Close Reading Assignments
A Close Reading (or Explication de texte) operates on the premise that any artistic creation will be more fully understood and appreciated to the extent that the nature and interrelations of its parts are perceived, and that that understanding will take the form of insight into the theme of the work in question. This kind of work must be done before you can begin to appropriate any theoretical or specific approach."1
To explicate comes from the Latin explicare, to unfold, to fold out, or to make clear the meaning of. A close reading is thus in some ways the literary equivalent of what William Diebold has called formal analysis. When you close read, you observe facts and details about the text. Your aim may be to notice all striking features of the text, including rhetorical features, structural elements, cultural references or allusions. A close reading should be more than a list of devices, though. The essay should move from observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. What do these data add up to mean?2
This assignment has three primary objectives.
- The assignment encourages you to be a better and more careful reader.
- It asks you to employ the tools you heard used in lecture and probably have employed yourself in conference: analysis of speaker, diction, figurative language, sound, and genre to name a few.
- It engages you in the act of synthesis. Even as you divide the passage or object poem into its composite elements, you will want to discuss how those elements come together to form a whole. As writer Diane Hacker points out, division--like classification--should be made "according to some principle": she notes, "to divide a tree into roots, trunk, branches, and leaves makes sense; to list its components as branches, wood, water, and sap does not, for the categories overlap" (and seem random and disconnected).3 Your essay should reveal how the parts of the passage or object, like the parts of a tree, relate and form a totality.
Requirements: What does a Close Reading Essay Usually Have?
A thesis that is an assertion about the meaning and function of the text. It must be something you can argue for and prove in your essay.
Evidence from the text. What specific words or phrases led you to have the ideas you express? Quote them.
Analysis of that evidence. If the work were self-evident you could just turn in the book or image as your proof. Literally thousands of people have had thousands of different ideas about the words or details you mention. Explain how you arrived at your ideas.
Need More Help?
A. Edgar Roberts' Tips on Close Readings of Passages4
Edgar Roberts provides the following useful questions for close readings of passages based on their location in a narrative. You might want to pick one passage and apply this strategy:
- For an Early Passage: Does the passages occur early in the work? If it does, you may reasonably expect that the author is using the passage to set things in motion. Thus you should try to determine how ideas, themes, characterizations, and arguments that you find in the passage are related to these matters as they appear later in the work. You may assume that everything in the passage is there for a purpose. Try to find that purpose.
- For a Later, Midpoint Passage: Does the passage come later in the work, at a time that you might characterize as a "pivot" or "turning point"? In such a passage a character's fortunes take either an expected or unexpected turn. If the change is expected, you should explain how the passage focuses the various themes or ideas and then propels them toward the climax. If the change is unexpected, however, it is necessary to show how the contrast is made in the passage. It may be that the work is one that features surprises, and that the passage thus is read one way at first but on second reading may be seen to have a double meaning. Or it may be that the speaker has had one set of assumptions while the readers have had others, and that the passage marks a point of increasing self-awareness on the part of the speaker. Many of the part of works are not what they seem at first reading, and it is your task here to determine how the passage is affected by events at or near the end of the work.
- For a Concluding Passage:If the passage occurs at or near the end of the work, you may assume that it is designed to solve problems or to be a focal point or climax for all the situations and ideas that have been building up in the work. You may need to show how the passage brings together all themes, ideas, and details. What is happening? Is any action described in the passage a major action, or a step leading to the major action? Has everything in the passage been prepared for earlier in the work?
B. Patricia Kain's How to Begin (Writing Center at Harvard University)5
- Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text.
"Annotating" means underlining or highlighting key words and phrases--anything that strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions--as well as making notes in the margins. When we respond to a text in this way, we not only force ourselves to pay close attention, but we also begin to think with the author about the evidence--the first step in moving from reader to writer.
Here's a sample passage by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley. It's from his essay called "The Hidden Teacher." . . . I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider. It happened far away on a rainy morning in the West. I had come up a long gulch looking for fossils, and there, just at eye level, lurked a huge yellow-and-black orb spider, whose web was moored to the tall spears of buffalo grass at the edge of the arroyo. It was her universe, and her senses did not extend beyond the lines and spokes of the great wheel she inhabited. Her extended claws could feel every vibration throughout that delicate structure. She knew the tug of wind, the fall of a raindrop, the flutter of a trapped moth's wing. Down one spoke of the web ran a stout ribbon of gossamer on which she could hurry out to investigate her prey.
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.
- Look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text--repetitions, contradictions, similarities.
