Close reading: prose fiction (classroom activity)

16/05/2017

Reading time: 8 minutes

Introduction

Close reading is a big part of exams, as well as an essential, everyday part of studying and developing an understanding of a text. These five steps offer just one way of doing close reading. This five-step approach, designed for students, draws on four really helpful concepts from stylistics about the process of interpretation, and takes care to avoid some common problems. It is designed for extracts from prose fiction, but can be easily adapted for other kinds of texts.

Five steps in close reading for extracts from prose fiction

1. Read through for initial impressions

Start by noticing your initial impressions, rather than by looking for big themes straight away. Themes are often broad and complex, like ‘a critique of capitalism’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or ‘warning against totalitarianism’ in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In novels, themes can arise through lots of small, sometimes subtle suggestions interspersed throughout the whole text. If you’re dealing with just a couple of paragraphs from a novel, looking for broad themes can be a struggle. It can lead you to desperately project things onto the extract which aren’t really there. Focusing only on themes can also lead you to miss or neglect the less obvious, often less specific or definite aspects of interpretation which contribute to those themes. Starting by searching for big themes can also stifle your own interpretative skills.

It can be easier, and often ultimately more insightful, to begin with initial impressions. Impressions can be less fully formed, more abstract and less precise than the kinds of themes we often focus on when discussing texts. Initial impressions can include aspects of atmosphere (e.g. ‘gloominess’, ‘confusion and disorientation’, ‘a sense of innocence’ or ‘a sense of mystery’, etc.), setting (e.g. ‘a vastness, desolation’) and character relations (e.g. ‘cold and uncooperative’), etc. These kinds of impressions are the very beginnings of interpretation, and it is these aspects which usually add up to the fully formed themes: it is through these impressions that those themes are constructed, developed and communicated. 

Start your close reading by asking yourself what initial impressions arise for you in your reading. This will keep your close reading grounded in the text and will help you pay proper attention to your own interpretative responses.

2. Annotation and analysis

The next step is to go back through the extract with those interpretative impressions in mind, and try to locate where, and how, in the text they arise. What do you notice, sentence by sentence? Underline the parts which stand out to you, including those which seem to be fueling those interpretative impressions, and any others you might have. For everything you underline, draw an arrow out into the margins and note down the following:

a) What kind of feature of language is it? Use terms and concepts you have learnt about to help you be detailed and precise.

b) What is it doing, in this context? What is it contributing to the meaning of the extract?

c) Does it relate to or connect up and with any other features and features of the extract?

It is here that four useful principles of interpretation come into play.

  • Foregrounding: Foregrounding is the relative prominence (as consciously or subconsciously perceived by the reader) of particular features (through patterns and deviation). An important part of the study of literature, and particularly close reading, is the act of paying attention to prominence, and making what might at first be subconscious impressions become conscious – bringing them into focus and conscious attention. Features are foregrounded through parallelism and deviation, and they work to create meaning together through ‘cohesion of foregrounding’.
  • Parallelism: According to Short’s (1996) ‘Parallelism rule’ for interpretation, paralleled structures suggest meaningful connections. So, paralleled features like repeated sounds, or metaphors, or structural repetition such as each adjective in a list of three adjectives, lead us to look for and create connections between each repeated element. Each repeated element gains associations of the other in the pair or set. Their associations combine to create a whole, integrated impression made up of its parts.
  • Deviation: Deviation is departure from a norm, convention, system or pattern. For example, you might encounter a list of adjectives all two syllables long, and then the list closes with one which is three syllables long. The deviation from the parallelism (the repeated pattern of two-syllable adjectives) makes the three-syllable adjective stand out, and seem or become more meaningfully significant.
  • Cohesion of foregrounding: ‘Cohesion of foregrounding’ is a phrase coined by Geoffrey Leech, in Style in Fiction (1970), to describe the way in which we try to link up foregrounded features and find meaning in the ways they function together. A good example is the way in which we see a constellation in an array of stars, drawing a connecting shape between the stars that shine the brightest. Themes arise through our process of ‘connecting up the(foregrounded) dots’.

