Breaking Down Essay 1 Topics:


Premise 1: Sign systems construct much of our reality.




Premise 2: Signs are arbiters of ideology. They help to “naturalize and reinforce particular framings of ‘the way things are’” (Daniel Chandler).




Premise 3:  The task of the critic is to “denaturalize” signs – that is, expose them as socio-lingusitic, cultural productions rather than the natural order of things (recall our example from Manifest Destiny: the idea that “God said” and therefore the notion of European supremacy is permanent and incontrovertible “reality”).




Premise 4:  Semiotics emphasizes the polysemic nature of the sign: the indefinite horizon of interpretation to which signs are open and endlessly signify.







6 Protocols for Sign Selection:


Basic / Developing

Mature / Complex

Sign offers a singular, one-dimensional


Sign contains multiple, “hidden,” even contestory significations (Consider, for example, the house in Mango Street. This sign is a visible stand-in for multiple, “hidden” meanings: in the novel, it is a marker of class, ethnic and gender oppression. Yet its meaning expands and shifts throughout the narrative to accrue positive significations as well: i.e., artistic freedom, renewal, safety, female autonomy. You would want to flesh out these meanings and, very importantly, develop conclusions that address the larger “so what” question.)

Sign points to the apparent subject matter of the text

A sign that points to the “nooks and crannies” of theme (a more focused thematic element that is more unlikely and higher on the ladder of specificity)



Sign that conveys singular perspective, singular meaning

Sign that conveys dual perspective or double meaning


HINT: Sign that seems to call a great deal of attention to itself (hint: look for repetition, juxtaposition, reverberations, “echoes” of your sign throughout the text)


HINT: Place your sign-for-analysis in broader context of the work (hint: look for interrelations of meaning, connectedness to other signs in the text and form “why” and “so what” conclusions about these patterns)


HINT: Consider the broader cultural significations of your sign (use an association chart in your brainstorming). One might associate a pink dress, for example, with femininity, whereas a gun might signify such things as masculinity, protection, hunter, etc. These signs automatically tap into common assumptions about gender. Here’s another example: in Cisneros’s novel, the shoe is clearly a salient and visible sign-for-analysis. Think about the cultural significations of the shoe in general and then contextualize this analysis by grounding it in the text (i.e., The shoe may represent such universal ideas as travel, mobility, autonomy, and journey – privileges, the novel shows, that are historically male prerogatives. The shoe is also a conflicted sign: it links, on the one hand, to the well-known Cinderella paradigm, but is also a marker of the young woman’s initiation into sexual exploitation.)


 Keep in mind…





Helpful Bridges
Between Surface Signs and the
Underlying Concepts They Point To

x reflects y
x signifies y
x symbolizes y
x suggests y
x serves as a barometer of . . .
x serves as an indicator of . . .
x connotes y
attests to
testifies to an implicit American belief in . . .
We can draw plausible associations between x and y
x illustrates
x demonstrates the typically American fascination with . . .
x is associated with y in American culture
connects to
has connections to
relates to
is a visible demarcation of economic marginalization