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Write a Close Reading

An example of the analytical process for a close reading in English

The following passage is 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

Diction

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.

Narrative Voice

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. 

Rhetorical and Literary devices

Do you notice any figurative language, such as metaphors and similes? Do you observe any imagery? Is the sound of the language and sentences important (e.g., rhyme, repetition, choppy or long sentences)? What is the effect of these devices and techniques? (e.g., do they add emphasis or connect key ideas?)

In this example, we could talk about how the passage personifies nature with phrases such as “nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention,” suggesting that nature has the traits of a well-meaning but absent-minded woman.

Descriptive thesis

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.

Construct 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.

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