Students are often understandably confused by exactly what it means to do a “close reading” (a term you’ll hear often in English courses). Usually, “close reading” refers to a systematic analysis and interpretation of the text, not just an explication of what it literally says.

Inevitably, someone in the class will say about such readings: “Where are you getting that?,” “I think you’re reading too much into it,” or “I don’t think the author intended it that way.” All of these are valid points only if we take the literal or surface meaning of a text to be the limit of its possible meanings and assume that this is all that the author “intends.” If we did so, however, there would be little to enjoy in a piece of writing other than “a good story, well-told.” There would be no depth of meaning, no philosophical or historical resonance, no symbolic possibilities, no abstract thought or complex ideas, no creative or artistic vision, no portal for readerly engagement, and very little purpose to reading other than entertainment. The practical-minded among us would rightly wonder why literature is part of our “necessary” education.

In order to gather the full relevance and potential of a piece of literature, it is vital to push beyond the surface of the text, to question and analyze it, and to allow our own imagination to interact with that of the author and her/his work. Below is an example and a suggested method for analyzing a text. This is not a comprehensive outline, but it should provide a basic understanding of the method that I am looking for. Adapt it to the needs of the particular text that you are analyzing as you see fit.

Let us start with a passage from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 23:

Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, new-landed mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn. When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man who, in mid-winter just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Reading for Comprehension:

  1. Start by getting a sense of the literal events of the passage. In this case, the passage is about a sailor who seeks refuge in his ocean voyages even though they may prove dangerous and difficult. The land seems to offer safety and all the comforts one could ask for, but Bulkington rejects it. Once aboard ship and caught in a storm, the land becomes more dangerous than the open sea. He has to fight to keep the ship away from the dangerous reefs and shallows that would wreck it.
  2. Note the situation and attitude of the narrator or speaker: The narrator here (the character Ishmael, who is also a sailor on the Pequod), seems both awed and terrified by the sight of Bulkington. He’s impressed with the man’s courage and persistence, but puzzled by his motives. Ishmael is attempting to convey his impression of Bulkington to the reader, but also seems to be trying to explain these motives to himself (Ishmael often meditates on questions that arise while he’s watching events happen).
  3. Note the general point of the passage: The point of this passage is to suggest the irony of the sailor’s situation (that the safety of land has become the greatest peril to the ship), but also to reveal something about the character of Bulkington (and perhaps of all such sailors). For some reason, he seems to prefer the dangers of the sea to the security of land.

[We could stop here, but in doing so, we would have accomplished nothing but an explication of the basic, literal meaning of the passage. Now we have to start asking questions.]

Questioning the Passage:

  1. What is revealed about the narrator in this passage?: He’s clearly not the same kind of sailor as Bulkington, else he wouldn’t wonder so deeply about Bulkington’s character (in fact, Ishmael has only sailed on merchant vessels before, never a whaling ship). He is fascinated not only by people’s actions, but by the underlying motives and feelings that drive them. He possesses a very active, metaphoric imagination (see “Analyzing the Language” below).
  1. What is revealed about other characters in this passage?: The only other character mentioned is Bulkington, and we learn that he’s not comfortable on land (“The land seemed scorching his feet”). Why? What’s on the land that he dislikes? What does he like about the sea? We also learn that he dies—“this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington–and that the ship goes down as well–“Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship.”
  1. What, besides the obvious point of the passage, might the author be talking about?: He seems to be trying to explain the deep-seated motives that drive certain men to the ocean (or to dangerous lives in general?). He may be trying to show why the sea is attractive to such men, or why one might want to abandon the land and all of its security. Finally, he’s revealing the strange reversals of meaning that take place when you’re “aboard ship”—“home” becomes a “peril,” “hospitality” is something you “flee,” a “friend” becomes your “bitterest foe.”

Analyzing the Language:

  1. Take note of the author’s use of language and figures of speech; I’ve underlined some examples in the passage above. Notice how the author uses personification–the winter “shivers,” the bows of the ship are “vindictive,” the waves are “malicious,” the ship travels “miserably” and “forlornly,” the port is “pitiful” and wants to “give succor”– to give us a sense of the emotional tone of the scene. Are these the feelings of inanimate objects, or of the characters and narrator? Why are they being projected onto the outward scene? Are these associations that the narrator has, or feelings that we are supposed to share as readers?
  1. Look at how the author uses adjectives and descriptive phrases: He uses the word “unrestingly” to describe Bulkington, a synonym for “restless.” Is this why Bulkington wants to be aboard a ship — because it moves? Why is he restless? Is there a specific reason, or is it a state of being (just for sailors, or for all men)? The narrator uses the word “sympathetic” to describe his “awe and fearfulness.” Does “sympathetic” mean that he understands those feelings and has pity, or that he shares them? If he shares them, then why is he questioning them? Perhaps he is trying to explain his own motives by examining another?
  1. Note the types of pronouns used, and what they refer to: Here, the ship is referred to as a “she,” even though it’s being used to describe a man’s situation and attitude. “She” shrinks from the “touch of land” — is that because the land is masculine? Is there a kind of sexual tension implied? Why?
  1. Identify the central metaphors and symbolism in the passage. The central metaphor here seems to be the comparison of Bulkington to the ship. Their identities seem to merge, and the feelings of one are ascribed to the other. The ship in the gale becomes the embodiment of Bulkington’s own relationship to the land. We might even see the storm itself as symbolic of Bulkington’s “tempestuous” existence. He abandons the land and whatever it represents, goes out into a hostile sea, and apparently dies there. The Pequod itself seems to enact the same story. Why is the ship/Bulkington “vindictive,” and why is the ocean “malicious?” If they’re hostile to one another, then why does Bulkington seek it out and give up the comforts of home?

Drawing Connections to Other Passages:

(this requires reading the book, but I will offer two examples here)

  1. In the first pages of the novel, Ishmael describes his own “restlessness” and desire to go to sea. One might compare these two passages to get a deeper sense of the two men’s underlying motives. Common to both is a sense of the discomfort of human society (which exists on land), the need to move and wander, the flight from some unpleasant experiences on land, and the unnamable desire to seek out mystery and “depth” – “Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable.” The land, however, has its own attractions that often threaten to destroy the person caught between both places.
  1. The Pequod, we learn throughout the novel, is inevitably linked to its captain, Ahab. The ship’s “vindictiveness” and the sea’s “maliciousness” parallel the relationship between Ahab and the white whale. A famous and important chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale” explains some of Ahab’s (and Ishmael’s) obsession with the creature.

Interpret the passage:

  1. Now that you’ve done the work of taking apart the elements of the passage and compared it with other similar passages in the novel, you should be ready to offer a creative interpretation of it. Here is one possibility drawn from the evidence that we’ve gathered:

The image of Bulkington and his battle against the sea is meant to draw a connection between the motives that drive all sailors (including Ishmael) to seek out the danger, mystery, or solitude of the ocean and the particular story of Ahab in his hunt for the white whale. This passage seems to look backward at Ishmael’s own explanation of the unnamable attraction of the sea, and forward to the ultimate fate of the current voyage. It reveals both the common impulse that Ahab shares with all of his crew, and the uniquely obsessive nature of his personal quest. Like the narrator as revealed in this passage, Ahab personifies all of his own fears and desires in the natural world around him, and regards the whale as the embodiment of all that seeks to possess or destroy. Bulkington’s story is not important in itself (indeed, we never see or hear about him again), but rather, its synthesis and encapsulation of the larger themes of the novel render this passage a compelling site of inquiry and exploration.

© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS