What is Close Reading?
Close reading is a way of analyzing a text that involves careful attention to a short passage or poem. When you conduct a close reading, you focus on a specific section of text and explain how language is used and/or how an author builds an argument. This attention to detail allows you to assess and discuss the larger themes or concerns of the text as a whole.
An effective close reading will discuss HOW the selected passage communicates meaning (what poetic or rhetorical strategies are used) as well as address WHY these strategies are used in this particular way—what is the author trying to communicate to the reader? What decisions has the author made?
When asked to produce a close reading of a text, students are often unsure where to begin. Below are some strategies you might find useful when attempting to begin the process of close reading.
Select a Passage
One important part of this exercise, if you have not been assigned a passage or poem, is selecting a passage. If the passage is particularly difficult to analyze for symbolic meaning, then you're going to have to do a lot more work to make your point. So, how do you make the right choice? Here are some ideas for what to watch for:
Unusual or repetitive images or themes: During your first reading of the text, try to take notes as you read. Mark anything that seems relevant or interesting to you – even if you are unsure why a particular section of the text stands out. After you have read the entire text, you can return to these sections to look for repeated patterns, themes, or words. Often, a close reading will focus on one example of a theme or pattern to study the significance of this theme or pattern more in depth.
Central characters or keyword definitions: You should also pay particular attention to passages that relate to central characters or definitions of keywords; you may decide to focus on one section and how it helps you understand a character, relationship, issue, or idea.
Beginnings and endings: Other places to look include opening passages (for prose works) and passages with rich imagery or language (for poetry).
Above all, you should consider a passage that has a great impact on you – then you can ask yourself "why?"
Choose a Passage That's Short—and Focused
Limit your selection to a paragraph or two at the most. In some cases, a sentence or two (or a few lines, if you are dealing with a poem) will be sufficient. Keep in mind that literature (and especially poetry) can be very dense. You will be surprised at how much you can glean from a short section – and how easily you can be overwhelmed by selecting a section that is too long.
Once you have selected your passage, you can start with some simple strategies to get you thinking about HOW language and/or argument are being used. Begin by making some observations about your passage, even if these observations seem simplistic or self-evident.
As you make these initial observations, also pay attention to how language use changes over the course of your passage. For example, if the same word appears at the beginning and end, does it mean different things in both places? Does the author's tone or attitude change?
Assume that your reader has read and is familiar with the text that you are analyzing, the characters you are referring to, and so on. In other words, it is not necessary for you to provide extensive plot summary or character description in your close reading. This does not mean that you should avoid summary altogether, but that you should be sure to use it sparingly and only when it relates directly to your argument – and even here, keep it brief.
Apply close reading to longer papers too
Close reading can also be a good place to begin if you are having difficulty formulating an argument for a longer paper. Even if the assignment does not explicitly ask you to conduct a close reading, the strategies described above can be useful tools for more involved textual analysis. Keep in mind that longer papers may employ close readings of more than one passage of a text; the connections between these close readings often form the basis of a more complicated argument.
Kinds of Close Readings
Close reading is a useful technique in any kind of analytical writing. This handout provides details about two particularly common kinds of close readings— English literature and philosophy—however, these techniques can be applied to other disciplines, too.
Close Reading in English Literature
As you begin making your initial observations about a passage or poem, try asking yourself some of the following questions:
Diction (word use)
What words are being used? Are the words long or short? Are they simple, complex or complicated, difficult to understand? Are any words repeated in the passage? What adjectives (or descriptive words) are used? What nouns do they describe? How do they alter your understanding of these nouns? Be sure that you understand how particular words are being used in your passage. If any words are unfamiliar, look them up. If you are analyzing an older text, keep in mind that words may mean different things at different points in history—so be sure to look up any words that may be familiar but used in an unfamiliar way. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will provide you with definitions as well as histories of word use.
Whether you are looking at an historical or contemporary text, remember that words can be used in different ways. Ask yourself: Are any words being used in unusual ways? Are any words referring to something more than what is simply stated? Are any two (or more) words in the passage connected in some way?
- Are the sentences long or short?
- Can you easily locate the subject and the verb? Clauses and phrases?
- Are the sentences simple or are they complex? Do they communicate meaning easily, or do they force you to think about what the author means to convey?
- Who is speaking in your passage?
- What narrative perspective is being used? First-, second-, or third-person? Is this consistent throughout the passage?
