In this post, I want to address one of the biggest FAQs I get about the study and appreciation of literature:
How does one ‘read between the lines’?
It seems exasperating for many that characters can’t ever just say what they mean, or that poets always seem to speak in metaphorical parseltongue. Who cares why Shakespeare used chiasmus and paradox to achieve emotional effects, you ask, and how is this going to help me in life?!
Seriously, who cares?
The importance of reading between the lines
In terms of “who cares”: if you’re a student, then technically your English examiners and teachers care (and therefore you should also care), because the ability to read between the lines is the single most important skill any English student should possess, and the one that separates the wheat from the chaff.
If you’re not a student, it doesn’t hurt to be good at ‘reading between the lines’, because people in real life don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say. Still, they often expect you to somehow ‘just get it’, as if secret codes and implied messages are all just part of normal human conversation. This goes for parents, friends, spouses, bosses, colleagues etc., so reading for meaning is, in a way, a matter of social survival.
The real question, then, lies in the ‘how’.
How does one ‘read for meaning’?
The honest (but not very useful) answer is this: strive to be a more curious, observant human being, i.e. someone who’s actively observant to the ways people speak, the decisions people make, the actions people carry out, and the feelings people show. Just be curious about people, really, because literature is all about people, despite the linguistic gimmickry and structural smokescreens.
But I’m here to offer more practicable, applicable solutions, so below are 2 approaches that you can consider adopting to ‘read between the lines’, be it in poetry, prose, or even real life.
1) Put yourself in the situation described
Apply empathy. Whenever you read a book or poem, imagine yourself as the character(s) or the speaker. It’s actually kind of fun, especially if the character is wildly different from yourself.
To illustrate how this is done, here’s an excerpt from Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ (1936) (click here to read the full text):
Macomber’s wife had not looked at him [Macomber] nor he at her and he had sat by her in the back seat with Wilson sitting in the front seat. Once he had reached over and taken his wife’s hand without looking at her and she had removed her hand from his. […]
Okay, some context: Francis Macomber, the protagonist, is the wealthy but wimpy husband of Margot Macomber, a fiesty, beautiful woman who cares quite a bit about men being ‘masculine’ (which her husband, alas, isn’t…). The couple have just returned from a thwarted Safari hunting expedition, where Francis Macomber failed to hunt down a lion (out of fear, out of cowardice, out of sheer concern for his life), and had to rely on their facilitator, Wilson, to take the animal out.
If you were Macomber’s wife, how would you feel?
- All of the above
For most women, I’d wager that 4) would probably be the answer. Why? Notice three things about the scenario in the excerpt:
- The wife is avoiding eye contact with her husband (“Macomber’s wife had not looked at him”);
- She doesn’t want him to touch her (“she had removed her hand from his”);
- There is no verbal interaction between husband and wife in the scene, despite their physical proximity.
Now, think about a time when you tried to avoid eye contact, touch and interaction with someone, or a time when someone had let you down, then recall how you felt (or imagine how you would feel in such a situation).
And what of Francis, the husband? If you were him, and you’ve just failed at the one thing that your wife cares most about (i.e. her husband showing some macho guts and hunting down that damn lion), how would you feel?
Well, probably not all that different from your wife… except in this case, all of the pissedness, embarrassment, regret that you’d feel would be more self-directed, and perhaps even stronger. More than anything, you’d feel humiliated, because not only did you fail to hunt the lion down and live up to social expectations of ‘masculinity’, your wife’s visible disappointment makes your failure doubly difficult to swallow.
So you’d be angry at yourself, but also angry at your wife for being so angry at you, which is arguably the worst kind of emotional knot to be in.
And so we’re able to glean all this information about the character’s emotions even when the excerpt is wholly focused on describing actions (notice that there isn’t a single emotion-based word in the passage), precisely because we can step into the situation and realise we would have felt the same way as Margot and Francis if we had been caught in a similar scenario, and that we’ve all been our own versions of Margot Macomber and Francis Macomber at some point in our lives.
2) Pay attention to details
When it comes to poetry, reading between the lines is pretty much the modus operandi. So if you’re someone who tends to take things literally, you’ll most likely have a hard time understanding poems.
That said, all hope is not lost, because the devil is often in the details with poetry, so even when a poem seems indecipherable, it pays a lot to pay that extra bit of attention to each and every word in the text.
To show you what I mean, let’s read the first stanza of a poem called ‘The Flea’ (1633), written by the Renaissance Metaphysical poet John Donne:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
At first glance, the persona tells his addressee about a flea that has bitten both of them, having “sucked me first, and now sucks thee”. Gross as it may be, the situation seems simple enough to grasp, if not slightly bizarre (who writes a poem about flea bites..?!)
Notice, however, Donne’s grave diction in the line, “A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead”, and it should immediately seem strange that an issue as trivial as a flea bite should warrant such heavy terms as “sin” or “shame”. And what does, eh, losing one’s virginity (“maidenhead”) have anything to do with an insect bite?! Also, why is the persona so obsessed with blood, and the mingling of bloods?
At this point, it would do us some good to compile these seemingly disjointed details into a list:
What do we know about the stanza?
- Presence of two people
- Reference to a flea
- Biting of skins
- Mingling of bloods
- Suggestion of sinful activities
- Possibility of shameful feelings
- But also hints of ‘enjoyment’
- Loss of maidenhood / virginity
It’s not hard to spot the odd one here. Could it be, then, that the flea is really just a figurative vehicle – a metaphor – which the persona uses to convince the addressee to sleep with him? What initially came across as the obvious narrative of the poem – a flea biting two people – is immediately revealed to be the proscenium curtain behind which lurks a less entomological and more erotic ‘Second Act’.
As such, by paying attention to the lexical details in the first stanza of the poem, we understand that we’re dealing with a lewd, pervy man who’s imagining a vicarious devouring of a young girl, while presenting an elaborate, if not somewhat disingenuous, ‘case’ for why she should shack up with him.
The second stanza gets even more ridiculous –
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Isn’t this dude such a hoot? He’s playing mind games with the poor young girl, and on the back of some shoddy reasoning, too. Since the flea has sucked both our blood, he argues, we’re essentially now “one blood made of two” and practically married anyway (“almost, nay more than married are”).
And don’t kill me for saying this, he cautions, because if “this flea is you and I”, then we are both the flea and you are me, so if you kill me you’ll effectively be killing yourself too, in effect committing “self-murder”.
Confused? Amused? Either way, you can’t deny that Donne’s dirty mind is also a hilariously witty one.
So there you go, next time you read a poem or analyse a prose excerpt, put yourself in the situation portrayed and pay extra attention to the details. That should help set you on the right path, if not open up some surprising interpretative avenues…
Message me here if you have specific questions, or need help with analysing a specific text!