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1.5 Reading texts literally and figuratively

4 min readjanuary 25, 2023

ChristineLing

ChristineLing


AP English Literature 📚

145 resources
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Introduction

Welcome to study guide 1.5! Here, we’ll be looking at how to read…which sounds kind of silly but bear with me.
There’s a difference between reading literally and figuratively, especially when it comes to fiction that may have many different meanings based on a reader’s interpretation. You’ll learn how to interpret fiction in different ways, and the reasons for doing so.

Note: references to “The Stranger” by Albert Camus will be made in this guide.

Reading Literally

Reading literally means interpreting the text in its most basic and straightforward sense, without any added interpretation or inference. This approach can be useful when reading texts that are very straightforward and simple in nature, such as children's literature, news articles, or instructional manuals.
It can also be used when interpreting texts that are meant to convey a clear message or a specific set of information, such as news articles, instructions, or scientific reports. When reading such texts, it's important to focus on the main idea, the facts presented, and the context in which they are presented. It's less important to focus on literary devices such as symbolism, imagery, or figurative language.
Let’s use Albert Camus' book "The Stranger” as an example of reading literally. When reading "The Stranger" literally, you would focus on the surface-level story of the protagonist, Meursault, and his experiences. This includes his mother's death, his relationship with Marie, and his trial and conviction for murder. You would understand the story as a simple sequence of events, rather than looking for symbolism or deeper themes.
Reading "The Stranger" literally would also mean understanding the characters' actions and motivations as they are presented in the text, without trying to find deeper meaning or symbolism in them. For example, Meursault's detachment and emotional removal from the world would be seen as a simple character trait, rather than a symbol for a deeper theme.
It's important to note that reading a text literally doesn't mean that it's a wrong way of reading or that the text is not rich in meaning. It's just a different perspective, and it might be useful when one is trying to understand the plot, characters or the setting of the story, or when one is learning a new language

Reading Figuratively

Reading figuratively means interpreting the text in a way that goes beyond its literal meaning, often using symbolism, metaphor, or other literary devices. Many times, authors are writing with the intention of exploring deeper themes, emotions, and ideas. They incorporate depth into their writing. Essentially, everything is not necessarily as it seems.
Here are some tips on reading and analyzing literature figuratively:
  • Pay attention to literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, and imagery. These can be used to convey deeper meaning and themes in the text.
  • Look for repeated words, symbols, and imagery in the text, and try to understand what they might represent
  • Consider the context, the author's background, and the literary movements of the time. This will help in understanding the deeper meaning and themes in the text.
  • Remember that analyzing literature figuratively can give you a more comprehensive understanding of the text and the author's intent. So, keep an open mind and don't be afraid to dig deeper and think critically about what you're reading.
Let’s look at "The Stranger” again, but this time, we’ll try to read it figuratively. First, the protagonist Meursault is often described as being detached and emotionally removed from the world around him. This detachment is symbolized by his frequent use of the word "nothing," and his lack of reaction to the death of his mother, which is a significant event in the novel.
Another example to look at figuratively is the trial in the book, which can be seen as a representation of the absurdity of human existence, a central theme in the book. The trial is a metaphor for the meaninglessness of human existence, as the proceedings are irrational and Meursault is convicted for an emotionless crime.

Which One to Use?

When reading short fiction (or any type of literature) don't just stick to the surface level, it's often more complex and layered than other types of texts. Short fiction literature usually uses all sorts of literary devices like symbolism, metaphor, and imagery to convey deeper meaning and explore themes, so just reading it at face value might not give you the full picture. To truly get a handle on the story and the author's message, it's important to consider both the literal and figurative meanings of the text. Pay attention to details like word choice, imagery, and symbolism and you'll get a deeper understanding of the story.
This is not to say reading literally doesn’t have its place. But while thinking about reading in the context of AP Lit, it’s usually best to read figuratively. That way, you can identify textual details to later use while writing about the work.

Conclusion

Reading literature can be done in different ways, like reading it literally or figuratively. Reading literally means interpreting the text in its most basic and straightforward sense, without any added interpretation or inference. This approach is useful for simple texts like children's literature or news articles. Reading figuratively means interpreting the text in a way that goes beyond its literal meaning, using symbolism, metaphor, or other literary devices. This approach is useful for texts that have deeper meaning and themes. When reading short fiction, it's important to consider both the literal and figurative meanings of the text and pay attention to details like word choice, imagery, and symbolism to get a deeper understanding of the story. Reading figuratively is usually best when analyzing literature for AP Lit.
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🤔Exam Skills
🌱Unit 1 – Intro to Short Fiction
Unit 2 – Intro to Poetry
🎭Unit 3 – Intro to Longer Fiction & Drama
⚔️Unit 4 – Character, Conflict, & Storytelling in Short Fiction
🌈Unit 5 – Structure & Figurative Language in Poetry
🛠️Unit 6 – Literary Techniques in Longer Works
🏛️Unit 7 – Societal & Historical Context in Short Fiction
🤾🏾‍♀️Unit 8 – Advanced Techniques in Poetry
🚣🏾Unit 9 – Nuanced Analysis in Longer Works

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