Close reading of a short-story

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“Be careful what you swallow. Chew!”—Gwendolyn Brooks.


“Ask ‘So What?’—not meekly, but in the active voice of a writer who cares”—Bruce Beiderwell and Jeffrey M. Wheeler


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For this assignment, you will use the 2-part format below (“Focused Response” and “Thesis Statement”) to record your personal reactions to and interpretation of those aspects that you find most important or interesting in a passage or selection of no more than three passages from one of the short-stories that we’ve read for this week.


  • Start by annotating the entire text. Mark key passages, phrases, turning points in the text, etc. Write marginal comments and questions. (No, you’re not supposed to submit these notes with the assignment).
  • Select a representative part of the text–a knotty passage (up to 3 paragraphs), an illuminating conversation, the opening and concluding paragraphs, etc. If possible, submit (by copying and pasting) this part of the text with the assignment (on the very first page), or indicate in a footnote which passage you’ve focused on.  




To ensure you’re not merely summarizing the story, write a substantive paragraph in answer to each of the following sets of questions, which require that you attend to a different level of meaning:


  1. Literal: What is going on here? Restate what literally happens in the passage. Is the author describing the setting, commenting on a situation, taking us inside the mind of a character, etc.? Who is speaking?  In a short paragraph, provide a little context and summary concerning the gist of the passage that you’ve selected for analysis. 
  2. Stylistic: What do you notice about the author’s craft (his/her use of diction, tone, imagery, symbolism, sentence rhythm, etc.)? Explicate the language (i.e. what it is saying and why). Pause over odd or ambiguous words; figurative meanings and irony; repetitions and parallels; contrasts and contradictions, etc. How do these choices affect your responses as a reader? Work through the passage sentence by sentence, patiently unpacking its meaning. See the observations on a passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart” below.
  3. Emotional: What emotions and personal associations does the passage and its delivery evoke? What mood does it create, and why? See below for a sample response to Stephen Crane’s objective perspective in “An Episode of War.” 
  4. Intellectual: What ideas are conveyed in the passage? What values and assumptions are implicit in it? What themes does it suggest? What are the social, cultural, or political implications of what the author is doing in this passage and why?

The assumption behind this type of close reading exercise is that you will better understand how the whole works once you’ve seen how a piece works. Each level of meaning opens up possibilities for further, extended analysis. Answering the above questions—and watching your response evolve as you work through the reading—will help you generate a thesis statement that articulates what you think the writer is doing in this passage and why. Equally helpful are the Review Cards at the end of the textbook, cards which provide more specific “Reading and Reacting” questions about some of these texts, as well as “Checklists” that allow you to measure your understanding of the concepts introduced in the assigned chapters.




Drawing on the textual evidence you have focused in your response, draft a thesis statement about the section of the text you have explicated or about the text as a whole. As you review your notes and annotations, what strikes you as an interesting issue about the text? What idea do you keep thinking about or coming back to in your notes? Consider using templates such as the following:

By looking closely at ____________________, we can see __________________.

(specific literary elements)                       

This is important because ____________________.




In “Title of Text,” author A is doing X ____________________


in order to show Y ____________________ (author’s purpose and text’s message)


Notice, in the following thesis statements, how the writers have identified key literary devices that shed light on the text as a whole:

In “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver effectively uses point of view, irony, and symbolism to explore the different ways that looking and seeing shape the narrator’s relationship with his wife and her blind friend. Thus, whereas the act of looking is related to physical vision and places the narrator in a passive relationship with the other characters, seeing allows for a deeper and therefore, more active engagement with them.

In “Hands” (1919), Sherwood Anderson uses flashbacks, symbolism, and irony to convey an ambivalent message about homosexuality, which is at once romanticized and linked to child molestation. The author takes the reader on a journey from the present to the past of a man who had been accused of some unthinkable things. A close reading of three different paragraphs from this short-story highlights the sexual innuendos that are camouflaged as innocent gestures.


Review, in the Unit 1 Course Materials folder, the handout put together by Carol DeGrass, who explains what a strong thesis should—and should not do—and provides examples of weak and strong thesis statements.




  • Your essay must be 2+ pages (700+ words, excluding the page with the selected passage).
  • You must include a minimum of five (5) short, but significant, carefully selected details (suggestive words or phrases—not long lines) from the primary source. Quote striking words, phrases, lines, etc. Paraphrase passages you do not wish to quote but that use details important to your point. Summarize long passages in which the main point is important to your claim but the details are not.
  • Keep in mind that this assignment does NOT call for a contextual analysis—and thus does not require research—so the bulk of your evidence (including historical and cultural references) should come from the text itself. If you do use outside sources (to investigate, for instance, the biographical, historical, or social background of the text), be sure to cite and document them appropriately.
  • In-text citations should follow MLA formatting (page number at end of sentence). We’ll use MLA for in-text citations because it’s better for the close reading you’ll be doing throughout the course.
  • The References section and paper formatting should follow APA, which is the desired format for your discipline. Use the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) for assistance with proper documentation. Also see resources in our Course Materials folder and use Smarthinking.
  • Use present tense verbs to discuss the work rather than past tense.
  • Double-space the text throughout.


Additional Resources


See the Unit 2 Course Materials folder for a sample close reading of selected passages from “The Empty Family,” a short-story by Colm Tóibín.


The following “How to do a Close Reading” handout from the Harvard Writing Center helps you understand the basic expectations of analytical writing and academic essays:

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