Steps for Close Reading or Explication de
Patterns, polarities, problems, paradigm,
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
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
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
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.
- Tone. What is the
tone of the passage? How does it elucidate the entire passage? Is the tone one of irony? Sentimental? Serious?
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
- 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. . . ."
- 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.
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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