Close Reading Lesson

ENG 203: Close Reading and Analysis

What is close reading? A careful and purposeful analysis of a text (i.e. you are making an argument)

A breakdown:

  1. WHAT? Summarize a passage—what is happening? What is the author trying to communicate (basic plot and larger themes)?
  2. HOW? How does the author use certain literary techniques and/or devices to get his/her point across?
  3. WHY? Why are these techniques/devices effective or not? Why do the techniques/devices affect a reader in a certain way? Do they confuse the reader? Enlighten the reader? Make the reader feel an emotion?

Steps to close reading:

  1. Read a text: with pen in hand, underline things that seem interesting; circle difficult or unique words/sentence structure; identify interesting images, similes, metaphors, personification, narration, use of punctuation, themes, or other techniques.
  2. Re-read the text
  3. Focus on a particular passage or part of the text
  4. Re-read that passage
  5. Summarize it, identify literary devices/techniques, and analyze it using the questions above

Now, let’s try it: “TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”

In this opening paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” [here, I have identified the text, author, and placement of the quote] the narrator begins speaking to the reader about madness and an unspecified disease, and claims that he is not insane; instead, the disease itself has “sharpened” his “senses,” specifically his sense of hearing, and he now feels that he can hear all things “in the heaven and the earth” (n. pag.). The narrator uses this fact as a defense that he is not insane. [Here, I have summarized the quotation and included key words and phrases in quotation marks—and I’ve cited them!] The most interesting thing about this passage, though, is not that the narrator claims to be sane, but the way that Poe uses punctuation to show that the narrator is, despite what he says, insane. [Here, I’ve identified the element in the passage that I’ll focus on for my close reading.] In this small passage, Poe uses five dashes, two exclamation points, and a question mark. Normally, to end a sentence in a calm way, an author will use a period; Poe’s use of exclamation points and question marks, however, adds an emotional bent to the passage. Further, Poe’s use of dashes adds a sense of urgency to the passage: ““TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous” (n. pag.). Here, the dashes force the reader to pause, the all caps of “TRUE” compel the reader to imagine an emotional outburst, the repetition of “very” adds emphasis to the idea of nervousness, and the word “dreadfully” imbues the passage with a sense of intense fear. [Here, I’ve broken down a small chunk of text—not even a whole sentence—and demonstrated what it does to the reader]

How to construct a thesis for a close reading:

  1. A thesis must make an argument—not state a fact or an opinion
  2. A strong argument will 1) identify one or more literary techniques and devices, and 2) make an explicit claim on how those techniques affect the reader
  3. A thesis does NOT have to be only one sentence
  4. EXAMPLE: Edgar Allan Poe’s use of varied punctuation and narrative interjections reveal the narrator’s insanity; however, through these literary techniques, Poe forces the reader to continue reading, thus making him or her feel sympathy toward the narrator.

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