Textual Phenomenon: from surface versus “below-the-waterline” meaning(s)


The Rule:

A Sign =

anything visible and perceptible in the text

(i.e.: word, image, symbol, metaphor, phrase, or a formal feature of language or genre)

that serves as a stand-in for hidden meaning

(see Semiotic Iceberg)

  1. Signs are rule-governed. Though not always the case, they often rely on a built-in system of “reader competence.” That is, you are generally acquainted with the meaning of particular signs (such as a stop sign or an American flag) because you intuitively or natively understand that sign within a particular cultural context.

  2. A signs meaning is understood only within the context of a larger code system– cultural, historical, literary, etc. – since codes are the rules that both the transmitter and the receiver are using when they attach an interpretation of the “meaning or content to a certain sign” (Dyer 131). (i.e., apple exercise). The same sign, given a different or even slightly modified context, can accrue a different meaning! Signs are polysemic in nature: they are open and endlessly signify.

  3. All codes are socio-historical productions, and we cannot extract them from socio-cultural and linguistic-governed conventions. (Ads, for example, as transmitters of codes for class, status, desire and longing or fairytales as transmitters for gender and class codes)

  4. If codes are socio-historical productions, then they are also arbiters of ideology, mirroring and refracting the dominant mood of the culture. Ask yourself, how does the sign embed or “mask” (or even unmask) the dominant cultures ideology, outlooks, norms or values?

  5. Signs (or a relational field of signs) do not simply “mirror” reality; they shape and construct it! This is because they naturalize a particular perspective, point of view or groups ideology (naturalize means, simply, to make something appear as a given, the natural order of things).

  6. Often, authors will use well-known signs (knowing that you have a basis for interpreting them) and thwart, change, modify, twist--or denaturalize--their meaning for a particular effect (The movie Shrek, for example, is funny precisely because it goes against our build-in understanding/expectations of fairytale conventions). When the author subverts your “built-in” expectations, you have to ask, “why?” and “what effect does this have on the reader?”  What codes and conventions does the author want to excavate and bring to your attention?






(a.k.a.: “sign”/all visual cues and descriptions of the sign)


  • literary
  • linguistic/grammatical
  • cultural/sociological
  • historical
  • class/economic
  • race/ethnicity
  • gender/sexuality
  • etc.


What meaning/s does the context furnish for the sign? How is the sign a transmitter of codes for class, status, desire, longing, gender, etc? (Hint: always ask “how,” “why,” and “so what” questions)

  1. Lottery ticket (pages 4 and 86)









  1. Monkey Garden












  1. Home of Es.’s dreams

·          “white” house (4)

·         “house on the hill” (86)








  1. Descriptions of actual Mango Street house in Chapter 1(pg. 4)

·         “tight”

·         “small and red”

·         “so swollen”

·         “holding their breath”

·         “push hard to get in”


(page 5)

·         “You live there?” (repetition of “there”)




































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…


*      If the sign you identify prompts you to say, “I’ll choose this phenomenon—it will be really easy to write about,” then cross it off your list immediately.


*      Robert Frost once said, “If you aren’t surprising yourself while writing, then you’ll never surprise your reader.” Bear that in mind with your sign selection.






















The Third “I”: Interpretation

Questions to Help with the Process of “Dwelling in Analysis”


“Questions are the important thing, answers are less important. Learning to ask a good question is the heart of intelligence. Learning the answer – well, answers are for students. Questions are for thinkers.”

- R. Schank (in "The Connosseur’s Guide to the Mind")


Implicitly, these are “so what” questions, asking you to draw broader, rhetoric-stage conclusions about your sign’s multiple significances. Remember, you can never go wrong with “how,” “why,” and “so what” questions.



Interpretation cont.-

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