These are processes of interpretation which underlie close reading, and which help to explain what we notice and how we find meaning. If you’re struggling to ‘see’ anything meaningful in a close reading text, focus on the parts which have triggered your initial interpretative impressions, and look for foregrounding, patterns and deviation.

Tip: The reason the interpretative impressions you started with are called ‘initial’ interpretative impressions is because they are likely to evolve and change, as you start exploring them, into fuller and deeper interpretative impressions and analytical insights.

3. Reflective relation to themes

In some tasks, you’re given a close reading extract which is an extract from a bigger text, like a novel, which you’ve studied and are familiar with. The fourth step in this process is to reflect on the kinds of things which you see at work in the close reading text, and explore connections between these and the themes and workings of the whole novel.

4. Selection and planning

As your interpretative skills and confidence develop, you’ll get better at seeing more and more in a close reading text. Not all of it will be hugely interpretatively significant, and you may not have time to cover all of it in an exam. Select your key points based on how interpretatively significant they are. If something at work in this extract is closely tied in with one of the novel’s broader themes, it’s probably worth including, but only if you’ve got something to say about how it’s working here. If you’ve noticed something but you can’t get beyond naming and describing it (that is, you can’t go beyond description to analysis), think about leaving it out.

Once you’ve chosen your key points, select the best (most illustrative) example(s) to quote and discuss when making that point. Again, you might not have time to include everything that illustrates that point: be selective.

Remember, a response to a close reading exercise needs to be structured carefully, just like any other kind of essay. Decide on a sequence for your points. You could order them in a way which follows the extract’s sequential development, or you could start with the points which bear the most interpretative significance and work on to those which are interesting but which you find less deeply meaningful. Alternatively, you could begin with points discussing aspects of the extract which are interpretatively interesting but which don’t seem overtly connected to the themes of the novel as a whole, and then move on to the elements of the extract which do relate and contribute to the novel’s broader themes.

5. Writing your response

Now it’s time to write your response. Don’t forget to include an introduction and a conclusion, just like any other essay. The paragraphs which make up the main body of the essay need to do the following:

  •  Each main paragraph should clearly communicate one point, through illustrative examples and analytical argument.
  • That central point should explain the relationship between a feature of the text and its interpretative effects. If you find yourself devoting a paragraph to describing a feature without talking about its effects, or describing interpretative effects without talking about how the text creates those effects, that paragraph needs to be developed or cut.
  • Always provide and discuss illustrative quotations to explain the relationship between the feature and effect.

A main paragraph can do more than this, of course, such as considering other possible interpretations, but these are the essential elements.

A last tip: Communicating clearly is more important than sounding intelligent or ‘academic’. If trying to write in a very sophisticated style results in your phrasing becoming confused and confusing and your meaning getting lost, step back to a more simple and straightforward style. There’s no point in using lots of long words and complex sentence structures if the person reading your essay can’t understand what you mean. Clarity is always the priority.

Conclusion

This five step process is just one approach. There are lots of other ways of doing close reading. Some will suit you and your thinking and planning processes more than others. This approach does, though, cover some of the crucial bases, and helps you to avoid the risks of trying to map big themes onto extracts awkwardly or inauthentically, and instead make convincing, text-based arguments explaining your interpretation. Underpinned by four key stylistic concepts, it offers a structure for paying close attention to and interpreting the extract itself, always holding firmly onto the relationship between features and interpretative effects. Try it out with some extracts from texts you’re studying and see what kinds of close readings it helps you create.

Further reading

For more on foregrounding, parallelism, deviation and cohesion of foregrounding, see Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose by Mick Short (Longman, 1996) and ‘Ling131’, an online stylistics course created by the same author (you can find a description and link in the ‘Online Resources’ entry in our Reading Suggestions category).