The Power of Close Reading
‘Close reading’ is defined as a thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep and detailed understanding of the text’s form and craft, and especially its meanings. It includes concentrating on short short passages and excerpts, plunging right into the text with limited pre-reading activities, focusing on the text itself rather than any biographical details about the author or other contextual facts, and often re-reading carefully. It’s practised in literary classes at school and university.
A reader’s personal experience, their own observations and knowledge will of course play a part in any interpretations of meaning, but when you close read, you observe facts and details about the text. As you read, you can focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole, noticing any striking aspects, including rhetorical features, structural elements and cultural references, or your aim may be to look for particular features of the text — stylistic techniques or historical references and so on. Close observation constitutes the core of the process of close reading.
Inductive reasoning then takes over: you move from the observation of particular facts and details to conclusions or interpretations based on those observations. That involves carefully thinking about what your observations add up to. You may have encountered something like this in literature classes at school, and been put off, perhaps, by the apparent tedium of going through a text line by line — occasionally word by word — to try to find ‘meaning’. Many students complain that the meaning that the teachers are telling them is there is far-fetched and probably not intended by the author, and the boring methods often used in schools to convey the power and depth of literature are to blame for much cynicism in this field. This is a great shame, as close reading is a fascinating method of understanding meanings in fiction and becoming better writers.
It’s worth taking a fresh look at it.
Where do you start?
Take a literary text — any piece of fiction which is likely to yield meanings-- and begin by reading it carefully and underlining or highlighting key words and phrases—anything that strikes you as significant, or that raises questions. Make some notes in the margins if you can, too. Pay close attention, because we can not only learn about the text in front of us but pick up valuable tools for writing our own fiction.
Consider the opening paragraph from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, one bit at a time:
Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.
The caves are not only the fulcrum of events that take place in the novel, but the best symbol of what the story is ‘about’, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that at the core of all things is an essential emptiness, a vacuum into which anything of any significance is sucked and absorbed. That is the theme of the novel as a whole, and we see Forster flagging it up in the opening to the novel — but, as close readers, we don’t know anything about that yet, only that the Caves are ‘extraordinary’.
With masterful sleight-of-hand, Forster doesn’t focus on the Caves at all, but shots our gaze to the Indian part of the city of Chandrapore, described in the bleakest of terms:
Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest.
Note the words and phrases which punctuate this paragraph: ‘Edged rather than washed’, ‘scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish’, ‘the Ganges happens not to be holy here’, ‘shut out’, ‘mean’, ‘ineffective’, ‘hidden away’, ‘filth’. This is a view of physical and spiritual degradation, expanded upon in the following few sentences:
Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving.
Forster in a few words strips the place of any sense of beauty or worth, growing more vehement and using more emotive terms as he goes along:
So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.
In this way, he effectively ‘writes off’ the Indian part of the city, before moving on to look at the explicitly different British section shortly afterwards:
On the second rise is laid out the little civil station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens. It is no city, but a forest sparsely scattered with huts. It is a tropical pleasaunce washed by a noble river. The toddy palms and neem trees and mangoes and pepul that were hidden behind the bazaars now become visible and in their turn hide the bazaars.
Suddenly, from this different perspective, the city has become an exotic haven. Note how Forster uses the native names for the trees to enhance his white, middle-class readers’ sense of the exotic; also note the use of word to suggest elevation or even ascension:
They rise from the gardens where ancient tanks nourish them, they burst out of stifling purlieus and unconsidered temples. Seeking light and air, and endowed with more strength than man or his works, they soar above the lower deposit to greet one another with branches and beckoning leaves, and to build a city for the birds. Especially after the rains do they screen what passes below, but at all times, even when scorched or leafless, they glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise, so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment.
‘Rise’, ‘nourish’, ‘burst out’, ‘Seeking light and air’, ‘endowed with more strength’, ‘soar above’, ‘beckoning’, ‘glorify’ — a close reader pays attention to this use of language. These images are ironic, of course: ‘disillusionment’ is the reality. And this is managed by the emotionless British:
As for the civil station itself, it provokes no emotion. It charms not; neither does it repel. It is sensibly planned, with a redbrick club on its brow, and farther back a grocer's and a cemetery, and the bungalows are disposed along roads that intersect at right angles. It has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky.
If there is anything in the novel which transcends the existential horror of the Marabar Caves, it is the sky:
The sky too has its changes, but they are less marked than those of the vegetation and the river. Clouds map it tip at times, but it is normally a dome of blending tints, and the main tint blue. By day the blue will pale down into white where it touches the white of the land, after sunset it has a new circumference— orange, melting upwards into tenderest purple. But the core of blue persists, and so it is by night. Then the stars hang like lamps from the immense vault. The distance between the vault and them is as nothing to the distance behind them, and that farther distance, though beyond colour, last freed itself from blue.
The sky, with its transcendent beauty, overarches the parts of the place that have already been described:
The sky settles everything— not only climates and seasons but when the earth shall be beautiful.
By herself she can do little— only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily; size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again.
However, Forster has a story to tell, and so this opening concludes with the place which means to be that story’s centre:
Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves.
So Forster comes full circle, back to the ‘extraordinary caves’. Read casually, this opening appears to be a rich description of Chandrapore and it is easy to miss the distinct sections in it; read more carefully, it is a map of where Forster plans to take us and what he plans to do with us as readers. As we proceed in this way, paying close attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we reason toward our own ideas.
Close reading is not just something English Literature teachers compel students to do at school — it’s the key to understanding what literature itself can do. And, understood correctly, it can open the door to becoming better writers, as we shall see.