Contextual close reading

Close reading means reading the text as it appears with its specific structure and language, the particular vocabulary or lexis used, the typography, special grammatical features and imagery, that is, the text as it appears on the page without looking into any deeper context.

Contextuality refers to the historical, geographical, political, cultural and literary contexts of a text. Was the text in question written during a war or after a major political or natural disaster? Does it take place in any specific religious or political setting? The author’s biography is another aspect of this contextuality, for example to what extent is an immigrant author’s experience of a new country reflected in the text? To what extent does the female writer of the early 19th century deal with the social conditions at that time, and would a 21st century male writer describe the same situation from a completely different angle?

The reader also brings his/her identity and background to the text, and through this fusion of horizons the reader achieves an understanding and ultimately an interpretation of the text. So by reading the text thoroughly, perhaps even reading the most difficult passages more than once, and relating what you read to the various contexts of the text, it is possible to analyze and interpret it.

Contextual close reading is a prerequisite for any advanced consideration with a text and for writing the essays required in exams. There may be situations, for example in connection with AT, when it could be useful to include approaches from various critical schools after you have completed a contextual close reading of the text. By being eclectic (udvælgende) you can include a number of questions from the specific school of criticism you think best fits your text to add an extra dimension to your interpretation. In your everyday work with texts, however, questions such as those in the Toolbox of this book can take you a long way.

To give you a very general idea and some handy points of reference, a very brief introduction to a number of important schools of criticism follows. If you want to go into greater detail on literary theory, we suggest that you refer to major works on the topic, either from your Danish literature classes, from the AT books or the English textbooks at your disposal.


prerequisite    forudsætning

eclectic    udvælgende



New criticism

New Criticism is a school of criticism which developed in the 1930s in the USA. The principle of this school of criticism is to focus precisely on what it says in the text. The reading then is close reading with an emphasis on the language used in the text, on connotations, the use of irony, paradox and literary imagery. New Criticism does not include the study of the background of the writer or text as the text is seen as a work of art, not as a historical or cultural document. Questions you might ask from the point of view of New Criticism would deal with an analysis of ambiguities posed by the text or the specific imagery.

When reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 18, you could analyze what the effect of the weather imagery is on your understanding of the poem – or when reading Sonnet no. 116, you could look at the naval imagery.  



The original focus of structuralism was language. There is no specific literary structuralist school, but ideas from the study of linguistics concerning the production of meaning are essential in this approach. Analyzing the underlying linguistic structures which create sense is the approach in this kind of textual analysis, and great attention is paid to the repeated structures which shape a text. The text is seen as an expression of the cultural and linguistic context in which it is produced, and meaning is established by the reader who shares this linguistic system.

Hence one way of analyzing a text using a structuralist approach would be to examine the binaries or opposites which appear in the text, e.g. light/dark, male/female, good/evil as a starting point to see whether they form a pattern which gives meaning to the text.

As a consequence of structuralist thinking, models are used as a means of interpretation. Two of the best known structuralist models are the actantial model and the contract model. In this book we have primarily applied the use of binaries, and if you want to dig deeper into the use of models, you should consult some of your books from your Danish literature or AT classes. When you make an analysis of Hoffer’s “Nature and the City”, find sets of binaries to create a basis for your continued reading and analysis of the text.


Reader-oriented criticism

Reader-oriented criticism focuses on the role of the reader and the context of reading, on how the interaction of reader and text create meaning. Reader-oriented critics argue that there is not one correct reading of a text, but that the meaning of the text is a result of the reader’s response (his/her feelings, thoughts, reactions and questions) to the text (setting, characters, plot, language, theme etc.), and the reader’s response may vary according to the reader’s gender, age, nationality, education, personality, social and cultural background. Thus a text may be read differently by a woman and a man, a young person and an old person, a person belonging to a minority group, a person in a colonial context, a person who lives in a period different from the one in which the text was written, etc. Many reader-oriented critics maintain that the text itself puts limitations on possible readings as the reader must be able to explain his or her responses to the text by referring to specific passages in the text.  A reader-oriented approach to a text will ask questions about the reader’s response, for example:

- Which character do you find most interesting and why?

- What makes you wonder in the text? A character’s reaction, the ending, gaps in the text,     ambiguities, the imagery used?

