01 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Close Reading

A close reading is a careful, thorough, sustained examination of the words that make up a text. You "read closely" in order to focus your attention on the actual words contained in the text.

A close reading uses short quotations (a few words or only one word) inside sentences that make an argument about the work itself (rather than an argument about your reactions, incidents in the author's life, or whether things today are different from or similar to the society depicted in the literary work).

Note: Close reading is always re-reading.

In a close reading, a text is not so much a mirror to reflect your own opinions and personal reactions; nor is it a window, to look through in order to learn about the subject of the text or the author's motivations or goals; rather, you look at the glass itself -- you look at the language, grammar, punctuation, structure, with the understanding that the author chose each word, each line break, each allusion, in order to achieve a certain effect.

Rather than imagining or arguing about what the author intended, a close reading examines what the text itself has accomplished.

Example: "Trees," Joyce Kilmer (1919)

I THINK that I shall never see 
A poem lovely as a tree. 
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest 
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast; 
A tree that looks at God all day,5
And lifts her leafy arms to pray; 
A tree that may in summer wear 
A nest of robins in her hair; 
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; 
Who intimately lives with rain.10
Poems are made by fools like me, 
But only God can make a tree.

NoThis poem talks about the beauty of trees, and how a tree is a living thing that drinks from the breast of the earth, prays to God, is a home for the birds, relates to the weather in various ways, and is made by God.

The above simply summarizes the content of the poem, without offering any analysis. The summary only focuses on the description of the tree, without addressing the purpose of that description -- comparing the poet's implied failure at creating a lovely poem with God's success in creating lovely trees.

No poem worth the effort simply "talks about" anything.   If you find yourself writing "In this poem, the author talks about" or "In this paper, I will talk about," your spider-sense should tingle.

A poem should generate new thoughts in the mind of the reader, and the poet has carefully crafted the work with specific effects in mind. A close reading involves detective work. We need to count footprints, dust for fingerprints, and map out the scene in order to understand exactly how the poem achieves what it does.

NoI like this poem because it makes you think of a tree as a person. With the Earth's natural resources threatened by the unchecked advance of civilization into what was once pristine nature, Kilmer's "Trees" is important because it forces us to think about our relationship to trees.

Listing your reasons for liking a poem is not part of a close reading. The statements about the rainforest and civilization would be true regardless even if Kilmer had never written this poem, and he probably was not thinking about global deforestation when he wrote it almost a hundred years ago.

If you were looking for a poem to put on the inside cover on a pamphlet promoting an ecological conference, then you might very well need to analyze several different poems in order to find the one that has an ecological message that meshes well with the theme of the conference.  Likewise if you were searching for a poem to honor the achievements of women, or to make a statement about war, or you were trying to find a love poem to recite for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day, your close reading skills can help you find the right poem.

However, in the English classroom, being able to identify the argument a poem makes, and coming up with ways to make use of that argument in the real world, falls under the very basic skills of summary (restating the poem's content) and application (making it useful in your life).

A good close reading sticks to the world that is being represented in the literary work, not the world that you already knew before you ever read the poem.

YesIn "Trees," Kilmer uses personification to bring the reader into close, personal contact with nature.  At first the tree is a conventionally "lovely" object for aesthetic contemplation, but the following stanzas each present the tree as an active participant in a series of relationships. The personified  "hungry mouth" of the tree and the "sweet earth's flowing breast" both invoke the strong emotional bond between the mother and infant.  Likewise, the tree's "leafy arms" are not merely a static metaphor that compares a branch to a human limb; rather, in this poem we see the branches as actively engaged in a relationship. The tree "looks at God" and "raises" her branches "to pray."  The "nest of robins" invokes the image of birds caring for their young, which echoes the relationship between the tree and mother Earth; but this stanza also introduces the idea that the tree is also a source of protection for weaker creatures. This stanza turns out to be an important transition, because in the previous relationships (with the earth and with God), the tree is in the subordinate position.  Now that Kilmer has asked us to consider the tree in an adult role, as a woman dressing up in order to provide for a surrogate family, we see he has provided the tree with a "bosom" on which "snow has lain," and we learn the tree "intimately lives with rain."  In keeping with the mores of the time, the language is discreet, but the sexualized imagery is unmistakable. The final statement that "only God can make a tree" affirms the goodness and virtue of the natural progression through the stages of infant, supplicant, provider, and lover.

The above example uses brief quotations from the text, in order to look closely at what the text does. Note that the acceptable revision can still offer a pro-environmental message, but the focus in the above passage is on the poem itself, and on the world represented by the poem.

Is this the only acceptable meaning that one can get out of this poem? Of course not.

