George Mason Literature Professor Robert Matz has some tips on using quotations in a literature essay.
The questions below assume you’ve chosen a passage of your text that you now want to focus on. A first step might be to choose this passage. You will probably also be led to choose new passages to close read based on your close reading of previous ones. Keep in mind that he kind of text you’re reading—play, poem, story, etc.—will alter which of the questions below are most relevant.
There are many questions here, and I doubt that it’s humanly possible to keep them in one’s mind all at once. But this is why a close reading always involves many readings of the same passage. It’s often a good idea, in fact, to do an intensive close reading of a passage one day, and then come back to it again with a new look on a following day.
1. Paraphrase in ordinary language: Read the passage and carefully paraphrase its meaning in ordinary language. Does your paraphrase resonate with other important themes or issues in the text? Does your passage merely recapitulate these other themes (hint: it probably doesn’t) or does it change your understanding of them in some ways? Does the passage contest or undermine suppositions made elsewhere in the text? What’s the significance of the contradiction?
2. Logic of the passage: Think about the logic of the passage’s argument. Does your paraphrase flow smoothly from one point to another, or does it reveal significant gaps? What’s assumed, missing, or being glossed over in the passage? Do these gaps in the argument suggest tensions or problems visible elsewhere in the text? Does the passage seem to repeat itself by telling the same idea in a different way? Do these retellings recapitulate one another (see hint above) or do they present subtle variations or tensions within a particular issue or theme? Does the argument of the passage ever contradict itself? What is the significant of the contradiction? Does it raise issues active elsewhere in the text?
3. Language of the passage: key words or phrases: Now examine carefully the language of the passage (a paraphrase is a good start, but never enough for a close reading). Look at key words or phrases in the passage (which are these?). Are any of them repeated at other important–or not so important–points in the text? A word or phrase repeated from one passage to another is usually a sign that the two passages should be read in conjunction. Do these words or phrases change in meaning or connotation from one passage to another? Are their meanings or connotations ever at odds with one another? Do these changes resonate with larger problems or issues active in the text? How do the two passages as a whole relate to one another?
4. Language of the passage: repeated words: Don’t finish with the words yet. Are there ever any words repeated right in the same passage? Does the meaning of the word change from use to use? Is there a stable configuration between the two meanings of the words, or can the two swap their meanings? Does the sliding between meanings change your paraphrase of the passage? (You could also ask this question about words repeated between passages, as in 3.)
5. Language of the passage: connotation and pun: Don’t finish with the words yet. Can you find words in the passage that seem to have more than one meaning? Does one word have several different connotations, or even two contradictory meanings (this happens more than one might expect)? How do these different meanings change your paraphrase? Do the differences between one reading and another resonate with any larger problems in the text? Can you find any puns? How do the different meanings of a pun change your paraphrase? Does the pun suggest any other contexts for your passage? For example, a passage about “sons” might lead you to a passage about “suns.”
6. Language of the passage: metaphor and imagery: Now consider the metaphors and other figures of speech, such as vivid images, employed in the passage. Do you recognize them from elsewhere in the text? Like repeated words or phrases, repetition of a metaphor or an image should be a signal to you that one passage is relevant to another. Ask yourself the same kinds of questions as in 3 above. Also think about how the metaphor or image signifies what it does. Does this consideration reveal a range of possible significances for the figure? For example, take a familiar metaphor, the rose for love. What makes the rose a metaphor for love? Its beauty, its rarity, its color (red, color of passion)? Does the fact that a rose has thorns and dies quickly alter the significance of the metaphor? This more pessimistic reading of the rose as love might not always be implied by the metaphor, but you’d want to consider whether this possibility was activated in the particular text in which the metaphor appeared, through its resonance with other moments in the text.
7. Language of passage: form: Consider the passages formal characteristics. This can be tricky to relate to the content of a passage, but you might wish to consider it, especially if you’re reading poetry. How is the language of a passage structured? Is the passage verse? Does it rhyme? Does it make use of any rhetorical tropes such as alliteration, chiasmus, anaphora, parallelism, antitheses, etc. (if you’re not familiar with these terms you can look them up in a guide to literary terms, such as the one by M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms).
8. What happens?: If something happens in the passage, think about how this element of the plot relates to or repeats others. All the questions above about related passages apply.
9. Logic of events: What happens or what is said right before or right after the passage in question? Here you’ll want to ask questions similar to those in 2 above. Why does the passage come when it does? Are there any gaps or missing links between the passage and its context? What implicit logic or (less logical) associations might connect the passage and its context? How does what happens or what is said before or after your passage comment on the passage’s meaning? Does it support it or undermine it? Or something else?
10. The speaker: Think about who is speaking your passage? Is the speaker being ironic? Can you trust the speaker? On the other had, don’t assume that just because a “bad” speaker or character says something, it isn’t true, or within a range of possible beliefs for an author. Sometimes “bad” speakers or characters tell us truths that we don’t likes to hear. Also, are you sure the speaker or character is really “bad”?