrator seems primarily concerned with “whose woods these are.” This owner, according to the writer, becomes a character in the poem even if “he” is absent. As you can see, the writer needs to explain these ideas explicitly, so that her readers can see how she draws her conclusions about this quotation.

When reading, though, you might have disagreed with this interpretation. Maybe the poem seems to be about feelings of censorship or idleness versus productivity. If that were the case, that’s okay: so long as the writer has done an effective job explaining why she thinks the words she quotes support her claim, then her interpretation remains plausible.

This reading is only one way to approach the passage. Here are some additional examples of ways to use these strategies as interpretive frameworks for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

A) Frost often writes about the ways that nature threatens the individual. The threat, though, often arises from anxieties about surveillance and social ties—two aspects of modern life from which nature is supposed to be a retreat—rather than the challenges of the elements. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the loneliness of nature supposedly protects the speaker from the prying eyes of others, and the speaker reassures himself that the owner of the land on which he is trespassing, “will not see me here.”<

B) While Frost is often described as a poet who is interested in the aesthetics of nature rather than its politics, one of his most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” addresses the changing property laws that transformed the culture and landscape of America. Morton Horwitz argues that in the early nineteenth century “the idea of property underwent a fundamental transformation—from a static agrarian conception entitling an owner to undisturbed enjoyment, to a dynamic, instrumental, and more abstract view of property that emphasized the newly paramount virtues of productive use and development” (The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860, p. 31) The speaker of Frost’s poem endorses this more pragmatic view of property when he justifies his trespass on private property by saying, “He will not see me stopping here.” The owner’s ignorance of the violation of his property rights is not important, because the trespasser is not harming the property, and merely putting it to use.<

The Basic Principle<

As evidence, a passage from a poem or a novel works very differently than other kinds of data. That’s because literary evidence is rarely treated as an absolute fact that directly proves a point. Instead, most readers see literature as requiring interpretation before it can support an argument. This means that when you write about literature, you need to explain the specific language of your evidence more thoroughly than if you’re mentioning, say, an historical event.

Look at the following passage from one of William Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. In this quotation, the speaker writes about love:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date… (Sonnets 18, ll.1-4)<

What kind of point does this passage prove? If you’re like most readers, you’d find that question pretty confusing. In fact, you probably found these four lines difficult to understand at all. That’s because we provided no explanation of this quotation—no extra writing telling you what to look out for or what these lines mean. If you introduce your evidence like this when you’re writing about literature, your readers will be similarly confused.

Introduce a quotation in a way that helps readers recognize what you want them to see in it.

The first step in using this quotation as evidence is to make sure that it’s proving a point you make—that the quotation is actively demonstrating something. Let’s look at the same example, only now with this sort of introduction:

In sonnet 18, the speaker doesn’t focus on how his lover is like a beautiful summer day. Instead, he clearly emphasizes the shortcomings of such a comparison:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date… (Sonnets 18, ll.1-4)<

You probably had an easier time making sense of these four lines with just a little bit of introduction. That’s because the writer of this paper also makes an assertion—a local claim or interpretation—about the passage she’s quoting. That quotation makes more sense because it can now be seen as evidence of a specific interpretation.

When you offer a passage from a literary text, one good way to start is by stating the point you want to make about that quotation. That way, your readers will have a clearer sense of what that quotation is about even before they read it. Importantly, they’ll also understand that quotation as evidence of an argument that you’re making.

After you quote a text, explain exactly how the language of that quotation supports the point you’re making.

Setting up the quotation is only the first step. By proposing an interpretation of the quotation you’re about to provide, you can help readers get a sense of what it means when they read it. This by itself though isn’t enough: you’ll also need to explain exactly what it is about your evidence that supports your local claim.

Let’s look at the above example, only with a full explanation of the quotation afterwards:

In sonnet 18, the speaker doesn’t focus on how his lover is like a beautiful summer day. Instead, he clearly emphasizes the shortcomings of such a comparison:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date… (Sonnets 18, ll.1-4)<

Here the speaker proposes a comparison between his addressee and a summer day—only he does so in the form of a question: “Shall I” make this comparison, he asks? The use of the question, rather than an assertion, becomes significant because the question form allows for doubt. As one reads further, it becomes clear that he should not have done so, because this comparison does not do justice to his beloved. That beloved, Shakespeare notes, is “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day, making the conceit a false one. He returns to this idea in the fourth line, where he explains that summer’s “lease”—that is, its length—has “too short a date.” Unlike the beauty of his addressee, summer’s loveliness is impermanent. Shakespeare only compares his beloved to the summer in order to reject that comparison as false, imperfect, and unworthy of the person to whom he speaks.

While the introductory sentences provide a useful context for reading and understanding this quotation, the quotation alone doesn’t fully support the writer’s interpretation of it. Indeed, you can see how complicated it is to show that opening assertion by looking at the explanation that follows the quotation. That explanation goes through the quotation line by line explaining how its specific words and phrases make the point that this writer is trying to make.

This writer has to focus on specific parts of the quotation at hand—note, for example, how it emphasizes parts of lines 1, 2, and 4, but leaves line 3 alone. That’s because line 3 simply illustrates a point already raised. While it might be crucial evidence for a different interpretation (one that focuses, say, on nature imagery), it doesn’t add much to this writer’s argument. When you go to explain evidence, you have to be similarly selective in order to help your reader focus on the specific words and phrases that matter to your argument.

Close reading is a good safeguard against misinterpretation: if you’re really paying attention to the words, form, and figurative language used in a passage, then you won’t make the mistake of trying to force a literary work to say something that it is not saying. Close readings can also make your larger argument more complex: they allow you to spot parts of the text where a pattern is broken, or even to find evidence that contradicts your claim so that you can think more comprehensively and fully about what you think the text is doing.

Literature, as you can see, requires careful attention to detail—otherwise it might not make much sense at all. When you’re writing about literature, then, you’ll need to be ready not just to find evidence that supports your larger argument. You’ll also need to interpret that evidence for your reader, and explain how its details support your interpretation.