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Close Reading Across the Disciplines

What is a close reading?

A close reading offers a detailed examination of the language of a passage. It allows both the author and their audience to better understand subtle nuances and shifts in meaning. The passages examined in a close reading should be your key to unlocking meaning in the entire text.

  • When should I use close readings?
    Always! Examining an author’s words in detail adds subtlety to your work by making general arguments more precise and text-specific. A passage in the Constitution will benefit as much from a close reading as a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  • How can I prepare for a close reading?
    Read with a pencil or pen in hand. Mark passages that seem particularly relevant to the argument of the work and quotations that spark questions in your mind.
  • Select quotations that will help you answer your question and support your thesis. Because you will be conducting a detailed analysis of the passages, you probably don’t need or want too many.

How can I develop a close reading into an essay?

  •  Find a logical arrangement for the quotations.
    •  Which passages use similar language to talk about the same idea?
    •  Which use different language, and why?
    • Is the author’s tone different at the beginning of the text than at the end? If so, what caused the change and why is it important? This arrangement of quotations will be your outline for the paper.
  •  Develop a thesis that explains the patterns that you see.
    • If there is a development, what is it? Why does it happen?
    • What does it mean in the broader context of the work? You should use the idea or image that you are focusing on as a key to explain the rest of the text.
  • As you write, carefully analyze the language of each quotation, explaining how that language proves your thesis.

How should I revise a close reading?

In a close reading, the greatest danger lies in becoming so immersed in the details of a specific passage that you forget to discuss the relationship of the details to the text as a whole. As you revise, make sure that your analysis of individual passages relates back to a thesis. The thesis should discuss not only the presence of an idea, link, or image, but also why those elements are important to the entire text.

Example 1: English

Text: Emily Dickinson
My cocoon tightens, colors tea I’m feeling for the air; A dim capacity for wings. Degrades the dress I wear.

Thesis: The butterfly imagery in Emily Dickinson’s “My cocoon tightens” reflects the speaker’s complex belief that, although the transformation is inevitable - caterpillars must become butterflies – she herself has spun the strands that entrap her. While undeniably feminist, this perspective offers a subtle rebuke to women who complain of confinement without examining the causes.

Sample close reading: The first stanza of the poem establishes the speaker’s agency. Though the cocoon “tightens,” there is no agent behind the tightening – it is a natural indication that the butterfly is nearly ready to emerge. The possessive pronoun in front of “cocoon” reinforces the woman’s power – she herself has woven the cocoon that tightens around her. The word “degrades” in the fourth line of the stanza contrasts the woman’s present state with her potential: the poem condemns women’s adherence to traditional roles, symbolized by the constrictive clothing. The woman herself,
however, has chosen the binding cocoon and must free herself.

Example 2: Political Science

Text: The Declaration of Independence
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Thesis: The authors of the “Declaration of Independence” wished to make the separation of the colonies from the mother country seem as logical and unrevolutionary as possible. The language of the document supports this claim, using natural and scientific imagery to describe the separation between the two political entities.

Sample close reading: The introduction to the Declaration makes multiple references to nature and natural processes, indicating that nature, not incendiary men, is responsible for the division. The word “dissolve” in the first line establishes this tone, evoking the image of the ocean’s water slowly and inevitably wearing away the bond. Building upon this imagery, it is “Nature” and “Nature’s God,” not the men themselves, who demand equality. By establishing their lack of culpability at the beginning of the document, the writers create the possibility for bolder claims later in the Declaration.

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