What does it mean to “draw a conclusion”? Conclusions are statements about what we don’t know based on what we do know. This is where inferences play a role. You already know inferences follow from the information that’s available to you. Think about the situation involving the car accident from the previous section. Here is your evidence:

You saw a car speed around a corner; you heard screeching tires followed by a loud crash; you heard the sound of cans or barrels rolling around on a hard surface. You can infer that the car you saw crashed into something and made all that noise. You can conclude that the car you saw speeding around the corner caused an accident based on the evidence that’s available to you. Did you get that?

You might be aware of how often you draw conclusions in daily life, but you may not realize how often you do it when you read. For example, an author does not always state the point or main idea of a paragraph in a topic sentence. Sometimes an author implies, or suggests, a main idea through a sequence of statements that accumulate to suggest the main idea or theme. The author leaves it up to you, the reader, to make inferences and draw conclusions based on the content and language.

Let’s look at an example in an excerpt from Eugenia Collier’s short story “Marigolds.” The story takes place in a rural African-American community in the 1930s, a period also known as the Great Depression. This decade was marked by racial segregation, devastating poverty, and high rates of unemployment. Poverty plays a big part in the theme of this excerpt. As you read, think about how poverty affects the characters and how it relates to the overall theme “hope gives us the courage to overcome adversity.”

A photograph of a large bunch of marigolds growing in a garden.

Source: Marigolds, Aruna, Wikimedia

But our real fun and our real fear lay in Miss Lottie herself. Miss Lottie seemed to be at least a hundred years old. Her big frame still held traces of the tall, powerful woman she must have been in youth, although it was now bent and drawn. Her smooth skin was a dark reddish brown, and her face had Indian-like features and the stern stoicism that one associates with Indian faces. Miss Lottie didn’t like intruders either, especially children. She never left her yard, and nobody ever visited her. We never knew how she managed those necessities which depend on human interaction—how she ate, for example, or even whether she ate. When we were tiny children, we thought Miss Lottie was a witch and we made up tales that we half believed ourselves about her exploits. We were far too sophisticated now, of course, to believe the witch nonsense. But old fears have a way of clinging like cobwebs, and so when we sighted the tumbledown shack, we had to stop to reinforce our nerves.

Miss Lottie’s marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yard. Beyond the dusty brown yard, in front of the sorry gray house, rose suddenly and shockingly a dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passionate and sun-golden. The old black witch-woman worked on them all summer, every summer, down on her creaky knees, weeding and cultivating and arranging, while the house crumbled and John Burke rocked. For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they were too beautiful; they said too much that we could not understand; they did not make sense. There was something in the vigor with which the old woman destroyed the weeds that intimidated us. It should have been a comical sight—the old woman with the man’s hat on her cropped white head, leaning over the bright mounds, her big backside in the air—but it wasn’t comical, it was something we could not name.

What conclusions can you draw from this paragraph about Miss Lottie? What can you infer about Miss Lottie based on the evidence the writer provides?

We know the following:

Additionally, we know that Miss Lottie does not like intruders and scares children. What else? We also know that she lives in a “tumbledown shack” and has no visible means of support, yet she works vigorously to keep the weeds out of her garden of bright-blossomed marigolds. What can we infer from that information? We can infer that she is poor. We don’t know that for certain, but based on the evidence, we can conclude that physical hardships associated with poverty have transformed Miss Lottie into a mean old woman who dislikes intruders, especially children. Do you see what we did? We drew conclusions based on inferences.

A photograph of a sunset in rural Alabama. There are some agricultural buildings and a house in the background.

Source: Rural Sunset, sunsurfr, Flickr

Here’s another example from a different genre. This excerpt comes from a memoir by Rick Bragg titled All Over but the Shoutin’. It’s a true story about how Bragg grew up poor in Alabama in the 1960s but was able to carve out a life for himself based on the strength of his mother’s encouragement. This excerpt shows the sacrifices that his mother made for the family and how those sacrifices are central to the overall theme “hope gives us the courage to overcome adversity.”

(My mother) did what she could to support us with her own work, her own sweat, but sometimes it was just too hard. I know it killed her deep inside to go begging, but it would have destroyed her to watch her three sons do without. She stood in line at the welfare office, stood in line for government cheese. She fawned over the church people, year after year, who showed up at Christmas with a turkey or a ham. I saw her follow them back to their big cars, thanking them, a hundred times, and walk back to the house pale and tightlipped.

I did not know then, like I know now, that my momma never ate until we were done, or maybe I did know but was too young to understand why. I did not know then that she picked all the meat out of the soup and stew and put it on our plates. I did not hear her scraping pots, pans and skillets to make her own plate, after her three little pigs ate most of what we had. But I can still see her sliding the bones off plates and gnawing them clean, after we were done, saying how she liked that meat close to the bone, that we just didn’t know what we were missing. It is not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little if she did without.

Think about the first paragraph of this excerpt. When you’re ready, make your own inferences and draw your conclusions about them by responding to the following questions:

1. What can you infer about Bragg’s mother based on evidence from the text?

She did without so that her children could eat.
She hid food from her children.
Try again.
She tried to trick them into eating food they did not like.
Try again.
She hoarded food.
Try again.

2. What can you conclude about Bragg‘s Mother based on inferences you made while reading?

She had too much pride to accept charity.
Try again.
She made sure that no matter what she had to go through, her children had enough to eat.
She was so overcome by adversity that she had given up even trying anymore.
Try again.
She was so angry about her situation that she could not focus on her family.
Try again.

3. Which of the following phrases from the text supports the main theme “hope gives us the courage to overcome adversity”?

“I did not know then, like I know now, that my momma never ate until we were done.”
Try again.
“[My mother] did what she could to support us with her own work, . . . but sometimes it was just too hard.”
Try again.
“She fawned over the church people, year after year, who showed up at Christmas with a turkey or a ham.”
Try again.
“It is not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little if she did without.”