literary criticism Assignment

In literary criticism, a close reading is a careful, sustained interpretation of a discrete portion of
a text. Close reading involves analyzing the textual details in a passage, paying attention to both
form and content, and examining how these textual details speak to the broader themes and
concerns that preoccupy the text as a whole.
Perform a close reading of a passage from one of the texts we have read so far. Your chosen
passage should be no longer than two paragraphs of prose or 3 stanzas from a poem. Your close
reading will take on the form of a 750-1000 word mini-essay with a clear thesis/central argument
and a body that supports this argument by discussing concrete textual details such as word
choice, sentence structure, point of view, figurative language (metaphors, similes,
personification), tone, diction, and historical and literary allusions.
Some tips on how to perform a close reading:

1.To get started, read the passage in question more than once. Pay attention to its details and
assume that everything is significant. Relate elements of style, tone, form, and structure to the
overall meaning of the selected passage. Pay particular attention to the following:
• Word order and sentence structure: Is the sentence structure (syntax) remarkable in
any way? Are sentences long or short? In poetry, do lines have strong end-stops or do
they enjamb (i.e., run into one another), and do they follow an identifiable rhyme scheme
and/or meter? What effect does this have on the text? What role does punctuation play in
the text? Is it conventional or unconventional? To what effect?

• Keywords, diction (word choice): What are the words that stand out to you and why?
Are there any words with multiple or ambiguous meanings? Do repeated words carry the
same meaning each time they are used or does the meaning change? What is distinctive
about the word choice? When dealing with historical texts like Roughing it in the Bush and A
Plea for Emigration, you may want to look up the historical meaning of certain words in the
Oxford English Dictionary (available online through our library).

• Point of view or shifts in point of view: Who speaks? If it is a first-person point of
view, is the speaker’s subject position (i.e., their gender, race, class, or other personal
particularities) relevant to the meaning of the passage? Who is being addressed? Is the
point of view omniscient or is it limited omniscient? Does the point of view shift? If it
does, what is the significance of this?
• Tone: What attitude does the “voice” of the text take toward the subject of the text? Is the
tone serious, ironic, amorous, argumentative, intimate, conversational, etc.? Does the tone
change throughout the text? Is it clear or ambiguous?
• Use of figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, etc.)
• Use of verbs (passive or active voice? conditional mode? past or future tense?
imperative mode?)

• Ambiguities, contradictions, etc.
• Imagery: How does the text represent sensory experiences (vision/sight, smell,
hearing/auditory, taste/gustatory, touch/tactile)?
What pictures or senses are captured in the words of the text? What imagery, if any, is
most striking or frequent? How does this imagery connect to the central concerns of the text as a

  1. Annotate the text: circle key terms and quotes; make a note as to whether certain elements of
    the passage point to other points in the text or beyond it.
  2. Use your annotations/findings to formulate a working thesis:
    • Have a rationale for your selection of the passage: why is this passage or image
    important? This will help you contextualize your close reading, and, in the case of
    your essay, strengthen your thesis statement.
    • You cannot possibly discuss every single detail of the selected passage, so select the
    passage while keeping in mind how much close analysis you can provide within the
    limited length of the essay.
    • Formulate a thesis that 1) addresses what you consider to be the central preoccupations
    of the text in question and 2) articulates how this passage relates to those central
    *Note that the order in which you discuss the specific aspects of the passage does not have to
    follow the order in which they appear in it. The order of elements to be discussed should follow
    the logic of your argument.

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