Drama as Literature (EL 250)

31 Aug 2005

Close Reading

A close reading is a careful, thorough, sustained examination of the words that make up a text. (It's the first "R" in the "RRRR" sequence.)

A close reading is really a re-reading. You look closely at it.

  1. You will probably want to read your text once through fairly quickly, highlighting unfamiliar words or puzzling details (or marking them with sticky notes, if you're reading a library book).
  2. Go back and look more carefully at the places you marked. Did the ending explain some of the things you initially found puzzling? Do you see any recurring patterns?
  3. Once you have a sense of what you think is important, go through the text again, this time searching specifically for more of whatever caught your eye.
  4. Once you have identified the details that you find interesting, you should come up with a thesis -- a non-obvious claim, supported with direct quotations from the material you are studying. (It is not enough merely to write down a list of isolated observations, in the order they popped into your head.)

When you write a close reading, you should assume that your reader is not only familiar with the text you are examining, but has a copy of it within reach.

Generally speaking, the author of a close reading does not retell the plot. Neither is it necessary to profile the characters, give advice to the playwright, or share your personal musings. Neither does a close reading use a literary work to make general claims about the outside world -- ("racism is bad" or "women have come a long way").

What does a close reading do?

It might look closely at a monologue or brief scene, such as Hamlet's encounter with his father's ghost, and analyze the explicit plot points and the subtle foreshadowing contained in that scene. It might examine all the kinds of containers that appear in "Heart in the Ground," or a particular theme, such as the traditional gender roles seen in the play.

What words did the author choose, what do they mean, and what function do they serve? In what ways is word order and grammatical structure significant? (One character might speak only a few words at a time, but grunt a lot; another may ramble. Talk like Yoda, another character might.)

See also:

Getting an A on an English Paper

That means reading every word: it's not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren't about the real world; they're about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and you have to pay attention to them. -- Jack Lynch

How to Do a Close Reading

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. --Patricia Kain

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Karen's mind is boggled because of the tragic loss of her infant child. She doesn't comprehend what Lee is telling her because her heart is aching from such terrible pain. Lee wants her to be happy and to keep the farm in good hands but is troubled at first on what to do about Karen's constant reactions. Karen continues her fight about Catherine using the corn field and the moon to symbolize to Lee what is right. After listening to Karen's compassionate reasoning, Lee finally understands that Karen is right about the burial and decides to plan an idea before Karen's brother Bill arrives at the farm.

What if Lee and Karen were too late?...What do you think would have happened?

Posted by: Jessica at August 29, 2005 03:49 PM
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