- What does the narrative voice tell you? Does it provide description? Does it give you access to the inner thoughts or perspectives of a character or characters?
- Is the speaker being straightforward, factual, open?
- Is he or she taking a less direct route toward his or her meaning?
- Does the voice carry any emotion? Or is it detached from its subject?
- Do you hear irony (what is said is different from what is meant)? If so, where?
Not all of these strategies will be applicable to every close reading, but it can be helpful to find one or two (or more) that are useful to you and the particular passage you are working with.
Once you have finished looking at the language in detail, you can use your observations to construct a descriptive thesis. For example, you could argue that a passage is using short, simple sentences, or that it is using irony or a combination of these things. Your descriptive thesis should attempt to summarize the observations you have made about HOW language is being used in your passage. Remember, this will not be your final thesis; it's just the first step to arriving at an analytical thesis.
Construct an argument about the passage
Now that you have some idea of HOW language is being used in your passage, you need to connect this to the larger themes of the text. In other words, you now need to address WHY language is being used in the way (or ways) you have observed.
This step is essential to a successful close reading. It is not enough to simply make observations about language use, you must take these observations and use them to construct an argument about the passage.
Transform your descriptive thesis into an argument by asking yourself WHY language is used in this way:
- What kinds of words are used (intellectual, elaborate, plain, or vulgar)?
- Why are words being used in this way? Why are sentences long or short? Why might the author be using complicated or simple sentences? What might this type of sentence structure suggest about what the passage is trying to convey?
- Who is the narrator? What is the narrative voice providing these particular descriptions? Why are we given access to the consciousness of these particular characters? Why not others?
- What images do you see in the passage? What might they represent? Is there a common theme?
- Why might the tone of the passage be emotional (or detached)?
- To what purpose might the text employ irony?
- What effect/impact is the author trying to create?
If you are still finding it difficult to connect your observations to larger themes of the text, try going back to:
- Your notes on the text
- Your class notes
- The larger themes of the course (Often, re-reading the course outline can help to identify these themes.)
Close Readings in Philosophy
Close reading in philosophy usually requires writers to explain a text, word, or definition. Specifically, you might be asked to analyse the meaning of a particular term or how the philosopher sets up an argument. The philosopher will make a claim and then provide evidence for that claim. It is your job to see what evidence is relevant to that claim and demonstrate that you understand that relationship.
Mine the question for clues
Read the question or assignment carefully. Repeat: CAREFULLY. Circle keywords or ideas that the professor uses (you'll want to include these in your answer). Next, look for these words or concepts in the text itself. Where do they appear? Does the meaning of the word differ in these different examples? Often, the definition of concepts an author gives at the beginning of a text will develop or evolve as the text progresses. These shifts or contradictions can be a helpful starting point for analysis. Does the author have a consistent definition for a concept (this is rarely the case)? For example, if there isn't a consistent definition, then does this mean that the author is trying to slip something new into the argument without actually accounting for it?
Be Aware of Assumptions
Assumptions are beliefs that are not mentioned explicitly in the text, but are ideas the author bases his arguments on. To identify assumptions, ask yourself what does the author believe to be true (what is his or her perspective on the world? What does the argument assume about gender? race? class?). For example, the argument that all souls go to heaven assumes that souls exist.
Ask Yourself Questions
To make sure you fully understand the argument, play the role of adversary.
For example, ask yourself:
- In order for this argument to be true, what does the author need to prove?
- Why is this argument important?
- If this argument or concept were implemented, what would the consequences be (for the other parts of the argument? in general?)
- What parts of the argument are potentially contradicting each other?
- What are potential alternatives to the philosopher's argument?
- Are the social/political/economic conditions different now from the period during which the author was writing? How might the conditions of the period have influenced his or her argument?
Put the Argument in Your Own Words
One of the most common pitfalls in philosophy writing is misusing terms or using wordy structures. This often occurs when writers do not define the terms that they are using. Alternatively, a writer might use compound sentence structures in an attempt to make the point sound more academic than it needs to. Both mistakes can harm the readability and credibility of your writing. Professors want to know that you understand the material—the best way to demonstrate this is by translating the ideas into your own words. Imagine you are explaining the idea to a friend. Use very simple language.
