The big trap students doing both English and Literature fall into is the habit of writing Close Readings like a Language Analysis essay. In essence, the two of these essays must tick the same boxes. But, here’s why analysing texts in Literature is a whole different ball game – in English, you want to be focusing on the methods that the author utilises to get their message across, whereas Literature is all about finding your own message in the writing.
In a Language Analysis essay, the chances are that most students will interpret the contention of the writer in a similar fashion and that will usually be stated in the introduction of the essay. Whereas in Literature, it is the formulation of your interpretation of the author’s message that is what really counts. In a typical Language Analysis essay, the introduction is almost like a summary of what’s going to be talked about in the next few paragraphs whereas in a close reading, it is the fresh ideas beyond the introduction that the markers are interested in.
For this reason, every Close Reading that you do in Literature will be unique. The overarching themes of the text you are writing from may be recurring, but for every passage from the text that you are given, what you derive from that will be specific to it.
From my experience, this is what stumps a lot of students because of the tendency is to pick up on the first few poetic techniques used in the passages and create the basis for the essay from that. This usually means that the student will pick up on alliteration (or another technique that they find easy to identify) used by the author and then try and match it to an idea that they have discussed in class. Whilst this can be an effective way to structure paragraphs, many students aren’t consciously utilising this approach and instead are doing it ‘by accident’ under time pressure, or a lack of understanding of other ways to get a point across.
In general, there are two main approaches that can be followed for body paragraphs in a literature close reading analysis:
1. Start wide and narrow down.
What does this mean? So, as I mentioned before, each of your close readings should be very specific to the passages in front of you and not rehearsed. However, it’s inevitable that you are going to find some ideas coming back more often. So, after reading through the passage, you will usually get a general understanding of the tone that the author has utilised. This will indicate whether the author is criticising or commending a certain character or social idea. Using this general overview to start your paragraph, you can then move closer and closer into the passage until you have developed your general statement into a very unique and clear opinion of the author’s message (with the support of textual evidence of course).
This is the essay approach that is generally preferred by students but is often used poorly, as without practice and under the pressure of writing essays in exam conditions, many students revert back to the old technique of finding a literary device that they are comfortable with and pushing forth with that.
The good thing about this approach is that when you understand the general themes that the author covers, you will become better and better at using that lens to identify the most impactful parts of the passage to unpack as you scrutinise the subtle nuances of the writer’s tone.
2. Start narrow and go wide.
You guessed it - it’s basically the opposite of the approach above. However, this is a more refined way of setting out your exploration of the author’s message as opposed to what was discussed earlier (finding random literary devices and trying to go from there). Using this approach does not mean that you have no direction of where your paragraph might end, it just means that you think the subtle ideas of the author can be used in culmination to prove their wider opinion. For example, if you get a passage where the author describes a character in great detail (Charlotte Brontë students, you might be familiar!) and you think there is a lot of underlying hints that the author is getting at through such an intricate use of words, then you might want to begin your paragraphs with these examples and then move wider to state how this affects the total persona built around this character and then maybe even a step further to describe how the writer’s attitude towards this character is actually a representation of how they feel towards the social ideas that the character represents.
The benefit of this approach is that if you are a student that finds that when you try and specify on a couple of key points within a large theme, you end up getting muddled up with the potential number of avenues you could be writing about, this style gives a bit of direction to your writing. This approach is also helpful when you are trying to link your broader themes together.
The main thing to remember in the structure of your body paragraphs – the link between your examples and the broader themes that you bring up should be very much evident to the marker. They should not have to work to find the link between the examples you are bringing up and the points that you are making. Remember, a Close Reading is all about the passage that is right in front of you and its relation in the context of the whole text and the writer’s message. Be clear about your opinion, it matters!
Literature is probably one of your hardest VCE subjects. If it’s not, then go you! (please tell me your secrets).
However, if you’re anything like me, then you probably look a bit like this when you begin considering the overall meaning of a text, the author’s views and values, and how any three passages in the text create the meaning.
When I became awash with confusion, like our old pal Ryan Gosling, the first thing I did (after eating a whole block of chocolate), was ensure I understood the context of the text. Without a clear understanding of the context of your text, you cannot fully comprehend the views and values of the author, nor the overall meaning of a text (it’s also part of the criteria for literary perspectives)!
So if you want to be feeling like this after you write a piece for literature:
Consider the following:
AUTHOR’S CONTEXT VS. READER’S CONTEXT
Austen was hunched over her small writing desk in the village of Chawton during England’s Georgian era as she wrote Persuasion. You are more likely reading it in a cozy bed, listening to Taylor Swift and half considering what you’re going to watch on Netflix later. Remember, your current social and cultural context can have a great influence on how you read a text, so it’s always important to imagine the author’s own context – whether this be very similar, or very different from the context of their text. It’s as easy as a Google search!
The social context of a text is the way in which the features of the society it is set in impact on its meaning. There are two aspects to social context: the kind of society in which the characters live, and the one in which the author’s text was produced.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was set in the same social context she herself lived in. It was one in which women were seen as the lesser sex, there was a great divide between the wealthy and lower class, and strict class boundaries were enforced. All of these societal features are key in determining Brontë’s views on the importance of social inclusion, and her championing of the strength of women. Or just listen to Phoebe:
The historical context of a text is entangled with its social context, as underlying norms and convention are historically specific. The historical context is important to note especially when large changes have occurred between the time the work was produced, and our current day, so it is not assessed by our own concerns alone.
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was first performed in 458BC, in Ancient Greece, a time vastly different from our own. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how the play was delivered, at the festival of Dionysus as part of a trilogy. Also have an understanding of the myths surrounding the Trojan War as well as those surrounding Agamemnon, Cassandra and Clytemnestra.
Culture refers to a particular ‘way of life’, involving religion, race and nationality, as well as things like food, dress code and manners. Furthermore, culture can relate to art, music, writing and literature itself. Cultural context, which is similarly linked with social, historical and ideological context, is especially important to note if the author is attempting to make a comment on an aspect of culture, or the clash of two cultures.
Cross cultural contact between an Indigenous tribe in Western Australia, and the British colonizers of this land, is explored by Kim Scott in his novel That Deadman Dance. He reveals aspects of culture largely unknown to current members of Australian society, as well as explores whether assimilation can be seen as a harmonious sign of friendship, or an intrusive loss of culture. The evolution, damage and protection of culture is an important context in this novel, and has a large bearing on the overall meaning of the text, as well as Scott’s views and values.
Ideology refers to the systems of beliefs and ideas that underpin our attitudes and behavior. Such ideology may be valued by society as a whole, or be the basis of conflict. Ideology is a context that is in many ways ‘invisible’. This is because our own is largely internalized and normalized, we act accordingly to our assumptions and social norms.
Many texts explore ideological context, either challenging or championing it. In his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee challenged perceptions at the time of the family unit, portraying a couple that symbolizes the immense dissatisfaction caused by idealistic portrayals of marriage, and the fallacies of the American Dream. He illuminates how George and Martha escape from meaningless by creating fantasies and illusions, but how these eventually lead to the breakdown of their mental health.
So next time you’re struggling to get started on a literature piece, remember to think deeply about the different aspects of your text’s context!