or “Dissecting Quotes precisely”

A good reading of any text often relies on close reading – how you can say a lot about a piece of literature based on the language that the writer uses, and not just the plot that he or she creates. To write a strong analytical essay, you must maintain a tight focus on the language of the books that we read, and not just a loose grasp of the general plot. Keep a focus on the words that the author uses, and how he/she chooses to use them, rather than just the basics of the plot that he/she created. Here are two examples of a close reading, one from poetry, and one from a novel, to give you an example of what good sub quoting ought to look like.

From The Catcher in the Rye:

Context: Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of his private school and is leaving his dorm for the last time. He is walking down the staircase after packing his bags. This is the last line of his final chapter at his private school.

The quote: “Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my crazy neck”

Plot Reveal (not a sufficient analysis of the quote): Holden is depressed when leaving Pencey, but doesn’t want us to see it. He gets upset when he sees that someone has left peanut shells on the floor. You didn’t need the quote to make this point…

Good close reading, including 2+ subquotes for each quote you include:

Holden uses casual diction, with “stupid,” “crazy,” and “some guy,” to contrast something serious, as he “damn near broke [his]… neck.”  The peanut shells themselves are empty and cast away, which mirrors how Holden feels about himself. Holden’s departure is a literal descent as he goes down a staircase, suggesting that he is not “above” everyone like he seemed to think in chapter 1. Finally, his last moment on his campus is a complaint about his former schoolmates, which shows that he is ending things on a sour note at his former school. 

From My Papa’s Waltz:

Context: A mother watches as a father, who is drunk, dances around the kitchen with his son.

The quote: “Mother’s countenance / could not unfrown itself”

Plot Reveal (not a sufficient analysis of the quote): The mother wants to see the good in her husband.

Good close reading, including 2+ subquotes for each quote you include:

Roethke creates an indirect showing of the mom’s anger. “Mother” is impersonal, as opposed to “Mom, “My mom,” or “Maria.” Also, her face is a “countenance,” a formal term for a facial expression. Finally, her “countenance” is the subject of the sentence, which is strange, as a more natural subject here would be the mother herself. The phrase makes it seem as if she cannot control her reaction. All of these create a distance between her anger and Roethke’s portrayal of it, which makes it sound like she isn’t that mad.)

Also, don’t rely on some half-wit website to tell you what quotes are important. You don’t have to pick the right quote – pick ANY quote, as long as you can break it down. As a matter of fact, if your essays are filled with quotes deemed “important” by half-wit websites like Shmoop, you’ll give the impression that you aren’t coming up with your essay topic on your own either…

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