Stay Close to the Text
Remember: everything you include in your paper should relate directly to the task of explaining what the author means. If you include examples to explain your argument, make sure they are succinct and relevant. Another tip: be very cautious about using phrases such as "in my opinion." If you are asked for your opinion, make sure you draw on the text to show reasons for your conclusions.
One good way to stay close to the text is to incorporate quotations. Things to keep in mind:
- Use quotations sparingly and strategically, to capture key phrases or definitions
- Quote only as much as you absolutely need— sometimes a word or phrase is enough. If you quote more than one or two lines, your readers might a) not read it and b) question your judgment
- Never include a quotation without telling your reader what it means and why it matters. Integrate your quotation in the paragraph by introducing it before and responding to it after
Mill argues that this freedom to follow "desires and impulses" is what determines character, which he calls "the stuff of which heroes are made" (57). In short, he claims that if we reject individuality, we're rejecting heroes—something no one would argue for.
Structuring Your Paper
Here is one common structure you might follow in a philosophy explication paper: Introduction – Definitions – Analysis.
Most philosophy papers follow a simple pattern, using the FIRST SENTENCE to state the thesis or main argument. This establishes the context for the paper, and tells the reader why you are writing this paper. For example, you might begin with, "In this paper I will argue that…" Follow this by explaining HOW you will argue this. "I will do this by…" Are you going to compare two philosophers? Are you going to explicate a philosopher's argument to show us how he or she reaches a certain conclusion? Tell readers what the structure of your argument will look like.
Because philosophers use words in different ways to explore different concepts, it is vital that you explain what a philosopher means by the term or concept being discussed. In most philosophy papers, writers will begin by explaining the terms at hand. If your essay argues that Rousseau's concept of the social contract provides greater freedom than Mill's arguments for individual liberty, you'll need to explain what liberty means to these philosophers, and the similarities/differences in their understanding and use of the term. Sometimes philosophers' use of a term may change during the course of a paper or work—be sure to explore how they use words from the beginning to end. Does the philosopher contradict herself or himself? Does he or she change her mind about the concepts at hand?
As you define these terms and describe how philosophers differ or agree on these definitions, you are doing the most crucial work of the essay— analyzing. Your instructor is interested less in what the philosopher has said (which they probably already know) and MORE in what you think of what the philosopher has said.
In an explication paper, your analysis involves explaining how a philosopher makes an argument. What are the pieces of the argument, and how do they fit together? Remember, this requires more than summarizing. If you find yourself using phrases like "Next, Rousseau says…" or "Then, she argues…" you might be in danger of simply re-capping the author's argument. Be sure you explain how the philosopher reaches a particular conclusion. How is the argument supported? What is it supported by?
Close Reading Example: Literature
Consider this passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch:
Dorothea had gathered emotion as she went on, and had forgotten everything except the relief of pouring forth her feelings, unchecked: an experience once habitual with her, but hardly ever present since her marriage, which had been a perpetual struggle of energy with fear. For the moment, Will's admiration was accompanied with a chilling sense of remoteness. A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her: nature having intended greatness for men. But nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention; as in the case of good Mr. Brooke, whose masculine consciousness was at this moment in rather a stammering condition under the eloquence of his niece.
Analyzing the Passage.
Begin by asking yourself some questions about how language is being used in the passage.
What words are being used here? Are any words repeated in this passage? What adjectives are used? What nouns do they describe? How do they alter your understanding of these nouns? Are any two (or more) words used in this passage connected in some way?
In this passage, you may observe that the words "greatness" and "nature" are repeated, and that these words are connected to "men." Similarly, you may notice words such as "emotion" and "feeling" are associated with "women." However, it is useful to note that "greatness" is also connected to women, and to the character of Dorothea in particular.
Who is speaking in this passage? What narrative perspective is being used in this passage? What does the narrative voice tell you? What characters does it give you access to?
Here, third-person narrative voice is being used, but this voice incorporates the perspectives of three different characters: Dorothea, Will, and Mr. Brooke. This technique gives the reader greater insight into the attitudes and motivations of these characters.
At this point, you can construct a descriptive thesis (remember, this is not your final thesis), such as:
The word choice in this passage sets up a distinction between men and women, and the narrative voice gives the reader access to how various characters understand this distinction.
Constructing an argument about the passage. Now you must figure out why this passage is associating these particular words and giving you access to these particular characters.
