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of a Literary Passage
To do a close reading, you choose a specific passage and
analyze it in fine detail, as if with a magnifying glass.
You then comment on points of style and on your reactions
as a reader. Close reading is important because it is the
building block for larger analysis. Your thoughts evolve not
from someone else's truth about the reading, but from your
own observations. The more closely you can observe, the more
original and exact your ideas will be. To begin your close
reading, ask yourself several specific questions about the
passage. The following questions are not a formula, but a
starting point for your own thoughts. When you arrive at some
answers, you are ready to organize and write. You should organize
your close reading like any other kind of essay, paragraph
by paragraph, but you can arrange it any way you like.
- I. First Impressions:
- What is the first thing you notice about the passage?
- What is the second thing?
- Do the two things you noticed complement each other?
Or contradict each other?
- What mood does the passage create in you? Why?
- II. Vocabulary and Diction:
- Which words do you notice first? Why? What is noteworthy
about this diction?
- How do the important words relate to one another?
- Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why?
- Do any words have double meanings? Do they have extra
- Look up any unfamiliar words. For a pre-20th century text,
look in the Oxford English
Dictionary for possible outdated meanings. (The
OED can only be accessed by students with a subscription
or from a library computer that has a subscription. Otherwise,
you should find a copy in the local library.)
- III. Discerning Patterns:
- Does an image
here remind you of an image elsewhere in the book? Where?
What's the connection?
- How might this image fit into the pattern of the book
as a whole?
- Could this passage symbolize the entire work? Could
this passage serve as a microcosm--a little picture--of
what's taking place in the whole work?
- What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long
and flowing? Does it build on itself or stay at an even
pace? What is the style like?
- Look at the punctuation. Is there anything unusual about
- Is there any repetition within the passage? What is
the effect of that repetition?
- How many types of writing are in the passage? (For example,
narration, description, argument, dialogue, rhymed or alliterative
- Can you identify paradoxes
in the author's thought or subject?
- What is left out or kept silent? What would you expect
the author to talk about that the author avoided?
- IV. Point of View and Characterization:
- How does the passage make us react or think about any
characters or events within the narrative?
- Are there colors, sounds, physical description that appeals
to the senses? Does this imagery
form a pattern? Why might the author have chosen that color,
sound or physical description?
- Who speaks in the passage? To whom does he or she speak?
Does the narrator have a limited or partial point
of view? Or does the narrator appear to be omniscient,
and he knows things the characters couldn't possibly know?
(For example, omniscient narrators might mention future
historical events, events taking place "off stage,"
the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters, and so
- V. Symbolism:
- Are there metaphors? What kinds?
- Is there one controlling metaphor? If not, how many different
metaphors are there, and in what order do they occur? How
might that be significant?
- How might objects represent something else?
- Do any of the objects, colors, animals, or plants appearing
in the passage have traditional connotations or meaning?
What about religious or biblical significance?
- If there are multiple symbols in the work, could we read
the entire passage as having allegorical
meaning beyond the literal level?
If you wish to walk through
a close-reading of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, click here.