Close Reading

Steps for Close Reading or Explication de texte:

Patterns, polarities, problems, paradigm, puzzles, perception

An explication de texte (cf. Latin explicare, to unfold, to fold out, or to make clear the meaning of) is a finely detailed, very specific examination of a short poem or short selected passage from a longer work, in order to find the focus or design of the work, either in its entirety in the case of the shorter poem or, in the case of the selected passage, the meaning of the microcosm, containing or signaling the meaning of the macrocosm (the longer work of which it is a part). To this end "close" reading calls attention to all dynamic tensions, polarities, or problems in the imagery, style, literal content, diction, etc. By examining and thinking about opening up the way the poem or work is perceived, writers establish a central pattern, a design that orders the narrative and that will, in turn, order the organization of any essay about the work. Coleridge knew about this method when he referred to the "germ" of a work of literature (see Biographia Literaria). Very often, the language creates a visual dynamic as well as verbal coherence.

Close Reading or Explication de texte operates on the premise that literature, as artifice, will be more fully understood and appreciated to the extent that the nature and interrelations of its parts are perceived, and that that understanding will take the form of insight into the theme of the work in question. This kind of work must be done before you can begin to appropriate any theoretical or specific literary approach. Follow these instructions so you don’t follow what Mrs. Arable says about the magical web of Charlotte’s in Charlotte’s Web, "I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I don’t understand."

Follow these steps before you begin writing. These are pre-writing steps, procedures to follow, questions to consider before you commence actual writing. Remember that the knowledge you gain from completing each of the steps is cumulative. There may be some information that overlaps, but do not take shortcuts. In selecting one passage from a short story, poem, or novel, limit your selection to a short paragraph (4-5 sentences), but certainly no more than one paragraph. When one passage, scene, or chapter of a larger work is the subject for explication, that explication will show how its focused-upon subject serves as a macrocosm of the entire work—a means of finding in a small sample patterns which fit the whole work.

If you follow these 12 steps to literary awareness, you will find a new and exciting world. Do not be concerned if you do not have all the answers to the questions in this section. Keep asking questions; keep your intellectual eyes open to new possibilities.