- Which section of the text did you like best and why?

- You may ask yourselves the questions above when you read for example Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” or Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”


Feminist criticism

As to feminist approaches, we are focusing here on the way women characters have been portrayed in literature and the extent to which the text focuses on or question the parts played by women. Feminist criticism has flourished since the late 1960s with a focus on the portrayal of women characters and on whether the text reflects, reinforces or challenges traditional gender roles. A feminist reading of a text will look at the role and situation of the female character(s) in the text:

- What is their relationship to each other?

- What is the relationship between the male and female characters? (Where does the balance of power lie? Who is in control – are there examples of male dominance and oppression? Is the woman seen as the man’s property? Is the woman controlled, weak, passive and surrendering or strong, assertive, controlling, active and powerful?

- Does the text challenge the assumptions and stereotypes about women or does it reflect the values of a patriarchal society?  


You may find it interesting to ask some of the questions above when reading, for example, Kipling’s short story “Lispeth”, Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” and Lasdun’s short story “It´s beginning to hurt” or the excerpt from Pride and Prejudice.

Post-reading wider contexts 1 for Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” gives you a short excerpt from a feminist reading of Jackson’s story.


Psychoanalytical literary criticism

Psychoanalytical literary criticism is based on the tradition of psychoanalysis which was developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and played a major part in literary analysis in the 20th century.

Psychoanalysis centres round the unconscious and according to Freud, man is influenced by instincts, sexual urges and repressed feelings which lead his actions and thoughts without him being aware of them. The urges and impulses can be released in dreams where the content is disguised and expressed in symbols. Particularly well known is Freud’s model of the mind in which he operates with three levels: the id which is entirely unconscious and comprises instinctive and primitive behaviour, the ego which is the part of the mind which is responsible for dealing with reality and has to try to satisfy the desires of the id in a socially appropriate way. By doing this it also satisfies the superego which holds the moral standards and ideals that we get from both parents and society.

The psychoanalytical method can be used to study the text as a reflection of the psychological mechanisms of the mind. It can contribute to finding unconscious motives behind characters’ actions and revealing inner psychological conflicts. In some psychoanalytical readings particular attention is paid to certain objects and their symbolic value, fire as a symbol of passion or objects with particular shapes as phallic symbols. The concept of the split personality also has its roots in the psychoanalytical tradition and Freud’s model of the mind, and this idea may be useful when you read the excerpt from R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


Political approaches

Political approaches are based on the historical and political developments in the world, and as these change, so do various schools of thought and literary criticism. In the 1960s and 1970s a popular school of criticism was Marxism. Marxism is an approach which focuses on the balance of power in society, the distribution of the means of production like raw materials, factories and capital, and the potential battle between the factory owners and the proletariat, the opposing social classes. The ultimate aim of Marxism is the classless society.

Marxist literary theory focuses on how the different social classes are characterized in a text.  These ideas may be useful when you study the excerpt from Dickens’ Hard Times.



Another political approach is Post-colonialism which obviously derives from the time after the dissolution of the British Empire. It aims at revealing the influence of European colonization on third world countries, the usurpation of these countries and the balance of power between the colonizers and those colonized.

This includes examining Western attitudes such as nationalism and racism towards the people who live in the colonies as well as the people who come to the Western world.

Questions concerning Western attitudes to the indigenous population, to education and moral responsibility would fit well into an analysis of Kipling’s “A White Man’s Burden” and the excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In connection with Orwell’s Burmese Days you might want to discuss the ways in which colonial powers influence the norms and attitudes of the indigenous population.


Literary eco-criticism

Eco-criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the natural/physical environment. It became an established critical approach in the last decade of the 20th century. Parallel to people’s increasing awareness of the global environmental crisis, eco-criticism continues to grow as an element of textual analysis. Eco-criticism is the study of literature written throughout history and focuses on the (underlying) attitudes to nature expressed in the text.

- What is the relationship between man and nature in the text?

- If celebrated, is nature celebrated because of what it offers man in economic terms, in spiritual terms, or is it praised in its own right?

You may find it interesting to ask these questions when you read texts from, for example, the Romantic Period and the excerpt from Dickens’ Hard Times.