Close Reading Literature

Close reading may seem a foreign and unfamiliar approach to analyzing a piece of text. However, this process often yields insights that will help you to create a unique paper developed from your own interpretation of the text. To analyze the work effectively, one must concentrate on specific components of literature used to build and reveal the themes in the work. This process will help you explain how a passage relates to central themes in the text allowing you to reach an intelligent and creative thesis for a literary analysis—that will demonstrate your brilliance, not bore the professor to tears.

First, choose a passage (or a series of passages) that intrigues you. Read each passage several times, underline words and phrases that grab your attention. Then think about why these words draw you into the passage. Here are some central elements in literature that will help you think about the text critically. What does the passage(s) say about:

1) WASIC (writer, author, subject, intention, context): Although all you need is the text in front of you to formulate your thesis (i.e., judgment), knowing the literary conventions of the time the work was written in might help you identify why the particular passage caught your attention. Does it depart from conventions? Or does it perfect or expand existing conventions? How and why? What historical trends, social norms, or political events are behind the actions of or thoughts of the characters? Are they embedded in the themes?

2) Characters, Persona, and Point of View: Who is speaking in the passage? The narrator (perhaps unreliable), the protagonist, the antagonist, or a new or minor character? Is the passage written in first, second, or third (omniscient or limited omniscient) narrative? Does the passage reveal something new about the motivations of a character? What is the character’s tone in the text? How is the tone developed? Why do they assume that tone? Does the selected text mark a departure from a particular character usual attitudes and actions about something?

3) STD (style, tone, diction): Analyzing the literal and figurative meaning of the characters’ (or author’s) choice of words (diction: haute, base, vernacular, Latinate, Anglo-Saxon, idiom, dialect, archaism) can help you determine the tone and underlying theme the passage addresses. Look up the definitions of words that stand out to you. Does the word have multiple meanings (i.e., denotation vs. connotation)? If so how does it enrich or expand your understanding of the themes and characters of the work? What is the effect of the connotative meanings on the tone?

4) Imagery, Similes, Metaphors, Motifs, Symbols, Allusions, Mood: Does the scene grab your attention because of the reappearance or repetition of a specific word, object, or action? Does it symbolize a character, a theme, or an idea? Why would the author choose to repeat that particular word or object? Is the symbolism used to build an allegory? What allusions does the writer employ? How do these allusions relate to the text? How and when is imagery used (S3T2)? Does a kind of lyricism exist within the text?

5) Conflict: What is the point of tension in the passage? Specifically which kind: external or internal? Man vs. man, vs. self, vs. society, vs. nature, vs. technology, vs. the supernatural? Does the conflict in your particular passage relate directly or indirectly to a larger conflict in the text? Is the conflict internal in which a character struggles with psychological, philosophical, metaphysical, emotional, or moral issues within the psyche? Or is it an external conflict in which a character battles against nature, society, or another character outside the psyche? How does the conflict reinforce and build themes in the novel as a whole?

6) Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Formatting: Do not overlook the obvious. Does the author make use of intriguing paragraph layout or have one sentence paragraphs. When does she enlist italics or quotes? Does she begin sentences with conjunctions or catalogue information? When are declarative, imperative, or interrogative sentences used and why? Are her sentences long or short and what effect does this have upon the rhythm of the piece? Is the writer intentionally creating fragments, run-ons, comma splices, fused sentences and the like—or is she opting for colons and semicolons and why? Always the question is why?

7) Arguments and appeals: What is the writer’s argument? Is that argument explicit or implicit? What assumptions does the writer make? Is there an enthymeme (i.e., an unstated assumption)? Does this naturally lead you to petitio principii or “begging the question”? What types of appeals are used (i.e., logos, ethos, pathos)?

Creating Your Argument:

At this point, the larger argument of your reading of the passage should begin to emerge. You want your thesis to grow out of an observation that you have made about the text. Your thesis should explain how the components of your passage relate to the text as a whole. Here are some helpful tips to remember when composing your thesis:

• Your thesis must make an arguable statement about the text. Quite simply, make sure your thesis does not just summarize or paraphrase your observations about the passage, but instead makes a statement that can be challenged by another person’s analysis.

• Use your text as evidence to back up your claim. The good news is that in most cases you will not need a secondary resource for your analysis. You will find that a single sentence can have multiple layers that will take you toward the core themes of the work.

• Focus on details. This will not only help you narrow the scope of your argument but will also create a thesis that is unique to your reading of the work. Make sure you include germane citations and explain the significance of each.

• Question everything. After each observation, ask yourself why and how it reveals the larger meaning, especially in relation to effect. Your observations should lead you to a conclusion about the meaning and value of the text. What about the author’s work demands refutation?

• Reread your assignment prompt to make sure your paper covers all the issues your professor has instructed you to address—adhering exactly to MLA style.

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