ENG200 -- Introduction to Literary Analysis

Prof. Eileen Joy (Fall 2009)

CRITICAL ESSAY -- Close Reading/Interpretation

Due: Wednesday, December 16th

For your critical essay--a CLOSE READING/INTERPRETATION exercise--develop an essay that makes an argument about what you believe is a compelling (compelling = so interesting it's worth talking about) theme of any of the literary works we have read over the course of the semester (play, poem, or novel), OR any other work in our Norton Anthology of Literature. By "theme," I simply mean to indicate whatever it is you believe a work of literature might be trying to tell us about our (or anyone's) lives and the world (or worlds) we live in, or what it might be trying to tell us about anything at all. And secondarily (but very importantly), how does the literary work say what it means (how, in its own very unique way, does it convey its messages)? This is an exercise that requires your willingness to both closely analyze the specfic surface details of a work (its language, structure, figures/characters, setting, moods/tone, etc.) and also contemplate its deeper meanings. Whatever you believe the work's main message to be (and this is an opinion, one among many possible opinions), your interpretation should be grounded in a very close attention to the specific details of the text itself. Almost anything goes in interpretation, but you can't neglect the text itself.

Write a paper of approximately 5 typed (double-spaced) pages (MLA-style citation). NO outside sources are to be used for this paper, which should solely represent your own thinking.


**I would like to note here that the following comprises some of my own thinking, tips culled from The Holt Handbook [6th ed.; pp. 723-26], and from Professors DeLombard's and White's "Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice and Grading," available online here.

    First, Please keep in mind that when I ask you to do a close reading of a literary work in order to make an argument about what you see as one of the important themes or messages of that work, that you do not read to magically discover the ONE correct meaning the author has supposedly hidden between the lines. The "meaning" of a literary work is created by the interaction between a text and its readers, and therefore, most works of literature can convey many different meanings to different readers. Do not assume, however that a work can mean whatever you want it to mean; ultimately, your interpretation must be consistent with the stylistic signals, thematic suggestions, and patterns of imagery in the text. Therefore, in a close reading, whatever observation you want to to make about what you think the author/text is doing/saying, be sure to ALWAYS support your interpretation with direct reference to the text itself (both by providing brief summaries of key content and also by the use of direct quotation).

Here are some TIPS on how to go about doing a close, interpretive reading:

According to DeLombard's and White's guidelines on writing a literary analysis (see hyperlink above for their website, "Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice, and Grading"), "In order to become a good interpreter of literature, you will have to make the important distinction between summary and translation, on the one hand, and interpretation or analysis, on the other. When you summarize, you repeat what the text actually says; when you translate, you explain to your audience in some detail many of the points an astute reader would reach on his or her own -- think of translating something from French into English for a person who speaks both languages. Neither summary nor translation is really a worthwhile endeavor in that neither tells the reader anything he or she did not already know. By contrast, when you interpret or analyze literature, you produce your own ideas about how the text creates meaning. In order to produce these ideas, you will need to perform close reading, to look closely at the language of the text in order to demonstrate not just what you think the text means, but more importantly how it means what you think it does. See the difference? It's an important one" (DeLombard & White).

DeLombard and White also provide some useful tips for getting started on interpreting and analyzing, rather than summarizing or translating:

Summary and translation reproduce what the text says. Persuasive interpretation says what the text means by showing, through close reading, how the text means what you say it means.

    I expect to see a thesis near the beginning of your paper. In other words, I want you to have some kind of point you would like to make/argue in relation to the topic you have chosen. A thesis is NOT a statement in which you simply point out the obvious; for example, "Antigone is a strong woman who stands by her convictions and won't give in to authority." A thesis needs to be ARGUABLE, and the more arguable the better. A better thesis statement about Antigone as a character might be, "Antigone is a strong woman who stands by her convictions to the death, and while this can be viewed as admirable, in this case, what Antigone is willing to die for isn't worth the sacrifice." Can you see the difference?

Here are some TIPS on how to develop a good thesis (also from DeLombard & White):

"Your introductory paragraph should do two things: introduce your reader to your topic and present your thesis. It is important to distinguish in your mind between your topic -- what you will write about -- and your thesis -- what you will argue or attempt to prove in relation to your topic. A thesis may be defined as an interpretation that you set forth in specific terms and propose to defend or demonstrate by reasoned argumentation and literary analysis. Your thesis, then, is the position that you are attempting to persuade your reader to accept."

"Your thesis may be more than one sentence long. If you have a good thesis, however, in most cases you will be able to articulate it in one sentence. If you require two, that's fine, so long as you make sure that the argument is coherent and that the transition from the first to the second sentence is clear and effective."

"Please carefully consider this important hint: You do not need a refined thesis in order to start writing. If you begin with a provisional thesis and then do good and careful close readings, you will often find a version of your final thesis in the last paragraph of a first draft. Integrate that version into your first paragraph and revise from there. Do not worry too much about your thesis, therefore, until after you've written out your close readings! A good final thesis should emerge from, not precede, your analyses."

Below are five steps that will help you work through the process of developing a strong thesis. First, though, please think about these three guidelines (taken from DeLombard & White):

  1. A good thesis is specific, not general. Avoid all sweeping generalities, about human beings, about poetry, about life, about anything "through the ages," etc. If you follow the five steps below, this should not be a problem.
  2. Your thesis should matter to you, and you should be able to imagine that your thesis would matter to any other member of our class. Does your thesis address important issues that the course has raised? Does it pass the "Who cares?" test?
  3. Finally, your thesis statement should give the reader some sense of what the structure of your paper will be. If your thesis contains two or three parts, then your reader will expect you to discuss those two or three parts in the order in which you've given them in your thesis statement.

Now here are five more steps that you can take to develop a thesis and start writing the paper (taken from DeLombard & White):

  1. Reread the texts you intend to discuss and take good, clear notes on passages that seem particularly relevant to the assignment.
  2. Keeping the topic in mind, look over these notes and then select the one specific thing that grabs you the most, the one particular image or metaphor, or limited set of images or metaphors, about which you feel in your gut that you have the most to say.
  3. Next, using your notes make a list of every instance of that image or metaphor, and then from that list choose the two or three passages that call out most loudly for interpretation.
  4. Following my suggestions on close reading above, write out your interpretations of the instances that you've chosen, dedicating one rough paragraph to each. Remember, your goal here is to say not just what you think your passages mean, but rather to show how they mean what you think they mean. What work do they perform, and how do they perform it?
  5. Finally, look at what you've written and let your thesis emerge out of your interpretations, out of your ideas concerning the work that your image or metaphor, or set of images or metaphors, performs in your texts.