  1. Figurative Language. Examine the passage carefully for similes, images, metaphors, and symbols. Identify any and all. List implications and suggested meanings as well as denotations. What visual insights does each word give? Look for mutiple meanings and overlapping of meaning. Look for repetitions, for oppositions. See also the etymology of each word because you may find that the word you think you are familiar with is actually dependent upon a metaphoric concept. Consider how each word or group of words suggests a pattern and/or points to an abstraction (e.g., time, space, love, soul, death). Can you visualize the metaphoric world? Are there spatial dimensions to the language?
  2. Diction. This section is closely connected with the section above. Diction, with its emphasis on words, provides the crux of the explication. Mark all verbs in the passage, mark or list all nouns, all adjectives, all adverbs etc. At this point it is advisable that you type out the passage on a separate sheet to differentiate each grammatical type. Examine each grouping. Look up as many words as you can in a good dictionary, even if you think that you know the meaning of the word. The dictionary will illuminate new connotations and new denotations of a word. Look at all the meanings of the key words. Look up the etymology of the words. How have they changed? The words will begin to take on multistable meanings. Be careful to always check back to the text, keeping meaning contextually sound. Do not assume you know the depth or complexity of meaning at first glance. Rely on the dictionary, particularly the Oxford English Dictionary. Can you establish a word web of contrastive and parallel words? Do dictionary meanings establish any new dynamic associations with other words? What is the etymology of these words? Develop and question the metaphoric, spatial sense of the words. Can you see what the metaphoric words are suggesting?
  3. Literal content: this should be done as succinctly as possible. Briefly describe the sketetal contents of the passage in one or two sentences. Answer the journalist’s questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) in order to establish character/s, plot, and setting as it relates to this passage. What is the context for this passage?
  4. Structure. Divide the passage into the more obvious sections (stages of argument, discussion, or action). What is the interrelation of these units? How do they develop? Again, what can you postulate regarding a controlling design for the work at this point? If the work is a poem, identify the poetic structure and note the variations within that structure. In order to fully understand "Scorn Not the Sonnet," you must be knowledgeable about the sonnet as a form. What is free verse? Is this free verse or blank verse? What is the significance of such a form? Does the form contribute to the meaning? How does the theatrical structure of Childress’s young adult novel, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, enhance the narrative?
  5. Style. Look for any significant aspects of style—parallel constructions, antithesis, etc. Look for patterns, polarities, and problems. Periodic sentences, clause structures? Polysyndeton etc.? And reexamine all postulates, adding any new ones that occur to you. Look for alliteration, internal rhymes and other such poetic devices which are often used in prose as well as in poetry. A caesura? Enjambment? Anaphora? Polysyndeton? You need to look closely here for meanings that are connected to these rhyme schemes.
  6. Characterization. What insight does this passage now give into specific characters as they develop through the work? Is there a persona in this passage? Any allusions to other literary characters? To other literary works that might suggest a perspective. Look for a pattern of metaphoric language to give added insight into their motives and feelings which are not verbalized. You should now be firming up the few most important encompassing postulates for the governing design of the work, for some overriding themes or conflicts.
  7. Tone. What is the tone of the passage? How does it elucidate the entire passage? Is the tone one of irony? Sentimental? Serious? Humorous? Ironic?
  8. Assessment. This step is not to suggest a reduction; rather, an "close reading" or explication should enable you to problematize and expand your understanding of the text. Ask what insight the passage gives into the work as a whole. How does it relate to themes, ideas, larger actions in other parts of the work? Make sure that your hypothesis regarding the theme(s) of the work is contextually sound. What does it suggest as the polarity of the whole piece?
  9. Context: If your text is part of a larger whole, make brief reference to its position in the whole; if it is a short work, say, a poem, refer it to other works in its author’s canon, perhaps chronologically, but also thematically. Do this expeditiously.
  10. Texture: This term refers to all those features of a work of literature which contribute to its meaning or signification, as distinguished from that signification itself: its structure, including features of grammar, syntax, diction, rhythm, and (for poems, and to some extent) prosody; its imagery, that is, all language which appeals to the senses; and its figuration, better known as similes, metaphors, and other verbal motifs.
  11. Theme: A theme is not to be confused with thesis; the theme or more properly themes of a work of literature is its broadest, most pervasive concern, and it is contained in a complex combination of elements. In contrast to a thesis, which is usually expressed in a single, arugumentative, declarative sentence and is characteristic of expository prose rather than creative literature, a theme is not a statement; rather, it often is expressed in a single word or a phrase, such as "love," "illusion versus reality," or "the tyranny of circumstance." Generally, the theme of a work is never "right" or "wrong." There can be virtually as many themes as there are readers, for essentially the concept of theme refers to the emotion and insight which results from the experience of reading a work of literature. As with many things, however, such an experience can be profound or trivial, coherent or giddy; and discussions of a work and its theme can be correspondingly worthwhile and convincing, or not. Everything depends on how well you present and support your ideas. Everything you say about the theme must be supported by the brief quotations from the text. Your argument and proof must be convincing. And that, finally, is what explication is about: marshaling the elements of a work of literature in such a way as to be convincing. Your approach must adhere to the elements of ideas, concepts, and language inherent in the work itself. Remember to avoid phrases and thinking which are expressed in the statement, "what I got out of it was. . . ."
  12. Thesis: An explication should most definitely have a thesis statement. Do not try to write your thesis until you have finished all 12 steps. The thesis should take the form, of course, of an assertion about the meaning and function of the text which is your subject. It must be something which you can argue for and prove in your essay.

Conclusion. Now, and only now are you ready to begin your actual writing. If you find that what you had thought might be the theme of the work, and it doesn’t "fit," you must then go back to step one and start over. This is a trial and error exercise. You learn by doing. Finally, the explication de texte should be a means to see the complexities and ambiguities in a given work of literature, not for finding solutions and/or didactic truisms.

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