You could argue a number of different things in relation to this passage. Here is one example of a thesis that deals with both HOW language is used and (importantly) WHY language is used in this way:
George Eliot's use of diction and narrative perspective in Middlemarch complicates the conventional understanding of gender and gender relations by refusing to adhere to a strict separation of gendered traits.
Now you have an argument about the passage you are working with. In this example, the body of your paper should expand on this argument by explaining in detail how you see diction and narrative voice working to complicate conventional gender associations and distinctions.
While you may choose to look at different uses of language and/or construct a different argument about how language is used in this (or any other) passage, keep in mind that a successful close reading will look both at the way in which language is used and at how this use of language communicates or illuminates the larger themes of the passage and/or the text. and at how this use of language communicates or illuminates the larger themes of the passage and/or the text.
Close Reading Example: Philosophy
If you are asked to choose a passage yourself, look for something that appears to be a key quote and begin asking yourself some questions about it. Be prepared to re-read and re-think your analysis several times. Most people write a whole bunch of stuff and then distil it down to its most basic elements and then show the relationship between those elements. For example, take a very important quote from Kant:
Intuitions without concepts are blind. Concepts without intuitions are empty.
There are two key terms in these sentences: intuitions and concepts. A philosophical analysis would typically start off with a definition of each of these terms. This could be provided by looking at some other passages in Kant to see where he might provide a definition. Try to explain what each element is on its own before showing how it relates to other elements. There are likely passages all over the place that could be used; your job is to summarize those passages in a simple definition, such as "intuition is the content of our experience." Then we move onto "concepts."
The same thing applies here with concepts. We can start talking about the relationship of concepts to ideas or how concepts belong to the faculty of understanding, but we want to stick with something simple to begin with and then we can move onto the more complex. For a concept, we could find a quote in Kant that provides the evidence for the following claim: "concepts are the form of our experience; they are what we bring to experience in order to make sense of it." This is where things get a little confusing because concepts, in their very nature, relate to other things, but it is different to say that concepts relate to other things full stop than to say that concepts relate to other things and then proceed to explain what those other things are. To do the latter would be tangential. For now, we just want to say that concepts are what we bring to experience in order to make experience meaningful; they are the forms of experience.
Now that we've taken apart the sentence and identified the major components, we are in a better position to understand how those components relate to each other. Once we see that intuition provides the content of experience and that concepts provide the form of experience that make experience meaningful, then we can better understand what Kant means when he says that intuitions without concepts are blind and concepts without intuitions are empty. What would it look like to experience something that we have no idea how to understand or that is totally meaningless to us? Imagine seeing something that you can barely describe, like some giant machine in a factory—it's very difficult to see what it is or what it does without understanding how it relates to all the other machines. There is no direction for that experience to move in and there is no way of properly understanding that experience. Similarly, simply having concepts is not sufficient in order to say that we actually understand and have experience of something. For example, if someone was to say the word "Gavagi" without giving you an idea of what that word refers to.. Doesn't make much sense, right? Well, just think about how often people use words or concepts without actually having any experience of those concepts; their concepts are empty and ultimately meaningless as well. We need both concepts and intuitions in order to render our concrete experience meaningful.
Though it may seem silly to spend so much time understanding one line of a philosopher's work, oftentimes the entire work can be understood if a single line is properly understood. Furthermore, the more that you can pull out of a single line, the more depth you can demonstrate in understanding that philosopher. Sometimes developing philosophical abilities really comes down to developing the art of explaining or teaching. This starts off by stating everything that you know (or could know) about a given word, concept, paragraph that you are analyzing and then stringing it together in a clear and logical manner. The ability to do this is the interpretation itself. It may seem straightforward, but each person has a slightly different take on what's going on in sentences like the one above and your own individuality will come out as you try to explain yourself as clearly as possible.
A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis
Use the guidelines below to learn about the practice of close reading.
When your teachers or professors ask you to analyze a literary text, they often look for something frequently called close reading. Close reading is deep analysis of how a literary text works; it is both a reading process and something you include in a literary analysis paper, though in a refined form.
Fiction writers and poets build texts out of many central components, including subject, form, and specific word choices. Literary analysis involves examining these components, which allows us to find in small parts of the text clues to help us understand the whole. For example, if an author writes a novel in the form of a personal journal about a character's daily life, but that journal reads like a series of lab reports, what do we learn about that character? What is the effect of picking a word like "tome" instead of "book"? In effect, you are putting the author's choices under a microscope.
