Close Reading: A Brief Note

cll.pngA technique advocated by the New Critics in interpreting a literary work, Close Reading derived from (I A Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929) and William Empson’s The Seven Types of Ambiguity(1930). Endorsing the concept of “autotelic text”, that a text is a unified entity, complete in itself, and containing meaning without any reference to external evidence such as the author’s intention/history, biography or the socio-cultural condititns of its production, the New Critics, Wimsatt and Beardsley cautioned against the fallacies of judging a literary work based on the author’s intention or its impression on the reader, what they called “intentional Fallacy” and “Affective Fallacy”. Instead, close reading focuses on the formal aspects or the verbal/linguistic elements of a text such as figures of speech, images, symbols, interaction between words, rhythm and metaphor. The form of the work is said to be a “structure of meanings”, in which an organic unity is achieved by the play and counterplay of “thematic imagery” and “symbolic action”. In a successful work of literature, the linguistic elements manifest tension, irony, ambiguity and paradox, to achieve a “reconciliation of diverse impulses” and “an equilibrium of opposed forces” to protect the work, according to Cleanth Brooks, from the “heresy of paraphrase”. While the New Critics proposed close reading to highlight the unity of a work, poststructuralists endorsed a deconstructive close reading to reveal the fissures and disunities within a work.


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