SOME HINTS TO HELP YOU WITH "CLOSE READING"
(for those of us who find, or have found, it difficult)
We live in a culture less driven by language than it used to be. This can make reading literature -- especially of another time and another culture -- difficult. And when something's difficult, the best way to make it unpleasurable is to add the pressure of being evaluated on it in a class. As our course is a General Introduction to English Literature through the study of a single author, this means that many students in the course are reading 19th-century novels for the first time. Others are more experienced readers. Yet all of you are fairly sophisticated film-readers, even if you've never taken a course, and this shared experience will make the course work nicely.
Given this wide range of experience, I think that we need to try to talk in the same language. Given the introductory nature of the course, we'll be focusing much of our time on the practical analysis we call "close reading." On this handout I've provide some relatively basic ways of thinking about reading literature. You can use them both for poetry and for extended passages of prose. I've accompanied this with some fundamental terminology about narrative and form, which I plan to use consistently throughout the next several weeks. Those of you who are already comfortable with literature and ways of thinking about it should feel absolutely free to go beyond these terms and explore these texts according to your interests.
AN APPROACH TO LITERARY LANGUAGE WITH AN EYE TO ENJOYING IT: DENOTATION AND CONNOTATION
Language in its most basic form makes its meaning directly, denoting through the content of the words. It literally attempts to say what it means. Literature also makes much of its meaning in that way. One of the ways, however, that people have defined literary language over the centuries is as writing that also makes other meanings less directly, through connotation: through the structure of narrative; through its organization into stanzas or chapters; through the sound of the language; and (most importantly) through metaphor. Understanding connotation can be very fun, so long as it doesn't freak you out when you don't see something until someone else notices it. And if you still don't see something even after we point it out to you, it may be that it isn't there; make us explain.
SO WHAT IS CLOSE READING?
"Close reading" is a fairly simple concept. You do it when you focus on how a passage or a poem manages to say things without saying them directly. Put another way, it is where you focus as much on what a text connotes (through its language, through its use of metaphor or repetition, through its formal structure, through irony, understatement, hyperbole, etc.) as on what it denotes (i.e., what it literally says). When we write literary criticism, we look for textual moments where a specific passage seems to explode with meaning -- where the connotations are so unavoidable, so packed with suggestiveness, and so complicated that they need to be read especially closely and slowly to understand what is being said (denoted) and what suggested (connoted). That's close reading. The act of demonstrating how a text works, either in class or in a paper, is called "performing a close reading."
Here's one example of a close reading moment. There's a sonnet of Shakespeare's in which the poem urges a young man to marry. What's denoted is a conventional celebration of the pleasures of the love and the reproductive duties that come with them. Yet the sonnet says all this through the language of business, accounting, and banking. You can imagine how this language and its attendant metaphors change how you read the poem. It ends being a poem says one thing yet means another, and the net effect is that the poem argues that marriage is nothing but a transaction.
BEGINNING TO READ CLOSELY: The literature we're reading was meant to be read aloud -- socially, in groups, to one another. So, at key points in any text you're reading -- points you know are significant, where the author is doing more than merely denoting -- you should start by reading these passages aloud. And you should read them as well as you can. Even if you're embarrassed by reading dramatically, you can at least read it aloud and try to imagine what tones of voice you should use at various lines.
Here's one way of proceeding: First as you read, mark passages that you think are especially significant. Then, for each reading assignment, choose two passages that matter the most to you. Read those key passages through once to yourself, and check to make sure you have a handle on what it's saying; then, read it a few more times aloud experimenting with various voices and poses. Are some lines ironic? sneering? passionate? How does the meaning of various lines change when you change the tone of your voice? Once you have nailed down how the passage should be read, then go one-by-one through the "connotation" questions below and see if the author has employed any of these devices to add significance:
1. TONE or VOICE: What is the relation between the narrator's voice and those of different characters?
2. METAPHORS and IMAGES: Make a mental list of the images that pile up in passage. How do these metaphors or images affect how you read?
3. DIALOGUE vs DESCRIPTION: What does the author communicate through dialogue? What do we learn about various characters from their conversations and how they conduct them? How about the narrator's description? Do you find characters saying one thing ("It will certainly rain") and the narrator saying another ("Rain looked imminent"). What does the relation between the two help you to understand?
4. STRUCTURE & REPETITION: literary texts are made up of pieces. How do they fit together? What is repeated? Why? Are there specific set pieces that are supposed to be exemplary -- i.e., not just important but typical of a particular character?
5. AMBIGUITIES: Are there any moments where key words can mean more than one thing? One fun way to deal with ambiguity is to think of the passage as a word-puzzle: how many readings can you construct?
6. TRADITION OR CONVENTION: Is there a tradition or set of conventions that the author is writing within or against? How is the poet confronting or revising these conventions?