How to Close Read a Literary Passage

close read

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “close read.” I was a sophomore in high school, and the extent of my English class experience had been memorizing plot facts, characters, and setting. I could identify the “setting,” the “climax,” and, if I was feeling fancy, the denouement of the story, but that was it. As I found out soon enough, however, memorizing the basic facts is not enough. What’s really exciting is the presentation of those facts, and that is where close reading (i.e. analysis) comes in.

Here, in the first installment of my writing series, I’ll share how I approach analyzing a shorter passage. I’ve seen pages upon pages of analysis written on a few paragraphs of text. There is always something to write about, and chances are, if your teacher has assigned this particular piece, there is sufficient material to work with.

I like to have a printed copy of my passage so I can mark it up as I go. I underline interesting phrases and circle key words. I also draw a lot of arrows between similar – and contradictory – ideas. These general strategies can be used when analyzing a play, a poem, etc. Whether you are in middle school, high school, college, or beyond, I hope you find these tools helpful!

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1. LOOK FOR AMBIGUITY

Ideally, you will be looking to answer some question. This question should not have a clear answer; in other words, you should not be investigating whether the protagonist’s name is Sue. If the protagonist’s name is Sue, then the protagonist’s name is Sue. End of story.

This is not interesting. You want to instead seek out the ambiguities in the text. Perhaps a character’s motivations are, at the surface, inexplicable…or maybe they appear to be greedy, but in reality their greediness is merely the result of their inner identity crisis, and maybe that then justifies their actions — or not. Look for things that are arguable. If you find that you can’t construct a plausible counter argument to your points, that should be a signal that you need to alter your framework.

2. SYNTAX AND DICTION

Now that you’ve identified the ambiguity and formed some potential questions, look at how the text is presented. The syntax (i.e. structure) and diction (i.e. word choice) are both great sources of information. Are all the sentences incredibly long? Are they short? Are they all long except for one (this should be a clue that that one terse statement is key)?

What sort of words is this person using? Is the vocabulary simple? Elaborate? How do the words sound — are they sharp (e.g. “crack”)? Soft (e.g. “soar”)? Is there alliteration? Assonance?

3. WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

If you’re stuck, try to think about what could have been. In other words, if a writer has phrased something in a particular way, think about how else s/he could have worded it. Try substituting in your own replacement phrases and see how the mood of the piece changes. This should give you a clearer idea of what the original passage evokes.

Why is this character in particular saying this? Why does this character’s dialogue take the form of a question rather than a statement?

4. MAKE CONNECTIONS

Hopefully, you’ve marked up your passage and highlighted interesting patterns/words. Now is the time to make connections and begin to group your observations into supporting a cohesive thesis.

Maybe the passage’s beginning features wordy, eloquent phrases full of alliteration. The passage’s end might be composed of terse statements full of periods. When held in conjunction, these two trends might suggest a crumbling of stability or a submission to anger. The alliteration at the beginning might support a sense of connectedness and, by extension, the sense of control. The ending’s curt nature, in turn, reveals the breakdown of those connections.

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