The process of close reading should produce a lot of questions. It is when you begin to answer these questions that you are ready to participate thoughtfully in class discussion or write a literary analysis paper that makes the most of your close reading work.
Close reading sometimes feels like over-analyzing, but don't worry. Close reading is a process of finding as much information as you can in order form to as many questions as you can. When it is time to write your paper and formalize your close reading, you will sort through your work to figure out what is most convincing and helpful to the argument you hope to make and, conversely, what seems like a stretch. This guide imagines you are sitting down to read a text for the first time on your way to developing an argument about a text and writing a paper. To give one example of how to do this, we will read the poem "Design" by famous American poet Robert Frost and attend to four major components of literary texts: subject, form, word choice (diction), and theme.
If you want even more information about approaching poems specifically, take a look at our guide: How to Read a Poem.
As our guide to reading poetry suggests, have a pencil out when you read a text. Make notes in the margins, underline important words, place question marks where you are confused by something. Of course, if you are reading in a library book, you should keep all your notes on a separate piece of paper. If you are not making marks directly on, in, and beside the text, be sure to note line numbers or even quote portions of the text so you have enough context to remember what you found interesting.
The subject of a literary text is simply what the text is about. What is its plot? What is its most important topic? What image does it describe? It's easy to think of novels and stories as having plots, but sometimes it helps to think of poetry as having a kind of plot as well. When you examine the subject of a text, you want to develop some preliminary ideas about the text and make sure you understand its major concerns before you dig deeper.
In "Design," the speaker describes a scene: a white spider holding a moth on a white flower. The flower is a heal-all, the blooms of which are usually violet-blue. This heal-all is unusual. The speaker then poses a series of questions, asking why this heal-all is white instead of blue and how the spider and moth found this particular flower. How did this situation arise?
The speaker's questions seem simple, but they are actually fairly nuanced. We can use them as a guide for our own as we go forward with our close reading.
- Furthering the speaker's simple "how did this happen," we might ask, is the scene in this poem a manufactured situation?
- The white moth and white spider each use the atypical white flower as camouflage in search of sanctuary and supper respectively. Did these flora and fauna come together for a purpose?
- Does the speaker have a stance about whether there is a purpose behind the scene? If so, what is it?
- How will other elements of the text relate to the unpleasantness and uncertainty in our first look at the poem's subject?
After thinking about local questions, we have to zoom out. Ultimately, what is this text about?
Form is how a text is put together. When you look at a text, observe how the author has arranged it. If it is a novel, is it written in the first person? How is the novel divided? If it is a short story, why did the author choose to write short-form fiction instead of a novel or novella? Examining the form of a text can help you develop a starting set of questions in your reading, which then may guide further questions stemming from even closer attention to the specific words the author chooses. A little background research on form and what different forms can mean makes it easier to figure out why and how the author's choices are important.
Most poems follow rules or principles of form; even free verse poems are marked by the author's choices in line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme—even if none of these exists, which is a notable choice in itself. Here's an example of thinking through these elements in "Design."
In "Design," Frost chooses an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter consisting of an octave (a stanza of eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza of six lines). We will focus on rhyme scheme and stanza structure rather than meter for the purposes of this guide. A typical Italian sonnet has a specific rhyme scheme for the octave:
a b b a a b b a
There's more variation in the sestet rhymes, but one of the more common schemes is
c d e c d e
Conventionally, the octave introduces a problem or question which the sestet then resolves. The point at which the sonnet goes from the problem/question to the resolution is called the volta, or turn. (Note that we are speaking only in generalities here; there is a great deal of variation.)
Frost uses the usual octave scheme with "-ite"/"-ight" (a) and "oth" (b) sounds: "white," "moth," "cloth," "blight," "right," "broth," "froth," "kite." However, his sestet follows an unusual scheme with "-ite"/"-ight" and "all" sounds:
a c a a c c
Now, we have a few questions with which we can start:
- Why use an Italian sonnet?
- Why use an unusual scheme in the sestet?
- What problem/question and resolution (if any) does Frost offer?
- What is the volta in this poem?
- In other words, what is the point?
Italian sonnets have a long tradition; many careful readers recognize the form and know what to expect from his octave, volta, and sestet. Frost seems to do something fairly standard in the octave in presenting a situation; however, the turn Frost makes is not to resolution, but to questions and uncertainty. A white spider sitting on a white flower has killed a white moth.
