American Literature, 1800-1915 (EL 266)


1 Sep 2005

Close Reading

A close reading is a careful, thorough, sustained examination of the words that make up a text.

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.

A close reading does not retell the plot. Neither should a close reading profile the characters, give advice to the author, speculate on which people in the author's life inspired the literary characters, or share your personal musings. A close reading does not use a literary work as a handy example to support general claims about the outside world (such as "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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