Many college professors will ask students to perform a “close reading” of a text—often a literary text, like a poem or short story, but sometimes a visual text or nonfiction text. Close reading means paying careful attention to the particular features of a text. It’s like inspecting a specimen under a microscope; close readers “zoom in” to look at rhetorical features, structural elements, and cultural or intertextual references. But they also “zoom out,” because those details (in a single passage, phrase, or word) gain a fuller meaning when viewed within the broader context of the whole work. A good close reading may lead to a written analysis that seems much longer than the original text—and it should, because close reading is like expanding the condensed meaning found in a particular text.
To begin close reading, read with a pencil in hand. Underline, circle, and highlight what seems most important, surprising, or new. Make notes in the margins: does this word or phrase echo another part of the text? Does it contradict an earlier or later statement? Do you see any patterns in vocabulary or images? Look for multiple meanings, ambiguities, and a lack of certainty, in longer stretches of text as well as in individual words.
In literature, novelists and poets will play with words deliberately, often using multiple meanings. Nonfiction texts, such as government reports and statistical data, may use ambiguous terms as well, sometimes to generalize from broad categories, sometimes even to obscure information. When encountering ambiguity, you cannot (and should not) always determine the motive of a text’s creator, but you can describe the effect of the ambiguity: what does it imply? what questions does it answer? what new questions does it raise? In what follows, we will model how to closely read three different kinds of text:
Close Reading a Nonfiction Text
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
(“The Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln)
Whenever you encounter a text, ask yourself who the speaker is, what techniques they use, and what effect they cause. In a nonfiction text, the writer will likely inform (as in memoirs or newspaper articles), persuade (as in op-ed essays), or some combination of these. In the text above, we find a speech written by a president. What do Lincoln’s goals appear to be? Whom does he address? Note when he shifts from describing (“we are engaged,” “We have come”), to affirming (“It is altogether fitting”), to rebutting (“we cannot dedicate”), to coaxing (“It is for us … to be dedicated”). Pay attention to the writer or speaker’s vocabulary and how their choice of words relates to readers.
- The context of this speech–delivered by a president,on a battlefield during a deeply conflicted and destructive war–demands a lofty tone. Note the first words, “Fourscore and seven years ago”; why did Lincoln not write “87 years ago”? What is the impact of this decision on the tone of the speech?
- Look for patterns in the writer’s vocabulary and the imagery they evoke. In the speech, note the similarity of words like “dedicate,” “consecrate,” “hallow,” “nobly,” “honored,” and “devotion,” clustered in the middle of the paragraph. These words create a sense of heightened, stately, even spiritual feeling.
- Lincoln concludes his speech this way: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Repetition can be a powerful rhetorical device, a method to drive a point home and to cause hearers or readers to remember the message and words of a text. (This technical is technically called epistrophe.)
- A broader sense of repetition may also create coherence in the structure of the text. Note the understated birth imagery at the beginning of the speech, in the words “brought forth” and “conceived.” At the conclusion, Lincoln brings that faint image to the foreground, as he describes “a new birth of freedom.” Might the imagery of birth at the beginning and end of the speech relate to the imagery of death and life throughout the text?
Close Reading a Fictional Text
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished — how strange it was! — a few sayings like this about cabbages.
(Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf)
In literature, the genre and time period of a text is always important to consider. Is the text a novel, a short story, a poem? Is it Romantic, Southern Gothic, etc.? Recognizing this background information (which your professor can help you identify) will shape your expectations of the text and make you a more informed reader. The quotation above comes from the opening of an English Modernist novel, published between the World Wars. That context helps us to think about what to look for when close reading.
As when reading nonfiction, consider who is speaking and why. In fiction and poetry, however, be careful to distinguish between (a) the characters, (b) the narrator or speaker, and (c) the writer who produced the text. These three may be quite distinct. In Woolf’s excerpt, for example, the narrator seems to move in and out of various characters’ heads and even speaks in their voices: “What a lark! What a plunge!” seems to be spoken by the narrator, but is is likely the words of Mrs. Dalloway in the narrator’s voice. (This technique is called free indirect discourse.)
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
(1263, Emily Dickinson)
Because she inverts the usual order of words in her sentences, many readers find Dickinson’s poetry difficult to understand. If we carefully attend to the details of how the words and lines work together, then her writing becomes clearer.
- Pay attention to irregularities. In the poem, notice the strange capitalization of certain nouns, like “Circuit” and “Delight.” “Truth” is also capitalized twice, but its first appearance in the text is not capitalized. What might we make of those elements? Could they be read as proper nouns? As names, might they refer to people or places in the poet’s life, in history, or in another text (like Greek myth, classic literature, or the Bible)?
- If you can’t follow a sentence, ask yourself why. Look for the specific phrases or words that confuse you. Perhaps the structure of the sentence or line is too different from typical English. In that case, rearrange the sentence in your own words. For example, “As Lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind” may sound muddled at first. But if we reorder the words, it becomes clearer: “As Lightning [is] eased to the Children With [a] kind explanation, …” Of course, even when the words follow a normal order, the poem may remain obscure — how, after all, can one ease lightning to children? The uncertainty that persists is where you can begin interpreting. Is this passage a direct metaphor, an imaginative description, or something else?