What do we notice in the previous passage? First, Eiseley tells us that the orb spider taught him a lesson, thus inviting us to consider what that lesson might be. But we'll let that larger question go for now and focus on particulars--we're working inductively. In Eiseley's next sentence, we find that this encounter "happened far away on a rainy morning in the West." This opening locates us in another time, another place, and has echoes of the traditional fairy tale opening: "Once upon a time . . .". What does this mean? Why would Eiseley want to remind us of tales and myth? We don't know yet, but it's curious. We make a note of it.
Details of language convince us of our location "in the West"-- gulch, arroyo, and buffalo grass. Beyond that, though, Eiseley calls the spider's web "her universe" and "the great wheel she inhabited," as in the great wheel of the heavens, the galaxies. By metaphor, then, the web becomes the universe, "spider universe." And the spider, "she," whose "senses did not extend beyond" her universe, knows "the flutter of a trapped moth's wing" and hurries "to investigate her prey." Eiseley says he could see her "fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle." These details of language, and others, characterize the "owner" of the web as thinking, feeling, striving--a creature much like ourselves. But so what?
- Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed--especially how and why.
To answer some of our own questions, we have to look back at the text and see what else is going on. For instance, when Eiseley touches the web with his pencil point--an event "for which no precedent existed"--the spider, naturally, can make no sense of the pencil phenomenon: "Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas." Of course, spiders don't have ideas, but we do. And if we start seeing this passage in human terms, seeing the spider's situation in "her universe" as analogous to our situation in our universe (which we think of as the universe), then we may decide that Eiseley is suggesting that our universe (the universe) is also finite, that our ideas are circumscribed, and that beyond the limits of our universe there might be phenomena as fully beyond our ken as Eiseley himself--that "vast impossible shadow"--was beyond the understanding of the spider.
But why vast and impossible, why a shadow? Does Eiseley mean God, extra-terrestrials? Or something else, something we cannot name or even imagine? Is this the lesson? Now we see that the sense of tale telling or myth at the start of the passage, plus this reference to something vast and unseen, weighs against a simple E.T. sort of interpretation. And though the spider can't explain, or even apprehend, Eiseley's pencil point, that pencil point is explainable--rational after all. So maybe not God. We need more evidence, so we go back to the text--the whole essay now, not just this one passage--and look for additional clues. And as we proceed in this way, paying close attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we engage in a process that is central to essay writing and to the whole academic enterprise: in other words, we reason toward our own ideas.
For more detailed suggestions, see Steps for Close Reading or Explication de texte: Patterns, polarities, problems, paradigm, puzzles, perception
- Sylvan Barnet's Questions Art Historians Ask About Art6
- What is my first response to the work? (Later you may modify or even reject this response, but begin by trying to study it.)
- Where and when was the work made? Does it reveal qualities that the critical articles attribute to the culture? (Don't assume that it does; works of art have a way of eluding easy generalizations.)
- Where would the work originally have been seen? (Surely not in a museum or textbook.)
- What purpose did the work serve? To glorify a god? To immortalize a man? To teach? To delight? Does the work present a likeness, or express a feeling, or illustrate a mystery?
- In what condition has the work survived? Is it exactly as it left the artist's hands, or has it been damaged, repaired, or in some way altered? What evidence of change do I see?
- What is the title? Does it help illuminate the work? Sometimes it is useful to ask yourself, what would I call the work?
C. Questions Art Historians Ask About Vases (courtesy of Marcus Verhagen)
- How would the figure(s) depicted on the vase have been identifiable to its contemporary audience? What are their characteristic features (i.e. make the figures not merely generic men or women)? These features might be related to age, class, history, or mythology.
- If there are several scenes depicted on the vase, how are they linked (thematically and visually)? What formal features (lines, objects, etc.) are used to separate them? If there are bands, how do the bands relate to one another? Is there a narrative or visual link between the bands?
- Do any of the figures appear to be moving? What are the pictorial conventions that indicate movement?
- If there is a battle scene (or another large social gathering), how does the artists convey lots of people even though we only see a few people?
- What is the relationship between the figures and the background? Does the scene appear three-dimensional and if so, how does the artist achieve this effect?
- How is line used to indicate volume or depth?
1The Literary Link. Ed. Janice E. Patten. June 2, 1998. San Jose State University Web Site. 17 Sept. 2003. .
2Patricia Kain, "How to Do a Close Reading," 1998. Harvard University Writing Center Web Site. 17 Sept. 2003.
3Diane Hacker. The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd. ed. Boson: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991. 91.
4Edgar Roberts. Writing Themes About Literature, 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1983: 187-88.
5Patricia Kain, "How to Do a Close Reading," 1998. Harvard University Writing Center Web Site. 17 Sept. 2003.
6Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art . Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.: 21-22