Books guide their readers on a journey. From the beginning through the end, readers observe the characters as they navigate and ultimately overcome the central conflict of the story (the plot), usually arriving at some lesson or theme. However, when one looks closer at a book—beyond the plot, conflict, and characters—a whole new subtext of meaning emerges. Identifying and analyzing seemingly minor details, such as the diction (word choice) and symbolism, introduces the reader to hidden themes and keys them into a more vibrant understanding or new interpretation of the text.
This process of analyzing the details to interpret a text is called close reading and learning how to do this will level up your reading ability and strengthen your relationships with the stories you read, guaranteed. Most of us aren’t in the business of writing scholarly essays (where close reading is particularly useful), but it is a helpful tool nonetheless to strengthen your brain’s ability to make connections and observations, make reading a more active, engaging, and fun process, and impress your friends with the conclusions you arrive at!
So, are you read to learn how to do this? Let’s break it down.
Words themselves have a denotative meaning (denotation: the dictionary definition of a word) and a connotative meaning (connotation: the feelings a word evokes; the association, historical context, or assumptions that create the common, informal meaning of a word). A word’s connotation can clue us into its deeper meaning, and, thus, help us decode the meaning of the text it appears in.
For example, let’s pretend we were reading a paragraph that describes the main character’s bedroom. A sentence mentions that room has “blue curtains.” I can’t imagine these curtains have much to do with the plot (unless the main character somehow uses them to defeat their enemy), so there must be another reason they are important enough to include in this description. So, now, we try to figure out why. What is the importance of these blue curtains?
We’ll begin with the latter half of this phrase: “curtains.” We know what those are; forget the denotation. Now we ask questions. What do curtains do? What do we associate curtains with? What do they resemble? Curtains…we draw them across the window. They shut out the outside; they dampen the light. They are like a veil. They create a barrier between the main character and the exterior world. Now, what sense does all this evoke? The feeling of being trapped, darkened, and hidden away, perhaps.
Ok, now we wonder about “blue.” It’s a color. What else? Blue is often associated with sadness, for instance, “feeling blue.” How does that relate to our curtains? Perhaps these curtains are a symbol of the dark veil of depression that swathes and isolates the main character. That could work. The other context clues surrounding this passage and our general knowledge of the character can confirm or disprove our interpretation of this phrase. However, I hope you see how what once appeared as a minor detail, when scrutinized, revealed a deeper meaning that can be observed, analyzed, interpreted, and used to decode the meaning of the entire text, in this case, by clueing us into the character’s mindset.
Let’s analyze a bigger phrase. Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Millpond” is a challenge poem to understand. Essentially, it describes Komunyakaa’s hometown and his complicated relationship with it as an area ravaged by pollution. The second stanza begins:
We sat there as the moon rose
Up from chemical water,Lines 26-27.
Divorced from its context, there is still a lot we can analyze about this phrase. For instance, I immediately wonder who “we” are in the first line. “We” are just sitting, seemingly observing but not acting on what is seen.
What are they seeing? “We” are watching the moon rise over “chemical” water. “Chemical” most likely refers to the pollution, so now what is the significance of the moon rising “up” from it? We can figure this out by enacting the same process as above.
We ask, what is the moon? Something that sheds light, right? But it is also indicative of night. Here, light is being shed upon something—a body of water—that is simultaneously obscured by the dark of night. What might that represent? It could show a dim understanding—a shedding of light—over a largely murky, unknown, and ignored subject. People see it but they do nothing (as “we” sit and merely observe the moon shed light on it). The pollution is known, but people chose not to act on it even as they see it happening. Komunyakaa later admits in his book Dark Waters that this—ignored pollution—is the one of the central meanings of “The Millpond.” And we just successfully figured that out! In two lines nonetheless!
Starting to get it? Close reading is the process through which we analyze specific words or symbols to interpret the meaning of a text beyond that which is readily apparent. We do this by observing, asking questions, discovering patterns, and making connections to ultimately determine what a text means.
Let me show you one more example. “The Revolt of Mother” is a short story written by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman in the 1890’s (the full text of which can be found here for those who wish to follow along). At the surface level, it’s the story of a wife’s (Sarah Penn’s) rebellion against her lying, selfish husband (Adoniram Penn). However, upon closer inspection, this story is teeming with feminist subtexts and is, ultimately, about a woman escaping the trappings of feminine domesticity.
A while ago, I analyzed “The Revolt of Mother” by looking at the notions of gendered space and essentialist feminist theory and how Freeman uses them to construct Sarah’s rebellion as a feminist act.
“The Revolt of Mother” clearly delineates masculine and feminine space, placing women where they are restricted and men where they are boundless and powerful. Freeman describes the Penns’ property, writing “the deep yard in front was littered with farm wagons and piles of wood; on the edges, close to the fence and the house, the grass was a vivid green, and there were some dandelions” (Freeman 649). The Penns’ “deep yard,” or the expanses of their farm property, is “littered” with farming equipment, items of masculine work, outside, beyond the house, on the farm, while the house’s most noticeable feature is its proximity to green grass and flowers. According to essentialist feminist theory, as outlined by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan in “Feminist Paradigms,” women are more connected to the natural world then men due to the “material nature of women’s bodies” resulting from women’s role in reproduction (Rivkin 767). In this line of thought, Freeman uses natural imagery—green grass and dandelions—to mark the house (and domesticity along with it) as a feminine space. Freeman’s use of natural imagery sometimes empowers her female characters, when she describes Sarah Penn as being “as immovable…as one of the rocks in his pastureland, bound to the earth with generations of blackberry vines” (Freeman 649). Though she also implements it to reinforce society’s preference for meek, innocent women, such as when she describes Sarah’s daughter, Nanny, as “pink and delicate as a flower” (Freeman 650). Either way, Freeman recognizes the association between the female body and the natural world, and she uses it to delineate certain spaces—physical spaces on the property as well as human bodies—as either masculine or feminine.Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. “The Revolt of Mother.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 649-659.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
That paragraph serves as the mere beginning of a longer essay, but hopefully you see how specific quotes were identified, analyzed, and connected to broader ideas to uncover the gender politics in the beginning of “The Revolt of Mother.” Following these trends throughout the text paints a vivid picture of one woman’s dissatisfaction with the suppression she faces as a married woman and of the oppression women endured in society as a whole at the time. But you have to close read it to fully uncover this.
Close reading takes practice; don’t feel bad if you don’t learn it overnight. Hopefully you feel better acquainted to this process than you did five minutes ago, and you will become better acquainted to it over time. But, as I said, you must practice. Go pick up a book and see what you can discover in it. You might just be the one to make the next groundbreaking interpretation!