What is ‘Textual Analysis’ or ‘Close Reading’?

So your lecturer has asked you for a ‘close analysis’ of a piece of text. You have no idea what that means. What do you do?

Panic. Not good – panic breeds paralysis and you no doubt have a deadline.

Put it off. Again not good – see that deadline thing.

Hit Google. Google is uncharacteristically quiet.

What is it??

Like so many academic things it sounds impossible to begin with. If the phrase ‘close reading’ or ‘textual analysis’ terrifies you then just call it something else: reading!

Textual analysis is just what it says it is – analysis or scrutiny of the text, looking at what you read in detail rather than superficially.

Close reading is how you do it – you read carefully, as opposed to reading superficially as quickly as possible to get to the end of a book you don’t want to read!

Please remember that the answer lies in the text itself – just look at the words and how they’re used, ask yourself why the writer has decided to write the text this way.

So if you haven’t got a clue, how do you start? By breaking down the assignment into something manageable and building from there.

When you read there are 3 main questions to ask yourself: what, how and why?

What does the writer say (content), how does he or she say it (technique) and why (purpose)?

Ask yourself questions like: is the poem personal or does the poet try to distance him or herself?

Is there an intended reader eg educated, male, female, religious, politically minded or is the poem universal?

Does it have a political or religious theme?

Is it designed to challenge, to amuse, to shock, to educate?

What are the essential themes? Politics eg war, social issues such as class and poverty; gender issues; religious issues?

Think about how the piece is written:
Rhythm (usually relates to poetry) – is it sustained or does it alter? If it changes, why? Does it underline a change in viewpoint, feeling or theme? Rhythm organises and reinforces meaning with metrical stress. It also affects the reader: relaxing, hypnotic rhythm may draw us into the peaceful world of a poem so that we experience peace rather than just reading about it; stark, jarring rhythms shock the reader and force us to accept the ugliness of violence in war, for example. Poets choose rhythms specifically to strengthen the mood, tone and language of a poem – rhythm contributes to the meaning.

Language – specific words are used because they best convey the writer’s meaning. Think of other words the writer could have used and ask yourself why s/he chose this particular one ie does it sound different, does it have a slightly different meaning to similar words? For eg, there is a difference in degree between ‘cold’ and ‘freezing’ and a difference in formality between the words ‘friend’ and ‘mate’. Is the language formal, conversational, or even deliberately offensive to shock the reader?

Tone – tone can affect the meaning of words eg through irony. The tone is important in giving an idea of the writer’s attitudes and emotions. The tone of voice is important in conversation; it is also important in reading. Is the tone ironic, critical, amused, angry, didactic [teaching] moralistic, nostalgic?

Imagery – imagery is figurative language, words which convey a picture. Ask yourself what kinds of imagery the writer uses (eg religious, natural, violent) and why? What effect does it have on the reader?

Punctuation – punctuation leads us as we read, controlling when we pause and for how long. It can emphasise what is being said, add to suspense, shock or relax the reader. Try reading without paying attention to the punctuation; you will lose the tone and the sense of the text.

If you work your way through the text using those questions as a starting point, underlining key words and phrases and jotting down your responses, you will find that your ‘textual analysis’ will start to write itself. Then all you have to do is polish it.

The better you become at close reading the more complex your textual analysis becomes. That’s why when you read the analysis of a post modernist scholar looking at T S Eliot with 40 years’ research behind them it will seem complex – it is.

Your lecturer is not expecting you to work at that level but you can pick up very useful pointers by looking at professional academics.

Good luck guys 🙂 .