02 Sep 2009 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 0: Close Reading

Write a close reading of one or more of the assigned works.

Length: 2 pages (about 500 words). Bring to class. (In the future, I will ask you to submit your exercises to Turnitin.com.)

Demonstrate your ability to use direct quotations from the  literary works in order to defend a non-obvious claim about the literary works.

People can be hypocrites.
The above claim is about real people, not about a literary work, so it's not appropriate for this class.

The story "Young Goodman Brown" shows that people can be hypocrites.
While the above claim does focus on a literary work, it's pretty obvious.

Despite his hypocrisy, Young Goodman Brown is a sympathetic character. His insistence that his father and his wife could not have failed to live up to their own moral standards suggests humility, and his final decision suggests that he does not see himself as morally superior to anyone else.
The above version is a much stronger thesis, since an intelligent reader might actually disagree with the claim. To make your case, you'd need to quote specific passages from the work, and build an argument with that textual evidence.


Keep the Focus on the Author's Words
Pitfalls to Avoid

Keep the Focus on the Author's Words

Last term, I suggested that students avoid some common pitfalls (I list them below) by keeping their sentences focused on what the author is doing, or what the author's words are doing, rather than what the characters are dong.

Here we see a focus on the literary character:

After talking with his wife, Young Goodman Brown says good-bye and enters the forest.
It merely retells a plot detail -- someone who already read the literary work will gain exactly zero insight from reading this passage.

In the following passage, we see a different approach -- one much more attentive to the author's creative choices and controlling presence:

Faith "letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap" (1) suggests that her apparent function, as a moral anchor to the protagonist's home life, is illusory. Her willing encounter with the forces of natural chaos (the wind) hint that Brown is mistaken to put all his trust in her unwavering morality. Hawthorne clearly delineates the physical boundaries between the safe town and the dangerous wilderness, but as Brown learns the dark underside of the entire social fabric of the town, we are left wondering just how sensible it is to look at human nature in black and white terms.
I don't mean to suggest that you need to pepper every sentence with "Hawthorne clearly..." or "Poe achieves...."  But I do encourage you to make sure that the plot details you mention are supporting an argument about the author's literary accomplishment, rather than re-telling the author's plot.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Students who are new to close reading may instead find themselves writing:

  1. Plot summary. ("This is the story of a husband who goes on a journey, despite his wife's pleas that he stay. What he finds on his journey is that people in his community are not what they seem. He first encounters this lesson when...")
  2. A personal essay that shares the thoughts that pop into their heads while they read, that demonstrates their ability to apply the story to their own lives, or that simply lists what they do or don't like about the reading. ("I have read other works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I hadn't read this one. So when I first began to read, I was expecting....")
  3. An essay that attempts to match elements from the story with details from the author's biography. ("Edgar Allen Poe suffered fits of depression and anxiety. This story has bleak imagery that reflects the anxiety of people who fear for their lives. Therefore....")
  4. An essay that treats the fictional characters as if they were real people, and criticizes their failures or celebrates their heroism as if they have a free will and a life apart from their representation in the finite set of words the author wrote. Examples might include speculating on what childhood tragedies might have made them who they are, or imagining what happened next, after the story ended. (Any one of these details might be admissible, as a minor point in a paper that otherwise focuses on the text itself.)
  5. An essay that ignores the fictional world created by the author, and instead focuses on our world, or differences between our world and the world of the literary work. Often this takes the form of judging the work and its characters by closely they match 21st century values. Examples to avoid might include:
    1. a discussion of differences between the life of a 21st century college student and the life of the protagonist
    2. a paper that uses the literary work as a handy example to "prove" a point about the real world. ("In the past, women were regularly oppressed by a patriarchal society. Hester Prynne lives in a patriarchal society, and she is oppressed. [Plot summary for The Scarlet Letter plot goes here.] Women have come a long way since the days of Hester Prynne, but we still have a long way to go if we are to achieve full equality.")  [This claim about women would be true even if the book The Scarlet Letter never existed, so anything this paper says about the literary work has no real bearing on the thesis.]


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