CC.S10 | Spring 2007 | Undergraduate
Prohibition and Permission

Study Materials

Forms of Persuasive Writing

Personal essay


Appeals to emotion, not logic

Appeals to emotion, not logic

Personal, not universal

Close reading

Develops its point from a text shared with reader

Uses evidence close at hand

Can seem academic, contrived

Can seem limited, speculative, unscholarly

Research essay

Draws from the Great Well of Knowledge

Argues in context of tradition

Lends support to the personal

May use research ineffectively

May seem remote, academic, contrived

May lose the personal

Notes on Close Reading

What does it mean to read a text closely and analyze it? Why do we do close reading in literary study?

The answers to these questions emerge more from the doing than the talking. Briefly, close reading is a basic tool for understanding, taking pleasure in, and communicating one’s interpretation of a literary work. The skills employed in close reading lend themselves to all kinds of cultural interpretation and investigation.

Close reading takes language as its subject because language can operate in different ways to convey meaning. Reading sensitively allows one to remain open to the many ways language works on the mind and heart.

When an assignment calls for close reading, it’s best to start by choosing a brief but promising passage and checking your assumptions about its content at the door. Close reading often reveals the intriguing relationship between what the speaker or narrator says and how she or he says it. You know from your own experience that life involves constant, often unconscious sifting of these nuances.

Here are some useful steps.

  1. Choose a short passage that allows you to investigate the details closely. Here, for example, is a passage from Melville’s Typee:     

    “Birds-bright and beautiful birds-fly over the valley of Typee. You see them perched aloft among the immovable boughs of the majestic bread-fruit trees, or gently swaying on the elastic branches of the Omoo; skimming over the palmetto thatching of the bamboo huts; passing like spirits on the wing through the shadows of the grove, and sometimes descending into the bosom of the valley in gleaming flights from the mountains. Their plumage is purple and azure, crimson and white, black and gold; with bills of every tint;-bright bloody-red, jet black, and ivory white; and their eyes are bright and sparkling; they go sailing through the air in starry throngs; but, alas! the spell of dumbness is upon them all-there is not a single warbler in the valley!” (Melville 215).     

    This single paragraph will give us plenty to work with.

  2. Look at diction . What kinds of words does Melville use? Does he aim for lofty diction (used for special occasions) or common diction? Are the words long or short, Latinate or Anglo-Saxon, specialized (i.e. legalistic, medical, jargon, elite) or ordinary? Remember that the rules for diction are different at different times in history; check all special definitions.

  3. Next, look at sentence structure . Can you map the sentences (find the subject and verb, locate phrases and clauses)? Are there simple, compound, or complex sentences? How does the structure of the sentence relate to its content? Does Melville use active or passive verbs? What rhythms does the sentence structure create-long flowing ones, short choppy ones-and how do these relate to the meaning?

  4. You might be interested in the meanings certain words take on in the passage because they appear elsewhere: references to mountains, valleys, groves, and trees, for example. What themes or images in this speech resonate with others in the novel? How does the landscape appear here, in relation or contrast to the way it appeared to the characters earlier in the story? How does the birds’ ease of movement remind us of Tommo’s movements through the environment?

  5. After you have looked at language (and there are other technical issues one might pay attention to), you can begin to analyze tone . Is the speaker being straightforward, factual, open? Or is he taking a less direct route toward his meaning? Does the voice carry any emotion? Or is it detached from its subject? Do you hear irony? Where? If so, what complications does the irony produce?

  6. Note too where the passage appears . What comes before and after in the adjacent paragraphs? At what moment in the novel does the passage appear? How does its placement influence your reading of its details?

  7. At this point, you may discover multiple readings , even some difference between what the author appears to be doing (giving you a straightforward description of the birds) and what he also accomplishes (arousing certain emotions that in the next paragraph he identifies with melancholy and alienation). You can now begin to talk about the ways Melville’s language opens up other possible meanings in the passage. What, for example, is the impact of the birds’ “dumbness”? Why does it strike the narrator so forcefully? How does it relate with the revelation in the next paragraph that Tommo feels like a “stranger,” to be “commiserated” with?

  8. You might now propose a hypothesis , perhaps something like, “In this passage, Melville complicates his description of the birds by making us aware of an ironic contrast between their freedom of movement and Tommo’s captivity.”

  9. You can proceed to fill in the outlines of this point by explaining what you mean, using details and quotations from the passage to support your idea.

  10. You still, however, need an argument and will need to go back to your opening to sharpen the thesis. The question is Why? Or to what effect? Your thesis might build on what you’ve already written: Melville creates this ironic contrast to intensify Tommo’s sense of alienation and foreshadow his eventual escape. Or: The effect of this passage is to focus awareness on the different senses engaged in the novel and to emphasize the importance of speech (as opposed to sight). Or: Melville makes us aware that Tommo shares the “dumbness” of the birds as he struggles to articulate his experiences. Your thesis might go many directions, once you’re explored the language.

  11. Even with these more developed statements, you will need to explain and support your point further. But you will have achieved some very important things, namely:

  • you have chosen a specific piece of the text to work with, hence avoiding generalizations and abstractions that tend to mystify a reader
  • you have moved from exposition (explaining what’s there) to arguing a point, which will involve your reader in a more interactive and risky encounter with the text
  • you have carved out your own reading of the speech rather than taking the more well-worn path
  • you have identified something about Melville’s method that may well open up other areas of the text for study and debate 

12. With your more refined thesis in place, you can go back and make sure your supporting argument explains the questions you’ve raised, follows through on your argument and comes to a provocative conclusion. By the end, you may be able to expand from your initial passage to a larger point, but use your organization to keep the reader focused all the way.

The most exciting thing for a reader, and the most useful for an essayist, is that close reading generally offers surprises. Your purpose is not so much to tell readers what they probably can see for themselves but what they might have missed that could delight them. It’s helpful, then, to go into the paper with an open mind and be ready to adjust your thesis to the evidence you find in the text.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2007
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments
assignment Presentation Assignments