- How did these elements come together?
- Was the moth's death random or by design?
- Is one worse than the other?
We can guess right away that Frost's disruption of the usual purpose of the sestet has something to do with his disruption of its rhyme scheme. Looking even more closely at the text will help us refine our observations and guesses.
Word Choice, or Diction
Looking at the word choice of a text helps us "dig in" ever more deeply. If you are reading something longer, are there certain words that come up again and again? Are there words that stand out? While you are going through this process, it is best for you to assume that every word is important—again, you can decide whether something is really important later.
Even when you read prose, our guide for reading poetry offers good advice: read with a pencil and make notes. Mark the words that stand out, and perhaps write the questions you have in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. If you have ideas that may possibly answer your questions, write those down, too.
Let's take a look at the first line of "Design":
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white
The poem starts with something unpleasant: a spider. Then, as we look more closely at the adjectives describing the spider, we may see connotations of something that sounds unhealthy or unnatural. When we imagine spiders, we do not generally picture them dimpled and white; it is an uncommon and decidedly creepy image. There is dissonance between the spider and its descriptors, i.e., what is wrong with this picture? Already we have a question: what is going on with this spider?
We should look for additional clues further on in the text. The next two lines develop the image of the unusual, unpleasant-sounding spider:
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Now we have a white flower (a heal-all, which usually has a violet-blue flower) and a white moth in addition to our white spider. Heal-alls have medicinal properties, as their name suggests, but this one seems to have a genetic mutation—perhaps like the spider? Does the mutation that changes the heal-all's color also change its beneficial properties—could it be poisonous rather than curative? A white moth doesn't seem remarkable, but it is "Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth," or like manmade fabric that is artificially "rigid" rather than smooth and flowing like we imagine satin to be. We might think for a moment of a shroud or the lining of a coffin, but even that is awry, for neither should be stiff with death.
The first three lines of the poem's octave introduce unpleasant natural images "of death and blight" (as the speaker puts it in line four). The flower and moth disrupt expectations: the heal-all is white instead of "blue and innocent," and the moth is reduced to "rigid satin cloth" or "dead wings carried like a paper kite." We might expect a spider to be unpleasant and deadly; the poem's spider also has an unusual and unhealthy appearance.
- The focus on whiteness in these lines has more to do with death than purity—can we understand that whiteness as being corpse-like rather than virtuous?
Well before the volta, Frost makes a "turn" away from nature as a retreat and haven; instead, he unearths its inherent dangers, making nature menacing. From three lines alone, we have a number of questions:
- Will whiteness play a role in the rest of the poem?
- How does "design"—an arrangement of these circumstances—fit with a scene of death?
- What other juxtapositions might we encounter?
These disruptions and dissonances recollect Frost's alteration to the standard Italian sonnet form: finding the ways and places in which form and word choice go together will help us begin to unravel some larger concepts the poem itself addresses.
Put simply, themes are major ideas in a text. Many texts, especially longer forms like novels and plays, have multiple themes. That's good news when you are close reading because it means there are many different ways you can think through the questions you develop.
So far in our reading of "Design," our questions revolve around disruption: disruption of form, disruption of expectations in the description of certain images. Discovering a concept or idea that links multiple questions or observations you have made is the beginning of a discovery of theme.
What is happening with disruption in "Design"? What point is Frost making? Observations about other elements in the text help you address the idea of disruption in more depth. Here is where we look back at the work we have already done: What is the text about? What is notable about the form, and how does it support or undermine what the words say? Does the specific language of the text highlight, or redirect, certain ideas?
In this example, we are looking to determine what kind(s) of disruption the poem contains or describes. Rather than "disruption," we want to see what kind of disruption, or whether indeed Frost uses disruptions in form and language to communicate something opposite: design.
After you make notes, formulate questions, and set tentative hypotheses, you must analyze the subject of your close reading. Literary analysis is another process of reading (and writing!) that allows you to make a claim about the text. It is also the point at which you turn a critical eye to your earlier questions and observations to find the most compelling points and discard the ones that are a "stretch" or are fascinating but have no clear connection to the text as a whole. (We recommend a separate document for recording the brilliant ideas that don't quite fit this time around.)