Yes Kilmer's use of feminized language to describe the natural world illustrates the sexist strategies of conventional nature poetry.  Kilmer introduces the tree as a "lovely" passive object presented for the reader's approval, valuing it not for its height, its strength, or its ability to produce seed (which would be conventionally masculine values).  Instead, the poem emphasizes the tree's decorative function, reducing its natural role as a habit for birds to a hairdo that makes a summertime fashion statement. By supplying the tree with a "bosom," Kilmer chooses a loaded word to sexualize the tree's physical relationship with "snow." Likewise, by likening her method of accessing water to a mistress who "intimately lives with" whoever provides for her needs, the poet sexualizes and commercializes a transaction over which the tree (in its natural role as a plant and its metaphorical role as a woman) can exert no free will.  In the final couplet, which compares poetry with trees, and "God" with "fools like me," the poet somewhat arrogantly aligns himself with God. While the text of the poem suggests that the poet's ability to create poems cannot compare with God's ability to create trees, the subtext of the poem (the fact that this particular poem uses language in order to feminize those trees  -- while placing them firmly under God's control) illustrates the poem's subtle confirmation of a male-dominated world view.

Note that the last two examples make diametrically opposed claims about the same work, yet I have marked them both with a green check. Both examples effectively demonstrate the use of close reading skills.

Reality check. Do I really believe that "Trees" is male-chauvinist propaganda?

No, but my close reading makes a good case for it nevertheless. A weakness of this argument is that the masculinized rain and snow have no agency either, so it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that the snow and rain are taking advantage of the tree's need for water. Kilmer was a male born during a period of transition between the 19th and 20th centuries, so it's not really productive, from a literary standpoint, to go hunting for evidence that his values don't perfectly match what is considered politically correct in the 21st century.

How to Read a Text Closely

  1. You will probably want to read your text once through fairly quickly, highlighting unfamiliar words or puzzling details (or marking them with sticky notes, if you're reading a library book).
  2. Go back and look more carefully at the places you marked. Did the ending explain some of the things you initially found puzzling? Do you see any recurring patterns?
  3. Once you have a sense of what you think is important, go through the text again, this time searching specifically for more of whatever caught your eye.
  4. Once you have identified the details that you find interesting, you should come up with a thesis -- a non-obvious claim, supported with direct quotations from the material you are studying. (It is not enough merely to write down a list of isolated observations, in the order they popped into your head.)

When you write a close reading, you should assume that your reader is not only familiar with the text you are examining, but has a copy of it within reach. (It is fine to type the quote you plan to use at the top of your paper, but that quote won't count in terms of page length or word count.)

A close reading does not retell the plot.

Neither should a close reading

  • profile the characters
  • give advice to the author
  • speculate on which people or events in the author's life inspired the literary work
  • list reactions that popped into your head while you were reading
  • compare the society depicted in the story to your own
  • compare the choices and values of the narrator to your own

A close reading does not use a literary work as a handy example to support general claims about the outside world (such as "racism is bad" or "women have come a long way" -- statements that would be true or false regardless of whether someone had written a poem on a related theme).

What does a close reading do?

  • It might look closely at Hamlet's encounter with his father's ghost, and analyze the explicit plot points and the subtle foreshadowing contained in that scene.
  • It might examine the representation of concentric rings of social power in the opening of "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."

What words did the author choose, what do they mean, and what function do they serve? In what ways are word order and grammatical structure significant? (One character might speak only a few words at a time, but grunt a lot; another may ramble.)


The imagery in this passage helps turn the tone of the poem from victimization to anger. In addition to fire images, the overall language is completely stripped down to bare ugliness. In previous lines, the sordidness has been intermixed with cheerful euphemisms: the agonizing work is an "exquisite dance" (24); the trembling hands are "white gulls" (22); the cough is "gay" (25). But in these later lines, all aesthetically pleasing terms vanish, leaving "sweet and ...blood" (85), "naked... [and]...bony children" (89), and a "skeleton body" (95). (An excerpt from a close reading of Tillie Olsen's "I Want You Women Up North to Know"

See also:

Getting an A on an English Paper

That means reading every word: it's not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren't about the real world; they're about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and you have to pay attention to them. -- Jack Lynch

How to Do a Close Reading

We need more evidence, so we go back to the text--the whole essay now, not just this one passage--and look for additional clues. And as we proceed in this way, paying close attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we engage in a process that is central to essay writing and to the whole academic enterprise: in other words, we reason toward our own ideas. --Patricia Kain


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Jennifer Howard (Chronicle)The guidelines recommend 12 methods for achieving those goals. "Extensive and diverse reading requirements" leads the list. Instructors should also make sure their students study literary terminology and critical approaches, ... Read More

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