Q: I’m supposed to do a close reading for my literature class! What does this mean and how do I do one?
A: A close reading (sometimes called explication) is an analysis of a work of literature, either in its entirety (usually in the case of a short poem) or a short passage of a longer work, which emphasizes the specific elements and relationships of that work of literature. A truly close reading can be considerably longer than the piece it examines because it discusses each component part of the text in great detail.
This practice can be a very a helpful too for your literature class because it will help you to gain insight of the text by examining how the text is structured and what literary devices (allusion, imagery, ect) the author uses to create the text.
Steps to a Close Reading:
1. Annotate the text you wish to explicate.
2. Analyze the patterns you’ve seen in the text. Pay particular attention to things like repetition, contradiction, similarities.
3. Ask questions about the text. Particularly ask “how” and “why.”
Ok, so what does it mean to annotate the text? It means reading the text carefully and marking, either by highlighting or underlining or writing in the margin, (or if you cannot, or will not, deface a book, using sticky notes) to indicate key words and phrases. There’s no set rule for identifying such words and phrases, but see what stands out to you as the reader. Other things to consider: figurative language, diction, content, structure, style, characterization, tone, assessment, context, theme. Don’t forget to include a thesis which should be an assertion about the meaning or function of the text you are examining. For close readings, it can be easier to develop your thesis after you have considered the elements previously mentioned.
Here’s a sample passage from Henry James’s “The Turn of The Screw.”
To set up this passage, it’s necessary to note that the governess who narrates this passage is convinced that she sees the ghost of her predecessor, Miss Jessel. She believes that her young charge, Flora can see her and is desperate to prove it to the old house keeper, Mrs. Grose.
I quailed even though my certitude that she thoroughly saw was never greater than at that instant, and in the immediate need to defend myself I called it passionately to witness. "She's there, you little unhappy thing -- there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me!" I had said shortly before to Mrs. Grose that she was not at these times a child, but an old, old woman, and that description of her could not have been more strikingly confirmed than in the way in which, for all answer to this, she simply showed me, without a concession, an admission, of her eyes, a countenance of deeper and deeper, of indeed suddenly quite fixed, reprobation. I was by this time -- if I can put the whole thing at all together -- more appalled at what I may properly call her manner than at anything else, though it was simultaneously with this that I became aware of having Mrs. Grose also, and very formidably, to reckon with. My elder companion, the next moment, at any rate, blotted out everything but her own flushed face and her loud, shocked protest, a burst of high disapproval. "What a dreadful turn, to be sure, miss! Where on earth do you see anything?"
I could only grasp her more quickly yet, for even while she spoke the hideous plain presence stood undimmed and undaunted. It had already lasted a minute, and it lasted while I continued, seizing my colleague, quite thrusting her at it and presenting her to it, to insist with my pointing hand. "You don't see her exactly as we see? -- you mean to say you don't now -- now? She's as big as a blazing fire! Only look, dearest woman, look -- -- !" She looked, even as I did, and gave me, with her deep groan of negation, repulsion, compassion -- the mixture with her pity of her relief at her exemption -- a sense, touching to me even then, that she would have backed me up if she could. I might well have needed that, for with this hard blow of the proof that her eyes were hopelessly sealed I felt my own situation horribly crumble, I felt -- I saw -- my livid predecessor press, from her position, on my defeat, and I was conscious, more than all, of what I should have from this instant to deal with in the astounding little attitude of Flora. Into this attitude Mrs. Grose immediately and violently entered, breaking, even while there pierced through my sense of ruin a prodigious private triumph, into breathless reassurance.
"She isn't there, little lady, and nobody's there and you never see nothing, my sweet! How can poor Miss Jessel -- when poor Miss Jessel's dead and buried? We know, don't we, love?" -- and she appealed, blundering in, to the child. "It's all a mere mistake and a worry and a joke -- and we'll go home as fast as we can!"
Our companion, on this, had responded with a strange, quick primness of propriety, and they were again, with Mrs. Grose on her feet, united, as it were, in pained opposition to me. Flora continued to fix me with her small mask of reprobation, and even at that minute I prayed God to forgive me for seeming to see that, as she stood there holding tight to our friend's dress, her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. I've said it already -- she was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly. "I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I neverhave. I think you're cruel. I don't like you!" Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street, she hugged Mrs. Grose more closely and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face. In this position she produced an almost furious wail. "Take me away, take me away -- oh, take me away from her!"
This passage from James’s “Turn of the Screw” is integral to understanding and recognizing the issue of perception and vision as one of the major motifs of the story. To begin with, James’s emphasis on seeing and looking must be acknowledged. The narrator is desperate to have Mrs. Grose or Flora admit to seeing the specter of Miss Jessel. In order to emphasize the theme of seeing and looking, James uses the verb “see” twelve times (counting its past tense, “saw”) and the verb “look”, the action which enables seeing twice. He also references eyes, the organs we use to see. The emphasis in this short passage harkens to James’s purpose in the text as a whole: he is questioning our ideas and assumptions of perception.
Additionally, within this section is the issue of how the characters perceive each other. The narrator associates Flora’s behavior with a mask, indicating that the face or persona she is presenting is not the true one. However, the narrator also realizes that the way she perceives Flora-- hard, common and ugly-- may not be quite accurate. Consider how the narrator realizes that she is only “seeming to see” Flora in this light. Also note the narrator’s use of the word “literally.” We tend to use this word to mean “taken in the literal sense” but it can also mean “an exact and faithful representation.” Now, consider James’s reputation as a realist. Also, the word literally, makes the reader aware they are reading a work of literature. It then invokes, within the reader, an awareness of the artificiality of presenting a character. No matter how faithfully a character is presented, no author can present “the real thing.” Also, if you are aware of James’s larger body of work, you’ll know that James did not necessarily think that the “real thing” was preferable in art. (See his short story titled “The Real Thing”). This term then, has several layers of meaning both in the narrator’s description of Flora and in James’s construction of the text.
In exploring how the character’s perceive each other one should also consider the names used or not used within this passage. Flora’s name is derivative of the Greek goddess of springtime and flowers. The common understanding of her name clearly situates Flora in a natural setting, such as at the lake. It also seems contradictory to how the governess sees Flora—hard and ugly. One could, however make the argument that she is common as flowers, in general, are common.
As, the narrator, the governess, is never named. The absence of the name offers the narrator anonymity but also suggests that she is perhaps unwilling to stake her reputation on this account by clearly identifying herself within it. Because the reader remains unaware of the narrator’s name or identity, the reader’s perception of the narrator is clouded. In some ways, she seems less real than her predecessor, Miss Jessel.
This close reading reveals that the microcosm, or small section we’re examining, is representative of the macrocosm, or the text in its entirety. One can see through an analysis of this text that the author is asking the reader to consider if one perception against reality. This issue is at the root of the poor governess’s desperation to have someone else admit to seeing the vision of Miss Jessel.
Harvard University | Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Web. 25 Jan. 2010.
James, Henry. The Turn of The Screw and Other Short Novels (Signet Classics). New York: Signet Classics, 2007. Print.
Patten, Janice E. "Close Reading." Home Page of The Literary Link, Dr. Janice Patten. Web. 25 Jan. 2010.