Here follows an excerpt from a brief analysis of "Design" based on the close reading above. This example focuses on some lines in great detail in order to unpack the meaning and significance of the poem's language. By commenting on the different elements of close reading we have discussed, it takes the results of our close reading to offer one particular way into the text. (In case you were thinking about using this sample as your own, be warned: it has no thesis and it is easily discoverable on the web. Plus it doesn't have a title.)
Frost's speaker brews unlikely associations in the first stanza of the poem. The "Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right" make of the grotesque scene an equally grotesque mockery of a breakfast cereal (4–5). These lines are almost singsong in meter and it is easy to imagine them set to a radio jingle. A pun on "right"/"rite" slides the "characters of death and blight" into their expected concoction: a "witches' broth" (6). These juxtapositions—a healthy breakfast that is also a potion for dark magic—are borne out when our "fat and white" spider becomes "a snow-drop"—an early spring flower associated with renewal—and the moth as "dead wings carried like a paper kite" (1, 7, 8). Like the mutant heal-all that hosts the moth's death, the spider becomes a deadly flower; the harmless moth becomes a child's toy, but as "dead wings," more like a puppet made of a skull.
The volta offers no resolution for our unsettled expectations. Having observed the scene and detailed its elements in all their unpleasantness, the speaker turns to questions rather than answers. How did "The wayside blue and innocent heal-all" end up white and bleached like a bone (10)? How did its "kindred spider" find the white flower, which was its perfect hiding place (11)? Was the moth, then, also searching for camouflage, only to meet its end?
Using another question as a disguise, the speaker offers a hypothesis: "What but design of darkness to appall?" (13). This question sounds rhetorical, as though the only reason for such an unlikely combination of flora and fauna is some "design of darkness." Some force, the speaker suggests, assembled the white spider, flower, and moth to snuff out the moth's life. Such a design appalls, or horrifies. We might also consider the speaker asking what other force but dark design could use something as simple as appalling in its other sense (making pale or white) to effect death.
However, the poem does not close with a question, but with a statement. The speaker's "If design govern in a thing so small" establishes a condition for the octave's questions after the fact (14). There is no point in considering the dark design that brought together "assorted characters of death and blight" if such an event is too minor, too physically small to be the work of some force unknown. Ending on an "if" clause has the effect of rendering the poem still more uncertain in its conclusions: not only are we faced with unanswered questions, we are now not even sure those questions are valid in the first place.
Behind the speaker and the disturbing scene, we have Frost and his defiance of our expectations for a Petrarchan sonnet. Like whatever designer may have altered the flower and attracted the spider to kill the moth, the poet built his poem "wrong" with a purpose in mind. Design surely governs in a poem, however small; does Frost also have a dark design? Can we compare a scene in nature to a carefully constructed sonnet?
A Note on Organization
Your goal in a paper about literature is to communicate your best and most interesting ideas to your reader. Depending on the type of paper you have been assigned, your ideas may need to be organized in service of a thesis to which everything should link back. It is best to ask your instructor about the expectations for your paper.
Knowing how to organize these papers can be tricky, in part because there is no single right answer—only more and less effective answers. You may decide to organize your paper thematically, or by tackling each idea sequentially; you may choose to order your ideas by their importance to your argument or to the poem. If you are comparing and contrasting two texts, you might work thematically or by addressing first one text and then the other. One way to approach a text may be to start with the beginning of the novel, story, play, or poem, and work your way toward its end. For example, here is the rough structure of the example above: The author of the sample decided to use the poem itself as an organizational guide, at least for this part of the analysis.
- A paragraph about the octave.
- A paragraph about the volta.
- A paragraph about the penultimate line (13).
- A paragraph about the final line (14).
- A paragraph addressing form that suggests a transition to the next section of the paper.
You will have to decide for yourself the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader. Is it easier to follow your points when you write about each part of the text in detail before moving on? Or is your work clearer when you work through each big idea—the significance of whiteness, the effect of an altered sonnet form, and so on—sequentially?
We suggest you write your paper however is easiest for you then move things around during revision if you need to.
If you really want to master the practice of reading and writing about literature, we recommend Sylvan Barnet and William E. Cain's wonderful book, A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. Barnet and Cain offer not only definitions and descriptions of processes, but examples of explications and analyses, as well as checklists for you, the author of the paper. The Short Guide is certainly not the only available reference for writing about literature, but it is an excellent guide and reminder for new writers and veterans alike.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.