Close Reading of a Text
Answer each bullet point in each section thoroughly. You may do this in an outline format.
1. Historical Context
There are a lot of ways to look at a piece of literature. One of these is to understand how it fits into the historical context. Look at when the work was first published (don’t get this confused with the printing date of whatever text you have). For example, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884 at a time when the question of race was of supreme importance after the events of the Civil War. Racism plays a large part in the novel, centering on Huck’s view of Jim in contrast to the way society views him. Apply this same perspective to the text you’re reading. You should consider what is happening both at the time of publication and at the time period in which the text is set; consider why the author chose to tell this story now and why they picked this time period to write about. Focus on events and movements that are culturally significant, not just random events that might have occurred. For example, Ozzy Osborne biting off the head of a live bat during one of his concerts is probably not going to have much significance to one of our books, but the Second Wave of Feminism drawing to an end in the 1980s very well may. DO NOT just look up “things that happened in” whatever year and pick random events.
• What else culturally significant to the text was happening at the time the text was written
• What else culturally significant to the text was happening at the time the story is set (if it’s different from the time period it was written in)?
• What political or social events were occurring?
• Does the author make mention of these either directly or indirectly?
• How do any historical events affect the text?
2. Narrative Point of View
All literary texts share one character in common: the narrator. The narrator is the person who is telling the story. However, there are different types of narrators, depending on the story. Narrators can be either first person or third person. A first person narrator uses “I” and tells the story from their own point of view, allowing their personal experiences and perspectives to color the way they tell the story. In first person narratives, the narrator is often the protagonist, or main character. However, sometimes in a first person narrative, the narrator is a secondary character who observes and reports on the actions of the protagonist.
Narrators can also be third person. This is when the author uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they.” Although not as obvious as in first person cases, third person narrators can also affect the story. Third person narrators can be either omniscient or limited. An omniscient narrator knows everything that has happened and understands all of the implications. A limited narrator only knows as much as a character or characters do. Each of these have different impacts on the story.
Narrators might also be something other than a character, so keep this in mind.
• What type of narrator does the text have?
o First person or third? Protagonist or secondary? Omniscient or limited?
• How do you know?
• What impact does this have on the story?
• How would the story be different with a different type of narrator?
Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in the book’s title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can reveal new interpretations of the novel. An example of a symbol would be something like Harry’s scar in the Harry Potter series. While it’s literally the mark left behind from when Voldemort tried to kill him, I’m looking for the symbolic meaning, which could be that it represents his defeat of Voldemort and his role as the Chosen One.
• What are some symbols that you identified in the text? You need to name at least three.
• What do these symbols stand for?
• What impact do they have on the story?
• Why do you think the author chose these particular symbol(s)?
4. Plot Devices
The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the peak of the story’s conflict—the climax—is followed by the resolution, or denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented.
• What plot devices does the author use to make the plot more complex?
• How do these impact the text?
• What do you consider the climax of the story? Why?
• What is the resolution?
Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound questions will arise in the reader’s mind about human life, social pressures, and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus censorship, the relationship between one’s personal moral code and larger political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts or from new points of view.
• What are some themes that you noticed in the novel? You need at least three.
• What are some examples from the text where you see these themes?
• Why does the author include these themes?