An inference is a deduction made using the available facts (or what seem to be facts). Often, inferences are regarded as rational but “non-logical.” This means that the facts are rationally understood and deduced but, perhaps, the conclusion is not as logical as it seems. For example, two people might look at the same situation and come up with different rational interpretations of events but neither may be logical.
Definition of Inference
Inferences are an important part of everyday conversations, as well as literary works. They can be found in conversations among friends, family members, colleagues, and professionals. Writers can include them in everything from a narrative poem to a novella. Often, inductions are used in dialogue and readers won’t think anything about them. They don’t always stick out as a clear literary device. That is because they are such a common part of everyday life.
For instance, consider the following example. “I haven’t heard from him today so he must be busy.” This is a rational conclusion based on the fact that someone “hasn’t heard” from another person but that doesn’t mean it’s true. He could be ignoring the speaker, been in an accident, lost his means of communication, etc. Or, in another example, “She always loves to eat sweets, she’ll enjoy this new kind of chocolate.” Again, while this is rational, it’s not necessarily true.
When it comes to literature, a writer might include an example like those above in their writing. But, inferences are also used another way. Readers are constantly making inferences about characters, the plot, and the setting while they read (just as people do in everyday life.) They can be good or bad, completely illogical, or only slightly. It usually depends on a reader’s preconceptions of a situation as to whether or not they’ll come up with a truly logical conclusion.
Examples of Inference in Literature
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
In this incredibly famous short story, Hemingway demonstrates his iceberg theory of writing (in which more is hidden beneath the surface than is revealed by the characters or writer). He uses language sparingly, providing hints of detail in regard to who the two characters are and what the central conflict is. They are discussing something that requires inferences to understand. Here are a few lines:
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
The girl did not say anything.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
In these lines, the female character, Jig, and the man are talking about an “operation.” This procedure is never named. Most readers come to the conclusion that the two are talking about the girl getting an abortion she doesn’t really want to have. This short story is a true representation of Hemingway’s skill with language and what makes him one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In Fitzgerald’s well-loved novel, The Great Gatsby, there are numerous literary devices readers can take note of. Among these is an example of a passage that requires readers to make an inference. As the novel starts to draw to a close, readers are confronted with the fact that Gatsby has been murdered. The following lines are suggestive of that fact, even though they don’t clearly state it. Readers who are closely following the events of the novel will likely be able to make the jump, inferring that Gatsby is dead.
A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of compass, a thin red circle in the water.
It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.
These lines are a great example of how writers allow readers to make inferences about the plot and characters. By continually engaging the reader this way, they won’t ever lose interest in the events of the novel. They’ll want to know if their inferences are correct or not and will therefore continue reading.
Othello by William Shakespeare
In the following lines, Iago is speaking with Barbantio. He describes Othello negatively, trying to ensure that Barbantio will make certain inferences about him.
Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!
In these lines, Iago is alluding to Othello taking Barbantio’s white daughter, Desdemona. He’s the “black ram” and she the “white ewe” that’s been stolen from her father.
Related Literary Terms
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Riddle: tricky phrases or questions that have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.